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“Step on up there, number Six, tell the man the rules…” We were at a range that I frequent, Sovereign Arms in Fenton, MO.  The guys running it are decent and sincere men.  They have a scruffy little range, but I can shoot without inordinate interference and can count on them for prompt, courteous service. My sixth grandson is a little shy in front of strangers, but he paused, then spoke clearly “Always assume that the gun is loaded…”  He paused, thought for a moment and continued. “Always point the gun in a safe direction.” He held up his hand and extended his index finger. “Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot and know your target and what’s behind it.”

“Excellent – it sounds like you know how to be a safe shooter” replied the young man in charge.  Number Six smiled proudly, then became distracted by one of the big rifles on display.

I have an airsoft gun that looks like a mash-up between a Sig Sauer 220 and 226 I bought for cheap on Ebay. Well before planning a trip to the range, I introduced number five and number six grandson to the airsoft pistol as an instructional tool on firearms safety.

“Will this gun shoot all by itself?” I ask. Number Five said “Maybe” Number Six says “no”.  He is a bit contrarian.

“No” I explain, “It cannot shoot by itself.  What has to happen for it to shoot?”

Number Six dives in “Someone has to pull the trigger!”

“That’s right” I concur “So, what is an important rule if you see a gun and you do not want it to shoot someone or something?”

“Don’t touch it!” Number Five blurts out. Six gets a little sullen. I direct the next question to him. “Until you are a grown up, when should you ever touch a gun?” Number Five tries to answer; I shoot him a look, so he raises his hand. “Hang on, your little brother is thinking about it. Give him a chance.”

“If my daddy lets me?” Six responds.

“Pretty much, but let’s say only when an adult is with you and gives you permission.  Otherwise, leave them alone.” This session went on for about half an hour, and was one among several before I scheduled a trip to the range.

My son is an exceptional outdoorsman. He fishes, he hunts, he abides in the hills, heathers and forests of our great state of Missouri. Me, not so much. My preferred outdoor experience, when I get out at all, is cycling. The closest thing I do to such outdoor pursuits is shooting pistols. I ask my son’s permission and that of his wife to show the boys how to shoot.

“I think that’s a great idea” said Momma, “I’d like them to learn safety from you.”

“Sure” said their dad “Maybe I can go with you all sometime.”

At eight and ten years old, Five and Six might seem to some to be a bit on the young side to be handling firearms. They are competitive with one another, and are prone to conflict. I decide to take them to the range one at a time, and we will start with the airsoft gun and see if we should proceed from there.

We take a little more time talking about firearm safety. As we go through the four rules, we talk about what could happen if they violate one of the rules. I point the airsoft gun at the lamp in our kitchen. “What would happen if I pulled the trigger and a bullet came out?” I asked.

Number Six raised his hand. “You would shoot the lamp.”

“What would Grandma think about that?” I ask, with Grandma sitting right across the table. Number Five answers “She’d be really mad.”

“No kidding.” she says.

I tell them a story about a friend of mine who shot out the window to his truck. “What rule did he violate?”

We talked for a moment, and concluded it was Rule Four – always know your target and what is behind it.

“How would you feel if you shot Little Ron” I asked, referring to their pet dog. They looked at each other.  Not as funny as a broken lamp. “Sad” they agreed.

Five and Six have little brothers, Seven and Eight, one a toddler, one still crawling. “Now how would you feel if you were to hurt one of your brothers, or you Mom or Dad, or one of your friends?” Both boys, already doing a good job paying attention and giving sensible answers, become more sober. “Very Sad” offers number Five. Six agrees.

“That’s the important thing to remember all the time – guns are dangerous, but they are only dangerous when we are touching them. We need to remember how important it is to be careful and follow all the rules all the time. Otherwise we can damage something we want, or hurt someone.”

“Boys, if we go shooting, you have to do exactly what Grandpa and the Range Officer says with no arguments.” I caution. “I have to listen, and you have to listen. If you want to shoot, that’s what we have to do.”

