Kell Munson and I were cleaning our limits of birds with more than an hour of daylight left. It had been a great hunt over browntop millet, and Brent, my stepson, had a lot of fun all afternoon running out to pick up my birds. Eight years old - and small for his age - he wasn't quite ready for a shotgun, but he had carried and shot his little Daisy air rifle at anything he could find for a target.
While we were cleaning our birds, a single dove landed on a power line running above our heads, about 50 yards down from us.
"There's your chance, son," I said. "Walk down there quietly. If you move slow, he might let you shoot at him with your BB gun."
Creeping like Dan'l Boone after his first bear, Brent slipped quietly under the pea-brained but fat bird sitting 35 feet above him on the wire. I guess Brent's slight movements and size didn't distract the bird as much as we did, since I could see it constantly glancing down at Brent, but cocking its head frequently to watch us moving about.
Brent commenced to shooting at the bird, while we stood there and laughed, and kept offering advice. The dove kept looking at us, paying little attention to the wanna-be assassin with the BB gun directly under him.
Brent must have shot six times at the bird, and I knew he could aim - the distance was such I was sure the trajectory of the BB was falling off and dropping beneath the bird's feet.
"Brent," I called, in that ridiculous hoarse whisper where you try to let the kid know how to do something without spooking the game, which was right above him. "Aim high. Aim about 2 inches above his head."
We watched him cock the lever on the Daisy, and take careful aim. At the "Ftttt" of the air rifle, we watched open-mouthed as the dove toppled backward off the wire, and with its wings locked and spread in a rictus of death, it helicoptered in a tight spiral to the ground.
"Head shot!" Munson yelled.
But I was already gone. By the time the bird hit the ground, Brent and I both reached him at the same time.
I'd use the trite phrase that it would be hard to decide who was more proud, but since he carried the bird home himself, made his mom cook all the birds for us the next night, and made her stick a toothpick in HIS bird as it stewed in the thick, brown gravy, I guess he was prouder than I was - but not by much. Naturally, he ate his bird the next night, and I had a new hunting companion.
The approach of September always brings the anticipation of doves and dove fields - the first game you can hunt each fall. If you're lucky, you have access to a field where the birds have been legally attracted, and will be flying.
Dove hunting is one of the best ways I know to introduce kids to the shooting sports. If it is good hunting, there is a lot of action. It is traditionally a relaxed, fun way to hunt with a lot of good-natured kidding and camaraderie among the participants.
Unlike a lot of hunting that requires sitting still, being quiet and other practices anathema to youthful energy levels, dove hunting mandates only a bit of camouflage, and keeping really quiet only when you see the birds coming in. It's sort of like taking kids bream fishing at first rather than starting them out on a deer stand. The action is what kids like, and a good dove hunt can produce plenty of action and fun for parents and kids alike.
We decided, since this is the month of doves, to look at starter shotguns for kids - youth-sized scatterguns to start them early and right in the shooting sports. There is a great selection, in every price range. Here are a popular few.
Probably one of the best known "single-barrels" is the H&R Topper. This break-action-style scattergun has probably started more kids in the field than any other, and there are good reasons. When a young dad is looking for an inexpensive, safe shotgun to start a youngster, Harrington & Richardson always merits serious consideration.
The Topper comes in 12, 16, 20, and .410 gauge, and barrel lengths of 28 and 22 inches for the smaller child in the Topper Junior. H&R offers these inexpensive single shots in varying degrees of finish and style, with plain and ventilated barrels and wood and synthetic stocks. They all offer a transfer bar safety that allows the gun to fire only when the hammer is cocked and the trigger pulled - the hammer cannot fire the gun if struck accidentally while at rest. All have brass bead front sights and automatic ejections.
Single shots encourage careful shooting and ammo conservation, and are generally the best choice for the smaller child just starting out. They are also the least expensive of our choices.
Next up for the older child is the venerable pump gun, and here the choices broaden considerably. Several manufacturers offer some interesting designs for the young shooters.
Harrington & Richardson (harrington&richardson.com) offers a youth model in their inexpensive Pardner line with either black synthetic or classic walnut for the stocks. The Pardner Youth is a 21-inch barreled version of the full-sized version, but in 20 gauge only. Like its adult counterpart, it has a steel receiver, double-action bars, cross-bolt safety and screw-in modified choke that is steel-shot compatible.
