This write up was done by Justin Myers and it is one of the best introductory pieces an aspiring 3Gunner could read. Justin is one of the few people (probably the only one) I would go to around here if I was looking for help or advice on training or equipment.
3 Gun is one of the fastest growing disciplines in the shooting sports world, and for good reason, it’s literally 3 times the fun! One of the most daunting parts of 3 gun that I hear from almost every detractor is how much equipment is required. While there is quite a bit of equipment involved, I believe some of the hesitation lies in simply not knowing where to start. With this post I hope to shed some light on where to start, what to avoid, and what to wait on. I’m going to break this down in to several simple categories including: Divisions, Rifles, Optics, Pistols, Shotguns and chokes, Belt Gear, Ammunition, Ancillary Equipment.
Starting with divisions, let’s talk the divisions that are out there at most matches. Most of the time you see divisions like Practical/Tactical Optics, Limited/Irons, Open, Heavy and now PCC. Practical/Tactical is far and away the most popular division and most likely where you will find yourself falling. At a basic level, Practical limits you to a tube fed shotgun, and 1 optic between all 3 guns. Your obvious choice is to run a magnified optic of some sort on your rifle. Limited/Irons is exactly what it sounds, it is limited to non-magnified optics (Aimpoints, Eotechs, other Reddots) or iron sights. Open is pretty much anything goes. You can have optics on every gun, multiple optics on one gun, Saiga style mag fed shotguns, the list goes on. Heavy is generally 308 caliber rifles, 45 pistols, and 12g pump shotguns (that has changed a little, but historically that’s been heavy). PCC is one of the fastest growing divisions and allows you to shoot a pistol caliber carbine for your rifle and often times sub your pistol and or shotgun for the rifle. That is match and stage dependent, so don’t bet on most matches letting you run just your PCC, if they allow PCC at all. Once again, most folks will find themselves falling in to the Practical/Tactical Optics division and that’s what the rest of this post will focus on.
The AR15 is quite literally legos for adults. The options are endless and your ability to customize is limited only by your imagination. Because of this, it can be very easy to get caught up in gadgets and gizmos on your rifle and end up with something that isn’t all that practical. In my opinion at a basic level a quality 3 gun rifle has the following characteristics: 16” government profile barrel with a 1/8 or 1/7 twist 223/5.56 or 223 Wylde Chamber, mid-length gas system, free floated handguard 12-15” in length, flat top upper receiver and a 6 position adjustable stock. Sounds pretty simple right? It is. There are plenty of factory options, as well as upper builders who offer configurations like this that you can pull right off the shelf or build yourself for very inexpensively. You should have no trouble putting together the basics for $600-$700. Beyond this is where it can get a little crazy. I break future modifications down in to several different phases in order of importance. Phase 1 Is probably the most important and the minimum most folks should go modifying their rifle. 3Gun is a game of speed and precision. One minute you may be hosing targets as fast as you can pull the trigger, the next you are proned out on a simulated roof top shooting targets out to 400 yards. Phase 1 involves a quality muzzle brake, and a quality trigger. These two mods help facilitate getting our speed up as well as helping to keep the rifle on target. Muzzle brakes are like anything else in the AR world, there are thousands of them, and you can spend big money on them as well. Two budget options that I really like are the Miculek Comp, and the Surefire ProComp. Both of those can be had in the 30-50$ range and work very well. Triggers can be very daunting with the price, but these days the number of quality drop in triggers at good prices is ever growing. Two of my favorites are CMC and Velocity. These triggers can be had as low $135 and drop right in to your rifle and give you an immediate 3.5-4lb crisp trigger with a short reset with no extra work other than dropping it in.
