As the early small game season, and, especially, the Youth Squirrel Hunting Season, draw ever closer, a lot of youngsters out there are getting more and more excited about the prospect of their first season. With what appears to be a declining interest in hunting on the part of kids, making the first season a good one is more important than ever before. Not long ago, I was in a local sporting goods store as a man was trying out a gun for his young daughter. This week, let’s take a look at some gun choices for kids in the 12-14 year old range. I’m including the older ones as some get a later start, while others don’t really have a gun of their own until after their first season or two. I know I do this every year, but, hopefully, new youngsters get introduced to hunting and shooting.
Actually, there’s little argument against the 22 rimfire as a youngster’s first “real” gun. I got my first one when I was only 7 years old. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to shoot it by myself, but my dad spent a lot of time working on my marksmanship, as well as teaching me the essentials of firearms handling and safety. For these purposes, the old faithful 22 is pretty much without equal. There’s no recoil, ammo used to be fairly cheap, and a kid can just relax and shoot. Things are a bit different nowadays. If you can even find 22 ammunition, it is now expensive. Still, the 22 is a good starter gun.
When it comes time to hunt, however, the story changes a bit. The typical 12 year old will probably not have sufficient proficiency with a 22 to do well hunting with it. In fact, most adults, myself included, would be hard pressed to hit a running squirrel or rabbit with one. Since success is so important to a kid, a shotgun becomes a necessity.
A lot of people opt for a .410 as a youngster’s first shotgun. At first glance, this does indeed seem like the ideal choice. There’s still no recoil, and one’s chances of hitting game are increased over those using the 22. A closer look, however, reveals some significant flaws in the little .410. For one thing, the small shot charge requires some pretty good shooting to score a hit. Also, the .410 in the hands of an inexperienced shooter can lead to a lot of wounded game, and that’s bad. A few years ago, I bought a Mossberg .410 bolt action shotgun. The big reason was to complete my collection. I now have one of these guns in every gauge in which they were manufactured. I haven’t hunted with it.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the 12 gauge. Often, this is not really the prime choice for a kid either. The biggest factor is recoil. Some 12 year olds are very small. For them, I can’t help but think that the kick of a 12 gauge is a bit much. There’s an old belief that, in the excitement of shooting at game, you don’t really notice the recoil. That may be true if you are being charged by a cape buffalo, but I doubt that it applies equally to a squirrel or rabbit. Fear of recoil can lead to flinching and, once developed, it is an extremely difficult habit to break.
I guess this is all leading up to my vote for the best small game start-up gun. Without hesitation, I would recommend the 20 gauge shotgun. It’s a great choice for a number of reasons. First of all, the recoil is so slight that it’s usually not even much of a factor. Also, the larger shot charge makes it much easier to hit game with the 20 as opposed to the .410. Success is extremely important to a young hunter, and if they miss too many times, frustration and boredom will set in.
When selecting a shotgun for the young hunter, you must decide on which type of action to choose. The 20 gauge comes in every type of action on the market, as do most other gauges. The most common choice is probably the break-open single shot. They’re rather inexpensive. Also, since there’s no quick second shot, it could be argued that they encourage good shot placement. Once again, though, there’s that success factor to deal with.
Another big drawback of the single shot is that, for most hunters, it’s not a lifetime gun, and will eventually be replaced. This prevents the building of a lifetime worth of memories with the same gun. In the end, it’s sort of a gamble. If you think your kid is really going to like hunting, then go with a better gun if you can. It’s an investment in your youngster’s happiness. That’s money well spent.