I was waiting in the lobby of the hotel when Larry Houck emerged from the elevator and gave him the bad news. Mark Hanish had misread the sign the night before – breakfast didn’t start until 8 AM, and the shooter’s meeting that morning started at 7:30. As we loaded our gun cases into the back of the bright blue FNH USA truck, our dreams of freshly cooked, fluffy pancakes quickly were replaced by greasy Egg McMuffins from the McDonalds that Mark decided to head toward. The day didn’t have an auspicious start, and the oppressive heat and humidity that awaited us didn’t bode well for our scores . . .
Since my score didn’t technically count, I was lumped in with the smallest squad just to keep things moving. In this case, the ladies’ squad. A couple of the shooters tried to give me a hard time about being assigned to the girl’s squad, but a quick reminder that I wouldn’t be forced to stare at hairy, sweaty old fat guys all day shut that down pretty fast. While the girls might not post the same blazing fast scores that the guys regularly do, they still shoot miles better than the vast majority of 3-gun shooters in the world – myself included. I would have been happy simply to stay in the middle of their pack, and figured that it was a foregone conclusion that I wouldn’t come close to their top shooters.
The women’s squad started on stage 5, rotating around and ending on stage 4. I’ve already talked about the stages and broken them down in a prior article, so just be aware if you’re comparing notes.
For stage 5 I decided to run it the way that I had gamed it out with Larry, starting with a shotgun on the start table and working my way around to the rifle at the end. It just made the most sense to me, avoiding my weak handgun shooting and playing to my strengths with loading the shotgun. It worked pretty well, allowing me to shoot the targets quickly and loading on the move. The only problem came when I went to grab the rifle.
This is where the muscle memory from my previous competitions took over. In just about every other shoot, firearms are staged “cruiser ready.” That means the chamber’s empty, but the magazine is loaded and inserted on a closed bolt. For this competition, though, guns are staged “hot” with a loaded chamber. I was so used to racking the action before firing my first round that I found myself automatically grabbing the charging handle even though the gun was already loaded, wasting precious seconds in the process.
Another issue I had was with the ammunition. Larry had said that he’d take care of ammo for me during this competition, so I had left my beloved Winchester stuff at home. While the rest of the team had bright, shiny match grade Federal ammunition, I was handed a brick of American Eagle XM193 ammo. You know, the stuff that comes in the black box and is dirt cheap. The ammo showed that cheapness when, less than 10 rounds into the box, I had a failure to fire. A quick TAP-RACK-BANG put things right, but it planted the thought in my mind to be aware for future issues.
In the end, my plan for the stage worked fine. I came in two seconds behind Lena Miculek, which isn’t too shabby. If that round had fired, I would have caught her.
Stage 1 was a little more challenging than I had expected, and the rifle work was the first thing that gave me some trouble.
I had planned to take a couple of the targets while moving from one position to the next, but I couldn’t seem to get my rifle to play along. No matter how slowly I moved, the reticle was bouncing all over the place. I eventually resorted to throwing a whole bunch of rounds at the targets and hoping that some of them hit (they did), but I would have preferred to conserve ammunition. They only had 200 rounds for me, and I didn’t want to run out.
Transitioning to the shotgun, I once again automatically racked the action, dropping a shell out of the gun and throwing off my count. I had planned the reload for after I had finished the first set of targets on the left side of the course, but one miss over there and I was forced to perform a standing reload before hitting that target and moving on. Another small mistake that cost me a couple of seconds.
When I drew my handgun, it took a couple shots for me to get back on target. Again, having been so accustomed to the way the Sig P226 points and shoots I had forgotten to adjust for the FNS-9. But as soon as I remembered those long hours on the range I was back to singing steel and punching targets again.
The other handgun-related issue I had was that my feet were moving faster than my handgun. I had planned to slowly advance and take a couple targets while moving, but while I was walking one of the targets disappeared behind a barricade and I needed to back up to engage it.
That sort of set the theme for the day. I didn’t really make any big, glaring mistakes, but a series of small errors that added up to some serious time added to my score. And as the day got hotter and more humid, I started making more of them.
I knew that stage 2 was off to a rocky start when I missed a clay pigeon. Twice. Firing two additional shells threw my count completely off, and I no longer had enough rounds in the “load 2” carriers to complete the stage. That’s why I always carry some of the more traditional 4-round shell caddies as a backup. But in this case, even that older loading method was bungled. I couldn’t get a good grip on the shells, so I kept dropping them when I tried to load them in the gun. You can see them flying out of my hand as I try to load the tube in the video. I eventually got the gun loaded and finished the steel targets, but it took far longer than I had wanted. Moral of the story: bring more ammo than you think you need.
Another issue I had with the shotgun was once again walking too fast for my own good. Loading the shotgun took a little longer than expected, so that put me about one step further down the line than I anticipated and way too close to the 180 line for comfort. Rather than be disqualified at my first pro series match for a rookie mistake, I took a bunny hop to the rear and fired from there. Again, wasted seconds.
