1500 Yard Prairie Dogs

By Ernie Bishop

The quest for hitting prairie dogs in the field was a challenge for me in 1984, as I was unfamiliar with center-fire rifles and high magnification scopes. Growing up on a Kansas farm, upland game was a norm. I was used to using a shotgun or an iron-sighted 22 rim-fire rifle, but the heavy barreled custom 6mm Remington rifle with set trigger and a Unertl scope was a whole different world. I must admit I struggled with keeping a full field of view using the 10x scope while shooting prone on a sunny West Texas day. The day my friend Jack Haning introduced me to prairie dog shooting created a desire to develop my skill in varmint shooting, which meant I needed to buy a rifle.


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My wife and I made a move to Greeley, Colorado in the summer of 1985, and I found myself in a mecca of shooting opportunities, one of which was prairie dog shooting. Without a lot of money and being newly married, I began the process of looking for a rifle that would work for deer and antelope, while also doubling as a varmint rig. Late in 1985, I found two things that made a big difference: A new friend who was a seasoned hunter and varminter, and my first rifle. Steve Hugel became my newfound friend, mentor and hunting buddy. Our first meeting was a result of his old Volkswagen Super Beetle breaking down in town and my willingness to give him a ride home. The outcome of that chance meeting has resulted in many times in the field together.

Some of our first outings were shooting prairie dogs northeast of Greeley with my new-to-me custom Ruger model 77, chambered in 257 Roberts Ackley Improved, that I purchased at a local gun show. Previously, I had been shooting handguns in an indoor range that included competitive PPC league, so I was familiar with reloading metallic cartridges. My main varmint load consisted of near a maximum amount of IMR 4350 and a 75 grain Hornady hollow point. My scope was a Redfield 3x9.

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Our portable shooting bench was the aforementioned Super Beetle. I am tall enough to shoot off of the top of Steve’s Volkswagen with homemade sandbags and it was quite steady for the prairie dog distances were shooting. While you may be thinking to yourself that this is far from the ideal long range setup, it is what we used and I was fairly consistent to the quarter-mile mark on prairie dogs. As I began to transition away from rifles and toward specialty handguns, my beloved Ruger was given to a family who had lost all of their guns to a house fire.

After moving back to Texas, I began shooting prairie dogs again in the western part of the state and in the panhandle, but now with handguns. The Remington XP-100 was my handgun of choice, chambered in 284 Winchester. With this pistol and my deer/antelope load (H-4831/140 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip) I was able to make my longest prairie dog kill right at 700 yards, using a 3-12 Burris Long Eye Relief handgun scope. This XP action had been trued, and it was fitted with a Shilen Select Match barrel with a tight neck chamber. Steve and I were no longer using his Super Beetle for a rest system anymore, but were now using homemade portable benches for, with quality front rests.

Like many, I slowly evolved into LR shooting, and maybe at slower pace since I was using specialty handguns exclusively. As I began to realize what was needed to go past the 1,000 yard mark, I knew my trusty 284 Win that now had over 2,000 rounds through it was in need of an upgrade. I rebarreled the XP-100 with an 18” Broughton 5C 1-8 twist, chambered in a tight neck 6mm-284. Also, in this time of transition I sent a stock XP-100 to Greg Tannel (Gre-Tan Rifles) to build a tricked center-grip in 6.5-284. Barrel is a 17” stainless steel Krieger 1-8 twist with Vais brake. Greg did the same work he would do to a benchrest rifle, including bushing the firing pin hole on the face of the bolt head, and putting in a faster firing pin. Both XP’s had H-S’s center-grip stock with their Aluminum V-Block. Both stocks were skim bedded to their particular action.

About a year after using the 6.5-284 XP, I wanted to be involved with some 1k matches and procured a McMillan rear grip benchrest stock with lead added to the forend to put me in the light gun class. This also allowed me to use a Jewell trigger, which significantly lightened my trigger pull and shortened lock-time compared to center-grip design.

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The one area we were lacking was in the area of optics. Before this time my use of riflescopes on specialty handguns was extremely limited. As expected, there is an inherent danger of using high magnification riflescopes on a specialty handgun with cartridge capacities rivaling the venerable 30-06 Springfield. With good muzzle brakes, Steve and I have consistently used riflescopes with high magnifications on our specialty handguns without harm to us for several years.

The 6mm-284 XP-100 has a Farrell 20 MOA picatinny base and a Leupold Mark 4 LR/T 8.5-25 with the TMR, and the now rear-grip 6.5-284 XP has a Near Manufacturing 20 MOA base, and mounted on that was one Elmer Laitala’s long-range SLR mounts. The scope on the 6.5-284 was a custom long eye relief scope modified by Wally Seibert. Wally can take the 36x Leupold and convert it to a long eye relief handgun scope. The conversion reduces the magnification to approximately 20x and it also limits the field of view.

Now we had the optics and the vertical adjustment we needed to easily make it to our minimum distance, which was 1,500 yards. To our knowledge no one had ever shot a prairie dog beyond 1,300 yards with a specialty pistol. You cannot succeed unless you are willing to fail, and we wanted to see how far we could go with these hybrid handguns.