Beyond phase 1, you are chasing minimizing the recoil and muzzle rise of the rifle even further by starting to change out the guts of the rifle. This can get pricey quickly and by no means is it a requirement to go here to be competitive. Phase 2 is pretty simple, adjustable gas block. Most AR15’s are purposefully over gassed so that they will run basically any ammo that you can find on the market. When you over-gas an AR15 you increase the bolt velocity, which in turn increases your recoil. An adjustable gas block is a simple solution to this problem. Adjustable gas blocks have an adjustment screw that allows you dial in just enough gas to properly function your rifle with your ammo of choosing. The downside to an adjustable gas block is that they do require some level of maintenance to keep them working in the long term (ask me how I know), and you are from there on out limited to what ammo you can use. In general, you should choose one brand of ammunition, learn how it does in your rifle and stick with it. That becomes even more important with an adjustable gas block. If you change ammo, DO NOT come to a match without testing it first. The match is not the place to find out your new ammo is lower pressure than what you previously ran and your fancy semi auto is now a bolt action. Popular adjustable gas blocks are from JP, Syrac Ordnance and SLR Rifleworks. Adjustable gas blocks can vary wildly in price, but expect to pay north of $100 for a quality one. I am personally biased towards the SLR sentry gas blocks. The next question that always comes up is “Do I need a set screw gas block or a clamp on”. Good question. Clamp on is easy and requires no specialty tools. Set screw really requires a dimpling jig to install correctly. Set screw models when installed correctly using a jig are very easy to get aligned top dead center. Clamp on blocks require a good eye and a little patience. If you don’t have a dimpling jig, or don’t want to buy one, get a clamp on gas block.
Phase 3 is the final major phase most shooters go through. It involves changing out the Bolt carrier and the buffer system. Earlier we said that increased bolt velocity increases recoil (a gross over simplification, but you get the point). One of the other components of that is the weight of the reciprocating mass, aka the bolt carrier and buffer. To help, shooters adopt varying brands of lightened or redesigned bolt carrier groups that reduce the reciprocating weight and when paired with a quality muzzle brake and adjustable gas block can make for a VERY soft shooting rifle. Lightened BCG’s are more numerous now than they used to be, and the prices and materials used go from mild to wild very quickly. One of the popular things to do right now is making BCG’s out of super light aluminum or titanium. This obviously comes at a cost with Aluminum and Titanium BCG’s running north of $400 in most cases. Like most things they have a trade-off, and that trade-off is long term reliability. In my opinion, you are best to stick to steel bolt carrier groups for long term reliability. Lightened BCG’s can be had from Voodoo Innovations, AIM surplus, Rubber City Armory, and the standby JP Rifles. Most lightened BCG’s are just that, regular BCG’s that have had weight milled out in key areas. JP is one of the few that has a purpose built and designed light weight bolt carrier group. The last component of that is buffer weight. Matching buffer weight to BCG weight is very important. JP makes it easy with their Silent Captured spring system, but there are other companies on the market offering solutions like Taccom. Phase 3 really requires you to be in tune with what your rifle is doing or else you won’t really be able to squeeze full performance out of it. Which is why it’s really not necessary for most folks to go here, especially when you consider the additional cost involved.
Lastly, if you are an oppressed south paw living in a righty’s world like me, then you need to consider changing several components to ambi controls to make the use of the rifle more ergonomic for yourself. At a minimum I would consider an ambi safety from someone like Battle Arms Development, CMMG or Seekins. Beyond that, you should look at an ambi charging handle (Radian Raptor, BCM Ambi, Aero Precision, Geissele, Griffin Armament and more) and an ambi mag release. Unfortunately, ambi mag releases are few in number and expensive. I have personal experience with the classic Norgon units and Troy. I prefer the Norgon personally.
Optics and Mounts
Whew, so there’s rifles! Let’s talk about optics and mounts now. The dominant style of optic in 3 gun is the Low Powered Variable Optic or LPVO. Generally these scopes are 1-4x, 1-6x or even some 1-8x now. Prices range from 300$ up to $2000 or more with plenty in between. It’s important for your optic to have a true 1x low power so that you can utilize the scope like a reddot on up close and personal hoser targets. Achieving true 1x in a variable scope is a little bit of a challenge, and the quality of the 1x improves as you go up in price generally. Several of the lower powered options (Vortex crossfire for instance) do not offer a true 1x and can give you a headache trying to shoot. You also want an illuminated reticle as well as a reticle that is well suited to using holdovers for long distance targets. Unlike precision rifles where you typically dial your elevation for a particular target, trying to dial on the clock in a 3 gun match isn’t practical. So a good holdover reticle is important. Reticles can be very personal in nature and different people like different things. Look at several and choose what you like best. I would personally look no lower than the Vortex Strike Eagle 1-6 or the very similar Primary Arms 1-6. These two scopes fall in the 300$ range and offer great features for your dollar. Up from there, the Burris MTAC, Vortex PST 1-6, Burris RT6, Bushnell MSR 1-4 and others will dominate the space between 300$ and 700$ with varying glass qualities and features. Above $1000 you are looking at Vortex Razor HD 1-6’s, Burris XTR, Bushnell SMRS, Kahles, Leupold and Swarovski. All quality brands and good scopes, but hardly “have to have”. In my opinion, a fantastic middle of the spectrum optic is the Vortex PST 1-6.
