Tri-Gun Challenge competitor Neil Davies pulled into the Del-Tone/Luth gun club parking lot and wasted no time preparing his ensemble. He wore a Hornady hat, shooting glasses, Adidas football cleats and more rounds of ammunition than there are rainy days in St. Cloud, Minn. He had five 30-round AR mags full of .223 Rem. ammunition strapped to his leg, four extended Glock mags around his waist and enough No. 8 shotshells to fend off an Argentine dove rebellion. His long guns, a souped-up Benelli M2 and a DPMS MK 12 AR-15 lay freshly oiled on the tailgate of his Chevy. I loitered near him partly because he agreed to loan me his AR—that’s right, I’d brought only two guns to a 3-gun match—and partly because as Hornady’s marketing man he’s been known to give away ammunition, but mainly because he looked like he knew what he was doing.
I’d hauled two buddies—Darren LaSorte, a suit from NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), and Adam Heggenstaller, managing editor of NRA’s newsstand magazine, Shooting Illustrated—from the Minn./St. Paul airport to St. Cloud for DPMS’ annual Tri-Gun Challenge. Although we are all shooters and hunters we shared exactly zero experience in 3-gunning. So we asked questions like belt-fed fire and spied on the guys with sponsorship logos on their shirts. Like any competition involving real bullets and prize money, a first 3-gun competition can be intimidating. Frankly, my only goal was to finish—and to do so safely.
What Is 3-Gun?
The growing sport of 3-gun is a shooting game consisting of multiple stages in which shooters try to hit, or neutralize, various paper, steel and clay targets while navigating through obstacles in a set course of fire. Stationary, moving and even flying targets are engaged from ranges of mere feet to several hundred yards. Each stage is limited only by available real estate and the match designer’s creativity. Sometimes all three guns—rifle, shotgun and pistol—are used on an individual stage, while other stages might require only one. The object is to neutralize all targets of each stage in the shortest time. After all stage times are totaled, the competitor with the fastest cumulative time is the winner in his or her respective class. Classes differ according to guns and optics chosen. They vary from Open, in which nearly any modification on any gun goes, to Tactical Optics, in which the guns cannot be heavily modified, but can be used with optical sights, to Heavy Metal, which requires iron sights, larger-caliber rifles and pistols, and pump-action rather than semi-automatic shotguns. No two matches are the same. I chose the Tactical Optics class because Davies’ AR-15 fell into it—and because beggars can’t be choosers.
Getting My Head In The Game
As we waited for the pre-match orientation, studied the rulebook and copycatted the professionals who filled 9 mm Luger magazines like their lives depended on it, I became encouraged by a nugget of freshly gleaned intel. Most of the veterans were predicting the title would boil down to the shooter who could reload his shotgun the fastest. This was strange, I thought, for DPMS’ namesake match, but shotgun-heavy was fine by me. After all, I’ve been reloading shotguns in duck blinds most of my life. How hard could it be?
I learned a year’s worth of shooting knowledge throughout the three-day event—with the most notable discovery being that I was wrong about a lot in my preconceived notions of tactical shooting. Come to find out, the fast guys keep their shells placed in an orderly fashion as close to the receiver of the shotgun as possible to reach them with the least amount of movement. But I also learned that I was ultimately correct in one notion: If a person has interest in intense shooting, he or she can compete and have a wonderful time at their first 3-gun match. Here’s how.
1. Sign Up
To become the honed shooter that competition forges, you have to enter a match. Find one that interests you and get the details by going online. Nowadays most 3-gun match information is disseminated via Web forums. Go to Americanrifleman.org or NRAblog.com and view photos to see what it’s all about. Call or e-mail the particular match director to get a list of rules and the agenda. Sign up. Entry fees range from $25 to $300. Prize purses are relative to entry fees.
Lea Ramthun, DPMS’ marketing and PR guru, encourages new shooters to get some experience before entering a big match like the Tri-Gun. “But if that isn’t possible, come with the mindset that it’s going to be a learning experience,” she says. “Just stay within your capabilities, stay safe, and you’ll have a good time.” The Tri-Gun challenge accepts 220 applicants, and the past year’s applicants are considered first.
