D-Day, the 6th of June, 1997. No armies waited to clash. No pre-emptive bombardment was launched. The locale was not even the beaches of Normandy, re-enactors at the ready. Instead, on this quiet morning, the D in D-day stood for Dog. As in Prairie dog. That small little critter that turns rolling prairie into a hodgepodge of mounds looking for all the world like some vast forgotten golf course. On this day, the 53rd anniversary of the invasion of France, a group of 70 prepared to embark not on a great crusade, but on a battle of ballistics. Wits against wind. Velocity versus gravity. They were the registered shooters of the Prairie Dog Conference, the annual dogging event thrown by Chuck Cornett , writer and varminting aficionado.
Each year a group of dedicated precision minded shooters descend on the locale of choice, which this year happened to be Valentine, Nebraska/Rosebud South Dakota. There they gather for great fellowship with like minded individuals, the swapping of lies, and the admiration of gear. And gear there was. A mind boggling assortment of it. In the parking lot of the Comfort Inn, the demarcation point, one could find anything from standard factory fodder to the most wild bench quality rifle money could buy. The custom, the corny, the well crafted. If it could shoot and shoot well, you could find an example of it this day. These people are single minded in one thing: the ultimate in rifle accuracy, applied in a real world situation. No posh cement benches here. No range flags or distance markers. Just you, your eyes, and an intimate knowledge of your ballistic tables.
As one walked through the parking lot before all the morning loading was complete, the evidence of ingenuity abounded. There were home made collapsible benches, nothing more than plywood, pipe, and floor flanges. There were bi-pods of every sort. The most attention grabbing thing was a field bench that could rotate in 360 degrees and for the life of this writer, reminded him of a top turret in a WWII B-17. Or an M1A Ahbrams main battle tank. "Gunner! Target, three o'clock, 450 meters!". Yes, these folks are deadly serious about their dog shooting! If a rifle did not have a Scope Level, the president of that company would make sure he got one. Need Ammo? PMC and Remington supplied about 200 rounds to each shooter. Handloads and custom actions abounded. Moly coated bullets everywhere. If Four Wheelers are known for their tech tricks, Varminters are the shooting world's dedicated equivalent. These guys meld Benchrest technology with hunting lore to create some of the most field-accurate rifles known to man. Passion and expertise abound.
The PDC is the one event every varmint shooter should attend at least once in his life. It is two days of solid shooting, in God's country, at ranges from sublime to insane. The brain child of Chuck Cornett, an outdoor writer, the PDC is held on a rotating basis in locations such as the Rosebud Indian reservation in South Dakota or Malta, Montana. Chuck researches the best shooting areas and plans accordingly. That planning was very evident this year. Rosebud could best be described as a Target Rich Environment! The PDC also is the one event that allows shooters and outdoor writers to mingle and swap ideas about the industry, the tools, what works and what doesn't. This year saw about 60 registered shooters and 10 outdoor writer/editor types. Of the shooters, several were also presidents and CEOs of companies such as Savage Arms, Scope Level, and AMT. They, and companies like them donate gear that is raffled off to all the attendees at the Saturday night banquette, the official end of the event.
So in short, you could sum the Prairie Dog Conference this way: A great gathering of friendly shooters where the targets are many, the people interesting, and best of all, the odds of taking home a new piece of really neat gear 14 to 1. But we'll get to that later. Most go simply for the excellent shooting the event provides.
Once our group was split up into flights, each with its own guide from the reservation, we were off! The drive from the hotel in Valentine to the reservation was about 31 miles. You could feel the anticipation build as Rosebud approached. The flat reach-out-and-grab-it horizon of North central Nebraska was slowly exchanged for the rolling tundra of South Dakota. Every eye started scanning the horizon for Dog towns. As the flights broke up and drove into the free range areas of the reservation, mounds started to appear. And appear and appear! Being in the last vehicle of our flight placed us in a town that at first glance was small. Disappointment reared its ugly head. Then, as your eyes focused out to the horizon you began to realize that what you thought were small cow pies were actually large dog mounds, dug out of the earth in a vast town spanning 180 degrees on the horizon. The closest was 175 yards out. The farthest was as far as you could see, at a guess, 800 yards! And the dogs! Everywhere!
We all piled out and began setting up our gear in a hurried manner, as though somebody, an irate father maybe, would suddenly come out and chase us all home! This place was just too good to be true! Dogs to our left! Dogs to our right! Everywhere dogs, dogs, dogs! As an east coast shooter, I was stunned by the amount of animals present. To a ground hog sniper like myself, the idea of getting more than one shot per animal per day was as foreign as the attitudes of anti-hunters. Here, with these prairie dogs, you could shoot, miss, miss five more times and still get a shot in before the critter would decide it was time to get out of Dodge! Obviously when God handed out brains to the animal kingdom, the lowly prairie dog was too busy grazing to bother bellying up to the brain-bar.
Our first shots were an eye opener. The guide had guessed the range to be about 100 to 400 yards. As most of the rifles were zeroed for 300, it was quite surprising when the first round struck two feet low and 15 inches left! These animals were OUT there! With little to no points of reference, range estimation was going to be problematic. Our guide did get one thing right though. He mentioned that the average hit ratio for the first day shooter was 10 to 1. That is, you wasted 10 rounds to get one kill. Yup. That's about right! If anything we blew something closer to 15 to 1. The wind was gusting right to left at 10-15 mph and the average shots turned out to be closer to 300-350 yards. By mid morning we had it all doped out and gave up on Kentucky windage. Scope manufacturers put those windage knobs on the scopes for a reason and once we started using them to adjust fire our hit ratio soared. Ok, well maybe not soared, but at least we started to connect regularly.
