Saturday, January 31, 2009

Teaching A Child To Shoot & Getting It Right

A lot of what you read about or hear about in the news when it comes to kids and firearms is that this kid got shot in a drive-by shooting, or that kid accidentally killed a friend with his parent's gun, or some kid shot a person while out hunting in the woods. As usual the MSM (Mud Slinging Media) tells us the bad stuff. There is another story though, one that is not heard about as often as it should be heard about.

That other story is the one wherein the responsible shooter teaches his or her son how to shoot, or maybe even teaches someone else's kids how to shoot (with parental permission of course). Shooting is a great sport. In order to excel in shooting sports you need to be able to develop great eye and hand coordination, along with coordination of many muscles in other parts of the body. Shooting also requires a great deal of concentration. In addition, shooting sports require discipline. Before you can start any of this, safe sport shooting also requires that you learn about firearms safety, firearms nomenclature, and shooting in general in a classroom or sit down type situation before you ever handle a firearm. With all this in mind, shooting sports are a great pastime for children if done properly and at an age appropriate level with proper adult supervision. Starting children, as young as 7 or 8 years old in shooting sports was once common practice. While no longer as common a practice as it once was, children of that age can - under proper supervision of a responsible adult instructor - begin learning how to shoot (you will need to determine if your 7 or 8 year old exhibits enough concentration and discipline to be ready at that age). In my opinion, shooting sports are a great way to spend quality time with them.

Proper responsible adult supervision is a key element of training anyone to shoot. This goes for adults as well as children. In each instance, whether training adult or child, the responsible instructor should have a hands on approach at first. Yes, you read that correctly the responsible instructor should have a hands on approach. This need not be for an extended period and need not seem intrusive to the shooter but should take place at least for the first few shots fired by the new shooter. Simply put the responsible instructor should though use of verbal commands and helpful guidance with hands instruct the shooter in proper hold, proper direction for the muzzle, and other things like proper stance. As the shooter is taking those very first shots, it is advisable especially with young children to make sure the firearm is fully controlled by making sure the responsible adult instructor and the shooter both have hands on the firearm (or possibly that the instructor has hands on the shooter's hands for a handgun). Once the instructor is satisfied that the shooter has the basics down concerning safety, stance, grip, aim - it is then that the instructor can ease up a bit and allow the shooter to completely control the firearm. Of course this does not mean that the instructor should step back and away from the shooter; rather the instructor should remain within easy reach of the firearm should intervention be necessary in order to prevent the muzzle from pointing in a direction where it should not be pointed. With adult shooters, and even with teenagers, the instructor usually can step back and away from the shooter, out of arms reach, once the instructor is satisfied that the shooter is competent enough to continue on his own with instruction from a distance. However, when instructing younger children the instructor should remain within arms reach of the shooter for at least a few to several lesson after the instructor has been satisfied that the young shooter is competent and safe. Bear in mind that while adults and even some teenagers maybe ready to shoot on their own, young children should never be allowed to shoot without responsible adult supervision close at hand.

Before moving on to such things as the techniques and equipment I prefer to use to teach a child to shoot let me cover one word I used several times above. If you read the last paragraph again, you may notice I used a word in conjunction with the word instructor a few times and that I also used the same word in conjunction with adult a couple of or a few times. That word is RESPONSIBLE. When you teach anyone to shoot you must be responsible not only for your actions and instruction but also for the actions of the shooter (at least to some extent, and with young children you are held much more responsible than are they). The amount of responsibility changes over time as the shooter gains experience and become more competent at shooting safely; however when it comes to young children the adult supervising and instructing the child holds the great majority of the responsibility to make sure it is done both safely and correctly. So before you even think about setting out to teach someone to shoot, especially a child, you must be aware of such things as firearms nomenclature, firearms safety, the actual workings of the firearms you intend to use, how to hold a firearms, how to aim in a firearm, sight alignment and picture, trigger control, follow-trough and so forth. You must also have an idea of how you will present all of this to the potential new shooter before you begin.

