Ralph Saunders with shooter

Ralph Saunders helps adjust the stock of 10-year-old Ainsley McFarland's rifle during the Yellowstone Rifle Club's junior division practice on a recent Sunday afternoon. 

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Like many young Montanans, Ella Anderson's first time pulling a trigger was on a BB gun. She took to shooting right away and it wasn’t long before she was begging her parents to shoot the “big gun,” a bolt-action .22 rifle.

On Christmas morning children across the state ripped wrapping paper from new BB guns, single-shot shotguns and bolt-action rifles. The state’s hunting participation rate is among the highest in the country and the firearms tradition is often passed on during the holidays. But parents can struggle to navigate the many paths available when deciding what age to get a child into shooting, which gun to choose and how to get them acquainted with their firearm.

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Rifle club Anderson

Mallory Simons, age 17, operates her .22 caliber target rifle as students in the Yellowstone Rifle Club's junior division practice on a recent Sunday afternoon. 

Ella received her first rifle, a Remington .22, as a Christmas gift when she was 6 years old. Now 13 years old, she has years of shooting experience, and this fall she began precision shooting classes at Yellowstone Rifle Club.

Every Sunday she points an ultra-accurate small bore rifle at a target 50 feet down range. She focuses on her breathing cycles, applies steady pressure on the trigger and the rifle fires. She feels a slight push against her shoulder, hears the snap of the bullet breaking the sound barrier and prepares for the next shot. She aims for the tightest five shot grouping possible. It’s a sport requiring dedication and practice.

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Rifle club target

After a 20 minute shooting round, a target shot with a .22 from 50 feet has a tight grouping as students in the Yellowstone Rifle Club's junior division practice on a recent Sunday afternoon. 

Ella has accompanied her parents to the range many times but this is only her fourth session with formal instruction. She shoots a rifle with a four-figure retail value. The gun is supplied by the club for the session at no extra cost.

The Andersons pay $1 for a target, $3 for ammunition and $7 per month for membership. For the low price of entry, Ella’s learning the correct and safe way to shoot from prone, shooting and standing positions. A child doesn’t have to be a precision shooter to participate in the youth program, however. The Sunday shoot is open to anyone ages 9 to 20, and the shooter can bring their own rifle to learn.

The market for youth and entry-level firearms is served by nearly every major gun manufacturer. There are options ranging from the most utilitarian rimfire hunting rifles to high-end .22 lever actions with prices over $1,000. Specialty precision rifles can cost three times that. The difficulty many families face is deciding which firearm to buy and how to go about bestowing a child with the serious responsibility of gun ownership.

Dustin Greenwood, air rifle director at Yellowstone Rifle Club, says it’s a good idea to ease a child into the shooting sports so they have a positive first experience. Greenwood recommends BB guns as a first step. Their manual operation helps kids focus on shooting mechanics and safety protocol.

“They won’t be able to just pull the trigger a bunch of times and put a lot of rounds down range. It’s learning how to shoot precise and do it right,” Greenwood said.

He leads a weekly youth air rifle shooting session at Yellowstone Rifle Club for children 9 years old and up. Greenwood runs beginners through basic safety procedures during their first shoot. He teaches them how to load, unload and operate the safety on their gun. They learn where to point the muzzle of the rifle when they aren’t shooting and how to navigate range etiquette.

He also helps new shooters determine which hand and eye are dominant. For most people it’s the same side but others are “cross dominant” and must adjust their form to overcome this.

“We teach them the fundamentals of safety, that’s the biggest thing. When they get that down we get them shooting,” he said.

Greenwood mixes his sessions up to keep kids interested. Sometimes he swaps traditional targets with playing cards or balloons. Choosing the right gun can also help keep the child engaged in the sport.

If a child wishes to dive further into shooting and is ready for a more powerful gun, Greenwood recommends a bolt action .22 long rifle. The ammunition is cheaper than other small caliber rifles like the .17 HMR and can be found in bulk at any sporting goods or large department store.

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Rifle club safety officer

Range safety officer Ted McFarland talks to daughter Kamdyn, age 9, as students in the Yellowstone Rifle Club's junior division practice on a recent Sunday afternoon. 

Greenwood said parents should buy a rifle that fits their child’s needs. A smaller shooter needs a lighter, shorter rifle. Plastic stocks tend to be lighter and more durable than wood stocks so they tend to work better for children.

Length of pull is the distance between the trigger and the end of the buttstock. A child with short arms needs a shorter length of pull. The Keystone Sporting Arms Crickett and the Savage Arms Rascal are .22 bolt-action rifles tailored to the smallest shooters. Both rifles have lengths of pull of about 11.5 inches and can be purchased for just north of $100 at many sporting goods stores.

For comparison, rifles marketed for adults typically have a length of pull approaching 14 inches. Ruger Firearms offers the American Rimfire in a plastic stock with interchangeable modules to increase length of pull and the height of the stock. By changing the modules, the rifle can grow with the shooter. As the name implies, the American Rimfire is made in the United States and can be found for a little more than $300. Stock inserts cost an additional $20 through Ruger.

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Rifle club target exam

Mallory Simons, age 17, looks over her target with Ralph Saunders as students in the Yellowstone Rifle Club's junior division practice on a recent Sunday afternoon. 

Anticipating a child’s future interest and needs within the hobby can be difficult. Ella discovered precision shooting through her 4-H club. Ella’s mother, Kristi Anderson, said she chooses a number of projects each year. This year her options included cowboy action shooting, pistol and shotgun marksmanship courses. She chose precision shooting.

Kristi and her husband, Dave Anderson, enjoy shooting but they didn’t pressure any of their six kids to join them at the range. Kristi said she let her kids express interest first and decide for themselves whether they wanted to participate in the hobby.

Ella was always enthusiastic about shooting. She wanted more range time and when she made the transition from her BB gun to her .22 she was hooked.

“She didn’t panic. It didn’t frighten her,” Kristi said. “She thought it was really cool she could hit the target at longer distances than the BB gun.”

She said each one of her children took a different path. One of her sons didn’t begin shooting until he was a middle school student and took a hunter’s safety class. Ella is the youngest and will take hunter safety education soon.

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Saunders watches target

Long time coach Ralph Saunders watches a target as students in the Yellowstone Rifle Club's junior division practice on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Kristi said she’s glad her daughter will already have firearms safety and marksmanship skills down before she chases her first game.

“The precision shooting really helps them because you know whatever they’re shooting at, they’re probably going to hit,” she said.

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