Competition Shooting 101: 3-Gun

Shooting sports are once again gaining popularity in the United States and abroad, but the games aren’t the same “gentlemanly” ones that your grandfather played. There was a time when “shooting competition” meant firing at targets from a fixed position at your own pace, but in the last few decades they have evolved by leaps and bounds to become complicated adrenaline-fueled drag races full of challenging obstacles and difficult shots that test a shooter’s ability like nothing else can. The best part is that you don’t really need any special equipment to start and anyone can play, and the best in the business typically seem to be “well endowed” (fat) instead of remarkably fit. As the resident competition shooter on staff I have taken it upon myself to write a series of articles explaining the more popular shooting competition styles, the various rules, and how to get started. We begin with the current king of competition shooting: 3-Gun.

What, exactly, is 3-gun?

3-gun is as close to a real-life first person shooter video game as you’ll get without joining the military. But you really need to see an example to understand. Here’s a video from one of my friends (SinistralRifleman) shooting a stage from the 2009 Ironman competition (he came in 17th out of 140 overall, 1st in his division).

3-gun gets its name from the fact that you use three different types of firearms over the course of the competition: a shotgun, a rifle, and a pistol. You score points by hitting designated targets, which include clay pigeons, cardboard silhouettes, steel targets of varying sizes, and anything else the Range Officer designates as a target (my latest competition included an entire stage of Hug juice bottles).

Competitors lose points for hitting “no shoot” targets (hostages, friendlies, etc) or skipping targets / obstacles. Their score is augmented by the time it takes to complete the course of fire. The person with the combination of fastest time and best accuracy wins. More about scoring later.

What do you need to compete?

The basic materials are pretty simple and fairly cheap; a complete competitive 3-gun setup can be yours for less than $1,000. All you really need is a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun (pump or semi-auto) and a pistol (semi-auto or revolver). Competitions differ on the the specific competition minimum caliber for each weapon. Generally, any rifle over 5.45×39 is in, any shotgun with 20ga or larger will work, and a 9mm or larger pistol is good to go.

Unfortunately, the more you get into this sport the more your wallet will hate you. This is my setup for Tactical division (more on divisions in a bit). You’re looking at a bit over $4,000 worth of guns (not including magazines and holsters). Every tweak I’ve made to the basic set-up is down to a lesson I learned on the course. There’s no substitute for training and practice, but when seconds count every bit helps.

You’re also going to need magazines for your rifle, pistol (if semi-auto) and possibly your shotgun (if you run a Saiga). Make sure that you have some quality magazines; mid-stage stoppages can be embarrassing and cost you precious seconds. I’ve had a magazine (Magpul PMAG) fail just as I was pulling it out of my pocket to charge my rifle before starting a stage, vomiting live ammo all over the ground.

In addition to the guns (and magazines to feed those guns), you’re going to need a way to carry everything through the stage. 3-gun is all about moving and shooting. The ability to carry all of your spare magazines while still having easy access is critical. There are two schools of thought when it comes to gear, either the “belt” or the “chest rig” solution. Chest rigs are relatively cheap and have all the pockets you need, but can be constricting and limiting when moving around. I opted for the belt solution.

On my left are my magazines, three pistol and two rifles. I’ve never needed more than two spare pistol magazines and one spare rifle magazine on any given stage, but having the extra is comforting. The screws on the rifle magazine holsters allow for the tension to be adjusted so that they are snug enough to retain the magazine but loose enough to be able to be pulled out in a hurry.

On my right is my pistol holster and shotgun ammo pouch. I used to use a SERPA holster (pictured) but ever since one of my classmates had an ND with one at a pistol course I’ve switched to the Safariland ALS. Keep in mind when choosing a pistol holster that the entire trigger guard needs to be covered, and it needs to retain your gun through some strenuous activity. Dropped guns during a stage earn you an immediate disqualification from the competition, so holsters with “retention” (some physical device that keeps the gun holstered) are strongly recommended if not downright required equipment.

You’ll see a lot of people rocking the fancy shotgun ammo holsters, but I thought they were a pain to wear and didn’t provide enough of a time benefit for the steep price. Instead, I use a “dump pouch” for my shotgun ammo. At first I had it positioned behind my pistol, but that took too long reaching around my back for ammo to reload. Moving it forward has saved a lot of time.

