The 3-Gun and What's Important (Part 1 of 3)
by David Weaver
The 3-Gun sport has become more popular than ever. New shooters are being introduced to the sport every day as are new rules and regulations as well as increased complexity of courses. The customization of firearms is reaching an apex; “what’s best” is a common and completely arbitrary question.
I get a lot of questions about 3-Gun rifles, and what's important in a build when you are searching for an AR15 kit. I have put together some information on what I think is important, and why. If you look to the top athletes of any sport, you will see patterns in gear and training techniques. Shooting is no different; increasing performance is paramount. Most top competitors run the same type of guns with the same types of equipment, by different makers. It's a sport like any other, the equipment is specialized. But really, what good is a football outside of a football game?
Here is what I think is important for the beginner in the Three Gun arena:
Upper and lower receivers. This is purely user preference. No matter what you choose, billet, mil-spec or sport receivers you need to have confidence in your equipment. I see advantages in less weight with sport receivers versus more rigidity in billet style receivers. I think the weight of a billet receiver helps the overall balance of a longer barreled rifle; say 20” or more. With less than a 20-inch barrel, I prefer a mil-spec dimension or sport type receiver (slick-side with no forward assist). Just choose quality (meaning the fitment between Upper and lower receivers). This is not the place to be cheap. Don't worry about a forward assist. (You never drive a jam home, you clear it). If it's not going forward it's for a reason.
Pistol Grip. You need a grip that fit your hand comfortably and keeps you from over fingering the trigger. You cannot judge a grip based on blogs or opinions. You cannot judge a grip based on holding it in your hand free of a rifle. You must, and this is a pain, buy multiple grips and try them out on a course (a short course is fine). If you are still having a problem with finding a mass-produced grip that works, you can use a “wrap” self-stick ace wrap around your grip to make it more comfortable in your hand. Avoid grips designed for right or left hand exclusively; There will be times you will have to transition from strong side to off side and back. Do not make the grip too large or too squishy, you should be able to touch your middle finger with your thumb around the grip at the most. A little smaller so you could cover the nail of your middle finger with your thumb would be better. Finger groves can help if they fit, hinder if they don't. The idea is to get maximum surface contact with your hand. Every square mm counts. Traction is what helps keep consistency during recoil. Consistency is control. Length of pull to trigger. Build up or shave down your grip (have a pro do it for you) so that your finger lands where it is supposed to naturally. If you look at the palm your hand as you bend your trigger finger. you will notice that the pad where the finger attaches to the palm swells as the finger is drawn in. Try to find a grip that does not force contact to this portion of your hand, for both hands.
The forend is our next point of focus. You want your forend to be long enough to properly employ the C-Clamp or Modified C-Clamp grip. This is easier with narrower forends. Free floating is the best for accuracy and allows you to go beyond the gas block. The farther out you can hold the better, so 15 inches or more. A forgrip is also a good idea, I personally do not use them to hold onto, but as supports in various positions. Whether you favor the forgrip as a grip or support, it's essential for modularity. You will need an attachment point for your forgrip and a quick detach sling hook up on the forend is advisable. If you prefer to not grip the forgrip, I recommend putting grip tape on your common grip zones. It will allow you to maintain more consistency in grip during recoil. If you use full length picatinny rails, put ladders in them. You want to make sure that the rail you select has lots of ventilation, you want lots of air moving around the barrel. When you start shooting consecutive shots, things heat up quickly. Be sure not to hold the forend too close to the gas block. I have gotten burned by the aluminum forend heating up from the radiating heat from a steel gas block. I like a full length top rail for rigidity and small attachable rails for the rest of the forend.
Butt Stocks are very important. You won't see too many top ranked competitors with bulky or heavy butt stocks. I like the underside to be as trim as possible. Lighter and less to snag or drag on gear. A quick detach point for a sling is again advisable. This can be a fixed/adjustable stock (like the Luth-AR MBA Stock) provided that the length-of-pull is correct for you. A fully adjustable six-position stock should lock into place without wiggling(like the Rogers Super Stoc). Keep in mind the slightest movement of 1/16” at your shoulder is inches and feet down range so you want to come up to position the same every time. You must have an aggressive no slip butt pad, so the rifle will not be as apt to move during recoil. While having battery compartments may be a good idea in your other rifles, not this one. Keep it trim. With the AR, you will want to set the comb height for your cheek, so that your eye naturally and automatically lines up with the optic. Make sure this does not affect your secondary tip off sight system. (see below)
Optics. There is nothing more personal than an optic in any of the 3-gun disciplines. Sights and optics are going to play a pivotal role in your success. When it comes to optics you will want a primary site that is fast to focus with a large field of view. That means lower powered scopes like 1-4x and 2-7x. I think 3-9x is too much on the bottom. The 3x magnification is too powerful for close, fast shooting. But some would argue that this is why we run with a canted sight set. They are correct. You can choose to put a halo sight or iron sights on a 45-degree canted mount. The advantage is that the sight on the canted mount will be sighted in at closer distances and that you will not have to look through a scope. The halo sight has a definite advantage over iron sights in the first 300 yards. With the halo, you do not have to line up two points to aim, just make sure you turn it on and put the dot on target then squeeze. There are two classes of canted mounts. In line and off axis. Most do not tell you what they are on the package. We want in line whenever possible. However, if you have to use a comb riser to fix cheek weld, you may need to use an off-axis mount.
