“It always seems impossible, until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela
Why Would We Give a Rifle to a Preteen?
Yes a rifle as a gift is a big wow that will be remembered for a lifetime and probably treasured for a lifetime but the point that I want to make is in gifting a rifle to a child, if done correctly will create the foundation of safety, skill, discipline, and fond memories so that both hunting and shooting will continue for his or her lifetime. In more than 50 years of shooting, owning guns, and even making guns, guns have come and gone in and out of my life, but I still have my first. Getting out in the field often when the child is young is what is necessary to make shooting and hunting a lifetime passion. Even though my father’s PTSD curtailed him from taking me camping he did take me shooting twice each weekend for years. It is a fond memory of us I treasure that we both enjoyed and memories I still hold dear.
The first rifle should teach the fundaments of good shooting form. Learning the fundamentals of good shooting form from a good mentor is paramount. Practicing the perfect shot will work towards developing mastery and making that form permanent. We want that form ingrained in them when that first buck is in their sights. Practicing means burning ammunition and to earn mastery takes a lot of ammo. What We Don’t Want in the Childs First Rifle
If a kid’s first experience at squeezing the trigger is accompanied by getting slammed, a painful bruise, ringing ears and the embarrassment of crying the outcome will be fear of squeezing the trigger, there will be little fun for the child, and they may not want to shoot again. If they do shoot again there is a good chance they will develop a flinch that will accompany that fear. In many social situations when people find out what I do someone will tell me that they shot a gun once but the recoil was so bad that they never picked up a gun again. The person that had them take their first shot with that 300 Winchester or 3-1/2-inch mag in a 12 gauge shotgun did a disservice to not only the kid but to the sport.
We also don’t what a firearm that is so costly to shoot that it eats up so much of the kids’ spending money that they don’t want to shoot.
Data from IHEA shows those that must travel 40 minutes or more to shoot will not continue the sport. If you have a rifle that can be safely shot into a bullet trap and is quiet enough to not disturb the neighbors (and is permissible by local ordinance) the parent and child could make it a daily routine to share shooting together. These memories of the sport will last a lifetime. (I am currently writing an article on low cost, easy, quiet, and safe home indoor shooting ranges which I will post soon).
What Should the First Rifle be Chambered in?
If you have known me for any length of time you will know that my mantra is typical, “There is no single correct answer to any given question”. However, the choice of first ammo is one case I will claim is an exception to that rule. Their first rifle is not one they will shoot their first buck with but the rifle that gave them the transferable skills to successfully shoot their first big game rifle. A good mentor is priceless in establishing those foundations of form but practice will make it a habit. At Northwestern Outdoor Leadership Institute we don’t practice until you get it right we practice until you can’t get it wrong. To paraphrase a saying by our business coach, “Practice is like taking a shower; you must do it regularly no matter how good you are at it.” To practice shooting a lot can’t cost you a dollar or more each time you squeeze the trigger and that choice of ammo should not force you to head to the range each time your kid wants to practice. So what ammo should the first rifle be chambered in? The venerable twenty-two Long Rifle.
No, you will not be hunting deer with it, targets and plinking will be abundant, and there is a lot of opportunity for rabbit and squirrel hunting and the occasional raccoon in the chicken coop which will all prepare the child when the time is right for the big game rifle. We believe that regardless of the hunter’s age the venerable .22 LR should be in every hunter’s gun safe.
Why the Twenty-Two Long Rifle
Cost per Round
Each time you pull the trigger a .22 LR cartridge costs about 10 cents vs a .270 Winchester (an appropriate deer cartridge for youth) cost about $1.20. You can shoot a lot of .22s for the cost of a box of .270s. To make that perfect form a habit it must be practiced and practiced a lot. Today when I take a shot, my head is clear of all thought, stance, breath control, sight picture, hand and finger placement, finger squeeze is all a part of me and it is a part of me because of the tens of thousands of rounds of .22s I have shot. There is an ingot of brass that is now a tool in our shop, many a camper have used it to disassemble their ammo when learning how to reload ammo. That block weighs an impressive several pounds. That block is all of the trash bags of .22 LR brass I collected from our home shooting range that I melted down when in our high school shop at age-17. One day I will have the students calculate out how many .22 LR cases were melted down to make that ingot.
Lack of Recoil
Lack of recoil of the .22 is a big plus. Toni and I regularly volunteer at Women on Target events for ladies to learn to shoot for the first time. One older lady had never fired or held a gun before and was convinced by all the ignorant people in her life that when she pulled the trigger she was going to get hurt from the recoil, she was shaking and crying, her fear was real. Though she had watched her classmates shoot and they all assured her that only the slightest perceivable recoil would be felt yet she could not quiet her fear. With Toni’s calm patience. in time, she took her first shot. She laid her rifle down, turned grinning ear to ear and asked if she could do that again? With a big smile soon she had shot her 10 rounds, she was putting them all in the black and having a great time. When she was through she gave Toni and I hugs and thanks for helping to get her past her edge. Not only did she get past her fear, she truly enjoyed her experience and as she said “if I can do that what else can I do that I’ve been afraid to try”? Recoil truly is a big roadblock for many people, as are most of our fears and ignorance.
