Youth Gun Test: OL Reviews the Best Guns for Kids

Five junior shooters evaluate the guns they'd like to hunt with this fall


Youth Shooting a rifle

The idea was simple: Give a handful of young shooters and hunters a bunch of youth-model guns and a bushel of ammunition, then ask them to shoot all day and evaluate the firearms on the criteria that mean the most to them.

What we found in listening to the kids over the course of our test surprised us. Accuracy wasn’t the most important consideration when they judged the rifles. Gentle recoil, while still plenty important, wasn’t the biggest factor in how the testers graded the youth shotguns and rifles. Instead, what this next generation of firearms owners told us is that they want a gun that is built to fit their dimensions, is easy and safe to shoot, and has plenty of cool factor. Happily, there were more than a couple of youth shotguns and rifles in our field that satisfied their discerning tastes.

Here’s their assessment of seven firearms you can find on the racks at your local gun shop.

CZ 452 Scout

It was easy to love this rimfire because it turned in the tightest groups of the field. But every tester praised the highly figured walnut stock and the crisp trigger—ours broke at 4 pounds, about right for a plinking .22. The 12-inch length of pull was short for some of our testers, but it fit others perfectly. It was easy to install a scope on the 11mm dovetail rail, or to take it off and use the adequate buckhorn sights. Our group thought the single-round loading device–basically a blind clip magazine that ensures proper loading of single rounds–might deceive buyers into thinking this 452 is a repeater. But it's encouraging that a straight-shooting single-shot .22 LR can still turn the heads of young shooters. Overall: * * * *<br /> Workmanship: A<br /> Fit/Ease of Use: A-<br /> Performance: A-<br /> Safety: B+<br /> Price/Value: A<br /> Cool Factor: A<br /> Caliber/Gauge: .22LR<br /> Price: $303 <strong>Comments from the Kids:</strong> Very accurate, even without a scope. Great price. Easy to operate. A great first gun." —Ellis McKean

Thompson/Center Venture Compact

This is a thoughtful gun: Its 12 ½-inch length of pull can be extended by an inch as its young owner grows by adding an insert. The 20-inch barrel is short enough to be maneuverable but long enough to be accurate, and the tacky rubber inserts in the stock of this .243 provide positive grip for both of a shooter's hands. The team liked the spongy recoil pad, the consistent 4-pound trigger, and the detachable box 3-round magazine. As tester Kaden Fossum noted, the detachable mag is a safety asset: "My dad will carry the magazine and put it in the gun when we're ready to shoot. It makes me safer." Overall: * * * 1/2<br /> Workmanship: B+<br /> Fit/Ease of Use: B<br /> Performance: B+<br /> Safety: A-<br /> Price/Value: B+<br /> Cool Factor: B+<br /> Caliber/Gauge: .243 Win.<br /> Price: $529 <strong>Comments from the Kids:</strong> "Nice trigger. Like the recoil pad. Bolt is stiff. This rifle really fit me." —Jordan Billingsley

Browning T-Bolt

The T-Bolt was introduced in 1965, but production was discontinued until a few years ago. New iterations of the straight-pull bolt-action include the composite sporter we shot, a heavy-barreled varminter, a maple-stocked sporter, and a suppressor-ready version. Testers praised the T-Bolt's accuracy, its ingenious figure-eight rotary magazine (extra points for stowing a spare mag in the buttplate), its "awesome" gold trigger, and its full dimensions. This isn't a scaled-down kids' gun; it's a stylish full-size rimfire any adult would enjoy. The biggest downside: price. "It's a really nice gun," said Ellis McKean, "but it doesn't even have iron sights. By the time you put a scope on it, it's a thousand-dollar .22." Overall: * * * 1/2<br /> Workmanship: A<br /> Fit/Ease of Use: A-<br /> Performance: A-<br /> Safety: A-<br /> Price/Value: C-<br /> Cool Factor: B+<br /> Caliber/Gauge: .22LR<br /> Price: $750 <strong>Comments from the Kids:</strong> "My favorite gun. I liked the straight action. I liked the extra magazine in the stock. Only downside: a little pricey."<br /> —Ellis McKean

Henry Lever Action Youth

This trim, balanced Henry got plenty of "oohs" and "ahhs" right out of the box, and with a scope mounted on its grooved receiver, the .22 shot well enough to place high in our accuracy testing. But this gun wants to run. It tended to jam at the bench, when testers cycled shells deliberately, and was at its best with open sights, cycling the 12 rounds from its tubular magazine as fast as the shooters could manage. The biggest ding, according to Jordan Billingsley, is the external hammer, which could be unsafe to uncock for beginners. "You have to pull the trigger and let the hammer down gently," he noted. "That takes a lot of coordination" to perform safely. Overall: * * * 1/2<br /> Workmanship: A-<br /> Fit/Ease of Use: B+<br /> Performance: B<br /> Safety: C+<br /> Price/Value: A-<br /> Cool Factor: A-<br /> Caliber/Gauge: .22LR<br /> Price: $325 <strong>Comments from the Kids:</strong> "I like this gun, but it wanted to jam when I worked the lever slowly. When I ran it hard, no jams." —Kaden Fossum

