Modern practical shooting was officially started in 1976 by Jeff Cooper to " `get real' and to evaluate the systems by which fighting skills with the handgun could be properly evaluated and rewarded." It didn't take long until practical "three gun" matches started springing up, to include both the shotgun and rifle into a multi-gun challenge. Started in the early 1980's by Solder of Fortune Magazine, the SOF match brought together a combination of mental, physical, and shooting challenges in a series of stages which competitors shot "blind" - without any prior knowledge.
Roots of 3-Gun Practical Shooting
I spoke to John Paul, owner of JP Enterprises -- the dominant manufacturer of 3-Gun rifles and rifle components -- about the history and influence of the SOF 3-Gun match. John says, "The first time shooting SOF was kind of an eye-opener, it was a style of 3-Gun shooting totally different than what we'd been shooting up to that point. It was kind of intimidating; however, after shooting the match for a few years, I knew that they were really doing it right, asking the right questions. The match was somewhat controversial and some professional shooters didn't like it because it didn't fit the USPSA mentality. Here you had a match where each stage had its own set of rules and each group of range officers were free to make a stage that asked a particular question that pertained to the real world." The SOF rifle stages had small and long-range targets which put a premium on rifle accuracy. John continues, "that particular match was more responsible for the development of our equipment than any other event."
With strict equipment rules and an initial bias toward the .30 caliber, M14 rifles dominated the early SOF matches. The M14 has iron sights with a long sight radius that helps for longer-range targets. Initially, SOF rules prohibited optics; however, there was a clause that "as-issued" military rifles were allowed. Thus, when the Steyr AUG burst on the scene with its integral 1.5x optic, shooters flocked to it for the sighting advantage. In response, the SOF rules were changed to allow any "military-issued" optic, and the Trijicon TA01 ACOG became the dominant sighting system. The TA01 is a 4x optic with a reticle bullet-drop compensator (BDC).
Although the M14 had dominated SOF for years, as the AR-15 became more accepted in the military and police departments started to use them, match directors realized they had to make the match more neutral toward the smaller caliber. As the match rules were changed to allow more scoring equality between the big .30 caliber rifles and the .223 AR-15, competitors soon realized that the accuracy potential of the AR-15, ease of operation for reloads, light recoil, and simplicity of mounting optics made it the winning choice for 3-Gun. Other .223 platforms were tried, such as the Ruger Mini-14; however, the Mini-14's poor accuracy was not suited for the long-range rifle stages at SOF. In summary, the AR-15 became the dominant 3-Gun rifle platform due to the SOF 3-Gun match's "real rifle shooting."
Put simply, the challenge of the 3-Gun rifle is to enable fast hits on targets from contact distance out to four or five-hundred yards. With its potential for accuracy and low recoil, shooters concentrated their efforts on improving the AR-15.
First, an acceptable match trigger was needed. While military and NRA High-Power shooters were used to two-stage match triggers, for action shooting a single-stage trigger is best. The JP single-stage trigger dominates 3-Gun rifles. The JP trigger can be set up with from about a three pound to a four and a half pound pull, with a very short reset.
Rifle accuracy equals speed. For example, if engaging a ten inch plate at 400 yards, a two moa rifle will shoot in an eight inch cone and requires that the shooter hold essentially dead on; however, a half moa rifle will shoot into a two-inch cone and the shooter can be a little more sloppy, which means he can shoot faster and still make hits. AR-15 accuracy was improved on three fronts. First, barrel quality has the largest impact. Factory chrome-lined barrels gave way to stainless match barrels which shoot half to three-quarter moa groups. Second, free-floating hand-guards were added to prevent force on the fore-end from changing the point of impact. Lastly, ammunition was improved to help accuracy and long-range wind performance. Barrel twist affects ammunition choices; the heavy 75 and 77 grain ammunition which deflects less from wind on long-range targets requires a twist rate of 1:8 or faster.
