For much of the Western United States, pronghorn antelope season is right around the corner. With their wary nature and excellent eyesight, hunting pronghorns requires a degree of stealth and "ninjary" plus the skill set to shoot out to extended distances. Long-range shooters and precision rifle competitors thrive in the field against these fast animals, and the skills found in these disciplines directly translate into the field when pursuing this game.
New Mexico is home to world-class antelope, and I had the fortune of growing up on a ranch in the Central Highlands of New Mexico. The Central Highlands are prime territory for pronghorn antelope, and I have spent years guiding the antelope hunts on our ranch. Here are some tips for a successful antelope hunt.
Fun facts about pronghorn antelope: Pronghorn antelope, Antilocapra americana, is the second fastest land mammal in the world. Often referred to as “speed goats”, pronghorn antelope are actually genetically closer to the giraffe family.
SQUARE AWAY YOUR RIFLE
When it comes to hunting, especially backcountry hunts, leave nothing to chance when it comes to your rifle system. There is nothing worse than being miles away from your vehicle and having equipment failure. Before you go on your hunt, make sure your action screws, scope base, scope rings are torqued to the proper specification and check your rifles zero. If you use a smartphone or Kestrel anemometer as a ballistic solver, make sure that you have enough batteries to power your device. Print up and laminate a small paper dope card in case your technology fails, and carry a small tool kit.
Something to consider when selecting your hunting rifle is weight. If you are using mobility platforms like trucks, SUVs, ATVs, OHVs, or even horses, you can carry whatever you want regardless of weight. For example, if you drew an antelope tag, and the only rifle you have is your 20lb competition rifle, take it! If, however, you will be primarily hunting on foot, consider a rifle in the 6-10 lb range with a quality optic.
SELECT THE RIGHT CALIBER
This is the part of the article where we get into the dreaded caliber debate. What I will write is anecdotal and based on my observations and numerous conversations with other guides. When it comes to picking a caliber for hunting antelope, I like 25 caliber and above. The 6.5s do wonders on antelope, as do .270, .280, and 30 calibers. Antelope are not dainty little creatures but tough animals who live in a harsh environment. As a rule, I treat antelope like deer and usually want to transfer at least 1,000 ft/lbs of energy into the animal.
What about 6mm/.243? The 6mm round dominates the precision rifle competition field but may not be suitable for hunting antelope. For years, 6mm/.243 was billed as the perfect antelope cartridge. Still, in my experience, the rounds either make an absolute mess of the animal if shot up close or pass through while causing minor terminal damage. In 15 years of guiding, the only antelope that I have had to track was shot by 6 mm/.243 bullets. I know shot placement is key, but sometimes you don't get a perfect broadside shot, or you have a wounded animal that needs a follow-up shot before it jumps into the neighboring ranch. We strongly discourage the cartridge at the ranch unless the client is a master at reloading or a legit precision rifle shooter who can perform on-demand. If you hunt with 6mm/.243 and it works for you, rock on!
Something to think about when selecting a cartridge: the Western United States where antelope live is a patchwork of private and public land. If you shoot an antelope, you want it to drop where it stands, not have it run onto an adjacent ranch where you may or may not be able to follow the animal. If you can get permission to follow the animal, the meat may be spoiled or partially eaten by coyotes or other predators.
The beauty of antelope hunting is you can make the hunt as hard or as easy as you want. Want an easy hunt? Use mobility platforms like vehicles to drive around your hunting area and glass for antelope. Once you spot an antelope, get into position and take your shot. Want a challenging hunt? Skip the vehicles, put a ruck on your back and start walking. Get as close as you can, then take your shot.
Regardless of your hunting style, specific skill sets are mandatory, like quickly building a stable shooting position, getting the range to your target, manipulating your scope, then executing the fundamentals of marksmanship. To become truly proficient will require lots of training and repetition. If you are a brand new shooter interested in semi-long range hunting or precision rifle in general, use Google to find a precision rifle instructor in your area or find online training like Modern Day Sniper.
Tip: Make sure you can hit a 10-inch target out to 600 yards, on-demand, prone off a bipod or ruck, and standing and kneeling with the help of a tripod. If you can do this, you will have no problems harvesting an animal on game day. Modern cartridges and quality rifles, regardless of barrel size and contour, should be able to hit a 10-inch target at 600 yards.
Once you have a solid understanding of rifle marksmanship and have shot out to distance, hold yourself accountable via a timer or competition. PRS style matches, whether local or part of a major league, is a great way to test your skill set. These competitions will allow you to acquire targets quickly, use your ballistic data, run your gear, all while under stress. If you don't have a match in your area, get all of your hunting friends together, build a course of fire, and hold a friendly competition out to 600 yards.
GET COMFORTABLE USING A TRIPOD
Tripods are an invaluable tool because they allow you to build a stable position and raise your profile over natural terrain, prairie grasses, and sagebrush. A tripod not only holds your rifle but can also be used in conjunction with spotting scopes, binoculars, and range finders. Tripods are not necessarily intuitive when it comes to shooting, but many online resources demonstrate the proper use of a tripod. Incorporate tripods into your training, and make sure to hold yourself accountable when preparing for your hunt by friendly competition or the use of a timer.