Note I said to the potential new shooter in the last line above. Now, since I am mostly talking about firearms instruction for children, why on earth would I call a child a potential new shooter. For example let's say you are a parent who is adept at shooting sports. You are aware of the rules of firearms safety above and beyond the 4 rules that others so foolishly use as the only safety rules for firearms (yes there are many more cardinal rules of firearms safety other than the 4 taught by Jeff Cooper). You have thought ahead and you have prepared a brief lecture about nomenclature and safety so you can start your youngster off in the right direction, and you plan to begin shooting right after the lesson is given. You sit down your child, who is seemingly eager to learn how to shoot, and you start talking about the parts of the gun. After that you get into safety. As you are talking safety you notice that your child's mind has wandered off, and that he or she is daydreaming as children will do. My suggestion - stop the lessons - take a break. After the break of maybe 5 or 10 minutes see if the child is now paying attention or not. If the child still seems distracted, call it quits right then and there - at least for the day. Explain to the child why you are doing so, and further explain that full attention is needed for such important topics as nomenclature and firearms safety because the child having learned them will soon be shooting a real gun, and real guns can hurt or kill people. If the child does not seem able to fully comprehend the gravity of the situation, well then I strongly recommend that you hold off on teaching that child until he or she is ready to grasp those subjects with full attention geared at them. Bear in mind you are the RESPONSIBLE party in all of this; the child while needing to learn firearms nomenclature and safety before actually shooting will only do so if you make sure it is being done right. If you have any question about how to accomplish this you can take a firearms instructor course offered by NRA qualified firearms instructors, or you can take a hunter safety course and have your child take it with you. I am fairly certain that some states even allow children to young to hunt to take the hunter safety course. These course usually cover a lot to do with firearms safety and require passing a test at the end of the course. If your child is too young to take the test, he or she could sit through the class with you. In addition you could learn a lot from such a class yourself, probably enough for you to be able to formulate your own firearms safety course for your child with an age appropriate test at the end of the instruction. Am I harping on this subject, yes maybe I am. Why am I putting so much emphasis on it, well because all it takes is one bullet to ruin a lot of lives, and a stray bullet fired by your child could have devastating effects on the remainder of his or her life as well as on yours, let alone had devastating it would be to anyone who might get shot. Thin about that and make a decision now that if you are going to teach a child to shoot you will do so responsibly.

Once you are satisfied that the young shooter is ready to handle a firearm it is time to hit the range - that is if you already have selected a firearms of suitable size and caliber for him. If you have not gotten the firearms already then a trip to the local gun shop is in order. My recommendation for a first firearm for a new shooter is a bolt action rifle in .22LR caliber. This is an especially good choice of first firearm for a new shooter who is a child. There are several things about a bolt action rifle that make them inherently safer than a semi-automatic. Of course, along those lines, there are at least a few things that would make some bolt action single shot rifles inherently safer than a repeater and many folks recommend them over repeaters. On the other hand, I recommend purchasing a bolt action repeating rifle fed by a box type magazine for use with new young shooters. The reasons I make this recommendation are as follow:

1. A bolt action rifle requires that the bolt be operated manually in order to fire it, then unload it, and fire it again for each shot. This is much more preferable than a semi-automatic rifle which only requires that the shooter repeatedly squeeze the trigger to fire it so long as it has ammunition. When it comes to safety especially with a young shooter who would probably be more easily distracted than a more mature student shooter the bolt is my choice. If the shooter is distracted with finger on trigger it could be disastrous if he or she turns and lets off a round, and another and another and another. Sure you want to train the youngster to pay attention and to execute proper firearms safety but even adults make mistakes at the range and it is just so much easier for a child to be distracted. A bolt action requires more concentration than does a semi-automatic rifle in that the shooter must remember to actively operate the bolt in order to unload and fire. If you shoot a lot and shoot semi-autos and bolts then almost certainly you can recall a time that you put down a semi, picked up a bolt, fired a shot and forgot to operate the bolt before squeezing the trigger for a second shot. Yep you have to think more when shooting a bolt action rifle, and thinking keeps the child shooter's mind focused on the task at hand. You could argue for a pump action here in that it requires the same amount of operation and thought, however a bolt action is inherently safe than is a pump gun for a few reasons. With the pump it is harder for smaller children to operate the mechanism than it is a bolt action thereby sometimes having the child contort or turn in an unsafe manner with the pump gun. Also, a hand that slips off of the fore stock while operating a pump gun can wind up in front of the muzzle, or the muzzle can wind up tilting in a bad direction. Finally while operating a pump action there is too much of a chance that the finger can be left on the trigger resulting in an unsafe shot being taken while the student shooter activates the pump in its forward motion. With a bolt action rifle that is properly operated, the trigger finger hand operates the bolt and therefore the trigger finger is removed from the trigger in order to do so. I'll take the bolt action any day as a beginner rifle.

