A child’s best, first rifle

Is there any shooter among us who does not remember his or her first rifle? At the behest of a reader who is planning ahead for a just-born child, Guns.com looks at some of the best options for a first all-around rifle for a youngster.

His stipulations were simple—a gun with low to manageable recoil, fit for a youth, and in a caliber that can handle anything from small game to hogs to deer.  Since the reader has already acquired a nice .22LR as a starter gun, for our purposes, we’re talking honest-to-goodness rifles.  The good news for him and all others shopping for those lucky first-time shooters– options abound.

The .243

A .243 was not my first rifle, but it was the first rifle I truly loved and felt comfortable with.  To that end, I wish it had been my first rifle.

What’s not to like here?  The recoil is negligible, and more than manageable for even the smallest frame shooters.  The range in bullet weights—commercially from 55-110 grains allows the rifle to be safely used on everything from the smallest varmints to large deer.  Just about every manufacturer builds rifles chambered in .243 and ammo is plentiful, even during these times of short supply.

Sure, some magnum-gun nuts will always argue that the .243 with its 6mm bullet is too small for big game hunting, but I’d venture to guess that just as many whitetails have fallen to the .243 as to a .300 short mag.  Its flat trajectory makes it a joy to send across a field at any game. Of the dozens of whitetails I’ve shot with my Browning A-Bolt Medallion in .243, only one made it more than 25 yards, and with the right round and bullet, I have dropped deer out to 325 yards.

Regardless of caliber choice—not only for kids, but for hunters of any age—shot placement does more to drop a deer than any caliber.  There is no compensation for poor marksmanship.  One of my favorite things about the .243 is that while it’s a great introductory gun for young shooters, it’s a lifetime gun for adults. There will always be a .243 in my safe.  If you appreciate the 6mm bullet family and the .243’s qualities, but prefer something more non-traditional, there are great classic rounds like the 6.5×55 of Swedish Mauser fame.

The 7mm-08

I am a fan of the .308 cartridge, but in many cases, that may just be too much for a young, small-framed, first-time shooter. The worst thing you can do is create a flinch or make a shooter’s first time a negative experience.  With that in mind, the 7mm-08 is the perfect compromise.

Originally a wildcat round called the 7mm/308, the 7mm-08 is essentially a necked down .308 casing with a 7mm bullet.  With bullet weights commercially available from 100-175 grains, the most popular big game rounds fall in the 130-150 grain range.  While commercial ammo is generally available, it is not quite as common as the .243 or .308 on gun store shelves.  The nice thing is that most major rifle manufacturers build their compact models in the three aforementioned chamberings.

Recoil with the -08 is slightly more than the .243 but less than a .308.  And like the .243, the variety of bullet weights available make the 7mm-08 perfectly ideal for critters from smallish hogs to large deer.  Packing more punch than a .243 while still maintaining a flat trajectory, the -08 is a sweet long-range round, and several shooters report using it to take down game as big as elk.  Again, fans of classic rounds can also explore the ballistically similar 7×57.

So you’ve chosen the caliber.  Now which rifle?

The options abound, but if you truly want a lifetime gun—which costs money, of course—I’d look at the Browning A-Bolt or X-Bolt lines, the Winchester Model 70 Featherweight, or even the Ruger line of rifles, from M77 to American, all available in micro/compact models.

Obviously, I’m partial to bolt actions, but there is a case to be made for all the other actions as well.  The single shot, break actions teach the value of making one accurate shot count, without the worry of additional rounds in the chamber of an inexperienced shooter.  Semi-autos can make recoil more manageable in larger calibers, and many shooters probably carried a lever gun afield on that unforgettable first hunt.

And don’t forget that just because a gun is not offered in either compact or youth models, most any rifle can be tailored to smaller-framed shooters.  Any competent gunsmith can cut down a stock for appropriate length of pull, re-fit the recoil pad, and even do barrel or trigger work, if necessary.

But my sage advice is this: when you can’t choose, buy a combo

Rossi Trifecta

Buying a Rossi Trifecta is like break-action one-stop shopping. It offers the youth shooter three different platforms.  With its youth-sized frame, the gun comes with barrels in 22 long rifle, 20 gauge shotgun, and .243 rifle (a .44 mag option is now available in place of the .243 as well).  It’s also easily customizable for each barrel, with a removable cheeckpiece and stock shims.

While it is probably not a long term option of highest quality, this Rossi would provide a great start for a youth shooter.  They can plink and hunt small game with the .22, chase turkeys and clays with the 20 gauge, and deer with the rifled options.  In a way, it’s an ultimate introduction to all sorts of shooting in one very affordable package. By the time they outgrow the combo, both parent and child will likely have a much better idea of just what rifle will suit the future.

Thompson Center Encore or Dimension

Whether you favor a single shot break action like the Encore or a bolt action like the Dimension, these TC rifles offer interchangeable barrels on a single frame.  Theoretically, you can fit the stock to the shooter and then allow them to continue to grow with not only the stock, but the barrels and calibers as well.

Whereas the Encore allows all barrels to be interchanged on the frame with no discretion, the Dimension has 4 “families” of bolts that pair with calibers.  For youth shooters, the “B” family of calibers is ideal, with barrels available in .22-250, .243, 7mm-08, and .308.  Encore barrels are—or have been—available in just about every caliber you can ever imagine, including shotgun barrels and muzzleloading setups.  The Encore Pro Hunter models with recoil reducers in the stock really do make a difference as well, and TC makes quality firearms.

Taurus/Rossi Circuit Judge

How about a combo that doesn’t require switching barrels?  The .410/.45LC Circuit Judge, with its smaller frame and 18.5” barrel is a viable option for first time shooters.  With a 5-shot cylinder, shooters can use either 2-3/4” or 3” .410 shotshells to take down small game.  When it’s time for bigger game, the .45 Long Colt round does a darn adequate job on game like hogs and even deer at shorter ranges.  Though the Circuit Judge wears Tru-Glo type iron sights, it is just as easily scoped.

Conclusions for lucky kids

We’ve established that there is not one single correct gun choice for kids.  The gist here is that the best first rifle ultimately depends on the intended use and expectations for the future.  While any of the aforementioned rifles are good choices, the greatest choice of all is responsibly introducing a new, young shooter to the passion we so adore.  And never forget that a child never forgets that first rifle.