Getting into 3-Gun: The Rifle
Before you purchase
If you are reading this article then chances are good that you have at least heard of the sport of 3-gun. The sport of 3-gun requires the competitor to utilize pistol, rifle, and shotgun all in one match. This unique assortment of shooting challenges has helped to attract many people to the sport in recent years. It seems that most people I meet who are interested in the sport already own a semi automatic pistol and some variant of the AR-15. If you already own a rifle, keep reading because you might find answers to some of the questions that you have. The purpose of this article is to provide some basic recommendations on the rifle as it relates to 3-gun.
There is not one standardized set of rules that covers all 3-gun matches, however the rules specific to the rifle are very similar for the largest classes such as tactical optics and tactical irons. In most cases, you can shoot one rifle in any type of 3-gun match without changes. For the most part you need a safe, reliable, semi-automatic rifle, .223 caliber or larger rifle, that can accurately engage targets out to 300-500 yards. Distance depends on the facilities available and the match directors hosting the matches that you attend.
If you already own a semi-automatic rifle that meets the previously mentioned basic requirements then you should look for a local match and try it out before you spend any additional money on a rifle. Before the match, make sure you have a good zero on whatever sights you have so that you can hit the targets. Additionally you should check the match bulletin for notes on ammunition. Typically, steel core ammo such as M855 is not allowed at 3-gun matches because it could potentially damage steel targets and ricochet. You should also read any match rules to make sure you have a basic understanding of the rules of the match, especially the safety rules. Many clubs will hold a new shooters meeting before the match to discuss the basic rules, however you may need to arrive early to attend.
If you do not own a rifle, you may want to attend a 3-gun match and see which rifles competitors are using. Most shooters are very friendly and will talk at length about their firearms. Some will even offer to let you shoot their weapons a little so you can see what you like. Before you purchase a rifle, make sure you know which division you plan to compete in. Generally, you will want to purchase a rifle chambered in .223/5.56mm because it is relatively inexpensive to shoot and exhibits minimal recoil. Purchasing a rifle chambered in another caliber such as .308/7.62x51mm would typically be a disadvantage unless you plan to compete in a “Heavy” division that requires the larger caliber. Rules in the “Heavy” divisions are not nearly as standardized as in the more popular tactical optics and tactical irons divisions, which may require changes to your equipment between matches.
Selecting your rifle
If you already own a rifle you should start with what you have. If you decide that you need a new rifle or want to modify the one that you have, the rest of this article will talk about considerations you should make in purchasing or modifying your rifle. While you can theoretically shoot many different calibers in 3-gun, the most common calibers are .223/5.56mm and .308/7.62x51mm due to availability of rifles in addition to the cost and availability of ammunition. The .223/5.56mm is by far the most common rifle caliber in 3-gun. This is because there is no “power factor” or energy requirement in 3-gun competition, however most rules specify .223/5.56m as the smallest acceptable cartridge. Additionally, .223/5.56mm ammunition is readily available, less expensive than other calibers, and allows you to fit more rounds into a given magazine length than other common calibers.
Once you have selected the caliber you want to shoot, you can begin the search for the firearm of your choice. For me, reliability is one of the single most important considerations when choosing a rifle. Rifle malfunctions are typically cleared very slowly and will cost you dearly on the clock when competing. Light-weight bolt carriers have become very popular over the last two or three years, however I generally prefer a full-weight bolt carrier because they tend to be more reliable and not require as much tuning as a light-weight bolt carrier. If you can’t resist the urge to purchase a light-weight bolt carrier, I would probably look at JP-Enterprises as they were one of the first to market and have a great track record for reliability.
In a dedicated 3-gun rifle, a free-floating hand-guard is essential. This is because of the ways that you will shoot the rifle. When shooting at longer distances, accuracy becomes more of a factor. Generally, accuracy is improved when a free-floating hand-guard is installed versus one that attaches to the front sight block. Additionally, shooting from barricades is common; if you accidentally rest the barrel on the barricade, you are likely to induce force on the barrel resulting in a shift in the point of impact. Because of this, I generally prefer as long of a hand-guard as I can get for a given barrel-length. This helps to make it less likely for me to accidentally place the barrel directly on a barricade. There is an endless list of companies making hand-guards although I like products from JP, Midwest Industries, and Geissele.
Another feature of a 3-gun rifle is a good muzzle break. A good muzzle break should reduce not only the recoil pushing the rifle back but should also control the vertical movement of the rifle. One great feature of the AR-15 style of rifles is the minimal, felt recoil when shooting them. Even with the light recoil of the AR-15, a muzzle break is still a great investment. In situations where you will quickly shoot multiple shots off-hand, the reduction in movement from a good muzzle break will allow you to engage the targets more quickly. There are hundreds of muzzle breaks on the market and I have not shot all of them but some of the most common are the “Miculek” and the “Rolling Thunder,” which work well.
