My first firearm: Choosing a first hunting firearm for a junior shooter
by Andrew La Vista
One of the biggest decisions a new hunter is faced with is choosing their first firearm, which they often go on to cherish for the rest of their shooting career as being the ‘first one’. For the many junior hunters among us, this decision is no less important.
The aim of this article is to attempt to provide a helping hand to junior hunters in selecting their first firearm to meet their individual need. In order to recognise the different requirements of most juniors, this article will cover rimfire and centrefire rifles, as well as shotguns. I will only be referring to firearms used for the purpose of hunting and not competition, as the requirements for competition rifles can be vastly different to those intended for hunting.
When I first started shooting 10 years ago, the first firearm I ever fired was an old Shanghai .177-calibre air rifle, purchased by my grandfather many years before at a local service station for $35. It was with this rifle that I was taught firearm safety and handling techniques by my father and grandfather.
I would seriously advise all new junior shooters, particularly those of a younger age, to consider the purchase of an air rifle for their practice. A good-quality air rifle is quite inexpensive compared to rimfire rifles (my Cometa Fenix cost just more than $300). Air rifles are very cheap to shoot, with no recoil and virtually no report and are thus an excellent means of demonstrating firearms safety and basic rifle handling skills. They are also a heck of a lot of fun! Some of the more powerful air rifles can also be used to hunt rabbits or foxes and most can be equipped with a telescopic sight if the shooter so desires.
For the more experienced and older juniors, I believe you cannot go past a rimfire rifle as a first firearm. The .22LR is a classic cartridge, perfectly suited to hunting small game and plinking. As this rimfire is cheap to shoot and has very little recoil with quiet report, it is definitely worthwhile for junior hunters.
The .22LR is available in many different models on a variety of actions, including quality options for the left-handed junior, such as myself. The most popular makes include CZ/Brno, Remington, Winchester, Marlin and Ruger, which can all be picked up for quite reasonable prices, although some Remington models can be slightly more expensive. My own .22LR is a CZ 452 2E ‘American’ equipped with a left-handed bolt-action, costing around $800.
Cheaper options include Chinese brands such as Norinco, which can be useful as a ‘knock-around gun’. Norinco rimfires can be picked for very cheap prices brand-new and most can be purchased in a package deal, which usually consists of the rifle, scope and mounts.
For juniors requiring a more powerful rimfire, with a greater effective range, there are a number of options available including the .17HMR and .22WMRF. These two rimfire cartridges are solid performers on small game and can really come in handy when spotlighting foxes as a substitute for a centrefire rifle. Although ammunition is slightly more expensive than the .22LR, it is still cheaper than centrefire ammo and they are available in a variety of different models and actions, once again including options for left-handers.
I am also aware that some juniors are not interested in rifle shooting or prefer to hunt fast-running game in closer quarters, where a shotgun would be the most obvious choice. However, juniors are by no means restricted to just a 12-gauge shotgun, which, depending on the build, age and experience of the junior, may be too heavy and unwieldy or have too much recoil to make the shooting process successful.
The shotgun that I shot my first rabbit with was actually my mum’s gun - a Savage Arms side-by-side .410 bore. This shotgun is perfectly balanced for a junior shooter new to shotgunning, having mild recoil and report. Shooting Federal 3" Magnum shells, the .410 still has mild recoil and report, but can bowl over a rabbit. Also, the .410 at close range does not damage meat at ranges where a 12-gauge would turn the rabbit into raw hamburger.
This being said, the range of a .410 is very limited and this factor should definitely be taken into account before committing to a purchase. Unfortunately, .410 shotgun ammunition can be quite expensive, due to a reduced demand for this kind of shotshell. This is where the 20-gauge comes into its own. With its soft recoil and explosive stopping power, the 20-gauge is an ideal shotgun for junior shooters who wish to begin shotgunning.
Ultimately, however, it remains no secret that the 12-gauge shotgun is one of the most popular firearms in Australia and provides a hunter with excellent stopping power on a variety of game. This is definitely a high point of the 12-gauge shotgun, as it offers juniors the means to hunt small game, such as rabbits or foxes, but also enables them to easily convert their shotgun to hunt medium game such as pigs, by changing to a different shot size. This versatility is very welcome and can even eliminate the expensive option of having to purchase multiple firearms for small- and medium-sized game, particularly if the game hunted is found in heavily scrubbed areas of commonly hunted properties. If a junior hunter is hunting on a property where both pigs and small game are prominent, such as the one mentioned above, a 12-gauge shotgun can be almost invaluable to have.
To use an example, let’s say that the hunter is walking a paddock with a 12-gauge where rabbits are commonly shot. Unfortunately, due to some bad luck, they encounter no rabbits and decide to cross over to a neighbouring paddock (with the neighbour’s permission of course!) where they know they will find pigs. Here, the junior can break their shotgun and replace the No. 4 shot with SSG shot, converting their shotgun from a rabbit gun to an effective pig gun. It is this versatility that makes the 12-gauge a worthy choice for a junior hunter who is able to shoot it comfortably.
