How-To

How to Choose a First Rifle for a Young Shooter

Teenage girl looking through the scope of a rifle while shooting from a bench rest

You’ve finally reached that point in your child’s life. They have proven they can safely handle and shoot a firearm. They have been deemed old enough and responsible enough to obtain their first hunting rifle. Now is when many of the questions begin. What caliber? What brand? Should I buy a full-sized rifle or a youth-sized one, because my child is almost 5 feet tall?

You may find yourself tempted to purchase a “lifetime” rifle they can grow into. Perhaps something along the lines of a .308 or .30-06 caliber rifle that can take a wide variety of game animals. A popular caliber with numerous ammunition choices that are competitively priced. Resist this temptation. Like shoes, rifles are not a “one size fits all” option.

overhead view of a teenage girl shooting a rifle from sandbags on a bench
Being able to ensure proper eye relief for a scope is one of the advantages of a properly fit youth rifle.

The good news? Regardless of which youth rifle you buy, guns — especially youth guns — tend to hold their value over time. When you’re done with it, there will be no issue passing it on to someone else. 


Buying Your Child’s First Hunting Rifle

Kids grow fast.

It seems like the new pair of shoes you bought them a month ago are already tight on their feet or worn so badly they need another pair. Their school clothes bought in the beginning of the year are short in the sleeves and length of the pants legs. It seems like you can never get far enough ahead of it.

The same is the case with guns. When buying a rifle for a youth, or even a small-statured adult, there are several important factors to consider. Failure to address any one of them will make shooting that gun anywhere from “less pleasant” to downright painful.

The Four Fs

When purchasing a new firearm, you should always follow the rule of the four Fs- fit, feel, function, and fire.


Fit

A properly fit rifle will aid a shooter in multiple ways. First, the gun will mount to the shoulder easily at the proper angle. Likewise, it will position the shooter’s eye at the correct distance from the optic or sight. This will make target acquisition easy.

overhead view showing proper eye relief when shooting a rifle
Check out a local gun range. Odds are, you’ll find someone more than willing to let a new perspective shooter take a few shots to determine whether they can handle the recoil of a particular caliber.

Length of Pull

The length of pull on a shotgun or rifle is the distance from the trigger to the center of the butt plate or recoil pad. The correct length of pull can avoid things such as neck straining, back-bending, the tendency to mount the rifle anywhere other than the pocket of the shoulder, and any number of other physical complications that promote bad shooting form.

A proper fitting hunting rifle will also reduce the amount of felt recoil, as it directs the recoil “back,” rather than at an oblique angle toward the shooter’s face or arm. Proper fit is the most important part of shooting a rifle — especially when it is a small-statured shooter behind the gun.

Feel

Have your child pick up the rifle and carry it around. They will most likely immediately notice anything that doesn’t feel right about their preferred method of carry. Maybe they prefer a palm swell on the pistol grip, or a thumb hole-style rifle stock to make them comfortable while shooting. Today’s platform-style hunting rifles have made their way from precision and long range shooting to the hunting grounds. The additional adjustability offered by platform-style rifles results in near endless options for stock length, angle of grip, barrel length. With many models, you can even cast of the stock to one side or the other.

Young Duck Hunter
Few memories can compete with the smile of a young, successful hunter. Be sure to outfit them for success with properly fitting gear.

Function

This is another important one. Have your child work the rifle’s action to ensure they are comfortable with it. Some guns, even though sized for “youth” have a full-size action, and a full-length forearm. If the rifle is a pump-style action, The forend may be too far out for them to comfortably hold the rifle.

When the rifle is mounted properly to the shoulder, everything should be comfortable. The child’s head should be in a comfortable position. Their arm should be relaxed when gripping the pistol grip. The front arm should be at a comfortable distance from them to avoid the gun feeling too front heavy. (This can also lead to back-bending.)

The young shooter’s line of sight should be such that they will be able to see through the scope (or other type of sight) without having to raise their head off the stock.

One of the most important things to look for is that the rifle has a recoil pad that will be effective. For a long period of time, rifle makers were making recoil pads out of rubber that was as hard as a 2×4. Hard materials don’t do much to soak up recoil. Ensure the recoil pad is comfortable for the shooter. When the gun is mounted on the shoulder, it should not be sticky or grip-y where the shooter will have trouble mounting it while hunting or shooting.

