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Choosing a "Pronghorn" rifle.

The American pronghorn is a resident of the plains of the Western and Southwestern United States, a land so vast and empty that it takes away the breath of someone used to hunting in confining hardwood and evergreen tangles. In pronghorn country, yesterday is behind you, tomorrow ahead, and from any hill or ridge you can see into both by simply turning to look. But if the hunter can see into tomorrow in this country, the pronghorn, with his spectacular eyesight, must see clear into next week! Many a time I've located pronghorns several miles away and found them looking right down the tube of my spotting scope.

as a pronghorn hunter, the first thing to bear in mind, then, is that if you can see a pronghorn buck, chances are good that he can see you. The second thing to remember is that once he does see you, he takes off like the wind and in a matter of seconds can put a half mile between him and your rifle. In other words, you want to move carefully and take no chances on spooking your quarry. Many times you'll find it better to try a long shot at an undisturbed buck than to attempt to work closer in country so devoid of cover that a rattlesnake can't hide.

Right off the bat this should give you a hint as to what you're looking for in a rifle/cartridge combination for pronghorn hunting. The rifle should be scoped, capable of at least 1-1/2 minute-of-angle accuracy and should develop enough velocity that the bullet can be delivered on target at 400 yards, maybe more, without a lot of guessing. Likewise, the remaining velocity of the bullet should be great enough at 400 yards to adequately penetrate and expand.

This sounds like a tall order, but in reality you have any number of cartridges to choose from. Of course, you can eliminate most of the low-velocity cartridges from any list considered for pronghorns. Old favorites, like the .30-30, .32 Special and .35 Remington, superb cartridges out to medium range, don't cut the mustard in open country. But how do you decide where to draw the line in cartridge selection for pronghorn hunting?

I guess the place to start is to learn just a little about the physiology of the pronghorn. This prairie speedster is actually a small animal, much smaller than he appears. A mature buck will stand about 30 inches high at the shoulder, weigh between 120 and 140 pounds, and the vital area of the chest where you must place the bullet measures no more than 13 inches top to bottom. A pronghorn has thin skin and a small bone structure.

Penetration, even when you have to break the shoulder, is not a problem. However, the pronghorn can be one of the most tenacious of North American game animals when wounded. If one gets away you'll have a devil of a time tracking him over dry ground that's usually laced with pronghorn tracks. You have to place your shot carefully and put some of the vital organs out of commission. With either a heart or lung shot, a pronghorn will take off running the moment he's hit, but he's dead on his feet and will go down within 50 or 75 yards.

I'm a great believer in stalking pronghorns, working hard to get just as close as possible before shooting. Usually you'll be able to get to within 200 yards or less of your quary when you do things right but as I mentioned earlier, there are times when the terrain precludes anything except taking a long shot. It would be hell to have to pass up your one chance at a trophy pronghorn simply because your rifle and cartridge weren't capable of getting the job done at 400 yards or so.

The correct approach, then, is to use a cartridge that is capable of a one-shot kill at 400 yards. After a lifetime of pronghorn hunting, both professionally and for my own sport, I've come to the conclusion that a cartridge for pronghorn hunting should deliver the bullet on target with a minimum remaining velocity of 2,000 feet per second (fps)--about what's needed in any caliber to afford proper penetration and reasonable bullet expansion on an animal the size of a pronghorn. In other words, if you're going to be trying 400-yard shots, you'll want to use a cartridge whose bullet will arrive on target traveling at 2,000 fps or more. If you think you're good enough to place a shot accurately at 500 yards, then that bullet had better get there at a speed of 2,000 fps.

Now before you panic, remember that this is only a guideline. However, it does place such cartridges as the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .250-3000 Savage, .257 Roberts, 7mm-08 Remington, 7x57 Mauser and .308 Winchester right on the borderline. I'd be the last person in the world to suggest that these cartridges be dropped from the running where pronghorn cartridges are concerned. I've killed a number of pronghorns with all of them. However, I am saying that if you use one of these cartridges, select your bullets and loads carefully and do everything you can to keep your shots under 400 yards.