Mossberg (mossberg.com) is another fine, old American gun company that has outfitted many generations of kids with their first shotgun in the 500 series of pump guns. Their Bantam and 505 Youth models are excellent choices for youngsters and small-framed adults. They offer an ambidextrous top-mounted safety, and a special magazine tube limiting plug that renders the gun a "single-shot" until the coach or guardian thinks the youth is ready for multi-shot capability.
The Bantam and 505 Youth have some unusual and well-thought out accessories. Twelve- and 20-gauge models, designed on a smaller scale, are fully interchangeable with the parts for the standard-sized 12- and 20-gauge 500 series, and come with a half-price certificate for a standard-sized buttstock and/or forearm for young shooters who outgrow the Bantam dimensions. They come in 20-, 22- and 24-inch barrel-length options.
One of the most interesting and innovative features of the Bantam series is the stock spacer and extra recoil pad, which adds to the length of pull as the young shooter grows. The Youth models can generally be found priced under $300.
Remington (www.remington.com) offers youth versions of the most popular slide gun ever designed, the venerable 870. Everyone is familiar with the glassy-smooth sliding action of this pump, and it has outsold every pump gun on the market since it was introduced more than 40 years ago. Millions have been sold across the world, and they continue to be the most popular pump on the market. All come with the Rem-Choke barrel, and the well-known cross-bolt safety located behind the trigger on the guard.
The junior models have a 1-inch-shorter length of pull than the standard youth models.
In the inexpensive Express line, all are in 20 gauge, and will accept both 2 ¾- and 3-inch shells. All have ventilated ribs and the perfect length, weight and balance for smaller statured shooters. The youth and junior models will generally be priced under $350.
If the youthful shooter is ready to step up to a multi-shot semiautomatic, there are some good choices on the market.
Remington has an excellent choice in its 11-87 Youth Synthetic model. With synthetic stock, 21-inch barrel, modified Rem-Choke, and 1-inch-shorter length of pull, this light-recoiling 20 gauge takes either 2¾- or 3-inch shells. It is an exceptional choice for the youngster who loves to hunt.
Featuring the patented pressure-compensating gas system, the gun can seemlessly switch loads from heavy to light. The 11-87 is one of the most popular autoloaders on the market for good reason - it works well, shoots well and is reasonably priced. The 11-87 Youth Synthetic will generally be priced in the range of $600.
If you have a young shooter who shows promise of greatness to come or you want a top-of-the line autoloader that is designed to grow with the youth, you can't find a more innovative shotgun than the Beretta (beretta.com) 3901 Target RL.
Designed from the ground up as the first shotgun for a youth, this gun was developed in cooperation with the NRA Youth Program, Scholastic Clay Targets Program, Boy Scouts of America and other organizations. This gun is designed to grow with the young shooter and compensate for the growth spurts that frustrate youth shooting coaches.
The 12-gauge bore is softened by a gas-operating system that reduces felt recoil. It also has an adjustable length of pull from 12 to 13 inches, and a specially designed shorter stock that is adjustable for cast on/off. The stock also comes with Beretta's Memory System II to adjust the parallel comb.
The 3901 Target RL comes with special high-visibility yellow magazine plugs that limit the magazine to single-shot capacity until the junior shooter is ready for the fully capable autoloader. The barrels have a sporting-style flat rib, front and mid-beads, are chambered for 3-inch shells and come in 26- and 28-inch barrel lengths.
This exceptional piece of equipment is equipped with walnut stock and fore-arm finished in satin matte. The 3901 Target RL was designed from the award-winning AL390, which is one of the very popular autoloaders on the clay target ranges.
Beretta claims this gas system to be the softest shooting around. With its adjustable features and ability to grow with the youthful shooter, this gun will take the young shooter to the field, the clay pigeon ranges or the professional competitions with ease. This gun has a manufacturers suggested retail price of under $900.
There you have it. A small list of some excellent choices to get kids active in the sport of hunting. But whether you start them with a Daisy Air Rifle or a fine autoloader, get them out and let them shoot. It's a cliché, but one I don't hesitate to use: If you hunt with your kids today, you won't have to hunt for your kids tomorrow.
Gordon Hutchinson's best-selling novel, The Quest and the Quarry, is a coming-of-age generational tale that parallels the lives of a line of trophy bucks and the youth of the farming family that hunts them. It can be ordered at thequestandthequarry.com, or by calling (800) 538-4355.
It was recently chosen as an outdoor book of the year by the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association.