Competition shooters are entertaining to watch and learn from, but it's important to remember that everyone is human. Experienced athletes fail at some point in their career, and even pro shooters are equally susceptible.
The consequences of failure in any sport often result in known safety hazards. Every sport has its risks, and some have more dangerous consequences than others. For example, fastballs peg baseball players, snowboarders break bones and racecar drivers crash at high speeds.
The shooting sports aren't immune to danger, but the safety measures put in place at organized events are there for a reason: to reduce the risk.
Safety Rules Are Never a Broken Record
I'm not a professional competitive shooter, but I've been shooting for about 25 years. I've competed for about 10 years and consider my abilities above average.
Until my recent embarrassing disqualification at a 3-Gun Nation match, I never (knowingly) violated any gun safety rules.
When the four rules of gun safety start sounding like a broken record, that's when you need to recognize that it's time to slow down and get back to basics. In case you forgot, here are the four fundamental rules of gun safety from the words of the late Jeff Cooper:
- All guns are always loaded.
- Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
- Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.
Missing the Target
One valuable thing I've learned from working among the ranks of shooters, is that our pride oftentimes obscures human reality. We love to share success stories of amazing long-range shots, and romantic accounts of harvesting trophy animals from exotic places. We marvel at sub-MOA rifles and beautiful guns, but don't mention the times when we missed our shot on a Boone & Crockett buck or disqualified from a competition. Don't get me wrong; professional shooters and gunwriters are very talented individuals, many of whom I consider close friends. But I would be wrong and equally ignorant to tell you those people have never pulled a shot off target or come home from a hunt empty handed.
My 3-Gun DQ
After driving seven hours to the RockCastle Shooting Center in Kentucky, I spent the night in a local hotel and woke up before sunrise the following day to compete in an important match: the 3-Gun Nation Midwest Regional.
This was one of the most prominent events in my 2014 competition schedule. Even though I had shot thousands of rounds in competition during the past year, I was unmistakably nervous as I suited up for the match. This was my first time at RockCastle and I was paired with professional shooters so I could take photos and write a story for Guns & Ammo about their abilities.
After a safety briefing, our squad assembled at the first stage of the match and began taking turns shooting the course and resetting targets for the next competitor. I was also taking photos and casually speaking with nearby shooters.
Soon enough, it was my turn. With my adrenaline pumping and several pros spectating, I carried my shotgun to the designated 55-gallon barrel to load up. The barrel was pointed downrange in a safe location for loading and unloading. With my semiauto shotgun properly stationed in the barrel, I started shucking 12-gauge shells into the 8-round magazine tube. When it was time to chamber a round, I drew the charging handle back and released it to load a round into the chamber.
I did a quick chamber check to ensure I loaded a round, but the chamber appeared empty — turns out it wasn't. At that point, I believed the bolt had not grabbed a loaded shell from the shell lifter during my first attempt at loading the shotgun. So I erroneously pulled the trigger, thinking I would drop the hammer on an empty chamber and cause the shell lifter to unlock and lift a shell to be loaded into the chamber. Instead, I blew a 12-gauge birdshot hole into the barrel and was immediately disqualified €¦ and downright embarrassed.
I clearly violated Cooper's rules, no excuses about it. I should have just cycled the action again without pulling the trigger. Fortunately, no one was hurt from my negligent discharge because proper safety measures were in place.
The first round I fired at the Midwest Regional was my last. I had just made the biggest error of my shooting career in front of the pro shooters I'd idolized.
Now I know how it feels when the prom queen trips during her grand introduction, or how it feels to miss a shot at the trophy animal of a lifetime. As I write this article, the sweat stains on my shirt and chewed up fingernails are a telltale sign I'm reliving the embarrassment. But the message I'm sharing with readers here is more important than internalizing a horrific moment.
After the incident, I unloaded my shotgun and remorsefully returned to the group of pro shooters on the sidelines. To my surprise, I wasn't alone.
Each of the pro shooters offered words of encouragement and began telling stories about the first time they disqualified from a major match. Likewise, their stories had a theme in common: when something went wrong, the safety measures in place prevented a dangerous situation from becoming a disaster.
If a focus group of the best shooters in the sport have each made errors, chances are less experienced shooters are prone to making similar mistakes.
So, how can we prevent hazardous situations in competition?
- Always follow the basic rules of gun safety
- Adhere to commands from the range officer
- Know your skill level
- Go at your own speed
- Practice and feel comfortable with your equipment before competing
- Everyone is a safety officer: When in doubt, call STOP or CEASEFIRE
- Don't be afraid to ask questions
- If you fail, learn from your mistakes
- Spread awareness by sharing your mistakes with others
- Don't let mistakes keep you from competing again
Keep Your Head Up
Don't let a disqualification keep you from competing. Load up your mags, get out to the range and use your failure as motivation to succeed. You'll be a better shooter, even if you feel like the prom queen who rolled her ankle in front of the entire graduating class.
