If you have kids you want to get hooked on hunting, it’s important to think carefully before choosing their first rifle. Throwing them to the wolves with a .300 Winchester Magnum might make for a funny story when they’re older, but it’s a terrible way to recruit a future hunting buddy.
There are tons of great calibers for youth hunters, but a brief MeatEater survey landed on three. For youth hunters, user-friendly recoil, minimal shot report, and light weight are the name of the game, and all these calibers fit the bill.
At the larger end of the spectrum, the 6.5 Creedmoor features a great recoil-to-power ratio that keeps shoulders bruise-free while ensuring a quick, clean kill.
Brody Henderson was brought up under the old-school large caliber model, but these days he’s gravitated towards smaller but still effective cartridges.
“As a young deer hunter, I used everything from a 16-gauge shotgun loaded with slugs to a .30-30 to a .30-06. These days, there are better choices for youth hunters,” he said.
He argued that the 6.5 Creedmoor (along with the 7mm-08) is a great long-range cartridge that produces mild recoil while maintaining the necessary energy to kill big game animals.
“With today’s selection of premium bullets, there’s no need to go with a bigger caliber, and the 6.5 Creedmoor considerably outperforms the smaller .243 Winchester,” Henderson said.
A decade of field work has proven the 6.5 as an effective big-game cartridge, but it only produces about 12 ft.-lbs. of recoil energy, give or take a few pounds depending on rifle weight and load charge. But its 140-grain bullet still packs a punch, traveling about 2700 feet-per-second and producing about 2,260 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle.
A .30-06 Springfield, by contrast, produces about 18 ft.-lbs. of recoil while only generating 2,821 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle with a 150-grain bullet. For those counting, that’s a 50% increase in recoil impulse for only a 25% increase in muzzle energy. Same story with the .308 Winchester: you’re looking at (roughly) a 45% increase in recoil impulse for only a 20% increase in muzzle energy.
If you’re trying to find a youngster’s first big-game cartridge, the 6.5 Creedmoor (and most other 6.5mm cartridges), are a great option. Weatherby offers a compact version of their Vanguard line for smaller-framed shooters, which they chamber in 6.5 Creedmoor.
The .243 Winchester can’t compete with larger cartridges in terms of knock-down power, but it’s been the perfect deer cartridge for a long time, and nothing has changed.
Janis Putelis said that while he has “stacks” of 6.5mm’s waiting for his daughters, they’ll most likely take their first big game animal (a doe whitetail) with a .243 Win.
“The .243 is light in recoil, so making the jump from .22 LR is not overwhelming,” he said. “That, coupled with today's super-performing bullets, makes the .243 Win. a solid choice for my lightweight, skinny-as-a-bean, young hunters.”
If you were to create the perfect entry-level rifle caliber for deer hunting, you’d probably come up with something like the .243 Win. Federal makes the .243 with bullets ranging from 55 to 100 grains, but the these 85-grain Trophy Copper loads are in the cartridge’s sweet spot.
With a 500-yard maximum effective range, the Trophy Copper .243 has lots of power to take deer well within the comfort zone for most youth hunters. With a 100-yard zero, the bullet only drops about 10 inches at 300 yards, which means hunters can hold on-target all the way out to 300 if the rifle is zeroed a few inches high at 100.
Plus, it has enough energy to make up for the occasional misplaced shot. It produces about 40% more energy than the .223 Rem. and is available loaded with 100-grain projectiles. Cartridges like the .223 Rem. are a nice option for youth hunters, but shots must be placed precisely when targeting medium-sized game. The .243 also requires precise shot placement, but it’s a little more forgiving, making it the perfect choice for a kid’s first deer rifle.
For smaller-framed shooters, check out Weatherby’s Vanguard Compact Blue in .243 Win.
.22 Long Rifle
No youth cartridge list would be complete without at least briefly mentioning the famous double-deuce. Its feather-light recoil is famously great for kids, and it has enough power to take small game like squirrels and rabbits out to about 60 yards.
Two characteristics make it stand out even further. First, it’s a great practice round for hunters of any age. Putelis mentioned that his daughters use the .22 LR to hone their skills and get comfortable behind the trigger. Even competitive shooters use the .22 LR as a low-cost way to stay sharp, and the same is true for kids. If you want to make sure the youth hunters in your life are comfortable around firearms and develop good habits, a .22 LR is the way to go.
The double-deuce is also chambered in rifles that actually fit small bodies. Even mildly recoiling rifles can be painful if they’re too large to fit securely in the shoulder pocket. Knowing this, many gun companies make.22 LR rifles with shorter stocks and barrels to make sure kids are as comfortable as possible behind the trigger.
For a first squirrel rifle, you can’t beat the .22 LR.
Pro Tip: Get a Suppressor
For any caliber, a suppressor can be a game-changer. Suppressors reduce recoil and shot report, the two things that cause flinching behind a trigger. It’s a great way to ease kids into shooting larger calibers, and it’s usually not prohibitively expensive to get a hunting rifle’s barrel threaded.
It’s true that purchasing a suppressor involves more paperwork and wait time than purchasing a firearm, but the process isn’t all that onerous. If you want to be sure your kid won’t abandon the deer woods for fear of a deer rifle, get them a suppressor and watch them outhunt you.
With a little forethought (and maybe a little extra cash), you can set up a youth hunter for success. The rifle you choose isn’t the most important part of a successful hunt, but the wrong rifle can ruin a kid’s day. While there are lots of cartridges out there, we think these are three of the best.