At the overwhelming majority of shooting competitions, you will never see a truly slung rifle. Slings are commonly used for precision long-range shooting competitions, but seeing a 3-gun stage where the start position is with a slung rifle and your hands elsewhere is exceptionally rare. Still, at the 2013 FNH USA 3-Gun Championship there were a couple stages that had that exact start position, and it was just my luck that I was the one holding the timer when things went all pear shaped . . .

FNH USA is the title sponsor of the match, so all of the Team FNH USA members (including scribes shoehorned onto the team) work the match and help out wherever they’re needed. We float from stage to stage, filling in for tired range officers when they need a rest or helping reset the stage for longer courses of fire. I was giving the RO a break on stage nine and running the next squad through when the incident happened.

The stage is set up such that the shooter starts on one side of a long table just outside the shooting area. The shooter’s hands are on a plastic knife which is positioned above a dummy as if about to stab them in the chest with a slung and completely empty rifle (no magazine, empty chamber). On the start signal the shooter drops the knife, enters the shooting area, loads the rifle and proceeds with the stage. The range officers had all positioned themselves on the other side of the table facing the shooter for the start. That gave them a better view of the guns and kept them out of the way of the shooter in the cramped starting area.

I had just finished running the Miculek clan through the stage when the shooter in question stepped to the line. We staged his guns, slung his rifle and prepared to start the stage like everyone else. As soon as I touched the buzzer, he started moving. And in a flurry of motion, somehow the butt of his rifle slammed into the ground.

I can remember the image in my mind as clear as day. He was bent over as if he’d just tripped over the wooden stake that represented the fault line for the stage (you need to go over it to enter the shooting area and begin the stage). In his right hand, he was holding onto the rifle’s sling and the muzzle was pointed safely downrange. At no point did that muzzle even come close to the 180 line. But the butt end of his rifle very clearly and audibly hit the ground.

No two 3-gun competition’s rule books are the same. They all follow the same general outlines, but there are always deviations and quirks from match to match. The one constant rule, however, is that anyone who drops a gun during a course of fire — loaded or unloaded — is instantly disqualified. It’s a safety issue since the shooter no longer has control of the gun and it could potentially fire and injure someone (especially with the 1/2 pound triggers some guys are using). Besides, a shooter who has proven themselves to be unsafe with a firearm needs to be sent home, if only for liability reasons.

So there I was; a firearm was on the ground as a result of what appeared to be a slip or trip on the part of the shooter. Yet the shooter’s hands never left the sling, and the muzzle didn’t break the 180 line. You could hear a goddamned pin drop at that point on the stage.

My very first reaction was that he was OK to continue the stage. In the split second I had to make my decision I saw a hand on the gun, that he had been in continuous physical possession of the firearm and the gun was pointed in a safe direction. To my mind, it was no different than when Team FNH’s Larry Houck took a tumble at the Crimson Trace 3-Gun and face-planted into the dirt with his handgun, got up, and continued the stage. He never “dropped” the gun.

As the shooter was proceeding with the course of fire, I was watching his gun with half my brain and tried to process what just happened with the other half. I had only had about five seconds to think when the chief range officer for the stage (the guy in charge of that specific stage) came up behind me and told me to stop the shooter — that he was disqualified. The CRO is the highest authority on a stage so I followed his directions and proceeded to stop the shooter and start the DQ procedure. We called the range master for the match over, the CRO explained what happened and he hit the button on the scoring tablet to remove the shooter from the match.

I’ve acted as range officer for so many competition shooting stages that I’ve honestly lost count at this point. I’ve DQ’ed people before. I consider myself a pretty good RO with a good grasp of the rules. So while it wasn’t a huge surprise that the CRO wanted to DQ this shooter, it had me questioning my abilities. Which is why I was actually glad when the shooter came up to me later and asked me if he should throw $100 at the question.

At a major competition, if you’re disqualified or if you think the RO made a bad call, you can have the call adjudicated. The process is, you pony up a crisp $100 bill to the match director and he picks three experienced shooters to investigate the issue. If the shooters uphold the original call, you forfeit the $100 to whatever charity the match director sees fit. If the call is reversed, you get your cash back.

And that’s what the competitor in question did. The three selected shooters came around to the stage later that afternoon having already talked to the shooter. We told them exactly what we saw, they interviewed some other people on the squad and then they made their ruling. I caught up with a couple of the shooters later that night while salivating over Larry’s tractor he has in his garage, and he filled me in on what happened.