Beyond that, you pretty much can't go wrong with the one-piece scope mounts. Parallax free scopes, no less than 1/4 moa dials. I like 1/2 moa myself. If we must make a dial adjustment in a match we want to count the clicks, less clicks, less effort, easier to remember your way back to zero. Fast zoom is going to be a factor in longer supported shots. Put a lever on your zoom ring so that you can get the magnification up and down quickly with less effort. If you can get a cantilever one-piece mount you shouldn't have any problem with eye alignment or relief. Otherwise you want to get set up so that you are instantly in focus when you take a firing position. Take extra care to mount your scope level. Choose quality mounts and optics. Have a professional install them, spend some time at the range to zero the scope; take notes then memorize the positions for different ranging. You won’t have time to think about it on race day. (unorthodox testing to see if you hold zero, use your imagination, you will want to know if you bang your scope during competition it will stay on zero)
Accessories, like the Mag-pul Bad Lever, Yep, buy 2. When the first one breaks, install the spare. If you use the lever it will fail on you eventually. But worth every penny 10 times over. And it's not going to break easily. The one on my rifle has been there for a year or so with vigorous use. It will make reloads faster and smoother. It will make the end of run “make safe” easier as well. In a game where timing is everything and thousandths of a second stack against you, every advantage counts.
Barrel Length is up for debate. The 18.5 inch is very popular among top competitors. I prefer a 20 inch barrel, but the 18.5 makes a lot of sense. The 18.5 inch barrel plus a muzzle device is about 20 inches giving you the ballistics you need to make the longer shots, while staying compact enough for closer engagements. Keeping in mind that modularity is key in this game, we want less mass in front of our support hand during fast close quarter engagements; and we want enough muzzle velocity to give us a 5 foot or so drop at 500 yards. Preferably less. The H-Bar with fluting is going to be the best choice for contour. A bull barrel is always too heavy, even when fluted. While the thinner barrels are just too light. They heat up too fast and don't offer the same balance characteristics of the H-Bar. The Type of fluting isn't important, whatever jumps out at you and feels right. Needs to be match grade and made of 4142 steel (for heat dissipation) with chrome lining, or a 4150 CRMV with chrome lining. Ask about the process of chrome lining from your barrel supplier, there are different methods of chrome lining and I only know of one company in the United States that will remove material before applying the chrome to build it up again. This is the only way to avoid a “break-in” period that will ultimately cause hours of frustration at the range and “shooting out” of the chrome lining. Buy two barrels at the same time if you know that is a barrel you can trust.
The muzzle device is one of the most important parts of this type of build. You will need to tame the recoil for faster, more accurate follow up shots. There are lots of great choices out there. Read their specs to get an idea of the recoil suppression rating. Choose the one you like with a high rating. Don't get too caught up in the numbers, they are subjective. Just use them as a reference. The shape and direction the gas is redirected plays a big part in how well a muzzle device performs. Also keep in mind that it will add length and weight to the weapon. I like the King Comp and Checkmate brakes from Strike Industries.
The Fire Control Group and BCG of your gun are going to take some abuse. You want to start with a high-quality steel bolt and trigger group. You don't want to have to leave a match unfinished because something failed under stress. Tried and true Carpenter 158 or 9310 bolts mated to an 8620 carrier with a 4000 series gas key. Absolutely under no circumstance should you go with anything that is metal injection molded (MIM) Check the specs. Military specification (mil spec) is strong but not where we want to be in the trigger pull and reset. You need a trigger that is crisp, with little to no creep (or slip) with a fast reset. It needs to be sturdy so we can control discharge and won’t have an accident if the weapon is dropped. I like a 3.0-4.5 lb break weight with a short positive reset (velocity triggers are my go-to). The reset should be the same as the initial set. I have fired guns that had a mil spec initial set from the bolt being pulled back, to a reset that was barely there. This makes it difficult to pull the trigger the same every time, because it's not the same every time. As a rule the maximum trigger break weight should not exceed the weight of the rifle naked (with no accessories). This helps with control. As a rule, for rifles that are going to be used vigorously that could get dropped or slammed or jarred somehow. Do not go below 3 lb trigger break weight. A 3 lb or greater trigger break weight is usually enough resistance that the shot must be intentional, and wont discharge from being jarred. Safety first.
Little things make big differences, good or bad. User ergonomics are what's going to win out in the end. Keep in mind that this is a very psychological game. You must have confidence in your equipment and ability to use it. Follow the guidelines above and your only problem will be catching up with the guys already doing it. Chances are, they will help you get there.
by David Weaver aka Hunter Morbid for Checkmate Rifle Company