Three-gun competition can trace its roots back to the “Soldier of Fortune” matches in Las Vegas, Nev., starting almost 30 years ago. From those wild beginnings, it has expanded to become the fastest-growing shooting sport around today.
At the moment there is no single governing body controlling the rules for all 3-gun competition. I like that; too many rules spoil a shooting game. Most of the big 3-gun matches are “Outlaw” matches, which means they set their own rules. Of course, there has to be some consistency or it would get ridiculous. No shooter wants to spend thousands of dollars on gear only to find out that it’s disqualified for use the next big match. So, the International Multi-Gun rules (IMG) are more or less the guidelines used by most match directors. But that doesn’t mean those rules apply to every match, as there are some variations. The U.S. Practical Shooting Ass’n (USPSA) also has its own set of rules, and they are invoked at some big matches. Then there are the new Int’l Defensive Pistol Ass’n (IDPA) rules, which are different from those of everyone else. These rules can be important to your choice in pistols.
My first 3-gun match was put on by the Coast Guard Academy in Hartford, Conn., and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In such cases, I always err on the side of “bring everything.” My son and I loaded the truck with guns and ammunition until the springs bent backward, but we found out that we still didn’t have the right stuff.
I shot the match with an M1911 with 10-round magazines and 230-grain hardball factory ammunition. I quickly figured out that the gun didn’t hold enough rounds and had too much recoil to be competitive. The M1911 with a different magazine capacity has a home in 3-gun’s Heavy Metal division, but I wanted to shoot in Tactical Optics (TO). So, I started looking for another pistol. I shot the next season with a .40 S&W, but found that was a mistake as well. Bruce Piatt had told me to get a 9 mm Luger pistol and be done with it, but I didn’t listen. As I got to know more of the top shooters, I realized that they were almost all shooting 9 mm handguns in TO class.
I chose the .40 S&W because, at the time, I was also shooting a few USPSA handgun and Multi-Gun matches with power-factor rules, in which the 9 mm was limited to a minor classification and scoring. I thought the .40 S&W made sense as a compromise. The .40 S&W has more magazine capacity and less recoil than a .45 ACP, but unlike the 9 mm it is powerful enough to make major classification for scoring. It seemed like the perfect compromise, but I was wrong. The .40 S&W cost more than it gave because of more recoil and lower magazine capacity than the 9 mm. For every 3-gun match I shot in which the 9 mm was scored as minor, there were several others using the IMG rules in which the 9 mm competed with all other cartridges.
I didn’t want to be held back in those matches in which the 9 mm was considered a minor scoring cartridge, but I also didn’t want to be handicapped by the stiffer recoil and reduced magazine capacity of the .40 S&W in the majority of 3-gun matches that use the IMG rules.
The answer was pretty clear for a gun guy: Just buy two guns. Any excuse for another pistol, right? But, I wanted to do something a little more unusual. I started thinking; I have multiple uppers for my AR-15 rifle. I use the same lower with different uppers chambered for .223 Rem., 6.8 SPC, 6.5 Grendel, .50 Beowulf and other cartridges. So why not create one handgun with two different uppers? One would be in 9 mm Luger for shooting most 3-gun matches, and the other would be in .40 S&W for those USPSA matches in which a major power-factor cartridge is important.
I called my buddy Larry Weeks at Brownells to see if this was possible. I wanted to build the gun myself in my shop. It was going to be based on the STI 2011 handgun, and Brownells sells the slides and frames in a set that are fitted so that most of the precision fitting of the two is already done. The Kart barrels we were going to use can be fitted with hand tools, so the project was well-within my capabilities and tooling—except I wanted the “switch-slide” capability so that I could shoot both 9 mm and .40 S&W with the same gun. That meant that two slides had to be precision fitted to a single frame. In this case the slides would be unfinished and would need a lot of work. I realized that I lacked the experience and equipment for that, because I didn’t have a milling machine or a lathe at the time.
Weeks introduced me to another Brownells employee, Tony Barnes, who builds competition handguns as a sideline, and that’s how my 3-gun pistol was conceived. Barnes had built a gun for Weeks to compete with, and I decided to have him do the same for me.
I traveled to Brownells’ headquarters in Iowa to watch Barnes do the initial work. For a gun guy who loves to tinker and do hobby gunsmithing projects, this was the ultimate journey. Brownells has been my go-to place for anything gunsmith-related. It operates with small-town values where honesty, integrity and quality are still important concepts. The company’s horizontal-format catalog is as much a part of gun culture as the smell of Hoppe’s No. 9.
The first step was to decide on the barrel length. I had been shooting a 5-inch STI in .40 S&W. That’s the same length as the familiar M1911, and I liked the “feel” of the pistol. But, in the interest of full disclosure, I confirmed the choice for that barrel length based on a foolish concept: I already had a custom Hillsman holster to fit it. In my own defense, finding a left-hand competition holster for an uncommon gun can be difficult.
Great, just what I needed, more doubt. If you have ever had to wait for a gunsmith to finish a custom gun, you know that the time is spent mostly second-guessing your choices. It turns out that we were too far into the project to change by then, so it remained a 5-inch gun.
Now, after two seasons of competing with it, I have no regrets. The balance and feel of the pistol work for me, and I shoot it well. I have found other ways to deal with the sight issue. One is to install Dawson fiber-optic sights on the gun. Barnes installed black-on-black target sights, which I have trouble using. So I ordered fiber-optic adjustable sights from Dawson. They have contrasting colors, green in the rear and red in the front. The sights are easily installed, as both the front and rear use a dovetail. The old sights can be pushed out with a sight pusher jig, or lacking that, with a non-marring punch and small hammer. On my pistol the front sight was pinned to the slide, so the pin had to be removed first. One trick here. If you use a brass punch, it will leave “tracks” on the sight. These brass marks can be removed with a cleaning patch and a strong copper-removing bore solvent like Barnes CR-10.
After installing the sights and measuring to ensure they were centered on the frame, I used a small file to carefully open the rear sight notch a bit wider to allow a little more light on each side of the front sight. With this system I can shoot well even with aging eyes. The front sight might not be as tack-sharp as it would have been in my 20s, but I can see it well enough that I own all my misses, free and clear of any excuses.
The pistol has the full-length dust cover and a lightweight, 17-degree-angle composite grip, so that there is plenty of weight in the front to help control recoil-induced muzzle flip for fast shooting. The barrel is fitted into a traditional M1911-style front bushing, unlike the similar “Edge” model which uses a tapered barrel.