I expect that most folks reading this know that for upwards of two score years I labored for Outdoor Life magazine under the guise of Shooting Editor. During these decades of uncompromising serfdom, my labors included the testing of hundreds of firearms of sundry description and participating in hunting events that would cause acolytes of the PETA Manifesto to rend their garments in anguish. Notable among these episodes was my whole hearted participation in the mass slaughter of prairie dogs, a sociable member of the rodenita family.
A prairie dog brought to bag is not a trophy one triumphantly brings home as tasty table fare. The whole purpose of shooting prairie dogs – their sole justification for existence, one might argue – is that they make splendid rifle targets. Otherwise they are pests that land owners are generally happy to get rid of, as they denude large patches of otherwise productive grassland, their clusters of mounds having the appearance of a cratered moonscape. Cases of bubonic plague have also been traced to fleas hosted by prairie dogs. For these and other reasons, landowners and even state and federal agencies have found it necessary to eradicate vast prairie dog populations by poisoning, gassing, and other means. Such eradication programs reduce a prairie dog town’s population to zero, a perfect storm of desolation. More fortunate colonies of prairie dogs are rescued from this dismal fate by riflemen who keep their number in check by frequent culling, which explains how they are actually protected by the fact that they happen to make great targets. (Nature works in strange ways, as we’ve all heard it said.)
If you’re beginning to wonder about the point of this chapter, be assured that it will be revealed shortly, with the foregoing information being necessary to understand what follows.
||Black tailed prairie dog. Image courtesy Wikipedia.
Though potting prairie dogs has long been a popular sport among certain small groups of riflemen, its popularity mushroomed during the 1980s and ‘90s. Previously considered only as abundant targets for casual plinking, the lowly prairie dog now became the prime object of lavishly equipped shooting expeditions. Motels catered to prairie dog safaris, advertising their proximity to prime shooting areas, as did restaurants and roadside cafes. Cashing in on the craze were guiding services and lodging for well-heeled hunters, replete with gourmet chefs and fine wines. Ammunition makers included in their catalogs new calibers and bullets developed specifically for the explosive demise of the wiley pasture poodle while gun makers gave birth to series of rifles designed exclusively to launch bullets across multiple yards of prairie terrain with unerring accuracy. For optics makers it was a gift from nirvana, as they cashed in on the trend with specialized telescopic sights, high magnification binoculars, and even range finding instruments that foretold the shooting distance to a prairie dog with laser accuracy. In order to demonstrate the range and accuracy of their products, various makers of optics, rifles, and ammunition hosted “prairie dog seminars” at which firearms writers such as myself were invited to partake of a day or two actually testing their products on the real thing. Invitations were much coveted.
So specialized did the act of blasting prairie dogs become that some truly hardcore fanatics arrived on the scene in customized vehicles equipped with built-in shooting platforms. In a similar vein, custom-built prairie dog rifles costing thousands of dollars became commonplace. (By contrast, a decent rifle for deer hunting can be had for a few hundred.) And as you might expect, clubs and prairie dog shooting societies were organized and an enterprising fellow by the name of Ned Kalbfleish founded what became the Varmint Hunting Association, complete with offices and full time staff, a quarterly journal, and even a “clubhouse” where journeying sharpshooters could stake their claims for membership in the Five Hundred Yard Club by producing evidence of hitting a prairie dog at that or greater distance.
Of course there was also an unmistakable snob aspect to prairie dog shooting with standing on the PD social scale predicated by the expense and exclusivity of one’s equipment, vehicles and the ranking of celebrities with whom he has shared a dog patch.
Among these, my favorite name to drop is Emmy award-winning actor John Larroquette who truly took prairie dog shooting to heart and was always a joy to shoot with. He, Kalbfleish and I joined forces to produce a couple of videos on reloading, which I’m told are the only such how-to-do-it videos that are genuine Hollywood productions (Burbank actually). Excuse the plug, but they are available from the Varmint Hunters Association. Check their website: www.varminthunter.org
|Emmy award-winning actor, Louisiana native, and Carmichel shooting buddy John Larroquette. Image courtesy of Flickr.com.
Human nature being what it is, shooting prairie dogs inevitably involved various forms of competitions, some of which were not always that friendly. There were of course competitions for the longest shots, for the greatest numbers killed, and for the speed with which they could be dispatched. As it happened, the speed with which a shooter could fire aimed shots evolved into especially vicious competitions. To get the flavor of these not always-friendly races, picture a small group of shooters, say a couple or more, jointly discovering a well-populated prairie dog town and selecting individual shooting positions so as not to interfere with his neighbor, usually fifty or more yards apart. In polite society these individual positions make it fairly obvious to his fellow shooters which prairie dogs are in his field of fire and as such these were the ones he will shoot at.
Did I say polite society? Not.
Unfortunately, I frequently found myself in the company of yahoos who made it their business to begin blasting their neighbors’ allotted targets, especially mine, as quickly as they got into position. The non-cognoscenti might assume that the logical way to retaliate against such outrageous behavior would be to go armed with fast-firing weaponry and hose down the offending neighbor’s allotment of targets. At the time, however, even the most unprincipled offenders hewed to a strict code of honor preventing autoloading rifles. It simply was not done. Bolt action rifles prevailed, which would appear to put everyone on a level shooting field, and you might ask why I chose not to return the favors provided by my miscreant associates by blasting their dogs in return, assuming, that is, I might have been of a mind to. But alas, I was initially at a disadvantage of my own doing because I preferred using non-repeating bolt action rifles requiring the hand feeding of a single cartridge for each shot. In theory, this type of rifle offered an accuracy edge that paid off for shots at long range but the supposed accuracy advantage was a distinct handicap when shooters around me were decimating my allotment of targets with magazine fed repeaters as I plodded along loading my rifle one round at a time.
Click here for Part 2b!