Looking back, some of my best childhood memories are from the woods. I am fortunate that I have a father who took me hunting with him from an early age.
Now that I have kids of my own, I get more excited about taking them hunting than I do about going for myself. Lizzy is my oldest and is 12 years old. She is a great hunter and loves the outdoors. We have had many great father-daughter afternoons in a deer stand.
Next is Oliver, who is 10. He is an eager kid who loves an adventure. He was with me when I shot the whitetail that took Silver in last year’s Safari Club awards.
My youngest is John Weston, who is six, and he loves to hunt, too. At age three he was sitting with me in a ground blind when I took a good 8-point with my bow. Just think about how many 3-year-olds can be that quiet and still for that to happen? And no, he wasn’t sleeping!
While it’s fun to let your kids accompany you on your hunts, at some point parents will have to decide when it is appropriate to let their kids hunt for themselves. In the South, that usually means when to let them shoot their first deer.
Some states have a minimum age to hunt. I decided that I would judge for myself when each of my kids was ready. I wanted them to be proficient and safe with a rifle. I wanted them to be physically and emotionally strong enough to kill a deer. In addition, I wanted them to know first-hand how much work goes into setting up stands, playing the wind and planting fields.
As this deer season approached, I had Oliver (9 at the time) and Lizzy (11 at the time) practicing with the Savage Rascal .22 that they got the previous Christmas. This is a great gun to start with and it got them familiar with working a bolt action. I knew they both wanted to shoot a deer this year, so I made a cardboard cutout of a deer and we shot that with the .22 rifle.
This is a tip my good friend Richard Kerr gave me before I went on my first elk hunt – and it’s a great idea for anyone before they shoot an animal they’ve never put sights on before.
When Lizzy and Oliver proved they were ready with the .22, I started to look for a deer rifle for them to use. Of course, I’d been thinking about this rifle for the last three years. What caliber? Youth model or full size? Should I get it suppressed? The time had finally come, and I was now in the market for a youth rifle.
Let’s start with choosing a caliber. If you ask a dozen people what the best caliber for a youth deer rifle is, you may get a dozen different answers. And I asked everyone I knew.
Of course, the classic .243 came up – low recoil, and lots of ammo choices. The .308 is popular – and Steyer makes a pretty sweet one with an adjustable stock and a short barrel that comes threaded for a suppressor.
Plenty of folks also recommend the AR rifles – cheap ammo, very low recoil and customizable. And unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last 10 years, you know all about how the 6.5mm Creedmoor is taking over gun sales. Another great cartridge to consider for kids is the 7mm-08. This is the gun my father chose for me when I started out. It was a Browning Micro Medallion with beautiful wood. Talk about a great whitetail rig.
When I asked my good friend Buddy Trammell what was the best caliber for a youth deer rifle, he told me the .44 Rem. Mag. was undoubtedly it. A caliber I wasn’t ever familiar with. The reality is that any of these cartridges and plenty of others, will do.
Choosing the style rifle for me was easy. I wanted a bolt action – there’s just something about the tradition of it. I also decided I wanted a small frame rifle because I wanted my kids to be able to handle and carry it with ease.
I also knew I wanted a synthetic stock. Kids drop things. They get them dirty. That Micro Medallion 7mm-08 with the really nice wood that my father entrusted me with? Yep, I scratched it one day when I brushed up against a barbed wire fence.
Now I needed to put it together. After reading every article I could find on youth rifles and asking all my SCI and hunting friends I needed to make a decision. My kids were ready and deer season was now open.
Thanks to some generous friends, we tried out several of the calibers above. The .243 came from Buddy Trammell. When I went to pick it up at his house, he said to me, “I’m telling you, you need to try this Ruger .44 Rem. Mag. It’s the perfect first deer rifle.”
It was a well-designed, not too big but not too small Ruger bolt-action rifle with a synthetic stock and stainless barrel – and I couldn’t help but notice the muzzle diameter, which was about the size of my little finger.
When he told me about the short fat cartridge, the low recoil and the limited range, I thought to myself, “Now this is interesting!” We left with both the .243 and the .44 Rem Mag.
Later at the range, we put the .243, the .44 Rem. Mag., an AR and a few other rifles on the Lead Sled (a great thing to have for kids).
I let Oliver and Lizzy shoot the different rifles at a paper target 85 yards away and asked them which they liked best. Both of them decidedly liked the .44 Rem Mag.
