By Ray Sasser
When babies are born to sporting families, dedicated deer hunters start planning ahead for junior’s initial trip to the woods. Whether junior is a girl or a boy, a suitable first deer rifle carries the same basic requirements. The considerations include safety, matching the physical size of the rifle to the size and strength of the youngster, balancing mild recoil with the rifle’s effectiveness at humanely dispatching game, and muzzle blast, or noise.
Muzzle blast is the easiest problem to solve, so let’s get it out of the way. Any centerfire rifle creates muzzle blast that is damaging to human ears. No hunter should ever fire a rifle without hearing protection, but adults tend to ignore that common-sense rule. We prefer to stumble around in a macho-induced daze void of high-pitched sounds.
Hopefully, we’re better parents than stewards of our own hearing. A child’s introduction to the shooting sports is the perfect time to teach good habits. Electronic ear muffs cost about $80 to $150, but they’re the best investment you’ll make in your child’s hearing. Electronic muffs amplify normal sounds. You can whisper commands in a hunting blind and be clearly heard. A kid wearing electronic muffs can hear the grunts of a tending buck or the crunch of dry leaves as a deer walks through the woods. Loud sounds are shut off before they reach the ears.
And, while insisting that your young hunter’s hearing is protected, don’t forget your own hearing. What you do is more important than what you say. Fortunately, as a hunting coach, you can plug your own ears with your fingers to protect them from muzzle blast. You can even accomplish this while looking through binoculars. It’s not easy, but I’ve done it.
Now for the tougher decisions. It’s important to balance the rifle’s ballistic ability with recoil. The last thing you want to do is put a young hunter on a shooting bench with a .30-06 or a 7mm Magnum. Both cartridges are excellent on any North American big game, including all deer species, but they develop too much recoil. If a beginner shoots a rifle that kicks too much, the youth will develop a fear of pulling the trigger. The fear, which is often subconscious, exerts itself in the form of flinch, and a flinch guarantees poor shooting performance.
“The worst mistake we see fathers making is passing along a hand-me-down adult rifle to their kids,” says Bill Carter, owner of Carter’s Country hunting stores in Houston, Texas. Carter not only sells deer rifles, but he also hosts youth deer hunting trips on two Texas ranches. Wearing those two hats gives Carter a unique perspective.
“Most kids should not start hunting with a .30-06,” he says. “Luckily, there are several good calibers that will do the job on a deer without hurting the child. All the major firearms companies are offering youth-model rifles with stocks that are an inch shorter than a full-size rifle, and the youth models are offered in good, mild calibers.”
To be efficient on deer-sized game, a rifle should fire a bullet that weighs at least 100 grains. If you select an exotic caliber, ammunition will be hard to find. That narrows the field for ultimate youth rifle calibers to .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .260 Remington, .25-06 Remington and 7mm-08 Remington. All those calibers will do the job without serious recoil, though the higher you travel up the scale from .243, the more each caliber kicks.
Ron Rutledge, owner of McClelland Gun Shop, is one of the top gunsmiths in Dallas, Texas. McClelland recommends a mercury recoil reducer mounted in the butt stock to dampen felt recoil by 15 to 20 percent.
“The mercury recoil reducer adds about 8 ounces to the weight of the rifle, but it pays dividends for youth hunters,” says Rutledge. “I also like to install a premium recoil pad. A Decelerator pad will take a lot of the sting out of recoil. If you keep an eye on gun stores, you can find a used rifle at a discount price. Just make sure it’s a quality rifle that shoots well and dependably. Too many dads try to save money by buying a youngster the cheapest gun they can find, and that’s a mistake. A quality rifle is a lifetime investment. It’s a reasonable investment, particularly if you have other siblings who may come up through the hunting ranks. Otherwise, you can always trade a good youth rifle in on a different model.”
Recoil can also be tamed in a youth gun by adding a muzzle brake, which reduces recoil by as much as 30 percent, even on the milder-recoil rifles. The muzzle brake has the unfortunate side effect of increasing muzzle blast, but that’s not a problem as long as both youth hunter and adult coach are wearing ear protection. Also, says Carter, the game-dispatching difference between a kid-sized caliber and a more potent rifle can be balanced by using high-quality bullets in premium ammunition.
“Be sure and equip a youth rifle with a fairly low-power scope that has good eye relief,” says Carter. “Beginners often have trouble finding their target in the scope. It’s easier with low-power optics. Beginners should not be taking the long shots that high-powered scopes are designed for, anyway. When you stick a kid with an adult-sized rifle, the stock is so long that the youth has trouble getting close enough to the scope to utilize the entire field of view.”
A competent gunsmith can easily shorten an adult-sized stock by an inch. Just be sure and keep the piece of stock that was removed. When the youth grows big enough to handle a full-sized stock, the piece of stock that was removed can be glued back in place, or the rifle can be equipped with a replacement stock.
Practice with a Rimfire
The secret to becoming a good rifle shot is no secret at all. Practice makes perfect, and there’s no better tool for rifle practice than a .22 rimfire. A good .22 is extremely accurate to 50 yards and moderately accurate to 100 yards. There’s virtually no recoil and very little muzzle blast. Best of all, .22 ammo is inexpensive, and a youth hunter can fire 500 rounds for less than $10.
The average deer hunter never fires 500 rounds of centerfire ammo in a lengthy hunting career, which explains why the typical hunter is not a particularly good shot. A rimfire rifle is a great practice tool for any hunter, novice or veteran.
Equip the rifle with a scope sight similar to the scope on the youth’s hunting rifle. Practice finding the target in the scope, which is often a problem for beginning hunters. Then practice the mechanics of making an accurate shot: Get a solid rest for the rifle, center the crosshairs where you want the bullet to strike, take a deep breath and let half of it out, and then squeeze carefully until the rifle fires.
Add fun to the target shooting by substituting paper targets with balloons or clay shotgun targets. Kids love it when a balloon pops or a clay target shatters. Practice by simulating the hunting method you plan to use, whether it’s hunting from a stand or by stalking. Continually emphasize firearms safety. Insist that your youth hunter fire a few rounds with his deer rifle, just to learn how the rifle feels, but do most of the practice with the .22.
Reprinted from the April 2004 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine