Introduction to "Three Gun" Competition

Introduction to “Three Gun” Competition

Author: Will McElwaine


Three Gun shooting is one of the fastest-growing competitive shooting sports in the United States.

Three Gun is practical shooting while moving through dynamic shooting courses and shooting at a variety of targets. 

Clubs and sponsors build courses limited only by their imagination and safety constraints. 

Targets may consist of stationary sporting clays, steel gongs, or remote control moving targets. 

Firing positions may include toilet seats, airplanes, and vehicles. 

As the name implies, the sport includes shooting with three different guns:  a pistol, a shotgun, and a rifle. 

This means three-gun is a chance to grab all of your favorites from your gun safe and spend the day at the range pushing yourself in friendly competition.

3 gun stage


Most shooters likely have the basic gear needed to get started. 

Minimum gear includes a 9mm or larger pistol with a magazine, a 20 gauge or larger shotgun with a magazine, and a center-fire rifle with a magazine. 

These are the basics, but to be competitive shooters will need semiautomatic firearms in each category. 

Most serious competitors use a "modern sporting rifle" or an "AR" for the rifle stage. 

If you do not yet have all Three Guns, partner with a buddy who has what you are missing and trade weapons as you work as a team. 

At your first competition you will be amazed by the precision gear that some shooters have, but do not be intimidated. 

As long as you have the basic gear and a willingness to learn and have fun you have everything you need. 

After a couple of matches, you will have a better idea of which gear upgrades you want to make.


Competitive shooting is an exercise for the shooter and the guns. 

Three Gun is a challenge that gets the shooter a bit of physical exercise while working through some mental gymnastics to plan and execute dynamic shooting stages. 

Competition is also an important opportunity to realize the full potential of the premium tactical firearms that most shooters own. 

A modern AR is capable of firing 800 rounds per minute and it can be accurate out to 600 yards. 

Three Gun competition will not have you shooting at that distance or using that much ammo, but you will realize your rifle's full potential and you will appreciate the AR's rate of fire as you push yourself to shoot fast and accurate.

daniel defense ar15 for three gun


Firearm Safety


Safety is paramount in competitive shooting. 

A safe shooter will “fit in” with the club. 

The social norms of shooting are defined by safe weapons handling. 

Shooters new to practical shooting will have to apply normal safety rules while handling the weapon in more dynamic settings, such as shooting from behind concealed positions, moving while shooting, or administratively traversing a course of fire to the next target while carrying a weapon. 

Here is a quick review of the four safety rules most shooters are already familiar with, and a  primer for how they apply to Three Gun practical shooting:


  1. Treat every weapon as if it were loaded
  • In Three Gun practical shooting you will be handling and moving your weapons a lot. Treating a weapon as if it is loaded starts when storing or removing the weapon from your vehicle.  Each range will have specific rules about when and where to handle weapons.  Watch other shooters and ask if you have any questions.


  1. Never point a weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot
  • "Muzzle Awareness" is a new skill if you are accustomed to shooting on static firing lines or benches at a local range. The shooter's mind must be constantly aware of where the muzzle is pointed.  While moving in a tactical shooting scenario keep the muzzle pointed down-range.  A shooter can slip or pivot in a second and cause a dangerous safety violation by pointing the muzzle anywhere but downrange.



  1. Keep finger straight and off the trigger until you are ready to fire
  • This is often the first distinguishing mark of a skilled shooter or someone who is a hazard on the range. Take a look at those smiling photos shooters like to take showing off their guns.  If the finger is straight and off the trigger, you are looking at a skilled, safe shooter.  While shooting, the finger only goes on the trigger when the sites are on target and after the safety comes off.



  1. Keep weapon on safe until you intend to fire
  • Manipulating the safety becomes as important as trigger control in practical shooting. Most double-action pistols do not have nor need safeties, the holster effectively functions as the safety.  Single action 1911 style pistols must use safeties.  The safety rules are the same for a 1911, but these pistols require particular mindfulness about the use of the safety.  Shotguns and rifles always have safeties, and the drill is the same for every stage:
    1. Buzzer beeps
    2. Safety off
    3. Sites on-target
    4. Fire shots
    5. Safety off
    6. Sites off-target


Follow these rules all of the time, every time to fit in like a champ.  Local ranges may have particular rules such as the use of breech flags to indicate an unloaded weapon. 

