Home » Guides » What Is a 3 Gun Competition: All You Need to Know [2024]

What Is a 3 Gun Competition: All You Need to Know [2024]

L.p. Brezny | Updated February 23, 2024 | Why You Should Trust Us | How We Earn Money
Different guns on table for 3 gun matches

Competitive shooting matches challenge you to prepare for life-or-death scenarios. There are many popular matches to choose from, including 3-gun competitions. 

If you’re wondering, “what is 3-gun competition?” you’re not alone. Find out everything you need to know about it and how you can try out and run a course.

What Is 3 Gun Shooting Competition

The 3-gun shooting competition uses a modern sporting rifle (MSR), a pistol, and a shotgun to run a specific course. Simply put, the shooter with the fastest time shooting these three guns wins. 

Most modern sporting rifles are built on the AR platform. Each stage simulates a self-defense or combat situation, where shooters are required to shoot distances of a single yard up to 500 yards.

The idea of a 3-gun competition is to hit all your targets and avoid “no shoot” targets with the fastest time. These multi-gun matches are fast-paced and include different stages, with various targets and terrains to master, so spare mags and the ability to engage targets successfully is key. 

Now, there are anywhere from a handful to 10 or more shooting stages, with 5 to 35 targets at each stage. Each missed target will incur a time penalty, so be careful of taking multiple shots. 

Targets include everything from steel and spinning wheels to flying clay pigeons, paper silhouettes, and whatever else the match organizer chooses to include. Some targets like clay pigeons are moving, while others like steel targets remain stationary. 

Most 3-gun competitions occur on the weekend. Most shooters vary in age, from those just getting into the sport to veterans with decades of experience. 

Each match varies, as some incorporate a specific theme to draw attendees. These types of matches also culminate in a year-end shoot-off separate from local tournaments.

What Equipment Is Needed for 3 Gun Competition?

Black guns on the table

In addition to match fees, you’ll need to equip yourself with the right gear for success. It can be a wise move to spectate a few matches before you start spending money. 

However, you’ll likely spend around $1,000 to get what you need at a basic level. That’s assuming you don’t already have a gun or two in your possession that you can use to shoot a match. 


For rifle shooting, many competitors choose a .223 caliber MSR with a short barrel. Typically between 18 and 20 inches is the sweet spot for one of the fastest-growing shooting sports. 

Rifle stages require a 30-round magazine in most cases, but it’s often best to have an extended magazine with additional rounds. Semi-auto fire is allowed with the rifle component of the 3-gun competition. 

Some competitors run a muzzle brake to help reduce recoil and muzzle jump. A heavy barrel can also help long guns leverage more weight on the forend of the gun for less recoil. 

It’s common to see collapsible stocks on many modern sporting rifles at 3-gun competitions. This allows for adjustment in terms of the length of pull. 

For optics, the common choice with a rifle is a low-power variable optic (LPVO). 


A 3-gun competition allows autoloading or pump-action shotguns, with 12- and 14-gauge the most common variants. Barrels of 20-22 inches and an extended magazine tube are also common. 

Most shooters use shotshells or slugs, depending on the match. Reloading your semi-auto shotgun fast can help you get a faster time, but speed loading isn’t always allowed. 


Black pistol lying against a bag

The most common caliber among pistol competitors in shooting sports is the 9mm, though .38 super and .40 S&W are also allowed. Many shooters choose .40 S&W for its knockdown power, but most targets respond well to .38 super. 

Low recoil is best for this type of competition. It can also come down to how the gun fits into your hand, which dictates which platform you choose to compete with. 


Here’s a short list of what accessories you might need in a 3-gun competition: 

  • Eye and ear protection
  • Gun oil
  • A chamber flag to safely move between stages
  • Shotgun shell holders
  • Spare handgun magazines 
  • Extra ammo (includes shotgun, pistol, and rifle ammo)
  • Pistol holster 
  • Magazine pouches and belts
  • A way to carry all your gear with you 

As you shoot each match and gain more experience, you’ll quickly learn what you might need to make things a bit easier on yourself.

Do You Use Scopes in 3 Gun Competitions?

Short answer, yes, depending on the devision. For specific recommendations, see our article on the best scopes for 3 gun competitions around.


Man shooting a rifle at steel targets in field

The International Multi-Gun Association (IMGA) and the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA) set up divisions for each match. These rules and regulations deal with optical sights, extra magazines, and any other guidelines necessary for 3-gun matches.


Known as the entry-level class, the Limited division has the lightest requirements when it comes to gear. You are allowed one unmagnified optic on your rifle, which includes iron sights or a red dot. 

There are no bipods allowed in the limited class. Shotguns must also contain no porting or optics during competition. 

However, the shotgun can be semi-automatic with up to 8 + 1 rounds maximum. Detachable magazines are not allowed, nor are speed loaders. 