Now let’s discuss mounts. In general for AR15’s, typical rings are not a good fit. In most cases, bridging an optic across a free float handguard rail is a recipe for wandering zero and frustration. You need a one piece mount that allows you to push the scope as far forward as you can without getting on to the handguard rail for most LPVO’s. One piece mounts fall in to two basic categories, Quick Detach (QD) and non-qd. What you decide on depends on what you plan to do with the optic. If you are using that optic on another rifle, QD might be a good choice. If it’s a dedicated optic for that rifle, QD may not be necessary. For QD mounts, Larue, Midwest Industries and American Defense are some great companies with quality mounts that return to zero. For non-QD I’m a personal fan of the Aero Precision ultralite SPR mount. High quality mount for well under $100. You can also go even cheaper with the Burris PEPR mount, but I have no long term experience with that particular mount. Warne is also a popular option for non QD mounts. Whatever you get, follow the instructions, and insure that you tighten screws to proper torque values so you neither ruin your scope, or have troubles keeping a zero.
With rifles we are practically limited to AR15 type rifles, but with pistols, your choices are a little more diverse. In the higher levels of 3 gun, custom 9mm 2011 handguns are king for their low recoil and high round capacity. I argue that the 2011 is not necessary and has some disadvantages compared to other choices in the market place. In 3 gun, you frequently dump “hot” guns. Meaning you transitioned from one gun to another and the other one is left in a dump bucket or barrel still loaded. In most matches in order for a dumped gun to be safe, ANY manual safety has to be engaged. With a 2011, it is possible and I have seen manual safeties get knocked off in the process of dumping the gun in a bucket. With care and attention it’s not a big deal, but it’s worth considering. Something like a Glock, M&P, XDM or similar that doesn’t have a manual safety has a bit of an advantage because you don’t have to worry as much. I believe that any of the big name striker fired 9mm handguns in the long slide or duty sized variant is more than sufficient for 3 gun. Some examples would include Glock 17, Glock 34, M&P9, M&P9 pro, FNS, FNS L, XDM, XDM 5.25 competition. Pick one. Beyond that, most stock handguns have terrible sights. You will need a quality set of sights (I am partial to black rear and fiber optic front sights). You will also want magazines capable of holding at least 20 rounds. If you are a Glock guy Magpul and ETS make 20-22rd mags for very competitive prices. Outside of Glock you will need to look at magazine extensions. Dawson Precision, Arredondo, Taran Tactical, Taylor Freelance and Springer Precision are some brands that come to mind. You really won’t need more than 3 magazines, but it never hurts to have a couple more. I have 5 that I take to matches. Triggers are another important component, but you can go a little crazy here. Your main goal is a trigger that you can shoot well. It doesn’t have to be stupid light to be a good trigger. Good clean break, short reset and reliable is what you want. You don’t want something that becomes ammo picky because you’ve lightened the ignition system too much. Some grip tape or stippling is also something you may want to look at to help improve your grip on the gun during dynamic movement and lots of shooting. Last thing you may want to consider is a magwell. Magwells are a nice add-on but not completely necessary. You might do one pistol reload in an average 3 gun stage if you have extended mags, so it’s probably the least important mod for your pistol. I would focus on sights and a trigger first.
