Prairie Rat Field Fest

It isn’t often that one has the opportunity to test three new rifles, two new cartridges, several new loadings and a new optic all on the same outing. Such was the case this past June when Savage and Hornady teamed-up to organize a prairie rat shoot with Heart Spear Outfitters based in Casper, Wyoming.

Though there’s a lot of shooting, 90 percent of the time on a rat town is spent glassing.

Heart Spear is a father/son operation headed up by Kody Glause. With help from his dad, Kelly, the two conduct only a few such shoots per year from about the first of June through July. For the rest of the year, Kody outfits for whitetail and mule deer, pronghorn, elk, black bear, mountain lion and coyote. In other words, he’s pretty busy!

By the way, I choose to use the term “rat” because that’s what they are: rodents, and very destructive rodents at that, to say nothing of the fact they also carry Bubonic plague. They simply do not deserve to share the same name we ascribe to man’s best friend!

The new models Savage provided consisted of the Model 110 Prairie Hunter (very appropriate) chambered in 224 Valkyrie; the A17 semi-auto rimfire in 17 Hornady Mach 2; and the MSR-10 Precision Rifle in 6mm Creedmoor. Adding to those, Jason Hornady, Steve’s son and corporate VP, brought another  A17 Mach 2, but this one was fitted with a suppressor, and a Model 12 LRPV, Savage’s heavy-barreled single-shot tack-driver featuring a right-hand bolt, left hand port in .223 Rem.

If that weren’t enough, Neal Emery, Hornady’s Communications Manager and the guy most instrumental in the development of the 6 and 6.5 Creedmoors; the 17 HMR and 17 Mach 2 rimfires; the 6.5 PRC; and the Ruger, TC and Marlin family of cartridges to name some, brought his custom-build AR chambered for Hornady’s new .300 PRC (Precision Rifle Cartridge). This particular build consisted of a Gunwerks GRB bolt-action, a Proof Research carbon-wrapped barrel in an Accuracy International chassis.

We used this gun to shoot 1,500 yards and beyond, using a super sleek pre-production 250-grain load. Already in production are a 212-grain ELD-X in the Precision Hunter line, and a 225-grain ELD-Match load. This may well prove to be the best .30 yet for both long range competition and hunting, even though it is not the fastest.

Savage A17

The A17 can be reduced to the degree shown here without tools. Note the door latch-like lug.

Of all the cool guns we had at our disposal, Savage’s A17 semi-auto chambered for the tiny 17 Mach 2 was the most interesting. The original A17 was introduced in 2016 and was designed around the 17 HMR (Hornady Magnum Rimfire), a cartridge that was introduced in 2002.

Why did it take 14 years? Well, the 17 HMR presented a special set of problems for manufacturers of existing semi-auto .22s. You see, conventional .22 rimfires employ straight blow-back actions, which means there is no locking system per se. The combined mass of the bolt and the spring(s) that power it provide enough resistance to delay the rearward movement of the bolt long enough for the bullet to exit the barrel and pressure to drop.

But there’s a limit to the pressures that can be handled by a straight blow-back design, to the point where existing semi-autos — even the few chambered for the .22 WMR — were problematical with the .17 HMR. Though the HMR generates just 2,000 psi more than the .22 LR or .22 Magnum, its 15 to 20-grain bullet range presents half the mass (resistance) of a 40-grain .22 cal. bullet. The higher operating pressure, plus the higher bolt thrust and bolt velocity, were simply too much for existing blowback actions to handle.

Without going too deeply into the weeds here, what was needed was a totally new action, one that provided more time between ignition and bolt movement. There are several ways to achieve what is known as a delayed blowback action, but the end result is that the bolt stays closed a few milliseconds longer before it begins its rearward movement.

The A17 employs a system similar to a door latch, but in reverse. A spring-loaded lug (Savage calls it an “interrupter lug”) at the top of the bolt juts upward to engage a recess in the top of the receiver. The bearing surfaces are angled so that before the bolt can open, the rearward force exerted on it cams the lug downward out of engagement, allowing the bolt to open. It’s a simple concept, but the pressure parameters and timing involved for reliable functioning are not so simple.

With Savage having solved the problem with the A17 three years ago, it was easy to make whatever design changes were needed to adapt it to the Mach 2. We were using Hornady’s 17-grain V-Max loading that exits at 2,100 fps. It was quite effective out to 150 yards or so, though some kills were out to 250. As one can imagine, even a solid hit with the tiny 17-grain bullet didn’t produce the flying Wallenda effect  we got with the Valkyrie; they simply rolled over.

What was really fun was Jason Hornady’s suppressed A17. I’m not sure which causes these rodents to stay in their holes more — the proximity of man and machine or gunfire — but if it’s the latter, they would hate a suppressed 17 Mach 2! The thing sounds no louder than corn popping, and on clean misses they stay up and give you a second, third or more tries at them.

Jason Hornady and Neal Emery

Jason Hornady shooting his suppressed Savage A17; its report is about like that of popping corn!

I’d like to mention that in addition to the neat guns he brought, Jason also brought his teenage son, Alex. By so doing it made me the only writer, or for that matter, perhaps the only person, to have hunted with four generations of Hornady.

As for the new optic I alluded to earlier, it was Bushnell’s new Engage 1300/1700 LRF dedicated laser rangefinder, and it proved to be the best of its type that I’ve tested. Among the current crop of similar units — and there are many — I’ve found all of them to be quite accurate, at least when I had measured distances against which to compare. But on the prairie you have no such luxury. All I can tell you is that on sharply defined targets such as boulders, bushes or the bare earth patches surrounding rat burrows, the readings were repeatable within a yard or two, no matter how many readings I took. What really made this LR stand out, however, was the clarity of the image. If you’ve ever used any of the many such units on the market, you know they all have a relatively dark, grainy image, and in the low light of dawn and dusk when game is most active, they leave something to be desired. This unit is about as clear and bright as a 6x monocular.

If you’ve never done it or have a chance to experience a prairie rat shoot, by all means do it. Not only is it a highly social event — it’s almost as much fun spotting for someone else and calling their hits and misses — but it’s also a crash course in long-range shooting. You’ll get to know what a rifle can do, what a cartridge and load can do, and what you can do. As the day wears on, you’ll find your first-shot hits increase significantly, and your misses are closer. And that’s on targets that at most are 10 inches high and four inches wide. And the majority of your targets are the young pups born just weeks before that are half that size. It’s quite challenging, especially in the wind, which blows almost incessantly on the prairie. It’s not uncommon to be holding 10 inches into the wind on a 250-yard shot. It’s a real education and about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on!–Jon R. Sundra

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