Youth Shotgun Buyers Guide

Travis Thompson

I see it on Facebook all the time – “Which shotgun should I get my daughter, who’s 9?” . . . Here’s the answer you’ve been waiting for:

When my son was six, my dad bought him a Rossi .410.  This was a lightweight, composite stock, little single-shot gun, and he was so excited to begin hunting “for real.”

Until he shot it in the back yard.  Where it went full on Mike Tyson to his shoulder.  No amount of padding or adrenaline would’ve distracted him from the jolt.  Not wanting to disappoint, he tried again with various paddings, tears welling in his eyes until we decided to try a different approach.

He’ll be 11 this year, and as he’s grown, he’s become my right hand man in the duck blind.  Just a couple of short seasons ago I let him harvest his first bird, a lesser scaup . . . Hopefully, this harvest will be the first of many.

But.  Getting to that point, of finding the correct shotgun AND establishing his comfort level with it, has taken some time.

This is what I’ve learned, from studying, trying, coaching, and experience.  Every kid is a different size, weight, frame, and temperament.  Some are reluctantly accompanying dad (or mom) in the field while others are begging for a “real gun” on their first hunt.

Over time, I’ve come to realize I’m not the first dad to go through this, so I’ve compiled what I feel are some helpful tips when shopping for a first gun for your waterfowler . . .

Here goes:

  1. Lower gauge does not equal less recoil: In actuality, it probably does equal less recoil, all things being equal . . . however, all things are rarely equal, and, in this case, the inequality begins with the gun.  Let’s do an experiment (you don’t actually have to do it, I’ve already done it for us both) – let’s take three shotguns, all with the same load (or as close as possible) shell; one 20 gauge youth model, weighing around 4.5 pounds; one 20 gauge adult model, weighing 6.5; and a 12 gauge adult, weighing 7.5 . . . I realize there are other variables at play, but, generally speaking, the felt recoil will be greatest on the lightest gun.  This is where the Rossi failed us, or we failed it (and my son) – weighing in at 3.75 pounds, there was nowhere for the energy to transfer besides his shoulder . . . My advice: get a gun that your youth can safely mount and shoulder, but heavier is better (within reason) . . .
  1. Some kids need to wait to shoot: Will had wanted to hunt so badly.  We took him dove hunting on opening day.  He was so proud, sitting with his grandfather, rattling off a round with his BB gun.  He’s a smart kid, and he quickly realized that Pops’ gun was knocking down a lot more doves.  He began mentioning getting a “real” gun as often as possible.  And we relented, albeit way too early.  His slight stature did him no favors, and the aforementioned recoil cemented a “flinch” in place.  Hindsight being what it is, here’s my advice:  we should’ve waited until he was a little larger in stature, and a little more substantial in weight (for what it’s worth, I think 8o pounds or so is the low end for most kids) . . . Take them with you – let them play with decoys and gargle into your mallard call and flair ducks . . . Teach them the right way to participate in the other parts of the hunt . . .
  1. Length of pull is pretty important (subtitled: “Youth” doesn’t always mean “youth”): Lamarr is my local gun smith.  We had been working with Will, shouldering a Youth Model 870 Express with a 12-inch length of pull (LOP).  This was his sister’s first gun.  It just didn’t appear to fit him right.  Lamarr measured him at a 10-1/2 LOP, including the recoil pad.  Trotting Will out with the 870 would’ve led to more disappointments, this time in missed birds and targets, discomfort in shouldering, and bad form.  My advice: head to your gun shop and get the kid measured.  You’re plopping down a bunch of money on guns and decoys and boats and gear . . . you don’t have to break to bank to help instill good, fun shooting habits in him or her . . . Will’s sister was much taller and longer than he was at the same age, so the 870 fit her perfectly.  Also – flinch’s are hard to overcome.
  1. Sometimes, custom is right: So, I built a spreadsheet of guns – all compact or youth models, sortable by weight, and length of pull, and barrel length – TriStar, Winchester, Remington, Browning, CZ – nothing was off the table, and at the time cost was not an issue . . .  And none of them added up to what I believed would fit my boy.  So I went back to Lamarr, looking for a different option . . . “You can always cut the stock down a bit . . . add a souped up pad . . . ”  Guess what – I was shocked at how cheap the price was.  In fact, I began looking at used guns at substantial discounts (after all, this didn’t need to be pretty) that I could get customized to fit my boy and still be under budget . . . My advice: keep trying things.  Something will stick.
  1. In the end, the gun isn’t the only thing: We landed on a Mossberg Super Mini Bantam, with an adjustable length of pull, from 10.5 to 11.5 . . . it was well within budget, compact and appropriately sized for his build, and something he can grow with.  My advice: be patient and do your homework.  There’s a gun out there, it just might take a little time and a little tinkering.
  1. No really, the gun isn’t the only thing: What we really want, what I really wanted, is to be able to take your son or daughter afield, to pass on your knowledge of ducks and deer, and to spend a morning watching the sun fight the cold, watching a marsh come alive, hearing the whirr of wings that makes you as much a 9 year old as she is . . . My advice: hang on to that feeling.  Tightly.

You will ask this question on the internet and be besieged with everything from “give them a full sized 1100” to “only a Montefeltro will work” to “I took a hacksaw to an old model 12” – while each of these folks is sharing what worked for them, there is not a single firearm that’ll suit every kid.

Do your homework.  Visit your local gunsmith.  Go to gun shows.  Don’t rush it.  Hopefully this is just the first (important) step in cementing a lifelong hunting partner.  Do it right . . .