Practical shooting competition is fun: but are there practical benefits?

By Dave Anderson
American Handgunner 
Practical shooting competition had its roots in the late 1950s. Itdeveloped into unrestricted, freestyle competition, encouraging shooters to come up with creative solutions. Jeff Cooper was the first torealize its value as a research and learning tool. By analyzing and publicizing which techniques worked best, Cooper initiated a revolution in defensive handgun shooting.

To give a basic example, practical shooting competition proved conclusively two hands on the gun was the best way to deliver an accurate shot fast with a full-power handgun. This seems self-evident today,but it was not always so. Check out old cop shows such as The Untouchables or The FBI, or the one-hand crouch position in old gun magazines--like Handgunner!

Competition proved the auto pistol could be made reliable, and it was easier to shoot well. Many factors influenced the law enforcementswitch from six-shot revolvers to high capacity autos. How big a role competition played can be argued, but it was undoubtedly a factor. Autos are the overwhelming choice of today's cops, and I know several, whose pistols are equipped with compact optical sights.

Not Tactics

Let's stipulate IPSC competition is not the place to learn tactics. Competitive shooting is about shooting; tactics are about staying alive. The nature of competition requires rules, standards and due regard for the safety of competitors, officials and spectators. Shootingskill is not a tactic, though it can be a component of tactics.

The United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA) is the USrepresentative of IPSC. Under the leadership of president Mike Voigt, himself a world-class competitor, USPSA is doing a terrific job of making the sport accessible to a broad spectrum of shooters. There are divisions for gun types, from near-stock Production to highly modified Open, and classes for shooters of different skill levels.

The question remains: if your primary interest is in self-defense,should you compete? What are the benefits? I put the question to Mike Voigt and to several police officers.

The benefits they described can be summarized as follows: (1) safegun-handling skills, (2) shooting skills, (3) learning to perform under stress, (4) self confidence.


I've been involved in many shooting sports over the last four decades. I know of none which matches IPSC in its rigid and uncompromising safety standards. I've seen seemingly minor infractions result in immediate disqualification. New shooters may not learn to be world champions, but they will learn safe gunhandling before being allowed to compete.

A police friend commented recently he feels most comfortable on the range with shooters who have had USPSA training and experience. Hisviews may be a bit prejudiced; in a 30-year career in law enforcement, the closest he's come to being killed was when he was shot by a fellow officer while on the range.

"Finger off trigger unless sights are on target" is Rule 3 of JeffCooper's four rules of firearm safety, in part a result of his experience in practical shooting competition. Watch Closely on news video of American soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan and you'll see trigger fingers straight, outside of trigger-guards. You're seeing a small partof the Cooper legacy.


What about shooting skills? Mike Voigt comments, "There's no othersport or training that focuses on the draw, reloading, target acquisition, instantly being able to place accurate fire on a target while moving--and all this is done faster than any other sport with live ammunition. USPSA does all this without compromising the safety of competitors, staff and spectators."

Like several other top competitors Mike has worked with police, federal law enforcement, and the military for years. He says, "The skills we bring to these brave defenders are honed though competition. The methods of use are obviously quite different in a tactical environment, but the ability to place accurate fire on a target fast is essential...."

The competition benefit most mentioned by police officers is the opportunity to shoot under stress. John France, who leads the Border Patrol team at USPSA National matches, commented on the value of shooting under pressure. So did Grand Master Phil Strader, firearms instructor for the US Capitol Police and perennial Top Law Enforcement champion at the Nationals.

Under Stress

When gunhandling skills have been ingrained to a subconscious level, the conscious mind can concentrate on problem solving, rather thanhow to draw the gun. With experience, drawing, indexing and reloading the gun became second nature.

Mike Voigt says, "Events [in matches and in life] happen at high speeds with many tasks happening at once. Understanding proper sequences and movements ... allows shooters to quickly place accurate fire on target."


A detective friend, a USPSA competitor, recalled a request for backup from two uniformed officers who were in a standoff with a distraught man armed with a shotgun.

His sidearm at the time was a Springfield Armory .45. He took a barricade position at the corner of the house. The uniformed officers did a superb job of convincing the man to surrender his weapon, and the incident ended with no shots fired and no one injured.

What my friend recalls is the flood of confidence and sense of relief he felt when he saw the sights of his .45 rock steady. He knew beyond a doubt he could make the shot if necessary.

I'll give Mike Voigt the last word: "One of my goals as President of USPSA is to keep our sport practical. Our principles outline firearms, targets, ammunition power and other facets ... following these principles has produced the best practical shooters in the world." 

Copyright 2007 Gale Group, Inc.
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