Nowadays, most new shotguns come with reliable, soft recoil pads to make shooting powerful loads more comfortable. To younger juniors, however, the 12-gauge may appear a bit intimidating, with its loud report and sizable recoil. There is no shortage of excellent quality shotguns available to suit all requirement and budgets.
I use my father’s trusty Beretta S55 12-gauge over-and-under with 28" barrels. Dad purchased this shotgun 30 years ago and it has accounted for countless numbers of rabbits, particularly after his beloved Winchester pump-action was demolished. As far as I am concerned, Beretta manufactures the best shotguns in the world and I would advise any new shotgunner to consider one.
Unfortunately, however, these shotguns are renowned for having a heavy price tag, so a junior may be forced to look for an alternative to a Beretta. Less expensive makes include Winchester, Boito, Baikal and IAC. IAC has produced a very popular lever-action shotgun, which is a very attractive firearm, considering it has a seven-round magazine capacity and price tag of less than $1000.
Undoubtedly by this point, some of you may be thinking, “Well this is all very good, but I want a centrefire rifle, so I can hunt bigger animals such as deer or goats at long range.” This is certainly a valid assertion, so the next obvious point of discussion would be centrefire rifles.
The most obvious choice for a junior shooter would be a calibre that is able to take the most commonly encountered species in Australia - deer, pigs and goats. Conversely, a shooter may only desire to hunt deer and have no interest in pursuing goats or pigs. However, I think that the former is a more common situation and is certainly the easier of the two to write about!
Aside from on-game performance, the biggest factor that a junior hunter must consider when thinking about centrefire rifles is their ability to cope with the amount of recoil generated by their chosen cartridge. This will vary depending on the experience, age and build of the individual. Calibre selection is therefore a vital factor for junior hunters. However, it really depends on what game the junior intends to pursue and what kind of hunting method is used. For example, long-range varminting on small game or taking deer in heavily wooded areas at close range.
In terms of an all-round centrefire rifle, two good-quality calibres include the .243 Winchester and .260 Remington. The .243, however, is underpowered for larger deer such as reds or sambar, but when combined with good marksmanship, the .243 will be a solid performer on fallow deer, goats and pigs.
Both the .260 Remington and .243 Winchester offer good performance on game with relatively minor recoil when combined with a comfortable recoil pad. The .243, when combined with a light, fast load can also be used as a long-range varminter, so it is a worthy all-rounder for the junior hunter.
If I am talking to large-deer hunting enthusiasts, then I am afraid that in order to successfully hunt big, tough deer such as sambar, reds or chital, you will have to use a larger calibre, which will result in increased report and recoil. Such calibres include the .260 Remington, .308 Winchester, .25-06 Remington, .30-06 Springfield and my favourite, the .270 Winchester. Obviously, for younger, slightly built or female juniors, these calibres may pose problems, particularly in the departments of recoil, weight and report.
There are a number of so-called ‘managed recoil’ ammunition varieties available, which are intended to lessen the recoil of a given cartridge. However, this comes at a price, sacrificing hitting power and velocity for lighter recoil. At the end of the day, a shooter will have to use full-power loads at some point if they desire to achieve the full potential of the firearm, so it is better to become accustomed to full-power loads right from the start.
If you know that you are not able to fire a certain calibre comfortably, even with a quality recoil pad, then it is best to steer away from that calibre, as there is nothing worse than shooting a firearm that scares you every time it is fired. A common consequence of this is the junior developing a flinch, which is very hard to cure. Therefore, calibre selection for high-powered centrefires should be judged on an individual basis.
In terms of rifle make and model, there are hundreds of different options to cater for all budgets. Many rifle manufactures make youth versions of rifles. The Remington Model 700 for instance caters to juniors’ needs by being slightly shorter and lighter, giving a quality, comfortable shooting experience. Quality rifle manufacturers include Remington, Winchester, Marlin, Sako, CZ/Brno and Ruger.
However, the model and action of the firearm depends on your intended use for the firearm. For example, while my dad favours his .444 Marlin lever-action for close-range pig hunting, I have a Remington Model 7600 pump-action Patrol rifle for the same purpose, chambered in .308 Winchester, which is perfect pig medicine.
For spotlighting rabbits and foxes, excellent calibres for junior hunters include the .222 Remington, .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington and .17 Remington. Pig hunting juniors may favour a hard-hitting, close-range rifle (commonly a lever-action) and ideal calibres include the .30-30 Marlin and .44 Remington Magnum, with some more powerful calibres being the .45-70 Govt and .444 Marlin. My dad’s .444 Marlin lever-action was the first centrefire rifle that I fired and is a very deadly pig gun, although it would probably be too powerful for some shooters to shoot comfortably.
All factors considered, the best centrefire rifle for a junior hunter to use is one that provides comfortable shooting, but still retains enough power to ensure a clean, one-shot kill. It is the responsibility of every hunter to ensure this by practising marksmanship regularly in all kinds of conditions. This is why I would recommend all shooters, not just juniors, to join a SSAA rifle range.
I hope that this article has managed to assist the junior shooters among us in considering their first firearm and I wish all good luck with their decisions. Happy shooting!