The Superstition Mystery Mountain 3 Gun or SMM3G is traditionally the first major match of the 3-gun season and is held annually at my home range of the Rio Salado Sportsman's Club in Mesa, Arizona.

The SMM3G also kicks off the end of the near-perfect Arizona winters. This year was no exception and provided a rain-, cold- and snow-free shooting experience with minimal wind for the 500-yard-plus shots during the match. While the weather was the "hero," the overall match theme of "International Villains" proved to be truer for me than any match I have ever participated in.

My federal law enforcement career keeps my schedule in a constant state of flux with often little advance notice of an operation requiring me to spend months away from home. Competition match fees aren't cheap, and most major 3-gun matches run northward of $300 with the last opportunity for a partial refund typically 30 days before the start date.

I lost nearly $750 last year on missed matches, so every time I click the "payment" button in Practiscore, I break out in a sweat worrying about whether I'll actually be able to attend. This year was no different and like clockwork, I was scheduled to attend a last-minute training in Washington, D.C. for the weekend of SMM3G.

Match Director Russ Osiol has been through this with me for years and graciously allowed me to shoot in the staff match so I could continue to battle the real-life "international villains" I investigate on a daily basis.

The staff match kicked off bright and early, and each stage featured a villain-inspired narrative with a smile-inducing twist. Every range of villain was represented from classic movies such as "Die Hard," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Despicable Me" to modern-day real-life villains such as terrorists and Kim Jong Un.

The SMM3G goes the extra mile with these themes and varies from little touches such as shooting props that read "All hope abandon ye who enter here" and a crushed Wicked Witch of the East with ruby slippers to more active roles such as beginning a stage by holding a wand and facing off with a larger than life Voldemort in a spell duel or having to navigate a minefield complete with trip wires that fire a primer off when tripped.

Sam John navigating the trip wires which incurred a penalty if set off.

Tank props with opening hatches, helicopters and simulated Nakatomi Plaza "Die Hard" scenarios kept the match varied, fun and challenging. The SMM3G strives to provide a unique shooting experience for your money and, as always, they delivered it in spades.

With wand in hand, you were required to "spell duel" Voldemort to begin the stage.

To complete this villain theme, SMM3G included one of the most — if not the most evil pistol stages I have ever seen in 3-gun.

Stage 3 had competitors start by drawing their pistol and engaging a small tennis ball-sized target sitting on top of a large, no-shoot popper. Next, competitors engaged a special MOA Targets LLC head and torso pop-out target that measured in the inches of shootable area. A polish plate rack followed the MOA target, and lastly a Texas Star with reduced-size plates containing clay targets completed your pistol torture session.

Once abandoning your pistol, you were rewarded with a break from your tedious accuracy shots with an array of close rifle targets to release your inner need for speed. Pistol brass was in abundant supply after three days of shooting at this frustrating array of targets, and if anyone has ever said that 3-gun doesn't require accuracy or is a pistol "hosing" sport, I challenge them to recreate this stage at their next action pistol match.

Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un supervises Eddie Garcia and Jessica Nietzel.

For those whose nerves were shot after Stage 3, the SMM3G offered a large air-conditioned building stocked with refreshments and a host of vendors featuring their newest products. I recently picked up a custom 1911 from Fusion Firearms and have been toying with the Heavy Metal division.

I was particularity interested in the .308 offers from overall match sponsor POF Firearms and their lightweight Revolution, the Aero Precision M5 and the new Savage MSR Hunter. Much to my surprise, the Revolution was a raffle gun, and the Aero Precision was available to shoot as a demo gun.

Unfortunately, the Savage MSR Hunter wasn't on display at the Savage booth, but what was on display was the yet-unreleased Savage competition .308 and .223. Savage took their already-small-frame .308 and further refined it by adding competition features such as a carbon fiber barrel, ambi-controls and a redesigned forearm, among other competition features.

Savage Arms displaying their soon to be released competition .308 and .223 rifles.

I'm still torn among these three options and hope to make a decision in the near future so I can begin my Heavy Metal adventures.

Apart from the main match and vendor area, the SMM3G offers two PCC side matches for a small entry fee of $10 for your first attempt and $5 for each subsequent attempt. The first challenge is a plate rack, and the second is an MGM spinner with the fastest time on each event earning a cash prize and a ticket into the raffle for the stage guns.

