Sunday, June 22, 2008

Tactical 3-gun

Today I experienced an entirely new (to me) type of shooting competition, and I was enthralled.


More on that later.

The name (baritone introduction similar to "They Call Me ... MISTER Tibbs") is Tactical Three-Gun.

This is a new (at least to me) sport which includes many of the elements of USPSA 3-Gun competition: A rifle, a pistol, and a shotgun.

Here, at Tri-County Gun Club, "Three Gun" includes a pistol, a shotgun, and a pistol-caliber carbine. (I used my Mech Tech, and was glad for an excuse to shoot this delightful hybrid of pistol and short rifle.)

In "Three-Gun" competition, you may shoot only one type of firearm on a given stage, or you may shoot two, or even all three. (In "Multi-Gun" competition, you will only shoot one type of firearm on each stage; you don't change guns. That is the difference between "Multi-Gun" (*) and "Three-Gun" competition, and it's an important difference considering that each firearm, once used, must be 'rendered safe' and 'grounded' before you can take up another firearm. You will often be allowed to move downrange of that 'grounded' firearm to engage targets with a second or third firearm.)
* (NOTE: The difference between 3-gun and multigun competition is not quite as described here. Go to the comments for an authoritative definition.

And the venue is Tactical Shooting.

What does "Tactical" mean?

Here are some of the things I learned about "Tactical Shooting" today:
  • Your pistol and ammunition must be concealed, which usually involves wearing a vest or jacket, so that neither the pistol or reloads are visible; except: when shooting a stage which involves a shotgun, the shotgun reloads are almost invariably worn on the front of the belt and are visible to the casual observer. Note that in today's 70+ degree heat, wearing a vest would impose serious discomfort to the shooter in a 'real life' scenario. To the alert observer in WalMart, anyone wearing a vest would have immediately typed the wearer as having something to hide. I only wore the vest when it was my turn to shoot, and only because it was administratively required. The vest interfered with the pistol draw, and almost every reload.
  • All reloads are "Tactical". That means that reloads must be made from behind cover, and the competitor is penalized for 'reloading on the move'; except: on some stages, the competitor is required to reload on the move, and tactical cover is not provided in the stage design. No penalty is assigned in these situations, which appear to be completely arbitrary and based upon the availability of range props or exigencies of stage design.
  • Scoring: Cardboard targets (cf: "IPSC Metric Targets") require two shots to 'neutralize' them, and the total scoring value of the hits must total 8 points. Example: two A-zone hits with a major power cartridge scores 10 points; two C-zone hits (same power factor) scores 8 points; one A-zone and one D-zone (5 + 2 in Major Power) scores only 7 points, and that score is not deemed to have 'neutralized the target', so the shooter is penalized. Note that everyone seems to be allocated the "Major Power" scoring. Exception: one hit 'to the head' (either the Upper A-zone, or to the B-zone) is deemed to have 'neutralized the target', and a second hit is not required.
  • Memory Courses: Many of the stages required the competitor to memorize arcane and bizarre stage instructions. Failure to remember these instructions during the course of fire resulted in procedural penalties even though they may have little or nothing to do with the ability of the competitor to perform the basic requirement: to 'neutralize the targets'.
A note on that last point.

Here is an example of the stage procedures for one stage, only slightly modified by my inexact memory and my willingness to demonstrate the absurdity of the stage procedures to be memorized:

From Position A, load your shotgun with ONLY two rounds of shot and then two rounds of slug. At the start signal, engage the falling-steel targets with one round of slug through either Port A, B or C. You may not make up missed shots or reload more slug rounds. From the same position, engage Steel targets 1 and 2 from Port A, B or C as long as it is not from the same port as was used to engage the falling-steel targets. From this position, you must reload at least 3 rounds of shot before moving to Box A.

From Box A you must engage and knock down steel targets 3 and 4 on the left side of the bay. You must have at least 2 rounds loaded before you move forward to Box B.

From Box B, you must engage and knock down steel targets 5 and 6, on the right side of the bay. You must have at least 2 rounds loaded before you move forward to Box C.

