Excitement and technology elements of 3-gun competition

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published February 17, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated February 15, 2013 at 1:22 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

A shotgun shell ejects from the gun of Ryan Reed of Benton as he fires at a target during a recent multi-gun match at the Benton Gun Club. While some gun owners use firearms for hunting or personal protection, the number of competition gunners in the United States is growing.

The atmosphere was a lot like the beginning of a day of hunting.

It was a cold February Saturday as the men got out of their cars and trucks to gather in small circles to talk about their last time together and, of course, their latest piece of gear.

However, instead of gathering in the woods, the site was the rim of an old bauxite mine. There was no live game, the targets were paper and metal — and each man carried three guns.

More than 20 shooters assembled at the Benton Gun Club off Mount Olive Cutoff Road on Feb. 9 for a 3-gun competition.

“Of course, it’s an adrenaline thing to shoot,” said Ted Smethers of Hot Springs, who had just taken part in a shotgun/rifle stage of the match. “I’ve competed with a pistol for years, and I still do. The 3-gun is a whole other level.”

He said that level is about handling three pieces of equipment with precision, efficiency and safety. The equipment used at this level of shooting can be very complex.

All the guns have been modified by their owners, most within regulations set by shooting organizations such as the United States Practical Shooting Association. The guns can be altered to speed up loading; make the sights easier to use; adjust trigger pulls; and control how much gas escapes from a shell firing to make firing the guns more reliable.

In addition, there is an Open category in which shooters are allowed to use enhanced sights, speedloaders and other equipment. Yet, the key elements remain the same — the shooters must move around the shooting course from station to station, changing weapons and hitting the targets.

This Saturday event was informal, not part of an official event judged by a shooting association, but there were still standards and rules to be met.

“Safety is always first,” said Ryan Reed of Benton, who organized the outing and acted as the match director.

The day before the match, Ryan and some friends set up five stages for the men to shoot on the gun-club grounds. Each phase of the match required a different gun and various skills.

There were paper targets to the left and right for pistol shots, and plates set as far as 35 yards away from the shooting space, called the box.

That row of disks was one of the hardest parts of the match. Most shooters used from 14 to 20 shots to knock down six plates. Another stage called for using a rifle to hit a target 500 yards away.

There were other challenges along the way, such as targets low to the ground that some participants missed in the excitement of the event.

“I just didn’t see them to the left,” said one shooter, who missed several targets in one stage.

Missing a target when you shoot costs time, but not seeing a target and not shooting at it carries a penalty of time added to the elapsed time it takes to make it through the stage.

To help move the match along, the group formed squads made up of five to seven men, each shooting different stages, then moving to another throughout the day.

No stage required all three guns, but there were pistol/shotgun stages and shotgun/rifle stages, a rifle-only stage and a rifle/pistol stage. Each course required the shooter to move from one shooting location to another. If you could shoot and hit something on the run, it saved time.

Each stage also required reloading a weapon. Changing magazines for a pistol was not hard, especially with pistols equipped with a rounded end that helps guide the magazine into the handle of the semiautomatic handgun.

Putting shells into a shotgun could be much harder, even with adjustments made to the gun. Many of the men lugged their shells in carriers on their bodies that held the ammunition between meter clips, ready to be grabbed two at a time.

Still, reloading stopped the action and took up time. For one open shooter, the reloading equipment malfunctioned, and time ran out before he could finish.

A 3-gun competition can also be expensive. The three guns can prove very costly. The semiautomatic shotguns carried in the competition can run into thousands of dollars. While all the shooters used variations of the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, prices can easily exceed $3,500 for a top model, and that is before adjustments to sights and stocks and other ways to personalize the gun.

One of the Saturday shooters was West Chandler from Texas, who used firearms that drew the attention of the other men at the match. He had magazines that allowed him to reload less, and his marksmanship made for fast times.

In addition, ammunition costs more these days.

“For this match with the shotgun, rifle and pistol, it could easily cost $100,” Ryan said. “In a pistol-only match, it could be around $60. Ammo is getting expensive.”

Since late last year, sales of guns and ammunition have increased. Guns and ammunition have been flying off store shelves since November, and the rush to buy firearms only picked up in December. Walmart is rationing sales of ammunition. The nation’s largest retailer is limiting ammunition sales at its stores to three boxes per customer, per day.

A report from CNN said that, according to the FBI, background checks — the most reliable way to track gun sales in the U.S., have reached their highest level in 15 years during the first weeks of the year.

Many people are buying up guns, worried that the sale of ammunition, magazines and weapons could be curtailed with gun-control legislation. The shooters at the gun club said they have been building up their shooting supplies, thinking prices will soar while gun control is debated.

“Prices are getting much higher,” Reed said.

The skilled shooter from Benton said he likes the competition of the gun range and enjoys spending time with his friends.

“I used to play golf and softball, but now I do this; it’s fun,” Reed said. “My wife is very understanding and gives me time to enjoy the sport.”

Smethers, who is an official of the Mountain Valley Sportsman’s Association in Hot Springs, is deeply involved in 3-gun competitions. He is the match director of the Choate Multi-Gun Melee, the largest 3-gun competition in the region, which attracts shooters from several states.

He said there are many shooting events in central Arkansas.

“With pistols and multi-gun events, a person would have things to do every weekend starting in March,” he said. “Some weekends, you could be shooting from Friday through Sunday.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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