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Columns : In My Sights

Hunting for Shooting Mastery

Targeting prairie dogs prepares you for a real gunfight better than any timed drill ever could.

November 13, 2012  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author

Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship
Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship

The other day my friend J.W. and I introduced my wife, the Sarge, to one of our favorite activities during our annual antelope hunt, prairie dog hunting. This is a style of hunting where adults giggle like 6-year-olds when critters the size of fat squirrels are slain at all distances with various calibers of rifle.

We started the Sarge with a good old scoped .22, and by the second day she was sending the little creatures to the great prairie dog town in the sky with her 7mm Mauser at nice distances. Somehow the giggling is less silly when the Sarge does it...

Lots of folks may think of cute little lovable rodents when they hear about prairie dogs, just like my wife did when we would talk about hunting them in the past. The truth is these little disease-infested animals destroy range land at a terrible pace if left unchecked. An area cleared of them one year may be getting decimated again within two years. Once she saw the destruction done by them, my 29-year veteran of law enforcement spouse had a new mission...sharpshooting prairie dogs.

Later, back at the cabin, when we had calmed down from our excitement, we all talked about the things we had learned from hunting this tiny target in all kinds of weather, at varying distances, and with all kinds of firearms. Unlike our traditional training environment, the high plains lacks yardage markers and sheltered shooting benches. You may end up using a fence post or a rolled up jacket as your rifle rest, and the wind blowing on your face as the windage indicator. Your aim is adjusted often by the feedback of missing the little bugger and correcting accordingly, just like you would in a confrontation on the street.

OK, so the prairie dogs aren't shooting back or anything like that. But it is odd that we rarely shoot from non-traditional positions, in wind and dust, without knowing our distances when we train in law enforcement. And frankly, I think we don't get enough repetitions in to begin with.

One other key difference between varmint shooting and law enforcement training is that one is an open activity and one is closed. That is, there is no timer, no lines, no warning, no rules; only searching, aiming, correcting, and shooting on the hunt. Law enforcement training tends to be a closed activity, more like throwing darts than winning a gunfight. You have to stand a certain way, at a specific distance, for a predetermined time, on the signal...a very closed skill.

One you can game, one you can't...either hit the dang rodent or score. Too often we are learning to shoot scores, not win armed confrontations. The closer your training is to hunting the better. I love the training value of airsoft and Simunition, but to truly master your firearm—in fact, all of your defensive skills and tools—you need to do as many repetitions in a situation as close to reality as you can. Maybe training in a shoot house, using mental rehearsal, or just taking the weapon and "playing" with it will be your key to developing mastery with your weapon. But that has to be the level you train for...mastery.

Some trainers say it takes 5,000 reps or five years to master a weapon or a skill, but that doesn't match the research. The research says we don't know how many reps or how long it will take YOU to master a skill. What similar skills do you already have? How intense and emotional are the repetitions? How motivated are you to learn? All of these come into play in developing mastery of any given skill, but ones your life depends upon should be highly motivated ones.

Now I am not claiming shooting prairie dogs will guarantee you will win a gunfight. But I invite you to take your patrol rifle out and give it a try along with a good old .22. Once you do you will probably sound a lot like the Sarge when she got done giggling and said, "Damn, that builds confidence in your shooting!"

Dave Smith is the creator of "Buck Savage" and a retired law enforcement officer from Arizona. He is also the owner of winning Mind Seminars.

Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

Phil @ 11/21/2012 5:51 AM

Absolutely! In order to develop your skills, beginning to advanced, I'd recommend a .22 rifle and a trip to your local AppleSeed Shoot.
I took my Boys to their first AppleSeed a month after I graduated from the Okla LE Rifle Instructor School, I thought I knew most of it, and I learned a great deal in that weekend. Its still free for LEO, I think. Check it out @ There is a shoot near you.

John Leger @ 11/23/2012 8:01 AM

The book "A Rifleman went to War", by an American in WW1, in Canadian then American army; expands that shooting prairy dogs/gophers/groundhogs was an excellent foundation for battlefield sniping.

Hunter2020 @ 11/25/2012 10:20 AM

Unfortunately there are a share of LEO's that are unaware of just how critical the "bond" between them and their firearm(s) are. You should be able to have one "come to hand" WHEN NEEDED and then wonder... How did I get this in my hand? Learn to hit well with them. Be one with your best insurance policy of going home at end of shift when it gets tough!

Kevin @ 12/2/2012 12:44 PM

The other thing that hunting does for you is condition you to seeing living creatures die. Not that this is a particularly enjoyable aspect of hunting, but those who hunt and have taken a life, even an animal life, are in my opinion, beter prepared to take a human life if necessary. It certainly prepares one for the after effects of watching someone die by having been exposed to watching death take place.

Now before all you animal lovers condemn me, you have absolutely no argument if you eat meat or wear leather. You are simply paying someone else to do your killing for you.

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