For youth hunters in Colorado, 12 is a magic number—it's the first year that a kid is eligible to hunt for big game in the Centennial State. With my daughter marking this notable birthday this past spring, we knew it was time to get her first hunting rifle.
Similar to looking for her first shotgun, we embarked on a similar task to find the right bolt-action hunting rifle for her. The rifle had to be lightweight and easy for her to manipulate given her smaller body size. Additionally, it needed to not pack too much of a wallop, so that it wouldn’t hurt during the many rounds it takes to sight in the gun.
I’m not a big game hunter myself, so this was a learning experience for me as well. While there are a few cartridges that might fit our requirements, we decided to start with the .243 Winchester as a good all-around choice. For many hunters, my husband included, the .243 was the starting point for a lifelong love of hunting.
While ballistically a .243 is somewhat lightweight for big game, it is more than adequate for shorter distances with a shooter that has developed good accuracy. And with less felt recoil, it also allows the shooter to take plenty of practice shots without much punishment—and, if necessary, follow-up shots in the field.
The guns in this chambering are also physically lighter weight, which makes it easier for a smaller-framed person to shoulder them and hold them steady for a shot, particularly with a tripod or shooting sticks.
With a cartridge settled on, we hit the range with a Savage 11 International Trophy Hunter, a Weatherby Vanguard Camilla, and a Tikka T3X Compact. The Savage and the Tikka each offer a compact or youth sized rifle, while the Weatherby Camilla is designed specifically for women, so it is smaller and better fitted to the female frame.
Each of these would present a great option for our daughter, but we still had to decide which, and that meant some range testing was in order. Here’s what we found during our gun test:
Savage 11 International Trophy Hunter Youth
Available Chambering: .243 WIN or .308 WIN - MSRP: $499
Scope Used: Nikon 3-9x40 included, pre-mounted - MSRP: $629
The Savage 11 youth rifle is a great value option for a full starter package, because it comes out of the box with a scope already mounted. I have seen these rifle combinations as a youth raffle prize option at local big game chapter dinners, and there’s a reason why—it’s reasonably priced, and quite accurate in the factory configuration. It didn’t take us long to get the rifle shooting good groups at 25 yards, which held when we moved out to 100 yards.
Our daughter appreciated the light weight of the gun and the compact synthetic stock that fit her very well. She was easily able to acquire the target through the scope and never had to fiddle around trying to get the angle just right. The included Nikon scope is a simple crosshair setup that is easy for a novice hunter to aim—and that’s the most basic need for your scope when you’re just starting!
The Savage 11 comes with the company’s proprietary AccuTrigger, a safety feature that is particularly valuable on a youth gun. The trigger has an added layer of protection that requires the shooter to intentionally pull the AccuRelease button with the trigger to fire the gun (sort of like the trigger safety on a Glock).
This allows for a light pull that is very smooth and responsive, but if the gun were dropped or jarred so the sear moves from the trigger notch without the trigger being pulled, it would be stopped by the AccuRelease mechanism and the gun would not accidentally discharge.
We found the bolt to be very smooth and easy to work. Our daughter also found it easy to remove the magazine, load it and put it back in the rifle.
Our one complaint with this gun was that to fully remove the bolt requires a rather elaborate three-finger series of button pushing and bolt pulling. It was difficult for my husband and I to do with our larger hands and our daughter was not able to do this on her own without help.
Weatherby Vanguard Camilla
Available Chambering: .243 WIN, 6.5 Creedmoor, 7MM-08 Rem, .308 WIN - MSRP: $849
Scope Used: Tract Optics Tekoa 3-12x42 BDC - MSRP: $574
Weatherby developed the Camilla based on its popular Vanguard line—however, it is engineered from its foundation to better fit the female hunter.
Similar to shotguns that are being designed for women like the Syren line, the Camilla has a shorter 13” length of pull, a smaller grip and forearm, a higher comb and the buttstock has a negative angle. Each of these changes are intended to reduce overall weight and make it easier for a woman to comfortably shoulder the gun and quickly align the shooter’s eye with the scope.
