It was the culmination of months-long effort that brought three members of the Sniper Country Council together in Valentine, NE, for the purpose of 'sniping' prairie dogs. As I've said before, in a previous column of From the High Ground, there's nothing like shooting prairie dogs to help a shooter sharpen or maintain basic shooting skills in a "real world" environment.
For those of you who have never attended, or perhaps never even heard of, the Prairie Dog 'Conference,' it is a unique event that brings gun writers and "regular shooters" (people like you and me) together for a few days each year to share fellowship, shoot prairie dogs, discuss loads, talk about optics, and perhaps win a really nice prize.
The 'Conference' has just completed its fourth occurrence and, now having attended the last three, I can tell you that they just keep getting better and better. The first two were held in Malta, MT, and the last two were held in Valentine, NE (though the actual shooting was done on the Indian reservation in Rosebud, SD, about 20-30 minutes away). The location for each 'Conference' is primarily determined by the population of prairie dogs. The organizer of the event tries to pick an area that provides shooters with a target rich environment which at the same time accommodates needs such as lodging, meals, and general comfort during non-shooting hours.
Personally, I've enjoyed going to the'Conference' because it has allowed me to meet many others who, like me, share an intense interest in precision shooting. A quick look at everyone else's gear will tell you that these people take their shooting seriously, as indicated by the rifles and optics being employed. Rifles vary by manufacturer and style, but are almost always of the bolt-action variety. The most common chamberings are .223 Remington and .22-250 Remington, but you'll also find quite a few rifles in .220 Swift, 6mm Remington, and several wildcats like the .22-250 Ackley Improved, .22 CHeetah and .17 Mach IV. However, you'll also see some shooters toting rifles chambered for the .22 rimfire cartridges (generally Long Rifle and Magnum) for "close" shots. Here and there, you'll see a shooter who is using a single-shot pistol built for one of the above cartridges.
Scopes are definitely the order of the day at each annual 'Conference." I think it's honest and accurate to say that just about one out of every four or five shooters was using a Bausch & Lomb 4000 Elite in 6-24 power. Indeed, a few shooters had this particular scope on each of their rifles. The price/value ratio is VERY hard to beat, and the optical clarity of these scopes is definitely top-notch.
On Thursday, June 5th, shooters and writers registered for the event and then sat down for a real nice cookout, which was put together by the Peppermill Lounge in Valentine. I saw a lot of my friends from previous 'Conferences,' and met quite a few "first timers" who came because they'd heard about what a great time there is at this event. In no time at all, old friendships were rekindled, and new ones were established.
A few people got their licenses at the cookout, while the majority -- including myself and my two shooting partners -- picked ours up the next morning, Friday, before meeting the guides. Having been previously broken down into small groups or "flights," our guides took everyone (in small convoys of vehicles) to various sites where good shooting would be found -- hopefully.
As it turned out, I was low on sunscreen. Being fair-haired and light-complexioned, I use a SPF of 30 or more. However, I discovered too late that I was nearly out... in fact, I did run out. I was fortunate, though, that one of my shooting partners had brought some along, which saved the day. Sunscreen is part of the essential equipment you should include on your packing list, as important as your rifle(s) and ammunition. Seriously. Be smarter than I was, though, and don't get so excited to start shooting prairie dogs that it is a few hours later before you realize you "really" need to apply some sunscreen to your skin. Thank God I put it on when I did. Damage had been done, but at least I don't think it got any worse after I started putting the stuff on my skin.
Speaking of equipment, I was using my Savage 112BVSS as my primary weapon system, with my 112FV as my secondary. I had worked up some VERY fast loads, using moly-coated 40-grain Hornady V-Max bullets, in my 112BVSS, which is chambered for .22-250 Ackley Improved. The load I was using consisted of Winchester cases, WLR primers, and 41.0 grains of IMR 3031 powder. Unfortunately, as I'd been forewarned, the wind -- mild as it was at only 10-15 MPH -- was blowing my shots ever so slightly off course, after about 200 yards or so. The 40-grain bullet was just too light to handle the wind. Really, I knew better, but I was obsessed by "the need for speed." Well, after almost a day and a half of so-so shooting, I gave up and went to my 112FV, using loads of 55-grain Sierra Blitz bullets, GI cases, WSR primers, and 26.0 grains of W748 powder. Immediately, my shots started connecting with greater regularity.
[Note: At the moment, I'm now working up loads for the 112BVSS that consist of moly-coated 55-grain Sierra Blitz bullets and H414 powder; my maximum load is 44.3 grains. I'm using CCI 250 magnum primers, and am taking it easy in working up these loads, since I believe H414 is not a powder to be considered lightly with regard to the power that can be realized. I feel confident that the 112BVSS will perform better next year, using the heavier bullets for long-range shots.
Upon returning home, after the PDC, I tried some loads using Vihtavuori Oy N-140 and moly-coated 60-grain V-Max bullets. The Hornady box indicated that a 1:12" twist barrel would stabilize these bullets, but in MY rifle, which has a 1:12" twist, virtually every shot keyholed on the target, only 100 yards away.]
The weather for the two days of shooting was as good as it gets -- dry weather, light wind (though not conducive to shooting 40-grain bullets at 500-600 yards), and not too hot. The only limitation on shooting was... well, there wasn't one, actually. If you could see the prairie dogs, you could shoot them. We're talking some serious distances, folks. Using the "Kentucky" method of adjusting for elevation and deflection just didn't seem to be doing the job so, after a while, I started "clicking in" to make my hits. Immediately, this seemed to produce results, and my two associates eventually followed suit. If you've never shot prairie dogs, let me tell you that they are SMALL targets at LONG distances. Estimating how much lead or "hold over" to use for your shots is not conducive to making the really long shots, I assure you.
