- Is your child old enough to learn and intelligently follow the Four Universal Rules of Gun Safety?
- Does your child have a healthy level of respect for adult authority? Will she immediately stop when you say “STOP”?
- Do you have adequate safety gear for your child? If so, is she willing to wear it?
- Is she old enough to keep her fingers out of her mouth and off her face?
- What are your state laws about children at the range?
- Is your range child-friendly?
If the answers to all these questions are positive, your child may be old enough to learn to shoot — provided you yourself are ready and able to give her your absolute and undivided attention while she does so. That means that on the first outing (and perhaps for a long time afterward) you will do no shooting yourself. Your only job will be to hover over your new shooter and make sure she stays safe.
Taking a child to the range can be a lot of fun. Done properly, the first trip to the range can be a great parent-child bonding time. It might even be the beginning of a healthy, lifelong hobby for your child. The first trip to the range can also be a lot of work. Done poorly, it can result in a grumpy child who didn’t have any fun at all. Even worse, a poor first outing can even result in tragedy if safe gun handling is not a central and primary concern.
Whether your child’s first day on the range turns into a fun triumph or an unhappy disaster depends upon you, the responsible adult. Your actions and attitudes directly influence how your child sees this day.
If you want your child to have a good first experience, the most important thing is to keep first things first. Your twin goals are to keep your child safe, and to have fun with your child. Every other possible concern is far less important than these two goals — and staying safe is far, far more important than having fun. If you get wrapped around the axle about your child looking good, shooting well, impressing the range owner, or making you look like SuperMom or WonderDad, you will NOT be thinking about the things that really matter. So let those other things go. The only essentials are that you and your child stay safe while having fun together.
Stay Safe and Have Fun
Staying safe is far and away more important than anything else you might do on the range with your child. This should go without saying, but it is surprisingly easy to let non-essentials get in the way of this important goal.
The very first step, before you even get to the range, is to make sure your child knows and understands the basic firearms safety rules. These basic rules are not at all hard for even a young child to learn, nor are they difficult to explain. Because they are so basic and so fundamental, once your child knows these rules it will become very much easier to explain any other range-specific rules you might encounter with her along the way.
For example, one common range rule requires shooters to stay behind a painted line and not touch anything on the shooting bench while others are downrange. Such a rule might sound silly to a child, at least until her mom explains that when people are downrange, it is really, really hard for anyone to handle a gun without accidentally pointing it at someone because there isn’t any safe direction to point it. So the range rule just helps people remember to obey one of the basic safety rules that even grownups sometimes forget. This kind of explanation is very helpful because a child who understands the reasons behind such a rule is far less likely to break the rule.
When teaching the basic firearms safety rules to my children, I always tried to concentrate most of our energy on the “why” behind each rule. For example, when telling the kids to treat every gun as if it were loaded, I would stop and ask them why they thought that might be important. What would you do differently with a gun you KNEW was loaded? How would you treat it? Would you be more careful, or less careful? By asking this type of leading question, I allowed the children themselves to figure out how important the rules were. The kids became my allies in our plan to stay safe on the range.
If you truly believe that your child is too young to understand the safety rules, even after you have explained them, then your child is too young to be on the range with you. It is that simple. Since the consequences of ignorance can be deadly, a live range is no place for a child too young to understand and follow basic safety precautions.
At this point, someone reading this is probably thinking, “But my child is only five years old, so he’s not old enough to understand …” Explain the rules anyway! Maybe your explanation will get through. Even if it does not, your careful explanation plus your modelling of safe behavior on the range plus your committment to keeping a close eye on your child at all times, adds up to a far safer day than any one of these elements alone. Even a child who does not remember the full lecture may remember enough to prevent a tragedy.
On the flip side, a surprising number of children are capable of understanding far more, far sooner, than their parents give them credit for. The best way to find out whether your child “gets it” may be simply to ask questions while you are going over the rules, and really listen to your child’s answers. This can help clear up some dangerous misunderstandings.
After the basic firearms safety rules, the next-most important element of safety is good protective equipment. What’s needed:
- Eye protection
- Hearing protection
- Protection from flying brass
- Protection from overexposure to lead
True safety glasses feature lenses big enough to cover the entire eye area, with sideshields to prevent brass or other materials from entering behind the lens from the side, and are made of materials sturdy enough to stand up to significant impacts without shattering. For this reason, standard prescription eyeglasses are not enough to protect your child’s vision on the range.
