Watching my younger son, John, shoot a pump changed my mind about the perfect youth gun. Having always thought the reduced recoil of a gas auto was the most important factor for a beginner, I made John, who was 12 at the time, practice with his brother’s soft-shooting hand-me-down 20-gauge Youth 1100 before his first hunt. Then John tried an 870 Express Jr. A pound lighter than the auto, the downsized pump flew to John’s shoulder when he picked it up. Immediately he wanted to hunt with it. The pump would kick much harder than his heavier auto-loader, I warned. John insisted and shot four ducks with the 870 his first time out.

A 20-gauge pump makes an ideal starter gun—as long as it fits properly and you choose ammunition wisely.


A child must be able to confidently handle a gun in order to shoot well with it, and pump actions have a lot of virtues. They’re easy for small hands to operate. Pulling the bolt handle of many autoloaders requires strength, and some kids struggle with it. Moreover, pumps are safer than autos or two-barreled guns once you begin loading more than one shell at a time, as you have to work the action to chamber a second round. Most pumps are considerably lighter than autoloaders. They’re also inexpensive. That’s important because you must start a young shooter with a gun that fits, even though he or she will quickly outgrow it.


Have you ever watched a young shooter wrestle with a gun that’s too long and heavy? He’ll turn sideways, lean back, and heave the gun to his shoulder. That’s why it’s so important to get a gun that fits your son or daughter now, not a few years from now. If a gun is the right size and weight for your shooter, he’ll be able to stand up straight and push the muzzle toward an imaginary target while bringing the comb to his cheek and the butt to his shoulder pocket—no struggling, no snagging of the butt under the arm. Numerous youth models are available, and Winchester and Mossberg make guns that fit even small kids (see box).


To a new shooter, even a 20-gauge target load kicks hard in a youth pump. Don’t believe me? Try this test: Chamber a target load in a light gun and shoot it from your opposite shoulder. You’ll quickly see why low-recoil ammunition is the best choice for those all-important first outings, where your goal is fun without pain.

The softest-shooting 20-gauge cartridges made are Fiocchi’s great ¾-ounce, 1075-fps training loads (417-725-4118; Remington’s new Managed Recoil STS Target Loads have 7/8-ounce payloads at a modest 1100 fps. You’ll pay more for either of these than you will for a box of promotional ammunition, but they are well worth the extra cost.

If you’re hunting turkeys, let your youngster practice shooting stationary targets with light loads. Save the heavy ammo for the woods.

My kids have shot ¾-ounce steel and 1-ounce Kent Tungsten Matrix loads at ducks. In the up-lands, an ounce of shot is enough lead, even for pheasants. Give your child light-recoiling ammo and a gun that fits, and you’ll hasten the day he or she knocks down that first bird.

For more, check out Range365:** First-Time Shooter: Sporting Clays**


The standard youth gunstock measures 13 inches in length, which is about right for most kids over 10. To start kids even younger, you need a shorter stock. Two new 20-gauge youth models have 12-inch stocks: the Remington 870 Jr. ($665; 800-243-9700;, which has an 18-inch barrel; and the new Mossberg Super Bantam ($316; 203-230-5300;, shown, which has a 20-inch barrel and a stock that adjusts from 12 inches to 13. It comes in field, turkey, and deer versions. The tang safety makes it a good choice for left-handers or kids who will graduate to two-barreled guns. —PHILIP BOURJAILY