It’s a matter of debate whether the popularity of all things tactical has veered from a lust for the combat-tested firearms and equipment of those operating at the tip of the spear, to the realization that we’re never going to be a SEAL Team 6 trigger puller, so it’s best to point our ambitions toward something more realistic.

What we have seen is a growing popularity for the shooting sports among a wide range of shooters, and when we talk tactical, we’re talking 3-gun. There is no more fun competition in the shooting sports that tests your tactical discipline than 3-gun. The shooting, reloading, stage planning and outfitting is as close to the real world as you can get outside of the digital world of the X-Box.

We’ve been dipping our toe in the 3-gun and have had the opportunity to test a lot of cool gear and accessories while doing it — it’s a perfect venue to handle products under stress and to throw a lot of rounds through (or from) them.

Del-Ton DIY AR-15

We knew from reputation that Del-Ton makes one of the most solid AR-15s and rifle parts in the industry. In fact, Del-Ton makes a lot of the ARs you’re shooting and you probably don’t even know it. They’re an OEM parts maker for many companies who stamp their names on Del-Ton’s uppers and lowers.

We decided to start with a stripped forged 7075 T6 lower from Del-Ton. The darn thing is solid as a tank and when we got to throwing in parts and pins and detents, it was as true as any AR we’ve ever tinkered with.

By far the coolest thing about Del-Ton’s lowers is that the company offers a laser engraving service. Seriously, we emailed in a digital picture of our sister magazine (Shooting Sports Retailer) logo, and a few weeks later, our lower arrived with the graphics clear as day on the mag well. Talk about making a statement in every competition.

Photo by Christian Lowe

Photo by Christian Lowe

Another great thing about the Del-Ton forged lower is its price. At just $125 for the customer, it’s a solid base to build a competition AR that won’t break the bank.

We’ll get to what went into the lower in a second, but while we’re still on Del-Ton, let’s talk about the upper.

For our 3-gun rifle project we used an off-the-shelf Del-Ton 16-inch rifle kit. At $479 MSRP, the Del-Ton rifle kit comes with everything a customer would need to get a build started, including stock pistol grip, collapsable stock and a carbine-length, M4 style hand guard with fixed front sight. The barrel is a heavy-profile Chrome-moly Vanadium version with a 1:9 twist.

The kit comes with a trigger and all the pieces-parts to throw in a lower to make an AR work. We used a heavy barrel on this one to remain Maryland compliant.

On our first version of the 3-gun rifle, we used an awesome hand guard from Houlding Precision. A small, California-based family-owned company, Houlding makes some great AR parts for a decent price, and has even delved into the carbon fiber parts market.

We used the company’s 15-inch forend, which attaches with its own proprietary barrel nut and screws. It’s slick, features KeyMod accessory mounts and a solid top rail that matches perfectly with the Del-Ton upper. The hand guard worked great in our competitions and delivered a solid feel.

We also attached the Seekins Precision K20 KeyMod angled grip for some of our runs.

CMMG MK4 3GR Upper

While we’re on the subject of uppers for our 3-gun load out, here’s an excellent option for a DIY race gun that delivers almost everything a tier-1 competitor could ask for at a fraction of the price.

The CMMG Mk4 3GR upper receiver group we switched to features an 18-inch stainless steel medium taper barrel with a rifle-length gas system that delivers a fraction of the recoil of most carbine-length systems.

Let’s talk for a second about the advantages of the 18-inch barrel. In a conversation with Erik Lund, who’s a top competitor with the FN Pro shooting team, during the 2016 SHOT Show, he said that the sweet spot for AR-15 accuracy and maneuverability seems to be the 18-inch barrel setup. He said that top special operations units are looking to 3-gun competitors for advice on how to be quicker on target transitions, move and reload and use different shooting platforms for different targets.

For years, a commando’s barrel length was a race to the bottom, Lund said. But with top 3-gun competitors pushing the envelope with 18-inch, rifle-length gas system guns, special operators are starting to veer back in the direction of longer-is-better. It now seems that the consensus is that 18-inch ARs are the way to go for both close quarters (with new training in maneuvering through rooms) and longish distance.

Given that advice, we took a look at CMMG’s 3GR upper, slapped it on our custom Del-Ton lower and let ‘er rip at a couple local 3-gun matches. The verdict? Bigger is better brother! The Mk4 upper shoots smooth as silk, is light as a feather and the CMMG RKM14 KeyMod hand guard is supple in the hand. And the idea that you can turn your everyday lower into a competition juggernaut for $849 is just icing on the cake.

Veering Off On Our Own

While it was nice to have the stock parts kit as a backup, we decided to throw in some after-market accessories for testing from some innovative companies in the industry. Our bolt and carrier is an American Built Arms A*B Pro BCG — the same one used in a variety of high-end ARs, including LWRC’s piston guns.