On the appointed day, I pick up Number Six first, since he won the coin toss. As we drive out to the range, we talk about shooting. I tell him that people get hurt with guns, and remind him we have to be safe and follow the rules. When we arrive, I introduce Number Six to the range officer, and he recites the four rules. We get eye and ear protection, and I rent a Walther P22 pistol. Comparatively small, it’s a good size to work with the kids.

I brought a stepstool with me to the range for Number Six to help him comfortably see over the countertop of the range lane. We’re careful to only handle a gun after we are firmly in place, and not to hold a gun if we’re getting up or down from the stepstool.

Number Six figures out that he has to speak up with the earmuffs on. “Are we going to shoot the gun now Grampa?” I lean down, “In a little bit, buddy, let’s put up the target and practice with the airsoft gun, first.” We work together to hang up an FBI “Bowling Pin” target to the cable system that runs targets out and back and I let him send the target out to the eight foot mark. I decided that silhouettes are a little too butch for my boys to shoot at so soon.

The airsoft gun has a removable magazine, and slide that will rack. We practice loading the airsoft gun magazine.  The airsoft pistol is sitting on the counter, pointing downrange.

“OK Squirt,” I say, leaning down to Six “Put the magazine into the gun, just like I showed you.”

Number Six carefully picks up the pistol by the grip.  He pauses, realizing part of his hand will interfere with inserting the magazine. “Try it like this” I say, after motioning for him to put the gun down. I hold the gun by the slide, careful to keep the gun pointed downrange, and slip the magazine in and give it a little smack to seat it.  I remove the mag and let him try it.

“Very good, now remember, keep your finger away from the trigger until you are ready to fire…you have to pull back the slide before you can shoot, but you don’t want to accidently hit the trigger.”

He nods, and tries to pull back on the slide. It’s a little stiff. I have him set it down and demonstrate an easier way.  He picks it back up and follows my instructions, successfully racking the slide.

“OK buddy, you can shoot it now. Aim it like I showed you before. Use your back and front sight, and aim right in the center.”  He sets his shoulders, adopting his version of the Weaver stance. He points the airsoft gun, pulls the trigger, and a little white pellet smacks center of mass.

“Good shot!” I say “Now, safely rack the slide and do it again.”

My grandson would do this about 20 more times. Each time I could see him methodically following each step. Observing him carefully, he in turn carefully minded how he was pointing the airsoft gun, treating it like the lethal weapon it represented. This is what I was looking for.

We pulled in the target and looked over his shooting.  “I hit it a whole bunch of times” he said proudly. “You did, and you did it safely. I saw how careful you were being, and that means the range officer is not going to mind us coming back!” My grandson smiled a controlled grin, not wanting to get too worked up.

“Now let’s try the twenty-two” I said, and opened the case containing the Walther. I explain how the safety works, and demonstrated loading the magazine with .22 rimfire ammo. We review holding the firearm in a Weaver stance. I point out how important it is to hold a semi-automatic correctly since the slide can bite you. I show him the nicks on my own hand that had not completely healed up.

His apprehension over slide bite is overcome by his desire to shoot the gun. He pulls the trigger, and his bullet strikes center of mass within the constellation of airsoft pellet hits.  The slide locks open because we’d only loaded one round.

“OK buddy, set the gun down and remove the magazine, put a round into the magazine, then reload the gun.”  He nods, follows the steps, and inserts the magazine.  He remembers he needs to release the slide, and he pauses, trying to figure out the best way to hit the slide release with his young fingers. I almost intervene, but he figures out how to use the thumb of his weak hand.  The slide snaps forward and he reacquires his grip, stance, and point of aim.

We repeat this drill many times before advancing to loading up two, then five cartridges at once. He is methodically perforating the white area, taking careful aim. I offer minor corrections from time to time, but let him have fun shooting.

We use up half our .22 ammo, which is my cue to wrap up and go get his big brother.

On the way back to his house, Number Six and I stop by McDonalds to get him a late lunch. We talk about shooting. He holds onto the rolled up target like a prized possession.  He asks me if I thought he did a good job, and I say he did – which was the absolute truth.  I praised him for each and every thing he did well – listening, doing what I asked, being safe. Hitting the target was secondary.