Undoubtedly the best cartridges for pronghorn hunting are those which shoot bullets weighing at least 120 grains at muzzle velocities of 3,000 fps or more. In standard cartridges this means the .25-06, the .270 Winchester, the .280 Remington and the .30-06. In magnums there's quite a list; the .264 Winchester Magnum, 7mm Remington Magnum, .300 H&H Magnum, .300 Winchester Magnum and the Weatherby line up through the .300 Weatherby. While the .338 Winchester and .340 Weatherby are superb long-range cartridges, there just isn't any earthly reason for such big bores for pronghorn hunting. In fact, there are many shooters who'll argue that there's no place for any magnum larger than the 7mm Remington in pronghorn hunting. True, you may not need the power of the .30 caliber magnums, but if you can shoot them well, they're excellent long-range numbers.

My own taste is for the nonmagnum cartridges and among these the .25-06 is my favorite for pronghorns. I use spitzer bullets weighing 117 to 120 grains and push them out the muzzle at around 3,100 fps. These shoot a little flatter than a 100-grain spitzer even though the latter leaves the muzzle faster. Then, too, I've found that the 100-grain .257-inch bullets are a bit thin-skinned for .25-06 velocities when shots at 200 yards or so are involved. Too often the 100-grain designs will go to pieces at normal ranges, doing a lot of unnecessary meat damage.

This brings us to the matter of bullet selection, an extremely important subject for pronghorn hunting. Because pronghorns are small animals, hunters too often tend toward light bullets in any caliber. This is the wrong approach, particularly where high velocity and magnum cartridges are concerned. Sure, you can send those lightweights a whizzin', but stop and think about two things. First, what's going to happen when that lightweight, thin-jacketed bullet hits a little pronghorn at 150 or 200 yards at high velocity? I'll tell you what happens--it goes to pieces! Sure, because a pronghorn is small you'll get penetration, but you'll also have bloodshot meat from the neck to the rump, rendering a lot of it inedible. Shooters of .30 caliber magnums are particularly guilty of this mistake. They'll go for a 150-grain bullet that, designed for use at .308 and .30-06 velocities, will blow a pronghorn darn near in two at 150 or 200 yards. However, a 180-grain bullet, with its heavier jacket, will expand enough to do quick-killing organ and tissue damage, yet it will hold together, most likely exiting the body, and do a minimum amount of damage to the meat. However, don't go to the real heavyweights in the magnums because they have jackets that are so tough that on a pronghorn, even at close range, expansion will be minimal or nonexistent and the bullet will punch right through like a pencil, doing little or no damage to the vital organs.

Second, lightweight bullets in any caliber may start out considerably faster than heavy ones, but because they have poorer ballistic form, or coefficients, they'll shed their velocity faster. This means that their trajectory won't be as flat as that of the heavier bullets. When you get out around that 400-yard mark, the heavier bullet, which started slower, will be traveling almost as fast as the lighter design. Of course, where long-range open-country hunting is concerned, a spitzer bullet design is the only choice. The spitzer bucks the wind better than any other and it overcomes the friction of air better, so it reaches a far off target with optimum velocity and accuracy.

Once you've decided on your cartridge for pronghorn hunting, it's time to address the matter of the rifle itself. Considering the list of cartridges that are suitable, it's obvious that all action types enter the picture--single shots, lever actions, pumps, semi-automatics and bolt actions. Which will you choose? Begin by looking at the accuracy requirements of the rifle--1-1/2 minute of angle, or approximately 1-1/2 inches at 100 yards. Everything being perfect, such a rifle will group its shots in about six inches at 400 yards. This really isn't too stringent an accuracy requirement, but you'd be surprised how many sporting rifles won't shoot this well right out of the box. Often you'll find it necessary to re-bed the barrel and action and work the trigger over to get such accuracy from a rifle, and in some cases, everything you try won't produce 1-1/2-inch groups.

Your best chance of getting the required accuracy from a sporter will be with a bolt-action rifle. The bolt is the strongest, most rigid action available. Equally important is the fact that the bolt rifle uses a one-piece stock that bolts solidly to the barreled action. The action and recoil lug can be glass bedded and the barrel can be free-floated, bedded tight or free-floated with a pressure point up near the tip of the fore-end. All of these are ways you can work with a bolt-action stock to improve the accuracy of your rifle. With no other action design do you have so many options that can influence accuracy. Then, too, bolt-action rifles are usually fit with triggers that can be adjusted or honed to produce a very good trigger pull that's a big help in shooting accurately. If the trigger isn't adjustable, it can sometimes be replaced with a custom trigger.

