November 23, 2022
A kid’s first deer rifle should be a significant thing. It’s an event. It’s a much-anticipated initiation. It can nurture and shape a passion. If chosen tastefully and set up properly, it will be an heirloom. A first big-game rifle should be comfortable and capable, too.
When it comes time to pick your young’un a shiny new hunting rifle, several considerations should come into play: Quality, fit, cartridge and optics. It’s important to recognize that if your child is starting very young, it’s best to wait until they’ve grown a bit to give them their own gun, so it will fit them for the long haul. Meanwhile, temporarily set them up with a suitable hunting tool of the right size and with the right features.
Let’s unpack each characteristic, starting with fit.
Many new hunters struggle to shoot effectively because the hunting rifle they’ve been loaned or given doesn’t fit them. Stocks are often too long, rifles are too heavy and most common of all, eye relief with the scope is too long. Also, if a trigger is hard to reach and the bolt so far out it’s hard to lift and cycle, it’s frustrating to a kid. If the rifle is so heavy a beginner must heave it to his or her shoulder, it’s daunting. And if all they can see through the scope is a hazy tunnel, finding the target is a near-impossible task.
As a side note, if your child is left-handed and/or powerfully left-eye dominant, start them with a left-handed rifle. Such rifles are hard to find, but later in life, your kid will thank you. Compact youth rifles make great family guns that can be passed down to little brothers and sisters as they come of age. Several companies make them, including Browning, Ruger, Winchester and others.
I’ve started most of my kids with the same Browning X-Bolt Micro Composite. It weighs 6.3 pounds, has a 20-inch barrel, and is just 38.5 inches long. Length of pull is 13 inches, and can be managed by most kids. It’s not a budget rifle on purpose: instilling an appreciation for nice hunting tools in my kids is important to me. When a kid outgrows a youth model, it’s time to get them their own hunting rifle. Something that will last their lifetime—which brings us to quality.
In my early teens, I requested and received a certain side-by-side 12-gauge shotgun for Christmas. It was cheaply built. I still have that gun, and always will because it was my first shotgun, but I don’t cherish or respect it. Later in life, I realized that a kid’s first .22, first shotgun and first big-game rifle should always be of high quality. Good guns will provide a lifetime of use and pleasure and become heirlooms.
If you, the mentor, are a serious hunter, and if your son or daughter has the fire in the belly for hunting, buy or help them buy a quality rifle. If they’re just dabbling, and you’re not sure whether a passion for hunting will take root, they’re not ready for their own rifle yet.
A CHOICE CARTRIDGE
Young or new adult hunters should start with mild but capable hunting rounds. It takes years of practice to master the discipline and technique necessary to shoot heavy-recoiling cartridges. That doesn’t mean kids should shoot cartridges that are underpowered for the task. It’s easy to inadvertently set a kid up for failure in an effort to give them a pleasant shooting experience with a mild cartridge.
A close friend recently relayed a conversation he had with a Texas blood-tracking-dog owner. The handler gets called out on hundreds of deer every fall, and his dogs track down otherwise-unfindable wounded bucks. He’s a student of cartridge performance because he keeps track of what hunters use. He stated that historically, most “lost” deer were shot with .243s. The past several years, it’s been 6.5 Creedmoor by an exceptionally large margin.
Does that mean the 6.5 Creedmoor is an incapable killer? Not at all. Rather, it indicates that beginning hunters and recoil-sensitive shooters are choosing it. Those deer are being poorly hit because of inexperience or flinching. A light-recoiling cartridge does not always result in good shot placement. Don’t go overboard with your young or new hunter, but get them a cartridge with a bit of wallop. A deer hit through the edge of the vitals with an authoritative cartridge won’t go as far as when hit with a mild cartridge.
Let’s talk specifics: Although thousands of deer are taken every year with .22 centerfires, in my opinion, big-game cartridges start with the .243 Win. and 6mm Creedmoor, and even those can be marginal. Better are the .25-06 Rem., 6.5 Creedmoor and other cartridges in their class. If elk are on the menu, a step up into .270 or 7mm-caliber rounds is worthwhile. Traditional easy-shooting options are the .270 Win. and 7mm-08 Rem. Top-notch choices that make the most of modern advancements in aerodynamic bullets are the 6.8 Western (also a .270 caliber) and .280 Ackley Improved. Both perform like a 7mm Rem. Mag., but recoil less than a .30-06.
SETTING IT ALL UP
A quality rifle deserves a quality scope. An old adage is to spend as much on your optic as you do on your rifle. I don’t think that’s as applicable now as it once was, because good rifles can cost upwards of $1,000, yet a great scope can be had for around $500. My top pick for a combination of optical quality, cutting-edge features and versatile capability is Leupold’s VX-3HD in 3.5-10x40 with CDS-ZL dial-up turrets.
Whatever scope you select, mount it in quality rings, on sturdy bases. For an unbeatable combination of strength, manufacturing quality, and affordability, pick Talley Lightweight Alloy one-piece scope mount/rings, which generally sell for under $50. That’s less than you’ll spend buying most cheap bases and rings separately, yet Talley provides mountaineering-level quality.
For a sling, pick something practical. The Cobra-type padded slings so popular 30 years ago don’t qualify. They’re bulky, inflexible and awkward in field positions. Simple nylon webbing straps—with a rubbery non-slip inner surface that helps keep the sling in place on your shoulder—are comfortable, light and practical. Blackhawk (known for quality tactical gear) makes one called the Mountain Sling that’s just about perfect, and costs 22 bucks.
Aside from a scope and sling, avoid tricking out a hunting rifle for a beginner. Too much stuff just adds complication. Strap-on cheek rests, ammo sleeves and bolt-on bipods just add weight and bulk.
Keep a beginning hunters’ rifle light, well balanced and comfortable to set them up for success and a lifetime of practical, effective use.