LONDON GROVE, Pa. - The littlest was 9-year-old Adam Keating, a first-timer whose legs splayed out behind him as he propped himself on his elbows, steadying his aim.
Adam's father, Matt, knelt at his shoulder, murmuring advice.
Nearby, Renee Mentzer, 14, waited confidently.
John Flynn, the senior range officer, strode back and forth behind the group. "Line ready on the left? Ready on the right?"
He paused. "Commence fire."
All was silent for a moment, then came the spit of .22-caliber rifles as six children pulled their triggers.
It was practice time for the Southern Chester County Youth Shooting League, aged 8 and up. Flynn's goal is to teach gun safety and promote marksmanship.
"It's not for people who don't want their children to have guns, and God bless them," said Renee's father, Dave Mentzer, of New London, who formed the group. "But if we can reach 20 or 40 children who have an interest in firearms and are going to be hunters anyhow."
Mentzer has heard criticism, as have the other parents. "People lump us in with the criminal element that misuses guns," said Joe Neuman, program director.
"People say if you teach a child target-shooting, you are potentially teaching them to shoot someone," he said. "But if you teach someone to drive a car, you're not teaching them to run someone over."
Nancy Hwa of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence said the Washington organization "doesn't have a problem with target-shooting. We just hope parents don't think that by having children in such a class, they can leave their guns lying around."
A group of youngsters gathered at the shooting area, checking safety glasses and ear protection.
Flynn had brought all the rifles in a locked, footlocker-size box and laid them out on a nearby table. He barked, "Ready? Go to the table for your rifles."
They refer to the .22s as guns, rifles or firearms, not weapons. "If some go into the service, maybe they'll use a weapon," Mentzer said. Here, it is "sporting equipment."
The youngsters marched over single file. Solemnly, they held the guns rigid, barrels pointed skyward.
Some, who are big enough, can use regular .22s. Others use scaled-down versions, including one the manufacturer dubbed a Davey Cricket.
Several fathers, wearing camouflage, stood nearby, alert. One lunged and grabbed a boy's gun, scolding, "Two hands!"
When all were set, adults brought the ammunition, 10 rounds to each.
Mentzer got the idea to start the league a few years ago, the day Renee shot her first deer.
That day, as they dragged her deer out of the woods, the Mentzers met another hunter and his sons. Mentzer asked one of the boys how often he had shot his rifle.
"Twice," the boy answered.
"You mean you've been to the shooting range twice?"
No, he'd only fired twice. Mentzer said he was appalled. If you're going to do it, learn to do it right, he thought.
Mentzer's league - one of 17,000 youth groups in the nation, according to the National Rifle Association - is made up of 30 to 40 young people, with about equal numbers of boys and girls.
The children fired five times, paused for Flynn's safety check, then fired five times again.
One of the fathers watched the targets through binoculars, nodding when a shot was good.
When all was quiet, and the empty rifles checked, Flynn told the youths to return the guns to the table.
"The line is safe," he then announced. "Go get your targets."
Renee, who usually blows the center out of the bull's-eye, balled up the target in disgust when she saw she was an inch off.
Adam Keating hadn't even hit the target, but he said, "I like it."
Matt Keating of West Chester is in the Army Reserve. Others of the fathers hunt. To them, guns are a reality. They want their sons and daughters to learn safety in a controlled setting.
One mother was there, too. Faith Hall of Hockessin, Del., "never wanted anything to do with guns," she said. But her son Jonathan, 13, hunts with his father. He has marked his rifle with hatches for each squirrel he has killed.
She said she enrolled him so he would learn "wise decisions. I'm trying to let him be who he wants to be."
When people challenge Mentzer, saying the league is encouraging gun use, he answers, "Of course we are. It's a wholesome family sport."
Keating said he believes recent school shootings involve children who never learned about guns and are responding to what they see on TV. "Perhaps the answer is to take the mystique out of firearms," he said.
Hwa countered that "making children comfortable with firearms is also wrong. The two boys in Jonesboro [Ark.] who killed four of their classmates and their teacher knew all too well how to use guns."