by Dana Farrell | Images by Jim Kralik
As parents, most of us are aware of how impressionable kids are. According to a noted inspirational speaker, Dr. Asa Don Brown, “Children are sponges, soaking up every verbal and nonverbal interaction.” As responsible stewards, we should use the youth’s propensity for learning as an opportunity to teach by example. Sharing the principles of good sportsmanship, the love of our sport and safe firearm handling will instill a solid foundation for an upcoming outdoor enthusiast.
Before a youngster is permitted to carry a loaded firearm in the field, he/she should spend time under the mentorship of an adult who’s well versed in safe gun handling. Nothing goes further towards impressing safe habits than time spent handling and shooting a firearm while under the guidance of an adult who demonstrates and oversees good, safe gun-handling practices.
Adults themselves sometimes become lax about the basic tenets of gun safety and would be smart to do a quick mental review before taking a youngster under their wing.
The Hunter Safety programs offered in partnership with many state Department of Natural Resources and Fish & Game departments are excellent primers. I attended Hunters Safety with my three sons. The classes were broken into two-day curriculums, and when my boys walked away after day two, I was confident the over-arching message was crystal clear – gun safety is of the utmost importance!
A child should be taught basic safety rules – some might call them the Golden Rules. There are more, but the most important are listed below.
- Always treat a gun as if it’s loaded.
- Always point the gun in a safe direction.
- Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.
Using a rimfire rifle at a static (non-moving) target is an excellent way to introduce a youngster to guns. Set up the firearm on a solid shooting rest, with a bullseye target placed eight or 10 yards away, in front of a safe backstop. The bench provides a place for ammunition, laying the rifle down and, more importantly, this scenario is a controlled environment that lends itself to relaxed learning. The gun can be placed on the bench, muzzle downrange while going over safety rules and resting tired muscles.
Patience is key. Take frequent breaks and ask the child if there are questions. Put yourself in the child’s position and take nothing for granted. Remember, you are starting with a blank slate here. Don’t take shortcuts. Go over the rules – don’t just recite them, but explain the possible consequences of ignoring them. This paints a visual picture in the child’s mind and helps cement the given principles.
Once a child is proficient enough to display safe and responsible gun habits at a bench, and if they are big enough, it’s time to introduce them to the world of shotguns. I like to say kids are like dogs — each one is different, but I personally feel that 12 years is a good age to teach them about shotguns. At age 12, they are usually strong enough to point a shotgun and tough enough to tolerate some recoil. Wingshooting is a dynamic pastime that involves swinging a loaded gun and making split-second decisions regarding the target and, more importantly — whether it’s a safe target to attempt. This adds another level of criticality when it comes to gun safety.
First off, it’s essential to use a combination of gun and ammunition that doesn’t recoil excessively. Stated in its most basic form, felt recoil is the product of gun weight and payload speed/weight. A heavier gun provides some relief from recoil, and a slow, small load is softer shooting. Gas operated semi-autos utilize the gas produced from the shell to cycle the gun action, bleeding off some of the recoil. A 20-gauge, gas-operated semi-automatic with a short stock is an excellent choice for a youth gun. A typical 20-gauge shell carries a relatively soft shooting ⅞ ounce payload, and the gas-operated action will help mitigate recoil. Search out a slow-shooting shell. Some ammo manufacturers even produce lines of ammo that are marketed as low-recoil. Slower shells kick less. It may take some testing to find a slower shell that’s still strong enough to work the action of a gas-operated auto.
Kids should spend a lot of supervised time on a trap range to develop the motor skills needed to move the gun, so it becomes second nature. Only then can we expect them to also show the ability to judge other situational variables, such as assessing the safety of a hunting field condition. Remember, there will be a ton of stimuli assaulting the young brain when the excitement of a hunting situation is encountered in the field.
Stand behind them on the trap line and stress pointing the gun in a safe direction. It’s best to do this when the two of you are the only shooters on the field instead of dealing with the distraction of others. Teach them to swing through a clay target and trigger the shot when the correct forward allowance is perceived. Take frequent breaks, so that muscle fatigue is lessened. Make it fun.
Once the child is confident on the trap field, take them to the sporting clays range. Sporting clays teach various practical target pictures and puts the shooter in the situation where they’re handling an unloaded gun much of the time. A shooter must never load the firearm on the clays range until in the shooting stand, and the gun must always be empty, with action open before turning around to face the fellow shooters. The situation lends itself to impressing good muzzle discipline. The mentor can closely monitor and remind the youth of good habits while walking between stations and waiting their turn to shoot. Since only one person is in the shooting position on the sporting clays station at any given time, the youngster will be in an excellent place to observe more experienced shooters display safe gun handling practices. Because of the walking and ever-changing backdrop of the different sporting clays shooting stations, it’s a good stepping stone to the hunting field.
Review the day’s events when driving home from the range. Discuss the successes, the questions and, most importantly, lend an ear to the child as he/she navigates the new experience. Plan ahead to your next day at the range. Shoot often. Connect with your child and let them know that safe gun handling can open a whole new world of fun and opportunity for them. Once they show the maturity and confidence needed to try bird hunting, take the experience to the next level. Depending upon their gun-handling skills, you may want to take them afield with an unloaded gun to practice muzzle awareness. Walk behind them, giving gentle reminders of the rules, until both of you are confident the valuable lessons learned on the clays range have been committed to memory. Youth hold the future of our beloved sport in their hands. Introduce them to safe shooting and take them hunting often. Use this opportunity to talk about hunting ethics and thoughtful-minded conservation practices. Have fun and be safe!