Reader Austin Knudsen writes:
Last fall, I competed in my first real 3-Gun match, the Seekins Precision 3 Gun Team M<atch at the Parma Rod and Gun Club outside Parma, Idaho. It was a two-day event, with Saturday being a team competition and Sunday being the actual sanctioned 3 Gun match. My attendance was sort of a happy accident.
I happened to be traveling to western Montana for my other job, and found out two of my buddies were traveling from Helena to Parma for this match. I was planning on being in Helena for the weekend anyway, so I sort of invited myself along.
We knew it was unlikely I’d be able to shoot in the Saturday team match, as it had been full-up for some time, but I was told that range officers were always in short supply, and that if I RO’d the Saturday match, I’d be able to shoot the individual 3 gun match on Sunday. A quick visit with match director Aaron Goodfellow (of OdinWorks fame), and I was all set.
I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with 3 Gun. I‘ve shot USPSA pistol matches off and on for the last 10 years, and had 3 Gun matches on TV. Additionally, one of my aforementioned buddies is a fairly prolific 3 gunner so once I knew I was going, I needed to decide on my kit.
Let’s be honest: 3 Gun is extremely gear-intensive. At a minimum, you need 3 firearms (that name’s not just a clever marketing ploy) to compete: a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun, and a pistol. To be fair, you could show up at a 3 gun match with a bone-stock AR-15 and a couple of magazines, a Remington 870, a GLOCK 17/insert-your-favorite-semi-auto-here with a couple of mags and a cheap belt holster, and compete. But truly competitive 3 Gun shooters are a bit like high-maintenance women: the more expensive accessories, the better. So how did I outfit myself?
My first thought was to take my Colt AR-15 and compete with it. I shoot the rifle well, have lots of magazines for it, and loads of ammo. However, I like to be a little unique, so I opted instead to take my Primary Weapons Systems Mk216, which is chambered in .308 Win/7.62X51mm, and topped with a Burris MTAC 1-4 power scope in a Burris quick detach PEPR mount. This seemed a fitting rifle for the match, as the Parma range is only a stone’s throw away from Primary Weapons System’s headquarters in Boise.
Having selected my rifle, I then needed to secure ammunition. I was advised that 500 rounds of ball (FMJ) ammo would be plenty for the weekend, so I went about rummaging through my stash. The problem came with finding ammo loaded with non-bimetal bullets. Most cheap FMJ rifle ammo doesn’t have a pure copper jacket, but actually has iron mixed with the copper (hence the term “bimetal).
The problem is that most sanctioned matches expressly forbid the use of bimetal bullets and will go so far as to test your ammo with a strong magnet. If they’re bimetal, wham-o, you’re disqualified.
Prior to the match, I discovered to my dismay that nearly all of the bulk .308 ammo I had on hand was bimetal. Luckily, an afternoon of gun shop hunting in Helena en route to Parma solved the problem and I found exactly 500 rounds of non-bi-metal ammo…enough to shoot the match.
Finally, I needed a way to tote spare rifle mags somewhere other than my rear jeans pocket. I had to scramble to come up with a spare .308 rifle magazine pouch that fit on my competition gun belt. It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but once this minor obstacle was overcome, I had the rifle portion covered.
I had the shotgun portion covered. Or so I thought. About a year ago, I happened upon a nearly new Mossberg 930 SPX tactical model equipped with a 7-round magazine, a top rail, an 18-inch fixed cylinder choke barrel, and excellent LPA ghost ring tactical sights. When I found it, I thought to myself, “Self, that would make a great 3 Gun shotgun, should you ever decide to actually shoot a 3 Gun match.” So, I bought it.
The gun cycled and functioned with low-base target loads, and shot slugs accurately, so I never gave it a second thought (be advised, you’re going to shoot both shot shells and slugs in a 3 gun match). It wasn’t until I showed up for the match that I learned I had put the wrong tool in the toolbox. More on that lesson later.
Believing I had the perfect shotgun for this game, the only thing I didn’t have was a shotgun ammunition holder for reloads. I learned there are basically two methods here: either a chest holder/vest of some sort with shotgun shell holders across it, or belt-mounted shell holders.
I owned neither, and couldn’t locate them on short notice, but I was assured that somebody on my squad would lend me some sort of shotgun reloading apparatus when I got to the match. So I left home thinking I had the shotgun portion covered, with my Mossy 930 SPX, a couple bulk boxes of Wal-Mart trap loads, and 50 rounds of low recoil slugs.
