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G&A Basics: How to Choose Your Child’s First Gun

by B. Gil Horman   |  October 29th, 2012 23

Teaching-a-kid-to-shootJust a few days ago, I went to the range for an informal training session with my brother, two of my nieces and one of their friends from school. These three young women, ages 12 to 15 years old, were there to learn and practice pistol skills with me while my brother helped them run a rifle. All of them had done at least a little shooting in the past, so after a brief safety review and some pistol terminology, we were ready to get started. As one of the girls stepped up for her turn with a .22 pistol, her first question was, “Is this going to hurt?”

Her question succinctly summed up two of the primary problems kids run into when first learning to shoot. The first is a high level of felt recoil. It’s easy to forget, especially as seasoned shooters, how uncomfortable recoil is when shooting a gun and caliber combination that’s not a good fit for the person using it. It just plain hurts to get punched in the shoulder and the wrists by a hard-kicking gun when you don’t have the physical strength or the practiced techniques needed to manage it.

The second problem is proper fit. Shooting can be fatiguing when a kid has to wrestle with grips that are too big, shoulder stocks that are too long or guns that are just too darn heavy to hold out in front of themselves for an extended period of time. This physical struggle to manage what is for them a large gun can be a truly miserable and disheartening experience. It can leave kids feeling tired, sore, and thinking that they’re just not a very good shot. These shooting challenges can be addressed by seeking out firearms with options and features suited to pint-sized shooters.

Handguns
When kids are introduced to handguns, which are possibly the toughest guns to learn to shoot accurately, the gun they’re handed first needs to follow the Three L’s: Lightweight, Light Trigger Pull and Low Recoil. The best handgun type to answer all three L’s is a .22 Long Rifle semi-auto pistols. This is one of the most popular kinds of plinkers on the market, so excellent examples of the breed are readily available from trustworthy manufacturers, including the Beretta U22 Neo, Browning Buck Mark and the Ruger Mark III, just to name a few.

Rifles
When it comes to starting kids with rifles, the .22 is king. They’re just plain fun to shoot and easy to aim from a bench rest right from day one. It’s a plus too that the ammunition is plentiful and affordable as well. Some folks advocate the single-shot rifles, like the Savage Rascal as a first rifle. Along with the obvious safety aspects, the single-shot focuses the child on shot placement.

On the other hand, a good semi-auto carbine like the Ruger 10/22 offers a greater level of flexibility and longevity since the kid who receives one is likely to pass it on to their own progeny, if he or she doesn’t wear it out first. A fun third alternative that my brother chose for his family is a classic lever-action Henry Repeating Arms H001. Cycling the lever slows the shooter down, but the 15-round tubular magazine eliminates the need for constant reloading.

Shotguns
Unlike target handguns and hunting rifles, which must be held as still as possible for accurate shot placement, shotguns are all about motion. From hunting waterfowl to shooting sporting clays, a shotgun needs to have a nice, clean swing in order for the young shooter to make successful target strikes. For small-framed shooters, this means finding the right length-of-pull in the shoulder stock and shortening the barrel to reduce the up-front weight. Companies including Mossberg, Remington and Winchester provide youth shotguns which have been trimmed down to just the right sizes.

After a shotgun’s size, the primary question that crops up with youth shotgun selection is which gauge to choose. Most folks agree that the popular 12-gauge shotguns produce excessive recoil for kids. Eliminating the 12-gauge as an option generally leaves the 20-gauge and the .410 up for consideration. The .410 produces the lowest level of felt recoil and the shortest and lightest shotguns available are chambered for this shell. However, it also has the smallest shot-pellet payload, which may affect successful target engagement. Kids tend to outgrow the .410 fairly quickly.

The 20-gauge successfully splits the difference between the light payload of the .410 and the stout kick of the 12-gauge. A 20-gauge shell can carry about 80 percent of the shot pellets of the 12-gauge, but with only 50 percent of the felt recoil. It may be worth waiting one more season and starting your kids with a 20-gauge they can use for several seasons instead of transitioning from a .410 to a 20-gauge. While .22 pistols and rifles are usually a hit with the kids, it may be a good idea to give your kids a chance to shoot with a borrowed shotgun before you buy one.