Built like a tank but with the precision and quality control of a company that actually gives a hoot, the A*B Arms bolt and carrier group is a good option for any 3-gun wannabe looking for solid internals.

One of the cooler nick-nacks we installed — and one that gets us a lot of grins — is a Robot Skull extended mag release from Black Creek precision. Hey, it delivers zero advantage to the 3-gun shooter, but when you need all the edge you can get maybe it’ll psyche out other competitors. You know what they say, “an ounce of image is worth a pound of performance.”

Words to live by.

We’re also running an ODIN Works billet trigger guard in coyote brown for a little more flair in our game.

To get a grip, the Team SSR/TR 3-gun rifle uses a Mission First Tactical EPG16 pistol grip. The after-market grip is a little oversized for bigger hands, features full stippling, a grooved backstrap and finger groves. The EPG16 has an exaggerated tang for a more positive grip — essential for quick pickups when the buzzer sounds. The grip also features a watertight storage compartment for extra batteries or an AR multi-tool.

Lastly, we installed an LWRC compact stock. A lot of competitors like to use tricked out fixed stocks on the 3-gun ARs, and frankly we just haven’t given this setup a whirl yet.

But the LWRC compact stock fits our 3-gun needs just right. Whether your punching paper at 15 yards or reaching out to steel at 300, the LWRC compact stock gives you just the right amount of purchase to get the job done and keeps your long gun light.

On Target With Trijicon

A lot of 3-gun competitors use both variable magnified optics for distance shots and a close in optic like a reflex sight or a set of offset irons.

Let’s get one thing straight first. Initially we worked with a simple 1x red dot and an EOTECH magnifier during a competition that had us shooting at 20 yards, then way out to 250. Suffice it to say that this didn’t work well for our team — maybe a truly dialed in shooter could make points with this setup, but it wasn’t good for our weekend warriors.

So, at first we then played around with the Burris 1-5 XTR II variable scope combined with a FastFire III and side mount. This is a modestly-priced combo that allows entry-level 3-gunners the option of a close in red dot and a long range adjustable scope. The 24 mm clear objective lens diameter is plenty for transitions and the reinforced 30 mm tube is more than durable for those barrel bangs and table drops.

We took the FastFire III off the scope and mounted it on a Smith & Wesson M&P 9mm CORE Ported 5-inch handgun and for a while, it performed well (by the way, though the CORE doesn’t have a mount specifically for the FastFire, the #5 mount worked fine). But during one match on one of the later stages, the FastFire stopped working, and though the mount is too high even for suppressor-height sights on the CORE to co-witness, the white index line on the FastFire optic mount was more than sufficient to make the shots.

Photo by Christian Lowe

Photo by Christian Lowe

We then played around with a Trijicon Accupower RS24 scope. At $899, you got a lot of optic for the price — not to mention the military-grade durability of any Trijicon product.

The RS24 we mounted is a 1-4×24 variable scope with an illuminated BDC reticle that’s matched to common 55 grain .223 ammo out of a 16-inch barrel. At 4x the BDC delivers ballistic drops out to 800 yards and at 1x, the illuminated reticle works great to quickly acquire and score hits on close-in targets.


TrijiconScope

Again, keeping with the whole “look good, be good” concept, we planted our RS24 to the rifle with a Warne XSKEL30 Gen 2 Extended Skeletonize 30mm mount. And, of course, we got it in Red. A big thanks to Brownell’s for helping us out in sourcing this high-end mount — one that pro shooters on the tour depend on for solid retention and performance.

Pew Pew With Hiperfire

Perhaps the biggest enhancement to our 3-gun rifle setup is the Hyperfine Hipertouch 24C trigger assembly.

It’s hard to understate the up-side of this competition-enhanced trigger. With variable springs to customize trigger weight, a straight trigger bow with adjustable trigger shoe and a solid hammer fall, the Hiperfire 24C has more than once saved us from a dismal stage by making up time on the rifle string.

The single-stage Hiperfire 24C is similar to most drop-in trigger setups and installs easily in just about any lower with a simple punch and press of the stock pins. With thousands of rounds through our 3-gun rifle, the Hiperfire 24C has never failed and truly helps us DIY 3-gunners refine our rifle precision for both long and short-range targets.

And at an MSRP of $235, it’s tough to beat such a modestly-priced upgrade to your competition blaster.

Go DIY

Everyone’s always complaining about the entry price for 3-gun, and rightly so.

Follow the advice of amateurs and pros alike by borrowing gear for your first few matches. You’ll get a better feel for what works best for you and where to make the right investments of your hard-earned cash.

Clearly, investing in a decent optic, a solid upper (go 18-inches man!) and a competition grade trigger, you can dial out your current AR to a competition one for less than the price of a whole new match-ready rifle. Sure, you can go as high-end as you want. But as our experiment shows, you don’t always have to break the bank to make the rank.