Vermin hunting for… Training?

While varminting might not be the first thing you think of as tactical training, there are plenty of lessons to be learned in the field that can help your defensive plan.

At a recent writer’s event with Bushnell, we were presented with long-range instructions using both existing products and a new scope (check this space for more later this year). We’ve also used a fair number of Bushnell optics to hunt the elusive (actually, ubiquitous) prairie dog in the fields and hills of southern Wyoming. As I scoured the landscape for targets of opportunity and took careful aim, it struck me how much field skills could be applied to the realm of self-defense.

Of course, prairie dogs do not pose a significant threat to the average person. We’re not likely to eat one (they can carry the plague – the real plague; bubonic – so I advise against it), and other than the riders among us, we’re unlikely to be harmed as results. If, however, you have the opportunity to thin the ranks of this farmer scourge, there are a few lessons that will help you with your defensive plan.

Selection of equipment for hunting varmints

As the saying goes, the task drives the gear train. When choosing gear for pest control, home defense, or self-defense outside the home, select the best gear for the task. If that sounds simple, well, it is. We had three opportunities to reduce the varmint population during my time in Wyoming, so I went with three different setups.

First, we were staking out a series of prairie dog towns where there would be plenty of opportunities between 100 and 200 yards or so. I opted for the Bergara BXR semi-automatic .22 LR equipped with a Bushnell – Elite Tactical DMR3 3.5 – 21X scope. This allowed rapid engagement for closer targets and high magnification to see the farthest edges. Then we were going long distances, so a Savage MSR-15 with a Bushnell Elite 4500 4-16X scope was the pick of the day. Finally, we chose to engage small targets at close range and 50-100 yards. For this we selected a Ruger 22/45 pistol with a Bushnell RXS-250 red dot for up close work and a Ruger Precision Rimfire rifle. with Bushnell Rimfire 3-9X scope with illuminated reticle for longer shots.

Our personal and home defense firearms and optics should be chosen with a similar fit to the task at hand. Few would go for a .300 Win. Mag. bolt-action rifle for home defense or a 10-inch barrel revolver for concealed carry; while we may be able to create wargame scenarios where these choices might be necessary, it’s much more reasonable to go for gear that matches the most likely threats, not the outliers.

Target acquisition

While searching a field for a prairie dog target is quite different from being on the lookout for bad actors, it’s not as different as you might think. Looking over a field, the signs of prairie dogs are unmistakable – large mounds of dirt, holes, small prairie dog heads sticking out of the ground, etc. However, spotting dogs can be harder than you think. It’s like being in a dark parking lot or a dimly lit alley – these are the areas where we absolutely need to be alert. In the middle of the day at your local supermarket, however, the alert level may not be as high. Whether looking for targets of opportunity or trying to avoid being a target of opportunity, awareness is key.

We’ve all seen images of prairie dogs coming out of their holes, looking around; once the action begins, however, it’s different. Often it’s a target of opportunity where a prairie dog or ground squirrel runs from burrow to burrow, and you have to spot the target quickly, follow it, prepare the shot and, extremely important, make sure that your safety net is strong. Many opportunities had to be given up because a missed shot (or pass) could endanger something further away.

We are the good guys. If the unthinkable happens and the concealed carrier needs to defend themselves, they will need to consider a safety net. Criminals are not burdened by rule four. Just as you shouldn’t shoot a prairie dog with a pasture full of cows behind him, a bad actor at home or on the street might have innocent people behind him. Proper shot placement and identification of the entire range of fire is of the utmost importance no matter where you are.

Skills and limits

I’ll be the first to admit that my skills with a handgun are, well, let’s just say Rob Leatham has nothing to worry about. I’m not about to shoot a 6 inch tall ground squirrel 100 yards because all I’m going to do is waste ammo. With a rimfire rifle or a bolt action rifle? I will reach about 200 meters. With centerfire rifles, I’ve shot prairie dogs nearly 400 yards away, but the penalty for a miss is only a small spade from my hunting partners. Failing to land a shot in the field means you’re taking a small whiff. Obviously, it is much more serious for self-defense.

An essential element is to know the point of impact (POI) of your firearm. If you are using iron sights, where does the POI start to diverge from the aiming point? With the red dots, what is the zero? If it is a zero at 10 meters for a gun-mounted optic, what is the POI at 25 meters or 50 meters? For a sniper rifle, the offset must be taken into account for close-range shots on precision targets. Knowing your gear inside out isn’t just a good idea, it’s essential. Before heading out on one of the varmint hunting trips, I personally checked where my rifle or handgun hit at 50 yards for rifles and 25 yards for pistols.


There’s a lot to learn every time you go for a shot. Whether you’re bending orange clays on the berm, slashing the local varmint population, slaughtering a deer for meat, or taking a course to improve your self-defense skills, know your gear and your limits, and always be ready to learn. Be safe, careful and have fun (and trust me, varmint hunting is a lot of fun!)