September 23, 2010
Starting a kid shooting the right way includes eye and ear protection, a rifle that fits the child, and a chambering that's not hard on the kid's shoulder. The author's son took six African animals on his first safari at the ripe old age of nine years old, and proper gun fit and lots of practice contributed immensely to Cole's success.
I just returned from a safari on South Africa's Eastern Cape with my wife and kids. My wife doesn't hunt, but my kids took some outstanding animals. When we returned, I was surprised at how many people were shocked or put off by the idea of my nine-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter hunting. "But they're too young to hunt," was a common refrain. Still others were shocked that such tiny kids (Cole weighs just 55 pounds, and Chloe weighs 62) could wield a rifle powerful enough to cleanly take animals as big as kudu and zebra.
I won't pretend to know the right age for your kids or grandkids to hunt. My children could shoot well enough to cleanly kill a deer at 100 yards at the age of five and had a strong desire to hunt, so I let them. Even though they knew the fundamentals of gun safety, I did most of the gunhandling and let them focus on the shooting. They loved it, which is why they are still shooting and hunting today.
Only you can decide the right age for your children to start shooting or hunting. Every kid is different, but when the time is right, there are things you can do to ensure that they have a great time, which is the key to a lifetime of participation in the shooting sports.
Most of my friends learned to shoot in the back yard with a Red Ryder BB gun. We may have grown into louder, more powerful toys, but we could all still benefit from BB gun practice. BB guns are great for kids because there is no recoil or muzzle blast to scare or hurt them, and the guns are scaled for their tiny frames. It's easier for them to be safe with a gun they can handle properly.
Enforce strong safety rules from the start. Make sure they always wear glasses and have a safe backstop. If they get loose with the rules, take away their gun. They'll learn quickly to be safety conscious.
A rimfire is hard to beat. They don't make a better training aid than a good .22 rimfire rifle. A rimfire is usually the first "real" gun kids shoot. The rimfire's pop and power can be addictive. That's good, because practice makes perfect, and the .22 is a heck of a lot of fun to practice with.
I own several .22s, but the one my kids have fallen in love with is CZ's Scout rifle. The diminutive .22 is great because it has the same action and hammer-forged barrel of CZ's upper-end rimfires. A youth-sized birch stock and inexpensive sights allow CZ to keep the price down enough for dad to buy one of the super-accurate little rifles without breaking the bank.
Protect Eyes, Ears & Shoulders
We've all heard stories about the idiot that breaks in a brand-new shooter by handing them a 12 gauge stoked with buckshot or some other hard-recoiling gun. It might be funny to guys who gave swirlies in high school or locked nerds in their lockers, but it's downright stupid. Hurting a new shooter is the fastest way I know to turn them off to the sport or induce a flinch that may never be undone.
Helping a kid to enjoy shooting in a safe manner from the get-go just might turn him or her into a lifelong hunting partner.
I believe that for some shooters muzzle blast is as flinch-inducing as recoil. To ensure your young one gets off to a good start, make him or her double up on ear protection and don't let him or her shoot anything that's likely to hurt. If you don't have something suitable like a .22 Hornet or .223, buy a new gun or look into low-recoil ammunition. Federal and Remington offer low-recoil loads in several popular calibers, or you may have a buddy that can download some ammunition for you.
You may also want to look into one of those PAST shooting pads or a padded shirt. A .243 generates somewhere in the vicinity of 10 to 11 foot-pounds of recoil. That's nothing if you weigh 180 pounds, but it's a heck of a pounding to a kid who only weighs 50 or 60 pounds.
And be sure to make them wear safety glasses. You want them to learn the golden rules of gun safety, and protecting one's eyes is definitely a high priority.
Use A Gun That Fits
The worst thing you can do with any shooter is to start them on a gun that doesn't fit. It's not too big a deal with a rimfire. The worst thing that can happen is that they'll have trouble shooting it well. But a harder-kicking centerfire rifle that doesn't fit can actually hurt a small-framed shooter. And crawling a too-long stock to get a proper sight picture is a recipe for scope-cut-disaster.
Be extra careful with shotguns. They kick more and require more strength to wield, so I would wait and start kids when they're a little older. Many experts recommend 80 pounds as a good starting weight for wingshooters. Consider the 28 gauge for new shooters. It doesn't have much more recoil than the .410, but it's far easier to hit with than the .410, which is really a better choice for experts than beginners.
Don't hurt your kid by being cheap. If you're going to get him or her into the shooting sports, get your son or daughter a youth gun with a stock that fits or order a cheap second stock (many gunsmiths have plastic take-off stocks for next to nothing) and chop it off to the correct length of pull. If a kid's rifle fits, it will kick less, the child will shoot it better, and they'll have a lot more fun.
My kids' first centerfire rifle was a Thompson/Center G2 Contender carbine in .223 with a chopped-off barrel and short buttstock. They killed a bunch of deer and hogs and pockmarked the hell out of all my steel targets with that gun, but they became real deadly real fast with that little single shot. Today, they have a Tikka in .22-250, a Browning in .260, a Kimber in 7mm-08, and a Stag Arms AR-15 in 6.8mm SPC. They shoot them all well because the guns fit them properly, which allowed them to practice an awful lot without getting hurt.
The author's young daughter practiced a great deal with her .22-250 before her first safari, an
d as a result, she was extremely successful. Greg attributes some of that
success to the fun Chloe had while practicing at home.
Make Practice Fun
Speaking of practice, if your kids aren't having fun, they won't keep shooting or hunting. My kids rarely shoot paper targets. Instead, I let them shoot clay pigeons, water-filled balloons, and steel targets. Targets that provide instant feedback are more fun and make kids more successful. After all, even the youngest shooter risks feeling inadequate when his shot misses the X-ring of a bullseye target. But an exploding water balloon or milk jug makes 'em smile every time, and it doesn't matter where they hit it--they'll still blow up the jug if they're a hair out of the X-ring.
You should never over train your kids. In preparation for our safari, I took my kids out two times a month and let them shoot off the shooting sticks at a 6-inch steel target with their .22-250. I made them quit long before they got bored, so they looked forward to every session. I emphasized quality of practice over quantity, and it worked. By the time we left for Africa, Cole could ring the gong religiously out to 160 yards, while Chloe was close to 100 percent out to about 100 yards. In Africa, both were downright deadly.
A Hunting Partner For Life
Shooting and hunting aren't for everyone. But if you know a youngster interested in the shooting sports, break him in right. If you take the time and make the effort to get a kid started out properly, there's a darn good chance you'll end up with a lifelong shooting or hunting partner. And if he or she doesn't take to shooting like a duck to water, at least all their shooting memories will be happy ones.