Handguns > Semi-Auto

Designing the Best Pistol for 3-Gun

By using interchangeable slides in two calibers, the author is ready for 3-gun.


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.

I was fine with that choice until I was shooting the MGM Iron Man match with my buddy Randy Luth. Luth is the former owner of the DPMS rifle company, and he is a hardcore 3-gun shooter. We were talking about this pistol, and I mentioned that as I wallowed through my 50s I was having more and more trouble seeing the front sight on a handgun. “I did too,” said Randy. “Until I switched to a 6-inch pistol. That little bit of added distance from my eye to the sight has made a lot of difference. I also think I am more accurate with the longer sight radius and the extra barrel length and weight helps dampen muzzle flip. I have both 5- and 6-inch competition pistols, but I like the 6-inch better.”

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.

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15 Responses to Designing the Best Pistol for 3-Gun

life without my son wrote:
November 27, 2013

NNever shot3 gun however I was always told to practice practice practice then practice somemore then no matter what caliber or trigger pull you'll be used to shooting well with a smith sigma series even.if that's what you practice with.

0lllll0 wrote:
September 21, 2013

Great article, helped me with a few questions I had and the choice of caliber I'm sticking with is .40 and the duracoating idea is good one for being able to distinguish parts for different guns without having to observe the pieces. I had my nighthawk T2 cerakoated and it is peeling off like a maaco paint job on a corvette, I went back to Wisconsin to learn how to duracoat and had done a couple guns, I have a XDm .40 that I painted black and purple that just happened to be stolen and retrieved when police where chasing a car and noticed a object thrown from vehicle when they caught the perps a officer drove back and found my gun, it had rear sight ground off from asphalt and dirt/sand wedged in barrel and inside gun. When I picked up the officer wanted to know where I ever got this purple gun from so I explained the process and came home cleaned gun up put new sights on and no duracoat even chipped off anywhere on my gun, I was going to recoat another color before it was stolen but now I left it purple so I can explain the story of how it was stolen and returned.....

Ed Blankinship wrote:
September 07, 2012

I participated in the 1980 SOF shoot in Columbia and the 1981 shoot in Phoenix. They were run well and a great deal of fun. Kudos to the organizers.

Alberto wrote:
November 01, 2011

I thought I remembered Beretta 92's and 96's being able to swap slides....

Harold wrote:
November 01, 2011

Who do I contact to start a 3 gun shoot in my community.

Joel wrote:
November 01, 2011

To Bob; I realize with a large sum of funds I could own a STI pistol however spending my life in a blue uniform, college for two, one following me I barely able to buy my own AR and a SIG thru the first responder program just to enter a 3 gun shoot. I'm saving my change ( for the last five years now) just to get a 1911 hopefully before I get too old to find the sights! I understand where Neal is coming from. Thank God and the NRA for the ability to be able to have the matches and Brownells for the support of my AR and SIG!

Robert Brown wrote:
October 31, 2011

Thanks much for recognizing SOF's involvement in promoting the 3-gun concept. We're quite proud to have been tshe first to sponsor big time 3-gun matches.We held the matches from l980 till 2001.We would be remiss in not recognizing Mike Horne and his range personnel who put the matches on. Being an old Army bulls eye shooter, I like to point out that when you can put on a three-day match for 234 shooters and have only a couple sniveling about some minor problem, you're doing something right. Thanks Mike, and all your buddies.

Dannie L. Randall wrote:
October 31, 2011

I own a Bretta Combo which came with two sets of clips two slides and two barrels. It is a 9mm one way and a 40 Smith & Wesson the other way. I have since added a barrel for .357 Sig. I under stand they only made this gun one year (1997) but you can still buy the seperate parts to switch from a model 92 to a model 96.

Larry Penn wrote:
October 31, 2011

It is the 1911 Springfield for me. Five inch match barrel with Bomar sight rail, 5 1/2 match barrel with screw on comp with Millet high profile sights. To finish it off a Kimber 22 top end. It is my idea of a 3 gun pistol. I have a smooth bore barrel for shot shells, snake control. Guess, I have a 4 gun pistol. I am old school. If it works don't fix it. Here is to 100 years of 1911's.

Bob wrote:
October 31, 2011

To CWO Williams; Sir, I've been shooting 3-gun for about 5 years now. 3-gunners put their firearms to the test, more than any shooters in the world. In all those years I've seen hundreds of STI pistols, and not a single Sig. Not 1. Ever. KISS also means using the cumulative knowledge of some of the best shooters in the world to pick the pistol that has proven itself to be the best of the best, and STI has done that. How many 3-gun matches have you been to? Semper Fi

Bob wrote:
October 29, 2011

I am no expert and a Glock 22 conversion from 40 S&W to 9MM Luger is cheap easy and accurate. The cost for a drop in barrel and 3 G17 17 round Glock magazines is around $200, takes Midway a few days to ship and is no more complicated than removing the slide and then changing the barrel and magazine. My conversion setup is high cap and shoots well with the Lone Wolf 9MM conversion barrel and G17 magazines. My aging eyes see the Glock sights better than any other handgun I own.

Neal Williams, CWO USA (ret.) wrote:
October 27, 2011

What an interesting article about all the gyrations taken to convert an STI into a two barrel two caliber 3-gun competition pistol. Always more than one way to skin a cat, I wonder why the author did not just purchase a SIG SAUER 226 Elite in 357 SIG/40 S&W and then purchase a second slide for the 9mm SIG SAUER 226 with recoil spring guide rod etc and have an incredibly accurate fast shooting THREE caliber gun for three gun or home defense. SIG will not tell you it works but it works fine! I did not even have the feed ramp polished and have never experienced a feed issue. Finding a holster for a left hand shooter like the author and myself is not at all difficult and there are several manufactures who make one that will accommodate a mounted light. In the Army we used to practice a principle called KISS. If you have a lot of money and time to waste then go ahead and go through all the author did to accomplish the same thing.

NicTaylor00 wrote:
October 27, 2011

I have the same pistol design for the same reasons! Check out BulletWorks.com for a right side mag release. It is great for lefties!

Bill wrote:
October 27, 2011

NOT Duracoat! Use Cerakote! Great Idea!!

Mark wrote:
October 26, 2011

He could have just bought a Glock.