G&A Basics: How to Choose Your Child's First Gun
October 29, 2012
Just 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.
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.
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.
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.