Top 5 Deer Hunting Riflesfor Young HuntersBy Patrick Long |
If you want your children to grow up to be great hunters and hopefully better than you, you have to start them young. Getting your kids outdoors is always good for them. Whether it is walking around checking cameras with you, shed hunting, or actually deer hunting, there is a lot for them to learn. The former activities are easy enough to get your kids to do, but if they are going to shoot a whitetail, they need a purpose-made rifle.
Young kids can’t exactly borrow your 300 Win Mag or 308 for a hunt. It is just way too big for them. Believe it or not, I shot my first deer at the age of 5 years old with a single shot 243 Winchester. My dad actually cut the butt of the stock in half so I could reach the trigger. I killed a dozen or so deer with that rifle during the Kentucky youth seasons before I was big enough for an adult sized rifle.
Characteristics of a Youth Rifle
If you want to buy or build a rifle for your kids, there are a few things that you need to make sure it has. Some of these characteristics also change with the age/size of your child. A 12-year-old can obviously handle a bigger rifle than a 5-year-old, so take some measurements before buying or building a rifle. Let's start with the most important variable, the length of pull.
Length of Pull
Length of pull (LOP) is the distance from the back of the buttstock to the trigger. Basically, it is how far your arm will have to reach around the stock when it's shouldered to pull the trigger. For an adult rifle, LOP is commonly around 13 or 14 inches.
Some youth model rifles have a shorter LOP, but most of them only get to around 12 inches, which is still too big for small children. However, if your child is in the 10 to 14-year-old range, that 12-inch LOP may be perfect.
If your kid is younger than that, you may need to get the hacksaw out and make the LOP shorter yourself… It may hurt your heart to chop up a perfectly good rifle, but the things your kids learn during these early years in the woods will be worth it. Plus, most of their shots will be within 75 or even 50 yards, so you do not have to choose the most accurate $1000+ rifle out there. A standard $300 to $400 rifle will do just fine.
A Thick Recoil Pad
Regardless of whether you chop the buttstock, consider adding a thick recoil pad to the end of the stock. I remember trying to sight in my 243 with my dad when I was little. Even though I had a thick rubber recoil pad on there, I still cried trying to shoot it. Imagine how big of a baby I would have been with a regular buttpad.
A recoil pad will help, but your young kids will still not have a great time sighting in the rifle. I think it scares them more than it actually hurts because when I took the same rifle to the woods and shot a deer, it was nothing but smiles from me. My eye even took a hit from my sight a time or two, and I didn't care at the moment.
If you did not have to chop the buttstock, I would still add a secondary recoil pad if your kid is under 10 years old. Adding a recoil pad will increase the length of pull, so take that into consideration when you’re purchasing your rifle.
A youth rifle should also be a little lighter than an adult rifle. For firearm safety, I don't think you should let your very young kids (12-years-old or less) carry the rifle themselves while walking to and from the stand. So, you do not have to worry about rifle weight in that respect.
Young kids are not going to be able to free-hand a rifle, whether it is 8 pounds or 4 pounds anyway, so I would count on another stabilization method. Although an overall lighter rifle will be easier for them to maneuver in the stand.
Most of my Kentucky youth seasons were hunted from the ground with a bipod on my rifle. This made it much simpler for me to control and shoot my rifle. It meant that I did not have to physically support the rifle. Because of that, I was able to take my time and "calmly" take a shot.
I say "calmly" because I always got extremely excited before shooting a deer, and I would physically shake. One time we were hunting in a blind, and a small buck walked right in front of us. I was shaking so badly that the whole blind was shaking, and that deer was so close I could never get him in my sight. I eventually scared him off!
For me, a bipod is a must-have on a youth rifle. The only situation I wouldn't use a bipod in would probably be a double ladder stand with a shooting rail. Nowadays, I can freehand shots out of my climber stand, but that just isn't an option for very young hunters. They need some sort of stabilization method.
Like I mentioned before, most youth whitetail hunters will not be making very far shots. Even most adult hunters shoot most of their deer within 75 yards. It was rare to shoot anything further than 50 to 75 yards away when I was very young. Most of my shots were around 40 yards or closer.
I say that to show that youth hunters do not exactly need a high-powered scope to hunt. A low-powered scope could be a viable option if you have one lying around without a home, but the best sight may be a red dot.
Red dot sights are super easy for children to use, and the easier you can make it for them, the more likely they are to succeed. Plus, with the typical short-range shots, the red dot will not limit them at all. If I were buying a red dot for a youth rifle, I would look for something in the 6 to 8 MOA range.
Iron sights are also an option. They come on most rifles by default and are good to use at short ranges. Although if your kid has a shot opportunity past 50 yards, they may have a little trouble seeing it. That's another reason I would choose a red dot; the clear sight picture makes your target much easier to see.