Rossi Trifecta

With this nimble switch-barrel, Rossi has perfected the easy-­handling, do-­everything utility gun. The hinged break-action wasn't the most accurate gun in the field, but our testers managed to trade barrels in well under a minute. The Trifecta ships with a detachable comb, which you'll want to remove in order to use the Modified-choked 20-gauge barrel. The scoped .243 barrel was the favorite of the panel, but testers complained that the muzzle jump was jarring. The .22 LR barrel is drilled and tapped for a scope, but we shot the open sights. As with the Henry, testers worried that uncocking the hammer could be dangerous, but they praised the safety lever that, when employed, prevents the hammer from striking the firing mechanism. Overall: * * * 1/2<br /> Workmanship: C+<br /> Fit/Ease of Use: B+<br /> Performance: B-<br /> Safety: B<br /> Price/Value: A<br /> Cool Factor: A<br /> Caliber/Gauge: .22LR/.243 Win./20 GA.<br /> Price: $449 <strong>Comments from the Kids:</strong> "Very finicky when not tightened consistently. Still shot very well. I like the .243 barrel." —Merlin McKean

Winchester M70 Featherweight Compact

This is a sized-down version of the classic Model 70, complete with jeweled bolt and scrolled checkering. But it's a testament to Winchester that the scale is diminished without affecting the M70's familiar lines. Simply put, this was the loveliest gun in the test, even with a 20-inch barrel and 13-inch length-of-pull. Our .22/250 shot like a house afire. Kaden printed one of the tightest five-shot groups of any rifle—.668 inches—with bargain-­bin ammunition. But the youth dimensions ended at the price tag: nearly $900. "I liked the way it shot," said tester Nik Herman, "but I don't think many kids could afford it." Overall: * * * 1/2<br /> Workmanship: A-<br /> Fit/Ease of Use: B+<br /> Performance: A<br /> Safety: B+<br /> Price/Value: C-<br /> Cool Factor: B+<br /> Caliber/Gauge: .22/250 Rem.<br /> Price: $880 <strong>Comments from the Kids:</strong> "I love this gun. Perfect for deer, but it kicks. I shot one of the best groups of the test with this rifle." —Kaden Fossum

Mossberg 500 Super Bantam Combo

This swap-barrel 20-gauge will handle nearly any North American hunting situation, and the Mossberg's extendable stock will fit most young shooters. The smoothbore barrel is configured for turkeys, but it handled clay targets with ease. The rifled slug barrel is ideal for whitetails but could be used for other big game. That said, after Nik shot a round of saboted slugs through the rifled barrel, he remarked, "I wish this gun was a little heavier. All the recoil went right into me!" After that, we shot the slug barrel on a lead-sled rest. The Mossy Oak version got plenty of style points from the test team. A plain-wood version is available for about $50 less. Overall: * * * 1/2<br /> Workmanship: A<br /> Fit/Ease of Use: B<br /> Performance: B<br /> Safety: B+<br /> Price/Value: B+<br /> Cool Factor: C-<br /> Caliber/Gauge: .20 GA<br /> Price: $503 <strong>Comments from the Kids:</strong> "A lot of kick. Better for shotshells than slugs. A good choice if you have to have a single gun for deer and turkeys." —Nik Herman

How We Test

We picked our testers, Glasgow, Montana, residents ranging in age from 11 to 14, based on their shooting experience and knowledge of firearms. Before we took the guns to the range, we reviewed the function and features of each entry, and discussed how to evaluate workmanship (wood and metal fit and finish), shooter fit, safety considerations, and ease of operation. Then we spent a day at the range, shooting open-sight rimfires at 25 yards, scoped rimfires at 50 yards, and centerfire rifles at 100 yards. Each team member shot a 5-shot group at a bull's-eye target with a variety of ammunition, and these targets were measured and scored. Later we asked the kids to replicate hunting and plinking scenarios with the guns. We took the shotguns to the clays range and shot clay pigeons tossed from a hand thrower. <strong>The Testers</strong> <strong>Jordan Billingsley</strong> Favorite Game Animal: Antelope<br /> Age: 12<br /> Height/weight: 5-foot-1, 95 pounds<br /> Bio: Likes to hunt and fish; loves his H&amp;R .25/06. <strong>Kaden Fossum</strong><br /> Favorite Game Animal: Elk<br /> Age: 12<br /> Height/weight: 5-foot-3, 132 pounds<br /> Bio: Enthusiastic hunter, Airsoft-war organizer, and hockey player. <strong>Nik Herman</strong> Favorite Game Animal: ­Sandhill cranes<br /> Age: 14<br /> Height/weight: 5-foot-10, 190 pounds<br /> Bio: Likes to play Call of Duty and a variety of sports, including football, basketball, and baseball, and run track. <strong>Ellis McKean</strong><br /> Favorite Game Animals: Turkeys, doves<br /> Age: 11<br /> Height/weight: 5-foot-1, 78 pounds<br /> Bio: Loves to stalk antelope; likes all sports, especially baseball and basketball; likes <em>The Hunger Games</em> series. <strong>Merlin McKean</strong><br /> Favorite Game Animal: Mule deer<br /> Age: 11<br /> Height/weight: 5-foot-2, 79 pounds<br /> Bio: Little League baseball catcher; likes to hunt turkeys, doves, and pheasants.

We gave a crew of young shooters seven youth-model guns and cut them loose on a test range in Montana. Here’s how the guns scored and what our testers had to say about them.