I drop off Six, and pick up Number Five. Five is the oldest in this family and nearly two years older than Six, but we go through all the same steps with him. We report to the range officer, we recite the rules, we practice with the airsoft gun.

“Can I hold it like this, Grampa?” Five asks, and shifts his grip to the “cup and saucer” style. “How I showed you is a better way – gives you more control”

“It feels funny” he protests “I’d rather do it like this.”

I nod “That’s fine.” I am not sure if I should have died on that hill or not. I am worried about letting them pick up bad habits that are hard to break. That said, for years I shot very well with the grip he’s using.

At one point, Number Five takes aim by pointing his gun straight up and slowly lowering his gun to the target. Very dramatic, very Hawaii Five-O

“Hold it there, Mannix” I say, and motion for him to put the piece down. “What do you think is a safer place to aim your gun? Up or down.”  He thinks for a moment. He intuits the right answer because I stopped him just after point the gun up. He’s sheepish and hesitates to answer.

“You may see this in a movie or TV show…” I say, pantomiming pointing the gun up and lowing to a target “…but the safe way is to point downward and bring the muzzle up to the target.” I continue, “A bullet can fly a long way of it is shot up.  Can you be sure of your target and what is behind it if you aim at the sky?”

Number Five smiles and shakes his head “No.” I nod. “Very good – let’s not do that anymore.” I point to the gun “OK sport, back to shooting.”

We finish shooting, and I treat him to Taco Bell on the way back home. When we arrive, they compare targets.  They pose proudly with their peppered targets.  I tell their Mom what a good job they did shooting safely. I learn later that they hung their targets up in their rooms, proud of their handiwork.

On balance, neither of these boys was too young. Number Six was perhaps on the bubble, but he displayed a great deal of maturity. He was able to control his boyish impulses enough to shoot safely.

On a subsequent outing, I learned that neither boy had the hand strength to manage a revolver well, at least not a Taurus snubbie or a Charter Arms target revolver. Number Five managed the Charter Arms well enough, but the longer, heavier trigger pull made it difficult for him to aim as well, so we went back to the Walther P22.

I also learned that one-on-one is far better than having them together, at least for these boys. My wife was with us, and she supervised one child while I supervised the other, but we still ran into a minor problem. The issue was not adult attention, but the fact that as rivals, the younger sibling was tempted to compare himself and what he was doing to his brother. I wasn’t counting bullets this time, and Number Six got it onto his head that Five had more bullet holes in his target. In the future, I won’t shoot with them together lest the younger one become distracted with this sort of rivalry.

Your mileage may vary with your kid. All kids can act like twerps. The question is, can they hold it together long enough for a range session? I spend enough time with both boys to know their weaknesses and what triggers their responses. I wouldn’t recommend anyone take a new shooter – much less children – to shoot unless you can honestly say you understand what makes them tick. However, if you have taken the time to know the kids in your life, helping them master firearms is a fantastic way to boost their sprits with a genuine accomplishment. Few things are more fulfilling than hitting your target in real life.

Before heading out to the range, I put on my stern face and my serious voice. I tell the boys that I can only take boys who listen carefully and do EXACTLY what the adults say RIGHT AWAY to a dangerous place like a gun range.

My little guys were able to keep it together, and I think over time introducing them to the gun culture and its fellowship will serve them well.

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  1. First gun I shot when I was little was a Stevens Favorite which was a manually loaded, small, single shot, .22 rifle with a rolling block lever action. You had to manually put the bullet into the breech, roll the block closed using the lever, pull back the hammer, put your finger on the trigger, pull, and the hammer would snap forward firing the gun. The lever was then dropped forward, and the block would drop while the extractor shoved the spent casing back. The casing was then manually removed. If nothing else, the Stevens Favorite was very graphic in showing children how a gun actually worked.
    I do thank Grandfather for the time and patience he spent with me on how to shoot the little rifle.
    Later Dad spent time with me showing how to shoot and clean his Savage A36 .22 semi-auto rifle.