At the end of the second day's shooting, everyone headed back into town to clean up and go to the awards banquet. At each table, a gunwriter -- such as Layne Simpson or Bob Jourdan, for example -- was seated with about six or seven other shooters. This was yet another opportunity to discuss a variety of things of great interest to precision shooters and, with a writer present, it was a chance to get some "inside" information and some viewpoints that don't necessarily make their way into print. Being seated at the table with our fellow prairie dog shooters, it was also a prime chance to discuss the last couple of days of shooting (i.e., "lie" about what great shots we all were). All in all, it was a great evening of fellowship.
After dinner, various prizes were handed out to everyone in attendance. These prizes were not distributed based on the number of prairie dogs killed -- rather, it was more of a "door prize" situation. Everyone was given a ticket when they walked into the banquet room, and the number on the ticket -- if called -- was how you won your prize(s). Several people won more than one prize, and the prizes included such items as a Savage rifle, Berger bullets, Federal brass, Hodgdon powder, riflescopes (like Nightforce, Nikon, Burris, and Weaver), and many, many other nice things.
The grand prize given away this year, and last year as well, was I. J. "Red" Cornett's shooting bench. Weighing in at only 36 pounds, and delivered to your door for only $350.00, this bench is completely portable and versatile. It rotates completely, similar in manner to the turret on a tank, and is built nearly as solid as a tank. Normally, I use bipods and shoot from a sitting or prone position on the ground (on a long piece of carpet). However, sitting isn't the best of positions for long shots, and maintaining sustained fire from a prone position can easily give you a sore neck. Something like Red's bench, which won't give you a hernia while toting it around, is ideal for engaging prairie dogs at long-ranges, while maintaining a comfortable, relaxed shooting position for hours. Red Cornett can be reached in care of Cornett Machine, 1635 South Highway 27, Somerset, KY 42501, (606) 678-5163/FAX: (606) 679-5920. Granted, you can buy less expensive benches, or build cheaper ones, but if you've got the money and would like the "Cadillac" of shooting benches, you'll want one of Red's models.
If you would like to rub elbows with some of the "names" in the shooting industry, or meet some of your favorite gun writers, then such opportunities are rare and this is one of them. Attending the Prairie Dog 'Conference' is a splendid way to meet other people who share an interest in precision, long-range shooting and in precision handloading. It gives you an opportunity to see equipment, and even win equipment, that you might not otherwise ever see or touch. It is a prime chance to expand your knowledge on a variety of shooting-related subjects, and it's even a way to actually make an impact on the future of the shooting industry -- depending on with whom you share a dinner table or have a drink.
By the way, lest anyone grieve over so many prairie dogs being shot, let me tell you "how life really is." Prairie dogs, though admittedly somewhat cute, are often diseased little creatures -- carriers of Bubonic Plague (i.e., the "Black Plague").
1) Bubonic plague is transmitted by the bite of any of numerous insects that are normally parasitic on rodents, and that seek new hosts when the original host dies.
2) Untreated bubonic plague is fatal in 30 to 75 percent of all cases.
In bubonic plague, the first symptoms are headache, nausea, vomiting, aching joints, and a general feeling of ill health. The lymph nodes of the groin or, less commonly, of the armpit or neck, suddenly become painful and swollen. The temperature, accompanied by shivering, rises to between 38.3 and 40.5 C (101 and 105 F). The pulse rate and respiration rate are increased, and the victim becomes exhausted and apathetic. The buboes swell until they approximate a chicken egg in size. In nonfatal cases, the temperature begins to fall in about five days, and approaches normal in about two weeks. In fatal cases, death results in about four days. In primary pneumonic plague, the sputum is at first slimy and tinted with blood; it later becomes free-flowing and bright red. Death occurs in most cases two or three days after the first appearance of symptoms. In primary septicemic plague, the victim has a sudden onset of high fever and turns deep purple in several hours, often dying within the same day that symptoms first develop. The purple color, which appears in all plague victims during their last hours, is due to respiratory failure; the popular name Black Death that is applied to the disease is derived from this symptom.
Plague has been known for at least 3000 years. Epidemics have been recorded in China since 224 BC. The disease occurred in huge pandemics that destroyed the entire populations of cities throughout the Middle Ages; they have occurred sporadically since that time. The last great pandemic began in China in 1894 and spread to Africa, the Pacific islands, Australia, and the Americas, reaching San Francisco in 1900. Plague still occurs in Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia, but rarely appears in the U.S. In 1950 the World Health Organization initiated sanitation programs for plague control throughout the world.
Information Source: "Plague," Microsoft (R) Encarta. Copyright (c) 1994 Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1994 Funk & Wagnall's Corporation.
There are usually two ways to deal with prairie dogs in this country, with poison or by shooting. Shooting is quick, poison isn't. Plus, poison has ways of ending up in the food chain, and that's not something I want to entertain.
Additionally, raising cattle is a prime source of income to many people in a lot of the same areas where prairie dogs are abundant. It takes a lot of grass to sustain just ONE cow, let alone an entire herd of cattle. However, prairie dogs are voracious eaters, easily consuming many times their own body weight in grass each day. So, outside of doing society a favor by eradicating a disease-carrying rodent (yes, "rodent," as in "mouse," "mole," and... "rat"), you're also helping to ensure the success of the beef industry -- and I don't know about you, but I enjoy a good steak now and then.