I struggled with this one a bit. While I’m a pretty fair shot with most anything that goes bang, I’m a handgunner first and foremost. As I said, I’d done some USPSA competing in the past. My first choice was to take my trustee old Kimber Series I 1911 in .45 acp that I’d used for USPSA. However, I’d talked to enough 3 gunners to have been convinced that doing so would only handicap me with frequent mag changes and all the spare mags I’d have to carry.
A high-capacity 9mm is the pistol of choice in 3 gun, so having cleared that hurdle, I felt reasonably comfortable with my choice: a recently acquired GLOCK 34 Gen 3. The gun came with a Storm Lake threaded barrel installed, which I was happy about because I shoot lots of cast bullets (you shouldn’t do that in a stock GLOCK barrel due to its polygonal rifling), and I installed a set of the excellent Warren Tactical Sevigny sights with the fiber optic front sight. I have these sights on all of my GLOCKs, and love them.
I chose this pistol or a couple reasons: 1) like the shotgun, I bought the G34 with 3 gun expressly in mind, 2) it’s a very popular 3 gun pistol choice, and 3) I happen to shoot GLOCKs well despite my best efforts. I went kicking and screaming into the GLOCK camp. I’ve been shooting handguns since I was a teenager and had always sworn I’d never own a GLOCK. I now own a number of them and my G19 is one gun I truly trust with my life. That’s what I get for swearing.
Anyway, a brace of magazines – three factory and three new MagPul mags- and an ammo can full of 9mm 115 grain FMJ reloads, and I was set in the pistol department.
You obviously need 3 guns to compete in a 3 Gun match, but that isn’t all. You also need a way to carry certain gear on your person. I say certain, because in most stages, you won’t have to sling and carry your rifle and/or shotgun while moving and shooting. They’re usually staged for you at a certain location on the stage. You frequently run to (or start at) a spot, grab your rifle/shotgun, charge it, engage targets, and then put your long gun down before you move on.
However, your pistol, spare pistol magazines, rifle magazines, and spare shotgun shells are going to be on your person. A competition belt with a holster and magazine carriers (and possibly shotgun shell holders, depending on how you want to carry spare shotshells) is a must.
It’s possible to spend as much money here as it would cost you purchase one (or two) of your competition guns. However, it can be done on a budget. I know, because I did it.
I bought a $20 Uncle Mikes nylon duty belt, a $25 BlackHawk Serpa hoster, two $15 BlackHawk double spare magazine holders, and two $25 nylon rifle mag pouches. So for just over a hundred bucks I ended up with a very functional competition belt that allowed me to carry my roscoe and enough extra mags to compete.
If I could recommend one thing to shooters interested in 3 Gun, it would be this: go watch a match first. Better yet, serve as a range officer for a match if you have the ability. As RO for a stage in the Saturday team match, I didn’t pull a trigger all day. What I did get to do is spend the day closely watching 3 Gunners of all abilities — beginner to sponsored expert — shoot the same stage.
I saw what worked and what didn’t; the brilliance, the mistakes, the differing strategies. It was the absolute best 3 Gun education I could have asked for.
Best of all, the shooters were all pleasant. I’ve RO’d a couple shooting matches in the past, and inevitably, you get one or two shooters who are absolute a-holes. They’ll stand and argue with you over whether or not that bullet hole is really cutting the A-zone line or not, tell you how crappy your gear is, and just generally be miserable people to be around (my USPSA experience has not always been positive). At this match, however, I was pleasantly surprised to spend the day with, to a person, pleasant, enjoyable shooters who didn’t bitch every chance they got.
So what did I learn spending a full day as a stage range officer, and then getting to actually compete the following day?
Lesson 1: Be Safe
As with all firearms-related activities, safety must is always first and foremost. About 15 years ago, I was a pretty active long range black powder buffalo rifle competitor. Al Lee of Forsyth, Montana puts on one of the biggest long range buffalo rifle matches in the world, the Quigley Shoot. With 500+ shooters from around the world attending, Al used to admonish the shooters every morning: “one firearms accident will kill this event.”
