Thursday, January 31, 2008

The prairie dog gun

I was shooting my mouth off over at JACIII's blog and said I was going to do a post about prairie dog guns. First off, I am not an expert prairie dog shooter, I'd just like to be. The prairie dogs live a few hundred miles away, and the only time I get a chance to shoot some is when I'm hunting something else. Then, we don't normally take the time. We had planned to go on a coyote hunting trip in a week or two. We generally shoot a few prairie dogs then if the weather is nice. This year the trip is not be, as the Mrs. has stamped her pretty foot and declared that I will not miss the child bearing classes. Plus I shouldn't spend the money right now.

I decided to do a post about the P-dog setup that is on my wish list. I probably won't actually be able to afford this setup till my children are grown and gone. I have enough guns, in enough flavors, that this setup would be the most logical addition to the arsenal, although if I start shooting handguns more a 1911 would be a better choice. I hear Nate recommends Kimber.

There are a few approaches to prairie dog shooting. You can use the various rimfires, including .22, .22 mag and the .17 hmr. These are good for about 150- 200 yards. These rifles have the ability to be fired fairly rapidly without danger of burning up barrels. Some people take along a rimfire to pop away at the close p-dogs until they disappear down the holes. Then they get set up for the main event.

The main event, in my estimation, is engaging small targets at extended ranges with devastating results. I think it is more fun shooting at pdogs out to 300-400 yards (some people go much much further). This requires special equipment. A rock solid shooting bench is a plus. I intend to build one some day. Some sort of rifle rest is needed. You definitely don't have to do it this way. A bipod or shooting sticks will suffice, especially if you are in an area that you can't drive right to the dog town. But prairie dog shooting is just that, shooting. You don't stalk them, you just sit down and wait for them to show themselves, and shoot. Guided shoots on private land could be hundreds of rounds per day, and you usually can drive to the dog town, so why not try to shoot in comfort. Not that you need a guide.

The rifle.

The rifle needn't be specially made for p-dogs, especially if you aren't a regular p-dog shooter. However, the volume of ammo going down the tube means barrels don't last long, and the hotter the cartridge the faster the barrels burn up. You can burn out a barrel in one trip with something like a .220 swift. How you shoot makes a difference. However, the action can be pretty fast, the weather can be warm, and the next thing you know you will scorch yourself when you touch the barrel. This is not conducive to long barrel life.

Since you aren't carrying the rifle around much and the extreme accuracy is much desired, it makes sense to have a dedicated rifle if you are going to shoot p-dogs a lot. Some shooters have several, and swap them out when the barrels get warm. The stereo-typical dedicated prairie dog rifle is a heavy barreled target model bolt action.

For accuracy considerations, the rifles are often custom, or accurized factory. The remington 700 action is often used here, as gunsmiths love it. Controlled round feeding is not needed, as prairie dogs seldom charge. Single shot bolt actions are also desired, as repeating action isn't needed, and you don't lose any time single loading. Single shot bolt actions are stiffer, and therfore more accurate in theory. I desired a custom built rifle, wanting the accuracy they produce. It is generally cheaper to start with a custom action and built the rifle around it than start with a factory rifle and have it re-worked. Of course, sometimes factory rifles shoot well enough to be employed as is. If a half worn out factory rifle is what you have, and that is what I have right now, then that is what you use.

What kind of accuracy is needed? I'd say a rifle that shoots half inch 5 shot groups is desired. Definitely under an inch. These are rare from the factory, and custom rifles don't always do this. If yours doesn't shoot that good, so what. You are going to miss a lot anyway.

For particular models of rifles, I'd look at the Remington XR-100, or the one of the 700 heavy barrel types. I'd also consider the various Savage model 12's. The Savages would be my first choice. These are just my preferences, any heavy barreled rifle will do. Do not overlook Cooper rifles, they guarantee 1/2 inch (3 shot) I have seen some of the test targets from the Cooper rifles, one some, you can't tell there is more than one shot.


Note that I assume you handload. You can shoot factory if you can afford it. I think handloading is almost required due to the accuracy needed and the volume of shooting.

