As is the case in many states, big game hunting is an age-restricted endeavor in my state of Colorado. That means I can take my young boys with me on elk and mule deer hunts, but until they’re almost pre-teens I can’t let them pull the trigger when opening day arrives in the Fall. And while hanging out in hunt camp, scouting, and hiking in the summer with Dad is a boyhood must, learning marksmanship and fueling a passion for the hunt isn’t fully possible without getting behind a rifle.
The good news is there’s plenty of ways to introduce young shooters to hunting at a younger age. In fact, many of the small game species I’ve hunted across the U.S. have become some of my favorite activities, even as an adult.
Think about it…
When you go elk hunting, you probably pull the trigger once or twice, if at all. On the flip side, a full day of prairie dog shooting can be an excellent source of fun with enough trigger time to wear out your index finger. It’s a great way for youth to get familiar with a generally low-recoiling rifle, all with little stress. As any hunter can tell you, the more fun you have in the field, the more memorable the experience becomes and the more likely you’ll be to head back for years to come. Here’s my list of four great small game rifle hunts for inspiring the hunting passion in youngsters and adults alike.
When a friend asked me to go squirrel hunting with him many years ago in Alabama, I dispassionately agreed. After a morning in the timber country of the Deep South, however, I was hooked for life. Watching my friend Victor’s feist dart and cut through brush and then send his mighty bark up into a towering tree after the squirrel or two he’d found, I fell in love with the hunt all over again.
Squirrel hunting can be an exciting, energetic affair, and even when the squirrels are slow to spot, watching the dog work is a beautiful sight in itself. There’s plenty of walking and talking, so you never really get bored, which is a great hook for the youngsters. Because you don’t have to be solemnly quiet or still for hours on end, a kid can be a kid, which generally makes it more fun for them.
I’ve hunted squirrels with everything from a .22-caliber airgun to the venerable .22 LR, and the beauty of your typical tree squirrel is that it doesn’t take an elephant cartridge to stop one in its tracks. Mossberg’s International 801 Half-Pint is one of the best bolt-action rifles I’ve seen for training youth, especially because it comes with a pluggable one-shot magazine for controlled training with new shooters. You can easily acquire noise-friendly and lower-velocity .22 loads that minimize noise pollution and limit the consequences of an errant shot. When a shooter earns your trust, you can switch over to a higher capacity magazine. The 801 Half-Pint Plinkster also comes with adjustable iron sights, a youth-friendly 12-inch length of pull, and weighs just 4 pounds, making it easy for youth to carry afield with as few “I’m tired” choruses as possible. The rifle has a classic look with wood stock and blued, 16-inch barrel with a 1:16-inch twist rate.
Open Country Coyotes
Not quite big game, but closer along the spectrum, coyotes provide an exciting experience for young hunters. Not only is there the anticipation of calling and the adrenaline rush of a dog screaming into a set, there’s an opportunity to engage a more difficult target. Coyotes don’t exactly hang around for long or make an easy shooting target, so shooters have to learn how to engage a target quickly and efficiently, while still making sure to identify the target, know what’s beyond it, and make an ethical shot. Plus, every young hunter seems to love throwing on camo, stalking through the field quietly, and waiting for a stealthy critter to appear.
Whereas the .22 is great for smaller critters, it’s pretty anemic for coyotes. This is actually a good thing for training youth, however, as it allows you to get them comfortable with a higher-recoiling centerfire rifle, many of which can double as a first deer gun. One of my all-time favorite predator rifles is Mossberg’s MVP Predator or Varmint Rifle, which come chambered in .223 or .204 Ruger, respectively. Both cartridges are fantastic for taking down coyotes, even out to a couple hundred yards. Either rifle comes with detachable magazines that fit Magpul-style designs and are fairly nimble at 7 pounds.
A Lightning Bolt-Action (LBA) trigger breaks cleanly and crisply, and a 1:9-inch twist rate stabilizes hunting bullets well. The MVP Varmint & Predator rifles feature a benchrest stock with a wide, flat forend, making it ideal for placing atop a shooting rest. A sling swivel stud also makes it easy to install any one of your favorite bipods.
One of my all-time favorite Western shooting experiences is riding around in a side-by-side and stopping at colonies to blast ground squirrels. Because so much of the West is full of pasture land and cattle grazing, it’s the ideal terrain for thousands of ground squirrels to congregate. They’re a bit like prairie dogs, except smaller and, as a result, more difficult to hit. For a no-stress afternoon with a .22, there’s not much better, youth or otherwise.
Whereas a single-shot bolt-gun is ideal for entry level shooters, training purposes, and tree squirrels, the ground squirrel game generally requires a higher-capacity magazine. You might have a dozen or so squirrels out in front of your UTV at any given time, and the shooting doesn’t seem to deter them from sunbathing.
In turn, you can rarely have enough ammunition or reloads. For that reason, Mossberg’s Blaze autoloading rimfire rifle is about as good as it gets. The Blaze allows for 10- or 25-round magazines and weighs just 3.5 pounds, optimal for young shooters. It is available with a Dead Ringer green-dot sight, which is ideal for shots that can range up to 50 yards. The Blaze comes with a 16.5-inch barrel, synthetic stock, and is available in Bantam and multiple camo pattern combinations.
Nothing gets my blood pumping like the sight of prairie dog mounds stacked endlessly across the horizon. Call me crazy, but setting up my portable shooting bench and firing away at hundreds of prairie dogs for hours on end is among my favorite shooting activities. It forces you to deal with wind, engage targets at different ranges, and there’s the reward of a successful shot—prairie dogs doing gymnastics routines after the impact of a ballistic tipped bullet. It’s also great fun for young shooters, especially when I set my spotting scope up and help them adjust for wind and distance and give them instantaneous feedback about shot placement.
The back and forth between shooter and spotter builds a lasting bond, something I place a premium on with my boys. It forces us to work together toward a common task and, when the shot is right, celebrate together, too.
One of my favorite prairie dog rounds is the .204 Ruger, which is available in Mossberg’s MVP Varmint rifle. The rifle features a 24-inch medium bull barrel, which is great for dealing with the heat from all-day shooting. The barrel is also fluted and threaded, ideal for those looking to add a suppressor to their rifle setup. If you’re looking for a one-stop shop, Mossberg offers the MVP Varmint with a scope combo, featuring a Vortex Crossfire II 4-12×44 optic that’s sure to extend your effective range.
If you’re at closer distances, say within 150 yards, the .17 HMR is a highly effective little cartridge on dogs. It can be effective farther out, too, depending on wind conditions. The mighty .17 HMR is available in Mossberg’s International 817 rifle, either with a synthetic sport grip or traditional wood stock. With an overall capacity of six, this bolt-action rifle weighs just 4.5 pounds (or 5 pounds in the heavy-barreled Varmint edition) and comes with Weaver-style bases for optics mounting.