When Should Kids Learn to Shoot?
At what age should youngsters begin shooting and hunting? This is a question that will spark myriad replies around the campfire. I’m sure we’ve all heard comments such as “my little Johnny shot his first buck when he was only 4 years old,” or “I was hunting deer, harvesting them and doing my own field dressing chores when I was ten.” In truth, some youngsters develop faster than others, both mentally and physically. I remember well back in the late fifties, taking my J.C. Higgins single shot .22 rifle into the woods behind our farm in rural Red River County on squirrel hunts at the ripe old age of eight. Like most youngsters in the county, hunting and shooting was a way of life and we all naturally gravitated to the woods and water.
My wife and I have two sons that I trained to shoot and hunt and both were, in my opinion, ready to hunt on their own at around 12 years old. Both boys harvested several wild hogs while hunting with me when they were 9-11 years old. Before that, they spent countless hours with me in dove fields and deer blinds as a spectator, learning the basics such as how to track game and how far to lead a crossing dove. I started them both shooting BB guns at 6 years old. They each graduated to pellet rifles then, when they were about 8, they got their first scoped .22 rifle. They practiced ONLY when Dad was present and they practiced alone, no group shooting sessions with other youngsters. I’ve found it best to work with youngsters on a one-on-one basis when learning the basics of shooting and firearm safety. Each boy received his first 20 gauge shotgun at the age of 11 and both quickly became excellent wingshots. They were hunting birds with me a year or so before I allowed them to actually harvest deer.
Through osmosis, if nothing else, I’ve learned a thing or two about getting youngsters started in shooting and hunting. Let me share a few of the things I’ve learned about instilling safe gun handling in youngsters. Hopefully you can use my experiences as a basis and build upon them with your own experiences.
SAFETY ALWAYS FIRST – Instill in youth the fact that guns, beginning with their first BB gun, are deadly and powerful tools that, if used properly will add countless hours of enjoyment to their lives but, if used improperly, have the potential to create much harm. Beginning with that first air rifle, show them exactly how the safety works and instill in them the hard rule that they are NEVER to point their rifle at anything they do not intend to shoot. If they are walking behind you, teach them to carry the rifle so that the muzzle is pointing BEHIND them, in a direction that if the rifle should discharge, nobody would be hit. Conversely, if they are in FRONT, keep the muzzle pointed to the side, in a safe direction. This most basic rule of firearm safety will help avoid the lion’s share of firearm accidents.
WHAT CALIBER TO CHOOSE – At some point, probably around the age of ten, it’s time to graduate a youngster to that first big game rifle, one that will cleanly harvest deer size game. By now, the basics of rifle shooting will be well ingrained from much practice with first the air rifles, then the .22. Recoil is a big factor to consider. The little rifles they learned with had no recoil. A rifle shooting a projectile large enough to harvest a deer or wild hog must inherently ‘kick’ a little. The trick is for the young hunter to shoot a rifle with minimal recoil. Forget the magnums and even bigger 30 calibers. A little .22/250 packs enough punch, if shot placement is good, to harvest the biggest buck in the woods. I know, I’ve seen the diminutive little caliber used successfully many times. The 6MM, .243 or .257 Roberts all make great ‘starter’ deer rifles. The trick is for the youngster to shoot a caliber he or she is comfortable with and achieve a reasonable degree of accuracy. I expect my young charges to be able to keep 3 shots in a four inch circle at 100 yards ALL the time, when shooting from a good rest. When shooting at game, I tell them to wait for close shots that they know they can make and pass up anything.
‘Reduced recoil’ cartridges are now available that contain less powder and are ideal for shots on game out to around 100 yards. I haven’t tried these for my trainees but have heard good reports on the lighter rounds, both in accuracy and performance on game.
I’ve been shooting muzzleloaders for many years. Here’s a novel idea and one that I have put to practice: Start your youngster off with a muzzleloader! I did just that with my second son and he took his first several hogs and deer with a 50 caliber inline muzzleloader! Learning to load and shoot the modern inline muzzleloaders is a great way to teach youngsters how a rifle works and the recoil can easily be adjusted by the amount of powder one pours down the muzzle.
I learned that if shots are kept less than 100 yards, 60 grains of powder and 225 grain bullets work just fine in younger hands. The felt recoil using this combination is less than some of the smaller caliber centerfire rounds. Granted, loading a muzzleloader is a bit more complicated than sliding a round into the chamber of a centerfire but the ability to control recoil with the amount of powder loaded is a big plus. Until the youngster is thoroughly trained in the loading process, it’s best for an adult to do the loading.
The revised edition of Luke’s book, “Kill to Grill, the Ultimate Guide to Hunting and Cooking Wild Hogs”, is available at Luke’s website, www.catfishradio.org.