The .22 LR cartages are quiet and when shooting in our little range in the redwood forest the trees absorbed the sound of the kids shooting these and could not be heard less than 100 yards away using standard velocity rounds. When I was a kid in high school I set up a bullet trap in the garage in our track home with a little bit of simple and inexpensive soundproofing shooting low-velocity .22s I could shoot in our home and the neighbors 25 feet away could not hear it.
Most of the sound that comes from the .22 LR is a tiny sonic boom formed because the little 40-grain projectile is traveling faster than the speed of sound. The speed of sound is 1,125 feet per second and the standard .22 LR travels at roughly 1,200 out of a rifle. Subsonic ammo velocities range from roughly 900 to 1,033 feet per second. Subsonic ammo is available as the shorter versions in .22 Long and .22 Short have very little report, comparable to our air rifle. The .22 Short and .22 air rifles are the backbones of our little kids shooting programs. Manufacturers also make subsonic .22 LR which may feed better than Longs and Shorts in some rifles. Though great for target, plinking, and short-range rat and ground squirrels, with few exceptions I do not consider subsonic ammo satisfactory for hunting. But if a rogue raccoon is causing havoc it can be neutralized by the careful aim by your preteen and will be a story that will be told for a lifetime and cause little or no discontent with your neighbors.
Though the .22 can be found in all actions, semi-auto, pump, lever, break, and bolt (I have even seen revolving rifle and a very cool Gatling gun) I suggest a bolt action for several reasons. Safety is first when I have 5 students on the shooting line I want to see that the bolt is back and the chamber is clear, with the small opening of the .22 it is hard to feel or see that the chamber is clear with semiautomatics and pumps. I also want the kids to shoot prone to learn the fundaments that are transferable to shooting big game, but a pump or lever action cannot be cycled with ease when lying down. Let’s face it we want youth to think between each shot. Pump, lever, and semiautomatics are for rapid reloading, though fun, not something that is not necessary when learning the fundamentals. The rifle they will most likely hunt with will be a bolt action and getting that nondominant hand to learn how to properly load a bolt action will be of value years from now.
A semi-automatic rifle may likely not cycle using subsonic ammo and pump and lever actions are likely to not feed using longs or shorts.
New or Used
There are very good quality .22 target rifles in most price ranges and small-bore target practice may become a lifelong passion for your child. Marlin’s XT22 MSRP $225, Savage Arms’ bolt action target (Mark II FVT) its MSRP is about $425, Ruger’s 77/22 MSRP $800. Anschutz model 1903 sells for about $1,000 plus the cost of the sights. Remington and Winchester are no longer offering .22 bolt actions but good used rifles that are nearly a century old are still a good value. Check with family you might have an aunt or uncle that has a good .22 that just needs the passion of a child. I still shoot the Remington 511 Scoremaster .22 bolt action that was my aunt’s in the 1940s in fact, that old .22 has been both a tool on the farm, a thing of recreation, and a teacher of mine for more than any other firearm that I have owned and is still a tack driver.
I am a firm believer in learning proper sight picture with open sites. Many of the rifles in our safe are open sights. If your child can learn to put it in the black with open sights then transitioning to a telescopic sight will be easy.
A Twenty-Two for Hunting
All rimfire ammo is not legal for hunting big game but it is excellent for hunting ground squirrels at 100 yards or less (or 60 yards or less with open sights). Given the large drop in trajectory, it forces the young hunter to get proficient in judging distance and practicing holding over.
A Twenty-Two Is Not a Toy
To put this in perspective when I need to kill a pig or steer for slaughter, put down a medium to a large injured animal, or kill a rogue coyote, bobcat, or raccoon in tight quarters around the house my old Remington Scoremaster from the 1940s is my go-to rifle and has never failed me. .22 is also a favored ammo for poachers of big game. With the proper bullet placement it will kill man or beast. Though its effective hunting range is limited to less than 60-yards mainly because of the huge bullet drop and trying to put it in the tiny kill zone on small game. that does not mean that it is not dangerous at longer distances. Being ineffective past 60-years does not make it any less dangerous. Held at a 45-degree angle in static air the bullet will travel for roughly one and one-half miles. Before our students and campers are allowed to handle any firearm they must demonstrate mastery of the 10 commandments of firearm safety both verbally and demonstrated with our disabled demonstration rifles. They must show safety is a habit. You can do the same thing with a wooden gun. We have been teaching hunter education for various state Departments of Fish and Wildlife since 2009 and we suggest that you and your child enroll in a hunter ed class even if you have no intention of ever hunting just to start the habit of proper safety.
In weighing in the factors of safety, recoil, cost, report, and usefulness we believe every hunter regardless of age would benefit from having the venerable twenty-two long rifle bolt action in their gun safe and it is the number one best choice for a kid’s first rifle.