  2. Last summer my family and I visited friends of ours in Pennsylvania (we live in Maryland). The husband is a certified NRA instructor took my kids and his out to the back yard to shoot a BB gun. Before shooting he ran through all the safety rules, (never point the rifle at something you don’t intend to destroy, know your target and what is beyond it, keep the barrel pointed in a safe direction, etc.) made sure each kid had eye protection and they took turns plinking away with the Red Ryder.

    Inspired by this we got my son his own Red Ryder this past summer to shoot at my in-laws in rural upstate NY. Along with the rifle each of my kids (then aged 7 and 8) got their own sets of eye protection. Both my son and daughter had a ball plinking away at various targets we set up and they improved quickly. My daughter had so much fun she asked for her own Red Ryder for Christmas so Second Amendment Santa delivered.

    Each time we go to shoot we make sure the kids are properly equipped and we review the safety instructions. They understand that this is serious business and if they want to keep shooting they have to make sure they are doing so safely. I hope we have done the kids a favor by introducing them to shooting (albeit a BB gun) at an early age so they are not afraid but respect firearms when they get older.

  3. Very good! Those boys are sure to grow up as responsible men, not because of the firearms but because they have people in their lives who care enough about teaching them right from wrong.

  4. Tim, you were 100% correct to put forth the scary scenarios of dogs or siblings getting hurt by unsafe gun handling. Kids see gunplay on TV and the movies and think only bad guys get shot. A gun is a tool, but some pro-gun folks forget that its raison d’être is to dispense lethal force — probably a reaction to anti-gun people who spout that line to bash gun ownership. Driver ed classes might do well to follow that example.

    Of course my older son thought guns were “awesome” and loved the idea of going to the range with dad. We practiced handling at home and I showed him the different types of actions. Once we got to the range, it was all about hitting the X and not about being a badass. In fact, he surprised me by preferring my ancient bolt action Stevens .22LR over the Remington 597 or the Walther P22. (We later went to a friend’s house and shot an M&P 15-22, a GSG-5 and a Marlin lever action .22 and he still preferred the single shot bolt action!) Makes me wonder if every thug-wannabe had just had some real gun training (one-on-one, of course, to eliminate testosterone accumulation), would we have more citizen marksmen and fewer gangbangers?

    • Thanks Rokurota,

      I pondered how to make the risks real in their young minds without breaking anything. Actions have consequences, so I concentrated on ratcheting up the actions>consequence scenarios until I saw the effect I was looking for.

      They play a lot of video games – games I would not allow if it were my call. Still, they do not appear to be desensitized to the consequences of mistakes and have plenty of empathy for the hurt others feel.

      • I’m curious how well the average kid today can tell the difference between video game/movie violence and the real deal. A big part of me thinks that that sense of virtual/real consequences is ingrained more than we think it is. Maybe that’s a part of the new age of saturating our kids with violence that we don’t fully understand.

        My nephews are good kids and for all their big talk at the range, they took the consequences of handling a firearm seriously.

        I think rule #4 is the hardest to instill, since the consequences of breaking it are not immediately seen to the average kid. Kids understand hurting themselves. Hurting/killing someone miles away, not so much.

        • I’m 17, i’ve played what would be considered violent video games since i was 7 or 8, and I certainly have no urge to shoot anyone for real. Even if it were in self defense I’m not sure I could deal with the mental affects of taking a life. I should add that I got my first gun, a 10/22 when I was 8 I think.

        • Forrest,

          When I was a kid, cartoon violence was the concern among the handwringing set. Apparently daffy duck getting his beak blown clear off by Elmer Fudd was going to scar us.

          Most kids can understand intuitively the difference between cartoon violence (of which I would include most first-person-shooters) and the real suffering that would be induced should that cartoon violence come to pass in the real world.

          I think using real firearms and responsible training is a way to draw a clear and bright distinction between Hollywood and video games. When number Five pulled his Hollywood move with the gun, we stopped and talked about it. I am confident he gets it.

  5. Kids, for the most part, are blank canvasses. They’ll learn whatever you teach them. Kudos to you for doing a great job.

    I learned to shoot in the Scouts. The foundation of a strong safety message and a desire for good marksmanship skills has stayed with me my entire life.