2) The box type magazine is my choice of preference over a single shot, and over a tube magazine for beginning shooters because it is more versatile. The reasons for this are fairly simple. First of all if you buy a single shot rifle, you cannot progress from single shot to repeater without buying another rifle. Buying another rifle can have some advantages but also has some disadvantages. First and foremost is cost. Why buy two rifles when one will do the chore nicely. In addition you have to retrain the shooter for any difference in the mechanisms between the single shot and the repeater when you buy the second one. I prefer the repeater as a first rifle because it can be used as a single shot and then, when the shooter is ready, it can be used as a repeater. To use a box magazine fed repeating rifle as a single shot, simply place an unloaded magazine into the magazine well (be absolutely sure it is an unloaded magazine). Then load shots singularly directly into the chamber, have the student shooter shoot the shot, eject the spent shell casing, and reload with a single round again directly into the chamber. Once you as the responsible instructor are sure the child is ready to progress to a repeater you can then load the magazine with any number of rounds up to its full capacity and have the child shoot from a loaded magazine.

3) A box type magazine is safer than a tube magazine in my opinion because it is more easily operated with less risk to the shooter. Why, well because to load and unload a tube magazine you sometimes need to turn the gun in what is not the safest direction, or at least you need to bring the muzzle closer to you even if you pull the gun straight back without changing the direction of the muzzle. While removing it, your hand is very close to the muzzle. Not the nest of situations with a young shooter. A box magazine on a bolt action rifle is much easier to reach and remove from the rifle. Remember that if there is ever a need for the young student shooter to make the firearms safe, that will require clearing all ammunition from the rifle. That includes first taking finger off trigger, placing the safety into safe position, taking out the source of ammunition (the magazine), then clearing the chamber and assuring it is clear. It is much easier, in my opinion, for young hands to accomplish with a box magazine.

4) There are a large number of available bolt action box magazine fed rifles on the market. At least a few of them are made in youth models to fit younger shooters. Get one of these for smaller shooters because a smaller shooter will have more confidence using a rifle that he or she can properly operate, aim and shoot well.

Okay, enough on the rifle, let's get to the range. Try to select a rifle range that is actually a rifle range as opposed to learning how to shoot out in a field with a hill for a backstop. I am not saying a field with a good sized backstop is a bad thing mind you, just that I prefer a professional range. Choosing a professional range actually can do a few things to help the new shooter. First of all your child shooter will see this is serious business because there are range officers at the range. Secondly the child will probably be somewhat impressed by the range set up, and will learn somethings about the: firing line, downrange, line commands such as cease fire, and so forth. In addition the child will be able to watch some other shooters and how they get good or bad shooting done. Pointing out good and safe shooters, as opposed to bad and unsafe shooters, to the student child shooter can make a big and lasting impression and give the child someone to emulate. of course you probably want your child to emulate you but the child being able to see that other safe shooters do just what you told him or her to do will fix in in their mind that you were right all along.

While using a professional range where others are firing you should allow the child shooter, or any new shooter, to become accustomed to what is going on fort at least several minutes before you beginning teaching him or her to shoot. This is especially important if anyone nearby is going to be shooting large caliber firearms. The percussion caused by such firearms can be quite distracting and even frightening to a new shooter. Once they watch for a while and realize they are not going to be hurt, then the fun of learning to actually fire a gun can begin. If possible you may want to ask if there is a section of the range where it is less likely for you to encounter someone shooting larger calibers.

