I watched from my position on the dove field as Trey stepped out from behind the blind and raised his 20-gauge shotgun. The dove came in close and turned slightly. The gun came up smoothly, and I saw the feathers fly before I heard the report. The dove plummeted to the ground, and I watched eight-year-old Trey do a celebratory victory dance. He’d taken his first dove. He got two more that day.
I’m the first to admit starting an eight-year old child with a shotgun requires strict supervision and preparation: Trey’s dad is an experienced wing shooter and teacher, and he’s spent considerable effort that contributed to Trey’s success. Trey was shooting from a great location and well hidden in a blind that allowed getting close shots. Trey had been practicing on incoming overhead and straightaway clay targets - easy shots for a new shooter to master. The shells were low-recoil, 3/4 ounce, loads to keep recoil from the lightweight gun to a minimum and the shotgun was a lightweight model. Without the careful selection of the gun, the other advantages wouldn’t have been enough to allow his success.
Consider the math. The average ten-year-old weighs about 80 pounds. The average adult male weighs about 180. The six-pound youth gun feels like it weighs about 15 pounds to an 80-pound youth at that ratio. Additionally, the 7/8 ounce shot charge is over two ounces using the same comparison. Now, consider shooting doves with a fifteen-pound gun firing two ounces of shot. For a person this young to hit flying targets, careful preparations have to be made.
Let’s consider gun weight first. The most effective guns for kids are the 20-gauge youth guns. Trey shoots a youth gun that has an 11 ½” length of pull (the distance from the butt to the trigger). The ¾” sections cut out of the stock will allow the gun to grow as needed by replacing them. The gun also has a good recoil pad to soften the recoil. Billy put lead in the butt to make it heavier in total weight (which lowers felt recoil) and make the muzzle feel lighter. The idea is to get the weight between the young shooters hands and not out past them where the weight seems greater. Billy also makes sure the gun fits by adding or removing layers of felt pad on the comb of the stock. With growing young people, the fit of a gun can change in a couple of months.
Lightweight pumps and autoloaders are the only guns to be considered in this. Single-shot guns are normally too light in weight and kick too much. Also, the hammer on most singles is too hard to consistently and quickly cock, so there’s the temptation to hunt with the gun cocked. Over-unders and doubles are too expensive to cut the stocks on and are also difficult for young shooters to open. Pumps and autoloaders work best. An advantage of gas operated autoloaders is reduced recoil, but really light loads might not cycle the gun. If the gun weighs more than seven pounds, it’s simply too heavy for a small person to maneuver well.
Trey’s wingshooting career began with easy shots. The simplest shot in wingshooting is the going away shot. When thrown with the shooter standing next to the trap, it’s almost like shooting a stationary target, so that's where Billy started Trey. Billy handled loading the gun, allowing Trey to rest his arms between shots. He also encouraged Trey to shoot with a pre-mounted gun. When Trey was able to hit targets consistently, he was allowed to move further from the trap, giving him shots that required more lead with each step from the trap. Ten feet from the trap is an entirely different shot than standing next to it, and twenty feet is even more difficult. Incoming targets and quartering shots are approached once the basic straight away shot is mastered.
It’s important to watch the young shooter for things that will make shooting more difficult. Billy learned that just holding the gun up between shots fatigued Trey and encouraged him to rest the gun at any time that he wasn’t shooting. Shooting glasses and ear protection that fit well can have a profound effect on the comfort level and therefore the level of interest of a young shooter.
When teaching anything to someone this young, keep shooting sessions short. How long can you shoot a fifteen-pound gun with over two ounces of shot? Shooting sessions should be frequent and short, leaving the shooter ready for more. If the student is pounded by recoil, there’s a real chance that he/she will develop a problem with recoil anticipation. Constantly review the basics at the beginning of each session, including shooting technique and safety. Obviously, safe gun handling is constantly monitored to build safe gun handling habits.
Without the luxury of an electric trap and a remote control, you'll need a separate trapper to throw the targets. The student will require all your attention during this process. Stay right with the shooter, and remember that patience is of paramount importance. Care has to be taken to ward off problems like fatigue and flinch. Lagging interest means that you should end the session quickly. The same rules that apply to training a puppy apply here. It has to be fun; kids aren’t interested in long-term rewards at this point. If you lose your patience, you can delay progress indefinitely and one shot fired with a gun that kicks hard can have lasting negative effects.
Trey shot his first Sporting Clays Tournament recently and finished second in his class with a 33. He beat a few grownups in the process. I’m the first to say that eight is a bit early for wingshooting, but you can’t argue with success. The size and maturity of the shooter are more important than the age in years. Learning to shoot this well at this age is a tedious process, but the rewards are many. Because of careful preparation and thought, Trey is well on his way.