Provide Positive Practice
The gear we provide for our kids to use may be secondary to the attitude we have while training them to shoot. Young people will do what they enjoy doing, but resist participating in the activities that they don’t. They’re not much different than adults in this way. For new shooters, young and old alike, having fun on the target range goes hand-in-hand with developing critical skills and generating successful target strikes down range. Just as we adapt other sports to fit the age and capabilities of the kids on the playing field, we need to remember to adapt our time on the shooting range in the same fashion.

The best way to provide young shooters with instant success is to keep the targets up close to them. Knowing that my nieces and their friend had limited experience with handguns, the first targets were set at 10 feet. I hung up reactive targets, like the Birchwood Casey Shoot-N-C and Caldwell Orange Peel so they could clearly see their strikes. The targets stayed at the 10-foot mark until they said they were ready to move it out to 15 feet. That was as far as we got in nearly two hours of shooting, but the girls left the range feeling successful because they could clearly see how much their groups had improved during their practice session with the .22 pistols and rifle my brother and I brought to the range.

It’s important not to hammer the details by talking too much. I picked three primary pistol skills, including proper grip, stance, and sight picture, and focused on just those. Instructive feedback was provided in the form of praise for what the girls were doing correctly instead of criticism for their mistakes. This praise gave them the confidence to ask questions and to experiment until they found the stance, grip, and sight picture that suited them the best.

My brother and I kept an eye on the clock and on the kids’ body language to see when they were starting to get tired or bored. Just like adults, kids will shoot more poorly as they fatigue. Rather than push them beyond their limits, when they said they were about ready to be done, they each shot one more magazine while striving to use all they had learned to produce one more successful target group. The session ended on a high note that left the girls, and their uncle, looking forward to their next visit to the range.

  • Mack Missiletoe

    **This is just a sarcastic joke, do not actually do this**

    How to choose your girlfriend, wife, or significant other's first gun:

    1) Must be a large high-power revolver or autoloader like the S&W .500, Desert Eagle .50, or .44 Magnum. Something that you would not normally hand a n00b.

    2) Mount a scope on it. Even if your only mounting option is duct-tape.

    B) Do not teach the girlfriend, wife, or significant other how to properly safely shoot the gun. You shall forfeit danger for an evil laugh and a Youtube video.

    4) Record video of the girlfriend, wife, or significant other shooting to post on YouTube.

    D) Upon firing, the gun will recoil with enough force to outline a mushroom print on the shooter's forehead. This will most likely knock them out or cause them to double-shoot, amongst other tings…

    6) If the shooter then takes out a sexy Holloween Witch after double-shooting, you get extra points for stupidity and terrorism.

    6) Be sure to post the video on Youtube so you may get arrested for firearms safety negligence.

    7) Before you get arrested, check out all the other a-holes on YouTube who posted similar videos. These are your only internet friends now. You make us good gun guys look bad XP

  • jiminga

    I think a child's first gun should be an air rifle. This allows emphasis on shooting skills while minimizing handling and safety issues. I just bought three air rifles for three of my grandsons who are ages 5 and 7, and will hold them until their parents approve gifting them. After mastering them their father and I have several .22 rifles they can move up to, and their other grandfather already has three .22 pistols put away for them.

    • Mack Missiletoe

      Good thought. My first gun was a BB gun but my first firearm was a .22. The BB gun was much safer.

      I remember receiving a Crosman .177 pellet rifle that used those little CO2 cylinders. It would single-load from the top with a pull-back action. Very practical actually and it was the best bb or pellet gun I ever owned. But it eventually broke…

      Sure is a blessing to have those pistols saved for them!

      I never realized how much fun a .22lr pistol like my Ruger Mark III can be. I like how it recoils versus a .22lr rifle.