2. Get Geared Up
The several classes of 3-gun competition you can enter depend on your equipment and personal preference. The most common is Tactical Optics, which utilizes any center-fire, semi-automatic pistol, shotgun and rifle you prefer, with optics allowed on the rifle. A typical battery that allows you to compete consists of an AR-15-style flattop carbine with a variable-power scope, a 9 mm Luger-chambered handgun with higher-capacity magazines, and a semi-automatic shotgun with an extended magazine tube. If you want to go less expensive and you have the gusto, go with your pump-action shotgun with an eight-shot tube, an M1911-style pistol and a .308 Win.-chambered semi-automatic rifle with iron sights.
Professional 3-gunner and police officer David Neth stresses that reliability is paramount in whatever tools you choose. “Start competing with guns and gear that are reliable. You can become very frustrated fighting with ‘race guns’ and tricked-out gear,” he said. But the cheapest way to get started, of course, is to do like Tri-gun competitor Sandra Orvig and I did: Borrow it.
“In 2007 I flew out to watch my boyfriend shoot a match,” said Orvig. “He [pro-shooter Jeff Cramblit] said, ‘If you’re coming all this way, you might as well shoot’ and he brought me a Benelli M1 and a custom STI pistol. He strapped me up with a holster, mag pouches, gave me bullets and shells and said, ‘Have fun!’ I did!”
Heed the ammunition requirements for the match and double it. From there you need four extra magazines for each gun, a retentive handgun holster, magazine pouches, shotshell holders—Safariland makes good ones—and eye and hearing protection. Throw in gun oil, athletic tape, some basic tools and some Advil. Wear anything comfortable that is not too loose or too hot—cargo pants and a T-shirt are perfect. Football cleats are recommended.
3. Be Safe, Humble And Have Fun
Arrive early to meet people, go to orientation, gear up, find your beginning stage, locate your squad members, and let the range officer know that you are new to the sport. He will help you. After your first round under the pressure of eyes, the clock, and your own desire to be faster than Wild Bill Hickok, you’ll see what it’s all about and you’ll have fun challenging yourself, meeting like-minded people, and really learning how to shoot. Don’t be too competitive or get too down on yourself if you don’t do as well as you think you should. Just be safe. And remember, even the best shooters were rookies once.
“I was pretty nervous for my first match,” said phenom Daniel Horner, who shoots for the U.S. Army team. “All I wanted to do was not get disqualified.” Horner won the 2009 Tri-Gun Challenge Tactical Optics Class. I believe his time was a full day better than mine.
What Not To Do On Your First Stage
So, after years of experience with all types of firearms, months of preparing for the event, and hours of talking to veterans of the sport, my time finally came. I laid Neil’s MK 12 in the ready position, checked and holstered my Springfield XD, stuffed my shotgun with seven shells and nodded ready to Mr. Timekeep.
The timer buzzed and I lunged for the shotgun, worked its action, aimed at a 50-yard silhouette and pulled the trigger. Boom! I rolled with the recoil and found the next target. Click. In a nervous haste I cleared the jam and slapped the trigger again. Click. I cleared the shell and racked another one. Click. My shotgun jammed six times. I finally laid it down and moved to the rifle with which I slowly but surely neutralized all targets. Then I transitioned to my handgun and shot a dreaded “Texas star” spinning steel target. After what seemed to me like a full hour, I cleared the stage. I believe I posted the worst time in my squad. But the ice was broken, and I was looking forward to the next stage.
The lesson? I had failed to try the reduced-recoil slugs in my shotgun before the match, and they did not feed. Plus I had forgotten to oil it. Doh! Remember to oil your guns! Both were embarrassingly dumb mistakes. But it got better from there. I even surprised myself and the crowd with a few really strong times. In the end I finished proudly in the middle of the pack.
Three-gun competition is mainly about challenging yourself. I know it sounds cliché, but these bad-looking guys and girls with their mean-looking guns proved to be some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. You’ll find more discouraging words during a bridge tourney at a nursing home. I made a dozen new friends, developed practical shooting skills and even won some excellent prizes. I hope to be there this year, and I hope to see you as well. You can borrow my new souped-up AR-15—and a pocket-full of low-recoil slugs that I have left over.
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