It's time for Charlie to get his first air rifle and there is no better place for a young sportsman to make his choice than a proper gun shop

My parents bought me a second-hand Diana Model 23 .177 air rifle in 1984 as my first air rifle. The bluing was well on its way out and the cheap beech woodwork bore the marks of a life of hard graft. A series of hatches were etched into the stock, like those marked on walls by sentence-counting prisoners, doubtless denoting quarry accounted for by the previous owner. Plain, worn and underpowered as it was, to me my first gun was as beautiful and as precious as a Purdey. That West German rifle, along with a small brown terrier of dubious breeding called Skip, led to countless adventures and hour upon hour spent in stalking rabbits and pigeon.

Pride in my first air rifle

Thinking back to my fierce hunter’s pride in owning such a gun and the joy it gave me, I decided it was time my son shared in these delights. Charlie had shot a few pellets through my own air rifle, a clumsy yet workmanlike Gamo I use for potting rats and squirrels in the garden. Its weight and size led the boy to adopt all manner of contortions to fire it, yet with the gun rested on a feeder, he managed to connect with targets — empty cartridges, plastic discs and all order of objects that react when struck. Shooting at a paper target is all well and good for adults interested in grouping but for youngsters, seeing targets leap dramatically when hit is much more exciting.

Charlie and I had spent days scanning the internet for the best air rifles for youths. All manner of outlandish looking guns were on offer from umpteen different retailers. Prices ranged from tens of pounds through to thousands, optics worthy of assassins seemingly de rigueur. Overawed by all of this choice, I switched off the laptop and the boy and I drove to a proper gunshop.

Nick Johnston runs Forelock and Load near Bury St Edmunds with his sister, Kirstie. She does the equestrian while he does the guns. I had forgotten the near-religious experience one gets from visiting such places, particularly when you are 10. Charlie slid through the aisles, eyes glittering, making repeated “Wows” at each delight he saw. Decoys were prodded, camouflage clothing felt, cleaning kits inspected. Drawing to a halt at the rows of shotguns and rifles on display, secured behind their safety cables, he stroked his fingers over each one. He informed me of the different guns he saw in the manner of educating the uninitiated: “That’s a side-by-side, Dad. That’s a semi-auto. That’s an over-and-under.”

Safe environment

Nick came over and I explained our requirements and budget. A rattling of keys followed and he produced a Hatsan Alpha for our perusal. Charlie’s eyes widened at the sight of the black plastic-stocked object of desire. It is only within the walls of a gunshop that one can truly fulfil the inquisitive needs of the young sportsman in a safe environment. Charlie tried aiming the rifle, leaning on the counter, kneeling on the floor — I stopped him from adopting the prone position. The look on the boy’s face told me that the deal was already done in his mind. I also purchased a gun slip, some .177 pellets and a rather smart metal box that held falling crow targets.

After parting with less money than I had feared, we left the shop, Charlie clutching his new rifle in its gaudy packaging. He hugged the box all the way home like a well-loved teddy bear. “What are you going to name your gun?” I asked him. After a brief pause he replied “Steve.” There followed a lengthy silence between us; I was racking my brain to think of who this influential ‘Steve’ might be, while the boy was staring out the truck window, lost in his own thoughts. “I’ve changed my mind,” Charlie concluded as we turned into our drive. “It’s not Steve, it’s called ‘Black Death’.”

We both agreed this was a more fitting name. In a remarkable display of patience, Charlie waited until Sunday to try out Black Death. We went to Flea Barn and set up the crow target between a wood and one of the ponds. I pointed out to my son the importance of a safe backdrop. I then went through an array of other safety measures and drills, which to his credit he listened to with attention.

first air rifle

Setting up the crow target safely

The Hatsan has half the size and half the power of its adult counterpart. Cocking the gun was therefore possible for Charlie, if at first a rather drawn-out process. It was fascinating to watch the speed with which he became adept at breaking the barrel, popping the pellet into the breech and avoiding putting his barrel into the mud. In a somewhat Dickensian manner, I insisted he must shoot with iron sights, stating that we would only fit a scope once he had mastered the raw basics.

The ‘plink’ and ‘ping’ of pellets hitting the target cut through the still and overcast clearing. I told him to think of Jim Allen, my stalking friend and a superb marksman, to visualise his breathing technique, trigger squeeze and shooting position. The metal crows began to fall with increasing regularity. After 40 shots or so we went to inspect the target — the flattened pellets fascinated the boy. I then asked him to shoot one round into a maple tree. Placing the gun down, we went to look at the result. Charlie found where his shot had hit and was surprised at just how far the pellet had buried itself into the gnarled bark. “Imagine if that was shot into someone’s eye or a dog,” I warned ominously. He fingered the bark and I could tell this visual demonstration had had the effect I desired. Charlie wasn’t going to treat guns as toys.

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Lessons learned

Ed Nesling appeared. “Show Ed your new gun,” I suggested to Charlie. I watched him hesitate briefly, then he opened the barrel slightly to show the gun was safe. Ed is a father of five and as keen a Shot as they come. I could see by the brief nod from my friend that he was pleased with what he saw, but to my discredit I forgot to praise my son for this demonstration of lessons learned. We packed up, waved Ed goodbye and went back to our vehicle.

Whether Charlie will become as obsessed by Black Death as I was with my old Diana — which I now remember I rather pompously christened Nimrod — I do not yet know. What I do know is he is on the right track to shooting and, more importantly, he appreciates gun safety. As we drove off into the gathering dark, Charlie asked me if he could shoot a fox. “Not with your gun you can’t,” I tutted. “I know that,” he replied scathingly. “I mean go out with Jim Allen when he shoots foxes. He knows what he is doing.” I couldn’t argue with that.