The issue with the “dropped gun” rule is that it never really defines what a dropped gun is. Most of the time, like pornography, we know it when we see it. But in this specific case, it was one big grey area.

If you define a dropped gun as any gun that hits the ground, then anytime you slide into a prone shooting position it might be grounds for a DQ. Or, as Larry did, if you hit the ground with your gun in your hand, that would be a DQ, too. But both of those scenarios happened at the match this weekend without an accompanying DQ, so that can’t be valid grounds for the call.

So in order for the gun to be “dropped,” there needs to be a conditional “and” statement. The gun hit the ground AND something else happened. That something else, in this case, is the shooter no longer had control over the firearm. If the gun hits the ground and the shooter doesn’t have control over it, that constitutes unsafe gun handling and grounds for a DQ. But again, in this case, we have a gray area. The shooter had his hand on the sling of the rifle, but not on any part of the gun.

This is where the CRO’s opinion differed from mine, and was the basis of the challenge. The real question in this case was whether the sling was considered part of the firearm, and whether holding onto the sling alone would be considered having control of the firearm. While the sling was physically attached to the gun, it didn’t provide the same level of control that would be provided by holding onto the pistol grip or the handguard. However, in this case, the level of control was sufficient to keep the gun pointed in a safe direction and off the ground. In my opinion, that was all that was required (by the rules of this specific competition) to keep the shooter in the clear. Especially with the leeway that we were giving shooters with the slings while their guns were completely empty. In the opinion of the CRO, that wasn’t good enough.

One of the guys doing the adjudication summed it up best this way. “I asked [the CRO] if he would have DQ’ed the guy if he had been holding it by the handguards instead of the sling. He said no. That was all I needed to hear, I made up my mind at that point.”

The final determination was that because the sling is physically attached to the gun, holding onto it counts as having control of the gun, just as if you held the gun only by the scope or by the magazine. And because he had control of the gun and the gun didn’t break the 180 line, the shooter was re-instated in the match and finished successfully.

To be honest, I’m still second-guessing myself on my decision to let him continue. On the one hand, a gun hitting the ground when it wasn’t intentional is a safety issue. But on the other, the gun was very clearly in his possession and the muzzle was still pointing in a safe direction. It’s a tricky call and while I’m happy that the adjudication committee agreed with my opinion on the matter, I just hope I never have to make that call again.

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23 Responses to When Is a Dropped Gun Not a Dropped Gun? Or The Slippery Slope of Slings.

  1. Having shot exactly zero 3-gun matches in my life, I think both you and the adjudication committee made the correct call, you in the moment and they after careful investigation and reflection. I don’t think the CRO is wrong for making the call he did, even though the call was overturned. That’s his job, and his call was only incorrect because (presumably) he didn’t have as close a view of the incident as you did. With judgement calls there will always be some opportunity for disagreement.

    The $100 thing fascinates me. I’ve never heard of it before, but it makes a lot of sense in preventing frivolous complaints. “How sure are you that you’re right? Are you sure, or just mad?” Very cool.

    Thanks for writing stuff like this, by the way. I like reading stuff that gives me insight into things that are interesting, but in which I have no experience.

    • I stopped all involvement in practical shooting in the mid-90’s when higher-level shooters started “rule lawyering” their way out of bad scores. They’d contest the course design, safety rules, etc – anything to get a stage tossed out so their suckage wouldn’t be recorded.

      A $100 (or higher) rule would have been very useful back then. I commend those who thought to include this idea in the arbitration process.

    • It sounds similar to the challenges coaches in the NFL can make. If a call by the refs is overturned in favor of the challenger, yay. If the call is upheld, however, the challenging team is penalized and loses a time out, which can be a BF deal. In both situations, definitely seems to cut down on rules wankery.

  2. I just hope I never have to make that call again.

    You probably will, and if you don’t second-guess yourself, you’ll make the right call. Again.

    If you’re going to adjudicate anything, from a possible dropped gun in competition to a criminal trial, you need to have a short memory, no conscience and faith in your own decisions.

    • It’s actually quite common in USPSA/IPSC. Same with Steel Challenge. Fees for challenge of ruling aren’t an oddity. They aren’t typically done at lower level matches, but then who really whines that much at a club match?

