Competition: Pros and Cons

13-Aug-12 – 08:45 by ToddG

If your interest in handguns is focused toward carrying on duty and/or for personal defense, is competition a good way to supplement your practice or is it a doorway to bad habits that could be detrimental to your primary goals?

Answer: yes.

The simple truth is that most people will put more effort into practicing for a shooting match they know is coming up next weekend than they will a gunfight that may or may not happen sometime in their lifetime. We like to beat our chests and talk about preparing for the real world but the human animal tends to have a very short attention span. Almost every truly exceptional shooter I know has spent substantial time shooting IDPA and/or USPSA.

For many, competition is also the first exposure they’ll have to people who are serious about shooting. It’s easy to be the best shooter you know when you’re on the range all by yourself.  It’s natural to convince yourself that your buddies are all good and as long as you can hang with them you’re good, too. Step up to the challenge of attending a major match and you’ll see a whole new level of good.

In fact, competition can be a reality check for many shooters — especially law enforcement and military shooters — who are forced to face the fact that what is good enough to “qualify” is woefully pathetic compared to what the average casual club-level IDPA or USPSA shooter can do on his worst day.

Another great thing about competition shooting is that it forces you to shoot someone else’s problem. Instead of just setting up drills you want to shoot, you have to deal with courses of fire you’ve never seen or perhaps even considered before. Not only does this push you to round out your skill set but it can show you where you’ve developed bad habits. My favorite example comes from IDPA: plenty of people practice shoving a magazine into their pocket as part of a “tactical” or “retention” reload but then discover in the middle of a match it’s not so easy if you’re kneeling or prone or otherwise in some position that makes accessing that pocket difficult. Getting the mag in can be difficult… getting it back out if you need it can be impossible!

Possibly the biggest benefit of competition is that it is often the most stressful shooting many people will ever be exposed to. While obviously not the same as being in an actual gunfight, shooting in a competitive event in front of peers and strangers will do a great job of showing you just how easy it is to make mental mistakes under stress. Learning to stay focused on the task at hand and building experience fixing mistakes under pressure both have legitimate real world payoffs.

Competition can also have some pitfalls, though. The major action pistol games are as much about the game part as they are the pistol part.

There are certain skills that are critical to the game that have little or no real world value. Head over to YouTube and watch some random people shooting matches. Just a few examples:

  • Many stages are more about moving properly than shooting. When time is part of your score, the guy who can shave two seconds off his run by getting from Box A to Box B faster than you has a huge advantage.
  • Set-ups are another valuable game skill that have no real analogue in real life. A set-up is basically presenting your gun to the target as you step into a new position (like at a barricade or doorway). To do that properly you need to know exactly where the target is going to be when you’re coming into position and you need to have made the decision to shoot it before you’ve put your eyes on it. Easy to do at a match, but not going to happen when searching a real building with real, thinking, moving, unidentified people.
  • Transitions (driving the gun from one target to the next) are yet another skill that competitive shooters work on that doesn’t rate as much attention if your focus is just on defensive gun use. In a game, you know when the buzzer goes off exactly which targets you’re going to shoot, how many times, at what location, and in what order. Things aren’t that predictable in the real world.
  • Many of these issues can be brought together under the single heading of stage strategy. To be good at the games, you need to understand their scoring systems and their rules. Sometimes things that make perfectly good sense — like dropping an empty magazine on the ground — could be illegal. Some things that make no sense whatsoever — like exposing yourself to half a dozen targets at once instead of using available cover — might be key to getting the best score. Most stages at most matches actually give you a chance to walk through and possibly even pantomime your plan in advance. Taking those opportunities and using them properly is important for the game, but obviously antithetical to preparing to respond to a sudden attack.

So, you need to be honest with yourself about your motivation. Are you there to supplement your training or are you there to compete for the sake of competition? Both are perfectly valid choices, obviously. But the answer to that question is going to have an impact on what you practice. Time you spend working on competition-oriented skills is time you could have used to work on defense-oriented skills.