While there is no single answer to what length or twist rate of barrel is best for 3-gun, there is a general range that you should look for. The most popular barrel lengths are between 16 and 18 inches because they offer good flexibility. Barrel length is always a compromise because shorter barrels tend to lead to shorter rifles that transition between targets quicker and are easier to maneuver around stage props, while longer barrels tend to have better velocity resulting in flatter trajectory and less wind drift at longer distances. If you plan on shooting more bay style matches then you will probably want a shorter barrel. On the other hand, if you plan to shoot more open terrain style matches then a longer barrel is probably more suitable. Barrel twist rate can result in endless arguments, however I prefer faster twist rates between 1-7” and 1-8” because I like to shoot 77gr bullets at targets beyond about 200 yards. I like the additional energy of heavier bullets to ensure that the Range Officer can see and or hear my hits and because they generally have less wind drift than lighter bullets. Finally, I prefer my rifle to be accurate, shooting 5-10 shot groups no larger than 1.5 minutes of angle out to at least 400 yards (or a 6” group at 400 yards). I have had great performance from barrels made by JP and White Oak.
The stock on your rifle is critical to quickly acquiring your sights and maintaining a consistent position. Stocks are generally personal preference because they need to fit the shooter well so that they can mount the rifle naturally. For some, basics stocks on the market will fit them well meeting their needs. For others, a more adjustable stock may be required to achieve a good fit. I personally fit the SOPMOD profile stock well, however if you require more adjustability then look at the TACMOD stock or the Luth-AR stocks, which have tons of adjustability.
Triggers for a 3-gun rifle are another very controversial topic. Most will agree that the GI style trigger is not very good for 3-gun competition but personal preference will determine what aftermarket triggers people like. As far as value goes for a really crisp breaking trigger, the old style JP Trigger is tough to beat if you don’t mind doing some adjusting and a little bit of filing. If you use the JP, I would recommend purchasing their hammer to install with it because the trigger utilizes reduced weight springs, which struggle to move the GI hammer quickly enough for reliable ignition. If you desire an incredibly fast resetting trigger that isn’t quite as crisp as the JP then look at the Hyper-Fire trigger. If you have money burning a hole in your pocket the AR Gold is probably my pick for the best trigger on the market but at a steeper cost than the others.
The sights you use on your rifle will depend on the class that you are shooting. Most iron divisions allow a zero power optic these days and generally; a dot is faster than traditional iron sights. I have limited experience with this division and you may want to ask somebody that regularly competes in this division for a current recommendation. If you are looking to compete in an optics division, you should purchase a variable power scope. There are some more inexpensive optics on the market that some shooters have had good luck with, however eventually most shooters upgrade to a high quality scope. Generally, you will want the scope to be a true 1-power optic at its lowest setting to ensure transition speed on close targets and at least 4x power at its highest setting although 6x or even 8x is preferable. Some sort of ballistic reticle in your scope is critical, whether calibrated for .223 or utilizing a mil dot setup, so you can accurately engage targets out to at least 400 yards. Two of my favorite optics that have these features are the Vortex Razor HD Gen II 1-6x and the Leupold MK VI 1-6x. I prefer a first focal plane optic such as the MKVI but it is not essential. The brand of the optic will mostly be personal preference, however a reputable company is recommended for 3-gun because your optic will take abuse when being thrown in dump barrels and when bouncing around when slung.
After you have chosen your rifle you will just need ammunition and you will be ready to go to the range and test your skills. Ammunition should be reliable and be accurate in your particular firearm so that you do not waste time with malfunctions and misses. If you plan to really get into 3-gun, your best bet is to purchase ammunition in bulk so that you do not have to constantly test ammunition and re-zero you rifle. If you already reload, consider Xtreme Bullets (www.xtremebullets.com) as a source for great bullets and brass. They make a good quality 55gr FMJ bullet that is very inexpensive and shoots great out beyond 300 yards. If you do not reload, take a look at Freedom Munitions (www.freedommunitions.com) and their ammunition offerings at prices that are hard to beat, delivered directly to your doorstep. They have multiple choices in .223 ammunition from 40gr to 77gr in new brass and in remanufactured brass to save you some money.
I hope that this information was helpful, if you have any question drop me a line by searching ryancalhoon3g on facebook.
Author: Ryan Calhoon