Is Competition Useful?
I wish I had a dollar for every internet comment I came across which dumped on competitive pistol shooting for being useless from a training perspective. “It’s not realistic!” “It teaches poor tactics!” “The targets aren’t shooting back!”
I am an unapologetic advocate for competitive shooting as a tool for honing defensive skill with a pistol, and I think that internet detractors are missing some important points.
So I’d like to take a minute to explain exactly why I believe that shooting games (yes, games) such as USPSA, IDPA, and even steel plate matches can be so useful to defensive shooters. And in the interest of full disclosure, I have been a regular competitor in USPSA since 2011. And in that arena, I will readily admit that I am no ball of fire. I am a relatively average, middle-of-the-pack, C-Class shooter; due to my age and the physical limitations that come with it, I am also unlikely to advance very much. I’m OK with it.
But also understand my background. I have been in the military, and I have been a police officer. As a police officer, I was on our department SWAT team and a firearms instructor. As such, I was pretty decent with a handgun, excellent with our Benelli shotguns, and surgical with the MP-5. Still, thanks largely to the competitive practice I have done since then, I am a much, much better shooter now than I ever was either in the Army or as a cop.
Contrary to what the detractors might tell you, there are some real benefits to shooting pistol competition. While it might not be “realistic” and it might not be “tactical,” it does offer more advanced shooting practice than you can get almost anywhere else. In a typical action pistol match, you will engage multiple targets…which may be partially obscured by cover or by “innocent bystanders”…with multiple shots, often from unconventional positions or on the move. Did I mention that some of those targets may be moving? Some stages may require shooting strong hand or weak hand only, drawing your gun from a holster or picking it up off of a table; you will almost certainly need to perform reloads, and maybe even a malfunction clearance.
All of this with a timer running and people watching, and when you finish, your targets are going to be scored for all to see. I don’t know of a commercial public range that will allow you to practice anything approaching this type of shooting.
Think of it as learning to drive a car. When you were first learning to drive, you had to think about the gas pedal, the brake, the steering wheel, and all the other controls you needed to manipulate to make the car do what you wanted it to do. It took some concentration. But the more experience you got operating the machine, the more instinctive it became. Before long, you were operating all those controls without conscious thought, leaving much more brain space free to negotiate traffic and navigate to your destination.
It works the same way with a gun. If you can get to the point that you can run the gun instinctively, then it becomes easier to solve the problem in front of you, whether it is a USPSA stage or a defensive situation. You will also be much more capable of doing it under stress. Although “the targets aren’t shooting back” and the intensity of the stress may be less, the fact that your performance will be timed, scored, and watched by others is still stress and you have to learn to cope with it.
So yes, I believe that competition is useful. Long ago Jeff Cooper formulated his “Combat Triad,” a concept which is still taught at Gunsite Academy, the school he founded over 40 years ago. The components of the Combat Triad are Marksmanship, Gunhandling, and Mindset, all three of which can be refined through competition in the action pistol sports…and are very difficult to cultivate standing in a lane on a square range shooting paper.
Of course, I saved the biggest benefit of all for last…it’s fun! Find a local club and give it a try.