My friend Nate, being a poor college student, opted for the cheapo belt solution. Using some cheap airsoft-grade pouches he picked up from the local Army Navy store he put a very nice rig together for less than it cost me to buy a single magazine holster.

What about these divisions?

To keep things fair, competitors are divided into different divisions based on their equipment choices. For example, someone with a gigantic scope on their rifle (like me) wouldn’t be in direct competition with someone using iron sights (like Nate) because we run in different divisions.

The definitions of the divisions vary based on the specific match, but the basics remain the same. All divisions allow a compensator no larger than 1 inch by 3 inches on the rifle, and all but Trooper division require the same configuration and the same weapons to be used throughout the competition.

  • Limited – This is the “entry level” division due to the light equipment requirements. It’s also one of the more fun divisions to run in. You are allowed one unmagnified optic on the rifle (iron sights or red dot), and no bipods. No porting or optics on the shotgun. It can be semi-auto or pump, 8+1 rounds maximum, but no detachable magazines. Also, the shotgun can’t be loaded using speedloaders during the stage, each round of ammo must be loaded by hand into the magazine. Handgun also must have no porting or optics, and a magazine length of 141.25mm maximum.
  • Tactical – This is the most popular division among 3-gun competitors; here’s where you’ll find the stiffest competition. The only difference from the Limited division: the optic on the rifle may be magnified.
  • Heavy Metal – Also known as the HeMan division. Competitors here have a larger minimum caliber than the other divisions. The rifle must be 7.62×51 or larger with iron sights only, the shotgun must be a 12ga pump with irons and no porting, and the handgun must be 45ACP or larger with no optics or porting only. There is a “tactical” variant of this division offered that allows one magnified optic on the rifle. Check with your match director to see which rules apply.
  • Open – The “anything goes” division. Well, almost. Handgun magazines must be 171.25mm or less in length. This division also allows speedloaders for the shotguns during stages. Speedloaders are specially designed tubes that slot into the receiver and load multiple rounds in a single pass, cutting down on shotgun reload times. However, most match directors still don’t like Saiga shotguns and ban them from this division, moving them into…
  • Outlaw Open – Everything really DOES go in this division. As long as it’s safe, that is.
  • Trooper – Some competitors use a wagon or golf cart to tote all of their gear between stages, including extra ammo, sun chair, complete wet bar with bartender, hot dog cart and internet café. Trooper Division was created for the more “hardcore” competitors who think wagons are a sign of weakness. Trooper division competitors must carry everything they need for the competition on their person (in a backpack or in their hands) between stages in one trip, including guns, ammo, food and a minimum of 1 liter of water. Trooper division competitors cannot use anything they don’t bring (even lunch), and anything they don’t take in the first trip from stage to stage is banned from use. During multiple day competitions, Trooper division shooters will have their gear stored at the range to ensure nothing is added during the night. For their trouble, troopers can change the configuration of their rifles, use as many optics and different rifles as they see fit, and use a “pistol caliber personal defense weapon” in place of their pistol. This division isn’t recognized at all matches, check with the match director for specifics.

How does scoring work?

As stated above, scoring is always some combination of time and accuracy, with deductions for “procedurals” (shooting a hostage). Paper targets are almost always a standard IPSC/USPSA target, which has different scoring “zones” that count as different point values, “A” hits being worth the most and “D” hits worth the least.

Scoring values are sometimes altered to account for different calibers, making sure that someone using firearms that have a lot of recoil and are harder to control aren’t unfairly disadvantaged compared to competitors using smaller, easier to control calibers. Firearms with a lot of recoil are scored as “Major” and firearms with little recoil are scored “Minor.”

Most 3-gun matches just score everything as “Major” to make calculating scores easier, as the divisions tend to keep things fair enough on their own. The larger matches (especially those with cash prizes) might implement the major/minor scoring system. Basic rule of thumb: .223/9mm is minor, .308/45acp is major.

In addition to paper targets, the course may use other targets like steel and clay pigeons. Typically, a broken clay pigeon or a fallen steel target counts as equivalent to one “A” hit on the IPSC target. Some stages may also institute a “par time” to keep the competition moving, meaning the total time is capped at an upper limit (usually 2 minutes).

