As I was standing around watching the first of the 3-Gun Nation Pro Series competitions, one of the FNH USA PR people asked me how I felt watching a 3-gun match and not being able to shoot it. And to be honest, it was painful. I wanted to see how I would do, to test myself against the stages and see how I ranked. I wanted to shoot. So after the match, I asked the guys at 3-Gun Nation very, very nicely to let me shoot in the next competition. To my surprise, they agreed. So as I was mentally breaking down the stages in Tulsa before the second competition, I wasn’t just looking to see how the pros would shoot it, I was trying to figure out how I would shoot it given my own strengths and weaknesses . . .
I’ll talk about how I did at the competition later. First, let’s talk about the stages.
Stage 1 was about as straightforward as it gets. Starting with a rifle, the shooter engages a bunch of close range paper targets before hitting two small round steel plates at 50 yards (offhand, by the way). You then ditch your rifle in a barrel and grab your shotgun, taking out some mixed clay pigeons and small steel targets on your way to the back of the bay. Once there another dump barrel relieves you of your shotgun and you finish off the stage with a handgun.
While this set-up may have appeared straightforward, the challenge was resisting the urge to shoot everything you could see. A perfect example were the paper and steel targets just to the left of the screens in the middle of the course. They’re visible from almost the entire stage, and they keep taunting you to attack them. But you need to resist.
At the start of the course, the shooter moves to the first bend in the shooting area. You need to hit some long range steel that are only visible from that point, so there’s no getting around that position. From that same position you can see that paper target that’s just inside your peripheral vision. Because you can see it, your natural reaction is to shoot it. But that’s a terrible idea.
While the long range steels are required to be shot from that position, the paper targets can be hit with a handgun from a much closer range…if you wait. Closer range means quicker, easier shots, and in a competition where fractions of a second are what differentiates the top shooters, you need to resist the temptation to take that shot with a rifle.
The steel is a similar situation. The middle section of the stage is required to be shot with a shotgun, and there are a few pieces of steel that are visible from the shotgun dump barrel. But they’re just on the edge of the effective range. Again, the time it would take to load the extra rounds to engage those steel plates and take the shot would take the shooter longer than hitting them with a handgun.
I have to admit, when I first saw the next stage layout that was my initial plan – hit everything I could see as soon as I saw it, and sort out the chaos later. But that’s not a winning strategy, and Erik Lund quickly changed my mind.
Stage 2 started with some close range shotgun work, then a quick transition to the handgun for steel and paper targets. Finally, you’re presented with a choice of continuing with your handgun or swapping for a rifle for the run across the back of the bay shooting some paper targets. And as with most of the stages, the shooter’s presented with some interesting options.
Clay pigeons are required to be hit with a shotgun, but steel can be hit with a handgun if the shooter wants. If you look at the stage layout, you’ll notice that the targets start out with all clay pigeons (9 of them, just enough to empty the shotgun), then switch to small steel targets (6 more). And very conveniently there’s a dump barrel placed where the clay pigeons end, and another at the end of the steel targets. What this means for the shooter is they have the option to reload the shotgun or swap to the handgun to take out those six steel targets.
Larry Houck, ever since he mastered the ‘load 2’ method, has always favored his shotgun in this scenario. Even factoring in the need to load 6 additional rounds in the gun, he figures that it’s quicker to do that and engage the targets with the shotgun than to dump the gun, rack a round into the handgun and carefully aim at the tiny steel targets. I happen to agree, since my handgun shooting isn’t exactly one of my best skills. However, if you’re someone who prefers their handgun, then it might make sense to dump the shotgun early instead of having to reload it.
The second decision to be made is which firearm to finish the stage with. As Larry pointed out to me, the targets at the end of the stage are just outside the comfort zone for most people (pros included) to hit with a handgun. If they were a couple yards closer (as he’s intending to do at the FNH 3-Gun later this year), they might entice people to try their handgun instead of the rifle. In this case, it didn’t make a lot of sense to finish with the handgun and most people switched to the rifle. But the option was there for those foolhardy enough to try.
Stage 3 was what is commonly referred to as the “memory stage,” since it required people to make a plan for how to shoot it and remember which targets need to be shot from which positions in order to get them all. The stage consisted of 15 paper targets, 6 steel targets and 8 clay pigeons behind a number of screens and barrels blocking the shooter’s view. No more than three targets of any kind were visible from any given position, so movement was very much required.
Watching the pro shooters try to figure this one out was entertaining, to say the least. I walked it with Larry first, and we formulated our own plan as to how to shoot it. Then Jerry Miculek, along with Lena and Kay (hereafter referred to as the “Miculek Clan”) joined in and added their views on the matter, which changed our plan slightly. Finally Erik Lund and Randi Rogers chimed in, changing our plans just a little bit more. So in a very Borg-like manner, each person incorporated the parts of others’ plans that they liked to their own, making the final more of a collective effort than any single individual’s strategy.
