The Basics of 3-Gun Shooting

Katie Harris in the 2012 MGM Iron Man 3-gun match. Katie was both high Lady and high Junior in the Tactical Class match.

The fastest growing and most exciting shooting sport out there right now is 3-gun competition. If you're not familiar with 3-gun, it consists of a set of courses in which you shoot three different guns—a rifle, a pistol and a shotgun—at different stages, and engage various short- and long-distance targets from various positions. Scoring is based on time and hits minus penalties, with each stage assigned match points based on degree of difficulty. But, in a nutshell, the shooter who hits the most targets in the least amount of time wins It's very exciting, requiring a combination of shooting speed and accuracy with different guns, and is the fastest-growing shooting sport today.

Getting started, though, can be a bit intimidating for a newbie. This is an equipment-driven sport and it’s a bit confusing, and when you look at all the high-speed gear that the top shooters are using, it’s easy to think you can’t afford to shoot 3-gun.

Not to worry—if you are a shooter now, odds are good that you have most of what you need to get started in this fast paced shooting sport. Even if you don’t have everything, your shooting friends might, and you all can share gear for the first few matches.

Plus, 3-gun shooters are some of the most friendly and helpful I have met anywhere in the shooting sports. Show up early for a local match, explain to the match director that you are new and want to learn, and odds are they will squad you with the best people there to teach you the sport. (And if you want to find a range that offers 3-gun, check the National Shooting Sports Foundation's Where to Shoot site.)

There are several divisions of 3 Gun, and each is determined by the gear shooters are using. By far the most popular division is Tactical Optics, which is where new shooters usually start. So we’ll focus on the guns used for that.

Mark Hanish is one of the top 3-gun shooters. Note he is using a striker fired handgun.

The Rifle

The sport is dominated by the AR-15 style rifle, but if you own a magazine-fed semi-automatic rifle and have an optic bolted on it, you can compete. It’s that simple. Sure, there are refinements that help—a better trigger, muzzle brake, extended bolt release, extended bolt handle, and other modifications, but don’t get hung up on them. Just take your gun to a few matches and get your feet wet. Later you can modify that gun or, more likely, buy a dedicated rifle for the sport with all the latest features.

This JP-15 rifle in .223 made all this empty brass. Practice is the only way to become good at 3-gun.

There are several dedicated 3-gun rifles on the market today. For general 3-gun shooting, most competitors pick a semi-heavy, 18-inch-barrel rifle with a good muzzle brake. A good trigger is a must. For the record, my 3-gun rifle is a JP Enterprises SCR-11, and I'm very happy with it. I also competed with a lower priced JP15 model for years and loved that magic gun. We were a good team.

For now, though, just go shoot with the gun you have and learn the sport. You are not going to win the first few matches anyway, so look at it as a learning experience. It will also help to keep you from buying a bunch of gear you don’t need.

A participant at the SMM3-gun match exits a helicopter.

The Tactical Optics division allows one optical sight, and just about all competitors install it on the rifle. The traditional choice for most shooters is a 1-6X scope. While any low-power variable scope is enough to get you started, a scope that can be dialed down to 1X allows the shooter to keep both eyes open when engaging close range targets. The 6X is enough magnification for most of the longer targets. I have shot with my Swarovski Z6 1-6x scope out to 920 yards during a 3-gun match. If it can handle that, 6X can handle anything.

If you prefer to shoot with a red-dot or otherwise non-magnified optic, you can enter in the Limited Class. The rest of the gear is the same.

You will need at least three 30-round magazines for your rifle. You can carry them in a pocket, but at least one belt-mounted magazine holder will be very useful.

And you will need a good shooting belt to keep it handy, such as this one from Safariland. The best are the two-part Velcro belts. These store your gear on the outside belt, which attaches to the inside belt that you wear through your pants loops. You can get by with just a good tactical belt to start.

The Shotgun

The Remington Versa Max is a good choice for 3-gun competition. It keeps running when hot and dirty and can digest a wide range of ammo.

