By Robin Taylor

Passing on the shooting sports to the next generation can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your adult life. Every year, thousands of 4-H'ers and Boy Scouts pick up the shooting bug with the help of volunteer instructors, but the real "bearers of the flame" are regular shooters -- people like you and me. Deciding to teach your children to shoot should not be taken lightly. A few bad experiences at the start can retard their development as shooters for years. Even the relatively dinky .22 long rifle carries both a loud "report" and a potential for grievous injury should that gun get pointed the wrong way. I became a great fan of the .22 long rifle and even airguns after teaching the basics of shooting to hundreds of Boy Scouts and a panoply of Cub Scouts, high school and college students through the years.

Parts of an airgun Whether you start with the classic "Red Ryder" BB gun, or invest another $50 to buy a more precise shooter, the airgun allows you to do away with a lot of the impediments that make teaching young children difficult.

For example, using an airgun allows you to temporarily forget about using ear protection. Range space becomes decidedly easier to come by as well, since most garages and many backyards can be converted to airgun ranges with minimal effort. If you decide to get serious, the regulation competition distance for airguns is only 33 feet and 25 feet for 4-H BB guns.

If you don't have an airgun - buy one. You will need an eye protection, target, BBs, and the like. Make sure the gun is easy to operate and requires a minimum of fumbling with pellets. (Be sure to check on the legal status of airguns in Canada.)

The age when children can be taught to use guns responsibly varies widely with the maturity level of each child. In a one-on-one setting, 6-year-olds can often be taught to shoot air rifles without difficulty. On the other hand, some 10-year-olds, even with close supervision, may not have the maturity to be safe on the range. Cub Scouts start learning to shoot airguns at around age 7, and the Boy Scouts take up rimfire rifles for the first time at age 11. With one-on-one supervision, your child can start shooting many years in advance.

Obviously, teaching gun safety is going to be your number one priority. Set the ground rules, and be firm without becoming hostile when those rules are broken. And they will be.

Start teaching the fundamentals of gun safety at home. It is best to start doing some dry firing at home before you ever get to the range. Then seek out a range where you can shoot by yourselves, or at least with a minimum of other guns going off. Guns are scary, and the more you can do to keep that fear in perspective, the better.

Teaching the concept of proper sight picture is probably the most difficult. Use a pad and paper and draw pictures of what your child should see. Don't try to describe the sight picture. Draw it on paper and then explain it using the real thing. Actual shooting should come later.

Inexpensive air rifles are generally built with junior shooters in mind. They help accelerate the learning process. Set up an airgun range near your home and, after using it a few times yourself; bring your children along. Shoot for a minute or two, and then ask them if they'd like to shoot.

Once you graduate up to .22 rimfire, however, finding good-quality equipment and a place to shoot that fits your shooter can be a little tricky. You're bound to be forced into some compromises here, so plan on doing your shooting from the bench so your shooter doesn't have to struggle with the heavy weight of the rifle. You will have similar problems with pistols, so stay on the bench, and try to avoid using guns that have finger grooves in the grip or demand physical strength to operate. You're looking for a narrow, smooth grip that your shooter can control. The gun should provide general ease of operation.

Especially with pistols, red-dot sights go a long way in simplifying the teaching process. Asking your student to "put the dot on the target" beats telling him to "align the top of the front sight with the rear sight and keep equal amounts of light."

When GunGames (www.gungames.com) publisher Wally Arida started moving his son, Izak, who was then eight years old, from airguns to .22 pistols, he used a Browning Buckmark equipped with an Aimpoint red-dot scope. It's an extremely accurate combo that most children can use.

"That made things a whole lot easier," says Arida. "At that point we started going shooting at least twice a month."

Handguns are much more dangerous in young hands than are rifles solely because of their size. If your son or daughter gets hit by an ejecting cartridge and drops a rifle, it will most likely thump down on the bench and stop. Do the same scenario with a handgun, and it is likely to point uprange at least briefly before bouncing to a stop on the range floor nearby.

At age 9, Izak was allowed to start shooting his father's .22 conversion 1911 pistol. It was originally a single-stack Springfield Armory 1911 in .45 caliber, but Arida replaced its top-end with a Wilson Combat .22-caliber conversion kit. Arida also installed a C-More Serendipity sight. And to complete the set up, Arida took out his old Safariland competition rig from his cabinet. The Safariland 010 holster fit the gun but Arida had to cut his old belt shorter to fit his son. The rig allowed Izak to dry-fire at home after doing his homework. With this equipment, Izak learned the proper and safe way to draw from the holster. Under close supervision from his father, the young shooter learned to disengage the gun's safety only when his gun was pointed at the target. Constant training developed his muscle memory, eventually making it a natural reaction for him to draw his pistol with his trigger finger outside the trigger guard. He was told never put his finger on the trigger until he saw a red dot on his target. After Izak proved that he can already safely perform one-shot draws consistently, his father took him to the range for some live-fire shooting. He was allowed to execute draws from the holster.

