My 8yo son is now permitted to join me at the range and shooting/guns is consuming his all of his attention. I’m taking that to believe that he had a great experience and I would like share some thoughts on how to safely and enjoyably introduce a child to shooting.
Introducing a child to gun safety
As a parent that is involved in the shooting sports and industry, guns are part of life around my house.
I try to abide by all gun safety practices and any gun that is not in my control is locked in a safe (In fact, I bought a friend with kids a safe for his gun since my kids are there so much). But I am a human and I can make mistakes and I know that I can’t kid proof the world, so I started by gun proofing my children.
For me, the 1st step was removing the mystery about guns. Both of my kids know that I will stop what I am doing and show them any of the guns at any time, they asked a lot initially, but now it might be every 6 months and it is always to see a specific gun because they have a question about its operation.
When a gun comes out we go through the same procedure.
- I remove any magazine and insure the gun is clear.
- I show them that the magazine is removed by looking at the gun.
- I have them visually and physically inspect the chamber.
- I ask if they want the slide open or closed.
- Then and only then do I hand them the gun… pointed in a safe direction and I tell them what to aim at.
We have a rule that only I am allowed to hand them a gun… not my wife, their grandfather, their aunt or uncle, not friends that have been firearms trainers or anyone else. They also get regularly quizzed on what to do if they find a gun or a friend brings one out.
We have toy guns and we are not a family where kids are forbidden from shooting each other with Nerf Guns… but they are required to use proper gun handling technique including:
- Finger off the trigger until they are ready to fire.
- Don’t point it at anything they don’t intend to shoot.
- Pistol sights aren’t brought up to your eye.
- Finger guns don’t recoil.
- Don’t crowd cover.
There is a chance that you are not saying… “Those are the 4 rules of gun safety!”
This is where parenting comes into play and you need to know YOUR children.
My son has a near photographic memory and doesn’t yet understand nuisance. Everything for him is literal.
The phrase “All guns are always loaded” wouldn’t make sense to him. After all he knows how to clear a gun. Additionally he would struggle seeing me dry-fire with those rules.
My daughter would be fine with the ambiguity but she is dyslexic and for her practice TRULY makes permanent. If I were to let her use bad form with the Nerf gun she would take a slide to the eye on her 1st range trip.
(and not crowding cover is just tactically sound)
If by chance you want to read more on my thoughts about the 4 rules check out this post… Jeff Coopers 4 Rules of Gun Safety if you think I am dead wrong, read the comments Michael Bane did too.
Selecting a gun for a child’s first range trip
I think the perfect gun for a child’s 1st shooting experience is a bolt-action rim-fire rifle.
Bolt-actions force the child to slow down, think about what they are doing and allow them to be more involved with the process. They can also be easily loaded one round at a time, minimizing the issues if the child looses focus.
Rim-fire ammunition is traditionally cheaper to shoot, allowing higher volume shooting, and more importantly doesn’t recoil enough to create a flinch or cause discomfort.
Rifles are easier to shoot, contributing to more immediate success. They are more naturally kept pointed down range, when being shot off a rest, and can be more easily controlled by the adult if the kid picks it up.
Scope, Red Dot or Open Sights
There is a theory that new shooters should always learn on an open sighted gun.
I don’t agree with it.
I believe that shooters should learn how to safely manipulate the gun 1st and that they should use whatever gives them the best indication of where the bullet is going to go. So I vote some sort of optic.
Red Dots are great for shooting quickly… and can be used to shoot accurately.
Magnified scopes are designed for shooting accurately… and… um… yeah… that’s what they are for.
A magnified optic shows the shooter all of the movement they are making and automatically gets them to slow down, calm down, steady themselves and attempt to make a good shot. Combine that with a bolt action gun and you can start to develop a thoughtful shooter that will begin working on mechanics rather than bad habits.
Aiden uses a gun that his grandfather had built for him. It is a Cooper Firearms Jackson Squirrel Rifle in 17 Mach II, with a Leupold VX-II 2-7x re-paralaxed for 50 yards. Yes it is nicer than any rifle I own.
Unfortunately for my him, he can’t get the right eye relief on his rifle to eliminate the scope shadow at full power, however at 4x he can get a clear image.
Before you get to the range
A kids 1st range trip is a very exciting time, but it can create a lot of nervousness for them.
They don’t know what to expect (even if they have accompanied you, it is different as a shooter) They don’t know if they are going to be able to do it. And they are going to want to perform well to please you.