Bear in mind that while you are doing all of this at the range you have to be mindful of range safety. This means that both you and the child student shooter, and any bystanders are all wearing protective eye and ear covering. Note I did not say protective ear inserts. I much prefer protective ear covering as shooters ear muffs as opposed to ear plugs, but you can use ear plugs under the muff for additional hearing protection. As for eye protection I recommend only shooters' safety glasses or shooters' safety goggles. Regular eyeglasses are often not enough and anyone requiring prescription glasses should wear additional protection over them.
Once there is a break in the action, and the range is having a cease fire for target repair or replacement, you can set up your targets. Such a cease fire is not necessary at all ranges such as those with retrievable target holders (those for which you operate a crank or electronic mechanism to bring the target to you instead of you needing to go downrange). If at all possible, set up the targets at 50 feet or less, but not less than 15 feet (these distances are usually easiest to achieve at an indoor range with target holders on a pulley system that you can set at any distance as allowed by range policy at to the maximum for that range). Use the blank side of a 50 foot small bore target to face the shooter (this is easier than shooting at a bulls eye and once the child is hitting near center you switch to the other side and then shoot at the bulls eyes). Once your targets have been safely set up, and the commence fire com and is given, or when otherwise safe to fire, you can start in with shooting lessons for real. Ease the child into the first few shots by helpfully explaining what to do, and by giving hands on direction. if the child is not comfortable with this type of instruction explain that it is absolutely necessary because a firearm can be deadly. If the child resists this, then stop the lesson and take a break during which you can explain this is how it must be for at least the first several shots after which you will allow the child to shoot by himself with you watching nearby. Remember that is is extremely important that you as the responsible adult instructor are in control of the student and that it is not the student in control of you no matter how mature the child student shooter seems to be.

As the child is shooting talk him or her through the first shot by going over the basics. Make sure the child has a good hold on the rifle and a decent stance whether standing, seated or prone, supported or unsupported (I recommend support of some sort such as a bench). Then softly talk the child student through aiming, breath control, and squeezing the trigger to get off the first shot, and then make sure the child follows though without turning toward you for your approval. You want to make sure all the concentration is on the gun and shooting it safely. Then tell the child to take another shot in the same manner and again talk him through it. Do it one more time for an third shot. Then bring back the target for a look at it, or wait until the next cease fire if necessary to retrieve it for a look. Why only three shots? Well this is because it will give you a good idea of whether or not the rifle is sighted in for the shooter, or if the shooter is making some mistakes that need correction. Three shots are enough to read the target and through triangulation you can then formulate any corrective action. More shots will only muddy up the water so to speak. Fewer shots will not be enough to grasp whether or not the child was accurate or inaccurate with any reliability.

If you are at a range that requires you to await a cease fire before being able to retrieve your target the time waiting can be utilized to shoot another target (hopefully you have two points next to each other from which to shoot), or you can observe other shooters. Better yet you can ask the student shooter how he thought he did, and what it felt like doing it. Of course if you have a good spotting scope, you can check the target from the firing line and do not need to wait to retrieve it before making any adjustments in how the shooter is shooting or to the sights on the rifle. One of these days I'll buy a spotting scope; but if anyone out there is feeling generous after reading this, well I would not turn down an offer of a free one. If you do use a spotting scope, I recommend taking pen and paper and making a representative drawing of the target, then marking off where each shot has hit the actual target. This way there is no doubt as to where later shots hit the target. Even with a spotting scope, I recommend retrieving your target and putting up a frwsh one after about every 10 to 15 shots at most. Make the shooter take his or her time with those 15 shots and if you are on a range where you need to await a cease fire the time will fly by before you know it. Another way to take time while shooting, and I think is important not to rush a new shooter, is to take a short break after every three to 5 shots. The reason for the break is that holding a rifle is new to the student's muscles, and all the concentration required to shoot is or can be pretty stressful. So take some short breaks in between sets of shots. At frst three shots is enough. After the shooter has fired off three rounds, have him or her make the gun safe. Talk them through how to do so, then have them place the gun down on the bench pointing downrange, or back into a rack as appropriate at the range on which you are shooting. Follow the range rules in whatever you do, it only helps to solidify the concept of firearms safety for the child student shooter. Talk to the shooter, give him or her some pointers, and when ready go at it again.

