Growing up there was no such thing as deer rifles for kids. Young people 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.
From a hunter’s point of view, I’m not so sure much has really changed. 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, the manufacturers sure have altered their take on the concept of a kid’s deer rifle. 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 few are as important to shooting sports and hunting as a rifle’s actual fit and function for young men and women.
This should be obvious. For young men and women to be successful and enjoy shooting and hunting, it is imperative their tools be comfortable to use. You would not ask your child to play a basketball game with shoes two sizes too large. 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 kids and have learned a thing or two about kids and rifles.
Custom Deer Rifles and Youth-Specific Models
My son Bat 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, 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 of the treestand 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) but it’ll give your son or daughter the best opportunity for success.
We had to return the custom rifle to Charlie Sisk after that first season, so the next year, when he was seven, 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 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 many or most of the 50 states.
At age 12, Bat was about 5 1/2 feet tall. He still did not have a great deal of arm strength, but he could 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.
Today many manufacturers make youth-specific rifles, so you’re sure to find something off the shelf that fits your kid relatively well. Some factory options even grow with the child by using interchangeable or adjustable stocks, such as the Mossberg Flex system or Savage’s new Accufit System.
What Sights Work Best?
When it comes to youth rifles, another consideration is the sights. Having spent the last dozen years teaching kids to shoot, I’ve learned that the hardest sight to teach a kid to use is open sights. However, the 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. This way, young deer hunters 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.
Applying Common Sense
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, make sure they have a rifle that fits them and shoots comfortably.
Don’t expect them to do their job in the woods if you don’t do yours.
Featured photo: A young Sebastian (Bat) Mann with his deer rifle. (Richard Mann)