Dry-firing and this sort of safe gun-handling practice at home make a big difference when you get to the range. Gun safety, sight picture and trigger control aren't easy concepts to convey amid a range filled with distractions and bad examples. Take the time to "program" your kid correctly before you get to the range.

You must train the child to always keep the muzzle pointed downrange. Stay close to your child at all times and be ready to push the muzzle back in the safe direction just in case he "forgets." Train the child to load the gun only when instructed by you to do so and to unload the gun, with the muzzle pointed downrange, when he has completed the shooting string you have asked him to do.

I suggest blending reactive targets and paper targets, putting the emphasis on reactive targets for the youngest shooters. My father had me shoot at pop cans, clay pigeons, spent shotgun shells, and wooden blocks as a boy. The wooden blocks in particular served as excellent reactive targets and an object lesson in the power of a .22 rimfire.

Later, my sister and I would shoot at rows of knockdown targets trying to see who could shoot the most targets. It's this kind of reactive, fun-filled experience you're looking for. Shooting at paper targets is fun for a while, but in the eyes of a 7-year-old, it gets pretty boring pretty fast. For young air rifle shooters, the pop cans in your recycle bin work very well, but make sure everyone wears eye protection.

If you have access to steel targets, by all means use them when you transition to .22-calibers. The metallic "ding" of a bullet hitting the target gives immediate feedback - and satisfaction - and you don't have to constantly go downrange to tape the targets. As your student becomes more skilled, start using a timer or shooting against him using the same pistol. You need to take special care to emphasize gun safety at this point, but racing against the clock can make the whole experience a lot more fun.

"Kids get bored punching holes on paper," Arida pointed out. "But the sharp "ding" of the .22 round hitting the steel plate gives them instant gratification. Look for the big grin on their faces every time they hear those plates produce that sound."

An EOHC junior member at the 2000 IPSC Ontario Championships If you're a regular GunGames reader, you probably favor a certain type of shooting competition. Take your pupil along with you as a spectator or helper when you attend a shooting tournament, even if you are not an actual competitor. Point out the best and safest shooters. Explain what type of equipment the shooters use and why they shoot the way they do. Share with your child all the joys of your sport. Take time to talk with your child at the match and prepare to answer a lot of questions. The next time you go to the range together, you will both have plenty to talk about, and motivation to learn more. As your student's skills increase, have him shoot with you at a match.

Jojo Vidanes, a USPSA Grandmaster who runs the Norco Running Gun Club in Southern California, occasionally has kids joining his matches with their parents. They come with .22-caliber pistols. The Range Officers keep score, listening for hits on steel, and the junior shooters' scores are posted as though they had done the match with centerfire guns.

Izak shot his first IPSC match using his .22 conversion 1911 pistol. He drew the gun from its holster and ran the course just like any regular shooter. Now 10 years old, he has since become an active D-class USPSA competitor who shoots IPSC matches every weekend. The young shooter has since progressed to a lightweight 38-Super steel gun built by Aaron Harris of Smoking Hole Pistol Design using Chip McCormick 1911 parts. To keep the gun's weight down for the 80-pound junior shooter, a Schuemann Hybricomp barrel and a C-More Serendipity sight were installed on the gun. "Minor steel loads are perfect for young children's growing bodies," Arida says. "There's no need to subject them unnecessarily to violent recoil. Lighter loads make the learning process more fun and the shooting experience more pleasant."

Martin runs through an IPSC stage on his 13th birtday in June of 2003. Yes, we had a birthday cake on the range! More often, young shooters can participate in the "fun shoot" that so often parallels large matches. Go into teaching your child to shoot with an eye toward safety and long-term involvement. The benefits you will reap can be immense. Some of the fondest memories I have surround shooting at those wooden blocks with my father. As a tool for teaching self-discipline, respect and safety, shooting has a special place. Take the time to teach your child why and how you shoot, and you will gain a shooting partner for life. Remember that it's people like you that are the bearers of the flame.

At some point your student will point his gun in the wrong direction. The traditional response, emphasized by many firearm instructors, is to snap at the shooter and forcibly point the offender back in the correct direction if necessary. Many big-name U.S. instructors espouse this approach, banning students from the range, forcibly disarming or redirecting them, and otherwise creating an emotionally scarring "incident" as early as the first offense. Even with adults, this is a good way to get shot. Think about what happens to you when you are surprised by a loud shout. Your hands clench, you duck slightly, and your body goes into "fight or flight" mode. Having your student's hands clench is the last thing you want to see, to say nothing of having them instinctively try to hold on to something you are taking away. Combine yelling, confusion, and forcibly pointing the student downrange, and you have a recipe for disaster.

If one of your students points a gun in an unsafe direction, correct him in a mellow tone, then force him to sit out for a few minutes. Add a short lecture on gun safety, and you have a very effective means of discipline, without the risk and emotional trauma.

The USPSA Range Officers' Institute teaches a similarly sedate approach. If the student is out of immediate control when he points a gun uprange, the Range Officers yell "muzzle" and direct the shooter back downrange without touching him if the first warning didn't work. They get the situation calmed down, then disqualify or otherwise discipline the shooter.

This page last modified on June 7, 2003.