If the student shooter has been right on target, that is great. Keep him or her shooting and if the accuracy proves reliable that is a good thing. If on the other hand the shots have not accurately and reliabley hit their mark, then you may neeed to either critique the shooter (as during one of the breaks I mentiuoned) or you may need to sight in the gun. Before changing anything with the sights talk to the shooter and ask what his or her sight picture and sight alignment look like. You need to know if they are seemingly getting that right before you even think of sight adjustment. Of course you also want to be sure they are properly holding the rifle and squeezing the trigger, but you need to watch their techniques on those rather than just aksing about them. If you think it may be that the sights need adjustment, then you try the rifle first. Even I can fire my son's Armscor 14-Y youth model bolt action rifle accurately. Yes it is a youth sized rifle, but that does not mean I cannot fire it. If it is shooting the same way for me as it does for the child, such as all shots low to the left, then I would need to make adjustments so that the rifle will fire higher and more to the right. If the rifle was shooting all over the paper for the child and is also shooting like that for me, then the rifle may need repair or the ammunition may need changing, or maybe I had just better improve my shooting. Shooting all over the paper like that is usually indicative of shooter error. Of course it could also be that there is a dominant eye problem too. If the child is a right handed shooter and is left eye dominant, you may have to take steps to adjust for shooting with the right eye such as blurring out the left lens of the shooting glasses - but do this only after making absolutely sure that it is a off side eye dominance problem, and only after consulting with and having the child examined by an eye doctor.

Shoot over the course of an hour or two but not more on the frst trip to the range. If there has been an laxness in safety it is something you must address as soon as you see it. Don't wait until later. Have the child take finger off of the trigger, make it safe, and then explain what was done that was unsafe with suggestons as to how to remain safe. Don't only find fault, make sure to praise things done right. If the young shooter showed some improvement over the course of that time from first shots to last then congratulate him or her on it. Congratulate the shooter likewise if he or she even hit the paper and did not improve, some people rally cannot hit the broadside of a barn, and I am not kidding. Even if the child shot poorly throughout the time at the range, congratulate him or her if she or he handled the firearm safely. Make sure to remain patient. I cannot recall how many times I have lost my patience while out with my son or daughter and ruined what would have otherewise been a good day, but I do know it has happened too many times. Patience is key to having fun while learning to shoot, i goes a long way toward helping the shooter keep at their goals, and keeps thing safer at the range. If you ever do lose your cool, make sure to recompose yourself before any more shooting, or even gun handling, is done.

Next time you go to the range continue with the basics. Don't ever assume that a child has retained everything you told him or showed her for the next time. Such an assumption could lead to a tragic accident. As the second range session progresses you may want to swirch targets to make things a little more interesting. Instead of using a bullseye target, why not try one with several bullseyes, or a small game target. Sooner or later you may decide to try shooting at places other than a professional rang. if you can find someplace where it would be practical you can set up a wide variety of targets from paper bullseye and small game targets to plastic bottles full of water (add food dye to make it more interesting), to ballons tethered on a short string (this way they will move in the breeze but keep the srting very short, only an inch or two of free string otherwise the balloon may blow off to one side or the other enough to make an unsafe shot very tempting). You may even wind up shooting at exploding targets (available commercially where legal). A good idea for a true beginner are splatter targets. These are essentially bullseye stickers that you place over a target and when a bullet hits them the black covering spaltters leaving a bright een or yellow under layer visible. If your eyes are good, you can tell from a good distance as to whether or not you hit your mark without a spotting scope.

