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3 Gun Basics

3 gun stage


The sport of 3-Gun is the extreme sport of the competitive shooting world. At its core elements, 3-Gun is an action shooting sport somewhat like golf with a sense of urgency. A 3-Gun match consists of a collection of individual stages (“holes” if you will) which are courses made up of various types of targets scattered about with various forms of obstructions and obstacles for the shooter to negotiate. With a rifle, shotgun, and a pistol at their disposal (the “clubs”) the shooter who hits all the targets in the shortest amount of time is the winner. Generally speaking shooters can shoot at a target as many times as they want until they hit it, but it pays to be efficient because missing burns the clock. In addition, deviations from a course’s parameters or shortcomings of a shooter’s performance are penalized in the form of time added to a shooter’s raw time. 3-Gun is often characterized by dynamic movement, awkward shooting positions, and creative props. Course designers are restricted only by range facility and resources as far as targets and target presentations: paper, steel, clay, flashing targets, moving targets, aerial targets, long range, and point blank as well as shooting around barrels/barricades, from roof tops, inside, under, and around vehicles…all are all common place. 3-Gun requires a diverse skill set from a shooter, is the fastest growing segment of competitive shooting in the US, and quite possibly is the wildest and craziest shooting sport in existence.


Due to the vast variety and capabilities of equipment that can be used for 3-Gun applications, the sport has established equipment divisions to level the playing field and accommodate a variety of shooter preferences. These divisions are Open, Heavy Metal, Heavy Optics, Limited, and Tactical Optics. The sport has very outlaw roots, so specific rules vary from club to club. Open (aka Unlimited) is just that, shooters are practically unlimited in the equipment they can use. Heavy Metal (aka He-Man) is exactly the opposite of open and is very restrictive. Heavy Metal is a purist division and not for the faint of heart. It requires a .308 service rifle, a pump 12 gauge shotgun, and a .45 caliber pistol (1911 style pistols are often required as well) all required to wear only iron sights. An evolution of Heavy Metal is Heavy Optics which allows telescopic sights on a .308 rifle, usually semiauto shotguns are allowed, and requires pistols .40 caliber or larger. Limited (aka Tactical-Irons, or Factory) division requires a .223 caliber or larger service rifle equipped with iron sights or a non-magnified optic sight, a semiauto shotgun, and a 9mm or larger service pistol. Tactical Optics (aka Tac-Ops, Scope Tactical, or Practical) is exactly like Limited division except it allows the use of a magnified scope on the rifle. At any given 3-Gun match, over 80% of the shooters will participate in either Limited or Tac-Ops.


The 3-Gun Rifle is the most complicated of the three guns from a specification standpoint. Rifles need to be set up in a manner that they can engage close targets very quickly while still being precise enough engage sub minute-of-angle targets at potential distances of 500+ yards. 3-Gun Rifles are always semiautomatic magazine fed action rifles chambered in .223 or larger. Generally they also have barrels 14.5”-18” in length, a free floated handguard, some sort of recoil reducing muzzle device. There are several viable rifle options, but 99% of 3-Gun shooters choose some sort of AR-15 style rifle.

There is a mind numbing amount of accessories for action style rifles. Rifle accessories suitable for 3-Gun generally accomplish one of two things: They either make the rifle more ergonomically comfortable or they enhance its ability to be manipulated and shot faster. There are a plethora of choices in accessories from grips, to stocks, to triggers, and beyond but choose carefully because sometimes less is more. 3-Gun rifles need to be diversely capable while still being slick and fast handling.

Rifle sights, or more specifically optics, are a very dense subject as well. A sight needs to provide wide field of view for fast close range shooting and have an element of precision for long range engagements. In limited, prismatic scopes are king because they present a very crisp sight picture for long range work. The down side is that prism scopes tend to have short eye relief. Red dot optics are extremely fast at close range and have unlimited eye relief, however they require batteries and because they project the reticle onto a screen they can present a fuzzy picture which is challenging at long distances. In red dots, small dot size is always preferred (3MOA or less). In the divisions that allow magnified optics, variable power scopes dominate. The most popular versions offer a true 1X unmagnified setting and yet can zoom up to 4x or even 6x for long range shooting. Fixed power military style scopes are not a wise choice for 3-Gun.


Shooters have a lot of solid choices when it comes to pistols. 3-Gun pistols are generally semiauto service style handguns with iron sights (except in open), chambered in 9mm or larger with barrels 4-6” in length and ideally hold 20+ rounds of ammunition. Pistols generally fall into two categories: striker fired or hammer fired. Striker fired pistols tend to be more affordable, lower maintenance, and have passive safeties. Passive safeties can be an advantage because they automatically engage when the shooter lets go of the pistol (in an abandonment box/bucket for example). The trade-off is that striker fired pistols have less than desirable trigger pulls in stock form. By contrast, hammer fired pistols tend to have brilliantly tuned triggers and actions which makes them amazing to shoot, however they tend also have manual safeties a shooter needs to remember to engage when abandoning them. Hammer fired pistols also tend to be higher maintenance and wear heavier price tags. Heavy Metal division generally restricts magazine capacity to 10 rounds, requires larger calibers (if not 45ACP specifically), and even sometimes requires 1911 style pistols specifically.

There are a variety of handgun accessories that can enhance pistol performance. Some add a more aggressive texture to aid in maintaining a solid grip while firing or manually manipulating the gun. Other accessories aid in faster reloads such as extended magazine releases, slide stops, and flared magazine wells. Extended capacity magazines are also popular to minimize reloads all together. Enhanced trigger kits are also a popular option.


More often than not, matches are won and lost by the shotgun. This is because shotguns possess very diverse capabilities, are the most practice intensive to master, and are the most unforgiving of misses (due to very limited ammunition capacity). Understanding of variances in shot size, powder charge, and choke patterns are keys to mastery of this element of the game. The use of slugs and buckshot in addition to standard shot is common place in shotgun arrays as well. With the exception of Open and Heavy Metal, 3 gun shotguns are generally conventional tube fed semiautomatics chambered in 12 gauge (20 gauge is often allowed, but rarely used). Magazine capacity is generally limited to 9 rounds at the start of the stage, but, once on the clock, capacity is unlimited. Recently, this has led to a shift from traditionally short compact tactical style shotguns to field length guns with vastly extended magazine tubes.

Shotguns in 3-Gun tend to get very exotic with accessories. The first thing that gets added is a magazine tube extension so that capacity is at least eight if not ten or twelve shells. Other accessories include those that aid in rapid manipulation of the gun, ammunition carriers, or minimalist fiber optic sights to aid in slug shooting. Extended choke tubes are popular because they eliminate the need for a wrench to swap constrictions. Most shotguns also receive gunsmith enhancement to aid in rapid reloading as well as action tuning and polishing.


A forth piece of equipment that is as important to 3-Gun success as the 3 guns themselves is the belt. A purpose built gun belt and the accessories mounted to it are critical to a good performance. A 3-Gun belt system should consist of a pistol holster, shot shell caddies for 16-30+ shells, 2-3 pistol magazine pouches, and 1-2 rifle magazine pouches. Fully loaded, a 3-Gun belt can weigh almost 10 pounds. A sturdy and organized system for carrying and accessing all the necessary equipment is key to success.

More information can be found on the "3 Gun Gear and Accessories" page.

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