The best field-shooting training on the planet is trying to hit hundreds of diminutive prairie dogs under windy field conditions.
By Bob Robb
Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi once sagely said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” I am reminded of this every time I go on a prairie dog shoot. Where else can you literally shoot hundreds of rounds each day at tiny live animals under changing conditions? Talk about shooting practice! And after the initial adrenaline rush is over and you’re done banging away willy-nilly, you can settle down and concentrate on each squeeze of the trigger, imprinting all those components that make a highly-skilled field shot. There’s no better training for big-game hunting (or precision target competition for that matter) and it both keep prairie dog populations in check and helps conserve the grasslands they live on.
Serious “doggers” have an arsenal of rifles built just for prairie dog shoots. Us average Joes might have one or two and then bring along a couple more rifles just for grins. For example, I like to pack a couple of deer rifles with me in calibers ranging from .243 Win. up to .300 Win. Mag. and shoot them a little bit at extended ranges just for the practice. This can be an eye-opener when it comes to wind drift—and in prairie dog country, the wind seems to never cease— for those with little experience. Such practice pays off in spades on big-game hunts.
If I had to bring just two dedicated rifles, one would be a rimfire, something like a .22 LR, .22 WMR., .17 HMR, .17 WSM, that sort of thing, and one a .223-caliber centerfire. These include the .223 Rem./5.56 NATO (the most popular prairie dog cartridges by far), .220 Swift, and .22-250 Rem. I throw the .204 Ruger in this category as well.
The rimfire rifles are for close-range shooting and are important for a couple reasons. First, .22 LR ammo is very inexpensive, and with all these little calibers, recoil is negligible. Just as important is noise. Prairie dogs have ears, and the sound of guns going off can send them into their burrows for hours. The larger calibers are for extended-range shooting—and on a big-time prairie dog town, shots can range from in-your-face to 500 yards or more. While the .22-250 is my favorite all-time prairie dog cartridge, .223 ammo is cheap, and modern sporting rifles (MSRs) of all makes and models come chambered for the cartridge.
Speaking of MSRs, which is better for prairie dogs, them or a bolt-action rifle? The answer is neither. Or both. Semiautomatics allow for more rapid shooting, but bolt-actions can be extremely accurate and are easier to set up and shoot from the prone position than a MSR with an extended magazine. Truthfully, it is a matter of personal preference.
Taking this to another level, rifles fitted with a suppressor are the bomb for prairie dog shooting. They help tame recoil as well as measurably reduce shot noise, a good thing both for your hearing and for keeping the area’s prairie dogs from overly freaking out.
Glass both on and off your rifle is critical in this game. Low-power variables in the 2-7X class, as well as fixed 4X scopes, work well for close-range work on the rimfire rifles. On the centerfires, variables in the 4-16X, 5–25X, and 6-24X class are excellent choices, but anything with a top-end power of at least 10X can be employed effectively. Riflescopes with a separate parallax adjustment help you shoot more accurately at extended ranges.
You’ll need a good binocular of at least 10X. A tripod-mounted spotting scope makes for locating distant dogs easy and they also allow for great teamwork when you have a friend working as a spotter to more precisely call long-range shots and find tan dogs peeking out of their holes in the tan ground. Speaking of spotters, a good plan is to have one person shoot and another spot and call the shots, then switch off. Also, don’t forget a laser rangefinder, as that’s a critical piece of equipment for long-range accuracy.
Two words here: Bring plenty. When planning, I estimate how many shots I think will be fired— then bring half again that much ammunition. It is not uncommon for doggers to show up at a promising dog town with hundreds of rounds of ammunition to shoot over a day or two.
As far as bullets go, there are several frangible bullets designed specifically for prairie dog and ground squirrel hunting. The Sierra Varminter and BlitzKing, Hornady Varmint and V-Max, Nosler Ballistic Tip and Ballistic Tip Varmint, and Barnes Varmint Grenade are all great choices.
One quick note. On high-volume shoots, barrels can get hot very quickly. That’s one of the reasons prairie dog aficionados take multiple rifles with them for a day on a well-populated dog town. Multiple rifles let you rotate them so that one that’s gotten too hot has a chance to cool down. When that’s not an option, I bring along jugs of ice water and old rags and cool my barrel with a water-soaked rag. It works really well.
There are several items besides rifles, ammo, and optics that will make your day afield more fun. First and foremost, you need to communicate with the others in your shooting party, so electronic hearing protection is the ticket. That way you keep your ears safe and are able to talk to everyone in the group. You will also want excellent eye protection, preferably those that sit off your face a little to prevent fogging, as much for the shooting part as for protection from the blowing grit, sand and dust you’ll find in prairie dog country.
A little wind gauge can help you dope the wind and get a feeling for where you have to hold the crosshairs for different wind speeds.
A complete gun cleaning kit with cleaning rods, brushes, jags and patches for each caliber is important, too. Taking a little time on high-volume shoots to clean the barrel several times a day is a good idea, as is completely cleaning the rifle at day’s end.
A real bonus is a shooting mat if you’re going to shoot prone, a common shooting position for prairie dogs. They’re also a little kinder on your butt if you like to shoot from the sitting position. While this isn’t optimum for long-range shooting, it’s great added practice for big-game hunting. I bring along bipod (which you’ll also need for prone shooting) or tripod shooting sticks and do quite a bit of firing from the sitting position, as it’s a position I find myself using a lot on spot-and-stalk hunts in the fall.
On a really active town, you’ll often be set up in the same place for quite a bit of time, and this is where portable shooting benches are a great tool. These portable benches allow you to emulate your range's permanently installed sitting benchrests back home, greatly improve visibility and aid in accurate shooting. There are several on the market—some are mediocre, others pretty deluxe and some downright creative—and any one of them is better than shooting prone for an entire day. Another one of their benefits is that once you’ve worn out an area, the bench can be easily moved to the next viable spot.
For prone and bench shooting, you’re going to need a variety of sandbags and shooting bags. Squeezing a small sandbag under the buttstock while shooting prone (and with a bipod on the front end), allows you to make tiny elevation changes without fussing with your scope. Larger sandbags placed on the hood of a pickup, a boulder or a shooting bench add stability to the front of rifles not wearing a bipod and protect those rifles at the same time. Bench shooters also tend to favor shooting vises. They usually have some sort of protective material the fore-end will rest against, some swing side to side, and most will have some sort of knob arrangement for elevation adjustments.
In all likelihood you’ll also be out away from the conveniences of a human-populated town quite a ways, so be prepared for anything and everything. On hot summer days on the plains, the sun can be brutal. Protect yourself with a good hat, sunscreen, polarized sunglasses, lightweight pants, and a long-sleeved shirt. If it’s not too windy, setting up an umbrella or tarp so you can get out of the sun for a spell is worth its weight in gold. That’s where you can set up a couple of folding chairs and a cooler filled with ice, cold nonalcoholic beverages, and snacks. Folding chairs are perfect for spotters as well. Fill up your gas tank, have plenty of liquids and food, bring a basic first aid kit, some bug spray and rain gear and always watch the weather. One year in Wyoming my group was forced to make a run for it when a tornado sprang up seemingly out of nowhere and raced right towards us!
That was almost as exciting as the shooting. On that particular day, four of us tallied how much ammo we had burned in the eight hours before we had to head for the hills. I still have my log book, and the number was 1,087. That’s impressive and why prairie dog shooting is something you should seriously consider giving a try.