Handgun shooting went fine, and then I ditched the gun for my rifle. Some people don’t like the offset iron sight thing that I run on my gun, but I absolutely love it. Optical sights are nice for long range, but when you need to hit something at contact distance, there’s nothing better than a set of irons. In fact, I zero my optic for 50 yards but I have my iron sights set for 10 specifically to give me a better chance of hitting the X ring on those close-in targets.
If there was one stage that I could point to and say that’s where I screwed up the most, it would be stage 3. This was the memory stage, the one where you needed to remember your plan exactly and which targets had to be hit from certain positions.
I was doing fantastic throughout the entire stage, hitting my planned positions right on the spot and getting all the long range targets. But as I was reloading the shotgun in the middle of the stage, I made a terrible discovery: I had completely forgotten the three paper targets on the right side of the stage. The plan was to hit those when I was getting ready to dump my rifle, but I just plain forgot.
While my error cost me some time, it’s a perfect teachable moment for 3-gun shooting. Stages used to be heavily scripted (starting in box A with rifle, shoot X targets then switch to shotgun…), which was a hold-over from the control freaks that run USPSA/IPSC and IDPA matches. But as 3-gun has evolved, the stages have started to be designed to give shooters more options. Especially in the pro series, competitors are allowed to use as many or as few guns as they want to finish the stage and in whatever order they choose. There’s no hard and fast script. The instructions simply lay out what needs to be shot and there are few if any restrictions (like shooting clay pigeons with shotgun only).
For this stage, I decided that I wanted to plan not use my handgun. I could hit all the targets with either the rifle or the shotgun, so the handgun was unnecessary. But despite not planning to use it, I brought it along anyway. The stage description allowed me to have it, and I always like to have a backup. What if the shotgun went down before I could shoot all the steel? What if the rifle had a catastrophic malfunction before the paper targets were all hit? I wanted another option, and having a handgun allowed me to have a backup plan no matter what happened.
So when I realized that the paper targets were still untouched, I finished what I was doing with the shotgun and immediately transitioned to the handgun to hit those targets. I altered the plan in the middle of the stage, on the fly. I improvised, and did it so seamlessly that people thought I had planned to shoot the stage that way.
As Erik Lund says, the difference between a master class shooter and a high master is that the high master makes a better caliber mistake. They instinctively know when they missed a shot, and fire another one off so quickly that the untrained observer doesn’t know the difference. While I definitely lost a couple seconds transitioning to the handgun, that mid-stage problem-solving saved me 15 seconds worth of penalties.
That’s what I love about “action” shooting sports like 3-gun and USPSA. No other sport gives you the same kind of challenges, where critical thinking and problem solving under pressure are essential skills. That’s what makes the stages fun and keeps me coming back.
Stage 4 was the last one of the day, and the longest. Us fat kids don’t do well in the heat and humidity, and I think I was already on my 20th bottle of water for the day when we rolled up to the stage, still a tad overheated. Nevertheless, I think I put in a pretty good run.
The rifle work went pretty well with the exception of missing my mark next to the screen on that stage. One of the longer range steel targets was obscured by a poster and could only be seen from a certain spot, and I stopped too short. So I had to spend an extra second to re-position myself before taking the shot.
As I rounded the corner to the next bay I made sure to look over my shoulder at the dump barrel and ensure that my rifle had stayed in. One shooter had already been disqualified when their rifle had flopped out of that same barrel, and I didn’t want the same thing to happen to me.
With rifle safely stowed, I whipped out the handgun and proceeded to shoot more conservatively than I had on any previous stage. I couldn’t see my hits on the targets from that far away, so I tried to call my shots and ended up firing five rounds at one target to make sure that I hadn’t missed. It wasn’t very efficient, but it worked.
The shotgun portion was the last stretch of the stage, and that went well. I did miss twice, but quick follow-up shots put things right in each case.
After we finished, we stuck around to watch the top ten guys shoot against each other for the top prize, and each of them had finished the match somewhere around 3 minutes and 15 seconds. On the other end of the spectrum was Karla, who was very disappointed with her score. She was so disappointed that she wouldn’t tell us the whole number, only saying that “it starts with a six.” She was lamenting that she thought she had shot so poorly that I might have beaten her.
My scores didn’t show up on the board, so I had no idea how I had finished. After the match we decided to head over to a local restaurant for dinner, but apparently the women decided that they wanted to shower off before they ate and left us guys to drink beer and watch the NASCAR race while we waited, our offensive odor apparently not affecting the waitstaff. Much. Somewhere around the second round of drinks I pulled out my score sheets and started to tally up my total time, adding in the couple targets I missed (a 2.5 second penalty for each one). I had just finished with the math when Karla sat down next to me. I couldn’t resist – I leaned over and said “I just calculated my score.”
“And?” she replied.
“It started with a five.”