These little pests may not be particularly bright, but they sure are small. We never saw more than 10 adults that first day. Most of the juveniles measured about four inches high by two wide. It took a steady hand and perfect breath control to nail a dog that size at 500 yards, but after about 150 rounds we started to get the hang of it. It was more like an artillery barrage than pin-point shooting. Shoot, spot, adjust, shoot again. I was repeatedly stuck by the difference of this and groundhog plinking. This is definitly a shooters' game. With whistle pigs, a novice stalker has little chance. With the prairie, you could jump up and down, yell, bang you head on a rock and all that would happen is that the closer animals would go down their holes for a bit. Maybe. Truly a target rich environment!
The first day ended and if anything, it could at best be described as a learning experience. Our flight expended about 650 rounds between three shooters. The dogs won this stage as, of that incredible amount of lead, only about 180 shots actually connected in a verifiable manner. Got lots of probables. But at 500 yards if the animal fell over off the mound and disappeared behind it, you were just not sure.
D+1. Day two started out well. We seemed to drive for hours. Our guide had something special in mind and the route he took spoke volumes. This new town would prove to be an hour off the beaten path. When we arrived we were simply flabbergasted by the sheer size of the town. Placed between two gently rolling hills, this dog community ranged about 450 yards wide and two miles long! Picture a child leaving a trail of confetti along two wrinkles in a carpet and you'll get the idea. Little brown pimples sprinkled the plains indicating a healthy and thriving dog metropolis. We broke up into two groups and set off for separate sections of town.
Our group of three shooters stuck together and decided to work in a team for the first half of the day. Shooter and two spotters. Military training coming through. This worked extremely well. Our hit ratio went up dramatically and by noon we were only expending, on average, two rounds per animal. Shooting slowed to a steady and accurate pace. Very unlike the first day. Day One was akin to a kid in a candy store. All energy and little sense! This day on the other hand - this day was about serious shooting. Gary Turner had brought a 6mm Savage for the long range stuff and we both had home grown .223 AR-15s for general use. Bausch & Lomb Elite 4000 6x24 scopes ruled the day. The new high power Weavers also made a good showing. I had ran out of ammo for my .22-250 Remington 700VS on day one so the AR was it for me. Like Gary's it was built up using after market parts. His was a dedicated varmint rifle with a free float tube and Olympic barrel. Mine an A2 Service rifle on a Eagle Arms (Armalite) lower with an Olympic barrel. It is my High Power competition rifle with a 9x Bushnell Trophy slapped on as an afterthought. Russ Taylor, the fine gentleman who talked us into this adventure, had his modified 22-250 Ackley Improved Savage 112 and a .223 Savage 110. I was totally impressed by the accuracy of these new Savages and must say, Ron Coborn, the CEO of that company, is doing a darn fine job of turning out accurate out-of-the-box rifles. Much to my surprise, a .4 MOA group is quite common with his varmint grade rifles. This in a sub $400 tool! Competition beware! A button cut barrel (no horrid hammer forging here!) and a fully seated bolt head, along with pillar bedding, go a long way into turning these inexpensive rifles into tack drivers. With the addition of a rumored trigger redesign and the offering of a short action sometimes later this year, Savage just might take over the "stock" varmint rifle market. They are tough to beat for the money.
Day two was definitely better! With some closer shots and targets in the high hundreds, we actually managed to shoot out whole sections of the town. After an hour or so we would move laterally about 200 yards and take the high ground over the next section. To show just how prolific these animals are, by mid afternoon we started to see the "emptied" areas of dog town refilling as critters would come up to see what all the commotion was about. Sitting here and writing this, I still can not believe how vast the population of dogs was spread. That more cattle are not injured stepping into dog dens is simply amazing.
We closed up the afternoon's shooting with some truly astounding doubles and Gary showed just how far out those 6mm bullets could reach. With the addition of a muzzle break, he could spot his shots quite effectively. The drive back was a little exciting as I managed to get the Jeep Cherokee stuck in a mud wallow. We managed to crawl it out without getting wet but it took days to clean the goo away. All in all a great day! If you are into shooting and shooting in volume, you have to take up varminting prairie dog style. I can think of no other shooting category, short of High Power competition where you will experience this much plinking in so many varied conditions, over so many unknown ranges. By the end of the second day we felt like true marksman. Not just bench or target shooters but guys who could reach out to incredible distances and hit their chosen target. With confidence. That kind of confidence can only be learned by large amounts of lead in the air and access to long distances. Varminting gives the shooter both. A beginner with some attention to detail can learn everything he needs to know about ballistics, windage, trigger control, breath control, mirage, shooting positions, and follow through. He can start the day totally clueless and by mid-afternoon have a working understanding of how the science of shooting unfolds.
The Prairie Dog Conference gave 70 people an opportunity to gather, learn, trade information, and get in some awesome shooting. If you have never been varminting I can think of no better way of introduction than to attend one of these annual events. You will meet the best, the funniest, and the nicest in the trade. And that is what shooting should be all about; community.