Another potential snare of competition shooting for the defense-minded shooter is equipment selection. When you go to a match, it’s hard to look at the guys with their tricked out race gear when you’re wearing a Glock 27 in an IWB holster under a sweatshirt (which is exactly how I shot my first USPSA match in the mid-90s). The temptation to compromise a little here and a little there can be strong. First you switch to a G34… because, hey, it’s basically the same gun, right? But it’s not. Seeing how you can shoot with a G34 isn’t the same as seeing what you can do with a much smaller, greater recoiling G27. Then you switch to a faster holster. Now you’re practicing to draw a different way and perhaps from a different location on your body. We said earlier that people will focus more on the definitely-game this weekend than the maybe-fight in the future. So where will your focus be, on your CCW gear or your game gear? On the other hand, if you’re going to run your “real” gear you cannot use it as an excuse or a crutch. You’re making a decision and that’s 100% on you. Don’t try to convince yourself you would have beat the World Champion if only your holster was a little faster or your sight radius a little longer.

So at the end of the day, there are pros and cons to competition shooting for the “defense-minded” shooter. But, the pros are pretty universal… and the cons are really only cons if you let them be. Because whether you stay true to your original purpose or give in to the dark side and become an absolute gamer, you’re still getting more time on the range and more experience shooting complex problems under stress. As long as you don’t fall into the trap of thinking that winning at a game makes you an honorary gunfighter, competition is a fun and effective way to become a better shooter.

Train hard & stay safe! ToddG


  1. 38 Responses to “Competition: Pros and Cons”

  2. Excellent post, thanks for putting this together.

    By JD on Aug 13, 2012

  3. Great post! I JUST posted about making Expert this weekend at the NC State IDPA match, that I was proud that I did it with my actual carry gear/clothes and that what I still need to work on was getting into and out of positions.

    The key is knowing what IDPA/USPSA is and what its not and having the discipline to train the skills that will help you in a defensive situation too. (Many of them are mental and you can do those walking around the mall)

    By BalloonGoesUp on Aug 13, 2012

  4. Todd, when’s the last time you shot a match other than KSTG?

    By Jeff on Aug 13, 2012

  5. Excellent article.

    By steve b on Aug 13, 2012

  6. Jeff — local level? Mid-’08. Major match, the last one I shot I think was the ’07 IDPA Nationals. I started carrying aiwb in August ’08 which precluded IDPA and Production.

    By ToddG on Aug 13, 2012

  7. Damn it Todd, I was working on a similar deal for Police magazine, with many of the same points (adding using your duty gear to work it under match pressure), now I’ll look like a copy-cat 😛

    Anyway, even guys involved in non-“tactical” shooting competition have found such to be very benefitial to gunfighting, Jim Cirillo being a PPC guy is a famous example.

    Hunting with your handgun is also skill building, or at least testing.
    Tom Givens and I have talked about taking deer with an actual service pistol instead of the “handguns” that many people use for handgun hunting, and the problems involved in doing so cleanly.

    Stealing a quote from Soutnarc’s forum; “You can’t go as deep training as in a race or a fight. If you don’t compete it’s easy to convince yourself you’re going hard. You’re not.” Mark Twight

    I do find that I have to be careful to not let bad habits get into my tactical toolbox, like standing in a doorway port at an IPSC match and just blazing away at targets to get max speed on the string of fire, or running balls-to-the-wall down a hallway at an IDPA match instead of moving as I would in real life.

    I almost never win a local match, but I do well, and with IDPA I very often get “most accurate” at the match running a G19 with a NY1 trigger from an IWB holster under a T-shirt, instead of the “concealed carry” guns other guys are running, like a tricked G34 in a Blace Tech holster under a ‘shoot-me” vest.

    I work with my duty belt at times, my actual daily off-duty gear at other times, this lets me work my gear under match stress, pushed for time, in all kinds of weather, while handling someone else’s shooting problem.

    By Chuck Haggard on Aug 13, 2012

  8. Jeff — Followup to my last, someone emailed me to remind me about the 2010 Tac Conference match, which I won. Don’t know if that counts in your book. It’s not a major organized sport like USPSA or IDPA.

    Chuck — One of the last things I’m worried about is you copying me. Always good to get feedback like that, thanks!

