It's amazing how time flies when you're raising kids. I can't believe that it's been a whole year since my oldest son went shooting for the very first time. Every year, my extended family has a get together in the fall that we've affectionately dubbed "The Turkey Shoot" since it takes place close to Thanksgiving. We meet at a mountainside property where we spend the morning outside enjoying the crisp air, casually plinking away at ground targets and hand-throwing clays for those who brought shotguns. When the shooting is over, we head over to a relative's house for a delicious meal that we all cook together. It is, quite simply, one of the best days of the year.
As this year's Turkey Shoot approached, I thought about how lucky I feel to have been born into a time, place and family in which the shooting sports were a part of our recreational activities. My siblings and I were taught from a young age to respect firearms, to use them ethically and to handle them safely. My wife grew up with the same values. So when our children began to arrive, we had a good idea of how we wanted to introduce them to the shooting sports.
But not everyone who now enjoys recreational target practice grew up this way. Many of today's gun owners entered the sport as adults, so it may not be clear how to go about working with kids who are new to shooting. Here are a few of the practices that we've found to be useful:
1. Make Sure They're Ready and Willing
Each family has its own traditions and standards for determining when a child is ready to fire a gun. My wife and I have opted to postpone the first trip to the range until our kids can demonstrate a clear understanding of safety instructions and a level of maturity that shows they will be able to stay on task for the length of the event.
But being mentally prepared is not the same as having a desire to go. Walking through the rules provides an opportunity to gauge a child's level of enthusiasm. In our son's case, he was very excited to finally be invited to join his grandpa, aunts, uncles and cousins for the day. But if he had been reluctant or uncomfortable about going, we would have done our best to resolve his concerns. If he still didn't want to go, we would have continued to postpone the first outing until he was ready.
2. Walk Them Through It
Just like any other social venue, there is a unique set of expectations in regard to what is, or is not, considered polite behavior at the shooting range. The easiest way to help a brand new shooter to understand range etiquette is to walk them through a typical range trip ahead of time so they will know where to stand and what to do. It's especially important to clarify the lingo and range commands they are not familiar with, such as the difference between a "hot" range and a "cold" range.
3. One-On-One Adult Supervision
My family likes to have fun on range days while maintaining a high level of safety. When my son shot for the first time, he was not allowed to touch any guns or live ammunition without an adult working with him one-on-one. The process was made even simpler with the use of a single-shot, bolt-action Henry Mini-Bolt youth rifle. The designated grown-up picked up the Henry and pocketed the .22 cartridges, walked our boy up to the clearly demarcated firing line, helped him to shoulder the rifle as it was pointed safely down range, and then handed him one round at a time to shoot. When he wanted a break, the adult assisting him took the rifle out of his hands and walked him back off of the firing line. When our son wanted to try someone else's gun, the owner used the same procedure.
4. Take It Easy
A first-time shooter, no matter his or her age, is far more likely to enjoy shooting and want to go again when he or she experiences a tangible level of success in a short period of time. In other words, if they can produce solid target strikes within the first 10 to 15 minutes, they'll want to keep pumping the bang switch. Start off with big easy-to-see targets at close range. A great way to increase a new shooter's satisfaction, and reduce the amount of time spent walking down range, is to use targets that swing or bounce when hit. Birchwood Casey, Champion and Do-All Outdoors are just a few of the companies that offer affordable, reusable reactive targets.
5. Pay Attention to Their Energy Levels
It's not uncommon for older shooters to keep shooting after a child's interest or energy level has begun to wane. We may have the will power to push through our fatigue, knowing that a nice hot lunch is just an hour away but our little people usually don't have the stamina. In order to help keep the kid's energy up for extended outdoor shooting sessions, be sure to pack snacks and water for them and find a place for them to sit down when they need a rest.
6. Involve a Mentor or Two
One of the best reasons to shoot together as a family is to learn from each other. My brothers and I have taken turns serving as the "wiser-than-Dad" uncle at the shooting range for each other's kids. We each have different shooting experiences and techniques, so together we have much more to offer first-time shooters than any one of us on our own. Just like peanut butter sandwiches taste better when Mom makes them, constructive corrections seem go down more smoothly when they are delivered by a kindly relative or family friend instead of a parent.