According to the most recent surveys by both U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and despite so much gloom and doom, hunting actually turned a major corner in the past decade or so. Hunter numbers in the United States are up by as much as 9 percent…the first time in many years that an increase has been recorded. We should congratulate each other! For years, we’ve harped on hunter recruitment, and all manner of youth programs have borne fruit, from grass roots SCI Chapter events to state-sponsored special youth seasons.
That said, however, young people today have challenges getting into hunting. In our increasingly urban society, access is a major issue and kids today have distractions and entertainments that previous generations didn’t face. It is a fact that much of our growth, and the fastest-growing segment in virtually all shooting sports, is not young people but women. The two groups, adult women of all ages and youngsters of both sexes, are different, and have different challenges getting involved, but they do have some things in common. First, although males have a macho image to overcome, all beginners have to learn to shoot, and both noise and recoil are unpleasant necessities. Second, most youngsters and most women are smaller in stature than adult males. Firearms intended for the long-time majority in our traditionally male-dominated sport just don’t fit. Reasonable gun fit is essential not only for good shooting, but for comfortable shooting. This applies at least equally to shotguns as well as rifles, but in this article we’ll stick with rifles.
The First Step
Always and forever, rifle shooting is usually taught with a .22 rimfire. The only real alternative is an air rifle, which is even quieter and cheaper to shoot. In fact, like millions of other kids, I suppose I got my first lessons with a Daisy BB gun. Modern air rifles are incredibly accurate, and offer sound options for good backyard training. However, a .22 rimfire is the baseline, still reasonably inexpensive to shoot, and has virtually no recoil.
With hunting rifles, hand-me-downs are generally not the best idea, but both of my daughters got their first taste of shooting with a hand-me-down .22, a little Chipmunk single-shot sized for younger kids. I got it from Joe Bishop, whose boys shot it until they outgrew it. Daughter Brittany did her first shooting with it, then daughter Caroline a decade later. We still have it, and we’re saving it for grandson Jack. The Chipmunk is not an expensive platform (at all), but within a few years this one will have gotten the kids of three families started, pretty good value!
There are many good youth model .22s out there, but I think the ideal starter platform is a single-shot .22: Simple, safe, easy to operate. The Chipmunk is a single-shot bolt-action with manual cocking piece–very goof-proof. My own first .22 was an Ithaca falling block single shot with exposed hammer, regrettably no longer made because it was also simple and safe. Rifles for younger kids have about a 12-inch length of pull (LOP) so will be outgrown fairly quickly…but there will be plenty of time for a “grownup” .22, probably a repeater of some type.
Obviously adult beginners aren’t going to start with a Chipmunk or similar basic youth model, but a .22 rimfire is still the place to start. I’ll go one step farther: Without question we’ve been in the “scope era” for most of my life, but whether kids or adults, I strongly recommend beginning rifle shooters start with open sights. There are two reasons for this. First, while shooting with open sights is more difficult and less precise, this is the best way to learn the basics of sight alignment. Master open sights and moving to a scope is simple and easy (and the shooter will appreciate the scope a whole lot more). Second, while it’s very easy to shift from iron sights to a scope, it’s a whole lot more difficult to shift from a scope to iron sights! Much later in a hunting career there may be a need or reason to use iron sights. Even if you haven’t used iron sights for years, it’s a lot easier to return to them if you have some early training to fall back on.
Here I admit to great failure with both my daughters. As youngsters, 10 or 11 years old, they shot iron sights a bit, but both were 16 or 17 before they had real interest in shooting or hunting. By that time we were on a bit of a crash course, so while we shot .22s again, we bypassed iron sights and went straight to scopes. Both shoot scoped rifles extremely well, but if the need to use iron sights ever arose, the learning curve would be steep.
It’s important to understand that to most beginners, all recoil is objectionable and all centerfire cartridges are horribly loud. Hearing protection is essential, but it’s also important to strike a balance between adequate power without excessive recoil. Although now legal for deer in more and more states and very mild in recoil, I don’t think the .22 centerfires are good choices for beginners as hunting cartridges. With the excellent heavy bullets now available, they are definitely better than ever, but shot placement must be precise and shot presentation has to be more or less ideal. So I think of the .22 centerfires as better-suited for experienced hunters…and for “meat hunters” who have the patience and forbearance to concentrate on head and neck shots—which are not recommended for beginners.
That said, if you happen to have one available, the .22 centerfires and similar “varmint cartridges” make a wonderful bridge between a .22 rimfire and a full-up big-game cartridge. They offer the noise and blast without the recoil, and allow practice shooting at much greater ranges than is practical with .22 rimfires. Donna shares my left-handed affliction, so when she started we spent a lot of range time with an old Kimber left-hand “mini-Mauser” in .223. For right-handed beginners we’ve mostly used Ruger Number Ones in .204 Ruger and .22-250.
The standard answer for a first big-game cartridge has long been the .243 Winchester. A .243 was my first hunting rifle and it remains an excellent choice, accurate, hard-hitting and very mild in recoil. However, it depends a bit on exactly what game a new hunter might pursue. The .243 is not an elk cartridge, and although it’s fine for smaller African antelope, it is not adequate for the full run of African plains game. I started both my daughters (on wild hogs) with the .260 Remington. It has a bit more recoil than the .243, but its 6.5mm 140-grain bullet at roundabout 2,700 feet per second (fps) is much more capable than any .243 load. If you like the 6.5mm, the 6.5mm Creedmoor is another good choice.