    By ToddG on Aug 13, 2012

  9. Todd,

    You continue to bang out excellent ‘articles’. I send as many like-minded friends and buddies to your site as I can.

    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and experience.


    By Bill Lance on Aug 13, 2012

  10. Great article. I never considered the “solving other people’s problem” aspect.

    By Tim on Aug 13, 2012

  11. I’m going to butcher the paraphrase but somewhere in one of Brian Enos’s books he said something about swimming competitively doesn’t train you to be a lifeguard but it does make you a better swimmer and therefor less likely to drown; shooting competitively doesn’t train you for self defense but it does make you a better shooter, that that in turn will give you the edge over someone that doesn’t do anything at all.

    I started shooting IDPA and USPSA locally to be better at self defense but I slowly found myself having a desire to become competitive and now two years later I am a significantly better shooter than I was two years ago and I’m still at the bottom of a lot of the match score sheets which only goes to show that I still have a long way to go.

    By Jesse on Aug 13, 2012

  12. Also I find that when discussing my gun hobby with anti-gun or other regular non-gun people I’ve noticed there is a significant difference in their reaction depending on how I word it. If I say I own guns because zombie apocalypse or because I want to be able to defend myself I get a “your crazy/paranoid” look. However if I tell them I shoot guns competitively I get a “oh really? That’s cool I didn’t know they had things like that.”

    It’s helped turn many of conversations into more positive experiences.

    By Jesse on Aug 13, 2012

  13. I’d actually argue a bit about the cons of “set-up”: building muscle memory of your draw in matches and practice so that your front sight lands on what you’re looking at is good. Learning to “stick the landing” so your foot is safely behind cover is good, as is learning to not rub up on the cover like it was a stripper pole. In competition it allows you to slice the pie with minimal movement, and if someone is shooting back at you it means you are exposing far less then the game legal 50% of your upper body – and avoiding a gun give away by poking your muzzle past the wall/barricade.

    For my money, the absolute worst habit competitive shooters develop is running the COF, then immediately unloading their gun while they start critiquing their performance. (Also, as an SO, I’m never thrilled when someone’s gun is back in the holster before I’m done saying “if the shooter is finished…)

    The good thing is, it’s easily dealt with without compromising competitive performance. I’m trying to get in the habit of performing a threat scan after the last target is engaged (although with a wheelgun it’s usually with an empty gun but I don’t want to slow the match up by performing a reload at the end of each stage).

    It’s not that I necessarily think anyone is going to automatically “unload and show clear” under stress when they think the fight’s over – but I’m a firm believer in muscle memory and I figure if I’m going to claim the good effects, I better plan for the bad as well.

    By Joe Allen on Aug 13, 2012

  14. My friend said this to me once and I don’t know if somebody famous said it to him but: Fast and Accurate is Fast and Accurate; whether it be for blood or money.

    Now of course their is no money in competitive shooting but the point is being accurate the point, no matter the venue.

    By Matt S. on Aug 13, 2012

  15. Joe, I find the ROs get impatient with me at times because I always scan a 180 before doing the unload and show clear ritual, just to keep my head “right”.

    Speed holstering is a real problem at our range at work.

    By Chuck Haggard on Aug 13, 2012

  16. Great post. The only thing you left out is the pure raw feeling of joy that comes when you use carry gear and you beat people using race gear like a freakin’ gong.

    Okie John

    By okie john on Aug 13, 2012

  17. Great thoughts, I agree any practice with your gun to make you better is absolutely good, even if it is competition.

    I have seen guys come to tactical training and get so involved with the “steps” they use for shooting matches, that they actually have unloaded thier guns and shown them to range staff when they finished shooting during a drill, before the all clear was given. Imagine how they felt when suddenly a threat appeared and they were standing there with an empty gun.

    I’ve seen some guys who are very good shooters, who compete, who make it a habit of metally reminding themselves that is just a competition and when they leave, they must mentally go back to being a wolf and being ready to do battle for real. And I’ve seen others who don’t realize that competition habits don’t always mesh with tactical habits.

    Again, I agree with what Todd is saying, that competition practice can be good, or bad, depending on how the student decides to make it.