The Camilla is a stunning gun, it features a satin finish on Turkish walnut with a subtle fleur-de-lis checkering pattern. We paired the gun with a Tract Tekoa scope.
Tract is a relatively new, direct-to-consumer optics company that was founded by two long-time industry insiders who worked for other well-known optics companies. The scope was extremely crisp and accurate using Schott High Transmission glass to improve image quality. It offers Bullet Drop Compensation (BDC) reticle and windage correction that provide long range shooting precision.
We found the Camilla/Tract combination to be a great shooting gun and we quickly sighted it in with consistent accuracy at 100 yards. However, for our purposes neither was quite the right fit for my daughter.
The Camilla wasn’t as comfortable for my daughter as it was for me as a fully-grown woman—it’s a great women’s gun, but perhaps not quite right for a younger shooter. The Tract Tekoa is an extremely high-quality scope at a reasonable price, but, we found this particular model to be a little too high-tech, particularly since we don’t intend to be shooting much beyond 100 yards.
For a starting hunter, learning how to properly use optics is a critical first step, and with too many possible adjustments, a scope can be confusing, something both my daughter and I learned.
Tikka T3x Compact
Available Chambering: .204 RUG, .223 REM, .22-250, .243 WIN, .308 WIN - MSRP: $630
Scope Used: Alpen Optics Kodiak 3-9x40 - MSRP: $178 (special online price from Alpen $109.95)
Tikka’s T3x Compact is part of Tikka’s redesigned T3x line of rifles. The Finland based company, owned by Beretta, offers excellent quality guns at reasonable prices. My husband has used Tikka’s old T3 line for years and was impressed by its out-of-the-box accuracy and its consistency over his time hunting with it. The design changes in the T3x line are notable.
The compact synthetic stock with its 12.5” length of pull was a comfortable fit for my daughter and with the included 1” spacer, it will grow with her to extend its use. The T3x stocks have an interchangeable pistol grip and fore-end (additional grips sold separately) to adapt to the shooter’s hand size more easily.
The new recoil pad technology reduced felt recoil making it easy to shoot multiple rounds repeatedly at the range. Tikka redesigned the ejection port to make it easier to cycle cartridges; my daughter found it very smooth and consistent during our shooting practice. We paired this gun with an Alpen Optics Kodiak 3-9x40 scope and appreciated its clarity and simplicity.
Like my husband’s gun, we were able to shoot consistent groups with the Tikka T3x Compact right out of the box. The magazine was simple to load and my daughter was able to efficiently insert and secure it in the gun, but the release button is flush at the top of the magazine making it unlikely to accidentally release it.
The action worked smoothly and the angle of the bolt handle helps keep the shooter’s hand away from the scope to efficiently load and eject cartridges. We also found it easy to remove the bolt, and even my daughter could pull it out for cleaning.
My only complaint for this gun is that it uses a unique Optilock scope mount system. so it took a special order from our gun shop to get the right parts to mount the scope.
The Tikka T3x Compact hit a sweet spot with us and is the rifle my daughter carried during her late season cow elk hunt in December.
At that time of the year, elk typically move down from higher elevations to herd up in sagebrush flats. But Colorado’s winter has been quite mild so far and after a lot of walking and scouting, we knew the elk hadn’t moved down yet and we’d have to look for them at higher elevations.
Our daughter carried the Tikka by herself throughout our walks—we averaged about 10 miles each day we hunted—proving that the gun’s light weight and size works well for a youth hunter.
Unfortunately, when we found the cow herd at high elevation, we were only able to get within 250 yards. My daughter hadn’t shot at that range to develop proficiency, and with a .243, the distance was just too far for an elk.
As a result, she never had the opportunity to take a shot. But we had enough time in the field with the Tikka .243 to know that she was comfortable carrying it over long distances and it would be the perfect hunting rifle for deer or antelope, or for the elk at closer range that we’d anticipated finding.