Boom! Miss. Boom! Miss. Boom! Miss.
I scrambled to load more shells into my rifle as I watched the glistening prairie dog look at me without a care in the world. Boom! Another miss! The frustrating sequence continued until I had run out of shells. The little varmint still sat perched on his mound as if an invisible force field had protected him from all 9 of my shots at a mere 325 yards. Nine shots with nine misses? I believe I used the excuse that my rangefinder must not be working properly as my uncle casually leaned into his rifle and killed the critter with just one flick of the trigger. I remember feeling completely defeated as we drove home and I vowed that the next time I came back I would be better prepared.
Figure 1. My Remington 700 VLS that started my journey into the long-range varmint world
For the next year that experience stayed in my memory every time I made a trip to the reloading bench or rifle range and it helped me stay motivated as I worked hard to stretch my effective range. The following year I went back to the prairie dog fields armed with more experience, better reloads, and a burning desire to get my first 400-yard kill. All the hard work paid off and I happily joined the 400-yard club. As I tried to push my personal record into the 500+ yard range I quickly discovered that the 55-grain bullet out of my 22-250 was being bullied around in the wind. Also, the BDC reticle in my scope was getting less and less effective as distances got longer and longer. I knew to increase my maximum range I would need different equipment and the next decade would see me slowly evolve my weapons and gear as I constantly pushed my personal boundaries further and further.
Fast forward a few years and my goals for the 2017 prairie dog trip were a little different than in years past. This trip I would not be taking a rifle for high volume shooting as I hoped to spend most of my time spotting for other shooters. However, I did want to set a new personal record and kill one of the little critters more than 800 yards away. Even though I routinely shoot steel plates out to 1k yards I have never been lucky enough to kill a varmint over 800 and I felt that this year would be the year.
The first morning of our trip we were greeted with a beautiful sunny day and pleasantly warm temperatures. Our first few stops of the day produced good shooting opportunities and many prairie dogs took their eternal dirt nap. Around mid-day we found a little hill we could drive onto that provided shooting in all directions and to distances as far as we could see. As we set up on the hill, I began looking for prairie dogs at long range while some of the other shooters unleashed death on the closer mounds. My uncle soon found one sitting on a mound at 800 yards. I watched through the spotter as he shoulder punched it with a 168 Berger out of his 7mm Rem Mag. That shot was the furthest prairie dog kill I had personally witnessed and I was excited to get my chance to try and match it.
A little additional glassing yielded some active mounds quite a distance beyond the 800-yard mound. I unrolled my shooting mat, set up my rifle and rear bag, and placed an ammo box and my optics just to the side of me. A quick look through the binos showed the dogs were still out and with the touch of a button the Leica 1600B gave me a reading of 1200 yards. I ran the numbers in Shooter and got my spotting scope set up for my dad to help call my shots. The conditions were near perfect with a very soft right to left breeze as I let the first-round fly. My heart raced as I watched it land just barely low and blow dirt in the critters face. I dialed up a click and sent a few more downrange and watched through my scope as dust flew all around the prairie dog without making a solid hit. After a few shots the dog had decided he’d had enough of the dirt showers and went underground.
While waiting for the prairie dog to pop back up, I spotted another sod poodle on a mound behind the 1200-yard berm and without confirming the range I took a shot. I saw an extremely low impact and took an additional shot with a similar result. I measured the impacts at 12 MOA low, held an extra 12 MOA with the reticle in my scope and let one fly. A little over 2 seconds later the bullet creased just past his left side and I sent another round down range and watched it sneak just past him again. I focused on steadying my breathing as I took up the first stage of the Timney Calvin Elite trigger and gently squeezed through the second stage when the sight picture looked right. My dad, uncle, and I all shouted in amazement when the prairie dog did a face plant in the dirt 2.2 seconds later. Since my rangefinder would not give a reading on the mound where the dead critter was lying, I grabbed my Leica and a Sig Kilo and began the trek out to get some pictures and an accurate range back to the trucks.
Figure 2. Views from/through the spotter. The red arrows point to me and my uncle as we were taking pictures with the prairie dog.
When I got to the mound I thought the dog should be on I could find no evidence of a hit. A phone call to my dad back at the truck confirmed I needed to go further up the hill to a different mound. Arriving at the distant mound I found the prairie dog lying there stone dead. I looked back towards our shooting position and used the Leica to get ranges of 1404, 1404, and 1405 and the Sig Kilo returned a range of 1404 as well. 1404 yards!!! Two of the goals I had for 2017 were to kill a prairie dog over 800 yards, and any varmint over 1k, and I had just accomplished both at one time!
Figure 3. My 1404-yard prairie dog. The red arrow points back to the shooting position.
At this point I must admit this shot no doubt had an element of luck to it. I was lucky to have excellent environmental conditions, I was lucky that the prairie dog let me miss a few times without going underground, and the accuracy of my load at that distance, on a perfect day, would probably be between 7-10 inches so it involved a lucky stroke of the trigger to land the bullet on such a small target. However, I wanted to share this story to discuss some of the things I have learned over the last decade that allowed me to make the shot happen.