Scoring usually follows one of four schemes:

  • Comstock – Total up the points from hits on targets, subtract any procedurals, and divide it by the time taken. This results in a “hit factor,” and the competitor with the highest hit factor wins. This is the most common scoring method.
  • Virginia Count – The same as Comstock but the total number of rounds fired is capped, meaning any misses cannot be made up with a follow-up shot.
  • Fixed Time – The same as Comstock, but the total time for the stage is fixed. Faster runs mean you just sit there doing nothing longer.
  • Time Plus –Time plus penalties for “bad” shots. “A” hits add no time, but “B” through “D” adds a second or more. Unlimited time and unlimited rounds.

The final score can either be the sum of the raw scores or some function of how well each competitor did on a given stage. For example, first place in the stage (based on raw score) gets 100 points, and each competitor after them gets a percentage of 100 points based on how well they did compared to first place. This means that a competitor who did well on every stage but absolutely bombed the last stage can still win.

How do the stages typically work?

Typically ROs will hold your hand through a walkthrough of the stage before you shoot it, explain it, and ask for any questions. If you have any questions whatsoever ask, but you can really ask the RO anything at any time.

The procedure for shooting a stage is pretty rigid. All guns must be unloaded at all times unless under the direction of a Range Officer (RO). When it’s your turn to run a stage, the RO will have you step onto the firing line and, when he gives you the OK, load your weapons.

All weapons need to be pointed in a safe direction at all times (as I’m sure you’re all aware and do anyway), but as soon as you load that weapon, the “floating 180” rule goes into effect. In the most basic terms this just means “don’t turn around with a loaded gun,” your weapons should always be pointed away from the other shooters or RO behind you.

This is a stage I shot this past weekend where the shooter moves down a long corridor and engages targets to either side. The “floating 180” rule means that as I’m running this course of fire I cannot turn past 90 degrees on either side to engage the targets. Instead, I must move backwards, gun pointed downrange, until the targets are past the line. Pay close attention to this, as any violation will get you disqualified.

After you load, the RO will ask you if you understand the course of fire. This is your last chance to ask a question before starting a stage, so if you have any doubts ask now.

The RO will then ask “shooter ready?” This isn’t so much a question as a statement, shouted loudly so that those without ear protection on can quickly grab some before things get loud. If you actually have an issue or need to check something, tell the RO and do it because this is your last chance to do that.

The RO will then shout “STANDBY!” This is it. The RO will wait a random amount of time (up to 3 seconds) before setting off the buzzer, which is the start signal.

Here’s a video of me running Stage 5 of the 2011 FNH 3-Gun Championships where you can hear the RO go through all the various commands to start a stage.

After you finish the stage, keep your gun pointed downrange. Unless the stage has a par time or other fixed time limit, the RO will never stop you. You can shoot as much as you want for as long as you want, missing as many targets as you please. This is why the RO will then tell you that “if you’re finished you may unload and show clear.” The RO is referring only to the weapon you have in your hand at this point, any other weapons he will direct you to unload separately.

Drop the magazine, empty the chamber, and show the empty chamber to the RO. For pistols, the RO will say “slide forward, hammer down and holster.” Even if you have a Glock or other striker fired pistol, let the slide go home, pull the trigger with the gun pointed in a safe direction, and place it in your holster.

How do I prepare for my first 3-gun?

First, get your fat ass in shape.

This is SinistralRifleman preparing for the competitions this year. He goes a little hardcore, but what can you expect from a man who won the Ironman competition?

The typical American shooter is very good at standing still and shooting, but what happens when you raise your heart rate? Next time you’re at the range, do a few jumping jacks before picking up your rifle and watch that red dot dance. Do some cardio, and practice shooting with a pounding heart rate.

And practice. Practice, practice, practice. There is no auto-aim hack for real life. Good fundamental marksmanship when there is no pressure will translate to good “muscle memory” when the buzzer goes off and you can’t think straight.

How do I find matches near me?

This is probably the hardest part of going to your first 3-gun. The best place to find matches is Brian Enos’ forum, but local clubs around you may have better information. There’s no centralized calendar for 3-gun matches, so it’s going to take some time to figure out.

Is it worth it?

Oh hell yes. The people are awesome and friendly, the courses of fire are challenging, and it gives you an excuse to buy all the “tactical” accessories your heart desires.

Next time, NRA High Power.