3-Gun Part 1

Lets Look At The Handgun

shari shooting

Shari LeGate on a stage shoots her Nighthawk Custom 1911 9mm at the Brownells Lady 3-Gun Competition.

Competitive shooters are mostly purists. They shoot one discipline and work to excel in that one game. To become a dominant force in any game, it’s necessary to focus all your energy and ability on that one discipline. Very seldom, you see a high-power rifle shooter partake in a Silhouette match, or a Skeet shooter competing at Trap. But in 3-Gun competition—well that’s a different game and the shooters are a different breed. If you haven’t heard of 3-Gun competition, you haven’t been listening. Three-Gun Competition is the fastest growing shooting sport right now.

So, if most shooters are purists, why is this shooting sport growing so quickly? If you’ve never shot a 3-Gun competition, it’s easy to ask the question, but once you’ve stepped out on the range of a 3-gun event and actually shot in a match, you’ll understand the appeal. This game will challenge even the most experienced of shooters. However, there is a lot to this game. The guns, the gear, the targets, the strategy.

Three-Gun is exactly what its name says. Three different guns used in the same course of fire—a pistol, rifle and shotgun. Most shooters use a 9mm semi-auto handgun, but there are .38 Super’s and .40 S&W’s, depending on the division. The rifle is an MSR (a modern sporting rifle, usually built on an AR-platform) with a barrel length between 18 and 20 inches and a 30-round magazine. The shotgun is a semi-auto with extended magazine tube and interchangeable chokes. Both shotshells and slugs are used.

And that’s just the guns. Let’s talk gear. Without a doubt, this is the most gear-intensive game I’ve dealt with. In Olympic rifle, shooters hauled their gear in little wagons there was so much and the same holds true in 3-Gun. Some shooters use specifically designed 3-Gun bags carried on their back. All three guns, all the ammo, magazines, holsters, shell carriers, etc., but those bags can weigh up to 70 pounds or more. That’s a lot of weight to carry around all day. I swore I would never use a wagon, but that was before I came across 3-Gun.

Three-Gun competitions consist of numerous unique and different stages. Each stage is set with a mixture of targets—paper, steel and clay. There is no set number of stages or a regulated consistent course of fire in. It’s up to the creativity of the course designer, which is what makes the game so challenging. Each stage usually requires the use of all three guns, and the most important factor is speed. How fast you can shoot through the stage is the key and oh… one other thing: hit all the targets.
Economy of movement is essential. Whether it’s in the draw, in the reloading of magazines or shotshells, in the transition from one gun to the next or in the amount of steps it takes to get into position. All are strategized and scrutinized. Seconds matter and each second is taken into consideration. If turning right instead of left to engage the next target saves a half second, turn right. Missing one target might force a reload and seconds are wasted. A sloppy reload is a disaster. After watching some of the top 3-Gun shooters, I would say the mantra for 3-Gun is: The smoother you are, the faster you are and the slower you look.

Now, I covered many 3-Gun competition’s over the years, personally know many of the pro-shooters and have shot parts of the event at different times, but I never actually entered and shot an entire event… until the Brownells Lady 3-Gun Pro-Am Challenge a few months ago. Deciding to shoot this event, I looked through my gun safe determining what I had and what I would need. I’ve accumulated a lot of handguns, rifles and shotguns over the years, but none of my handguns would work for this competition. So, I saw this as an opportunity for a new gun.

1911 Nighthawk

Shari’s competition 1911 starts as a jumble of parts and each is fitted by just one gunsmith at Nighthawk.

The Handgun

This game requires a lot of equipment and getting into it can be a bit expensive, depending on the type of guns and gear you choose. Manufacturers are making guns and gear just for 3-Gun competition. Companies such as FNH USA, Smith & Wesson, Glock and STI and numerous others all make guns for this event, so it boils down to how much you want to spend. However, in 3-Gun, the handgun is the most used, so you need a good quality pistol accurate, reliable, fast and easy to make safe.

In trying to pick up precious seconds, competitors are always seeking to tinker with their equipment. Quicker draws, faster ways to reload are always on top of everyone’s mind. For my first competition, I used a Nighthawk Custom 1911 9mm Dominator. I knew I needed a gun customized to me, and in today’s market, where handguns come off an assembly line like candy, I didn’t want to have to spend the extra time and additional dollars customizing the gun to me and the game.

I called Nighthawk Custom and we started the process by finding out what the intended use of the gun was and they proceeded to build it specifically for that purpose. In 3-Gun, where a slight equipment anomaly can add a few seconds and drop you from the top 10 to the bottom 100, a handgun built specifically to you and to what its use is—notice I didn’t say “for”—can make a world of difference.

After my initial order, I received a call from Bryan Chaney, the gunsmith who was building the gun asking me question after question. Am I right-or left-handed? What was the size of my hand? What kind of shooter was I? (I did confess I was a career shotgun shooter and pistol was not my specialty.) What type of competition was I using it for? What type of sight do I prefer? What ammunition will I be using? So many questions, but as Bryan explained to me, he was fitting the pistol to the person.

It takes about a day and a half to build a gun and at Nighthawk I found it’s one person who takes the gun from start to finish. It was like having my own personal gunsmith. With this gun, Bryan thinned the front frame strap and mainspring housing for me so I would have more control. An additional extractor was added, finished and tuned and a “Blended Falcon 1-Piece Magwell / Mainspring Housing Combination was added. I opted for a black adjustable rear sight with red fiber optic front.

Bryan knew I was using the gun in competition and didn’t want anything to affect it’s performance. Before it was sent out, he shot it, running 2 to 4 magazines through it. When the gun arrived, I noticed Bryan’s initials on it. Nighthawk gunsmith’s take pride in building their guns and the one’s they build become a part of them. If anything is needed, it comes back to that gunsmith. If I had questions or concerns, I could just pick up the phone and call him directly. When I shot the gun for the first time, it was smooth and soft. I had a gun ready for me and for 3-Gun.


Nighthawk gunsmith Brian Chaney is breaking the internal edges of the frame, which enhances the trigger’s crisp, clean feel.

Just Do It

I had my equipment and was now ready to make my debut into 3-Gun. Showing up at any event for the first time can be intimidating, especially if you truly don’t know what you’re doing (and I didn’t). But having the courage to show up and give it my best effort was half the battle. No one laughed and pointed fingers, quite the contrary. I was welcomed by competitors and range officers alike, and everyone offered help and advice.

This is a fast game and requires a lot of thinking ahead. I have new respect for 3-gun shooters. It’s not a game for the faint of heart or pocketbook, but it’s a game that will give you a taste of all the disciplines. Be forewarned though, patience is a virtue here. The sport of 3-Gun is easy to learn, but difficult to master. I have a long way to go, but after shooting it for the first time, I’m hooked. I can honestly say—I’m no longer a purist.

Footnote: There is much to explain about the game and gear of 3-Gun, and getting it all in one column would have taken up way too much space. So this is a 3-part series. “Three-Gun Part II—Dissecting the Game & Equipment: The Rifle” will be in my next column.

Nighthawk Custom
1306 W. Trimble, Berryville, AR 72616
(877) 268-4867