After a recent range outing with a kid that was going deer hunting, I am taking a moment to offer some thoughts about hunting rifle selection for youths and small framed folk. For the first time in a few years, I saw firsthand a 90 lb 12 year old experiences recoil very differently than someone twice their weight. Because of course it does! Recoil is just a math equation. Halve the weight behind the rifle and the force doubles. Something that has very little felt recoil for me has very real felt recoil to a smaller person. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for small folk who want to hunt medium or large game.
This list is going to be broken into 3 categories based on recommended ammunition type and then by rifle type. Short people who don't weigh very much are more affected by recoil than a larger person. This means that something a 180 lb man finds pleasant could be rather unpleasant for a 90 pound youth. Especially if the new hunter is a new shooter, it's best for them to practice with something they enjoy so they can practice often. As well, people with shorter arms are going to struggle more with longer firearms, because it puts the center of gravity further from their core.
I am going to break this into several sections to go into details for those people who are interested. If you aren't terribly interested in details, then just reading this post may serve you very well. This post will be as short as I can manage, with supporting thoughts and data in longer posts. So on to the recommendations!
The 3 rifle cartridge categories I suggest for new hunters who are small in stature are:
Magnum Pistol cartridges, like 44 and 357 magnum
Intermediate Power Rifle cartridges, like 7.62x39
High Power Rifle cartridges, like 243 Winchester and 6.5 Creedmoor
For a new hunter or inexperienced shooter, it is important to use enough gun. Sure, a 22 can kill a deer if you hit in the the right spot in the head, but we should make a choice that allows for less precise shot placement or small aiming or trajectory errors. We want to ensure an ethical and speedy kill even if the shot isn't perfect, because a perfect shot while in the wild is pretty rare. All the recommendations listed meet that standard in my understanding and experience.
The first category is magnum pistol rounds, may seem like an odd choice. While a 357 and 44 magnum may be quite unpleasant to shoot in a handgun, in a rifle that weighs three or four times as much they can be pretty pleasant. As well, the longer barrel of a rifle can increase the velocity by quite a bit, often 25 or 30 percent. That increases energy and terminal effectiveness quite a bit. Most firearms that are chambered in magnum pistol rounds can also shoot the lower power "special" version. A 44 magnum rifle can also shoot 44 special. A 357 rifle can also shoot 38 special. This allows for very pleasant and affordable practice, then stepping up to the more powerful magnum rounds for hunting. The third caliber you may consider in this class is 45 Colt. You can get low power "Cowboy" rounds or rounds for hunting loaded up close to 44 magnum pressure.
My favorite rifles in this category for smaller folks are the Rossi 92 lever actions. They are available in each of the mentioned calibers with 16" or 20" barrels. They come with iron sights so you don't need to add a scope. The stocks are about an inch shorter than on most bolt action guns so they fit small shooters better. They only weigh 5 pounds so they are easier for a smaller person to hold steady than a 7 pound rifle with a 1 pound scope. Each of the cartridges will offer good terminal performance at the velocity they achieve in a rifle barrel.
They do have a couple downsides. First is the cost. New these run $500 - $550, so on the high end of list. Second- there isn't an easy way to install a scope- you can get a mount for a red dot or scout scope that replaces the rear sight, but there aren't good options for installing a traditional magnified optic.
An alternative to the Rossi rifles are Marlin 1894's and Henry Big Boys. They are both heavier and more expensive though, but are nicely made tools. Look for any of these used as well. There are lots of lightly used lever actions out there for a significant cost savings.
The second category is intermediate power rifle rounds. The most popular cartridge in this category is 223 Remington / 5.56 NATO. I do not recommend this for deer hunting, for reasons explained here. Using something like 7.62x39, 6.5 Grendel or even the new 350 Legend and you have a good tool for deer hunting. I even add 30-30 to this list, although it does split the difference in power and recoil between this category and the high power rifle category. 7.62x39 gets extra points because it is currently the cheapest centerfire ammo you can buy, so it's super cheap to practice with. Commonly available ammo costs less than a quarter a round.