Shotguns and Chokes
Let’s move on to shotgun’s and chokes. Shotguns have got to be the most feared gun of 3 gun because most folks simply don’t shoot them that much, at least not in the context that 3 gun puts them in. I feared shotgun myself when I first started and it has turned in to one of my favorite guns to shoot! Shotguns are so diverse in the capabilities they bring to the table that there is always something new to learn to keep you working. In a typical match you will almost for sure shoot bird shot and slugs. In some matches you may shoot birdshot, slugs, buckshot, and even might need some high brass pheasant loads for certain targets. In general, to be competitive you will need a 12g semi-automatic shotgun with a tube capacity of at least 8 rounds or more. Semi-autos break down in to two basic categories: Gas operated and recoil operated. Gas operated is just what it sounds, it utilizes gas generated by the firing process to operate the action and extract, eject and load the gun. Recoil operated guns utilize the recoil force to cycle the gun. As a general rule Recoil guns are lighter and have more recoil than a gas gun. In contrast, Gas guns can be more maintenance intensive than recoil operated shotguns and be less reliable if not maintained. We are in a golden age of 3 gun ready shotguns right now so there are lots of options. In gas guns, the most popular options are the Mossberg 930 JM pro on the low end and the Remington Versa-Max Competition and FN SLP on the high end. All three are ready to roll out of the box with no additional parts needed to get them ready. A relatively recent contender and in my opinion one of the best values in 3 gun ready gas guns is the Beretta 1301 Comp. Beretta is a name that doesn’t need to be explained, and at only 1K for the base gun, and maybe $150 worth of additional parts to get it rolling, it’s a fantastic value. These guns are well made, but are not immune to some teething issues to get them to run 100% sometimes. On the recoil side, we have the Stoeger M3K, Franchi Affinity and the venerable Benelli M2. The Stoeger M3000/M3K has made a huge splash as being a great budget gun option with lots of features. Full custom M3000’s can be had in the 1K range ready to play from MOA precision. The Benelli M2 is by far the most expensive gun we have discussed by far and can be had in custom shop models directly from Benelli, Taran Tactical, RCI X-Rail, Triangle Shooting Sports, Briley and others. The M2 is probably the most popular shotgun used in 3 gun competition nationwide.
Chokes give people a lot of heartburn. Let me make it easy for you. Every new gun comes with some factory chokes. These are fine, use them. If you want a little added convenience, then some extended chokes are worth looking at. You really only need 3 chokes for almost any situation you could imagine in 3 gun. Cylinder or Improved Cylinder, Light Mod or Mod and Full. Cylinder/IC will tackle probably 85% or more of your needs in 3 gun. What’s more important is understanding the pattern of your given load and at what distances it is effective. This is something that comes with experience more than anything. It also behooves you to get out and check zero with your slugs with your C/IC and LM/Mod. chokes. Slugs should not be fired through full chokes.
Alright, so we’ve got all our guns, now we need something to carry our ammo on our person. There are great systems on the market now that can make your entire belt in to one modular rig that you can setup for 3 gun, and any division in USPSA you can imagine by simply clicking in different pouches and holsters where you want them. Modularity is fantastic, but also expensive. You’ll need to start with a belt. Your leather pants belt won’t do. You need a stiff competition belt plain and simple. Go spend the 40-60$ on a DAA or CR Speed belt and let’s move on. You will need at least 2 pistol magazine pouches, 1 rifle magazine pouch and a way to carry your pistol. Kydex pistol and rifle mag pouches are preferred and generally are the most secure and durable. The blade-tech revolution series are great value options. Holster selection is extremely important. In 3 gun you frequently will move through a course of fire while shooting rifle or shotgun, while also carrying a live loaded pistol. It is imperative that you understand that if that live gun comes out of your holster accidentally you are done for the day. For that reason, it is important that you choose a holster that is first and foremost secure. Draw is important, but security is more important for this game. A holster that you can easily adjust for tension is what you want. You want the gun to crisply “pop” in and out of retention if you are using a passive retention holster. The other option, and the one I prefer is active retention holsters, aka duty holsters. On an active retention holster, something has to be engaged to release that gun from the holster, whether that be a thumb lever, or a hood. I am partial to the Safariland ALS series of holsters. I believe they offer the best balance of speed and security on the market and have the most intuitive release mechanism out there. The G-Code holsters are also a great alternative.
Setting up your belt for rifle and pistol is pretty straight forward. I keep my belt setup permanently with 2 pistol mag pouches, one rifle mag pouch and the hanger for my holster. Shotgun is where things get a little tricky. Matches can vary greatly by just how much shotgun ammo you may need in a stage. I’ve seen shotgun only stages that required 65 rounds to complete. That’s a lot of shotgun! Most local matches however rarely if ever get anywhere close to that kind of round count. For most matches 16-24 rounds of additional shotgun ammo is probably more than sufficient. Real quickly let’s talk about shotgun loading techniques because that will color what kind of shotgun caddies you are looking for. Used to, what was called weak hand loading was the king. You loaded 4 shells at a time out of spring loaded caddies that held shells in a vertical stack almost like a magazine. Really good shooters could load 4 weak handed seriously fast. Then load 2 and load 4 hit the 3 gun world, and amateur 3 gunners loading 2 or loading 4 were making pro’s loading weak hand look silly. Plainly put, learn how to load 2 or load 4. Traditional weak hand loading is still a skill you should probably learn down the road, but it’s not necessary up front. So with that said, you will most likely want 2, 8 round caddies, maybe 3. Invictus Practical, Taccom and Carbon Arms are three that immediately come to mind for the dual load and quad load caddies. You really don’t want your shotgun caddies permanently mounted to your belt, so having them mounted via teklok or one of the other modular systems on the market will make it easy to add or remove caddies as you need them.