When we checked the target and I saw the size hole from the .44 Rem. Mag., I decided I liked it, too – here’s why: Kids (and adults if we’re honest) sometimes don’t make the best shots on deer because we’re excited, nervous, anxious or we just make a poor shot.
I believe if that happens, I’d rather a larger bullet than a smaller bullet hit the animal. I also think inexperienced shooters (like my kids) shouldn’t take long shots – say over 120 yards – when there are plenty of shots inside that range if you’ll just be patient. I liked the fact that the .44 Rem. Mag. has a limit on range, which I determined to be about 120 yards, based on the ballistics.
So, now it became apparent – the youth rifle for my kids was the Ruger 77/44 bolt action .44 Rem. Mag. All Weather rifle.
Now, any experienced hunter knows to explore ammo for a potential new gun and I was pleased to learn that since the .44 Rem Mag is also a popular handgun caliber there are lots of ammo options in a wide range of bullet weights which would allow me to control recoil.
Having decided on the Ruger, I called around to all the local gun shops. No one had it in stock but any of them could order it for me and have it in a week or less. So, I placed the order and then proceeded to doubt myself as I considered all the other options I could have chosen.
Within a few days all those doubts were gone when I took the new gun to the range and tried out some ammo in various loads. I settled on the Hornady Custom load with a 200 grain XTP bullet.
The gun shop helped me pick out a Leupold VX Freedom 3-9×40 scope. The Ruger 77/44 All Weather comes with stainless scope rings that match the stainless finish of the gun, so I used those – and saved the money of having to buy rings.
The only other thing I did to the rifle was put a Wrapid Comp neoprene comb wrap on the gun. This is a nifty thing to add to a gun for kids since kids may have smaller cheek bones and therefore have trouble making contact with the comb of the stock. Also, the Wrapid Comb is more comfortable up against their cheek than the stock. With our new rifle, Lizzy and Oliver were ready to hunt!
It was still early in the season when my friend and fellow SCI member Drew Mouron invited our family to come to his hunting camp in Greene County. My wife and I packed up all three kids, the camo and the new rifle and headed to the camp.
That afternoon the weather turned cool and Oliver and I headed to a food plot that we had scouted out earlier that day. This was the first hunt where he would be the hunter.
Right at sunset we had five does walk out into the food plot. As they fed, we picked out the largest one and got Oliver and the new Ruger in position. Oliver waited until he had a broadside shot and slowly squeezed the trigger just like he had practiced so many times before.
He made a great shot and the 200-grain bullet did its work. When we recovered the deer, Oliver said a prayer of thanksgiving that was as genuine a prayer as I’ve ever heard and one I hope I never forget.
A few weeks later another good friend of ours and SCI member Ron Morrison invited us to hunt his place in Perry County. So, my wife and I packed up the kids again and headed to the woods. When we got to the camp we scouted around and checked some different stands.
This would be Lizzy’s turn to hunt. My wife took Oliver and John Weston to one stand and I took Lizzy with me to another stand. We picked a field that had the right wind but no stand, so we set up a ground blind that I had brought along.
It was raining and Lizzy got a good laugh watching me try to unfold the blind in the rain. Eventually I got it figured out and set up. Lizzy helped me set up the chairs and the tripod. We had a Primos tripod with us – this is something I recommend as it really helps younger hunters hold the rifle in position.
Our hunt was slow, but eventually we saw two bucks at the far end of the field. They were skeptical of the new fixture in the back of the field and did not come in. The rain picked up and just as light was fading, we had another buck come into the field.
This was a 4-pointer and he came out at 75 yards. The buck was looking our way and I sensed he would run off if we moved or made a sound. Lizzy had to hold still while on the rifle, getting wet from the rain coming in the window.
But finally, when he turned from facing us to quartering to us, Lizzy made a great shot and dropped him where he stood. This was very rewarding end to a challenging hunt. I couldn’t have been prouder of her.
Always the one to think of others, Lizzy (who loves deer steaks) decided to donate her deer meat to the Hunters for the Hungry program – another thing that I was proud of her for.
Now that this season has ended, another round of youngsters will be coming up to hopefully take their first deer in this coming season. I hope that those kids and their parents have as much fun doing it as we did. As the Safari Club sticker says, “Hunt with your kids, not for them.”–Leslie Wood