Disqualifying from the match and driving a total of 14 hours for such a poor outcome was incredibly disheartening. However, my poor performance resulted in the inspiration to reach out and educate other competitors with this article. My mishap is a valuable experience to prevent other shooters from making a potentially lethal mistake.
Practice like you compete with a shot timer to simulate realistic match conditions and keep track of your split times.
The Competition Electronics Pro Timer IV
includes two shot modes and three timer modes for both practice and match usage. Timer functions include instant, random, or setable delayed start, shot review and split time.
Practicing with the start buzzer is a great way to condition yourself with stress inoculation
, to prevent your body from tensing up and filling your bloodstream with adrenaline during competition.
I've never been to a shooting competition where a range safety briefing wasn't held before the match. Likewise, range safety officers (RSOs) always require eye and ear protection
and chamber flags.
Forget any piece of safety gear and be ready to do one of three things:
1. Go home (DQ)
2. Purchase it at the match
3. Borrow from a friend or fellow competitor
A good rule of thumb is to keep two sets of eye and ear protection and at least one chamber flag
for each firearm.
has completely innovated the aftermarket trigger world with their AR-15/AR-10 trigger systems. Their new single-stage, adjustable Hipertouch 24 3G
solves common fire control issues of excessive sear friction and low hammer fall energy.
This trigger has a consistenly smooth pull with a crisp break. From personal experience in several competitions, it's the fastest trigger I've ever handled. With the lightest springs installed, I repeatedly measured a 2.1-pound pull, and there's no doubt my rifle runs faster than I've experienced with other triggers. Pre-travel is essentially non-existent, while the reset is short and positive.
This trigger fits standard AR-15 or AR-10 pattern lower receivers using 0.154-inch diameter pins and all the parts are made from hardened carbon steel alloys.
With high round counts and extended mags comes the need for magazine loaders. Reloading pistol and rifle mags will make your fingers feel like you've been playing with Legos all day — unless you use magazine loaders. The pistol and rifle mag loaders from Maglula
fit most semiauto handgun and AR-15 magazines without overworking your fingers. They're also lightweight and fit into a range bag for easy access.
$34.99 (pistol), $26.99 (AR-15)
Ambidextrous Charging Handles
Standard mil-spec charging handles are trusted parts in many situations, but they're not ideal for 3-gun. The positioning of optics and back-up sight configurations on modern flat-top upper receivers seem to play well with ambidextrous charging handles.
Replacing the charging handle may seem inconsequential, but it's a small touch that really can make a big difference in the look, feel and operation of an AR-15. I tend to favor the Rainer Arms Raptor
because its latches are easy to grip on the fly and are held in place with substantially larger roll pins than G.I. models.
Competition Belt Rig
Running three guns in each course of fire requires a sturdy platform to carry the ammo needed to neutralize every target.
The Safariland ELS Competition Belt System
is similar in concept to the modular AR-15 handguards such as the Bravo Company KMR
. The Equipment Locking System (ELS) enables users to attach quick locking mounting plates at nearly any desired location on the belt. Users can then re-arrange their belt configuration on-demand by simply attaching magazine pouches, holsters and shotgun shell holders to the mounting plates.
The ELS belt systems are unique in that they can be re-configured between one stage and another. If one course of fire has an emphasis on pistol, then you might attach an extra pistol mag pouch. If the stage is shotgun heavy, add more shell carriers.
Belts range in price based on configuration, with the average 3-gun setup running about $200 and up. You'll be sure to need pistol and rifle mag pouches, shotgun shell carriers and a holster.
$200+ (depending on configuration)
The first time you engage steel with your 3-gun loadout shouldn't be during a match. Steel targets appear in almost every course of fire, ranging from plate racks to poppers to spinners. Expect to shoot at steel with all three guns, depending on the layout of the stage.
It's important to practice with reactive steel targets to understand which loads and shotgun chokes will neutralize different types of steel at various distances. Though it's difficult to predict exactly which combinations of guns and ammo will be get the job done for any one course of fire, practicing with steel will give you an understanding of your limitations.
For example, a 147-grain 9mm bullet may knock over a popper at 40 yards, while a 115-grain bullet might not. A Modified choke with #7 birdshot may not neutralize a target at 25 yards, while an Improved Modified choke with the same load gets the job done.
Targets from ShootSteel.com
are a great option for those who want a variety of quality target systems at a fair price. I'd suggest 3/8-inch AR500 reactive targets such as the AutoPopper
and Pepper Poppers
paired with a Clay Target Flipper
Varies — ($100+ per reactive target)
Neutralizing shotgun targets at varying distances is one of the easiest yet most demanding aspects of 3-gun competitions. Some stages include aerial and steel targets, requiring shooters to understand the capabilities of their scatterguns.