The same warning applies to any shooting event. Just think of what one injury or death from a negligent discharge at a shooting competition would do to our sport and our cause. Don’t be the guy/gal who causes one. Anti-gunners want nothing more than to portray us all as mouth-breathing, reckless, Rambo wannabes. As competitive shooters, we have a responsibility to practice rigorous gun safety and to show complete professionalism while doing so.
As a new 3 Gun shooter at your first match, this isn’t difficult. Strictly obey the 4 Rules of Gun Safety. Because it’s your first match, go slow. Don’t try to keep up with the pros your first time out. There’s lots of movement involved (running, crouching, etc.) and weapons manipulation in a 3 Gun match. As you’re moving, remember: you have a live weapon in your hands. Keep your finger off the trigger and the weapon pointed downrange at all times.
Honestly, if you show up to shoot a 3 Gun match, everyone there assumes you are gun savvy enough to be safe. Don’t be the guy/gal who isn’t. As unfailingly nice as most competitors are, a safety violation will make things unfriendly in a hurry.
Listen to the range officers. If you don’t know, ask. Only load your guns in the designated loading areas at each stage as directed by the range officer. When you’re finished shooting the stage, clear your firearm completely and show the range officer that it’s empty.
Lesson 2: Practice with your shotgun
3 Gun matches are won and lost with the shotgun. After watching for an entire day and shooting the next day, there is no question in my mind that this is true. Those who can run their shotgun well, reload it quickly, and shoot it accurately finish in the top or near it.
Most of the stages at this match had lots of shotgun targets. Some of them were easy, big steel targets at 10 yards or closer, but sometimes there were 13 of them (or more) at a time. That meant shooting the gun dry, then reloading — quickly, ideally — to engage the rest of the targets.
And then there are the slug targets. Slug targets are shot at longer distances, in some cases past 50 yards, and actually require you to aim your shotgun and shoot it like a rifle. Some stages may have both close-range shot shell targets and long-range slug targets. That means you have to carry two different types of ammo, and you’d better be sure which type you’re loading and shooting at which target. Try shooting a slug target at 60 yards with a low-base trap load, and everyone will be laughing at you. Worse, if you shoot a steel target at 10 yards with a slug, you piss off a lot of people and get yourself disqualified.
Reloading the shotgun is absolutely critical if you’re going to be competitive. I hadn’t practiced reloading mine at all, so when it came time for me to actually run my shotgun during the Sunday match, I ended up not finishing the first stage because I couldn’t get my gun reloaded fast enough to finish all the shotgun targets. If you want to see how to reload a 3 Gun shotgun, go over to YouTube and search “John McClain shotgun.” You’ll get a good lesson on how the 3 Gun pros do it. It’s staggering.
Lesson 3: Have the right equipment
My rifle and my pistol were both well-suited to the match. None of the rifle targets exceeded 200 yards, and with a 4 power scope and an excellent trigger, my PWS .308 had no trouble with the rifle targets (except when my rifle jammed because I hadn’t cleaned it in…a while).
The GLOCK 34 is probably the most commonly seen pistol in 3 Gun, and for good reason: they work. This is helpful, because if you run out of loaded magazines on a stage, odds are someone on your squad can hand you one off of their belt. My G34’s longer sight radius, factory competition trigger connector, excellent aftermarket sights, (not to mention a lot of practice on my part) made the pistol portions pretty straightforward and uneventful.
The shotgun, unfortunately, was a different story. It became obvious very quickly that I had the wrong tool for the job. I learned that 3 Gun competitors don’t use short-barreled, fixed choke “tactical” shotguns. They use long-barreled competition shotguns with extended magazines, modified loading ports, and, more importantly, interchangeable chokes. This last point was driven home for me during the individual match, where I encountered a stage that required shooters to knock over 8 six-inch diameter steel pipes, each roughly 15 inches long, standing on their ends, like this:
This sounds easy, but these were heavy gauge steel pipes, and at 20 yards, my fixed cylinder choke gun was unable to knock them over because produced too wide a pattern. Perhaps if I’d been shooting heavier shot, that might have made a difference.
The experienced competitors had all inserted tighter choke tubes in their guns for this stage, and had no problem easily knocking all of these pipes over. I ended up knocking over exactly zero of the seven pipes, and had to move on to the rifle portion of that stage before I ran out of time.
So knowing and having the right equipment is imperative. My 930 SPX tactical has since been replaced with a Mossberg 930 Rhythm. It has the same proven 930 action, but a longer barrel, an extended 12-round magazine, and interchangeable choke tubes.