Try to find out about any unique rules before or as soon as you arrive at the range. 

Do not be surprised or offended if a range safety officer gives directive verbal guidance in a loud tone of voice. 

New shooters will quickly learn the customs and rules of a new range.


Building Your “Kit” for Three Gun Competition


The "kit" is the British term for the gear that Americans call accessories, deuce gear, or battle rattle among other terms. 

These are the nice-to-have items that optimize your weapon and maximize your ability to improve your skills as a shooter. 

Three Gun competition is divided into divisions based on the gear that shooters are allowed to use. 

Shooters new to Three Gun may prefer to shoot in divisions that limit gear to the basics, or new shooters may already have many of the items that are only allowed in the more open division. 

No division is better than the other, it is entirely up to the shooter's preference.  Rulebooks at specific matches will vary because there are multiple governing bodies for Three Gun competition. 

The National Shooting Sports Foundation uses the following divisions:


  • Limited—The gear is limited, with no un-magnified optics and no bipods. Just because the gear is limited does not mean the shooter's skill is limited.
  • Tactical—The tactical division has the same gear limitations as the limited division, except shooters can use magnified optics.
  • Heavy Metal—This division is for big bore weapons, rifles must be 7.62 or larger, pistols must be .45 or larger, and shotguns must be 12 gauge or larger.
  • Open—They call this the "almost anything goes" division. There are very few limitations, this is where shooters may use a lightweight carbon fiber bipod for long-range shots or shots from supported positions.
  • Outlaw Open—They say as long as it’s safe, anything goes in this division. This division is great for tinkerers who like to build out and customize their weapons, which the AR15 is well-suited for.


Rifle optics are the most important starting point when building your kit for Three Gun competition, and they should be the biggest investment besides the firearms.  

Money spent on cheap, Chinese, mass-produced, optics is money wasted. 

A bargain-price red dot may seem fine when testing it in your garage, but the red dot will be quickly washed out by the sun in competition. 

Start with the scope's mount. 

A quality machined single piece mount such as the Tier One Long Saddle Monomount is a great foundation for your optics. 

The Tier One mount is made with the highest quality 7000 series aluminum and it uses sensible design features such as a large scope clamping area to withstand heavy recoil and other jolts while handling your weapon in practical shooting competition. 

This mount is manufactured from a single piece of metal and it is built for worry-free use while keeping up with the demands of practical shooting in Three Gun competition.  


Rifle optics should be low-powered or variable power with a wide field of view.  Shooters must become accustomed to low-powered optics because many rifle targets are close-range and would be difficult or impossible to see with scopes designed only for long-range shots. 

About 80% of rifle shots in competition will be at less than 50 yards, but most matches will have a few long-range shots in the rifle stage. 

This is the time when shooters will need to slow down, build a good position, take advantage of a little scope magnification, and fire slow, well-aimed shots.


Lightweight, carbon fiber bipods are handy for these shots. 

Bipods give shooters a fast and practical rest with maximum stability for long-range shots. 

The Tier One Carbon Fiber Tactical Bipod is perfect for Three Gun shooters because it's carbon fiber construction maximizes strength at the least possible weight. 

This bipod quickly snaps into position with two flicks of a finger, and it is available with a pan and tilt mount. 

The pan and tilt mount is recommended for Three Gun because shooters will usually have to hit multiple long-range targets across the field of view, which means the bipod must enable the shooter to traverse laterally with ease.


Once shooters have competed in their first few matches they will quickly become familiar and comfortable with Three Gun shooting. 

Shooters should look for opportunities to volunteer with the club to help run matches. 

There is always a need for timekeeping and scoring, and it takes dedicated volunteers to build the creative shooting challenges that keep Three Gun shooters on their toes. 

Volunteering helps shooters observe the sport from start to finish, and become more proficient as a shooter. 

Shooters who wish to learn from the best can attend the Peacemaker National Training Center in West Virginia or the Gunsite Academy in Arizona. 


Author: Will McElwaine

Will McElwaine is an NRA Certified Rifle Instructor and U.S. Marine Corps Veteran.  He has earned the NRA Rifle Distinguished Expert Award as well as Marine Corps Rifle and Pistol Expert Awards.  He writes informative articles about adventure tourism and firearms and he is still serving in the Marine Corps Reserve.

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