One of the best ways to adapt your shotgun from one stage to another is by changing choke tubes. It's advisable to have a set of chokes that enable shooters to control their spread patterns at different distances. Brownells and Carlson's choke tube
sets allow you to choose exactly how you want a shotgun to perform in various stages. The choke sets are available for several common shotguns and includes a lifetime warranty.
Whether you just can't hit the target or the stage requires a high round count, Firepower Base Pads from Taran Tactical Innovations
give you additional magazine capacity when every shot counts.
These replacement base pads are available for a variety of rifle and pistol magazines. Firepower pads add +5 capacity to your Gen 3 Magpul PMAGs and +5 to most pistol magazines without altering their reliability in competition. They also add a larger gripping surface for fast reloads and extra weight to drop free from the magazine well. Price:
$39.99 to $44.99 each (depending on magazine type)
Footwear seems to be one of those topics that's often overlooked but always seems to come up in conversation on the sidelines of matches.
Conditions are always changing. Whether the course of fire includes challenging obstacles or the weather turns for the worst, choosing footwear that performs in many environments is a difficult choice. Cross-country running shoes are great for dry conditions, but they don't hold up to weather and they lack the support needed for juking around obstacles. On the other side of the spectrum, most boots on the market will slow you down or trip you up.
The best all-around option I've found are lightweight boots with support around the ankles. Weighing just 19.2 ounces, Under Armour Speed Freak Chaos Boots
keep you light on your feet without sacrificing stability or traction in changing conditions.
Learn from your mistakes and catch every second of your 3-gun action with GoPro Hero3+
These cameras record impressive 1080p video quality at 60 frames per second, which is fast enough to capture mid-air shell casings and muzzle flashes. Hero3+ cameras are powerful video capturing tools that include remote control, WiFi and GoPro App capabilities.
A variety of mounting options give users the ability to capture video from different perspectives. My favorite mounting option is the head strap
, because the camera goes with you in every step of a 3-gun course. For other applications, picatinny rail mounts
are a versatile option for many firearms. Price:
$299 to $399 (camera); $19.99 (Head Strap); $29.95 (Rail Mount)
Low Mass Bolt Carrier
has been a trusted name in the 3-gun game for nearly two decades.
JP's Polished Stainless Steel Low Mass Bolt Carrier (LMOS)
is like a woman with the perfect combination of brains and beauty. This 416 stainless steel carrier weighs about 30% less than a standard bolt carrier and backs its dazzling looks with race gun performance.
The lower reciprocating mass of the LMOS results in reduced perceived recoil and smoother cycling. It's hard to believe the LMOS could significantly improve the function of a rifle until you test it out. Pairing the LMOS with an adjustable gas block and JP's Silent Captured Spring
system allows users to manually tune an AR-15 for optimum cycling with various ammunition.
Shotgun Shell Loaders
Under normal circumstances, loading shells into a shotgun's magazine tube is non-ergonomic and sometimes painful. Carbon Arms Shotgun Shell Loading Systems
help counteract the awkward nature of shotgun loading.
They also give you the advantage of grabbing and loading two shells at once to reduce your loading times. Most TWinS systems are compatible with popular belt rigs, including the Safariland ELS.
It's important to understand how the variations in 3-gun course design can affect your ammo choices. Having different bullet weights on hand (especially with pistols) will keep you in the game when neutralizing steel targets is the objective.
Rifle ammo should be capable of engaging targets between 10 and 400 yards. Unless the conditions become windy, you can usually get by with 55-grain bullets. I prefer to use Hornady Steel Match 55-grain .223
as an all-purpose round for 3-gun shooting. Folks are often turned off by steel cases, but Hornady loads theirs with premium bullets and propellants and I've experienced excellent reliability through several competitions. Since many matches don't allow time for picking up brass, you won't be missing those steel cases after the match anyways.
The majority of people who shoot 3-gun are using 9x19mm pistols for several reasons. Primarily, the 9mm cartridge is reasonably affordable, accurate and has controllable recoil for fast follow-up shots. The major drawback for using 9mm in 3-gun is that it may not be powerful enough to neutralize steel targets when distances stretch to 20 yards or farther — and for that you need to consider using heavier bullets. Keep a variety of bullet weights from 115- to 147-grain on hand and consider using American Eagle
115- and 124-grain FMJ or Hornady 147-grain XTP
Birdshot is most commonly required for shotgun stages and I suggest using a #7 or #8 1-1/8-ounce target load for the majority of targets. Federal
bulk packs will get the job done. It's also a good idea to have a couple boxes of 00 Buckshot such as Hornady Superformance
and a couple boxes of Remington
1-ounce slugs on hand for heavy steel matches.
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