One company producing eyewear of an appropriate size for children is EnviroSafety Products, which offers both eyewear and ear protection in child sizes. I’m passing the URL along because child-sized safety gear can be difficult to find.
If possible, avoid purchasing oversized eyewear that slides down your child’s nose and leaves her eyes unprotected. If you absolutely must use adult-sized eyewear on your child, the type held on by an elastic strap is probably a better bet than the more common earpiece type. The elastic strap is also less likely to interfere with her ear muffs.
Basic hearing protection is a must, even if you are “only” shooting .22-caliber firearms. Children’s ears are almost invariably more sensitive to sound than adult ears, and their hearing can easily be damaged. Double whammy: while protecting child-sized ears is maybe even more important than protecting adult ears, it can be difficult to find ear protection that is comfortable and sized correctly for the little folks.
There are two basic options for hearing protection: plugs and muffs. Ear plugs have the advantage of being generally more comfortable and less likely to get in the way when shooting shotguns and rifles. Ear muffs are bulkier and harder to fit, but tend to provide better coverage of the entire area around the ear, including the bones behind the ear which tend to conduct sound, which in turn may provide more efficient protection.
The primary drawback of both plugs and muffs is that, when you put them on a young child, the child may not be able to tell whether the hearing protection is adequate. If the muffs are knocked askew (perhaps by the earpiece to the child’s safety glasses), or if the plugs fail to expand properly, the sound waves can still get in and cause problems. And the child may not tell you this is happening.
If your child’s ear canals are still too small for even the smallest plugs, the plugs can be split in half lengthwise to make them skinnier so they will fit. However. When you do this, you will have reduced the plug’s rated effectiveness by some unknown quantity, so it is best to do this only if you really have no other viable choices — and even then, a set of muffs worn over the plugs would not be amiss.
The effectiveness of both plugs and muffs is measured by NRR, or the product’s Noise Reduction Rating. The higher the number, the better the product is at reducing noise from the surrounding environment.
This should maybe go without saying, but once you put your child’s ear protection in place, she will have a harder time hearing you. If you need to get your child’s attention, especially about a safety issue, speak loudly and clearly!
Protection from Flying Brass
Even if you and your child are firing guns which do not throw brass (such as revolvers or bolt-action rifles), it is important to protect your child from flying brass which may be produced by other shooters on the range. This is important as much for comfort as it is for safety; not only is hot brass painful on the bare skin, but the unexpected pain can cause a young shooter to dance around and do dangerous things with the firearm.
A brimmed cap or hat is your youngster’s first defense against getting hot brass caught behind his eyewear. Most shooting glasses, even those with sideshields, are unprotected along the top. This means a piece of brass can easily arc right behind the glasses, perhaps leaving a blister on an eyelid or causing even worse damage on the eye itself. A brimmed hat worn low on the brow prevents this quite handily.
Next, your youngster’s clothing should be sensible. If possible, have your child wear a tucked-in shirt with tails long enough to stay tucked in. If tucked in isn’t in the cards, consider a shirt with tails long enough to cover every inch of waistband even when bent forward to shoot. A shirt without buttons tends to be a little less brass prone than a buttoned shirt. Avoid scoop-necked shirts, in favor of a standard tee shirt collar or even a turtleneck.
If the weather permits it at all, long pants provide better protection from brass than shorts do.
Shoes, too, should be brass-resistant. Avoid open-toed sandals because hot brass between the toes can really hurt. Flip-flop sandals are a definite no no, not only because of the danger of flying brass but also because they greatly increase the risk of a dangerous stumble with gun in hand.
Protection from Lead Overexposure
While lead contamination can be very dangerous for children, avoiding lead contamination not difficult. It mostly involves simple hygiene and other common sense actions which can reduce or entirely eliminate your child’s exposure to harmful amounts of lead while you enjoy family time together on the range.
See the article titled Aiming for Lower Lead Exposure for more information.
More Safety Tips
On the way to the range, go over the safety rules with your child and make sure she does not have any last-minute questions about what will be expected from her. Remember that it will be harder to talk to your child on the range because you will both be wearing ear protection, so get all your last-minute stuff out of the way before the hearing protection goes on. If she does have a question or a problem on the line, consider retreating to your car to talk, if you are shooting on an outdoor range where you can sit in your car and still keep an eye on your belongings. On an indoor range, remember you can simply stop her from shooting and wait for a ceasefire to remove your ear protection if you need to talk in depth.
For the first outing, and for many subsequent outings, you will want to —
- Find an uncrowded range. Ideally, the first trip to the range should happen at a time when the range is not crowded. Outdoor ranges are much less stressful for the first outing than are indoor ones.
