My son, Elliott, turns 12 later this year, and according to rules in our home state of Minnesota, he’s able to enroll in firearms safety training as an 11-year-old. When our family looked at all the options this past summer, including the standard course offerings at our local gun club (about 12 hours of in-person classroom instruction, spread over a 4- to 5-day period), my wife and I decided instead to have Elliott take a state-endorsed online course.
Almost every night for 2 weeks during late July and early August, Elliott completed one chapter of the online course on his iPad. He listened to the narrator discuss specific gun/safety/conservation/hunting topics, watched provided videos, and then took a chapter test to ensure he’d paid attention and learned the material.
After completing all 15 chapters, Elliott took (and passed) a final exam. In total, he spent 12 hours on his online training. Upon completion of the course and final exam, he was issued (i.e. we downloaded) a field day voucher.
Prior to Elliott beginning his online course, we had signed him up for a field day, which turned out to be a bit tricky. While this might sound like “putting the cart before the horse,” this timeline is actually recommended by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). You see, more and more kids are taking firearms safety training online, and it appears (in Minnesota at least) that the demand for these field days exceeds the supply. We kept close tabs on the dates and locations of upcoming field days, and they filled up almost immediately.
Because we wanted Elliott to complete his training before school began in early September (almost all the field days in our area were scheduled for September, October and November), we signed Elliott up for a Saturday in mid August in a small town about 2.5 hours from our home. It wasn’t ideal, but as they say, “ya do what ya gotta do.”
The field day at the Dressen Pioneer Seed building in Trimont, Minnesota, was very well run by a handful of volunteers. The youngsters—with field day vouchers in hand—came from all over the state, which was further evidence that Elliott wasn’t alone in having trouble finding an available option close to home.
The morning began at 7:30 a.m. sharp, and after an introductory meeting (a parent or guardian must attend the first 30 minutes of field day), each student took a handwritten test. Only youths who passed this exam could partake in the shooting/safety seminars and tests later that morning and into the afternoon.
I asked one of the instructors if he noticed a difference in youths who take the safety course online vs. kids who enroll in the standard in-person classroom sessions (like I did as a kid), and his answer surprised me.
“From what I’ve seen, the youths who take the online course learn the material better,” he said. “I think it’s because this generation is so comfortable working on their tablets and home PCs. By the time these kids arrive here for field day, they’ve got the info down pat. I’ve taught classes the old way for years, and I’m here to tell you: These kids sitting in this classroom right now know the info better than any group of students who listened to me lecture to them day after day after day.”
After I pondered his answer, it made perfect sense. Today’s youth is able to view the info on an iPad or other device they love to use, at a time that’s convenient for them, at their own pace.
Following an excellent discussion led by a MN DNR conservation officer, Elliott and the other students left the classroom and hit the range. I immediately noticed that the instructors did a fantastic job reinforcing the safety rules the kids learned online and during the morning meetings, and soon they were shooting .22 rifles at paper targets and 20-gauge shotguns at flying clays.
One teaching method that especially impressed me was when they showed kids how to be safe while hunting pheasants in a group. A handful of students walked in line, just as they would on a pheasant hunt, each one carrying their shotgun in a safe manner. The instructor also walked in the line. At unannounced times the instructor threw a Frisbee (either green or purple) into the air in front of the hunters, and at the same time he yelled “hen” (green Frisbee) or “rooster” (purple Frisbee). At that moment, the kids stopped and raised their shotguns and hollered “Bang!” if they thought they had a safe shot, or, in the case of a “hen,” lowered their guns without “shooting.” The kids enjoyed the simulated pheasant hunt and everyone came away with a good understanding of how to safely conduct such a hunt in the future.
Fast-forward to this recent weekend when Elliott sat with me and my father-in-law in South Dakota. With both his firearms safety certificate and youth antlerless deer license in his pack, and sporting his Pioneer Seed-logo blaze-orange cap and vest given to him during his field day, Elliott sat butt on the ground with his back to a large oak. His .243 Win. bolt-action was steadied on a bipod, and we waited for deer to step into the half-acre food plot planted with clover and brassicas. In hushed voices we discussed shot angles, distance, recoil and a wide variety of other hunting and shooting topics. And yes, I let Elliott burn an hour of “high sun, no deer” time on his iPad while I read a book.
As the sun shifted to the west and shade engulfed the food plot, a yearling doe arrived to feed on the greens, and Elliott practiced aiming at her for nearly 20 minutes. She left the field by walking directly toward us, finally getting spooked at only 5 yards. Truth be told, I don’t think she ever spotted us—I think she heard Elliott giggling.
A minute later a doe and fawn stepped onto the field, and as Elliott waited for a perfect shot angle, I did my best to keep him calm. We watched the doe for nearly 10 minutes, and because the fawn was always fairly close to the doe, Elliott never reached for the rifle’s safety. But finally the fawn fed off on its own, and the doe stood quartering-away, and Elliott was able to begin what I hope is a lifetime of putting meat on the table.
For more info on NSSF's Project Child Safe go to ProjectChildSafe.org.
Bonus Video: Youth Hunter Bags Bull Elk