    By KennyT on Aug 13, 2012

  18. When extolling the value of competition in making one a better shooter, I use the following-competition forces you to learn to run the gun on near auto pilot freeing your mind to solve the tactical problem.

    RE the 34 (or G35 in my case), it ain’t “cheatin” if it really is your carry gun
    and you carry it as close to your “street” manner as possible. YMMV-David

    By David Barnes on Aug 13, 2012

  19. Couple years back I talked a friend into shooting a local ICORE match (he had never shot any type of action pistol match); he showed up with a 5-shot .38 snubby and an IWB holster because that’s what he carried. He had a few speed loaders for it and I loaned him a few more, plus some speed strips.

    Not only did he not win, and in fact his first couple of stages absolutely sucked. By the last stage, though, he had figured out movement, reloading and engagement sequence. His time – and point score – for the last stage was right in the middle of all 50 or so competitors.

    Afterward he commented that he had probably looked pretty foolish shooting a 5-shot 2 inch. I pointed out that no one had learned more that day than he.

    By Alien on Aug 13, 2012

  20. Periodically, I see comments like this:
    “I have seen guys come to tactical training and get so involved with the “steps” they use for shooting matches, that they actually have unloaded thier guns and shown them to range staff when they finished shooting during a drill, before the all clear was given. Imagine how they felt when suddenly a threat appeared and they were standing there with an empty gun.”

    …and I’m curious. Where did you see this? Has anyone else actually SEEN this? I keep hearing it from people, but I’ve certainly never seen it.

    It seems strange to me, since as a USPSA RO, competitors IN A MATCH rarely unload before I actually give them the commands, much less unload, clear, and holster. (Actually, they _never_ do all of it before the command.)

    So I wonder how many people have actually _seen_ competitors actually unload and clear in a class before the “range clear” command.

    Or could it be that since they were _done with the drill_, they assumed that like most places, done means _done_, and you get ready for the next thing? After all, if the drill is finished, you 1) don’t expect anything after the drill except for what normally happens next, and if “what happens next” is clearing to go look at targets, listen to instruction, or paste, you’d want to be ready; and 2) how many threats do you run into that _appear_ in the middle of a class _after a drill has been finished_?

    Or were instructors just playing gotcha? “Let’s see—a drill is over, and we’re getting ready for the next thing. Oh, I see some guy did it really fast—let’s screw with him for an obscure reason. Because a drill in a class is COMPLETELY like a real-life self-defense situation, and if he unloads and clears really quickly in class after a drill, obviously he’ll do the exact same thing in real life after a defense situation.”


    It just interests me to read things like this—because it doesn’t make sense to me in terms of what I’ve seen, and what I know about how competition shooters handle the end of a stage.

    Who has seen this? Under what circumstances?

    (KennyT, this is not directly at you specifically—please don’t take this wrong. I just keep seeing this sort of comment from a number of people, and I don’t understand the circumstances under which it would have happened.)

    If anyone has seen this somewhere, I’d like to hear about it.

    By jthhapkido on Aug 13, 2012

  21. jth — I’ve seen it many times in classes. As Joe Allen commented above, we’d like to think that there’s a serious mental line between “I just shot a string of fire in a class” and “I just shot someone who was trying to kill me.” But I’ve had more than a handful of students who, even after repeatedly being told to keep their guns hot, found it extremely difficult to break the habit in a class. Two of them got discombobulated enough that they finally remembered not to “unload” and not to “show clear” but didn’t remember not to “hammer down” and had ADs into the dirt.

    If you’re having a hard time breaking that habit under the mild stress of a class when the instructor is specifically telling you to keep your gun hot, it’s probably worth looking into.

    Having said that, I didn’t include it in my “CONS” above because I do believe it’s often blown out of proportion as a potential problem.

    To your other point, though, yes, I have seen countless competitors begin the unload process before being instructed. Kudos if you don’t let folks get away with that at your local matches but it’s certainly not an uncommon phenomenon.

    By ToddG on Aug 13, 2012

  22. jth, no offense taken and you bring up some good points.

    No, we don’t set up drills to play gotcha or screw with guys. We have no desire to give them training scars. We set up drills, FX scenarios and shoot house events based on real life scenarios.

    Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately the majority of our officers don’t shoot competition, so we have a small group that do.

    It was when one of the “competition” shooters went into a shoot house drill, and after the first room where he confronted a suspect, fired 3 shots, then proceeded to unload and holster when the rest of the house was not clear, that we asked him what he was doing? His reply was almost funny,, almost because in real life it could have gotten him killed. He replied, “I guess I’ve gotten so used to doing that step in competitions, that I forgot where I was at” referring to the unloading and holstering. A couple of other times while on the static range, with moving from cover to cover we had some “competition” shooters fire the rounds, then unload their guns and move to cover with empty guns. Turns out during a local competition they attended, that was expected. (Not sure why)

    I don’t make a big deal about messing up like that, because the guy who does kicks himself harder than I could.

    Like ToddG stated, it does happen, just as long as guys know it can and prepare, they can minimize the chances of it happening during a real gunfight.

    Stay safe.

    By KennyT on Aug 13, 2012

  23. Sometimes, in our winter leagues (not sanctioned by USPSA or IDPA), we have a hidden stage. Shooters only know how many rounds/targets are involved (can’t stop the sound). The disadvantage is that anyone who’s involved in the setup gets a zero for the stage. As a result, I’m usually the only one setting the stage up.

    It’s our most popular type of stage, though, so we must be doing something right.

    By MikeM on Aug 13, 2012

  24. so really, we just need to figure out how to game the gunfight. get on it!

    By eric brown on Aug 13, 2012

  25. JTH,

    A similar unconscious action would be the pocketing of brass upon reloading a service revolver, a habit born from spiffy reloading techniques so you don’t have to police call at the end of the day. Look up the Newhall, California shooting.

    No, I wasn’t there, so I didn’t see it personally. With that being said, I prefer to learn off of others’ documented mistakes instead of dismiss it because I myself can’t find a witness in person.

    By Tyler on Aug 13, 2012

  26. Tyler, I prefer to actually hear of documented mistakes, preferably in aggregation, so that I can see what the problem actually is.

    For example, regarding Newhall:

    I also prefer to actually ask for data instead of being dismissive of other people.

    ToddG, and KennyT, thanks for the examples. That’s what I wanted to know!

    By jthhapkido on Aug 14, 2012

  27. Unloaded and shown clear before given the command? I’ve done it. Once at a bowling pin match, and had the RO remind me that I hadn’t actually cleared the table.

    By Joe in PNG on Aug 14, 2012

  28. Since we ran a hot range, we decided that it should be up to the officer to decide when it was safe to holster after shooting a drill. We got out of the practice of calling out when to holster after a drill, leaving it up to each officer. Yes, we had those who did the speed re-holster and shared with them why that was not a good idea. We also had those who took minutes to finish scanning, searching and then decided it was okay to holster, which was just fine with us. Ultimately our goal was to get guys out of the habit of waiting for someone to tell them what to do, to think for themselves under multiple circumstances.

    That is why it was unusual for guys to unload and holster after firing shots in a drill (usually right after they had attended a competition shoot)in our classes.

    By KennyT on Aug 14, 2012

  29. If we look at the examples given here of shooters who showed clear even when instructed not to, etc., we see that they all happened at the same place – a controlled training environment. And everyone was of the mindset that they were training at the range because I imagine that you can’t fake the feeling of being shot at for real. Even training in a shoothouse, cops know it is training and no one is actually trying to kill them.

    I’m not convinced that the most dedicated competitor is going to automatically unload and show clear after dropping a thug in the grocery store parking lot. No matter how many hours are spent shooting into a berm, I’m hard pressed to believe it will feel the same when you bang a few off at a live target in a public place.

    But I could be completely wrong.

    By mark on Aug 14, 2012

  30. mark — I think it comes down to whether you believe that people will, at a moment of tremendous stress, exhibit their greatest clarity and attention to detail… or default to their training and habits.

    By ToddG on Aug 14, 2012

  31. Great post…Awareness, identification and quick response, would be a mayor issue for me than ULSC; while in practice you can get so used to the beep to start… there is no way around it, competition is a game that can help with some skills (discipline, constancy, focus, etc) but training for a defense mind set is different story… just my 2cents.