Each time you are finished shooting, either at a range, out in a field, in your backyard (should you be so lucky to have a place to shoot on your property) you should teach the young shooter that cleanup is part of a range day; and that you do not leave the area until it has been cleaned. Once you get home you can have the youngster help clean the guns. This is a good way to help assure that young shooters will develop good habits leading to them maintaining their own firearms in good condition when they are old enough to own some for themselves. Of course with children you want to be especially careful when it comes to contact with such things as powder and lead solvents, fouling from firearms, oils, and lead. Make sure that the child wears proper protective clothing while helping to clean any firearms. Rubber gloves, eye protection, and a vinyl or other spill and splash proof apron would all be good things they should wear while doing the chore. A good wash up when done is highly recommended. In additio, once home from the range you will want to change out of your range clothing and throw them right into the wash. This helps cut down on any contamination of lead dust that may have ben picked up at the range. One other note about lead and lead dust exposure. You willr ecall I kept talking about a professional range above. I like to go to an indoor range when I teach youngsters to shoot if only because a properly operating indoor range will have a good ventilation system that sucks out the air containing powder and lead residues, and pumps in fresh and filtered air. You may think an outdoor range would be better than an indoor range for giving you fresh air, but that could possibly depend on which way the wind is blowing. I am not sure it is correct but I have heard that in this regard it is much better to shoot at an indoor range with a proper and fully functioning ventilation system.

By now you maybe thinking that I left out some things about teaching a child to shoot. For example I made no mention of how a child should be taught to hold a gun, nor did I describe in any detail sight alignment, sight picture, breathing control, trigger control and follow through. The reason I did not give specifics on those and other techniques that will lead to a child becoming a good shot is because that is their instructor's job and not mine. In other words, if you are planning on teaching your child how to shoot, you had better be ready to do so. Being ready means that you have all the basics down, and also have an idea of how you will go about teaching the basics to the new shooter. If you don't know the nomenclature of a gun you will be suing, or as related to guns in general, learn it before you think of teaching someone to shoot, and make sure you have it right. Same goes for all of the techniques of the actual handling and shooting of firearsm. Of course, the same also goes for firearms safety rules. More than anything else you want it to have been a safe and enjoyable experience when the day is done.

Speaking of safety, here are a couple of safety tips that you may or may not think of when going shooting. Have a first aid kit available for minor to serious injuries and know how to apply first aid. You do not need to be an EMT to stop or control bleeding if, heavens forbid, someone is shot or otherwise seriously wounded at the range. Take a first aid course if you don't have a clue, the life you save could be your child's, heck it could be your own. Teach your child what you have learned or have them go to the class with you. In addition to a good first aid kit, always, and I mean alway take along a charged cell phone. You could be out in the middle of nowhere and be with someone who gets seriously injured, and while the phone may not help there, as you get closer to a hospital the phone may wind up back in service. It just makes all the sooner that you can contact someone for help. As it is nowadays though, you are in cell phone range in much of the USA, and the phone will get throiugh on a call to 911 when you need it. Either way it is an important item to include on any range trip. Finally you should have an idea of where you can get medical aid if needed and you have to drive the injured person there. A little planning and preparation goes a long way to avoiding a fatal catastrophe should a bad accident occur.


Now you do not have to follow everything I recommended, and you may even think of something I left out that you deem important, bear in mind the very basics of teaching a child to shoot and it should turn out well. Those basics mean that if you strictly follow proper firearms safety, if you closely supervise the young student shooter, if you know what you are doing beforehand, if you do so at a professional range where the shooters are monitored by range officers in addition to you monitoring the new shooter, if you go at it with patience and a good attitude, then things are likely to turn out to be quite enjoyable for you and the young shooter. In closing let me say one thing about you - the person who is ready, willing and able to teach safe shooting to a youngster and then actually does so even if you only teach your own kids how to shoot - Bravo For You! You. You are among a minority in today's world, and you are preserving a piece of our American heritage that should never be forgotten - our right to keep and bear arms and our liberty to do so. Without folks like you, shooting sports will become a thing of the past.

All the best,
Glenn B