For the second year in a row, Marine Corps Combat Shooting Team Member Sgt. Martin Lucero dominated the event with a first-place finish on the plate rack and a second place finish on the Spinner. His times of 2.02 and 2.75, respectively, are quite frankly mind-boggling to me.

Upon receiving his cash prizes and multiple raffle wins from the event, he jokingly said that he spent hundreds of dollars to obtain his logic-defying times. The investment paid off nicely and Martin walked away with arms full of loot. Next year, I will bring more than my paltry $20 per stage and try to give Martin a run for his money!

After three days of shooting 11 diabolical stages, the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU) emerged victorious from the 350 plus shooters from across the nation fitting for the match theme. AMU members Daniel Horner won the Tactical Division, Nate Staskiewicz won Limited, and Joel Turner won Open and the overall match title. Local shooter and law enforcement officer John Mouret won the Heavy Metal Division, and Taran Butler took the Stealth Division Title.

AMU member Joel Turner won the overall match title and placed first in Open and High Military Open.

The SMM3G doesn't just reward the top shooters but also gives away the traditional "last but not dead" award, which is free entry to next year's match for the lowest-finishing competitor who completed the match. They also gave away an Aero Precision stage gun to the competitor who finished exactly 50 percent in the match.

For everyone outside of these categories, the SMM3G prize table was stocked with over $350,000 in prizes. A simple crunching of the numbers, and that is $1,000 in prizes per competitor.

A fun fact I learned from the staff members is that every dollar taken in from competitors' match fees are returned in prizes. The sole source of income for the match is taken from the gun raffles and is utilized to buy props, supplies and the like for the next year.

If you've ever wondered where your hard-earned money from match fees is going, the answer is back into your pocket. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to partake in the massive, drool-inducing prize table this year.

The SMM3G sends every competitor home with a sizable prize package.

The SMM3G is my Super Bowl. I prepare for this match year round, and to say I look forward to it is an understatement. I had been out of the country from December through March, and during my time away from the States I purchased what in my mind is the perfect competition pistol: the CZ Shadow 2.

I returned to the U.S., picked up my pistol, changed out a few springs, installed the larger thumb safety and called it good the week of SMM3G. I was breaking a cardinal rule of using new equipment at a major match, but my excitement to shoot the Shadow 2 got the better of me and my judgment.

On my fourth stage of the staff match, I started by engaging a plate rack, abandoned my pistol and then retrieved my rifle for a series of 15 long-range steel targets. Upon returning to clear my pistol, closer inspection deemed the safety was disengaged.

It felt like time stood still as I stared at my pistol with wide-eyed disbelief. I know I had intentionally engaged my safety with not one, but two hands just to be safe, before abandoning it in the sloping wooden trough.

I've written articles on how paranoid I am about engaging and disengaging the thumb safety. How could this be happening to me? I have never been disqualified from a match in five years of competition shooting, and I made it my primary goal at each and every match in which I compete.

I had read and heard many times that single-action pistols run the chance of having an abandonment prop disengaging the safety, but I never quite imagined it could happen to me. It was pretty embarrassing, to say the least, but as I filled out the DQ paperwork with one of the match directors, he offered his sympathy and informed me he had DQ'ed himself from his own match he hosts just the week before.

It helped with the pain slightly to know that much better shooters than me have, and will again, go through the same struggle and embarrassment of being disqualified. I heard several more stories from friends and fellow shooters, and each one helped to nurse my still-fresh wound.

I returned home, and after testing the safety against a variety of surfaces, I discovered that the Shadow 2 with extended thumb safety will disengage with the tiniest amount of pressure. If it hadn't been that stage, it would have undoubtedly been another one.

I quickly purchased an increased strength thumb safety detent spring. In the future, I will be completely clearing the weapon before dumping it until I am confident it can withstand an abandonment prop.

The SMM3G continues to make me a better shooter, whether it is through success or failure. I've found in life that you learn more from your failures than you do your successes, and I promise I have learned from this experience and will be more ready than ever for when the next start signal sounds.

The SMM3G continues to be one of the premier 3-gun events in the country and is the perfect way to start your 3-gun season. Just remember to keep those thumb safeties on!