    By afs on Aug 15, 2012

  32. Todd, your statement seems to suggest that there is nothing between those two extremes.

    By mark on Aug 15, 2012

  33. mark — You could slice the onion as thin as you want. It still comes down to whether you think people will (a) be aware and cognizant enough not to make that mistake or (b) be stressed or distracted enough to have a brain fade and hit autopilot. I’ve seen enough people make that mistake under mild stress that I’m uncomfortable simply trusting that “when it’s for real” they’ll necessarily rise to the occasion. I’ve had enough people with extensive combat experience relate similar “defaulted to training” stories that personally, I’m inclined to believe it’s reasonably commonplace. YMMV, certainly.

    By ToddG on Aug 15, 2012

  34. ToddG is absolutely correct in his assessment that under stress people tend to revert to how they practice doing things the most. I have seen it hundreds of times, guys doing tactical reloads, empty gun reloads or fail to deactive safety devices contrary to how they were taught, because they were too lazy to follow the training and do it the same way all the time.

    Under extreme stress, autopilot kicks in and it takes amazing concentration to override the brains direction and do something different than what your muscle memory (brain) is used to doing.

    That is why I cringe a people who decide to carry two weapons with different operating systems, who practice with both equally.

    I have been there when a fellow officer under the stress of seeing a suspect pulling a gun on me, deciding to shoot the suspect only to forget to unsafe his gun (Carried his S&W 5906 and during training he could carry it with the safety off and shoot the drills and qualifications. On duty he would carried it with the safety on despite our efforts to train him otherwise. He kept telling us he practiced all the time taking the safety off when he drew the gun. He was a K-9 officer and felt having the safety on while working his dog would be safer. With his years of experience, he “knew” he would do the right thing at the right time.) That night he pulled the trigger and the gun did not fire. He was so confident he would remember to unsafe the gun when the time came, but didn’t and was petrified that he almost got me killed. (Luckily I saw the gun coming and was close enough to the suspect to grab it and disarm him without him being able to fire.) My partner was in tears knowing he almost got me killed. After that, he carried the gun with the safety off.

    So, if you want to believe that practicing one way will not affect how your react under stress, and you can override your autopilot tendencies, you are exceptional. I’ve alway’s believed that how you train/practice is how you fight. I’ve seen that to be true over and over during scenario training. Guys who payed attention and did things the same way all the time, never had problems. Those who kept changing things up… they would have issues.

    By KennyT on Aug 16, 2012

  35. KennyT — Wow… thank you for sharing that story! Glad you came out of it on top.

    By ToddG on Aug 16, 2012

  36. I’ve no doubt that there are shooters at a tactical class that shoot competion and have hurried up on the unload and show clear. But, I also have seen, a lot of times LEO trainers commenting, say that they have seen officers do something stupid or wrong during training, and they assume that the shooter learned this in competition. Sometimes the shooter himself may say they learned it somewhere else (competition) and they haven’t actually competed at all. Mark

    By Mark Hicks on Aug 17, 2012

  37. “Under extreme stress, autopilot kicks in and it takes amazing concentration to override the brains direction and do something different than what your muscle memory (brain) is used to doing.”

    I agree 100%. My point is that the notion that because someone is in the habit of showing clear after drills at the range they will do that in a real shooting doesn’t fit the description because shooting people is not something most of us are used to doing and is nothing like a range drill.

    However, if, in the doing of those drills, someone ingrained certain habits related to his drawstroke, will those habits reveal themselves when he draws in self-defense? Yes. There is a difference in these two concepts and my point is that in conversations such as this, these differences get lumped together and argued from only one standpoint. It creates confusion and you end up with the “competition will get you killed” mantra. Thankfully Todd’s article did well in arguing against that mindset.

    By mark on Aug 17, 2012

  38. Saw this quote in a sig:

    “Trigger time is good. Trigger time under stress is better. Competition is trigger time under stress.”

    By cmoore on Aug 18, 2012

  39. Great article Todd. Couldnt agree more. I think its important for us competition shooters to remember the difference between gaming and real world defense skills.

    By ryan on Aug 19, 2012

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