How to get youngsters into shooting

Christmas is the ideal time to set a youngster on the path to a lifetime of sport, and fox-shooting master Robert Bucknell shows you how to give them the perfect introduction

Can you remember your first gun? I certainly can. I was knee-high to, well, maybe not a grasshopper but certainly a decent-sized horse, and the gun was my first air rifle. Not one of those modern marvels with a tank full of compressed air, valves and gauges, and a precision telescopic sight. No, this was as basic as they come: a simple break-barrel .177 spring-powered BSA Cadet with open sights.

It was not an impressive gun by anyone’s standards, but to a small boy growing up on a farm it was my passport to a whole world of adventure. I spent countless hours creeping round the stockyards, woods and hedges after anything considered legitimate quarry. Back then that included sparrows and starlings, which were found on every farm in their thousands. A bigger prize was something that would make a decent meal – rabbits and wood pigeons in particular.

To an outsider I was just a small boy prowling about with an airgun, but as an education there was no better introduction to a lifetime of shooting. All those hours spent watching wildlife gave me a deep understanding of bird and animal behaviour that I’ve continued to build on throughout my life. I learnt the skills of creeping up on wildlife undetected – when you only have a low-powered airgun with open sights you need to get close to your quarry to make sure of a clean kill. Watching a rabbit and only crawling closer when its head is down feeding. Freezing as it looks up – not looking it in the eye but looking past it so as not to catch its gaze. Holding still in whatever position it has caught you, moving very slowly again as it looked down. Making little sound by moving dried twigs out of the way until the distance from it matches your skill level.

Then concentrating on the shot, hopefully so close that holdover and windage are unnecessary. Now, you only have one shot, hold the gun tight and on the spot where you want to hit. Gently squeeze the trigger and keep the barrel on for the long time it takes the pellet to exit the muzzle. The triumph of success and the pride in the retrieve of a fat rabbit for a meal will not be eclipsed until your first deer drops to your shot on a Scottish hill.

Before they know it, they’ll be out lamping the fields themselves

Then you slowly develop an understanding of trajectory and windage. If you’re going to do any good with an air rifle, you have to learn how to judge range very accurately, apply the right hold-over to allow for the pellet’s drop, and make allowance for the effect of the wind on the pellet in flight. More than just the technical side of accuracy, you learn about gun handling, safety, the need to get a good firing position and – just as important – when to accept a firing position that’s good enough and get the shot away, rather than faffing about with sticks, or dropping into a prone position in an attempt to get the perfect shot, only to see your quarry disappear over the horizon.

Importantly, practice is cheap. A tin of 500 pellets can evaporate during a weekend, and most of the shots will be targets of opportunity – a hole in a waving nettle leaf, a twig in the ground, a piece of wood floating on the pond. Then more adventurous, a target floating down the river, or a rolling tin can on a slope so increasing skills and confidence.

All that ‘misspent youth’ with the airgun comes into its own even now – for instance, when I’m walking along with the rifle and suddenly a fox or a deer steps out in front of me. I’m not messing about with sticks, or looking for a tree or a rock to lean on. Having fired countless thousands of offhand airgun pellets, I’m confident in my ability to quickly shoulder the rifle and fire, and I know almost instinctively where the shot is going to hit – or where I missed.

I’m sure many readers will have come to shooting in much the same way as me, and will understand how an airgun can set up a youngster for a lifetime of sporting enjoyment. As the young shooter grows up they may move on to rimfire and eventually centrefire rifles. That will certainly expand their horizons, but the principles remain the same and all those skills are very transferable. Stalking a deer or a fox is a lot like stalking a rabbit, just on a larger scale, and a 200-yard shot with a centrefire is not so very different to 30 yards with an airgun.

It’s not just practical skills like stalking and marksmanship that you learn from an airgun. Young people also learn life skills. For a lot of youngsters an airgun is the first time the grown-ups have trusted them with something that could do real damage. Most respond by stepping up and behaving responsibly. Those that don’t – well, it’s a privilege that can always be taken away until they can show the required level of maturity. The self-discipline and confidence that is engendered by mastering the sport of shooting can give a huge advantage in later life.

Now an experienced foxer, Robert started decades ago learning the basics with an airgun around the farm

With Christmas approaching, I would urge every shooter to consider whether any youngster they know has reached the age where he or she may be trusted with an airgun. There’s no need to spend a fortune on a brand spanking new top-of-the-range gun. A simple springer with open sights will teach them just as much. Indeed, it doesn’t even need to be new. Many shooters will have an old airgun or two tucked away in a cupboard, often a ‘youth’ model with a scaled-down stock long outgrown. Wouldn’t that be doing more good in the hands of a youngster learning the basics of shooting and the countryside? Instead of gathering dust, pass on those memories.

The law is clear on young people and air rifles. You cannot actually own one until you are 18. Below 14 years old you can only use an air rifle if you are supervised by someone over 21, on private land with permission. From 14 to 17 years old, you can use the airgun without supervision, again on private land with permission, but cannot have it in a public place unless you are supervised. Remember, too, that there are new laws in Scotland, which will require airguns to be licensed. You can find all the details, and plenty more good advice, in the Airgunning section of the BASC website.

This Christmas I plan to give my 14-year-old eldest grandson an air rifle – or to be more accurate, I’ll give it to his mother, who can supervise and instruct him in its proper, safe use until she is satisfied he can be allowed to use it on his own. It’s important to have due regard for the law as well as the wishes of the parents – much as you might be tempted to give an airgun to the child of anti-shooting parents, it’s better to win them round first! One way to achieve this – with permission – is to mentor the child yourself, and win over the parents by example. If all goes well they will learn to trust each other and many preconceived parental fears will be dispelled. Even if the shooting of an animal is disapproved of, you could be helping a future Olympic champion take their first steps.

For future hunters the fun can really begin, with lone forays into the woods and fields laying the foundations for a lifetime’s shooting. What better Christmas present could anyone ask for?

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