A Girl’s First Shotgun

I have a vivid memory of the first shotgun I used for hunting when I was a child. It was a single-shot .410 hammer gun that I used to hunt rabbits and squirrels, and I had to cock the hammer before each shot. If I didn’t fire the gun after cocking it, I had to release the hammer by holding it firmly with my thumb while pulling the trigger, then gently, carefully letting the hammer down. There was at least one time when my little hands didn’t quite get the coordination and I misfired the gun and scared myself (and everyone around me) half to death. My brother shot a pump-action Remington 870 youth gun, but it was heavy and kicked hard enough that I never wanted to use it.

As an adult, I knew I wanted something that would be a better fit for me. About 20 years ago, I bought myself a sweet 20-gauge semi-automatic Beretta, which is still my go-to field gun. It’s light enough to carry all day, and won’t beat me up too badly. It’s a fantastic all-around gun that I can use for most of my bird hunting, and practice with it for hours at the clays range.

It seemed logical that this might be the gun I could pass down to my daughter. But things didn’t turn out that way.

Struggling to Reach the Trigger

Sophie, who turned 11 this year, has been walking with my husband and me on our fall bird hunting trips since she was 5. Keeping up with her very tall daddy in steep mountain grouse country or tough pheasant fields was never an easy proposition. But she loved every minute of it, walking the many miles and helping carry and clean the birds with enthusiasm. She had been counting down the years, then the days, then the hours until she could hunt with us. In March 2015, she aced her hunter safety course and we knew that the fall season would be her opportunity.

A Girl’s First Shotgun
Sophie went on her first hunt when she was 5. It was a bitter cold day and she didn’t have a lot of stamina, but she was excited about the birds and watching our one-year-old Brittany work.author photo

Since my 20-gauge Beretta was the lightest, softest shooting gun we owned, that’s the one Sophie carried with her on her first sage grouse hunt. As good as the gun is for me, it was not such a good fit for Sophie, who struggled to reach the trigger. She carried it very safely and even managed to touch off a couple shots at a passing grouse, but it was obvious this gun wouldn’t work for her.

On the next trip we went after pheasants, and she borrowed our friend’s single shot .410. His grandson had doctored that gun up with duct tape and kitchen towels to reduce the felt recoil. In fact, it worked well enough that Sophie was able to shoot her first pheasant, duck and dove—all exceedingly patient birds with an apparent death wish—that hung around long enough for her to aim, fire and reload a few times. The .410 was a great starter gun, but we knew this small a gun was not really a long-term option.

What she needed was a gun that was light enough for her to carry all day, and with better knockdown power than a .410 – but one that wouldn’t beat up her shoulder with every shot. It needed to have a short length of pull, but perhaps could come with a longer replacement stock or have another adjustment as she grew. Price is always an option, but I knew that if we could find the right gun, it would last for most of her youth— and then the next one would be on her dime!

A Girl’s First Shotgun
Borrowing Mom’s 20-gauge Beretta, Sophie tried her hand at grouse hunting in western Colorado. But the gun was too long and too heavy to be a long-term solution.author photo

Based on my experience, I figured a 20-gauge semi-automatic was the way to go, and when I read Phil Bourjaily's excellent article on Range 365 about best shotguns for kids, I knew I was on the right track.

The Search Is On…and On

I started searching online. Typing “youth 20 gauge shotguns” into Google turned up lots of pump-action guns and a couple over/unders. Searching for semi-automatics added a few more options in a spectrum of prices, and I had the options that Bourjaily had mentioned to consider. After getting a general sense of what was out there, I took a few trips to some of our local big box stores.

That was an eye-opener.

I’d stop in on weekends and stand in front of the gun section, searching the rack for compact semi-autos, and waiting for someone to help me. There were lots of customers, but often the clerk would overlook me and go up to the next man standing at the counter instead.

Once, I finally got a salesman’s attention and told him what I wanted to see. He handed me a gun and then moved off to help someone else without offering any information or detail about the gun. I actually had to flag him down to give him back the gun.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the youth options were very limited. The stores typically had only a few models on the rack, and those were mostly pumps and over/unders. I realized this wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought.

A Girl’s First Shotgun
Using a friend’s .410, Sophie finally had success, shooting this pheasant and some other birds.author photo

Show Time

In January, I headed off to the 2016 SHOT Show in Las Vegas, and my luck started turning.

The day before SHOT begins is Industry Day at the Range, when media representatives have the opportunity to test new guns and gear from manufacturers at a local range.

I had several assignments, including checking out new guns for women. That’s why I had the opportunity to shoot Franchi’s new 12-gauge Affinity Catalyst semi-automatic—and fell in love. This was a light, sweet shooting gun that would allow me to increase my firepower without pounding my shoulder.

Of course, I was also keeping an eye out for semi-automatics that could adapt to growing children. Frankly, I was somewhat underwhelmed with the options available from an industry that talks a lot about bringing in the next generation of hunters. I did make a few contacts, and arranged for my daughter to be able to test a couple good options.

Ironically, though, it was my experience with the Franchi Affinity Catalyst that opened up the next opportunity for Sophie.