Although the recoil of the .223 cartridge is slight, sight picture recovery time is key to shooting fast and accurately. Recoil control starts with ensuring the gas port size is correctly tuned. Many AR-15 rifles, especially those with carbine- or mid-length gas systems, are over-gassed which causes extraction problems. Next, an effective muzzle brake can help to counteract both the primary recoil impulse and muzzle rise.
The last aspect to recoil management involves tuning the reciprocating mass and springs that comprise the rifle action. In the AR-15, the bolt carrier group (BCG) and recoil buffer move rearward until they bottom out in the receiver extension tube. As they bounce and change direction, they impart additional rearward momentum to the rifle. Next, they return forward, strip the next round from the magazine, and then slam into battery causing muzzle dip. By reducing the total reciprocating mass, the inertia effects of these secondary recoil impulses can be reduced. This shortens the action's cycle time and increases BCG speed. With this change, not only is the action finished operating and ready to fire again sooner, but many 3-Gun shooters perceive a faster-cycling action as causing less sight-picture movement.
Anatomy of a Modern 3-Gun Rifle
There's nothing wrong with taking a factory AR-15 and running it in 3-Gun, or for that matter shooting whatever rifle suits your fancy. For police and military who use a rifle professionally, shooting a duty rifle in practical competition is a great way to practice under time pressure and some external stress.
Many competitors take an off-the-shelf AR-15 and make some changes to turn it into a decent 3-Gun rifle. It's not hard to screw on a muzzle brake, put in a trigger, and add an optic. However, for those who want to push the envelope of shooter and rifle performance, a focus-built rifle helps.
Mid-South Tactical Network (MSTN) has its roots in building very high quality "fighting" AR-15 uppers, which are known for extreme reliability and accuracy. Since a large part of their business is building to custom specifications, it was only a matter of time until someone requested an upper built specifically for 3-Gun. MSTN's design philosophy of reliability and accuracy were a good match to the nexus of rifle capability desired by 3-Gun shooters.
I asked Paul Ertsgaard, part-owner and gun-builder for Mid-South Tactical Network (MSTN), what differentiates a custom-built practical rifle from a factory. The first part of the answer was that randomly-picked rifle parts usually don't fit and work together as good as they could. By ensuring critical dimensions are correct and matching parts together, a builder can improve the ultimate reliability and capability of the weapon.
Paul explained, "There's a big difference between a high-end barrel and a rack-grade barrel. If you shoot good quality ammunition through a really good custom barrel, you'll see a lower velocity spread than the rack-grade barrel. This causes problems at long-range. There's a level of confidence that a really good barrel brings, the ability to just make hits, through a larger margin of error available to the shooter."
The 3-Gun uppers built by MSTN exhibit exemplary reliability, accuracy of about one-half moa with match ammunition, and a general compact and lightweight format, which Paul believes is key to the practical utility of the weapon. While conventional wisdom says that a heavy barrel is required for accuracy, due to the influence of NRA High Power, the modern 3-Gun uppers built by MSTN are centered around a lightweight top-grade match barrel between 16 and 18 inches in length with a tuned gas system and centered in a PRI free-float tube. It's no surprise this format looks a lot like the "Recce" rifle in use by some U.S. Military units or the Mark 12 Mod 0 "SPR"; these rifles have been designed to perform from very close range out to the ballistic limit of the 5.56 mm cartridge. This format allows the shooter to put rounds on target as quickly as possible from a lighter, handier, and more mobile package.
While many dismiss competition guns as nothing more than clubs for "bullet golf," there has been an interesting give and take between 3-Gun shooters and military tactical shooters. Technology and techniques flow both directions. For example, in the late 1990's, Dan Young designed and manufactured a lightweight bolt carrier for a U.S. Special Forces team that requested it for use with specific ammunition. Due to the logistics of keeping "duplicate" items in the supply chain, they stopped using it. However, 3-Gun shooters tried the same idea and discovered that a lightened bolt carrier sped up the action, reduced apparent recoil, and improved sight-picture recovery.
