At the clays range, at the clinics where I help train new shotgunners, and on the first day of trap practice for the high school team I coach, I see kids holding guns that fit them like last year’s pants. Most are 12- to 14-year-olds with 20-gauge youth-model slide-action Remington 870s or Mossberg Model 500s. The guns are too short and kick too hard.

Where did they get these guns? From you, their parents, who put one under a Christmas tree or next to a birthday cake a year or two earlier. You didn’t think you were doing anything wrong…but there is a better way.

Sure, if you are starting kids very young—say, in third or fourth grade—those light youth pump-action guns may be the only guns they can lift. However, most kids aren’t big enough to start shooting shotguns at flying targets until they weigh around 85 pounds (usually in the fifth or sixth grade). At that point, they’re on the verge of outgrowing most youth-model shotguns. Why not get it right the first time and pick a gun a child can grow into?

Browning Micro Midas: Stocks are shorter, and later, when your kid needs a full-size stock, you get half off the price of one.

Stock Options

The problem with youth guns is that barrels don’t stretch. Stocks are easy to lengthen, but before long, that 21-inch barrel that was easy for a new shooter to handle will be way too short to swing anywhere but the turkey woods.

Most kids can shoot longer, heavier guns than you, or they, think they can. A 26-inch barrel isn’t a problem once they learn how to hold the gun correctly, and it’s much easier to hit with. Have a gunsmith cut the stock down if necessary, and reattach the end when the shooter grows. If it’s synthetic, buy a shorter one.

At least one manufacturer understands that kids outgrow guns quickly. Browning’s Micro Midas series of youth guns (Citori over/under, BPS pump-action, Silver semiautomatic) all come with 24- or 26-inch barrels, short stocks, and a certificate for 50 percent off the price of a full-size stock as the young shooter grows.

Remington 11-87 Sportsman: Comes in 20 gauge, with a 26-inch barrel and wood or synthetic stock.

Pain at the Pump

Light 20-gauge pump-action shotguns kick sharply, even when loaded with regular 7⁄8-ounce loads. I have seen kids using them start to flinch and lift their heads after only a few shots.

The best gun for a new shooter to learn on is a gas-operated semiautomatic, which is naturally soft shooting. Both of my sons began with gas-operated Remington 1100s. Shooting guns that didn’t hurt made it fun—and easy for them to learn to keep their heads on the stock.

A gas semiauto doesn’t have to cost a ton of money. Here are some options:

Weatherby SA-08: Slender, lightweight, with a choice of stocks and a low price. Photographer: Mike Malone

• The Weatherby SA-08 is light and slim, and it lists for $849 in wood and $734 in synthetic.

• The Remington 11-87 Sportsman comes in 20 gauge with a 26-inch barrel in wood ($845) and synthetic ($804) models.

• Moving up in price, Winchester’s Super X3 Compact ($1,069) comes in 20 gauge with a short length of pull and a 24-, 26-, or 28-inch barrel.

• The nearly identical Browning Micro Midas Silver ($1,199) comes with a 24- or 26-inch barrel. It’s the most expensive of the four, but you get that certificate for half off the price of a new full-size stock, so your kid can shoot it into adulthood.

Lots of people shy away from semiautos for kids, fearing that the child will get a case of “auto finger” and empty the gun rather than make one good shot. The solution is simple: Dole out one shell at a time for the first year or two. That’s what I did with my sons. I was always at their side with another shell at the ready.

The Winchester Super X Compact comes in 20 gauge.

That’s as it should be, because the gun itself is only part of the gift. It’s also the promise that you will be there to take your son or daughter shooting or hunting.