- Take one child at a time. If you have more than one child, plan to take only one child to the range with you for on a first trip. Later you can plan to bring up to two children per adult, but for the first time out, your beginning shooter needs and deserves your undivided attention.
- Start with dryfire. With an unloaded gun, make sure she knows how to safely hold the gun. Work out eye issues as much as you can in dryfire, too.
- Load only one round in the gun at a time. A surprisingly large number of people, children and adults alike, will turn around with the gun in hand immediately after the first shot is fired. Similarly, a very small number of people will drop the gun or nearly drop the gun because they are so startled by the sensation of firing a gun for the first time. If there is only one round in the gun, these foreseeable safety violations will be a lot less dangerous if they do happen. Even once you are certain that your child is past this stage, loading only one round at a time allows her to gain experience in safely manipulating the firearm and understanding how it works, experience which can be gained in no other way than to repeatedly load the gun herself.
- Keep your eyes and mind on your child’s actions so that your child doesn’t have the opportunity to do anything dangerous. This trip is about the child, not about you, so you are not going to shoot today. Watch your child’s hands while he is shooting, so you can anticipate and prevent anything dangerous from happening. The target will still be there when he is done shooting, but you can only spot a problem developing by watching his hands in the here-and-now.
- Never move outside of arm’s reach so that you can grab and control the firearm if the child begins to do something dangerous. If you must move outside of arm’s reach from your child, have the child set the firearm down until you are within reach again.
- Keep the trip short. The first outing should be just long enough to allow the child to satisfy her curiosity about firing a gun but not enough to allow her to grow bored or inattentive. For some kids, that may mean just a couple of rounds. Other kids are more adventurous, and will want to keep firing until they have exhausted a box of ammunition. The child will remember your trip to the range more fondly if it ends as soon as her attention first begins to wander, and safety dictates that it is best to pack up and depart while the child?s interest is still focused upon what you are doing.
The big secret about keeping a child or any newcomer safe on the range is never to allow even minor unsafe behavior. If there’s a minor problem, don’t give it a chance to develop into something serious. Nip unsafe activity in the bud.
If you do spot a safety violation, don’t let a small problem grow into a big one. If she’s doing something borderline, stop her early with a gentle word rather than later with a sharp one. (And enforce that early word! If it was important enough to speak up, it’s important enough to enforce.)
Finally, a brief word about discipline issues. I won’t tell you how to raise your kids, but for safety’s sake, if they’re on the range, they must obey the safety officer. For all intents and purposes, this means your child must willingly obey you. An unintentional safety violation that she didn’t mean to commit doesn’t have to mean the day is over, provided you are able to get her back on track. But a repeated violation, or an attitude problem of any sort, probably means it’s time to pack up and go home.
Before I even get around to telling you about all the fun you can have with your children on the range, I need to remind you again that having fun is an important goal. This bears repeating simply because a lot of folks who take their kids to the range are actually fostering fond hopes of raising the next Rob Leatham or Annie Oakley. There’s nothing wrong with wanting your kids to do well, but a strong desire to turn your kid into an excellent shot can actually become a self-defeating source of frustration for both of you. If your child doesn’t have fun on the range, she’ll never become an excellent shot because she’ll never want to go shooting in the first place.
Of course it can be very satisfying to develop excellent, precision marksmanship, but the satisfaction of making very tiny groups at extreme ranges does not generally arrive until after a shooter has sent thousands of rounds downrange to develop the skill to do it. For at least the first few trips to the range, aim for immediate gratification. Get the kids hooked on firearms fun first, and those thousands of rounds will eventually happen; fail to hook them, and they’ll never have time to develop the skill you want them to have. So take the time to seek out safe, exciting targets that are very easy to hit from the very beginning. There will be time to develop precision skills after your new shooter discovers how much fun shooting can be.
For children, as for most new shooters, the ideal introductory gun is a .22 caliber firearm, preferably a rifle. Rifles are preferred because it is easier to be conscious of muzzle direction with a long gun than with a handgun. Depending upon where you live, it might even be against the law to allow your young shooter to shoot a handgun.
It is worthwhile to seek out firearms and other gear which will properly fit your young shooter. Not only will your child likely have more fun shooting a gun that belongs to her alone, but she will likely be more comfortable and learn to shoot more easily if the equipment fits her. Youngsters tend to be awkward anyway, and a too-big, too-heavy gun just compounds the difficulty of learning a new skill. So, if it seems at all practical to you, consider purchasing a gun the right size for your child. Click here for a list of child- and youth-sized rifles you may wish to research.