From Box C, you must engage and knock down steel targets 7 and 8.

(There are no penalties for reloading on the move; there are no 'tactical barriers' provided for 'tactical reloads'.)

In the actual event, I experienced no disconnectedness on this stage. Although this stage violated almost all USPSA stage-design criteria of 'free-style', I found it not impossible to memorize and adhere to the stage requirements. It helped that, as a 'new shooter', I was allowed to be the last person in my squad to shoot the stage; if I had been the first shooter in my squad, though, I doubt that I would have been able to understand how the stage must be shot.

(Experience tells, and one benefit of this kind of competition is that it may conceivably help 'train' the shooter to perform complex functions while handling all three types of firearms without having to think about handling the firearms.)

One interesting thing about this stage is that it was so complicated, the Range Officer was often confused about the requirements. The end result was that some competitors may have shot the stage in a manner which did not strictly adhere to the requirements, without incurring penalties. (In truth, the penalties were often not clear to either the competitor or to the RO, to the possible advantage to the competitor who was able to shoot the stage so quickly that the RO failed to assign penalties.)

Shooting House Stage: I Am Enthralled

Also included in the match was a 'surprise stage', where the competitor had NO information about the stage. I actually liked this stage, although it violated everything I had learned in 25 years of IPSC/USPSA competition.

Tri-County Gun Club (TCGC) has historically maintained least one bay which featured a berm around almost 360 degrees of the available area. That bay has, upon limited occasion, been the venue for a 'surprise stage' where the competitor does not have the opportunity to preview the stage; does not know the nature of the targets there presented; does not even know how many targets are presented, the minimum round count (here, except that it is "between 1 and 50 rounds") or even know the Stage Procedures until they arrive on the stage and receive a 'confidential' briefing from the Range Officer.

The only thing the Competitor knew, on this day, was that (a) he had the choice of using either the pistol-caliber carbine or a pistol; and (b) the '180 rule' did not exist; he could shoot in any direction, because it was indeed a "Round House" and there was nobody on the stage except the shooter and the RO.

(NOTE: a "Round House", in this context, means a shooting area where a shot in almost any direction will be intercepted by a safe backstop, and thus will not endanger anyone. Experienced IPSC shooters will recognize that this is decidedly different from the typical competitive venue, where the defined 'safe' shooting directions include, at most, 180 degrees of arc. There is almost no "uprange" direction in a 360 degree Round House.)
Here's how this stage was administered, and if I'm not making myself clear I trust that commenters will show me where I have not been crystal clear. And if this sounds like a "Skull and Bones" initiation, I've done a good job of describing the stage.

The competitor must decide whether to shoot the stage with "pistol-caliber carbine' or with Pistol, without having the benefit of knowing what the shooting challenge is.

Having prepped (but not loading) his weapon of choice, the competitor is lead around a vision barrier and instructed to stand behind a 'wall of barrels', which prevents him from seeing the targets. Here he is allowed to load his weapon.

Then he is given his verbal stage directions by RO Phil, which sounded (according to my fallible memory) something like this:

Phil: "if you look around the left side of the barrels, you will see a line of orange tape, which denotes the path you must follow. If you step outside this path, you are dead."

Geek: "not really?"

Phil: "No, but you will be stopped and your score will reflect only the points you have earned."

Geek: "Good. I don't want to be dead."

Phil: "Me either. But you cannot step outside The Path. Know this: targets are not impermeable. If you shoot through a target and hit a penalty target, it will count against you. There is no 180 degree rule here; you can shoot in any direction; don't worry about me."

Geek: "I won't worry about you. You're on your own; don't get in my way."

Phil: " I won't. Know that when you step around these barrels, you must first READ!"

Geek: "Oh good, I have my reading glasses on, I can read 'reading'. I just can't read 'writing'."

Phil: ????