Next to the bolt-action rifle, the single shot is probably your best bet. While there's usually not a lot that you can do with the bedding of the action and barrel on a single shot--the stocks are of two-piece design--single-shot actions are strong and the rifles have fine triggers. Likewise, single-shot rifles are chambered for pronghorn hunting. There are shooters who criticize single-shot rifles because you have only one shot. I don't see this as a detriment on a pronghorn rifle. In fact, it may be helpful. When you know you only have one shot, with no quick follow-up, you're more inclined to take your time and make that first shot count.

Among the remaining action types--lever, slide and semi-automatic--there's not a whole lot of difference in how they perform. Those that are chambered for good pronghorn cartridges are strong, but in most instances they have poor triggers that can't be adjusted or replaced and there's no stock work you can do to make them shoot better. Still, there are lever, pump and semi-automatic centerfire rifles that shoot very well, often meeting that 1-1/2 MOA criterion. The problem is that if you buy such a rifle and it won't shoot up to snuff, there's just nothing you can do about it.

Weight is a concern in selecting a pronghorn rifle, but not as much as it might be for a rifle to be used for mule deer and elk hunting in rough canyon and mountain country. Even when you have to do a lot of walking after pronghorns, you won't find the going difficult. As long as your rifle doesn't weight over 8-1/2 or 9 pounds, you'll probably get along okay. However, the lightweight rifle craze is having an effect on pronghorn rifles just as it is on rifles for other big-game hunting. There's just something about a light rifle that attracts hunters. But with few exceptions, the lightweight designs available today are built on short actions and these can't handle the cartridges that are best for the long-range work encountered in pronghorn country. Also, most of the high velocity pronghorn cartridges, particularly the magnums, need a barrel at least 24 inches long in order to develop the optimum velocity. Long barrels just don't go hand in hand with what we've come to regard as lightweight rifles.

As I mentioned earlier, a good scope sight is a must on a pronghorn rifle. There's no way that you can shoot accurately at long range with open sights. But what magnification is best? Should you be looking at a fixed-power or a variable-power scope? There was a time when a 4X fixed power scope was the standard for big-game hunting and no one ever questioned the wisdom of this. Not so today. In open country, 6X is a better choice, offering just enough extra magnification to be helpful, yet not so much that is magnifies your normal wiggles to the point that they become unnerving.

Likewise, where fixed-power scopes were once the only thing for hunting, variable-power scopes are now pushing them for popularity. This is due in part to the fact that the variables of today are far better scopes than those we had around 10 or 15 years ago. Optically they're on a par with the best of the fixed-power designs and they provide a degree of versatility that many shooters find quite attractive. If a variable-power scope is your choice for a pronghorn rifle, one of 3-9X is probably your best bet with 2-7X running a close second. Simmons has a new 4-10X wide angle variable-power scope with an adjustable objective that may be excellent on a pronghorn rifle. Generally speaking, variable-power scopes are bulkier and weigh a little more than fixed-power designs. These are the only disadvantages I see in them.

We've discussed cartridges, actions and scope sights for pronghorn hunting, so I guess it's time to look at what I personally consider the ideal pronghorn rig. Would you believe it--I have four pronghorn rifles, all different, but each works fine for hunting pronghorns in the open plains country here in Wyoming. All four have two things in common--they're all bolt-action rifles and they're all chambered for the .25-06 Remington cartridge. Two of these are custom rifles, and two are production rifles. One custom rifle uses a Sako barreled action set in a classic stock and topped with a Redfield 3-9X Illuminator variable-power scope. The other is a Bishop Model 10 rifle which has a Mark X barreled action in a beautiful piece of American walnut crafted by Henry Pohl of Bishop Stocks. This one carries a 4X Leupold scope set in Conetrol mounts. For production pronghorn rifles I have an ancient Model 700 BDL Remington and a Browning BBR that I've just topped with the new Simmons 4-10X scope. Naturally, my pronghorn rifles are fitted with slings, making them handy not only for packing the rifles in the field, but for steadying my shooting positions.

You may not agree with my choices of pronghorn rifles, but that's fine. After all, a hunting rifle is a personal thing that reflects individual tastes. But agree or not, you'll do well to heed what's been discussed concerning cartridges, bullets, sights and accuracy. I've spent a lot of years hunting the speedy pronghorn and I know what it takes to come home time after time with a buck. During my years as a professional guide, some of my clients chose to ignore my advice about rifles and cartridges for pronghorns and more often than not their decision came back to haunt them. Remember, pronghorns live in open country, they have superb eyesight and they're the fastest animals on the North American continent. Combine these three things and you have need of an accurate, flat-shooting rifle.
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Author:Milek, Bob
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Nov 1, 1985
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