Getting into 3-Gun: The Pistol

Todays post comes from X-Treme Bullets Pro Staff shooter Ryan Calhoon.

Before you purchase


The sport of 3-Gun has been growing rapidly over the last few years, attracting many new shooters from other shooting disciplines as well as those who have never competed in a firearms competition. 3-Gun is a fast paced shooting sport that allows the shooter the opportunity to test their skills with pistol, rifle, and shotgun, while competing against the clock. The intent of this article is to provide some basic recommendations on the pistol as it relates to 3-Gun.

There is not one standardized set of rules that covers all 3-Gun matches, however most of the rules are similar.  Specifically the rules pertaining to the pistol are nearly identical, allowing you to shoot the same pistol in most matches without changes to the gun. At the most basic level you need a safe pistol with a functioning safety(ies), a sturdy holster with good retention, and multiple magazines with pouches to carry the magazines.

If you already own a pistol that meets these basic requirements you should look for a local match and try it out before you spend any additional money on a pistol. If you do not own the other firearms to compete in a local 3-Gun match, consider attending a pistol match to work on your pistol skills. Many consider the pistol to be the hardest gun to master in 3-Gun and devote more time to this weapon than any other. If you are looking for a pistol match, there are many different disciplines to choose from; steel challenge, IDPA, and USPSA are some of the more popular ones.IMG_1252 All of these matches will provide you an opportunity to test your skills, however, most find that USPSA offers the closest pistol shooting experience to 3-Gun with very similar equipment rules.

If you do not own a pistol, you may want to attend a 3-Gun or USPSA match and see what pistols the 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 gun a little so you can see what you like. Before you purchase a pistol, make sure you know which division you would like to compete in because some pistol features may not be legal for all divisions. For instance, a ported barrel or an optical sight will place you in the open division, where you will compete with competitors who are using highly modified guns.

The most common division in 3-Gun is “Tactical Optics/Practical” followed by “Tactical Irons/Factory” or some variation of these names. There are other divisions out there, however, these two are the most common and typically have the most consistency in rules across matches. In most cases, the pistol is the same between these two divisions. In a few instances, you will be required to limit the ammunition in your magazine for the “Tactical Irons/Factory” division.


Selecting your pistol


Should you decide that you want to purchase a pistol to compete in 3-Gun, where do you start? One of the first decisions that you will need to make is what caliber pistol you want to shoot. The 9mm is by far the most common pistol caliber in 3-Gun. This is because there is no “power factor” or energy requirement in 3-Gun competition.  Most rules specify 9x19 as the smallest acceptable cartridge, which will exclude .380ACP. Additionally 9mm ammunition is readily available, less expensive, and allows you to fit more rounds into a given magazine length than other common calibers. Some competitors choose to shoot .40 S&W or 45 ACP in 3-Gun, which is fine, however there is a tradeoff of reduced capacity, and increased ammunition costs.

Once you have selected the caliber you want to shoot, you can begin the search for the firearm of your choice. Most shooters prefer to shoot a full size or a long slide gun in competition as opposed to a compact or sub-compact pistol. A full size gun generally makes it easier to manage recoil and has a longer sight radius. The long sight radius can be very useful when shooting small steel targets at 20+ yards. If you are unfamiliar with the term sight radius, it refers to the distance between the front and rear sights and a long sight radius makes it easier to aim more precisely.

There are countless choices when it comes to firearms and you can easily spend $5,000 on a new pistol. If you are new to the sport, your money may be better invested on ammunition, practice, and matches rather than on a $5,000 pistol. When you feel your pistol is limiting your performance then you can look to invest in a different pistol. Fortunately, there are a lot of $500-$700 pistols that will work very well for 3-Gun. There are a few metal pistols in this price range but for the most part this price bracket is ruled by polymer pistols from companies such as Glock, Smith & Wesson, and Springfield Armory. Many of these guns in their stock configuration will work fine until you really start improving your skills.

Another consideration when choosing a pistol, is that it has a safety which is easy to manipulate while drawing the pistol. This is a concern because the rules require all safeties to be functional and in use when the pistol is holstered. Striker fired pistols tend to have an advantage in this area because most do not have a conventional safety that needs to be disengaged to fire them. A difficult safety will cost you time every time you draw the pistol and potentially again when you ground it.

Before you select a pistol, make sure you check to see if companies build competition- specific parts for the gun you are purchasing, because you will eventually want to modify your pistol if you keep competing. The parts most changed for competition include sights, triggers, recoil springs, magwells, and base pads to increase magazine capacity. None of these modifications are necessary for your first few matches, but the majority of shooters will begin to modify their pistols as their skills increase. If you initially purchase a pistol that does not have competition-specific parts available, you may find yourself later purchasing a pistol that lends itself to modification so you can set your pistol up the way you want it. While there are competition parts made for many pistols, the Glock 34/35, Smith and Wesson M&P Pro 9/40, and the Springfield XD(M) 5.25 are supported by the largest selection of competition parts and accessories.


Additional Considerations


A few other considerations when selecting a pistol are magazines, holsters, and magazine pouches. Larger pistol stages are becoming more popular in 3-Gun, requiring you to accurately hit small targets at longer distances and necessitating 40-50 shots to complete the course of fire. For this reason most competitors have at least 5 magazines for their competition pistol, so the cost and availability of extra magazines should be a factor in your purchase. Another consideration when looking at magazines is the availability of aftermarket base pads.  Most rules allow magazine lengths up to 140mm in the tactical divisions, which is longer than the length of factory full size magazines. Therefore, you should consider adding a base pad to extend the factory magazines to 140mm, which will increase the capacity of most 9mm pistols to 22-24 rounds. Dawson Precision and Taran Tactical are two popular manufactures of aftermarket base pads.

Quality holsters and magazine pouches are essential for competition. The availability of suitable accessories should be a factor in your pistol selection. It is a good idea to utilize a retention holster for 3-Gun to prevent dropping your pistol during a stage and being disqualified from a match. The vigorous movement and the use of other guns while the pistol is holstered can lead to the pistol to falling out of a non-retention holster during a stage. Blade-Tech and Safariland are two popular manufacturers of retention holsters. Magazine pouches should allow you to retain your pistol magazines while running though a 3-gun stage and make it easy to quickly reload your pistol. Not all pistols have good choices for competition worthy magazine pouches, so this is yet another consideration. Some of the most popular choices for magazine pouches are CR Speed, Blade-Tech, and Blackhawk.

After you have chosen your pistol you will just need ammunition and you will be ready to go to the range and test all of your new equipment. Ammunition should be reliable and accurate in your 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 in bulk so that you do not have to constantly test ammunition. If you already reload, consider Xtreme Bullets ( as a source for great bullets and brass. They have a great selection of bullets; my personal favorites are the 9mm 147gr HP and the .40 cal 180gr HP. If you do not reload, take a look at Freedom Munitions ( and their ammunition offerings at prices that are hard to beat, delivered directly to your doorstep. The Pro Match 147gr HP shoots really well in my Glock 34.

I hope that we will see you soon at a 3-Gun match.

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