Insider Info: Young Guns

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Mentoring a new hunter often starts with someone new to shooting sports. If that person has the same build as you, they can likely start with one of your rifles or shotguns. But if you’re a 200-pound guy mentoring someone with a 120-pound frame, your .30-06 rifle may kick them back indoors. The following tips will help you choose the right gun for a new hunter.

SORTING OUT SHOTGUNS.
Balance recoil with gun size to improve success afield.

Choosing the appropriate gauge and “action” can mean the difference between recruiting a one-timer or a lifelong hunter. Gauge refers to the diameter of a shotgun barrel — the larger the number, the smaller the barrel. (The tiny .410 is the exception.) The choices for shotgun “action” — the part of a firearm that loads, fires, and ejects a cartridge — are pump, semi-automatic, over-and-under, and side-by-side.

Gauge.

The burly 12-gauge and slightly smaller 20-gauge are standards for adults hunting upland birds, waterfowl, and turkey. For new hunters, “if you’re shooting smaller birds like grouse, woodcock, or quail and they’re close in, a 28-gauge is okay, but not a .410,” says Ben Berka, president and executive director of the Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation and a member of the Izaak Walton League’s Dragoon Trail and Ames Chapters in Iowa. “With a .410, there aren’t enough pellets for an effective killing pattern. The 12-gauge or 20-gauge rule everything else. That said, it’s about balance. The gun needs to be light enough to carry over a distance yet heavy enough to absorb recoil. The biggest mistake is buying the lightest pump, weight-wise, you can find. A kid can carry it all day, but it recoils so much that it’s tough to get a second shot off.” Generally, bigger gauge shotguns tend to weigh more (have more mass) and thus absorb more recoil, but it’s a trade-off, as they’re heavier to handle.

Action.

Berka favors semi-automatic (“gas”) shotguns for small-framed shooters because of their reputation for lower recoil. He also pays close attention to the shotgun shells. “Avoid high-velocity shells, which recoil more,” advises Berka, who spent eight years working for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources teaching wing-shooting clinics. “With lead, look for loads around 1,200 feet per second. Non-toxic loads, which have different ballistics, should be around 1,300 feet per second.”

If a 12-gauge and 20-gauge shotgun are standard, how big should a young hunter be to handle such a gauge? According to Berka, big enough physically to handle the recoil of the gun and mature enough to be in the field with it.

“Between 10 years old and 12 years old is typical, depending on when they can take a hunter safety course,” Berka says. “They need to have the arm length to mount the gun consistently, and they need to be aware of where the muzzle is pointing, which changes constantly in the field. They also need to manipulate the safety and shoot when game appears and be aware of other hunters and the dogs.”

To get a young person used to a shotgun, Berka recommends these steps (with adult supervision):

  1. Practice taking the safety off and mounting the unloaded gun at home to build up coordination.
  2. Shoot clay targets — preferably skeet, which incorporates most hunting shots, including incoming, overhead, crossing, and quartering “birds” — to build consistency.
  3. Hunt doves or early-season waterfowl for an initial experience. The weather is comfortable, and there’s usually lots of shooting opportunities.
  4. Go more and keep it fun!

“What kid doesn’t like to make noise and break stuff?” asks Berka (rhetorically). “If they have fun, it gets them outdoors where they can experience all that nature has to offer.”

PICKING THE RIGHT RIFLE.
Pay attention to stock length and gun weight when hunting big game.

Many kids start with a .22 for shooting targets, squirrels, and ground hogs. From there, they should graduate to a larger caliber that’s still on the small side, say a .243 Winchester or perhaps a larger caliber .308 Winchester, for hunting deer. Which is correct? Within reason, the caliber of the gun is less important than the fit of the gun as determined by its “length of pull.”

Length of Pull.

The distance from the end of the rifle butt (including the recoil pad) to the curve of the trigger is called the “length of pull.” If it’s too long or too short, the recoil feels worse because the person’s skeleton is not properly positioned to absorb it. Accuracy can also suffer.

Measure from the bend of the elbow to the point on the index finger that touches the trigger to determine a hunter’s length of pull. Within that ballpark, it’s a matter of personal preference — what feels most comfortable.

“The length of pull for shouldering the gun is key,” says Paul Thompson, Browning’s media relations manager and a lifelong big-game hunter. “If the stock is too long, the hunter will lean back and can’t bear down on the stock correctly…. A smaller hunter might need a 12 ½-inch length of pull, versus a full-grown adult who uses a 13 ¾-inch length of pull.”

Gun Weight.

Another consideration for rifle selection is the weight of the gun. Many manufacturers make lighter rifles for youth hunters.

“Weight is always an issue,” says Thompson. “Browning uses shorter length barrels, 20 inches instead of  the conventional 22 inches [for youth rifles], to help reduce weight. The average rifle weighs about seven pounds [before adding a scope, sling, and/or bipod] compared to a lighter gun for youth at six pounds. A heavier gun may absorb more recoil, but a kid can’t carry it or handle it easily.”

For youth rifles, Browning places the grip closer to the trigger to accommodate smaller hands, adds a super-soft recoil pad, and uses a stock that accommodates spacers to increase the length of pull as a child grows.

Bullet weight matters, too. Longer, wider-diameter cartridges generally hold more gun powder and therefore recoil more.

You can also under-gun a small shooter, a mistake that Thompson commonly sees. Ultimately gun caliber boils down to what game the hunter is chasing, arm length, and skill.

“The biggest mistake is not getting a big enough caliber for bigger game, especially if the hunter is not experienced,” says Thompson. “Likewise, don’t over-gun, or the kid will be afraid to shoot. If the hunter is good at shot placement, the animal will go down.”

Writer/photographer Lisa Ballard is an Ike from Red Lodge, Montana. A wing-shooter for most of her adult life, she harvested her first deer a decade ago, thanks to her husband Jack, who gave her a Browning .270 rifle.