Ammunition is probably going to be the easiest section. For pistol ammo, a quality load that runs in your particular gun, feeds in your mags and is accurate to your point of aim is all you need. Lead, plated, FMJ, whatever blows up your skirt. As long as it runs it doesn’t matter. For shotgun, you need to settle on a brand of slug that works in your gun, and that you have patterned at 50 yards. Walmart has a great deal on Federal and Winchester slugs for like 12$/15. All you need to do is setup a paper target at 50 yards and see where on the target it hits with your gun shouldered properly and your bead in the center of the target. Write that result down and remember it. For bird shot, you’ll need to once again settle on a load that runs reliably in your gun. 7.5 to 8 shot is all you really need for most cases. If the cheap shells run in your gun, those are generally just fine. It is important to stick with one brand though if you can. You’ll start to build up a knowledge of what that particular shell will do at varying distances, and changing brands can change that. It is also beneficial to have at least one box of high brass #6 shot in your bag that’s pushing 1200-1300fps for heavier targets and things like spinners. For rifle ammo, you do not need match grade ammo. 55Gr blasting ammo is perfectly suitable for distances out to 400 yards. Once again, find something that runs reliably in your gun. If you have an adjustable gas block, tune it for that load and don’t change unless you test before hand. If you have ammo that groups 2” or less at 100 yards, it is suitable for 3 gun. I would encourage you to chronograph your given brand of ammo, and plug that data in to a ballistic calculator (see JBM ballistics) and print out a customized ballistic chart for that round in your gun. Don’t overly rely on generic ballistics charts or what’s on the box. Find out for yourself what it does in your rifle!
We are getting there! You’ve got your guns. You’ve got your belt rig and you’ve gotten all your ammo together. Now what else do I need? I intentionally left out rifle mags, to save it for this section. You will need several different mags in your arsenal. Each serves a purpose. At a minimum, I believe you need 2 Magpul 40rd mags, and 2 30 round mags. The 2 thirty rounders need to be coupled together and utilized for long range shooting. Coupled mags make a great monopod! The 40 rounders are your mags for your typical stage use. It’s also not a bad idea to have an extra coupler or the ability to put the coupler on your 40rd mags where it’s beneficial. Obviously the more capacity the better, so the magazine extensions are certainly “nice to haves” but not “have to haves”. Another nice to have is a 20round magazine, and a drum mag. Occasionally you will see a high round count rifle only stage and the drum mag is nice! The Magpul D60 has been extremely reliable for me. You will also need a way to get all your stuff to the range and from stage to stage. At a minimum a large range bag like the Midway range bags and the CED range bags are great for keeping all of your ammo and mags and everything together. You will also want a double rifle case that can hold your shotgun and rifle (and pistol for that matter). The Voodoo Tactical bags are a great value for that purpose. Chamber flags are another must have for the range. Almost every match and range I have been to require the use of chamber flags to distinguish empty guns from live guns. Bring one for rifle and shotgun, plus a spare or two in case yours gets lost. Additional safety equipment you will need is obviously eye protection and ear protection. A pair of gloves is a nice to have for long shotgun stages to avoid burning your hands, and to protect your hands while resetting stages. I also recommend that you have a notebook that has all of your data on your various guns with you. This notebook should have your dope on your rifle, any data you have collected on your shotgun with various loads, as well as any other helpful information you think you might need. It is also nice to have a laser range finder for matches where the targets are at unknown distances. Often times other competitors will have one and are glad to share distances with you, so it’s not necessary, but certainly nice to have your own.
3 Gun is a fantastic sport that really challenges every aspect of your shooting. There is always something you can work on to get better because the skills required are just so diverse. My hope is that this post will serve as an excellent guide to help you get what you need the first time so you can spend more time and money on the range getting better than fighting gear. I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to show up to something new without the right equipment (or at least most of it) the first time. If you’re not like me, don’t feel like you’ve got to go out and buy all of this stuff before you come out. There are plenty of competitors who will lend you the shirt of your back just to see you succeed at your first match, so the most important thing is to just come out and play!