1: Light Caliber Selection for Whitetail
No one is surprised I started my list with 243. I have been talking about it the whole time, but the truth is, 243 Winchester is an excellent round for children. The 243 is very similar to the extremely popular 308. It is essentially a necked-down version of the 308 with a smaller bullet. This means it is still viable out to a few hundred yards, but it also lights up the recoil.
A 95 grain 243 Winchester scores a 2.45 out of 10 on the Sportsman's rifle recoil scale. That scale goes from 1 to 10, with 22 LR scoring a 1 and 416 Wby Mag scoring a 10. The scale helps you figure out how much recoil a caliber has relative to other calibers you are more familiar with. Personally, I do most of my hunting now with a 150 grain 308, which gets a recoil score of 2.97 out of 10. From those scores, you can see that the 308 has about 21% more recoil than the 243.
So, the 243 is a great choice if you want a round that is viable within a few hundred yards (especially within 150 yards) but still has lighter recoil. Even for an adult, the 243 is a great round to use within 200 yards when hunting whitetail. It has plenty of knockdown power, and after using it around a dozen times, I have never come close to losing a deer I shot with a 243.
A good 243 Winchester youth rifle would be the Ruger American Compact Black Bolt Action Rifle. It is a compact rifle, so it is already smaller than average. The LOP is 12.5 inches, which is shorter than normal but may require some cutting if your kid is very young. It has a barrel length of 18 inches and an overall length of 36.75 inches.
This rifle weighs just 6 pounds and is drilled and tapped for scope or rail mounts. Plus, this rifle is a fan favorite and well worth the price ($400-$500). The Ruger American Compact Black Bolt Action Rifle is also available in 308 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, and 6.5 Creedmoor.
2: 7mm-08 Remington
Another cartridge similar to the 308, the 7mm-08, is a great youth round. I recommend this cartridge for slightly older kids, say 12+. It has a little bit more recoil than the 243. The 140-grain 7mm-08 scores a 2.59 on the Sportsman's recoil table.
This caliber obviously has a 7mm diameter bullet, which is somewhere in between the 243(6.17mm) and 308(7.82mm). It is truly a necked-down version of the 308, hence the 08 that carried over to its name. Being a bit bigger than the 243 and close to the same speed, the 7mm-08 has about 20% more muzzle energy.
This means that the 7mm-08 can reliably hit harder at the same range. Although after a quick look at a ballistics table, you can see that it is not as flat shooting as the 243, but neither is the 308. Still, I do not think that is as important, considering youth hunters will not be shooting hundreds of yards. What the 7mm-08 really is is a step up from a 243 that delivers more damage and is a great caliber choice if your kid can handle the increased recoil.
Somewhere between 12 and 14 years old, I upgraded from my 243 to a 7mm-08. I used it to shoot plenty of deer before I eventually upgraded again to 308. 7mm-08 is a good round that is extremely viable for all ages but is especially useful to young hunters due to its reduced recoil.
If I were buying a 7mm-08 for my kid, I could not look past the Browning AB3 Micro Stalker Rifle. This rifle is made explicitly for smaller hunters. The AB3 is a nice little rifle, and the reviews are full of happy parents and grandparents who bought this rifle for their young ones.
Two major factors that help with its size are the 13-inch LOP and the 20-inch barrel, which give the rifle an overall length of 37.25 inches. This little rifle weighs about 6.5 pounds and generally costs around $500-$600. The Browning AB3 Micro Stalker Rifle is also available in 308 Winchester, 243 Winchester, and 6.5 Creedmoor.
3: 6.5 Grendel
If you are not immediately familiar with the 6.5 Grendel, you may liken it to the ever so popular 6.5 Creedmoor, but that would be very… very wrong. 6.5 Grendel may still have a 6.5mm bullet, but its casing is much smaller! After the AR-15 platform became popular, people wanted to use it for hunting. However, the 223 Remington is not a great whitetail round; we needed something else! So the 6.5 Grendel, derived from the 6.5 PRC by Bill Alexander in 2002, was created to fill this niche.
The 6.5 Grendel is about as big of a cartridge as you can get if you want to use the AR-15 platform. Even with its relatively small size, it still packs quite a punch. It delivers more energy than a 243 and less energy than a 7mm-08 at 200 yards. Cool right? Well, here's the kicker. A 123 grain 6.5 Grendel only scores a 2.05 on the Sportsman's recoil table.
If you recall, the 150 grain 308 scored a 2.97, and the 95 grain 243 scored a 2.45. So, the 6.5 Grendel has about 20% less recoil than the 243 Winchester and 45% less recoil than the 308 Winchester. Seeing as it was specifically designed for hunting whitetail, I would say it makes a pretty attractive cartridge for youth hunters. Plus, this round is viable out to a few hundred yards and is highly proficient within 150 yards.
