Lenin was famously quoted as saying “Give me just one generation of youth, and I’ll transform the whole world.” With this in mind, developing the next generation in the shooting sports isn’t just a business decision: The survival of the firearms world depends on the political will of those who come after us, which is a direct result of their involvement in the shooting sports.
The explosion in popularity of the AR-15, for example, is probably single-handedly responsible for the lack of social support that has crippled efforts to re-implement the failed 1994 Assault Weapons Ban. But if we lose the next generation, we lose their resistance to the persistent effort to destroy those rights, and the business dies with them.
So for reasons both fiscal and political, it’s critical to provide products well-suited to young shooters. Although these guns have traditionally been called “youth models,” when we started looking at the current offerings, we saw many called “compact” versions instead. This implicitly points out that while we’re using age as our primary qualifier, the features that make a gun well matched for young people also help the gun fit other shooters who are small of stature, such as females.
There’s more than one feature that’s important for a youth gun, however, and the fact that one isn’t marketed just for that demographic doesn’t mean it’s not a good choice. The three biggest considerations — which are interrelated — are weight, caliber and size.
Weight in the general, static sense is self-explanatory: If someone can’t hold a gun up, they can’t expect to shoot it well. While even .22 pistols can often be quite heavy, the current batch of scaled-down rimfires such as the SIG Mosquito and Walther P22, as well as Smith’s downsized M&P and the Browning 1911 in .22, provide a broad variety of options that fit smaller hands and can be comfortably held at arm’s length even by those without significant upper body strength. Lightweight Mk III pattern .22 pistols from Ruger and Tactical Solutions add a full-size, featherweight option. With centerfire long guns, however, weight is a more complex issue.
Unfortunately, weight absorbs recoil, so at some point reducing it becomes counterproductive. Being easy to hold up doesn’t help much if the rifle rewards you by kicking the devil out of you. Fortunately, compact rifles typically come in the more manageable calibers, seldom over .308 Winchester.
Size — the physical dimensions of the gun — generally consists of barrel length and stock design. Barrel length is deceptively complex: The longer it is, the heavier the gun is, and because the extra inches of barrel extend forward away from where the gun is held, they create leverage against the shooter.
While it can have a stabilizing effect, as a matter of physics it’s more difficult to manage extra weight on the end of the barrel than it is weight that balances further back. This is true in terms of holding the weight of the gun up and in swinging it from target to target. Once the barrel is moving laterally, the increased inertia makes it harder to stop the muzzle, something especially important with shotguns used for wingshooting or similar disciplines. This principle is why pistol shooters, when pivoting from one target to another at speed, draw the pistol back toward their chest rather than keeping it at arm’s length during the turn.
Shorter Is Better
The stock measurement that’s easiest to compare is length of pull — basically the distance from the buttplate to the trigger. A too-long length of pull makes it hard for a smaller shooter to hold the gun correctly and get a clean sight picture, and poor stock fit can dramatically increase recoil. We’ve seen a 7mm Magnum rifle with an overly long length of pull beat a shooter green in three shots, while a better-designed .375 H&H left nary a mark after shooting many more rounds.
Although an experienced shooter might be able to manage the increased recoil from an ill-fitting gun, that kind of recoil can be crippling to a new shooter’s development.
Forend dimensions get less attention but are also important. As a matter of biomechanics, the greater the diameter of a cylindrical object, the more strength it takes to grip it, so a slim forend is a better choice for those with smaller hands. Note that .308 battle rifles such as the FN FAL and the HK G3, well known for its healthy recoil, are often found with long, slender forends.
Made For The Hunt
The classic youth guns generally address these concerns by being smaller and offered in smaller calibers, and they are typically oriented towards sporting — read “hunting” — use, so we’ll start with a brief overview of some representative models. Remington’s recently introduced pair of compact bolt-action rifles, the 783 and 770 Compact; both come with 20-inch barrels chambered in .308 or the mild .243. The 770 (which only comes in .243) weighs in at 8.25 pounds, a bit more than a pound over the 7.125-pound 783.
Remington’s compact shotguns are downsized versions of the proven 870 pump gun (there’s also an 11-87-based semi-auto) with a 13-inch length of pull and come in 20-gauge instead of the harder-kicking 12-gauge, with a pink camo model obviously tailored to reach young female hunters. Youth models typically have 21-inch barrels, and “Junior” versions of the compact have a 12-inch length of pull. According to Remington, newer compact models feature its adjustable length of pull system so the gun can grow with the shooter.
Ruger similarly offers several models of its rifles with adjustable stocks for the same reason, including the legendary 10/22. When we asked Ruger’s Ken Jorgensen about the company’s compact models, he told us Ruger has “seen increased interest in the shooting sports and hunting by women and youth, many of smaller stature. It only makes sense to provide products that meet (their) needs . . . a firearm that fits them . . . makes their effort easier and safer.” It also makes them “more proficient, more confident and ultimately more successful.”