To this point, neither of us had attempted shots on a prairie dog with handgun beyond 700 yards, even though we had been shooting our specialty pistols to 1,000 yards and a tad further. I took vacation time and pulled my son out of school for a few days and made the drive to Pueblo, Colorado in late October of 2005. We chose this time of year for the mild temperatures, and it worked with our schedules.

Successful shooting at long range is a systems approach and between the two of us, we put together the best we had at the time. Like any first time endeavor we walked away knowing that next time we would do some things differently, but more concerning that later.

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1500 Yard Prairie Dogs

First, Steve made sure we had permission on some private land to where we could safely shoot prairie dogs beyond 2,000 yards. He also took time before I came to choose the spots and measure where we should set up our gear. Part of that preparation was to find a location where would either be shooting to the north or to the south, so we would not be required to shooting into the sun at one of the key times.

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Second, we set aside three and half days for shooting, knowing that the best times would likely be in the early morning and in the late afternoon.

On a side note, I did the majority of the shooting on this trip. Steve is as unselfish as they come, and he knew that this trip was in place of what would typically be our elk hunt in the southwest part of the state. I had expected to be able to pick up a leftover cow elk permit, but there were none available for the unit we hunt.

I had a homemade portable bench and Steve had made some as well based off of the Aero-aces plans. This was one of the weak links, but they were steady enough to accomplish the task at hand. I have since made an upgrade with one of R.W Hart’s portable benches, and I would feel comfortable using it for a 1K match. I can’t overemphasize the need for a rock-solid bench

Optics for spotting included my Leupold 12x40 variable spotting scope, while Steve had set of Big Eyes put together by Darrel Cassel. They consisted of two Bushnell Spacemaster spotting scopes and he had 22x wide angle and 20x-45x oculars. I had borrowed a heavy duty surveyor’s tri-pod which made for a great spotting package. Steve has recently upgraded to a set of Kowa Big Eyes, and they are awesome.

Well, Wednesday morning finally arrived and as we got out to the dog town the conditions were awesome, with the exception of the cool temps, which was a little hard on the hands for the first hour or so. I got set up with the rear grip 6.5-284 XP and adjusted the Laitala SLR mount for 1 mile shooting where there was a group of dog mounds. Steve was diligently spotting, and to my surprise located two coyotes making their way through the dog town. The range was over 1,000 yards and there was no quick way to get the rear-grip 6.5 XP into action, so I grabbed the 6mm-284 center-grip XP-100, made some quick adjustments based on range guesstimates, and sent some DTAC’s their way to no avail, I might add.

Since I was now close with the 6mm-284, I decided to continue shooting it. The spot we were shooting at goes across a valley to about 1000 yards, then it gently rises to about 1600, and it then flattens out, so it's hard to know from the shooting spot exactly where the mile juncture is. The following day we marked it with stakes, to avoid confusion. I began shooting at this dog that was about 15 yards to the right of a mound. I was not keeping track of shots, but I later found out that Steve was.

The conditions were holding steady and I began to get closer and closer to the prairie dog. On the tenth shot, I connected as the dog presented me with a broadside shot. The 115 grain DTAC centered his torso and exited violently out of his abdomen, taking entrails with it. He flipped around for a couple seconds, regained his senses, and started heading toward his mound, but died just short of home. You could have knocked me down with a feather. Although I believed we could kill a dog at this distance I never dreamed we would do it this quickly. The emotions I felt were surreal.

As we grabbed gear for pictures and confirming the distance, there was a sense that it was just too easy. As we got to the dog and took the bragging pictures we confirmed the distance and we came up with 1,590 yards. What made this more rewarding is that this XP has a sporter forend and barrel. With a 200 yard zero, it took 63 MOA of elevation and 8 MOA on the wind. I had accomplished with Steve’s help my first goal, but my second one, which was a hit at one mile, would not be so easy.

Thursday’s weather was not so cooperative. We didn’t get started till after lunch, and it was more typical of what one would experience when attempting one mile plus dogs. We had chosen a group of mounds that were close together and active with dogs in the 1,800 yard range. I had a third specialty handgun with me that may not be as popular as the XP-100, but nonetheless it is a shooter. It is 17” Douglas barreled MOA Maximum chambered in 6.5-284. The MOA handgun is a single-shot falling block action that allows one to change barrels quickly.

Rich Mertz is the maker of the MOA and currently lives in Sundance, Wyoming. Rich built his first ever sloped picatinny base for my excursion, but it didn’t have enough MOA in it for shooting at the 1,800 yard “cholla mound” with the 1” VX-III Leupold 6.5-20 with dot reticle. I had to pick a spot way above the prairie dog as a means of reticle alignment. A couple of times when the conditions remained consistent I was within inches. When the three of us left the town that afternoon, the population of the town remained unchanged.