However, with both Brittany and, later, Caroline, we quickly switched from the .260 to the 7mm-08 Remington. Ammunition is much more available (and in greater variety), bullet selection is far better, recoil is about the same and performance on game is simply astonishing. Both Caroline and Brittany have taken a wide variety of African plains with their 7mm-08s, up to kudu, zebra and wildebeest with no problems whatsoever. Brittany actually used her Kimber 7mm-08 to take an eland bull with one 140-grain Nosler Partition…but I’d be the first to say that was stretching the cartridge’s capability.
Depending on what you want to hunt and the stature and recoil tolerance of the person, the .308 Winchester may be another good choice. There are few animals that can’t be hunted with a .308, and recoil can be mitigated by using lighter bullets—there’s a big difference in .30-caliber recoil between a 150-grain bullet and a 180-grain bullet, and with the great hunting bullets available today it’s practical to sacrifice bullet weight without sacrificing performance. Also, keep in mind that several firms now offer reduced recoil ammunition, such as Hornady’s Custom Lite and Remington’s Managed-Recoil loads. The reduction is achieved by lighter bullets at lower velocity, so these are not general-purpose loads, but certainly effective on deer-sized game at moderate ranges…and great for practice.
All the cartridges mentioned so far are short cartridges, meaning they will fit into short bolt actions, lighter in weight with a shorter bolt throw. This is probably desirable, especially for beginners of smaller stature, but is not the only option. Donna’s first rifle of her very own, and still one of her favorites, is an MGA in .270 Winchester, built light with a stock that fits. The great old .270 has about the same recoil as a 7mm-08, shoots flatter, and is certainly capable for the same range of game. Its only drawback is it requires a longer (.30-’06-length) action.
As with a single-shot .22 for starters, a strong case can be made for a single-shot centerfire. This could be an inexpensive rifle like a Thompson/Center or a costlier rifle such as the Ruger Number One. One advantage is obvious: It’s either fully loaded or fully unloaded, and easy to supervise. Not so obvious: Having the capability of just that one shot tends to make hunters very careful, not a bad lifelong habit to get into.
Although it makes sense, I have not gone that route. All the hunters I’ve started out have done their first hunting with bolt-action repeaters, which is probably the most common choice. The bolt action is versatile and accurate, and it’s also easy to supervise because, with the bolt drawn to the rear, cartridges in the magazine are highly visible. This last is why I’m not real strong on other action types for beginning hunters. Bolt action rifles run the full gamut from extremely affordable basic models all the way up to costly custom jobs but, realistically, the accuracy from out-of-the-box basic bolt guns from virtually all major manufacturers is just plain amazing today.
Regardless of cartridge or action chosen, this is probably the most critical thing. Most manufacturers offer “youth models” with reduced stock dimensions such as shorter length of pull (LOP). Some have butt plate “spacers,” so the LOP can be increased as the child grows—but this can also be solved with a new stock. We tend to think of this when bringing our children into hunting…there’s nothing better than that long box under the Christmas tree! Unfortunately, getting her a rifle that fits is an oft-overlooked step when we bring our ladies into the game.
I was fortunate with daughter Brittany. I’m Joe Average at 5’9”. When Brittany started hunting, she was already just about my height, so while we had to be careful to bring recoil up gradually, stock fit was not an issue. With Donna, I probably messed up. She’s a few inches shorter than I am, so really needs a shorter stock. She is not sensitive to recoil, so she did her first hunting with my Ruger M77 in .30-’06, but the stock was too long. Initially we compromised, taking about 3/8-inch off the butt and resetting the recoil pad. Although it was then a bit short for me, we could both shoot it. Note that it’s a lot easier to shoot a rifle with a stock that’s a bit short than the other way around! Shortly thereafter, she got her MGA .270 properly stocked to fit. Although I’ve borrowed that rifle on several occasions, I’ve never again tried to get her to use a rifle with a stock that’s too long.
Daughter Caroline is a lot shorter, so from the start we’ve had very few options: All standard stocks are too long. Initially I borrowed a Ruger M77 Youth Model in .260 Remington, and then she got her own Ruger with her infamous hot pink laminate stock cut to fit. By the way, that rifle also started as a .260, but we just couldn’t get it to group so I rebarreled it to 7mm-08. That’s still what she uses most of the time.
Today, manufacturers are starting to “get it” and there are lots of options in all price ranges. MGA, heavily influenced by Carole O’Day, makes awesome custom rifles designed for women—with cool synthetic stock finishes like Donna’s “giraffe” pattern. Legendary Arms Works’ newest model is the Bobcat, short action and short stock. Totally unique is Weatherby’s Camilla, short Vanguard action with a stock specifically designed for women by female hunters. (Okay, since everybody asks, Camilla Weatherby was Roy Weatherby’s wife and Ed Weatherby’s mom.) However, although synthetic stocks are more challenging, it’s a simple gunsmithing task to shave some length off the butt of any wooden stock and reset the recoil pad. New hunters are important to all of us, and they’ll enjoy shooting a lot more—and shoot better—with rifles that fit.–Craig Boddington