    • Joe

      With air rifles, I worried about the kids blurring the line between toy guns and firearms. Each of my kids' first firearms was a Ruger 10/22. There was a lot of buildup prior to the gift, and incessant drilling on safety (along with a quiet warning – any screwing around will get that firearm parked in the safe indefinitely). FYI, girls are much easier than boys. I speak from experience: 5 girls, 2 boys.

    • Charles

      I don't disagree with this method; it doesn’t make the young shooter so afraid of the loud noises of other shooters with larger calibers beside them. I personally did one step before the pellet with my children. We shot paint balls in the back yard at targets. When they became covered with paint, we washed them off, let them dry for a bit and keep shooting. The kids had a blast

  • Starky

    As a Law Enforcement Officer and weapons instructor nice to see information people can use and apply. For young shooters reactionary targets keep them very intersted. Shoot n see targets are great. When they see where they are hitting it is like positive reneforcement. The small reactionary targets like prairie dogs and such give them a rush when hit. When it comes to young shooters keep it safe and keep it fun.

    • Howie

      U want a good reactionary target get some binary targets for 22 when they hit that and it goes smiles from ear to ear. Then that's all they want. Shaving cream cans and silly string cans from dollar store also big hit.

  • Mack Missiletoe

    They aught to add the Smith and Wesson 22A on here as well.

    I almost bought the Beretta pistol from an Academy store for $250, but they came up with some stupid reason not to sell it to me. They are really dumb… could have made $250 easy.

    I went to my favorite gun shop and bought a better gun, the Ruger Mark III Target 5.5". Very nice, and once the take down is figured out (and worn-in a little–it was very tight at first!), it is fun to take it apart.

    Nothing like a good gun shop that knows what they are doing and don't have stupid rules–just rules that make sense.

    • BJC

      There are a number of nice 22's out there I guess they just can't list all of them. For your Ruger Mk go to gunsmither.com he has a very nice take down tool for them called the pistol pal and a good instruction video for the tool, when you follow the procedure in the video they are quite easy to reassemble.

    • Aj

      I agree. I have the Smith and Wesson 22s-1 with the 5.5″ bull barrel. Many thousands of rounds have been shot through this gun. Very reliable and durable.

  • Spike1point5

    Out of the guns listed, I reckon the Beretta is the best choice. Having said that, my first gun was a Browning 9mm, and at age 11 it just about tore my hands off at the wrist. If I hadn't got taught how to handle it properly, I'd have had some SERIOUS problems, as would who/whatever I hit with the stray round.

    I think it's a great idea to start off on .22s, although I've never been convinced about letting younger shooters handle shotguns. I think if I was going to do that, I'd start off with a side-by-side, double barrel. Let them get started on clay pigeons, work up to pump-action and regular targets.

  • Ross Walters

    I haven't handled any of the .22 pistols mentioned but do own a Phoenix HP22.
    Cost is low – generally $139 3" barrel new.
    Grip is thin and short trigger reach accomodates tiny hands. Racking the slide is not too difficult for weak fingers.
    Available with an inexpensive interchangeable 5" barrel for target shooting and hunting. Ebay sells 'em for $25-30.

    Where it falls short is in the sights.
    Little nubs to try to line up on target but with a little practice (and a dot of glow paint) a shooter can hit the target with consistent accuracy.

    Mine is ultra reliable and fun to shoot. My wife loves the light recoil. Made in America too.

  • Ian

    I think this is a great subject that gets over looked too often. I think the actual choice of gun types depends on the age of the child. I actually like the idea of starting with simplicity. With this I mean using single shot rifles, ie: Rascal, Crickett, and Thompson Center also has one too. For the pistols, I like the idea of using a revolver that is single shot, ie: Ruger Bear Cat, Herritage Arms Rough Rider. I feel this gets the basics down first. I get a little nervous with a child using a semi auto, Ruger 10/22, Remington 597, and forgeting that the rifle just reloaded itself. Or especially with a Ruger Mark 3, or Browning Buck Mark. The biggest thing here is safety. It's not to say they can't shoot the semi auto's within :30 minutes or so.