Lesson 4: Shoot the Spinner First
For those of you who don’t know what a spinner is, allow me to introduce you:
This, my friends, is the MGM Targets spinner. This piece of malevolent genius will make you its bitch. For scale, the spinner stands roughly five feet tall, with a 10” bottom target and an 8” top target. It’s made of AR-500 steel, which means it can take just about any kind of punishment you can dish out (with some limitations). The point of this target is to get it to spin completely around on its axis. Sounds easy, right?
At the Seekins Precision match, this target was used on every single stage. Whether for pistol at 15 yards or for rifle at 100 yards, the spinner is very adept at making otherwise good shooters look foolish.
Shooting this target is all about timing and accuracy. The bottom target is larger and heavier than the top target, so typically the bottom target is shot first, causing it to travel backwards and top target to travel forward on the center pivot. The shooter must then transition to the top target, and shoot it at the right time, which is when it has stopped moving forward and started its trip backwards.
If you can pull this off, you’ve caused the spinner to get a little more momentum going, you must transition back to the bottom target and shoot it at the correct time to drive it backward again and continue the back-and-forth “see-saw” motion. Keep transitioning from the top target to the bottom target and back, scoring hits each time. Time it right, hitting each time and you eventually cause the spinner to gain enough momentum to successfully spin it all the way around on its axis, and you can move on to other targets.
Screw up your timing and shoot the top or bottom target at the wrong time and you’ve now killed all momentum the target has and you have to start all over again.
Some of the really good shooters are able to get multiple hits on each target, thereby creating more momentum and driving the spinner over center faster. Caliber also makes a difference here. Obviously, shooting it with a .308 creates more momentum and drives the targets over center faster than a .223.
On one of the stages, the rifle portion consisted of a spinner at 100 yards. I was able to drive it over center quickly with three shots of .308 and transition to other targets. The folks shooting .223 took more shots and hence more time to spin it. The same holds true with pistols. The weight and momentum of a .45 acp is going to drive the spinner over center faster and with fewer shots than a 9mm will.
Of course, you don’t have to shoot the spinner target on each stage. Each shooter has the discretion (generally) to game plan the stage and choose which targets to shoot or not. Also, sometimes time constraints on a given stage may dictate that you leave targets in order to complete the stage.
At the Seekins Precision match, though, it cost you to not spin the Spinner. On every stage with a spinner, there was a 90 second penalty for failure to spin the spinner. So it pays to know this target and how to engage it. For my part, I purchased a spinner from MGM Targets (along with several other MGM targets) a couple years ago and practice with it pretty regularly in my yard, so I was somewhat prepared. However, I’ve seen plenty of shooters struggle with this target, and I watched some pretty good shooters take 90-second penalties at the Seekins Precision match.
Lesson 5: Have a Good Attitude
Be honest with yourself going into your first 3 Gun match. And be humble. You aren’t going to show up and win. There are shooters there who have been doing this a lot longer than you, and who are better at this game than you are. You’re there to learn the sport, be safe, and have fun. If you go in with that attitude, I guarantee you’ll have a great time and meet some great people.
When I first started shooting USPSA matches, I was immediately turned off by how rude and clique-ish some of the older shooters were to me and other noobs, especially during matches. As a result, that’s what I expected at my first 3-Gun match. But that absolutely was not the case at the Seekins Precision match.
I was amazed at how helpful and friendly everyone was, to a person. Don’t have a way to tote spare shotgun shells, noob? Here, use my shotgun shell vest. Not sure how to tackle this stage? Let me tell you how I did it. Don’t like having to reload your shotgun? Here, run this stage with my $3000 custom Benelli with an X-Rail magazine on it (yes, that happened to me, and yes it was awesome. Thanks, Rob). Maybe I’m beating a dead horse here, but I think a good attitude is the most essential element for a 3 Gun newcomer.
3 Gun is an exciting, fun shooting game that combines several different shooting disciplines into one. It’s also very equipment-intensive, and requires a willingness to learn. That said, the people are great, the stages are fun and challenging, and the game will make you a better shooter.
Show up, listen, learn, most importantly be safe and be a good sport. You’ll make new friends, get invited back, and just maybe, you’ll end up like me: deciding to get your wife into 3 Gun too…which means buying an entire gear setup for her and signing the both of you up for the next 3 Gun match on the calendar.