Cartridge: 6mm Creedmoor
When I began seriously exploring long range shooting and hunting I was immediately concerned that without a big magnum I might as well give up before I started. It seemed long range rifles started with a 7mm Rem Mag, a 300 Win Mag was preferred by many, and that a big 338 was really what a guy needed if they wanted to be successful.
If you would have told me then that I’d kill a prairie dog at 1404 yards with a 243 (ballistic twin of my 6 Creed) I would have called you a liar, but the reality is there are many excellent 22, 6mm, and 6.5mm options that will let you kill varmints and ring steel at long range with low impact to your shoulder and wallet. For big game hunting, there simply is no replacement for displacement and if your goal is to kill big game animals at very long distances you should be looking at those bigger cartridges. However, my passion is long range varmints and steel and for those activities you can get by with a much smaller, more comfortable to shoot, and economical cartridge.
Figure 4. A 6mm Creedmoor casing shown beside a 105 grain Hornady Amax and 105 grain Nosler RDF.
There are many small cartridges you can use to have fun at long range and here is a list of some of my favorites. The list is certainly not all encompassing but all of them are cartridges I have personally used or hope to build in the future.
22 caliber with high BC 75-90 grain bullets: 223, 22-250, 22BR, 22 Creedmoor
6mm with high BC 95-115 grain bullets: 6BR, 6Dasher, 243, 6 Creedmoor, 6×47 Lapua
6.5mm with high BC 130-147 grain bullets: 6.5×47 Lapua, 6.5 Creedmoor, 260 Remington, 6.5×284
Optics: Kahles K624i FFP
When starting out my long-range journey I was obsessed with magnification. My 6.5-20x scope just seemed like it wouldn’t be adequate for ranges exceeding 300 yards and I began looking at scopes that went all the way up to 32x or even 50x magnification. The reality is, while I LOVE high magnification on the 100-yard range, I find that I often don’t use my scope’s full mag range when in the field due to the reduced field of view, tighter eye box, and problems with mirage.
When I shot the prairie dog mentioned in this story my scope was turned down to around 14x. Even though my Kahles provides a beautiful image at 24x I find myself using the scope most of the time between 12-15x when shooting varmints. The massive field of view at that magnification makes finding the critters in the scope faster, reduces the apparent mirage (which makes it easier for me to focus), and allows me to spot my own shots easier.
It is worth mentioning that the FFP reticle in my scope was not a hindrance in making the shot. I won’t argue the pros/cons of a FFP vs SFP scope as you can get on any Internet forum and read the rebuttals for hours, I simply want to share my experience in this scenario. Since my reticle has a constant thickness of .12 MOA it covered the same 1.8 inches of the prairie dog on 14x as it would have on 24x. By comparison, if I had been shooting with a NightForce 5.5-22X with the MOAR reticle, at 14x the reticle would have been covering 3.2 inches and would have made seeing the prairie dog very difficult. If you put a MOART reticle into that same Nightforce scope, the reticle would have been covering 1.4 inches at 14x and would have allowed ample visualization of the animal. The takeaway is that with proper reticle selection in either FFP or SFP scopes you can shoot small targets at long distances.
Ballistics Program: Shooter
The year I made my first prairie dog trip, the only portable ballistics programs I was aware of (there were probably others) would cost you upwards of $300. Today you can buy a great array of mobile ballistic apps for under $30 and upload them onto your phone. Shooter was the first shooting app I purchased because it had a library of BC’s that had been confirmed by Bryan Litz. This app allows me to quickly enter all environmental data and achieve a shooting solution in mere seconds.
The solution provided by the app put me within ¼ MOA for a first-round hit on a prairie dog at 1200 yards. The app also provided a solution that matched the holdover I used to kill the prairie dog at 1404. I recently purchased Applied Ballistics for my iPhone and when I ran the numbers through that program the shooting solution produced was spot on to my results from the field. I highly recommend the purchase of either one of these ballistics apps to give you an accurate shooting solution.
Figure 5. The firing solution provided by Shooter for both the 1200 and 1404 yard shots.
Rifle Rests: Bipod and a Rear Bag
Nothing builds more confidence in your ability to make a shot than having a solid and steady rest. Prone is my favorite position to shoot from and when you throw a quality bipod on the front of your rifle, and a good rear support in the back, you significantly improve your odds of making a hit down range. There are many excellent bipod choices on the market today so buy what best suits your needs and practice with it a lot. There are also many options for a rear support, but I prefer to use a lightweight, rectangular bag. The shape of the bag allows me to quickly change between various heights and has noticeably improved my hit percentage when in the field.
I look back on my long-range journey so far with much fondness. While I have learned a lot, I have lots more to learn and I look forward to constantly trying to push my limits and improve my skills. I cannot wait to see where my journey takes me in the next 10 years.
Go HERE to ask questions or discuss this article with Justin and others.