It can be difficult selecting a cartridge. Well it used to be. If factory rounds are your style, just get a .204 Ruger and be done with it. This is I believe the fastest mainstream commercial cartridge, velocities up to 4250 fps off the top of my head. It should provide pretty explosive results, and it doesn't burn as much powder as the .22-250 or .220 swift, so barrel life is extended.

The .223 Rem is also a fine choice, and yes, Ar-15's are great prairie dog guns. A .223 doesn't get as hot as fast as the more powerful numbers, and will still handle the p-dogs way out there. The .22-250 and .220 swift are good choices, you just have to mind your barrel temp. They will provide more explosive performance. There are some of use crazies who think that the longer shots are more fun. I think they are, as long as you hit one once in a while. I'd think you will find yourself continually pushing the envelope as your equipment and skills improve. For those long range shooters, a 6.5x284 will get way out there. This is one of Res's interests, he would be better suited to tell you how.

Now if you are in the mood for something better, then might I recommend the 5mm SMC. This is the one I want. I have been reading about this round in Varmint Hunter magazine for a few years. The creators of this cartridge, actually a whole line of them, had the goal of scientifically optimizing case design. I don't know if they succeeded, but they have made some substantial improvements. The 5mm SMC produces 300-400 fps higher velocities with given bullet than the .204 Ruger. The developers claim red mist out to 400 yards. The best part, recoil is so slight that you are able to see the red mist effect through the scope. Another feature, the case is designed with an elliptical shoulder to trap the powder in the case which reduces barrel heating, barrel wear, felt recoil, and increases efficiency. This cartridge provides a flatter trajectory than the .22-250 with the barrel heating of a .204 ruger, which is quite a feat.

Now there are downsides to it. It think ammo is being commercially produced, but it will be expensive. Brass can be purchased, but I think Norma is the only one that makes it right now, so it will also be costly. The brass is also a pain the posterior to form yourself according to the cartridges developer. Of course there may be new developments. I recommend reading the two creators, Mic McPherson and By Smalley's, website, Navigation is sort of primitive, the animations were never finished, but the description of why the cartridge performs the way it does as well as the descriptions of used in the field make good reading. In fact, it will be much more informative about prairie dog guns than this post.


Bullets depend on your preferences. If you are on a budget, get the cheapest ones you can find. If you are seeking accuracy, then you better get higher quality, the Bergers, Noslers, Sierras, or whatever your rifle likes. If you want explosive performance, then get lighter bullets designed to fragment. Think Speer TNT's, Nosler Ballistic Tips, Hornady Vmax's, Berger MEF's, and Barnes Varmint Grenades. The lighter bullets produce less recoil, and the higher velocity combined with fragile construction gets you the red mist. For longer ranges, you have to pay attention to ballistic coefficient. The higher BC's buck the wind better, and carry more energy. Most of the premium bullet makers provide a BC number. I'll save you the trouble, Nosler Ballistic tips usually list the highest number in typical P-dog weights.

NOTE: In prairie dog country, the wind is always blowing. This adds to the challenge, and fun, unless it gets too windy. Higher BC bullets help fight the wind.


I am not going into too much depth on optics, except to say, buy the best you can afford. However, it is probably better to buy the cheapest crap you can find and save your money till you can get a good scope instead of buying a mid range value. The cheap scopes are getting better all the time. You also want a scope with a BDC reticle. Leopold, Burris, Nikon, Bushnell and others make one. More will as time goes on, I think the market will force it.

My rifle

Now, if I were doing this on a budget, and considering my life right now, I will be doing this on a tight budget if at all, this is the way I would go. I would choose the Savage Single-shot, right bolt, left port, model 12, which you should be able to get chambered in 5mm SMc, as the Savage custom shop is doing rifles in this chambering. This is a rifle designed for accuracy, and for shooting off a bench.


Well the post got long. For someone such as myself, who has limited p-dog experience, I can sure sound like I know it all.

To sum up, if you can afford it, get a good rifle, find a good load, load a couple thousand rounds, and go shooting. If you can't afford it, use what you've got. Your equipment, and skills at shooting and reloading will get better over time.

For more information about long range varmint shooting, join the Varmint Hunters Association. I think the magazine alone is worth the membership fee. They have 500, 1000, and 1500 yard clubs for those who make a kill beyond those ranges.


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