You can help elevate many of these concerns before you get to the range.
Introducing the child to the firearm
As I mentioned my son uses his gun and this creates a sense of ownership that wouldn’t be there if he was shooting Dad’s gun. He wants to know everything about it, but long before he was allowed to shoot, he was introduced to the controls (safety, bolt, trigger) so he knew what he would be using.
I also made sure he understood the differences in the .17 Mach II ammunition he would shoot and the loud 5.56 an .308 he had heard other shoot.
Because of this introduction, using the gun didn’t scare him.
Setting expectations for the 1st range trip
We rehearse everything.
Once our children turned 4 we started making them order their own food in restaurants. We rehearse what they are going to say, making eye contact, speaking up et cetera. Going to the range for the 1st time was no different.
During the 45 minute drive we talked about the process we were going to use to unload the car, where he was to sit as we were getting ready, when he should speak with other shooters, how far away the targets would be, we reviewed the loading procedures, safety rules regarding the trigger, what “success” meant for the day (no extra holes in anything and he had fun) and most importantly that he was in control. We would progress at his pace and we would leave when he wanted to leave or we were out of ammo.
Picking a target for the child first range trip
Sometimes we don’t have a choice and it has to be paper, but that is my last resort.
Paper is too critical. It provides a specific aiming point and shows exactly where the bullets went. Shooters can be frustrated if they are hitting precisely where they are aiming and if your shooting a small round even a 0.5″ group can look bad.
I like starting new shooters on steel.
The audible “PING” lets them know they made a good hit and the size of the bullet splatter makes it easy to get a “one hole group.”
The second concern is placing it close enough that they will have immediate success without being too patronizing.
I started Aiden out at 50yds because 1) He was shooting at a 18×24 piece of steel 2) he was using a magnified optic sighted in for that distance and 3) he was shooting from off a bag for stability. I would have likely halved that distance if he was shooting at a 8″ Shoot NC.
At the Range
When you get to the range you need to understand that the child is likely going to be excited and nervous. There are 3 things you need to do immediately…
- Be aware that their actions and that their excitement doesn’t get the better of them and cause them to be unsafe.
- Be aware that they won’t be used to ear protection and that you will need to have eye contact to ensure they hear you.
- Consistently refer back to expectations you set with them to remind them that they know what is going to happen.
The 1st Shots
A child’s 1st shot is something they might forget, but you will always remember and sets them up for a lifetime of shooting. As exciting as it is, it is also important that you are responsible for the safety because it is the least experienced they will ever be.
Getting the child set up to shoot
Remembering eyes and ears that fit the child should be basic, but it is important enough to mention. It is also not the only concern.
As I mentioned before I like using a rifle because it is easier for the adult to control the muzzle. I find that orienting the gun towards the target rested on the shooting bag is almost always enough because I ask them to shoulder the gun without picking it up. BUT you can place a school chair (which seem to be at every range) on the shooting table to keep the child from swinging the barrel if you believe there is an issue.
Next make sure the child can get into a good shooting position. This is safer, but it is also an important part of it being an enjoyable experience. If they are strong enough to shoulder the gun without leaning back, have them use a rest.
Loading the gun
Some people like to get the gun set up for the shooter so all they have to do is disengage the safety and pull the trigger. I like to have the child more engaged.
With my son I showed him how to load the magazine and then had him load 1 round. Then I walked him through the process of inserting the magazine. Mounting the rifle. Operating the bolt. Aligning the sights. Removing the safety. Placing his finger on the trigger. And taking the shot.
Then I picked up the focused camera standing by and took his picture.
We then repeated this process 4 more times, loading 1 round at a time.
Then he did it solo 5 times, 1 round at a time while I watched.
Since he was doing really well, I then allowed him to load the mag completely.
We had a very successful 1st trip. No extra holes and he had fun.
After the trip
On the 45 minute drive home we debriefed.
I told him how proud I was of him and that he did a great job.
Then I asked him…
- What did you enjoy most?
- What was the most difficult?
- Is there anything you didn’t expect?
- What do you want to do next time?
Then I began setting the expectations for the second trip.
- I wanted him to work on his off-hand position.
- I wanted him to focus on his group size and pick a spot on the target.
- I wanted him to think about how he was operating the bolt.
This is a video from trip 2… I think we are getting there
Is there anything that I missed that you do when taking a kid shooting the 1st time? Do you have a different perspective on gun choice? Or do you have a story about your kids 1st trip you want to share? If so leave a comment below.