Serendipity at the Cabela's

Just a couple months after SHOT Show, my family was on spring break in Rapid City, South Dakota and popped into the local Cabela’s to wait out a snowstorm. We headed to the gun section and asked about youth model semi-automatics – and this time they had some. Online I’d read about the Benelli Montefeltro compact, and I’d held one at SHOT Show, and this store had one in stock. However, when Sophie shouldered the gun, she didn’t look comfortable.

A Girl’s First Shotgun
Sophie gets pointers from her Mom as she tries her hand shooting the Franchi Affinity Compact for the first time.author photo

Then we saw it—a compact version of the Franchi Affinity that I’d liked so much at SHOT Show. We asked to look at it and when Sophie shouldered this gun she immediately experienced the same fit and comfort I had when I’d shouldered the Affinity Catalyst just a few weeks earlier.

As spring rolled around, we were able to get to the trap range with the Affinity Compact, as well as some other options for my daughter to try. It became apparent very quickly that the “good feel” Sophie had for the Franchi Affinity Compact in the store stayed true on the range. The Affinity Compact uses Franchi’s Inertia Driven System, making the gun extremely light and noticeably easier for her to handle. She had no problem with recoil. More importantly, it will grow with her, because the gun comes with four ¼-inch spacers that can be added behind the recoil pad, ultimately lengthening it to almost a full-size stock.

The Affinity Compact is extremely lightweight—just 5.5 pounds in the black synthetic stock version we tried. Most importantly, Sophie was able to easily handle the bolt and the bolt release button. One of the guns she shot had a very stiff action and she was unable to work it independently. While that gun is likely to loosen up over time it was frustrating for her that day. Notably, she was able to work the Franchi’s action all by herself right out of the box.

A Girl’s First Shotgun
Sophie getting in range time with her new gun.author photo

MSRP for the gun is $899, but we found it on sale for $650. This was on the higher end of the price spectrum of a first gun, but Sophie had shown strong interest and the last thing we wanted to do was buy a cheaper gun that didn’t fit well and hurt her, causing her to lose interest. Plus, it will grow with her as she grows. To us, it was a good investment in what will hopefully be a lifelong passion.

First Trip with the New Gun

Right after Sophie’s 11th birthday in early May, we took her and her new Franchi on a turkey hunt in Nebraska. That afternoon, she sighted in turkey loads on still targets (which are much easier to hit than those flying clay targets!) and again impressed us with how comfortable she was shooting the gun. We were up early the next morning, brimming with optimism for our first hunt. It was a cold morning, and the turkeys left their roosts silently and ignored our calls. After several hours we slipped out to eat a hearty breakfast, scouted some other areas and then headed back to the blind for the afternoon.

As we drove in we passed a bachelor group of four tom turkeys so we got back in the blind as quietly as we could. We waited for a while and then tried a few soft yelps that brought one hen silently into our spread. A few minutes later that bachelor group made its way toward us. The excitement was like electricity zipping through the blind. I could see all four birds working their way in, fanning and fluffing their feathers.

Sophie couldn’t see anything from her position, but she got herself ready at the blind window, facing the decoys. We held our breath as the birds walked around the side of the blind. Within a few silent seconds they were right in front, and Sophie didn’t need to be told before she fired off her shot. The lead tom dropped immediately to the ground.

This was the perfect ending to what had been a challenge, trying to find the perfect gun for Sophie. Or perhaps it is the start of a much longer story, and one that Sophie herself will write throughout the rest of her childhood, using her own gun.

Options

While my daughter immediately loved the Franchi Affinity Compact, there are a few other options that might fit other kids better. Here’s a short selection of youth 20-gauge semi-automatic, adjustable shotguns you might want to look into:

A Girl’s First Shotgun
A new hunter’s excitement after her first turkey hunt was a success!author photo
A Girl’s First Shotgun
The Benelli Montefeltro Compact.manufacturer photo

Barrel length: 24- or 26-inch barrel

Weight: 5.3 pounds

Stock: Walnut or black synthetic stock

Details: Benelli also offers a "Combo" option ($1,299) that comes with both a compact and full-size stock and a 26-inch barrel.

MSRP: $1,139

A Girl’s First Shotgun
The CZ-USA 720 ALS G2.manufacturer photo

Barrel length: 24-inch barrel

Weight: 6.6 pounds

Stock: Black synthetic stock with adjustable length of pull from 12 to 14 inches

MSRP: $599

A Girl’s First Shotgun
The Franchi Affinity Compact.manufacturer photo

Barrel length: 24-inch barrel

Weight: 5.5 pounds

Stock: Black synthetic stock with four spacers to adjust length of pull in ¼-inch increments, from 12 3/8 inches to 13 3/8 inches 24 to 26 inches.

Weight: 6.2 pounds

MSRP: $899

A Girl’s First Shotgun
The Tristar Viper G2 Youth.manufacturer photo

Barrel length: 24-26 inches

Weight: 6.2 pounds

Stock: Black synthetic stock

Details: Synthetic Stock Combo package includes a compact and full size stock and a barrel extender (similar to a screw in choke tube) that changes barrel length from 24 to 26 inches.

MSRP: $580

A Girl’s First Shotgun
After a long day hunting mountain sharptail grouse, Sophie and her dad head back to the car.author photo