Fire

This is perhaps the most difficult of the four Fs to achieve. If possible, you should have your child fire a rifle in the preferred caliber and action that you are looking to purchase. The last thing you want is to buy a .308 Win. and realize your son or daughter never wants to shoot it due to the recoil.

If you don’t have access to a particular caliber gun or action type, retailers occasionally schedule events demo day events where different companies bring out their various firearms for people to try before they buy. Social media can also be a valuable resource. I’ve worked with several youth whose parents reached out on social media asking whether anybody had a youth big game rifle their child might be able to shoot before making a purchase.

Use caution when selecting the ammunition for your child’s first big game rifle shooting experience. A bigger the bullet, and heavier the powder charge, will result in additional recoil being generated. Start your youth on the lightest loads available for the caliber. That way, they will not only be comfortable, but they will also be confident while shooting.

Young lady shooting a youth-sized rifle from a shooting bench
Choose the right caliber for the game you plan to hunt, but do not ‘over gun’ the shooter.

Caliber Choice

This is perhaps the most important, yet most often overlooked, aspect of choosing a youth rifle. There is no way to know what level of recoil a child can handle without exposing them to recoil. I’ve seen 50-pound girls shoot a .30-06 and .308 without issue and a 150-pound boy unable to control his flinch beyond a .243.

The best advice here is to go low and start slow. The .243 is an excellent caliber for any big game animal up to the biggest whitetails or mule deer. Though a bit light for elk, with proper shot placement and a premium bullet, plenty elk have fallen to the diminutive .243.

The 7mm-08, in my opinion, is the perfect caliber for a youth rifle. With the proper bullets it will handle almost all North American game animals. The 7mm-08 is amazingly accurate and only gives up 200–300 fps to its big brother, the 7mm Rem Magnum.

Young lady with a cow elk and a 7mm-08 rifle with a sling
This elk fell after only a few paces after being hit by a 7mm-08 from a youth-sized rifle.

The 7mm-08 (slightly) edges out newer caliber offerings such as the 6.5 Creedmoor. Low recoil, long and heavy bullets, and being designed specifically for shooting long range, also makes the 6.5 Creedmoor an excellent choice.

Whatever caliber that you choose, ensure you start with the lightest loads available and work your way up to heavier loads with more recoil. Remember, regardless the rifle you choose, make sure everything about the experience is centered around the child. The more involved they are, the more likely they are to bond with shooting, hunting, and you.

Do you have a tip for selecting a first gun for a young shooter? Share it in the comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (13)

  1. From the Author:
    To follow up, I want to address a few topics.
    1. AR-15’s are a great option, but as far as usage and versatility, a bolt action is most often the better option.
    -There are some states where an AR-15 platform is not legal (or at least requires many concessions/modifications/registration)
    -there are many countries where an AR-15, or even a semi-automatic, is not legal to bring into the country.
    -AR-15’s are a lot more complicated to clean and maintain for a youth than a bolt-action.

    2. Recoil matters. The argument that “I did it, and I turned out fine” is no longer adequate. There are plenty of options to mitigate recoil, and many options for a firearm that fits right and will be a pleasure to shoot. Why risk a flinch or, worse, a bad experience for a young shooter?

    3. The top reasons for the .243, 7mm-08 and the 6.5 CM as “Youth rifles” is because of the availability and price of ammunition. There’s a lot more of it available than .260 or other “off” calibers. If your child has no recoil sensitivity, the .270, .308 and .30-06 are great options. There are many manufacturers that load “Reduced recoil” loads for these calibers as well.

    4. Handloading is excellent and allows for a great deal of flexibility- however, most people don’t handload.

  2. If you live where ARs are not allowed I agree with you. Otherwise ARs with adjustable stocks and 22lr conversion kits is still my choice. Even chambered in 5.56 or .223 they are not high powered weapons.