    Oh, and I took my nephews (16 and 14) to the range recently. They were very excited about shooting a glock, but when the lead started flying downrange they forgot about the pistol and instead shot two full bricks through my 10/22. The allure of precision shooting beats out “movie blasting” any day.

    • Five and Six’s daddy is a hunter, so I think I will leave rifle shooting to him. I need to invest in a nice Ruger 22 pistol so we can shoot cheap and frequent.

  6. Fantastic, Tim, just fantastic. What you’ve posted is more than an anecdote, it’s a damn good primer on how to teach gun safety to young-uns.

  7. Thank you all for the kind comments.

    While firearms training is beneficial for any child – boy or girl, I think it is within the nature of boys that mastering dangerous things is profoundly good for them in a way quite different than for girls.

    Growing up to be responsible men – good men – requires that a boy feels he is known by the elder men in his life and feels the meaningful abrasion of his elders against their more foolish impulses.

    With these boys, their parents have done a great job of putting them in organized sports with good coaches who provide caring discipline.

    • Tim, when my son was around 11 or 12 the St. Peters police had an air rifle course they taught at the station. After all of the safety lessons, they shot targets in different positions and I think the course was for around six weeks (all at no cost to us). After they finished the six week course, they competed in a regional competition in Columbia with other police departments, and it was amazing to see all of these young boys and girls and how professional and safe they were. My son is now 34 and is an excellent shot, and that his early training from the police and myself has stayed with him.
      Congrats to you for taking your grandsons to the range, I really think I enjoy myself probably more than the folks I take for the first time. It is so rewarding seeing noob’s accomplish the art of firearms and realizing the responsibility that comes with firearm ownership!

  8. This put a smile on my face. I had a very similar experience learning to shoot at the same age. Neither one of my parents were comfortable teaching me, so they had a family friend/big game hunter/professional trap & skeet shooter teach me. We went through all the same things and I was completely hooked. I was lucky to live on some land and have my own private shooting range though.

    Congrats again. What an awesome Christmas present!

    • Our last session was a little pricey – two lanes, gun rental and two zombie targets (a reward for doing such a good job at our previous session) ran into some coin. We’ll have to start going to Henges if we are going to do this more often, or I have to join a range.

  9. My 7 yo. Son got a Red Rider for Christmas this year!
    My daughter got a 10/22 for her 11th birthday last year.
    Shooting is the only reward they will 100% Work for.
    “Clean your room and I’ll give you a million dollars” Gets me nothing.
    “Walk on water and we’ll go shooting this afternoon” Gets me 100% compliance.

  10. Great article and fine (grand) parenting! This was timely as I just took my 8 year old daughter and 9 (just about to turn 10) son to the local range yesterday (with BIG thumbs up to Philadelphia Archery and Gun Club). This was the first time for my daughter and the the third time for my son (and followed similar lessons and lectures from me to them including handling an empty .22 semi-auto pistol). Before going to the range, I had asked the owner if he or one of his trusted range officers could spend a few minutes with them before we went up – he was happy to (the idea being that at 8 and 10 years old, my children are starting to roll their eyes at what I say but whatever I said would be reinforced by at the range). Making a long story short, it was a very positive experience and both expressed interest in continuing to return… And they both continue to have a very high respect for firearms.

  11. Tim, Thanks for pointing out this post on the other thread. Somehow I had overlooked it.

    I think it’s a big mistake to teach kids that young the 4 Rules and expect them to git it. That’s asking for trouble. I suppose if they NEVER have unsupervised access to the guns, and ALWAYS use them under the proper guidance, there’s no harm. But, I’m afraid many people put too much responsibility and too high expectations on the kids.

    The other thing is, at least for me, if guns do more harm than good, which I believe they do, teaching others to own and use guns is bad. If adults who qualify to do so decide that’s what they want, I have no problem with it. But teaching kids is wrong because they’re not old enough to decide for themselves.

    • “I think it’s a big mistake to teach kids that young the 4 Rules and expect them to git it.”

