The Back Porch

That First Gun

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors July-August 2017 issue

Just the other week, I gave my granddaughter and grandson their first firearms, a .22 rifle and a .410 shotgun.

It’s a rite of passage familiar to most of us who hunt. We were either given our first firearm or saved money to buy it.

Presenting a young person with their first gun is more than just giving a gift. It’s about passing along the hunting tradition, something that needs to start early.

Study after study indicates that if people don’t start hunting before the teenage years end, the odds are against them being a hunter as an adult.

That First GunUnfortunately, parents in a growing number of families don’t hunt. Fortunately, plenty of young hunters can learn from a neighbor, relative, or family friend. That’s why it’s so important for us hunters to help any young person who shows an interest in hunting. That starts with helping provide a good education.

For decades Montana law required everyone ages 12 to 17 to complete a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks hunter education course before being allowed to hunt. That law changed a few years back to cover older beginners. Now, anyone born after January 1, 1985 (that’s age 32 and younger this fall), who wants to hunt here must pass Montana’s or another state’s hunter education course.

That requirement was further amended recently when the state established a program to let young people hunt for two years, under the supervision of a parent or guardian, before taking hunter education.

Back in the Dark Ages (pre-Internet), the hunter safety program meant sitting in a room, learning from a volunteer instructor, and taking a test. Oh yes, it often included a gruesome 16-millimeter movie on gunshot wounds. Then, as now, the instruction was top-notch.

The format, though not the quality, has changed slightly for those younger than 17. Hint: The movies are more enjoyable.

For those age 18 or older, you can take the hunter education course over the Internet. Ah, the Age of Enlightenment. It’s the same high level of instruction as before, only more convenient for those with busy schedules.

As has always been the case, hunter education is only the beginning. A young hunter still needs someone to provide a gun, transportation to hunting areas, and instruction in additional outdoor skills. There is only so much a person can learn from a book or computer screen.

Urbanization and fragmentation of the modern family have thrown up obstacles between young people and hunting opportunities. So has the deluge of competing diversions, from soccer to computer games.

Members of state and local conservation groups have stepped up to help take kids hunting. So have family members and neighbors. I remember my dad taking me and a buddy. My friend, whose family had no hunting connection, went that one time. Afterward, he decided he’d rather fish.

That’s okay, too, as long as youngsters have the option to make a choice. It’s sad to think of a boy or girl who might have loved hunting never even having the opportunity to try it.

If there’s a kid in your neighborhood who shows an interest in hunting, consider taking that young person afield some day this fall. Pry open your wallet and, after the moths have flown out, buy that youngster a good starter rifle or shotgun.

Who knows where that initial firearm will lead them.

My first rifle? It was a bolt-action .22 my parents gave me for Christmas. It poured rain that day, so I couldn’t take it outside and shoot it.

Worst day of my life.

That was the same .22 rifle I gave my grandkids.

Best day of my life.Bear bullet

Bruce Auchly manages the regional Information and Education Program in Great Falls.Ed Jenne is a Missoula illustrator.