  3. AR 15 m4 stock. 22lr conversion kit. Perfect; adjustable pull, virtually nonresistant recoil, and very accurate!

  4. I have spent many years, both with an NRA affiliated gun club, and as a Shooting Sports Director at Boy Scout summer camps. I still maintain the best way to teach a youth is with a single shot bolt action rifle (it’s a safety issue). Other guns can come later.
    The biggest problem I have found is most Scout camps still end up using rifle stocks which are too long; more and more kids are coming to my ranges to learn who are small in stature and the butt end of the gun is simply too long for him/her to mount properly.
    When they need to concentrate on the basics, this is one big obstacle.

  5. Rob – In many parts of the country, the .223/5.56 cartridge is not legal for hunting larger game. In some places, the AR 15 platform is also banned. A good bolt action rifle/LPVO set-up, (miss inexpensive single shot rifles), for most young (preteen or early teen) shooters makes more sense as their first high power rifle. Once they learn shot placement, the urge to “Spray and Pray”, like in video games, is no longer such a big issue. Once they learn fire control/shot placement does the AR 15 or AK47 platform makes sense. That bolt action/LPVO rifle can then become the “First Rifle” for the next young shooter in line.

  6. @ Rob, only downside to an AR is not all states allow hunting with semi auto rifles, but they all allow semi auto shotguns, go figure…..

  7. If you handload any caliber can be made soft shooting 🙂
    One weird exception to the heavier bullet is more recoil that I’ve found is 44 mag, A 180 gr load has more felt recoil than a 300 gr load, with both being the max load listed and using 296 (I think, but definately same) powder.
    And i’ve fired both in 2 different guns, so it isn’t gun specific oddity either.

    As to gun selection I tend toward full size rifles with solid wood stocks, then take off 1 inch slices of the butstock and add a slip on recoil pad. you can screw the slices back onto the stock as needed to adjust length of pull, and remember the slip on adds about an inch, duct tape pad to stock if needed!

  8. Stop concerning yourselves with the sales gimmicks of the “youth” oriented items. Instead teach operational functions of the tool!!!

  9. I grew up having to adapt to my surroundings I’m 64 and well off. Glad I had and adapted to the opportunities given to me. Dont spoil the youngster. Let them adapt to being a grownup! Worked for me!!!

  10. In my slanted opinion the AR15 platform is the best for anybody especially youth shooters. Fit: The M4 style, adjustable stock, takes car of the fit. Feel: ARs are great at fitting to the shoot and can be very comfortable to use. Fire: You can find a range somewhere that rents weapons almost anywhere to fire one. Function: AR’s have been used for nearly every possible use. In standard caliber (5.56 NATO/.223 Remington) there is almost no recoil. Caliber: With a single lower, by changing out the upper, you can go from a .22LR to the monster 50 Beowulf and a whole lot pf calibers in between. The uppers can be configured for what ever the task would be. Just my two cents!

  11. At one time, a firearms company offered a “youth” model bolt action rifle, with the option to get an adult stock at either the same time or at some time in the future. Idea was that the young shooter could “grow” into their rifle as they grew up. Shooter was assured that both stocks would fit the action properly. Still think that was a good idea. As to caliber, while I like a .243, (like 6mm Remington better), agree that for many parts of the country, a 7mm-08 would be a better choice long term. A .243 has less felt recoil, but the 7mm-08 is better suited to larger game. Note – 50+ years ago, there were a number of inexpensive single shot rifles, with some even having interchangeable barrels. Miss H&R!

  12. On an old Remington 7600 pump, in 30-06, ugliest factory wood stock ever, as it was stamped checkering, promptly filled in with a thick clear coating which reflected like a mirror in the woods, and it kicked like a mule, even after having the plastic but plate, replaced with a recoil pad. One day I saw a deal on a black polymer replacement stock, and when I installed it, I noticed it came with a “gel” recoil pad. Besides the new black stock improving the looks of this rifle to pretty awesome, and pretty much eliminating the mirror reflection, the “gel” recoil pad seemed to reduce felt recoil by half, making it a joy to shoot. That said; After-market offers a pretty good afordable selection, in these softer felt recoil “gel” pads, and when installed properly, are worth every penny in the felt reduction of recoil.

  13. 260 Remington will handle anything in North America, especially if handloaded…,

    Norma q43-gr and Oryx 156 grain for example

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