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.