      • I think it’d be a really good thing at a club match, because that’s where you get big fish/little pond situations, where someone has enough power in the club (or just enough bluster) to get by with stuff. If they had to back it with cash, there might be less of that.

        • That’s where a strong Match Director prevails. Simply put, at a club match a strong MD doesn’t care if it’s Max Michel or Todd Jarrett, the call is the call.

        • EXACTLY.

          That’s exactly the situation I found in California and Nevada in the early/mid 90’s. Big name, small-time match, lots of jaw-jacking when Mr. Big didn’t measure up. Pissed us off royally. And, quite frankly, made a poor name for some of the higher-level shooters who thought they were hot stuff. They thought “Who is ever going to know that I crapped all over these hicks out here in some podunk match?”

          Well, little did they know about this new technology called “the Internet” and this “email” thing.

  3. Maybe a partially dropped gun, but good safety and muzzle control was maintained. I see no reason for a DQ. I’ve never actually run a non-departmental 3 gun, however, so I’m hardly an expert in the matter.

  4. thanks for this post, NL. not having shot 3-gun myself I can only imagine what happened– was the shooter’s sling hand right up against the attachment/swivel point? At that area I agree you can argue that the gun is “under control”.

    as your subject line says though, it’s a potential slippery slope. what if the same thing happened but his hand was about 12″ up the sling? hard to argue that you can control the muzzle unless you’re letting the whole thing dangle from your hand.

  5. I’ve never been a RO, but I was a baseball umpire for more than 10 years. While there is a big gap in danger (a bad call in baseball isn’t likely to get someone killed) I think there’s a philosophical link to officiating any sport. That link is: get over it.

    Sorry to be so blunt but its the truth. Bad calls happen. Good calls that others THINK are bad happen. The best you can do is know your rules and make the call to best of your ability.

    Our strike zone was defined as letters to knees (God I wish the majors would get back to that). I always started a strike zone there. Every once in a while I would screw up and call a shoulder high strike. For the rest of that ONE game the shoulders would be the top. The next game it would go back where it belonged.

    If the call is discretionary and you believe you screwed it up once, remain consistent for a given match. If you don’t believe you screwed up, remain consistent for a given match.

    Either way you know to go into the next match fresh, not thinking about previous judgement calls that may or may not have been correct.

  6. I’m surprised you were overridden while the shooter was on the course.
    Did he get another run on that stage? Having his time not
    include the stumble on the first go was a benefit to the shooter.
    If it wasn’t really an unsafe shooter DQ but a competitive DQ let it ride and huddle for a decision after the final shot.
    The CRO was looking at it as a tough safety standard and not competitive.

  7. “The one constant rule, however, is that anyone who drops a gun during a course of fire — loaded or unloaded — is instantly disqualified.”

    Not so. You should shoot the Andy Horner matches: Blue Ridge Mountain and Task Force Dagger. He doesn’t throw you out of a match just because the sling broke on your unloaded rifle. You must actually do something that is dangerous to get DQ’d. An unloaded rifle is just a stick.

  8. I’ve always liked the $100.00 rule. I’ve seen some folks lose that C note. Including a teammate of mine at a 3 gun match.

  9. If a particular competition does not consider control of the rifle by holding its sling to be “control,” they should not have a slinged rifle stage. A sling on the gun has no purpose other than providing an alternate method of controlling the rifle.

  10. It matters not if he retained the sling, the rifle was out of his physical control until it hit the ground. Meaning, did the shooter intend to have the rifle hit the ground or was the shooter going to the ground with the rifle. That point is key. Here’s another one, had a shooter lost a holstered pistol, holster and pistol, off his belt; is that a DQ? Yes.

    We mulled over this call the day it happened and multiple experienced CROs and ROs came up with a different outcome than the arbitration crew.

    How many shots did the shooter in question shoot, before the CRO stopped him? What did the RM say?

  11. Don’t do 3gun but watch it obsessively,at our range there are quite a number of shoots.You made the right call based upon what the CRO,said about disqualifying about the having a hand on the hand guard,yes I would think myself that if the shooter did not cross the 180 ,and no other part of the weapon except the buttstock touched the ground that the shooter could continue,but what would be the best solution is a set book of guidelines for all 3 gun shoots,as most other shooting sports have a set guideline.Be prepared and ready.Keep your powder dry.

  12. Rocky Mountain 3-gun rules make the most sense here. A rifle or pistol that an RO has verified empty starts the course of fire as a stick until ammo goes into it.

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