Three-gun is the most addictive competitive shooting sport I have tried—and is one of the reasons I will likely die broke. This sport is highly equipment-driven, so I decided to develop and build what I think is the best trio of firearms for competing in the Tactical Optics (TO) Division.
In the fast-action world of 3-gun shooting, the shotgun is both the hero and the villain. It can help you win the match, or it can reduce you to tears of frustration. Time and time again, the top shooters tell me that many matches—particularly in TO—are won or lost with the shotgun.
There are many reasons for that. The shotgun is loaded on the clock, and in TO it is the only gun that requires rounds to be individually loaded. Some matches have extensive shotgun stages with as many as 40 targets. In Open Class, shooters can use speed loaders or magazines in the Russian Saiga shotguns, but in TO, they are prohibited. So when the shells must be fed one at a time, the match can switch from a shooting contest to a loading contest. If you can’t reload the shotgun faster than the other guy, you will almost surely lose.
Also, many 3-gun shooters come from handgun-action-shooting backgrounds. The USPSA shooters can typically pick up on the rifle technique easily, as it is similar to that of a handgun. Many of them lack shotgunning backgrounds, and they struggle with the moving targets and the techniques used to hit them.
The greatest factor of why shotguns can determine the outcome of a match, however, is reliability. Shotguns were not really designed to be used and abused the way they are in 3-gun shooting. I have witnessed far more equipment failures during a match with shotguns than with the other two firearms combined. I have seen shotguns stop working in spectacular fashion, from jams to total and catastrophic failure when parts of the gun fall out onto the ground.
When I started shooting 3-gun I used a gas-operated shotgun that had served me well in hunting, sporting clays, 5-stand and any other shotgun sport I tried. But, in the rough-and-tumble world of 3-gun, it quickly succumbed to failure, and not just once. I tried three different guns—including two different models—and I can’t recall getting through a single match without a problem. I have enough other problems to worry about in any 3-gun match, so I started paying attention to the guns that worked. I noticed that many of the top shooters were shooting Benelli guns. When I asked why, the universal answer was, “Because they work!”
A good part of the Benelli’s legendary reliability is due its inertia system that cycles the action. Gas-operated guns get dirty. When you are rapidly shooting hundreds of rounds in a single match, the carbon, fouling and unburned propellant mix with the dirt, dust or mud that is often part of this game, and the guns can grind to a halt. There is less propellant ejecta and other undesirable materials entering the operating system with each shot to build up and stall the shotgun. Of course, there are some excellent gas-operated shotguns being used in 3-gun, but nobody can deny that they all suffer from more carbon buildup than the Benelli. My goal was to build the ultimate three-gun battery with no-compromise firearms. For me, the path was clear, and I ordered a Benelli M2 with a 21-inch vent-rib barrel.
Of the three guns, at least for TO, the shotgun is the easiest for a hobby gunsmith to modify—up to a point. There are some modifications that go beyond the hobby stage. Some shotgun guys modify the return spring and the action by milling the bolt to lighten the weight. The idea is to increase its cyclic rate. Some of the top shotgun shooters can outrun any shotgun’s action, so they want a faster cyclic rate. According to tests done by my buddy Pat Kelly, who is one of the fastest guys with a shotgun, the Benelli is capable of 0.13-second split times between shots. My splits in competition run about 0.2 second to 0.16 second. Because of my phobia about total reliability, I decided to leave the gun’s operating system the way it was designed. I will leave the door open to modification if I ever improve enough to need a faster cyclic rate, but with my limited practice schedule and rapidly aging body, that’s probably not going to happen.
Few of us will ever get fast enough to outrun any shotgun. At the 2011 Superstition Mountain Mystery 3-gun match, I listened to one competitor explain an elaborate and complicated process of milling parts and pieces on the operating system for his Benelli shotgun. “If you do all that it will run without a hitch,” he smugly finished. The other guy looked at him like he had two heads and said, “It runs without a hitch right now, why on Earth would I want to mess with that?” I’m with that guy! I have seen too many modified shotguns fail in the middle of a stage, including several at that match.
Another common modification is to bevel the edges of the receiver in the shotgun’s loading port. The idea is to help funnel the shells into the gun as you are loading. It probably is a good idea, but I just have not brought myself to attack my gun with a milling machine or Dremel tool yet. Some shooters weld shut the gap in the front of the loading gate. They have problems with the Benelli pinching their thumb when loading. It has never happened to me, probably because of my loading style, so again I am going to leave it alone.
The one absolutely necessary modification is to add an extended magazine. I looked at a lot of magazine tube extensions before ordering the Nordic Components kit. I like the metal tube because I think it’s tougher and less prone to distortion from spring pressure or the barrel clamp. I also like the large metal clamp in the front that ties the barrel and magazine extension together. It’s rugged and large enough to spread the clamping forces over a large surface area, so there is less chance of distortion in the magazine tube or the barrel. A lot of problems with extended magazines come from the follower as it makes the transition past the joint between the magazine and the extension. The NC-anodized metal follower is Teflon-coated and works far better than a plastic follower. The plastic can become damaged and frayed, and it lacks the lubricity of the coated metal follower. Also, a plastic follower can bend or distort if it encounters resistance; metal will not.
The spring that comes with the NC +5 (eight-shot total magazine capacity) kit is designed for this longer tube and is far too long for the eight shot. It must be trimmed to the correct length. One school of thought is to have just enough spring pressure to feed the last shell in the magazine into the action. But, that allows no margin of error. If there is a buildup of dirt, sand, or mud in the magazine, or if the shell has a burr on the rim or is distorted by an improperly seated wad or poor crimp, or if any one of a million other things are not perfect, there might not be enough pressure to push the shell into the action.
The need to apply a couple of ounces of more pressure on the shell as I am loading is an acceptable trade-off for the gun firing every time. So, by trial and error I cut the magazine spring so that when the gun is fully loaded I can push the ninth shell only about one-third of the way into the magazine. This gives me a margin of extra spring pressure to allow for all those aforementioned problems and to compensate for spring fatigue over time.
When I installed the magazine extension I put a drop of blue Loctite on the screws for the forward clamp. This allows me to remove the clamp for cleaning the gun, but keeps it in place during competition. I did not Loctite the fine threads on the magazine tube or the end cap, because I remove them often for cleaning and the fine threads do not respond well to Loctite buildup. But, I check them often during the match to ensure they are tight.