The Ruger American Ranch Rifle is an excellent choice if you want to go with 6.5 Grendel. This is shorter than a standard rifle. It has a 16.1-inch barrel and a 13.75 LOP with an overall length of 36 inches, and it weighs 6.1 pounds. It comes standard with a 10 round capacity magazine, so double check your local hunting regulations to see if that is legal, or consider buying a smaller magazine.
This rifle comes with a picatinny rail on top to mount your optic of choice. It also costs between $500 and $575. All and all, this is an easy shooting rifle that is easy for small hunters to use. The Ruger American Ranch Rifle is also available in 7.62x39mm, 450 Bushmaster, 5.56mm NATO, 300 AAC Blackout, and 350 Legend.
4: 300 AAC Blackout
300 AAC Blackout (usually shortened to 300 Blackout) is another caliber that usually finds its home inside an AR-15. 300 Blackout is a super easy cartridge to shoot. At 135 grains, it scores just a 1.47 on the Sportsman's recoil table, the lowest yet! However, this is also the most limited cartridge I have mentioned yet.
300 Blackout is a comparatively little round in the hunting world. It is about as tall as a 223, and they actually have the same casing base diameter of 0.376 inches. However, the neck of the casing and the bullet size are considerably different. The 300 Blackout actually has a .308 inch bullet diameter, but the size of the casing (and therefore the amount of gunpowder) is much smaller than a 308 Winchester.
So this is effectively a 308 that is a whole lot slower and has less recoil as a result. It was obviously made this way on purpose, but not for the recoil. The 300 Blackout is naturally subsonic (traveling less than 1125 ft/sec), and the US military uses it in a variety of suppressed situations.
If you want to use this for hunting whitetail, you will actually have to pay attention to the type of ammo you buy. You can get 300 Blackout as heavy as 220 grains, but once that slow bullet hits a deer, it will likely go straight through without expanding. If you use 110 to 150-grain bullets, they will have enough energy to expand and cause much more damage on impact.
Nonetheless, 300 Blackout is a neat cartridge that is fun to have in an AR, but it can also make a good hunting rifle for youngsters. With this caliber, you will want to make sure you are not taking shots too far away. I would say 150 yards is the ethical max for the 300 Blackout. If it were in my hands, I would try my best to keep shots at distances of less than 75 yards.
The previous rifle, The Ruger American Ranch Rifle, can be purchased in 300 Blackout, but in the spirit of variety, I found another rifle that is a bit different. The Traditions Outfitter G3 Black/Cerakote Single Shot Rifle is an excellent choice for a young hunter. It has a short 16.5-inch barrel, weighs 5.8 pounds, and costs around $350 to $400.
I think this is the perfect gun to get if you want your 5-year-old to get out in the woods and shoot a deer. The G3 is a break action rifle, which in my opinion, makes it a perfect little rifle to slap a bipod and red dot on and hunt from the ground with. I find that break-action rifles are easier to use for children when the front is supported by a bipod, especially if they are not yet big enough to pick the rifle up and work the action.
5: 260 Remington
You may not have heard of the 260 Remington, but it has seen some success in the competition shooting world. It is often overshadowed by the uber-popular 6.5 Creedmoor, but the performance differences between the two are not that huge. The 6.5 Creedmoor seems to win on paper, but most shooters will never be able to tell the difference in the field.
The construction is pretty simple. It is nothing more than a 308 necked down to hold a 6.5mm bullet. Still, a 140 grain 260 Remington scores a 2.51 on the Sportsman's recoil table, which is very comparable to the 243's score of 2.45. Although a significant difference is that the 260 Remington is viable out to a much farther range. The 260 Remington actually competes with the 308 Winchester in terms of energy. The 308 tends to win, but not by much.
In the case of youth shooters, that bit of energy can be sacrificed if it means there will be less recoil. This caliber is viable and ethical to use at over 300 yards; if you can see it, you can kill it. Fewer limitations are always a plus. If you decide on a 260 Remington rifle for your kid, it will likely be a rifle they will never outgrow.
Of course, 6.5 Creedmoor has a similar recoil experience, but every caliber review on the internet in the past few years has 6.5 Creedmoor on it, and it's nice to see something different once in a while. If I needed one reason to buy 6.5 Creedmoor instead of 260 Remington, it would probably be the ammo availability. It has been a long time since I've seen 260 Remington on the shelf.
The Savage 10/110 Predator Hunter Bolt Action Rifle is chambered in 260 Remington. Unfortunately, there are not many youth-size or compact rifles made in this caliber, so you will have to get a full-sized rifle. The Savage Predator has a 24-inch fluted barrel, and a 13.6-inch LOP, giving it a 41.5-inch overall length.
This rifle weighs 8.5 pounds and features the AccuStock rail system, drilled and tapped for scope mounts. This rifle is more expensive than others on the list, costing between $750 and $850, but this is a rifle that can be used beyond your child's adolescent years. I would likely get this rifle for an older child around 14 and up. The former two calibers and rifles may be a better choice for younger children.