Start Them Young!
By Bill Head

During a walkabout on Mbula Pro Safaris property near Bella Bella, 11-year old grandson Dylen spotted a crocodile and begged to get one. Really? That calls for superior marksmanship. So, stupidly, I bet the landowner’s reduced fee and lost. Dylen showed he had the art of shooting perfected. Practice pays , or should I say, pays our landowner host, the gracious Henry Gomes. Eighty yards across a small pond, one shot to the base of neck, done; a couple of anchor shots from my .375, and there you go. Another conservation hunter is born! But, it was not easy to get him to this exuberant moment!

Hunter’s first African success. A true prize.

We talk around the camp fire about saving wild life, join groups, and maybe send money to conservation leaders. But let’s face it, not many people today grow up with a non-military rifle in their hands on some farm or ranch. Children today are reared with an iPhone or game console, Earbuds installed, and probably some attitude. I can guarantee ALL of them are getting anti-hunting, anti-gun messages, subliminal and overt. Where? On that device, from their teachers, from TV and Hollywood, and from many of their friends. Amazing that so much “anti-hunting” messaging is happening from the paint ball crowd. Play-shooting humans is ok, but not game management. No one wants to hear the value of genetic selection or culling when eating a cheeseburger.

Real African elephant in Real Africa, not in a zoo.

What to do? Take time to invest in a young person. Conservation principles are learned, not bequeathed. Simple to say; but not easy. My children are grown, but since I am a cowboy, they did grow up on a ranch. I started their centerfire training when they were five. My grandchildren visit the farm, but that is far from their daily freedom. I encouraged my adult children to train their children in the art of shooting and the responsibility of being a sport hunter.

Here is my formula: My Lesson Plan starts with you.

Best training tool available.

  • I began by giving each grandchild a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun the day they were born. Ryders come in original blue and pink. When they were about five, we started talking Safety. Handle the BB rifle, shoot it. That helps to take some of the mystique out of guns and mom’s fear. I begin with scheduled lessons on safety and marksmanship with their BB rifles. Safety glasses are a must. Remember that many subdivisions and all parks do not allow BB gun fire. And do not trust your neighbors to understand. Start taking the child hunting as an observer, explaining basics. They can carry the BB rifle, but control the destruction. An adult with a shotgun is good exposure, since that type of hunting generally requires a lot of walking, and thinking about where game hide and why.
  • After many BBs and years, graduate to a short-stocked, moderate power pellet rifle. They weigh similar, still give a sound, and a tiny amount of recoil. Flinch-mentality training begins here with the sound, and so should trigger control. Place targets 5-10 yards. I use water-filled cola cans, and free-swinging devices. Here is THE big patience test. Kids want auto. A single shot is slow but essential to marksmanship and learning to make the first shot count. Continue simple hunting experiences. Concentrate on getting very close.
  • When your trainee is aged 9-13, acquire a single-shot 22 rimfire rifle. These can be expensive or cheap. Cheap works. You will feel less remorse cutting the stock to fit. Fit is everything at this point to learn proper sight picture. Use open sights, telescopic sights and even a Red Dot or Holographic sight on the same rifle. Go to a range. This is important because at a range all noise is useful to teaching concentration while firing. Practice squeezing the trigger. I wish I had known this flinch mediation when teaching my children. There are few ranges interested in training a child, sorry. Most range officers are tactical-oriented.

H&R single shot 22, open sights and Red Dot for first range practice.

  • Move to a repeater 22, preferably a bolt, or lever. If you must use a semi, load two cartridges only, forcing the student to learn mechanical steps needed to fully understand that firearm. Semi-auto is not allowed in Africa. I always re-emphasize that a 22 rimfire has a range of over one mile. This is the best time to let the child actually hunt and shoot with you. Rabbits are good targets. Not birds.
  • Now we go centerfire. I use a bolt 223. It has a “fairy” kick, but a loud report. Noise is the issue to control. Students usually like this newer rifle, more adult, and since the 223 is accurate, enjoy shoot-n-see targets at 25 yards, then to 50 yards. Go back to the 22 at the same range distances. Switch between the two, over and over again. One shot 223, 10 shots 22 rim.

Satisfaction in a good 22 score has its own reward for a 9- year-old.

  • The last jump is .243. Unfortunately, my grandchildren are right handed, so I deliberately use a left hand .243 starting with one shot in the magazine. This gives me control and forces the student to learn mechanical issues. Such solutions could save a life, and certainly will improve the hunting experience when guaranteed to occur problems happen to the rifle or cartridges when hunting. The .243 is not a child’s or “woman’s” rifle. That label implies it is toyish, not real, or not a serious killer. Reality is what we pursue. This cartridge in a normal hunting rifle creates a lot more noise than a .223 with some kick. Students here face a confidence problem, and failure. Every student of mine has failed with the first few shots, always loaded one at a time. The problem is noise so close to their face. That is when Grandma shows up. She picks up “her” rifle – usually offhand – fires one round, prints inside the 10 ring at 25 yards, and then hands the rifle back to the student. The student stares at the now magic rifle and ponders. Wait! Let that visual sink in. “If Grandma can do it, so can I.” Add some ear plugs under those range ear muffs and hand the student a cartridge. Don’t shoot too much. Over time they will get to see trigger pull and BANG as normal. When that happens, move to 50 yards. Now they can deer, hog or coyote hunt WITH you. Teach anatomy by visiting a zoo explaining aiming points using the Perfect Shot We do. I promise you will get a reaction from Millennial moms. With some experience, you might stay at .243 or move up slightly to say a 6.5, 7×57, 7-08 or even 270. Avoid until later .30-06 and .308 if you can.