Phil: Make Ready,

After Phil triggers the starting buzzer, I step around the barrels onto the orange-delineated 'path' only to discover that there are a lot of paper targets in view. The first target has the Stage Procedures inked on it's white face, to the effect that:
"The path is strewn with clay pigeons, which are Land Mines. Do not step on the Land Mines. The White Targets are shoot targets, the brown targets are no-shoot targets. Shoot-throughs count. Be sure of what is behind the targets you shoot at. Shoot the white targets only."

As I go down the Orange-Brick Road, Phil counsels me with Special Verbal Instructions:

"Look Hard-Left." There's a target which was not visible earlier. I shoot it.

"Look Hard-Right." There's a target which was not visible earlier. I shoot it.

"Shoot the white target downrange. No, not that one. Okay, shoot the middle white target. No, not that one, the other one."
It turns out that the left White Target has a 'no-shoot' brown (penalty) target behind it, perfectly hidden behind the Shoot Target. I have no idea what I am doing, I am entirely dependent on the commands of Phil the RO to determine what is a safe/legal Shoot Target and which target is fraught with peril.

I think I caught (hit) a semi-hidden 'no-shoot' target, but I am not allowed to linger to watch the scoring process; instead, I am instructed to exit the range and I am not allowed to rejoin my squad. I must move to a different area on the range and if I discuss the stage with squad members who have already shot the stage, Phil will shout "Don't talk about the stage; they can hear you!" (Meaning the squad members who have not yet shot the stage.)

Okay, I'm just said a lot of things which may seem to be very critical about the match. Obviously I don't like the picky-picky Tactical rules, which I'm certain I gave the clear impression that they are ad-hoc and not consistent with any published, codified "Rules of Engagement".

If I have done nothing more than that, this article has not been a total waste of time.

But to stop there is to do a disservice to the emerging sport.

Is the sport perfect? No, clearly not. But it has the potential to be a great sport, and I would not dissuade you from competing for the minor reason that it hasn't yet got its act together.

The sport needs a consistent set of rules, which is not yet available. It has yet to decide what constitutes "Tactical", and to make the definition consistent on every stage no matter what the "Shooting Challenge" might be. They haven't got there, yet. But they could, and they can.

Obvious conclusions:

If the definition includes that belt-gear must be hidden, they need to define 'hidden' in terms which accommodate all of the weapons platforms used. Shotgun ammunition carriers must be defined as an exception, or it should be forbidden. (What do you do with bandoleers, butt-stock ammo carriers, etc.?)

If reloads must always be tactical, must every stage provide cover for reloads? What if it doesn't, but the stage stipulates that 'administrative' reloads are acceptable on occasion? What defines the occasion when a not-behind-cover reload is acceptable?

I may have seemed to be excessively critical about details of stage designs and procedures here, but not without justification. If this portion of the Shooting Sports is allowed to proliferate, there are obvious deficiencies which must be addressed.

I enjoyed the match today, even though I found a lot of areas which could be improved. Mostly, these were areas in which the rules seemed arbitrary and ad hoc.

Well, darn it, many of the rules were arbitrary, and they were imposed in an ad hoc manner.

This is the characteristic of a 'work in progress', and it is subject to change.

If the folks who desire that "Tactical 3-gun" competition continue as a viable competitive forum survives, they will be willing to accept constructive criticism in the manner in which it is intended.

They will allow the rules of competition to evolve, and they will make sure that every match is better, more consistent, and less dependent on the competitor's ability to remember detailed stage instructions than the match which preceded it.

On the other hand, the overwhelming impression I got was that the people who were there just wanted a place to shoot a lot of different guns. It was made only better in that they got to do so in competition with many like-minded people. There were 32 competitors at this match, which was announced as a 'record turn-out'. Obviously, a lot people who had competed in this sport before had brought new shooters with them as a way to introduce them to a sport which they may or may not find attractive.

Personally, I'm not sure if I'm willing to continue my participation in this sport.

I had a lot of "New Guy" problems, which I expected in theory if not in practice (or I would have resolved the problems before the match started), but my biggest problem was that I didn't understand what was required in terms of niggling "stage procedure" requirements. That is, the stage procedures were not generally known and universally understood before competition began, and they seemed arbitrary to the average competitor.