This type of cartridge is in the sweet spot of being powerful enough for deer at ranges they are typically encountered without being overly powerful. 30-30 has taken more deer in the US than any other cartridge, even though it is 25% less powerful than something like 308. It is plenty to do the job. This category also offers more choice in rifle type- you can find rifles that are lever action (30-30), bolt action or semi-automatic. My favorite choices for rifles in this category include:
The Ruger American Ranch - this is a solid little rifle. They have 16" barrels so they are easy to use by people with short arms. They have a tang safety that is easy to operate and there is also a trigger safety. A threaded barrel allows for the installation of a muzzle break to reduce felt recoil even more. They accept common, affordable magazines. Available in 7.62x39 and 350 Legend for a price around $350 - $400 new.
The downsides are they aren't the smoothest bolt to work or magazine to insert. They also require a scope, like many rifles on this list, which adds cost and weight.
Marlin 336Y - This is the Youth model of the classic Marlin 336 chambered in 30-30. It has a shorter stock and a 16" barrel, instead of the 20" barrel of the standard rifle. They have iron sights so don't need to add a scope if you don't desire. New they cost $400, Marlin sells them for less than the standard rifle. If the user is a youth, they can swap the stock out for a longer one as they grow and have a rifle they can use for life.
The downsides are the recoil can be a little stout in the smaller version of the rifle and you lose a bit of velocity over the 20" barrel model.
Howa Mini Action / CZ 527. These rifles are are available in 6.5 Grendel and 7.62x39. They are both finely made bolt action guns with actions designed for the cartridge size. They are smooth and handy and available in a variety of barrel lengths and stock types. They are smoother and have nicer triggers than anything else on the list, but are priced accordingly, with prices starting at $500. These are both great woods rifles, made by craftsmen in Japan and the Czech Republic.
Downsides are the higher cost and the requirement for a scope, as most models don't have iron sights.
The AR-15. The AR-15 is ideally suited to intermediate power cartridges. You can find models chambered in 6.5 Grendel, 350 Legend, 7.62x39 and other deer worthy cartridges like 6.8 SPC and 450 Bushmaster (which aren't recommended due to scarcity). Barrel lengths range from 16" to 24" and even basic AR-15's come with adjustable stocks so they can quickly fit a wide variety of people. Many also come with iron sights, so running a scope is optional.
The primary downside is the tactical look. You can also spend a ton of money on one, but if you shop around keeping it under $500 is pretty easy. I've build one for as little as $350.
The last category is high powered rifle. I am sticking to commonly available short action (meaning shorter than a 30-06) cartridges. These are mostly cartridges based on the 308 Winchester round include some of the most common hunting rounds. Other than 308, we have 7mm-08, 243 Winchester and the new darling, the 6.5 Creedmoor. Of these, the 243 and 6.5 Creedmoor will offer the least kick since they use smaller bullets. 7mm-08 will offer more, and 308 a bit more than that. These rounds can be punishing for a small person to practice with unless you use hand-loaded light loads. Both Remington and Hornady offer "reduced recoil" hunting loads, but they are a bit pricey for much practice. These tools will do the job very well, but they may induce a flinch in a small shooter that will impact their ability to accurately take a deer.
There are several companies that offer youth rifles in this category- Savage, Mossberg, Weatherby all come to mind. Models that seem to offer a lot of value right now include:
Ruger American - A good choice, mentioned above already. Available in common calibers.
Weatherby Vanguard / Howa 1500 (made in the same factory) - Offer a solid bolt action rifle, including several youth models with 20" barrels and shorter stocks.
Mossberg Patriot and Patriot Predator - A good value. A cheap feeling stock but quality where it counts.
Thompson-Center Compass - Amazing for the price, which is often under $300. Accuracy seems to be hit or miss, some are great, some or not.
Any number of used rifles, like Ruger M77's, Remington 700's and Model 7's, Savage 11's. You may even find an affordable Beretta, Tikka, Winchester 70 or Browning AB3. Lots of people buy a youth rifle and sell it off later on, so lots of good deals out there on rifles that have been shot very little. Just last week I saw a Remington Model 7 in 243 with a Leupold scope for $500. Local shops will often have some pretty good prices on used rifles. In my experience the big stores like Cabelas do not.
Good luck looking! There have never been more great choices for small shooters than there are today. And if you feel like you want to read even more on the topic, you can do so in Part 2or Part 3 of this series.