3-Gun Competition 101: An Introduction to America’s Fastest Growing Shooting Sport

Steel poppers are popular in 3-gun competitions.

Match directors often use various forms of props and constructions to provide interesting target presentations. Knock-over, static steel targets are common in 3-gun competition, such as this piece of steel placed during the 2010 Blue Ridge Mountain 3-Gun competition.


Steel targets also show up in various forms, ranging from simple knock-over pieces of circular or rectangular steel sitting on top of a target stand, to advanced steel target systems manufactured by MGM Targets and others. Hinged “poppers,” also known as “plate racks” (six or more pieces of circular steel affixed to a target stand), static steel plates affixed to target stands, and reactive steel targets that move when struck are all used.

Auto poppers are popular for rifle stages—here, the popper goes down when hit, then mechanically resets itself without anyone having to go downrange. Most reactive steel targets require a range officer to call “hits” when used in competition. Clay birds are another common target, and they’re usually found in the form of a static target placed on a target stand. Clays are also thrown, as they might be in traditional sporting clays, trap, or skeet clay bird games, on some stages, adding a further degree of difficulty to 3-gun competition.

A "Texas Star" Used in 3-Gun Competition

Gravity moving targets such as a “Texas Star” or “Whirly Gig” will be seen at many 3-gun competitions.

Moving targets offer yet another challenge. Often activated when a popper is knocked down, these limited-exposure targets come in many forms. Usually a paper target, the presentation can be moving from side-to-side, often only partially exposed. It can also turn towards the competitor, and then away again after a moment. There is also an “attack target” which accelerates toward the competitor before disappearing out of view. Limited-exposure targets can be extremely challenging!

Finally, there are the specialty targets—Texas Stars, Spinners, the Propeller Rack—that use gravity and balance to move in various directions. There are many specialty targets, especially the popular ones from MGM Targets, that provide fun and challenging shooting in 3-gun competition.

Ultimately, depending upon the stage description given by the range officer, all of these different types of targets and presentations can be presented for specific or multiple firearms within a given stage—that means 3-gun competition is a thinking man’s game as much as it is one of pure shooting fundamentals and skill.

As with most action shooting sports, 3-gun competition is one that is measured in time. When shooting a stage, the competitor, under the direction of the range officer, will “stage” any firearms (i.e., put them in various places throughout the stage for pickup and use when they get to that portion), and, finally, receive the command to “make ready,” with a specific firearm.

Then, holding a timer that tracks each audible shot, the range officer pushes the timer’s button, a “beep” goes off, and competitor’s rip through stages as fast as their skills allow. At the end of the stage, the raw time it took the shooter to complete the stage is recorded, then any penalties for procedurals or targets missed are applied to form a final stage time, or score. Each stage time is added up, and, as it is with golf, where the fewest strokes win a match, the 3-gun competitor who finishes an event the quickest, penalties included, is the match winner.

Matches themselves vary in size (both competitor number and venue), and form. Major Matches, such as Superstition Mountain Mystery 3-Gun competition, in Arizona, which I’ll cover later in this book, feature 250 or more shooters, utilize a wide array of props and targets, and boast some of the fastest, wide-open types of stages in 3-gun competition. They often consist of short stages confined to three-wall bermed shooting bays, and the targets and scoring system combine to promote extremely fast shooting.

Blue Ridge Mountain 3-gun, conversely, is a Major Match situated in the rolling hills of Kentucky, which provides a tremendously challenging natural terrain course of fire, one that is also very physical. The scoring and target placement penalize inaccuracy, especially with a rifle, so Blue Ridge becomes a very physical, accuracy-oriented test of skills.

At the local level, match stages are most often contained in shooting bays and limited to 100 yards, although some clubs certainly have the ability to hold long-range rifle stages. Fields of competitors can be anywhere between 20 and 100 in a one-day local club match, offering a wide range of shooting experiences. No matter what the size or location of the shoot, scoring formulas, rule structures, target presentations, and match styles can vary wildly in the sport—there is, quite literally, a different face to 3-gun competition nearly everywhere you go. But, this is part of its core, and just one of the many reasons 3-gun competition remains the most exciting discipline in all of shooting.

Keep Reading About 3-Gun Competitions

3-gun shooting competition bookThis article is actually the first chapter from the hit book, Complete Guide to 3-Gun Competitions. It’s full of in-depth information on 3-gun competitions. The book is perfect for anyone looking to get into this exciting sport or competitors looking to up their game.

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