Prairie Dogs & Pistols

When temperatures heat up during summer months there are not a lot of big-game hunting opportunities. All’s not lost, however. My wife Karen and I had the pleasure of spending some time on a private ranch in Wyoming where the prairie dog population was out of control. These pesky varmints decimate prime real estate, and the ranchers welcome responsible shooters to keep the pest’s numbers in check.

If you’re squeamish about the thought of shooting prairie dogs, then recognize the fact ranchers often poison entire populations so their livestock can regain grazing rights. Not to mention widespread plagues often eradicate prairie dogs in some areas. Shooting can be viewed as a wise conservation tool, no only honing a hunter’s skills, but directly helping landowners and giving jobs to guides, lease owners and support staff for businesses hosting hunters.

Handgunners can use almost any firearm, from semi-auto rimfires to big-bore revolvers — there are no restrictions. That’s part of the fun. However, if you want to experience serious varmint shooting with a high percentage of connections, pinpoint accuracy is essential.

Karen is all smiles after a good day of shooting. The MOA
chambered in .223 is topped with a Leupold scope. Black Hills
ammo using 50-gr. V-MAX bullets performed well.

Guns And Gear

We were using several handguns capable of shooting minute-of-angle or less, including two rimfires and two centerfires. Making the journey to Wyoming was an MOA and T/C Contender chambered in .223 Rem. These guns would get the call for extended ranges, beyond 100 yards. A Contender in .17 HMR and Encore .22 Mag. could handle the shorter-range encounters. All four handguns were mounted with either Leupold 2.5-8X or Burris 3-12X scopes. Black Hills .223 ammo with 50-gr. V-Max bullet was used exclusively in the centerfire handguns. Hornady’s 20-gr. XTP in the .17 HMR and CCI’s 30-gr. Maxi-Mag TNT in the .22 WMR had the bases covered.

This type of high-volume shooting is beneficial in many ways. It certainly makes you a better shot. A prairie dog is a small target, leaving little room for error. Depending on the angle of shot, the target area can be downright miniature. If you can consistently connect on undersized targets at 200 yards and beyond, then a whitetail deer standing broadside 100 giant steps away should be a piece of cake.

Some friends were set up overlooking a huge valley where you could shoot over 1,000 yards. They were enjoying the opportunity to stretch the legs of their specialty pistols. During the day a few connections were made from 692 out to 1,013 yards, witnessed and verified. The handguns were custom XPs and an Encore in some wildcat form of 6mm. Riflescopes were used for higher magnification. These guys were serious, dedicated, top-notch shooters with benchrest-type handguns. What exactly is long range with a handgun? We’ll have to discuss that later.

The wind is usually a factor in Wyoming, and you can witness firsthand how it affects bullet flight. Obviously the greater the distance involved, the more your bullet will change course. A consistent wind from one direction is not too terribly difficult to dope. But when it fluctuates and changes direction, things get a bit more challenging. It certainly involves a learning curve.

Good friends enjoying a day of long range shooting.
Their specialty pistols use riflescopes with higher
magnification for extended ranges — out to 1,000 yards!

How It Works

Karen and I would set up at the edge of a target-rich environment and take turns spotting for each other. We like to start with the closer varmints using the rimfires, then move out further with the .223s, frequently pausing to let the barrels cool. It’s a real treat if you like smelling gunpowder and looking at empty brass. The .17 HMR is a great little round for this application. It’s extremely accurate, with no recoil, and doesn’t make much noise, driving the dogs underground for long periods. The 20-gr. Hornady XTP is more than efficient.

Moving out beyond the effective range of rimfires, the .223 is an ideal cartridge for prairie dogs. Black Hills ammo shot very well in both of our handguns and the performance of the V-Max is most impressive. The shooting was almost non-stop from various ranges, and we had different angle shots, in all sorts of positions … great training for the field. No special equipment is necessary, but make sure you have enough ammo. We carried hearing protection, sand bags, binos and a rangefinder. A spotting scope can be handy.

When we headed back home, the rancher was happy, even though there were several hundred, perhaps thousands of prairie dogs remaining.

Maybe next year we can do better!
By Mark Hampton

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