Gear and techniques developed to gain advantage in 3-Gun competition have flowed over to the military side. A good example of this is the use of two optics. Medium and long-range targets are best addressed by a magnified optic; however, these often incur a speed penalty when engaging close-range targets. The fastest optic for an assault course with close-range targets in a 1x red dot. Three-gun shooters combined these two systems, mounting a small dot sight such as the German DocterSight or JP Enterprises' JPoint on the rifle in addition to the regular magnified optic. Today's battlefields demand that soldiers may have to interchangeably engage enemies hundreds of yards away or kick doors; the two-optic setup is a perfect solution to this problem, and it is seeing use by soldiers for exactly that reason.
Three-Gun competition provides a crucible in which to test incremental improvements in both the design of the practical rifle and the techniques used to shoot fast with one key advantage over combat: the targets don't shoot back. Paul from MSTN explains, "Improvements that enhance what the gun is meant to do - to put rounds on target as quickly as possible, and do it in a lighter, handier, more mobile and easier to pack around total package are always going to be interesting to military folks, especially Special Forces troops who have an ability to choose what they want. They don't have time to try every idea that comes to market; their R&D time is limited, so they pay attention to what goes on in the competition world. If it has benefit there, it may work on the battlefield too."
However, competition is not combat. Paul continues, "What we see in the military application versus competition is that competitors are able to control most aspects of their shooting environment: they know when they are going to a match, they know what they are going to wear, what safety gear they are going to use, and they can optimize their weapons inside that framework." For example, when 3-Gun shooters run the two-optic setup, the 1x red dot is almost always mounted on the rear of the free-float tube at a 45-degree angle on the shooter's strong side. To switch from the magnified optic to the short-range red-dot sight, the competitor merely rotates the rifle inboard 45 degrees and looks through the dot. However, a soldier needs to have his rifle set up to accommodate bulky body armor, load-bearing vests, and a helmet. Military users of the two-optic setup mount the red dot on top of the ocular lens of their magnified optic. This setup was productized by Trijicon in the TA31DOC and TA01NSN-DOC models. JP Enterprises also sells a ring mount which allows the use of most small red-dot optics on the ocular housing of any full-size ACOG model.
Other areas where tactical rifles differ from purpose-built 3-Gun competition rifles include the trigger and the muzzle device. Military users rarely use short single-stage match triggers due to perceived reliability problems, although the Knights full-auto-capable two-stage trigger and a full-auto version of the JP trigger are in limited use. Muzzle brakes are ubiquitous in 3-Gun to aid recoil control; however, military shooters have to worry more about things like muzzle blast signature and the effects of concussive blast in confined spaces. The military shooter is more likely to have a flash-hider muzzle device which doubles as a sound suppressor mount point.
My MSTN Comp-Tac
For the last three years, I've been shooting an upper that Paul and I specced out to be extremely accurate and reasonably light weight and to give sustained accuracy with no zero shift even on long, high round-count assault courses. At the time, I had just witnessed several rifles fail catastrophically due to heat-related reliability problems and large zero shifts due to barrel heat, making the sights almost useless; I wanted an upper that wouldn't have these problems.
To retain the use of the rifle-length gas system for a more mild recoil impulse but to keep the handiness of the overall package, we went with a 17-inch barrel cut from a Krieger blank using a profile a little heavier than his normal lightweight competition uppers to better tolerate heat. The 1-in-7.7 twist rifling enables the use of heavy 75 and 77 grain ammunition which helps to beat the wind on long-range targets. The forend is a PRI float tube with heat shields, which accepts modular rails for front back-up iron sights (BUIS), vertical fore-grips (VFG), sling mounts, or bi-pods. A hard-chromed lightweight bolt carrier from Young Manufacturing completed the basic upper.