This is the reason, I suspect, why I received so much counseling from experienced competitors to the effect that these matches were referred to as "Invent A Penalty" shooting, even by those who come out every month to shoot Tactical matches.

These fine folks just wanted to shoot their pistols, shotguns and pistol-caliber carbines; the match provided an opportunity, and they would willingly suffer almost any arbitrary administrative indignity to pay for the privilege.

Unlike IPSC (or USPSA), there does not yet exist a body of experience which delineates acceptable standards.

This will evolve, eventually, and Tactical 3-run will become a legitimate venue for competition. We hope.

But it is not there, yet.

Not yet. Not legitimately.

And, as of this weekend, not hardly.

NOTE: I do realize that this is an extremely critical evaluation of a new sport. I hope that it does not serve as a justification for refusing to compete. Tactical 3-gun, and it's many sisters, is a legitimate venue for people who just want to shoot. It needs some time for the evolution into a user-friendly sport to occur, and I don't want to be the guy who ruined it for everyone else. I enjoyed my excursion into The Dark Side today, and I will Be Back Next Month for the next month's competition.

But I do acknowledge that the sport is imperfect, and I do encourage the supporters of the sport to understand the reasons why it is not always attractive to new practitioners, and make such changes as are necessary to provide consistency and predictability to the competitive venue.

To give you an idea of what Tactical 3-gun competition is like, here is a video of the "Pistol/Shotgun" stage (if the stages had an actual name, I was never aware of it). I call this video "Unidentified Lady Shooter (Pistol/Shotgun Stage)":

All photos and videos from this match are available at "Jerry the Geek's Video Shooting Gallery: TCGC June, 2008 Tactical 3-gun Match".

Most of the videos are HUGE, because they are raw video. I had planned to upload them in unedited form, but it turned out easier to edit them down to manageable size. Easier for me, easier for you, too.

Here are the videos which are currently available, and the direct links:
Mark (Pistol/Shotgun stage)
Roger (Carbine/Pistol stage)
Unidentified Lady Shooter (Pistol/Shotgun Stage)

As I find the time, I'll edit the other videos so they're smaller and faster to download, too.

Here's the list of the videos which are not yet, but will soon be available:
HPIM1420: Alex (Carbine/Pistol stage) - 25MB
HPIM1421: Mark (Pistol stage) - 20MB
HPIM1422: Alex (Shotgun stage) - 16MB
UPDATE: 24-JUN-2008

I draw your attention to the comments (four of them to date), as there is much to be learned there from people who know much more about this multigun/3-gun sport than I do or I ever will.

Cowboy Blob, whose website regularly features articles and pictures of multigun matches he attends, provides more depth and content which I was unable to offer. His experience is wider and longer, and you can tell how much he loves the sport.

Bruce G. corrects my errors on the relative definitions of "3-gun" vs "multigun". I'll leave my errors in place, but will strike-through them. Listen to The Bruce, not to The Geek.

Dave and Alex, who squadded with me and provided much useful (and patient) advice to this New Shooter, were as ever friendly, courteous and welcoming. I've enjoyed squadding with them at USPSA matches (and a few other matches which weren't strictly USPSA competition), and you can tell by their comments that they are articulate, bright and gracious. They're good competitors, good sportsmen, and good companions. They laugh at me frequently, but then they're the kind of folks who like to laugh.

Oh, and Dave: you're right, that STI Edge ran like the epitome of the gun-maker's art that it is. I didn't hang it up because I couldn't shoot with it, only because I could no longer hit with it. Perhaps the ultimate reason I decided to shoot this match is because it gave me an excuse to buckle on The Mighty Ten, one more time.

(Unfortunately, it's difficult to find a holster which is both appropriate to Tactical Shooting, and will accommodate the full-dust-cover Edge. As Alex gently pointed out, "some guys might take issue with that Speed Holster in a Tactical Match." But he never did.)

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