  • Ian

    Continued:

    I taught my son to shoot at the age of 5 years old with a Crickett. I actually love this basic gun, so very simple. And surprisingly accurate. Some of our favorite targets are pop cans, tin cans and self healing spinning squirrels. The one problem we discovered was ear protection. Using the cup style ear muffs get in the way of my son properly shouldering his rifle. I'm trying to get him used to the ear plugs, but not very comfortable for a now 7 year old. If you want a shooting buddy for life, start small, don't scare them away. Always "crawl" before you "run".

  • Randall

    A 20ga. shot gun kicks as hard as a 12ga. ! Wait until a child can handle the weight and use 20ga barrel inserts with minimum reloads at moving targets. Felt recoil is much higher from a stopped gun. The pistol is the last gun a child should be allowed to handle. It is too easy for them to barrel sweep another shooter. A lot of dry firing should precede any shooting. It is a good way to find out if the firearm is to big/heavy for the child. I started hunting at 8 years old with a 12ga. single barrel shot gun and recoil has never been a problem for me!

  • ColWW

    I bought my son .22 Chipmunk Rifle at 7yrs. old . He loved that weapon. Now at 15 yrs. he's in the Young Marines and now shoots Expert at summer bivouac. It only cost $150 dollars and he set with skill that will last a life time.

  • Richard

    I agree with some of the comments. In my opinion a .22 rifle ( bolt action, there are some fine CZ's in .22lr ) is the right compromise for a kid. Air guns are great to learn discipline but it's not a firearm and it could be mistaken for a toy. A semi like a 10/22 would be the next step. A handgun only later for the very reasons explained in the article. But bottom line, regadless of what weapon you choose, the only concern, at all time should be safety-safety-safety, and more safety …

  • Mark

    I feel that a good gun to start on would be the new Savage Model 42. It is a .22LR on the top barrel and .410 on the bottom barrel. This would also be a good gun to also start small game hunting with.

  • John Q. Public

    A person's first firearm should be a .22 rifle. I don't like the idea of allowing a child to fire a handgun before learning the basics of firearms use with a .22 rifle. Too many people buy a handgun as their first firearm and then wildly point it things. The tendency to flag other people, houses, cars, etc, comes from the way people see handguns used (improperly) on television. I suggest a H&R single-shot .22, and then a Ruger 10/22 as the first firearms to teach a young person how to shoot with. If the person in question does well with these rifles, then parents could consider a handgun.

  • Chris

    My 4-year old sun loves rifle shooting with me. He owns a Crickett, which fits him perfectly. We shoot CCI Quiet-22 .22 long rifle ammo. The combination is quiet and has essentially no kick, so he does not associate shooting with discomfort. We shoot together, spend time in the woods, and clean our weapons together. He associates this time with fun, family, stewardship, and responsibility. We made the decision to bypass air rifles and bb-guns because we wanted there to be zero ambiguity: this is a deadly weapon and we allow no safety violations. There are some people who can handle this and others who cannot. Age appropriateness differs from person to person. In our case, we will teach handgun and shotgun shooting later. For now, we’ve been happy with the pace we’re going and the equipment we’re using. We also experiment with fun targets, so he gets the full experience of hitting what he’s aiming at. He particularly like balloons and soda cans. The biggest problem has been that the adults all love shooting his little rifle and sometimes he has a hard time getting his turn, so we have had to invest in a Ruger 10/22 for the bigger kids.

  • rob

    I started my daughter with a 10/22 that had an archangel stock and a hollow graphic sight. The stock has adjustable length of pull. The sight made it very easy to aim for 25 yard shoots. I’ve just replaced the sight with a Hawke scope 3-9X50 she will be learning how to use it this weekend. She just loves it, and can out shoot some of the cub scouts she knows

  • Bret

    I found that semi auto 22s seemed to lead to my 9yr old just rapidly firing and not concentrating on aiming after the first mag or 2. After the semi auto the single shot didn’t hold his interest. Had my best luck with the 22/.410 over-under using the shot shells as a reward for proper shooting habits. We still shoot the semi auto 22s but also only as a positive reinforcement for proper habits.

  • MaryAnn

    o m g

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