If you do not believe that a rifle specifically designed for a child would be a good financial investment at this time (perhaps your child is just on the verge of adolescence), consider purchasing a common and widely-available adult sized rifle, such as a Ruger 10/22 or a similar firearm, and swapping out the adult stock for a smaller one. As your child grows, you will later be able to move her into the longer stock without purchasing an entirely new gun for her.
When shooting at an established range, remember that benches and chairs on the range will be sized for adults rather than for children. If your child is very young, she might be more comfortable and shoot a bit better if you bring along items such as a booster seat, a phone book, or a stack of pillows to enable her to use the adult benches. Alternatively, if the range allows it, you might prefer to start her out shooting from the prone position — just be aware of safety concerns such as other shooters’ muzzle directions, the increased possibility of getting hit with brass, and the danger of getting tripped over.
Keep targets big and close. You want your child to have as much fun and experience as much success as possible!
Click here to read Lawdog’s article about having fun with new shooters; there are more target ideas within that article.
No-cleanup Reactives: Necco wafers, saltine crackers, charcoal briquets, ice cubes
Slightly Messier Reactives: soda pop cans, gallon jugs filled with water or colored water, gallon jugs filled and then frozen, old CDs, golf balls
Reactives that are a pain to clean up: eggs, rotten veggies, or over ripe fruit (all are biodegradable but unsightly and smelly).
Purchased Reactives: “exploding” targets, swinging dingers (resetting steel targets, such as these from Birchwood Casey).
Balloons. Balloons come in all sizes and shapes. Experiment! You can use balloons filled with water, with air, or with helium (but be certain the helium balloon is below the berm). You can add a little bit of flour to an air-filled balloon for a “smoke” effect when shot. You can tape nine air-filled water balloons to a cardboard target in a grid pattern, and play Tic Tac Toe. You can tape balloons firmly to a target stand or let them dangle challengingly from a short string. And yes, picking up balloon detritus is a pain in the neck. But shooting them is oh so fun!
Just Cool: Coins (need a solid backstop. Try hot-glueing them to a board before going to the range). Coins make cool mementos and both boys and girls enjoy having a necklace with a shot coin as the centerpiece. Outgrown toys can make good targets too, although again, clean up can be annoying.
Fun Paper Targets: paper plates, Shoot-N-C targets, animal-shaped paper targets, blown up photocopies of comic books etc.
Targets to AVOID: Don’t shoot glass. It’s not just a pain to clean up, it’s also dangerous to clean up. Don’t shoot anything you are not willing to clean up. Always leave the shooting area cleaner than you found it!
Other Fun Tips
Praise, praise, praise. Especially praise safe behavior, and make a big deal of how responsible she is: “I am glad I can trust you to keep your finger off the trigger!” Or, “It makes me really proud to see how careful you are to be safe when you are handling a gun.” Or, “You did really well remembering to put the safety on before you set the gun down.”
Build up excitement and confidence, especially when she has to work hard to hit something: “Wow! Did you see that balloon pop? POP!! That was great!” Or, “Hey, look at this target! You did awesome!” Or, “I was really proud of the way you kept trying. You’re doing great!”
Competition? The downside of competition: frustration, hurt feelings, not good for first time out. The up side: encourages improvement and focus, and some kids thrive on it. Bottom line? Know your own kid, and only push just barely hard enough to keep them having fun, NOT hard enough to hurt.
Make it a short trip. Leave her wanting more.
Bumps in the Road
Pack an extra dose of patience in the range bag.
If your child is reluctant to shoot at first, allow her to watch you shoot. But keep her engaged in what you are doing! Have her interact with your shooting — for example, play a game where the child calls out a target for you to hit. Encourage her to shoot when she is ready.
Don’t make a big deal about missing targets. If she’s safe and having fun, that’s all that matters. But if it matters to her, do whatever you need to do in order to give her a good taste of success: Get a bigger target. Bring the target closer. Offer to help steady the gun. Ask questions to figure out where the difficulty is.
Listen to your child. If she says she “can’t do” something, figure out why and help her find a solution. Don’t give her a chance to get discouraged and frustrated.
Remember, she’s just little. Don’t push her too hard. Her joy in being on the range is, by and large, joy at being with you. Don’t spoil that for her!
Stay Safe and Have Fun!
See the take a newbie to the range article for more helpful hints. After all, children are just extreme newbies, who need shorter words, easier explanations, and closer targets.