Over the Top

Are You Crazy Enough For The MGM Ironman?

Hit it again!” Splinters rain from the crossbar as a load of bird shot smashes through just a little high. A second charge obliterates the remains of the crossbar and fills the air with the smell of broken wood.
The shooter lunges and kicks the slowly opening door clear. His shotgun rises as he crosses the threshold, then belches fire towards one target after another. Swirling clouds of lead dust and paint chips billow off the steel as his loads slam into the target. Madly reloading, he shuffles forward and soon more targets meet the same fate.

Ducking behind a wall, the shooter reappears with a rifle, and each piercing blast knocks down another target as he moves 20 yards forward — all motion and noise. Pausing to drop his rifle into a plastic barrel, he sprints towards a rack of steel plates 50 yards away. One hand stays clamped down on his pistol while he runs and then he whips it clear of the holster as he closes to the 15-yard line. Sounding like a toy compared to the shotgun, the pistol barks a sharp “pow-pow-pow-pow-pow” and in a single moment it’s over.

A breathless official tracking just behind says, “If you’re finished, unload and show clear.” As the pistol disappears back into the holster the official draws a deep breath and yells: “Range is clear! Next shooter!”

MEN AND WOMEN from across the United States travel thousands of miles to southwest Idaho just to shoot the MGM Ironman each year. They come to test their skills and equipment against the most difficult and arguably most physically demanding multi-gun match in America. Although the competition is well known, don’t look for adherence to anybody’s rulebook. This is an “outlaw” match and organizers are unapologetic.

“This match isn’t for weenies or crybabies,” says Mike Gibson, its founder. He began the shoot in 1997, birthing an instant classic. Every stage involves at least three different types of firearms (sometimes four or five) and you’ll crash your way through a host of obstacles, like that shoot-open door, along the way. I was there for the first match requiring over 500 rounds.

Today it’s over 900 – if you don’t miss. Throughout the course, you will carry a 150-pound dummy, shoot from vehicles, shoot over mock rooftops and perhaps careen down a 300-plus-foot zip-line. Almost every challenge requires more than 90 shots to complete, and while the courses are tough, each shooter comes back grinning ear to ear.

“The goal is to shoot 1,000 rounds in a weekend,” laughs Mike’s son Travis, who took over as match director in 2007. He’ll freely tell you he hates running this match because of the technical headaches but he loves to shoot it. Travis shoots on the 3-Gun Nation Pro Tour, is a father and works full time for MGM Targets alongside his dad. Mother Rhonda and sister Tennille help out with the matches, and Tennille served as match director in years past.

The Gibson family is part of the practical shooting bedrock in the United States. They have a depth of expertise in 3-Gun that’s almost unequaled, with a crazy streak to match. No other match in the country is quite this over-the-top. The MGM used to allow you to neutralize a target any way you could if you ran out of ammo. A man nicknamed “Rice Patty Bob” rather famously took out several targets with a tomahawk in 2007.

“It’s always been a little off the hook – like the Island of Misfit Toys for shooters,” says Craig Outzen, a professional 3-Gun shooter. “The MGM is a little like bush Alaska. If you don’t fit into other shooting sports, come to the MGM and they’ll find a place for ya!”

ONE CLASS OF SHOOTER is the Trooper Class. This group hand-carries everything they plan to use for the entire three days across a conspicuous line in the parking lot. Once they cross that line, they can’t go back. “If you mess up and leave your tripod in the truck, that’s too bad,” says Travis. “Once you leave the trooper shed (a secure building where the troopers’ guns are stored overnight) each morning, you can’t take a spare bullet, a stick of gum or anything from anyone else.”

Every trooper has to carry their gear throughout the match as though they were carrying it to battle. “It’s not like a regular match,” said one veteran shooter. “This is an endurance contest.” A carbine, pistol, shotgun, sniper rifle, spare parts, water, bandages and 1,500 rounds of ammunition (much of it shot shells) is a serious load. Now take one of those troopers and hang him from a zip-line; let go and let him shoot at targets with a pistol as he flies by! “You work your butt off all day taping and resetting targets, shoot a crazy amount of ammo and do stuff you won’t see anywhere else,” says Outzen. “It’s great!”

TROOPER OR NOT, everyone here expects to finish the day dirty, tired, sunburned and probably bruised or bleeding somewhere. If your guns survive in working order, that’s a bonus. As I said earlier, the MGM match is an outlaw event and one of many that form a kind of outlaw circuit in 3-Gun. Most of the true professionals compete in the 3GN Pro Series as their main focus, but you’ll see a handful of the top guns here, including USPSA National Champion Mike Voigt.