Remington also was not alone with its pink-camo shotguns: Weatherby’s Vanguard bolt un comes in shorter versions with an adjustable length of pull. Chambered in a range of five respectable but lower-recoiling calibers that range from .223 to .308, the GH2 (Girls Hunt 2) Vanguard can be had in pink spiderweb camo and is offered alongside the GH2 SA-08 shotgun, a 20-gauge semi-auto with a 12.5-inch length of pull and 24-inch barrel similarly wreathed in pink. A non-pink camo version is also available.
“We are pleased to be able to offer an inspirational line of hunting and shooting firearms designed to accommodate a wide range of sportsman, no matter their size,” Weatherby chief operating officer Adam Weatherby told us. “Weatherby is a family-owned company that places tremendous value on sharing memories together with our children and grandchildren in the field.”
We also found many compact versions available from Savage and other mainline makers of sporting guns. In addition to looking at what’s available for sale, we also looked at the demographics of the customer to whom these guns will be sold.
Who’s Buying Them?
In researching market demographics, we relied heavily on a series of studies from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms industry. The NSSF routinely conducts research into many facets of the marketplace in order to serve its membership of more than 11,000 manufacturers, retailers and other industry members.
Although the advent of the Internet might have changed this to some degree, many customers still come to a gun store viewing salespeople as subject matter experts, and will often want advice on what to purchase, or if they should purchase a firearm at all. For those who might have concerns about the safety of the shooting sports, it’s wise for your staff to be familiar with the safety stats for both sport shooting and hunting, both of which are considerably safer than sports like cheerleading, volleyball and even bowling.
The results of the 2012 joint NSSF/Hunting Heritage Trust study show that most youth are open to shooting in an appropriate environment, so having the safety info available can be important to help consumers make that decision. Surveying youth aged 8 to 17 years old, NSSF found more than half have a positive view of target shooting as a recreational activity, with over a third approving of hunting (a lower percentage than those who disapproved of hunting), and that those who were invited to engage in both activities were reasonably likely to do so. With the additional qualifier of hunting and shooting “when it’s legal,” the approval percentages rise to 86 percent for shooting and 78 percent for hunting.
The AR Proves Its Worth
Reviewing NSSF’s 2010 Comprehensive Consumer Report survey of 7,372 owners of Modern Sporting Rifles led us to some conclusions that might at first appear unorthodox. While not possessing the beauty and grace of a traditional wood-stocked rifle (the classic “youth model”), the AR is here to stay, and in either .223 or one of the many popular rimfire variants, can be an excellent early rifle for younger or smaller shooters, including females.
According to Maggie Reese, former Top Shot contestant and repeat multigun USPSA champion, “Women and juniors are a growing and important portion of American firearm buyers. …[They] are typically of smaller build and need products designed specifically for them.”
About the AR in particular, the Colt-sponsored Reese told us that “me in particular, I’m a huge fan of the AR. Its versatility and ability to customize make it a great choice for hobby, sport and self-defense. I shoot Colt’s 6920 in all my 3-gun competitions. It’s lightweight and accurate, and it fits me perfectly.”
Parenthetically, it’s not just her. TALO Distributors has offered Colt’s collapsible-stock 6920, which comes with a 16-inch lightweight pencil barrel, in the pink Muddy Girl camo pattern in an obvious bid to reach female shooters with a gun that has functions and aesthetics that appeal to them. As we mentioned above, the same combination of light weight, the adjustability of a collapsible buttstock and the low recoil of the .223 is equally appropriate for all shooters of small stature.
The importance of these factors is borne out by NSSF’s MSR study: Buyers rated “fits body type” as one of their top five reasons for purchase, rating it approximately 8.1 out of 10 (which probably explains why 60 percent use a collapsible stock), and also ranked light weight (6.78) and low recoil (6.07) as factors they considered.
The NSSF study shows two additional reasons for retailers to suggest the MSR. The first is accessorizing; about 65 percent of respondents had between one and three accessories, only 16 percent used the gun as it came out of the box, and most spent over $400 accessorizing their rifle. This creates an obvious opportunity for additional sales of accessory items, which often have a higher markup than the firearm itself.
The second trend relevant to young shooters is the popularity of sound suppressors: It was the third most popular accessory respondents wished to buy, and a stunning 19 percent planned on purchasing one within the next 12 months.
This has obvious benefits for younger, newer shooters in avoiding bad habits due to noise and blast and reducing the risk of long-term hearing loss — something suppressor maker Gemtech capitalized on with its “protect young ears” poster. Even as the mainstream market has now come to accept what once was considered an assassin’s tool as a legitimate accessory for quiet practice, inflation has reduced the effect of the $200 transfer (which must have been devastating in the 1930s), reducing two of the barriers to purchase.
More consumers are interested in suppressors, more companies sell them and most MSRs come with some provision for mounting one.
As a final note, more than 41 percent of those with MSRs had children in the home, which suggests that the next generation of shooters, instead of picturing their father’s Mauser 98 or Stevens propped against the wall, will likely remember shooting an AR of some variant during their formative years. They are the future of the field, and so is the AR.