Since I shoot in "Tactical" division, I topped the upper with a 3.5x Trijicon TA11 ACOG, which provides more eye relief and a larger exit pupil than the TA01 and TA31 models. This optic requires some training to maintain high speed on close-range engagements, but enables very fast hits on long-range practical targets out to 400 or 500 yards. The rifle is completed with a lower housing a JP Enterprises four-pound single-stage trigger, and parts to suit my preferences: a Magpul MIAD grip, trigger guard, and UBR stock.
I've used my MSTN rifle at both local and major 3-Gun and practical rifle matches to rack up some wins and good finishes. When new, the barrel would deliver one-third moa groups shooting Black Hills 75-gr remanufactured ammunition. Thirty-six months and seven thousand rounds later, it still shoots moa and has proven very reliable.
The concept and execution of the practical rifle has come a long way over the last twenty-five years as old designs and prejudices gave way to new equipment and new realizations about what a carbine can accomplish. The modern 3-Gun rifle represents a format combining reliability, accuracy, and compact size which is applicable to both competition and tactical use.
Rocky Mountain 3-Gun Nationals http://www.rm3g.com/
Superstition Mountain Mystery 3-Gun http://www.smm3gun.com/
Fort Benning Tactical 3-Gun Championship http://lchico.5u.com/AMU.html
MGM Ironman 3-Gun Match http://www.mgmtargets.com/iron_man/index.php
Johnson 3-Gun Match http://home.earthlink.net/~johnson3gun/
Northwest Multi-Gun Challenge http://www.randrracingonline.com/
Mid-South Tactical Network http://www.mstn.biz/
JP Enterprises http://www.jprifles.com/
# 1. Practical rifle competition is an excellent place to work on skills and get the bugs out of "duty" gear.
# 2. If you can imagine this military Mark 12 Mod 0 "SPR" without the suppressor and some of the forend rails, it looks a lot like many 3-Gun rifles.
# 3. Smith used this 20-inch JP Enterprises CTR-02 at the 2004 International Tactical Rifleman Championships (ITRC) to engage carbine targets out to 500 yards.
# 4. Some matches provide extreme tests of reliability and rifle endurance; Smith's teammate shot approximately 400 rounds worth of aimed fire in 20 minutes at the 2005 ITRC.
# 5. Practical or Tactical? This upper was built by MSTN for use in the long-range 3-Gun rifle stages typical in the Colorado Rockies; however, with the muzzle brake replaced by a suppressor, it looks and shoots a lot like a military Mark 12 "SPR."
# 6. Three-gun shooter Kurt Miller built this rifle for Limited division, which only permits iron sights; it features an extended sight radius, muzzle brake, and JP low-mass bolt carrier group.
# 7. The author's 17-inch MSTN Comp-Tac upper is light and fast; here Smith hammers a pair of 25-yard targets through the TA11 ACOG.
# 8. Cavalry Arms Shooting Team member Russell Phagan demonstrates use of a two optic setup in Open division at the 2007 Rocky Mountain 3-Gun Nationals held in Raton, NM.
# 9. The 1.1-4x20 mm Schmidt & Bender "Short Dot" scope is an extremely expensive optic, but provides both great close-range speed at 1.1x and long-range ability at 4x.
# 10. XXX. At major matches around the country, JP rifles fitted with Trijicon ACOGs are ubiquitous; this shooter uses a TA01 ACOG on an 18-inch JP CTR-02 to engage targets from 100 to 425 yards.
# 11. Battle rifles such as the M14 gave way to the AR-15 because they enable faster hits and more accuracy; however, the M14 is seeing a limited comeback in "He-Man" division which requires the use of .308 or .30-06.
# 12. The 17-inch Krieger barrel on the author's 3-Gun rifle started out shooting one-third moa and degraded over three years to just under one moa; on this stage with 200 to 425 yard targets, accuracy means speed.