“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.