Christmas is looming large – far larger than most of us would care to acknowledge – and for many youngsters their cherished first gun might just feature among this year’s festive gifts. More often than not, that initial foray into the world of shooting comes in the shape of an airgun; inexpensive, quiet, relatively low powered and easy to handle. They provide the perfect introduction for aspiring shooters.
The subject of young people and guns is often tricky to broach; especially when it comes to tempting new recruits into the sport. One approach that certainly seems to be working is the styling of guns to appeal specifically to the tastes of the younger generation. The problem is that what appeals to youngsters who’ve been raised on a diet of action films and video games doesn’t sit comfortably with everyone’s perception of what an entry level airgun should look like.
‘Military’ or ‘tactical’ style airguns have won a huge following among young shooters over recent years. Sat inside a plastic shell that looks more like standard-issue army hardware than a spring powered paper puncher, it’s easy to see how such an airgun could seduce teens whose recreational outlets don’t stretch far beyond playing Call of Duty on the Xbox. Indeed, I saw dozens of youngsters queueing to see the Crosman MTR 77, an airgun styled on an M16 machine gun, at this year’s CLA Game Fair.
These airguns are certainly good for business. Daniel Lavene, owner of Crawley Surplus Store in West Sussex, says the eye-catching Crosman has been clocking up impressive sales over recent weeks.
“Young people who are into computer games really like them – they think they look cool and futuristic,” he said. “Parents don’t seem to mind what they look like – they don’t discriminate. Those who don’t want their children to get involved in shooting won’t buy a gun, whatever it looks like.”
But there has been sustained criticism from inside and outside the shooting community, prompted by the undeniable fact that these guns look like military weapons, guns designed to be used in combat rather than for target or sporting shooting.
I’ll put my hand up and confess to being one of the dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists, who initially had serious misgivings about the image presented by airguns that are styled to look like machineguns; but I’ll also concede that there is another, very relevant, side to the story.
It has been frequently argued, that any entry-level airgun that can drag youngsters away from the television screen and into the outdoors, along with all the health and social benefits that is likely to bring, has to be a good thing. We’re not talking so much about children who have grown up around the shooting community, but those with limited connection with the outdoors. Indeed, if asked whether I’d prefer my own children to find their way into shooting via a tactically-styled airgun rather than spend long hours glued to a screen and plugged in to some virtual world, I’d take the tactical gun every time. In fact, I now have a junior-sized Gamo airgun with a black synthetic stock that my eight-year-old son uses in the garden under my close supervision. It’s not an Uzi lookalike but there’s no doubt that its futuristic looks appeal to the young apprentice, even though I chose it because the synthetic stock makes for a light, robust gun.
Of course, new shooters mean new customers. BSA Guns, who support BASC’s Young Shots programme and youth projects including the Sutton Coldfield Adventure Unit, also happen to be the UK distributor for Gamo’s militaristically styled G Force Tactical. They take the line that such airguns could get gaming coach potatoes off their backsides and into the shooting community.
A spokesperson for BSA Guns said: “We know that some people may find the G Force Tactical’s look a little controversial. However, our intention is to appeal to the Call of Duty generation of kids – many of whom sit in bedrooms on computers for way too long. By producing air rifles that look like something from ‘CoD’ and therefore appealing to these youngsters, we can at least introduce the safety and legal disciplines of air rifle shooting to the next generation of shooters in a responsible and pro-active manner.”
According to Mr Lavene, his local Scout group has no hang-ups about what training guns should look like. Crawley Surplus Store sold three Gamo G Force Tactical airguns to the Scout master, who is delighted to have found a gun that the children in his charge enjoy shooting under supervision.
“He had no reservations at all about what it looked like. It’s light and easy to cock – ideal for youngsters to learn the basics of safe, responsible shooting,” Mr Lavene added.
And there’s no denying that safe, responsible and lawful shooting is the key message to communicate to newcomers, whatever their gun of choice happens to look like. Whether young shots are using an airgun that looks like an M16 or a the sort of wooden stocked sporter that appeals to old duffers like me, they’re still subject to the same strict rules. Law prevents anyone under the age of 18 from owning an airgun, and anyone aged under 14 from using one unless under the close supervision of someone aged 21 or over. I think it’s fair to assume that it’s the supervisor who has the greatest influence on the newcomer’s attitude towards safe gun handling – not the styling of the gun.
A sentiment echoed by the BASC – an organisation committed to promoting safe responsible shooting. Bill Harriman, BASC director of firearms, said: “Military-styled airguns have been around since at least the 1930s, and the styling of an airgun is really down to personal preference. One of the important questions is: will it do the job I want it to do? Some stylised airguns might not be as good as a purpose-made hunting rifle.”
“Of course, great care should be taken to avoid circumstances where the possession or use of an airgun could be misconstrued. Airguns are heavily regulated by law and misuse can be heavily punished. It is an offence for example, to intentionally cause someone to fear violence with a firearm. As long as an air rifle is used properly, responsibly and lawfully, then it shouldn’t matter what it looks like.”
So whether they look like space age ray-guns, or military-issue M16, it looks like these concept airguns have a role to play in attracting new recruits to the sport. The kids who find their way into shooting via a tactical airgun could well be tomorrow’s air rifle hunters, game shooters and medal-winning clay shots – maybe they’ll even learn to appreciate a nice piece of walnut along the way.