“A lot of the top guys have shot it,” says Travis, “but a lot of them don’t come back. It’s very physical and some of them don’t want to deal with throwing a dummy up on a platform.” Others cite concerns about the wear and tear on their equipment. One person made a number of remarks about not wanting to replace his finely tuned guns. “Everyone fears the ‘Parma moon dust,'” says Travis, only half-joking this time.

He’s talking about the fine, talcum like sand that blows around the Parma range. If the wind picks up, the dust cakes itself onto any part of your gun that is wet with oil. If you don’t keep an eye on that, you can end up shooting a marathon stage with a gun full of abrasive powder. Keeping your guns up and running is always a challenge for any 3-Gun competitor, but here, multiply the breakage factor by three. “Honestly, if you can keep your gear running throughout the entire match, you’re doing pretty good,” says Travis.

ALL PRACTICAL MATCHES involve a certain amount of waiting to shoot and because of the nearly 100-round stages, you’d think the waiting times would be pretty bad. It isn’t. Thanks to a lot of trial and error, the Ironman stands out as a model of efficiency. Often, stages involve two or three “pits” in a series, with the shooter racing from one to the next in turn. As the shooter leaves each pit, a set-up crew goes in right behind him, scoring and resetting targets for the next guy. For anyone with a little match production experience, it’s a rolling seminar on how to reset quickly.

INTERESTED? EVERY YEAR, new shooters take on the challenge of the MGM Ironman for the first time. I asked Travis for his advice and he offered these suggestions for new “Ironmen.”
• Make sure all of your guns will run, no matter what.
• Know where your rifle hits from 2 to 500 yards.
• Have the ability to carry 40 shot shells on your person, sorted by type.
• Sight in your shotgun with slugs. You will consume 60 to 80 shotgun slugs on targets out to 100 yards.

Normal 3-Gun events don’t force you to shoot such long distances or carry so much ammo, so even experienced 3 Gunners need to pay attention to Travis’s suggestions. His match puts a lot of emphasis on long range accuracy: “At our tournaments, we’ll have targets out to at least 350
yards on four stages,” says Travis. This year’s match will include a range of bonus targets stepping all the way back to 920 yards.

SHOOTING THAT MANY ROUNDS in a row, you’ll soon appreciate heat buildup, muscle fatigue and the importance of staying hydrated in ways you hadn’t imagined. Most 3-Gun matches have some stages that will take roughly 30 seconds to complete. Normally, if you take 3 minutes, you’re deemed to have timed out and the range officers will stop you.

“At this match, you can win a stage at 180 seconds and the time-out will be around 8 or 9 minutes,” says Outzen. New shooters often don’t realize just how exhausting this is, or how hot their guns are getting until they set them down. “They’ll lay their shotgun down in a plastic drop-box and it will melt into the plastic. I’ve had suppressor’s melt through the bottom of the holding barrel,” says Travis. Under Travis’ leadership, the round counts are balanced to help reduce heat build-up, but the targets are accuracy intensive.

If you struggle to hit a distant rifle target, barrel heat quickly becomes an issue. “I’ve added two or three more stages so we can keep from destroying people’s guns so badly,” says Travis. That said, keeping your hot gun running is part of the match. When I shot the Ironman, one stage required 48 rifle shots followed by 36 shotgun rounds ending with 24 shots from a pistol, with the last six fired weak hand only! After 84 rifle and shotgun rounds, a 9mm pistol feels ridiculously small like a popgun yet my hands were so exhausted I could barely hold on.

My hands were mush. I’d never had an experience like that. A stage later the fatty part of my left thumb rolled around the hand guard on my trusty 870 pump and touched the barrel. Ouch! Many of my friends and I (experienced shooters all) found ourselves looking at heat shields in a whole new way.

TO PULL OFF THE EVENT takes help from sponsors like Patriot Ordnance Factory and Seekins Precision, along with a supporting cast of a dozen others. “Safariland, Surefire, they’ve been with us for years, and lately Brownells has really helped out,” says Travis.

Both halves of the MGM Ironman have enviable prize tables. At match’s end you’ll see thousands of dollars in prize guns, prize holsters and all types of other gun-goodies laid out for the asking – fastest shooter chooses first. Among “black gun” shooters, the MGM Ironman ranks as a bucket-list item like the Knob Creek machinegun shoot or attending the SHOT Show. It’s a learning experience like no other and one that will teach you much about yourself, your guns and what’s possible with each weapon you own. If you take the time to prepare, you can join us on the line in Idaho next month. Are you good enough (or crazy enough) to take on the MGM Ironman? ASJ

Originally published in May 2015 Print issue by Robin Taylor.

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