The Tactical Optics division requires a semi-automatic shotgun. You can use a pump-action, but it’s a handicap because shooters in this division almost universally pick semi-autos. But if all you have is a pump, bring it, and have fun. You can upgrade later.

The division allows nine shells to be loaded in the shotgun at the start. If yours holds only five shots, you can compete, but you are at a disadvantage. On the other hand, you are here to learn, not win, so don’t let it stop you. Again, come shoot, have fun, learn; worry about a better shotgun later.

At some point you will want a full-blown 3-gun shotgun with some options. While there are a few ready-for-competition shotguns on the market, such as the Remington Versa Max Competition Tactical, many shooters modify a non-competition gun. There are plenty of good magazine extensions on the market, but I think it's fair to say that Nordic Components and X-Rail brands dominate in 3-gun. If you do nothing else to your semi-auto, try to get a magazine extension as soon as you can. An eight round magazine is fine, but a 10 round is even better, because once the buzzer goes off, you can load as many shells as you want.

John Paul Gangl, the J.P. in J.P. Enterprises, shoots a shotgun in a 3-gun match. The optics used in 3-gun have a rough life.

Low profile sights will help you hit those tough slug targets. An extended charging handle and larger bolt release are handy. Most shooters will open up the loading port so they can “funnel” the shells in for faster loading. If you don’t know how to do that, hire a gunsmith. (Also, resist the urge to modify the operating system of the shotgun. It will bring a new shooter nothing but trouble. If the gun runs, leave it alone.)

Loading the shotgun on the clock is a huge part of 3-gun competition, and you will need a way to carry spare shells. A shell caddy such as the Quaload will help position the shotshells for faster loading.

This is a confusing and complicated area of 3-gun, and shotshell loading systems are evolving fast, so do your research. For the record, most shooters currently use the quad-loading method of loading four shells at a time. This is where the shooter grabs four shells in two columns of two and inserts them into the gun two at a time with two quick motions. They use belt-mounted rigs or even chest rigs to hold the shells.

For your first few matches, you can improvise with what you have. A shell belt or even just a pouch on your belt, such as those used for Sporting Clays, will work. Most shooters have one or the other hanging around. They aren’t the fastest to use, but you’ll at least be able to try the sport. As you gain experience, you can upgrade to the best shell caddy system for your style of shooting.

The STI Marauder is designed for 3-gun competition. It is one of the best handguns available for the sport.

The Handgun

Most competitors use a high-capacity 9mm handgun. If you have a Glock, Smith & Wesson M&P, or any other high capacity pistol, you are ready to compete. You will need at least four magazines and enough belt-mounted magazine pouches to hold at least three magazines.

As you gain experience, you may want to have the trigger weight reduced or add better sights, such as fiber-optic sights with contrasting colors. Adjustable sights let you sight in the gun with the ammo you like to use. You might also consider adding a beveled magazine well, or modifying your existing mag well to enable fast reloads.

Many top shooters use double-stack, single-action handguns such as the STI. I currently shoot the STI Marauder, which was designed for 3-gun competition. The primary advantage here is the much lighter and more precise single-action trigger, as opposed to the less refined striker-fired triggers used in most of the polymer-framed guns. The smoother and lighter single-action trigger allows more precise bullet placement at any speed. That said, many outstanding 3-gun shooters are sponsored by makers of striker-fired guns, and they win a lot of matches.

If you already have a high capacity 9mm handgun like this S&W M&P, you are well equipped for 3-gun shooting.

You will also need a holster for your handgun. Most shooters use a Kydex holster with tension.

This provides retention of the gun while running and moving, but allows for a fast draw without the need to disengage any retention devices.

Finally, make sure you have cases for all of your guns and a way to move them from stage to stage. Also bring chamber flags to indicate they are empty, which some ranges require.

The very best thing you can do with your guns? Shoot them, figure out what changes or improvements you need, and then tweak until they fit you well. Then spend your money on ammo and get to shooting. One irrevocable truth about 3-gun is that empty cases litter the path to the winner’s circle.

The author shooting a shotgun during a 3-gun match.