My sons are 16 and 21 so I speak from experience to parents of young children: Get your kids out hunting and shooting early. As soon as they reach junior high, homework, sports, music and other activities claim their time. If your kids are mature enough to start shooting while they're in grade school, that's the time to put a gun in their hands and get them hooked.
Obviously a child's first exposure to guns has to be fun. Choose a gun that fits, that's not too heavy and that doesn't kick too hard. Fortunately, youth guns keep getting better. Just as I sometimes see slick new strollers and car seats and all the other things my kids have long since outgrown and think, I wish they had them like that when my boys were little, I find myself wishing some of today's youth guns had been on the market back when I needed them.
Here's a battery for a young shooter: a rimfire, a centerfire and a shotgun.
Thompson/Center Hot Shot
The trigger is very good, breaking crisply at 3.5 pounds. The rifle has a peep sight with a large rear aperture that makes it quick to aim. From a rest I put five or six shots into half an inch at 25 yards with it easily. I've saved the best part about the Hot Shot for last: It sells for just $209 in blued steel and black synthetic, and it includes a spacer to lengthen the stock by an inch if needed.
There is plenty to like about the Scout: the stock design is right and it has a 13-inch length of pull for smaller shooters. The CrushZone recoil pad is soft, and the 3-pound trigger is terrific. I put a 1.5X-4.5X Weaver Grand Slam scope on top and it delivered good hunting accuracy. I put three-shot, 100-yard groups right at 1.5 inches with Remington 75-grain Accutips and Federal Premium 95-grain Vital Shoks.
Complaints? A few. The receiver could have used more polishing, and the button/lever that opens the rifle sometimes turned stiff and difficult to open, although that may well smooth out over time. The hammer was more difficult to cock than the Hot Shot's. On the whole, though, this is a nice, shootable rifle that lists for just $380 in black/stainless and $340 in blue/black.
Mossberg 510 Mini Super Bantam
I found the .410 model tricky to hit with, although part of that, of course, is because it's way too small for me. You can start a young shooter with the .410 version but if you go that route I would recommend the little bore primarily for aimed shots at squirrels or for shooting at balloons bouncing across a field in the wind.
The 20-gauge has the advantages of better ballistics, screw-in chokes and heavier payloads to make it a good choice for young shotgunners learning to hit flying targets. Given the light weight and smart recoil of a 4.75 pound 20-gauge, however, I would only let young shooters practice with Fiocchi's ¾-ounce, 1050 fps trainer loads or Winchester's subsonic Feather ammo. The Mini Super Bantam sells for $364 and includes a spacer to lengthen the stock.
I liked all three of these guns. The 510 in 20-gauge would make a wonderfully portable turkey gun. The .243 Scout Compact is perfect for stowing in the truck. The T/C Hot Shot is a fun little rifle for plinking. So go ahead, pick any of them. When the kids outgrow them, add them to your own collection.
*Thompson/Center Hot Shot: 603-332-2333, www.tcarms.com
*CVA Scout, 770-449-4687, www.cva.com
*Mossberg 510 Mini Super Bantam, 203-230-5300, www.mossberg.com