Growing up there was no such thing as a kid’s deer rifle for me. Kids who wanted to hunt were typically handed their granddad’s or father’s old .30-30 lever gun. Not because it was made to fit a kid, but because that was the de facto starter rifle of the times. I’m not so sure much has really changed in the eyes of many hunters. Visit your local Walmart or gun shop a few weeks before season and I’ll bet you a venison steak there’ll be a father there buying a Marlin lever action for his son.
While the general opinion of hunters might not have changed on what makes a kid’s deer rifle, the manufacturers sure have altered their take on the concept. Every year now, another manufacturer is offering a new rifle tailored to fit small-stature shooters. A lot of advancements in firearms design get notice, but in my opinion, few are as important to the shooting sports and hunting as rifles which actually fit and function for young men and women.
This should be obvious. Without the next generation being involved in shooting and hunting, our traditions and privileges will be lost. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited every time a state offers up a new hunting season or when a manufacturer brings out some new and exotic big-game rifle. But make no mistake — if the youth of today do not take up rifles for hunting and fun, the sport is doomed.
For young men and women to be successful and enjoy shooting and hunting, it is imperative their tools be comfortable for them to use. You would not ask your child to play a basketball game with shoes two sizes too large, and the same logic applies to the rifle they’ll use for deer hunting. Before you can help them select a deer rifle, you need to understand what constitutes a good rifle for a kid. I have a house full of young’uns and over the years have learned a thing or two about kids and rifles.
My son, Bat, who is now 12, started deer hunting when he was 6 years old. At the time I had a good friend who built custom rifles — Charlie Sisk from Sisk Rifles had recently built a compact little rifle with a 10-inch length of pull that weighed only 5 ½ pounds. It was chambered for the .25-35 Winchester, a light-recoiling cartridge many consider less than adequate for whitetails.
My boy did not have the strength to shoot the rifle unsupported, but from shooting sticks or a rest, but he could shoot softball size groups out to about 50 yards. And even though he could not hold the rifle up to shoot, he was strong enough to manipulate the rifle and get it on target by himself. Just after daylight on his first hunt, we ambushed a young buck heading to his bed. Bat rested the little custom bolt-action over the rail on the tree stand and put a bullet through the buck’s heart.
Granted, not everyone can afford a custom rifle for a kid — although I think it is a much better investment than buying a custom rifle for yourself. It’ll give your son or daughter the best opportunity for success, and there are several makers like Charlie Sisk who can put together a very light and compact rifle. At 12, Bat is now about 5 1/2 feet tall. He still does not have a great deal of arm strength, but he can easily handle the 4 ¾-pound .30 Remington AR bolt-action rifle built by New Ultra Light Arms. He proved it by taking two deer, both at about 70 yards and both shots were from the standing, off-hand position.
We had to return the custom rifle to Charlie Sisk after that first season, so the next year, when he was 7, Bat hunted with an AR-15 with a collapsible stock. Total gun weight, with the red dot sight, was about 6 ½ pounds. That’s still a bit heavy for a 7-year-old, but with the adjustable length of pull, Bat could still manage the rifle well from a rest. A group of whitetails meandered out into the field just before dark. We picked out a young doe and Bat put her down with one well-placed shot.
With regard to the .223 Remington for whitetails — the cartridge most ARs are chambered for — some think it’s not enough gun and others claim it’s illegal in most states. Neither assertion is true. When loaded with ammo like Remington’s new Core-Lokt Ultra or the Federal Fusion, this is all the deer rifle you need out to about 150 yards. And, by my last count, the .223 Remington is legal for deer hunting in 38 of the 50 states.
If you cannot swing the cash for a custom rifle, or if ARs are not your thing, there are other options. Last year Browning started offering the X-Bolt Micro Midas, a 6-pound bolt-action rifle with a 12 ½-inch length of pull. It will fit small-stature shooters and it comes with a good trigger, and the one Bat and I tested shot very, very well.
Remington has two short and light “Compact” model 700s that are good options, too. There’s the Model 700 SPS Buckmasters’ Edition “Young Bucks” Compact, which has a camouflaged stock, and the standard Compact, which has a black synthetic stock. Both are built on the legendary Model 700 action, which has been taking deer for 50 years. When the kids grow up, a new, longer stock is all they’ll need for this rifle to last their lifetime.
Marlin has a similarly sized bolt-action, the model X7Y. It has a short stock and weighs just 6½ pounds. Like the X-Bolt Micro Midas and the Compact Remington 700, it’s chambered for a variety of short-action cartridges like the .243 Win., .7mm-08 Rem. and the .308 Win., all of which are excellent for whitetails and generate only moderate recoil.
If you still like the idea of starting a kid out with America’s most iconic hunting rifle — the lever action — Marlin’s new 336Y is a youth-sized .30-30 Winchester lever gun built on Marlin’s time-honored model 336 action. It has a short barrel and a shorter length of pull, and it weighs in at about 6 pounds. Honestly, for adults that hunt in dense cover and like a fast-handling rifle, you might catch yourself lusting after your kid’s Marlin 336Y.
Another consideration when it comes to youth rifles is the sights. Having spent the last dozen years teaching kids to shoot, I’ve learned a thing or two. For starters, the hardest sight to teach a kid to use is open sights. However, the new fiber-optic sights with different colors on the front and rear sight make this much easier. Kids understand when you tell them, “Put the green dot between the two red dots.”
With optical sights, red-dot sights or any sight that has minimal magnification and can be mounted way forward of the eye are easiest for kids to learn. By placing the sight and the target on the same focal plane, these sights allow kids to find the target faster and leave both eyes open, and they won’t have to deal with the wobble exaggeration that is visible with too much magnification. My son Bat has taken a number of deer and wild hogs and has never shot an animal using a scope with more than 4X magnification.
You wouldn’t buy a deer rifle that was so heavy you could not hold it up and shoot it offhand, nor would you buy one that kicked like a mule. When you are shopping for a deer rifle for a kid, do the smart thing and take the kid with you. Let them try the rifle on for size and let them try to operate the action. And, if at all possible, let them shoot the rifle before you slide that credit card.
It’s your job to teach your kids how to shoot, how to read sign, how to move when in the woods, and how to hunt. You should make sure they have warm clothes and boots that will keep their feet dry. And, just as importantly, you need to make sure they have a rifle that fits them and that they can shoot comfortably. Don’t expect them to do their job in the woods if you do not do yours beforehand.
For More Information
Browning, www.browning.com, (800) 322-4626
Marlin Firearms, www.marlinfirearms.com, (800) 544-8892
New Ultra Light Arms, www.newultralight.com, (304) 292-0600
Remington, www.remington.com, (800) 243-9700
Sisk Rifles, www.siskguns.com, (936) 258-4984