I thought I was a good shooter, until I did a three gun competition.  After all, I’ve been shooting for over 20 years, I’ve qualified expert in the Marine Corps with multiple weapons systems, I’ve qualified expert in my police department in both rifle and pistol, and I would estimate conservatively that I’ve shot over 30,000 rounds from various firearms.

So why did I find three gun so challenging, and why do I think you should be shooting competitively, if you take your self defense seriously?  Keep reading to find out the five key lessons I learned in my first three gun competition.

This past weekend I participated in the NRA sponsored Tactical Police Shooting competition, which is roughly equivalent to 3 Gun competitions, or USPSA multigun.  In this competition we were required to negotiate 6 stages using  pistol, shotgun, and rifle.

This competition was only open to credentialed law enforcement officers, from local, state, and federal agencies.  As such, many of the stages were slanted towards events officers might face on duty, but from what I experienced they were 99% the same as any 3 gun competition you’d see on youtube.

Here’s an example from a different TPC competition.

It was a lot of fun and a heck of a learning experience.  Let’s get into to some of the key lessons that I learned.

The Shotgun 

I’ve had some serious experience with the shotgun.  I’ve been shooting skeet, and sporting clays for years, since I was 8 or 9 years old in fact.  I thought this would give me an advantage in the shotgun stages, boy was I wrong!

My first mistake was modifying my 11-87 Remington with an extended magazine tube, similar to this fancy carbon fiber tube (Amazon affiliate link).  Oh make no mistake, the tube worked like a charm after I dremeled the magazine indentions out of the tube.

Where I messed up, was only testing my shotgun with buck shot at the range, prior to the competition.  The gun ran these shells very well, because they are hotter loads than the bird shot we were required to shoot at the competition.

For my first shotgun stage, I was rocking a single shot shotgun that could hold 6 rounds in the tube.  Needless to say, when you’re racing the clock; bang, click, manually work the action isn’t a fast method.  This happened because the bird shot shells did not have enough powder to fully cycle the action.

Learn from my mistake.  Test fire your weapons using the same ammunition in as close to match conditions as you can.  Luckily for me, I borrowed a trusty police issue Remington 870 pump gun, which ran like a champ for the rest of the shotgun stages.

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Target Discrimination

These stages are often complex, with many no shoot, and shoot targets placed in deviously close proximity to one another.  In some stages there were in excess of 20 targets to engage with multiple weapons.

Obviously, we are not likely to be attacked by a squad of bad guys, but it does give you numerous chances to practice finding and engaging targets.

Walking Dead, Zombies, Destroyed City, Horror
Ok, this might be the only scenario where you have a million targets

At the outset this sounds easy, but each stage had walls, and obstacles that would block your observation of the targets, which made finding them very difficult.

This was one key area that I know separates the professional shooters from the less skilled.  They have so much experience finding and engaging targets, that they are able to do it without thinking about it consciously.

Where as I found my self literally running back and forth in the back of a “house” on one stage trying to make sure I shot all the bad guys.  Now, a lot of this is a competition “ism”, because they penalize you 40 seconds for failing to engage a bad guy, which is a pretty light penalty considering the realities of failing to engage a real bad guy.

I think this is another key aspect to competition shooting.  A good competitor can scan for targets much faster than a non competitor.

Movement Speed 

This is one area I think I got right, but I could still improve upon.  From watching a lot of high level shooters on youtube, I tend to notice that while they are very fast at shooting, and handling their weapons, they are even faster getting to their shooting positions.

This is one area nearly every first time competitor needs to work on.  I saw many shooters that were accurate, and knew their guns, but were almost crawling from position to position.

Check out this side by side comparison from a pretty good shooter to an A class shooter.

I knew I couldn’t shoot as fast as others, but I know I have enough fitness and agility to move my body as fast as the top level guys can.  This allows you more time to engage difficult targets, and speeds up your overall time.  There were many stages where others shot more accurately than I, but I cleared the stage quicker, and had a better score as a result.

Dry Fire is Key 

This is another area I think I got right.  I do tend to spend a fair amount of time dry firing with my pistol and rifle.  I like to use my laserlyte training round for my dry fire practice (Amazon Affiliate Link).

This device is the size of a regular round, in my case 40cal.  It drops into your chamber and emits a laser pulse every time you pull the trigger. This allows you to see where you would have hit, and it also ensures that you can’t shoot live rounds through your gun.

I’ve used these for years, for various drills, check this article out to learn how to structure a dry fire training plan.

Dry firing with the training round allows you to practice reloads, malfunctions, but most importantly, it really works on your first round hits.  In the competition I don’t think I missed any first round targets with my pistol, and I attribute most of that to the trainer.

The second benefit of practicing with dry fire is, automating your weapons handling.  This is key in competition, because I found that I was very busy trying to find targets, and remember the rules.  I know I would not have been able to do those tasks if I had to think through my reloads, or weapons transitions.


This is more of a subjective benefit to shooting competitively, but one I can understand, after finishing this one.  Most of us are naturally competitive and I’m no different.  I’m not one of those guys who must win at everything, but I do like winning because this is America, right?

This desire to perform at your best puts some real stress on you.  If you carry a weapon defensively, then you need to practice managing stress, because shooting a guy off of you in a dark parking lot is a lot more stressful than fumbling a reload, and messing up a stage.

There is also good research showing that incorporating stress into your shooting enhances your abilities.  This stress can be from force on force training, shooting against a timer, or the most fun kind, competing against your friends for bragging rights.

There’s a reason why the military likes to do stress shoots as part of their combat training.  Check out this moto video of some 75th Ranger Regiment guys.

Final Thoughts 

I can’t wait to do another match.  There are a fair amount of them locally to me, and I plan on continuing to work on my skills through competition.  There are some who say that competition isn’t realistic, and it will get you killed on the streets.

I don’t think that’s the case. One, there are tons of former special forces guys, and SWAT officers who also shoot competitions, who would disagree.  I liken it to training in the gym.  You’re not likely to encounter a heavy bar you must squat in the real world, but being strong as shit will probably allow you a better chance of surviving and thriving than not.

I think this anti-competition sentiment comes from the guys like me who are supposed to be good “tactical” shooters, who find they are at best average competitive shooters.

Humble pie tastes like shit guys, but let me tell you, I’d rather work, and get better then be like Uncle Rico and tell everyone I can throw a football over them mountains.