I attempt to take each grandchild to Africa on their 11th birthday. If a grandchild is in tow, mama says I can hunt anywhere! Eleven is good, since no diapers, they can feed themselves and carry their own luggage. A bonus? At that age they are too young to be smart-mouthed teenagers who think you are the world’s dumbest human.


A long plane ride is an adventure, and they carry their own luggage.

Expensive? Most outfitters have reduced rates for children-hunter-learners. Some offer accompanied minor hunters a charge for just a trophy fee. Others offer a reduced observer rate and even reduced trophy fees. Observer rates today are a serious impediment to family hunting. $3000-plus airfare to watch a hunt, or $3k for a cruise? What do you think?

First grandchild Andrew went to Africa in 2007. We hunted the Limpopo Province near the Botswana border with my wife Jane, friend Rob, his father Igor, and some of our Frio Canyon cadre with outfitter Intrepid Safaris. Andrew was using grandma’s .243 rifle, with a red dot scope. The idea was for him to take an impala. The impala were spooky and we could not close to within 200 yards remaining outside Andrew’s 100 yard comfort zone. Andrew continued hunting from an elevated blind, familiar since he grew up sitting in a deer blind with grandma and me in Texas.

When decent gemsboks showed up at a water hole, I reluctantly agreed with PH Phillip Du Plessis to let him try. The .243 is far from ideal for oryx, but as you can see, he shot one. Wounded in the mid-shoulder where told to aim, and now near dark, and we had to go out early the next morning to follow up. The 100-gr. conventional deer bullet did not get to the lungs. The PH finished the outcome with his .308. While this could have been a failure, it actually showed true sportsmanship to Andrew because we committed to doing everything possible to recover the buck.

Andrew’s first hunt ever. A memory not to forget.

Lessons learned: shooting is not hunting. Watching me in a blind teaches patience, but not much else. Andrew had not taken any game before going to Africa. A mistake. He has since collected a couple of nice, one-shot, deer with his new 7mm-08. Andrew will have to pay for his/our next trip hunting for sable when he graduates from TX. A&M.

Second grandchild Dylen’s turn, 2014. We went on a viewing trip to Idaho for him to experience big-game hunting. While Dylen had ranged my ranch with various rifles and shot at a lot of snakes, vermin and such, he had no Texas deer experience. He was supposed to just watch. He was taking a long time to set a shot, and I wanted him to see that big critters do not allow much more than 10 seconds once spotted. I agreed to let him take his new, Africa-bound 7mm-08 rifle – a lesson learned. Well, the guides managed to put him in front of a white elk bull – collected, but too big to fit his bedroom.

We booked with Pete and Alma de Villiers, Hunters Safari Southern Africa in 2015 to find Dylen a good Burchell’s zebra. Dylen had problems hunting from a blind having no experience with sitting still anywhere for 15 minutes.

Dylen and Pete de Villiers waiting at a waterhole for zebra. Or not waiting.

We could not get him into the discipline of being still and quiet, so after two days, we agreed on another approach – walk, look, shoot. This resulted in taking a croc, then a nice kudu.

Processing a warthog. Part of the hunt.

Later we went to Namibia to hunt with Jamy Traut and his family. Jamy invited his youngest son Nick to accompany us. That was a tremendous experience as it reinforced hunting ethics and outdoor skills at a level I could never offer. Jamy is a well-known expert in wildlife. He guided us while Wayne van Zwoll and Jim Shockey waited. Jamy missed adverts in an outdoor video to help me and my “beginner” have a lifetime adventure. Jamy and Dylen crawled up on a zebra herd to about 80 yards, while Nicky and I waited in the thorns. Jamy showed Dylen how to sneak over a sand dune and take a couple of springbok at more than 140 yards. Perhaps the most fun was finding and collecting an African “coyote” – a jackal.

A shot from way over there on top of that sand dune. 140 yards, 7-08, 140 gr. Hornaday.

Lesson #1: If your student can shoot, enjoys hunting, and wants adventure, bring more money. Second: Taking animals, carcass processing, seeing people save and use meat is important in teaching the real lesson: Managed hunting is a big positive, leaving an abundance of game that remaining habitat can sustain. At no point was the word poacher heard.

Nicky Traut and Dylen position a hard-won trophy for photos after picking thorns out of their hands and clothes.

Moon over Africa. Jamy, Nicky and Dylen searching for a gemsbok.