      I disagree, and here’s why: You’re assuming too many things. First you are assuming the person doing the teaching has guns, and then you are assuming they are unlocked and the kids have access to them. What about the child of a non-gun owning parent teaching their kids the 4 rules? Isn’t there a chance that knowing the 4 rules could save the kid’s life if the child comes across a gun somewhere else, like a friend’s house? I don’t feel that knowing the 4 rules in any way makes a kid more curious about guns. If there is any chance at all that it could save their life someday, then I’m all for it. Think about it rationally and try not to let your biases cloud your judgement.

      • “Isn’t there a chance that knowing the 4 rules could save the kid’s life if the child comes across a gun somewhere else, like a friend’s house?”

        There’s a better chance that the curiosity will be increased, making it more likely that disaster will happen.

        • This is the favorite bullshit line of gun grabbers everywhere. Evidence please. And no, 1 20/20 documentary of dubious control standards does not constitute evidence.

        • There’s a better chance that the curiosity will be increased, making it more likely that disaster will happen.

          So ignorance is bliss, Mike?

          The proper introduction is demystification while inculcating the proper respect, which Tim did brilliantly. If either of those boys come across an unsecured gun at a friend’s, they’ll know it’s not a toy, and not to treat it as such. The fact is that it’s now much less likely that they’ll hurt themselves or others, because they now have knowledge and understanding.

          Here’s what it boils down to: who’s safer, 1) a slightly less curious, completely ignorant child, with no knowledge or respect for what firearms can do, or 2) a more curious, knowledgeable child, with respect for what firearms can do and what the consequences can be? You’d apparently prefer choice #1. The rest of us would feel a lot better behind door #2.

            • Because in your parallel universe, ignorance is strength, right Mike? You’d provide them with absolutely no warnings about sharp knives, hot burners, traffic, or anything else, because that would increase their curiosity, making it more likely that disaster will happen. Much better that they know nothing at all, because that way they’d be completely safe.

            • Sorry, Mikeb, but you are totally wrong. In 1975 I became a police officer and to protect my 3 & 5 yr old sons from their natural curiosity I took them to a private range and taught them the rules of gun safety, showed them how to load and shot a .38 cal revolver and let each one fire a shot from the revolver (with some weight support from me). I also put 1 rnd through a 1 gal. plastic milk bottle filled with water and let them examine the difference in size of entrance & exit wounds to the milk carton. They were told that any time they felt a desire to show off Mommy’s gun or to shoot again all they had to do was ask for my help. Not once did they ever show interest in shooting again during their childhood. An officer I worked with had your attitude and simply told his children “DON’T TOUCH”. Sadly, one evening when he and his wife were outside chatting with a neighbor his then 9 year old son picked up a loaded revolver to satisfy his curiosity. The gun went off accidentally and the bullet struck his 11 year old sister in the brain in another room of the house. Frankly, I believe the more education we give our kids the safer they are. I just taught 2 of my grandsons to shoot in the last week; ages 9 & 13 by much the same method in this article. Their Father (the son who was 3 when I took him to the range) has told me that my lesson taught him that real guns are heavy and loud and not worth attempting to play with unsupervised.

              • Susan, Your two personal examples prove what exactly?

                Did you miss my point? I say over-reliance on teaching kids and failure to supervise them properly is the recipe for disaster. Is there something about that you disagree with?

        • Which is why we don’t teach s e x education in schools, because it will only increase their curiosity. Right?

  12. Mikeb302000 – This disagreement is a version of the “quarantine or inoculation” decision parents have to make in regard to a wide variety of issues. In my experience, kids who are inoculated do far better than kids who are quarantined.

    Kids who are quarantined do better than kids who are just sent out unprepared to fend for themselves.

    Five and Six have already been exposed to guns through the popular media (as exampled by Five’s media-inspired move) so quarantine is out of the question. We parents agreed on a course of inoculation.

  13. Please more Q&A for me to ask my son. Those first intro questions, “Can a gun go off by itself?” “When does a gun become dangerous?” (when someone picks it up). Those questions. I’d love to print about 15-20 of them out and ask my kid about guns using them, and to reinforce what we all know.

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