Though you have to handload your shotgun, the pistol requires no porting or optics. The max length for the pistol is 141.25 mm.


Tac ops rifle with larger magazines and multiple optics on ground

The same rules that govern the Limited division apply to the Tactical optics division, but you can have a magnified optic on your rifle instead of iron sights. 

Tactical is by far the most popular division, both among new shooters and pros. 

Heavy Metal (HeMan Only Iron Sights)

Only iron sights are allowed in this division. The shotgun you choose has to be a 12-gauge to compete and cannot have any porting. Handguns must be larger than .45ACP, cannot have optics, and only porting is allowed.


As the name suggests, open division matches allow almost anything. Many pro shooters love this class because they can run “race guns” such as the STI from STI International. 

Speed loaders are allowed for shotguns during the stages. When it comes to pistols, the only requirement is that the magazines have to be 171.25 mm or less in length. 

Outlaw Open

Be safe and have fun is the motto of the Outlaw Open division. As long as your gun checks out to be safe, you’re ready to rock and roll. 

Why Participate in a 3-Gun Competition?

Many people choose to participate in a 3-gun competition for various reasons. Here are just a few that might resonate with you: 

  • Sharpen your shooting skills
  • Compete with shooters around the country
  • Keep your aim sharp for hunting
  • Win against the competition
  • Make a name for yourself
  • Put your skills to the test
  • Shoot more 

At the end of the day, participating in a 3-gun competition can simply be a fun time as you shoot rounds.

How to Get Involved

Modern sporting rifle with one optic mounted

Getting involved with 3-gun shooting is easy to do. You just have to know where to start. 

Find a Match

The best way to find out more information about a 3-gun match is to contact your local shooting range. Inquire with local ranges to see if they might be hosting a match soon, or if they know of another shooting range that is. 

You can also visit a match as a spectator to get a feel for what’s going on. Seeing everything in action can help you understand what a 3-gun competition is all about. 

The best way to approach getting involved is also to wait to purchase any gear. You may find that you can use what you’ve already got on hand, or that what you wanted to purchase may not work for the rules of the division you choose. (1)

Join a Class

Participating in a competition is the next step. You’ll want to pick a division to start with in your first match, as well as what platforms you’ll run in the course of fire. 

Tactical is often a common pick among beginners. You can also choose heavy metal if you’re a hunter looking to stay sharp in the off-season. 

Before you even get to the shooting range on match day, be sure to read up on the rules. Ask questions whenever you’re in doubt, so you don’t risk getting penalized or disqualified. 

Run the Course

Check in at the registration table and confirm your start time when you get to the match. Walk the course and listen, talk, and watch your fellow shooters. 

Scoring is often either cumulative time or stage points. Either way, it’s about who shoots most accurately in the shortest amount of time. 

Most matches have shooters go for half a day or shoot on-off. Half a day is self-explanatory but on-off means you shoot a stage, rest, and then shoot the next stage. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Shotgun and shells in holder

What is a three-gunner?

A three-gunner is a competitor who participates in 3-gun competitions. It’s often easier to refer to competitors based on which competitions they shoot in, and three-gunner is the term for 3-gun competition shooters. 

What is a two-gun?

A two-gun competition uses pistols and rifles, similar to 3-gun competitions. Shooters must run a course and hit targets in the fastest time to claim a victory. 

Many beginner shooters do well in two-gun competitions. Those skills can then be transferred to 3-gun competitions as shooters progress.

What kind of shotgun ammo is used for 3 gun?

12- or 14-gauge shotgun ammunition is used for 3-gun matches. These are the only ammunition types allowed in a match. 

What is the most inexpensive shotgun for 3 gun competition?

There are many contenders for the most inexpensive shotgun for a 3-gun competition. Some choose the Remington Versa Max, while others prefer the Mossberg JM line or the Benelli Performance models. 

What kind of rifle is used in 3 gun competition?

Modern sporting rifles are used in 3-gun competitions. These are often built on the AR platform but do not have to be to qualify for use during 3-gun competition. 

What is the most common caliber of gun and grain of bullet used in 3 gun competition?

The most common caliber of gun and grain of bullet used in 3-gun competition depends on the platform. Rifles typically use a .223-caliber gun with a 75-grain bullet. 

The most common for pistols are 9 mm and .40 S&W, which have 147 grains and 180 grains per bullet respectively. 

Close-up of iron sights on pistol

What is the best pistol for 3 gun competition? 

The best pistol for 3-gun competitions depends on what you’re comfortable shooting with. For some shooters, that’s an STI race gun, but for others, it’s the gun they use for concealed carry. 

What is C.O.F. in 3 gun competition?

C.O.F. in 3-gun competitions means “course of fire.” It’s used to describe the specific sequence you’ll take to shoot targets in different positions and complete the stages at each match. 


  1. United States Practical Shooting Association, About USPSA. Retrieved from https://uspsa.org/pages/about

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