Friday brought us the type of conditions we had on Wednesday. On this day, I began using my rear-grip 6.5-284 XP-100 on the very same “cholla mound” as on the previous day. After sending approximately 40 rounds on that mound and Steve and my son calling a few of them just inches away again, with a couple a hair right or left, I got somewhat disgusted and began shooting at the one mile steel gong we had set up, only to realize my picatinny base had come loose (Another lesson learned). When Remington chose the thread size for the XP-100 40 plus years ago I am sure they never dreamed some nut would put a monstrous long-range mount on it and use cartridges with so much capacity. Now even a little more frustrated, I put up the 6.5-284 and went back to the 6mm-284 to shoot at the 1 mile gong. I put six shots on the steel, but it took more than six shots. When we went out to take pictures of the steel, Erik wanted to go bullet hunting. I said, "OK," and we headed to the "cholla mound."

If it had not been for a bullet hunting 11 year old, we would have missed the find of the week and it wasn't bullets, even though we found a number of them. What we found was blood, quite a bit of it at the mound I had been shooting at with the rear-grip 6.5-284. At the impact velocity the 140 A-Max in all likelihood just penciled him. Steve was so gutsy he even reached his hand into the mound to see if it was within arm’s reach to no avail. Several have told me since then, they would have either got a shovel or a backhoe for physical proof of the dead dog, but it was not that important for me at the time. Regardless of the lack of a warm mangled body, the proof of a hit was undeniable, unless the Hornady 140 grain A-max can bleed. Range was 1800 yards. It took 81 MOA of adjustment from a 200 yard zero to make the connection at 1,800 yards with an impact velocity of right at 1,020 feet per second.

Was there luck involved in this endeavor? Certainly, that is part of it, yet you cannot get "lucky" unless you do everything in your power to put the odds in your favor.

1500 Yard Prairie Dogs

This past March, Eric Wallace and I were doggin’ outside of Gillette, Wyoming, and I was able to have another “first” with one of my handguns. We were really working on getting a 1,500 yard plus dog for Eric with one of his specialty handguns, but he ran out of ammo. One of the things that I haven’t mentioned yet is that many times the spotter gets to have more fun than the shooter, since he gets to see the whole show. I know that many of you can spot your own shots with rifles, but there is just something enjoyable about spotting for your partner.

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One of Eric’s shots was so close, it hit just below the dog and flipped him in the air. At first, I thought he hit it and I got so excited I almost knocked over his Leica spotting scope. Once he was done, I got out my 7mm Dakota center-grip XP-100 that Kirby Allen built for me. Using what ammo I had with me, I shot till I was almost out of 200 grain Wildcats, but connected on a small prairie dog with three rounds left at 1450 yards while shooting off of a Harris BR bipod. That was my first long range bipod dog, and that made it even more rewarding. Optic is a Leupold Mark 4 LR/T 8.5-25 with Holland’s ART. I still have a goal of a 2000 yard plus prairie dog with a specialty handgun, but it hasn’t happened yet.

One other trick I learned as a matter of necessity when using lower power scopes is that you can extend distances accurately with lower magnification scopes if you do not try to quarter the prairie dog with the crosshair. Instead, run a click or two (depends on your click adjustment) to the right or left and the same with your elevation so that the dog is now on your right edge of your vertical reticle and the dog now is in full view with the top of your horizontal line at the ground/bottom of the dog. Now your reticle is not covering up a portion or almost all of your target and it is easier to make small adjustments.

If a 1500 yard connection on prairie dogs is possible with a specialty handgun, just be assured that even further distances can be accomplished with a rifle. For many prairie dog shooters it is hard to go from a high body count mindset to just a couple for several days in the field. If you dedicate the time and effort, I think you will be rewarded richly with achieving some long range dog goals that in times previous you thought were all but impossible.

*General reminders and recommendations for 1,500 yard prairie dog shooting:*

Sub quarter minute accuracy, but you can get it done with a sub-half MOA gun.

When accuracy falls apart, remember it may not be the conditions that are always causing it.

Have cleaning gear and basic maintenance items with you with a spare table for such maintenance.

If limited on brass, take your loading equipment with you.

Have a sturdy bench with a comfortable stool that is adjustable for height.

Solid front and rear rest.

Bone up on bench rest techniques so as to take yourself out of the shot and let your gun do the work.

Higher magnification rifle scopes (I recommend 20x as a minimum) with a reticle that will allow precise aiming.

Have enough internal MOA in your scope and or through your base or rings.

Get the best spotting scope that you or your partner can afford.

Use heavy or solid tripods.

Ideally have your spotter set-up as close to directly behind as possible to better spot your shot and he/she will enjoy the vapor trail too.

The hearing enhanced hearing protection is a great help in communicating.

Always wear eye protection.

Set aside enough time and remain determined to reach your goal.

Try to pick a time of the year when the weather is more likely to be in your favor.

Choose a cartridge that will have enough velocity combined with the better ballistic coefficients for the caliber used.

Learn to use the reticle you have to your advantage as mentioned above.

Don’t shoot the dog at the mound, but away from it, so you don’t lose it down the hole if it falls into the hole or does not die immediately.

Ernie Bishop resides in Gillette, Wyoming, where he serves as a preacher. He enjoys long range hunting for varmints and big game with handguns. Ernie also uses his specialty handguns in tactical style matches and in 1,000 yard competitions once or twice a year.