From the High Ground
Sniper Practice... Using LIVE Targets!

19 Jan 1997
By Condor

In the Army, there is a commonly-held belief that you should "train as you fight." In simple terms, this means that soldiers should demand, expect, and accept "tough, realistic training" to better prepare themselves for battle with the enemy. Indeed, there is great emphasis placed on putting soldiers into environments and situations that very closely resemble the same ones they'll experience under hostile circumstances. However, safety is -- universally -- the overwhelming concern when planning a training exercise. Therefore, Army planners trade off some degree of risk (i.e., potential for injury) in return for an opportunity to develop and sustain the skills required for combat.

In support of the notion that you should "train as you fight," how do you practice sniping? Certainly, you can't go around picking off people that are several hundred yards away... I mean, it's just not socially acceptable. People will complain. The police will get involved. You'll need a lawyer. It's just not worth it, using your fellow humans as live targets just to gain some quality, meaningful, sniper practice.

How, then, does a sniper practice his shooting skills? After all, the targets need to be unpredictable, mobile, and engaged at distances that will challenge the sniper's marksmanship skills. The sniper needs an environment that will allow him to practice his shooting positions, both deliberate and hasty, while giving him an opportunity to hone his skills with a bipod and a sling. This environment should be free of unwanted distractions... like neighbors, police, jail cells, television news crews, and lawyers. Proper sniper training should also include range estimation, wind calculation, and land navigation. Undoubtedly, such training will take place "in the field," and this provides yet another - - and all too often, "overlooked" -- piece of training... packing JUST the needed equipment to accomplish the mission. As a sniper, at least as a military sniper, you're going to be humping your gear without assistance from gun bearers, water boys, and the like. You want it? You carry it!

So, once again, how will you "train as you fight" if you're a sniper?

Shoot prairie dogs.

I don't know of any other environment that provides as much potential for practicing sniper skills as shooting prairie dogs... unless you attend a special school like those run by Carlos Hathcock or John Plaster, of course. Shooting prairie dogs (it's really hard for me to call it "hunting") gives a sniper a vast assortment of "tough, realistic training" opportunities.

Packing. Sure, you might take your four-wheel drive vehicle, crammed full of guns and gear... but that's not the idea, is it? Why not take just the gear you NEED to take, and see what you must have and what you can do without? This can be an eye-opening experience in itself. It will, after a few times, teach you to put more time into your planning. Besides guns, ammunition, and cleaning equipment (to include brake cleaner, solvent, and lubricant) here are some things you might not normally think of taking along: your medication(s); a first aid kit; insect repellant; rain gear; food; trash bags; something to sit/lay/rest on; sun screen (lotion); head gear (appropriate for keeping the sun out of your eyes when you shoot, and for keeping the sun from burning your face -- and the top of your head if you're bald); a broken-case extraction tool in the appropriate chambering; a small set of gunsmithing tools that includes screw drivers and nut drivers; Loc-Tite; wire; tape; targets (for re-zeroing, in case "something happens" that requires it); a knife; warm-weather AND cold-weather clothing; maps of the area; a weather report for the duration of your field exercise; and. .. well, you get the idea. Except for the gun(s), you can (via careful shopping and packing) get all of these things, plus your ammo and cleaning equipment, into a rucksack.

Range estimation. The distances you will be engaging prairie dogs usually "start" at 200 yards... and then it REALLY gets interesting. You're only limited by how far you can see and how far your ammunition will successfully defeat the target. Bring a good pair of binoculars, yes, but not those heavy, industrial-size types. Just something you can pack, which will help you scan your sector for targets.

Wind calculation. "Test tube" shooters need not apply. If all you've ever done is shoot from a bench, over sandbags, with wind flags placed between you and your targets -- so you could shoot when the flags were down or "just right"-- well, just do yourself a favor and stay home. Shooting prairie dogs gives you a LOT of practice in judging the wind. Personally, I know of a couple of guys who, their last time out, were using what you might call "fence post hold." That is, the wind was so STRONG, and they were shooting at such LONG distances... they were spotting for each other using comments (in reference to the fences that bordered the ranches in the area, made of wooden posts and barbed wire) like "You were about three feet to the left on that last shot. Hold about two fence posts to the left, and about one and a half high... you'll get 'im." Seriously, folks, we're talking REAL wind and REAL distance.

Shooting positions. You can shoot anyway you want. With a sling. With a bipod. Standing. Sitting. Prone. Using the top of a fence post to help steady you. Laying over a rock. Leaning into the wind... yes, I said "leaning into the wind."

Marksmanship. You'll get a REAL chance to practice your marksmanship skills, especially if you're using a scope on your rifle... and, "trust me," you WILL be using a scope on your rifle! You'll get practical experience in things like mirage, parallax, leading your target, "sensing" your shot(s), trigger squeeze, breath control, cant (no, not "can't" -- I'm talking about tilting your rifle to one side or the other ), and ALL SORTS OF THINGS that make shooting prairie dogs interesting and challenging. I'm having a Vais muzzle brake put onto my .22-250 Remington-chambered rifle... not because the recoil is killing me, but because I can't "sense" my own shots after I've fired. Even though I try to "follow through" and keep the scope focused on the target, the brief jump of the muzzle from each shot keeps me from seeing exactly where my shots are going.

"Real World" Practice, on LIVING TARGETS!!! It is true that a prairie dog will let you take several shots at him before he gets fed up and goes down into the ground. However, when they're moving, THEY'RE MOVING ! They are unpredictable, mobile, and -- once they finally figure out that you're trying to kill them -- quite difficult to get a good shot at . Even under the best of conditions, they're not very big, and they are a long, LONG distance from you.

Socially Acceptable. You won't make any friends with the animals' rights groups, but... you'll make a lot of landowners and cattlemen happy. Prairie dogs carry diseases, make a lot of holes in the ground (a hazard to livestock and people), and eat a lot of grass. (Cattle and prairie dogs both eat a LOT of grass. Do you like steak? Hamburger? Want to make sure your local grocery store stays well-stocked with both? Get busy and start killing some prairie dogs!)

Also, you can do a lot of killing -- even wipe out entire "towns" -- and get away with it... legally! In fact, since you're generally alone, you can pretty much do whatever you want. You can stalk, build a hide, wear camouflage, and just about anything in which a sniper must be proficient . As far as appearance and behavior, there are no social pressures... because there's no "social." As a rule, there's usually no one around you for miles when you're shooting prairie dogs.

When you've grown tired of punching paper with that surgically-precise rifle of yours... and you're looking for a way to practice some of your sniper skills... give some consideration to prairie dog shooting. I don't know that it's all that "tough," but it's about as "realistic training" as you can legally find. "Train as you fight?" Shooting prairie dogs offers a lot of good, practical opportunities (i.e., sniper training) for any shooter who is willing to accept the challenge.



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