Updated: May 4, 2021
We have had this question asked quite a few times over the past few years. Here are my thoughts...
We get a young woman or young man who has stayed involved with us for a full season or two and parents or grandparents decide that they want to purchase a rifle, shotgun or muzzleloader for their child to use. Often for a Birthday or at Christmas, times when it's okay to splurge a bit. When we started this 4-H Club, we really didn't know much about what we needed either, but over the past 9 years we figured most of this out.
Let's start with a Rifle. Just about any .22 Rifle that will fire a .22lr round is legal for 4-H so long as it weighs less than 8 lbs and has a trigger pull greater than 2.5 lbs. Now, with that said, probably 90%+ of the .22 rifles for sale meet those criteria, but all aren't as target and range shooting friendly as others. For instance, a break action rifle, and lever action rifles are not very "Prone Position" friendly because of the way they operate. Tube magazines are problematic too, because to when loading kids have a tendency to lose Muzzle Control. The same is true with break actions. So that leaves guns that are either single loaded or have a box magazine. The best two actions for most are either Bolt-Action or Semi-Auto. The Bolt-Actions have an advantage that they usually have the option to be single loaded if that is desired or use the box magazine. In the case of 4-H, a 5 round magazine is all that will be required. (Having a magazine is desirable for our Senior Competitions because they have timed strings in the course of fire.) The other advantage to Bolt-Action Rifles is without any or much modification they tend to be more accurate and because there are fewer moving parts, they are much less likely to have problems such as jams and misfeeds.
Another thing to consider is that many of our kids also compete on Hunter Education Teams associated with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. The same rifle will work for both, really the only difference is the minimum trigger pull for HE is 3 lbs. 4-H basically uses CMP Rules (Civilian Marksmanship Program) and NC WRC has their own rules, but very similar and in general a little more lenient. In 4-H we have two Rifle competitions for both Juniors (9-13) and Seniors (14-18) as of 2018. They are Open Sights and Telescopic Sights. In HE they have the choice of open or telescopic, but it's the same competition, so most shoot telescopic sights (I know I would). There are a couple of ways to deal with that if a 4-H kid wants to shoot both. Obviously, two different rifles is a choice, but that's twice the expense. The other is to shoot telescopic first then remove the scope to shoot open sights. We try to accommodate those who want to shoot both by letting them shoot a club rifle for the open sight competition if they don't want to remove the scope. (Some kids just use our guns anyway, we don't require that they provide their own, however, the HE Teams do)
Some Rifles to consider: I will rank these in order of my perception of which is best suited for 4-H. Most of these rifles are $300.00 or less and a Good Used Rifle is every bit as good as a new gun! If the young person has a great talent and desire to pursue competitive rifle , then there are some really high priced and amazing rifles out there...this isn't about those!
1- CZs: CZ Bolt Action rifles are one of the best "out of the box" rifles made! They are solid and shoot most any ammunition well. The CZ 452 LUX and Super LUX are the Gold Standard. they have long 28 inch barrels and a smooth adjustable trigger. Our Club Rifles are CZ 452 Military Trainers which unfortunately are no longer manufactured, but pretty easy to find either used or New Old Stock. Slightly shorter 26 inch barrel, but have the great and easily adjusted trigger. The newer CZs other than the LUXs have removable barrels so that they can interchange with a .17 hmr barrel. I hear they are not quite as accurate, don't know if that is a fact or not?
2- SAVAGE: Savage Rifles are a great choice, especially the Mark I and Mark II Series. The Mark I Rifles are single loading Bolt Action Rifles and the Mark II rifles have box magazines. The AccuTrigger System is a great and easily adjustable trigger. In my experience, the Savages are a little more ammunition finicky compared to the CZs, but shoot CCI Standard Velocity very well. ( I had a Bench Rest Savage that was incredibly accurate, but really liked expensive Eley ammunition) One note, the Thumbhole stocks are not legal for 4-H competition.
3- RUGER: Ruger makes some great rifles too. The relatively new American Series is a very good bolt-action rifle and not prohibitively expensive. Similar in price and quality to many of the Savage Mark IIs and for that matter the CZs. The Ubiquitous and prolific Ruger 10/22 Semi-Auto might be the most popular .22 rifle in the world. I love them myself, but have found without some fairly expensive modifications they just aren't accurate enough out of the box for those that are serious about competing. They are a great "plinker" and squirrel rifle and fun to shoot. The Bolt Action Ruger 77/22 is a phenomenal rifle, but it's also a $1000.00 Dollar Rifle, and while we do see some on the line at 4-H Competitions, it's beyond the means of many of our families, especially if your going to eventually buy a shotgun, a Bow, a muzzleloader a pistol...
4-5-Mossberg and Marlin: The Mossberg International Bolt-Action seems to be a decent rifle as is the Marlin Bolt-Action XT Series. Not a fan of the Marlin 60 Series. The tube magazine is a problem as I mentioned earlier and frankly they seem to be extremely ammunition finicky.
6-Remington: Currently Remington is not producing a Bolt-Action Rimfire Rifle, which is a shame. Some of the older ones are Gems. Most are single loaders that shoot really well. They don't have the best triggers, but are solid and durable. The 597 Semi-Auto falls into the same category as the out of the box Ruger 10/22. Great fun to shoot and fine hunting rifle, but not a serious Target rifle.
7-Winchester: Right now Winchester is not producing any .22 Rifles as far as I know. There are some older Gems out there. Like the Remington Bolt-Actions, many are single loaders but great old rifles. My first Rifle was a Winchester 9422, I still have it. Great hunting rifle and plinker, just not really the best for our our purposes.
Anschutz and others: Well...out of my price range...we do see one every now and then at competitions, lots of them at the National Championships. I'll leave it at that. Our discussion is for the basics.
What I absolutely don't suggest are the Rossi Combos. I feel they are a waste of money beyond something to scare the neighbor's annoying dog away. Even the little Cricket, Savage Rascals and the little Henry Bolt actions are head and shoulders better than the Rossi.