This is also one of the great things about 3-gun. Even at the highest level, shooters still love to help each other out and collaborate. Whether it’s sharing their plan for an upcoming stage or sharing ammo with someone who just ran dry, there’s a definite sense of being part of a supportive community when you’re at a match. Larry was telling me about a time at a match when one of his fellow competitors ran out of shotgun slugs in the middle of a stage, and the rest of the squad kept handing him slugs from their own stash until he finished.
Then again, these are the same guys that took pleasure in plastic-wrapping some guy’s SUV at the Texas Multigun last month. Gentle, kind-hearted folks with a penchant for evil, twisted practical jokes. Exactly my kind of guys.
But back to the stage. For this one, there was actually a mistake in the setup. The diagram shows everything nicely laid out in a symmetrical configuration, but there was one spot where you could barely see half of a target through a gap in the screens, and it just happened to be the one target you needed to see to skip an entire half of the stage. The only drawback was that you needed to hit your mark exactly to shoot it, and if you missed that mark you were screwed and wouldn’t be able to find it quickly enough. Using that gap was a gamble, one that paid off big-time if you hit it but knocked you out of the running if you didn’t.
Stage 4 was another version of the longer, multi-bay layouts that required plenty of running and about 100 yards of movement. While it might have been a lot bigger than the other stages, it was much less complex.
The beginning was all rifle, with some long range steel targets and a bunch of close range paper. The only decision that needed to be made was at how many positions you wanted to stop to shoot the steel. The paper was best shot from the starting position (due to the layout of the stage), but the longer range steel could be hit from a couple spots. Well, with the exception of those center steel targets. They could only be shot from the left side of the barricade, since they were blocked from view from just about everywhere else. The consensus seemed to be to shoot the paper from the start position and as you were moving to the barricade, and then hit all the steel from there before moving on.
The dump barrel here proved trickier than expected. You were required to dump your rifle in the barrel before going around the corner, as only your pistol (still in the holster) was allowed to be on your person when moving through that section. So people would ditch their rifles hard and fast in that barrel, then keep moving without checking that the rifle was safely ditched. In one case, one of the top shooters was disqualified when their rifle’s magazine caught on the side of the barrel and the gun cartwheeled out, landing on the ground.
Mark Hanish had a solution to this issue. Instead of gently placing his rifle in the barrel, he speared it in so hard that the muzzle actually punched through the bottom of the plastic can and impaled itself a good two inches into the soft earth underneath. It was stuck in the ground so hard that not only did it stand on its own without touching the sides, he had to put one foot on the barrel and yank with both hands to pull it out. When asked if he was worried he’d damaged the gun, he responded in typical Mark fashion: “It’s a SCAR, It’s a battle rifle!”
After rounding the turn, the shooter is able to draw their handgun and engage five paper targets. With your pulse now elevated and breathing a little harder, those small targets become harder to hit. 3-gun shooters are used to IPSC targets, which are cutouts the size of humans and much more forgiving in terms of shot placement. But for the 3-Gun Nation series, they use round targets with much smaller scoring zones. The reason for the change is mostly politics (human shaped targets send the wrong signal to non-gun people when watching on TV), but it also makes the competition that much more challenging.
Once you engage those paper targets, the rest of the stage can theoretically be completed with the shotgun. But shooters are given the option to re-holster their handgun and take it with them right up to the end of the stage. At the end there are eight steel targets in a row that can be shot with either a shotgun or a handgun, along with a convenient dump barrel to ditch your shotgun if you prefer not to use it. It’s another moment where the shooter needs to decide if they can reload their shotgun quickly enough to keep up with the handgun shooters, or if their handgun accuracy is high enough to keep up with the shotgun shooters. It allows each shooter to play to their strengths.
Stage 5 was as straightforward as they come — a symmetrical design intended to allow both right-handed and left-handed shooters to have the exact same issues — that can be shot a dizzying number of ways. Starting at either of the far tables, the shooter has to engage four paper targets, six long range steel, ten short range (handgun or shotgun) steel and eight clay pigeons (shotgun only).
Most people shot this the way you see it laid out here – start with the rifle, switch to the handgun for the first five steel, then swap to the shotgun for the rest. I disagreed, starting with the shotgun, taking out all the small targets while moving and reloading. I had staged my rifle at the far right table and took the rifle targets from there. Considering that I finished only two seconds behind Lena Miculek I’d say my plan worked…not that anyone else did it quite that way.
So that’s the overview of how the stages broke down. But as any good strategist knows, no plan ever survives initial contact. 3-Gun requires the ability to come up with a good plan. But even more important is the ability to improvise on the fly. Stay tuned to see how well I was able to adapt and overcome as I shot my first pro series match.