Competitive shooting is one of the best methods to practice and increase your firearm handling skills. It is rewarding when you prevail and a nonstop challenge of your abilities. It can become quite addicting once you catch the competition bug.
My name is Hunter Constantine, I am the Team Captain for the Fieldcraft Survival Practical Shooting Team. I will be sharing my knowledge with you about competition shooting and how to start your journey into the shooting sport. I spent my first season as a USPSA match director, hosting hundreds of people at my local club. I have shot over 200 matches in the last 2 years. I took the high overall and won the following major matches this year: 2020 Healy Arms South Mountain Showdown, Valentines IDPA Regional at Pardo, and the USPSA Alaskan Sectional. I started my journey from scratch and learned a lot along the way. I will be breaking down this article into 4 sections.
- What is competition shooting?
- What equipment is needed to compete?
- How do I sign up?
- Your first match.
What is competition shooting?
If you are reading this there is a good chance that you have an idea of what competition shooting is. I will be diving in depth about exactly what it is and what you need to get started. Shooting sports, covers a wide array of disciplines with different types of firearms. Each discipline will have its own rules and requirements for the shooter and their gear. The best thing you can do is read the rule book for the discipline you are shooting. Generally speaking, each discipline will focus on a variation of accuracy, time, and athleticism. Some of the most popular disciplines are the following:
- USPSA (United States Practical Shooting Association)
This is one of the fastest growing shooting sports with over 31,000 members nationally. It is a national governing body of practical shooting in the United States under the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC).
- IDPA (International Defensive Pistol Association)
"IDPA is the use of practical equipment including full charge service ammunition to solve simulated real world self-defensive scenarios using practical handguns and holsters that are suitable for self-defense use. The main goal is to test the skill and ability of an individual" -IDPA
- 3 Gun (Pistol, Shotgun, & Rifle)
3 Gun is different from USPSA & IDPA because there is not a formal governing body. Rules are generally the same, but some specific clubs or matches might have their own variation on certain procedures. This discipline focuses on 3 different shooting platforms: pistol, shotgun, and rifle. 3 Gun typically includes longer stages with more obstacles.
- Other Disciplines to mention: 2gun, PRS, NRA Action pistol, Bullseye, Trap & Skeet, Sporting Clays, NSSF, IPSC, and Steel Challenge.
Shooting competitively does not require any qualifications. The main objective is to get through the course of fire safely. Almost all shooting matches will be a cold range. This means that your gun will remain unloaded until instructed by the range officer. During the course of fire, it is important not point your muzzle in an unsafe direction (This is referred to as the 180* degree rule. Your muzzle can not break that plane, or it will result in disqualification from the match). The shooter also must show trigger discipline by removing their finger from the trigger guard while moving. There are other specific safety rules, but these are three main points that new shooters should be aware of.
One of the most welcoming aspects of competition shooting is the different classification levels and different divisions. In USPSA & IDPA you will be competing against people who are the same level of shooter you are with the similar equipment. This helps create an equal playing field and give you milestones to progress to.
What Equipment is needed to compete?
We will further break this down into subcategories featuring firearms, firearm accessories, belt set up, and attire. When you are first starting out most clubs will be lenient with you and the equipment you have. When you start competing more seriously you will need to follow the rules of the division and discipline you are shooting. I always welcomed new shooters to come shoot what they have. Your first few matches are learning experiences. I discourage people to go out and buy new gear before they participate in a match. After shooting a handful of matches you will understand what equipment might benefit you more than what your current setup offers you. I made this mistake before I started shooting regularly. I was buying everything under the sun and after 2 seasons I do not use any of the gear I impulsively purchased at the beginning. You will grow as a shooter the more time you spend competing.
Each Discipline will have its own rules for each of the different divisions. Whatever firearm you own, it is likely it will fall into one of the following divisions.
If your everyday carry is a Glock 19 handgun with minimal modifications you will likely shoot Production for USPSA, Stock Service Pistol (SSP) or Concealed Carry Pistol (CCP) for IDPA, or Limited for 3 Gun (that is also dependent on your other guns for this discipline).
If you are carrying a firearm that has a compensator, flashlight, trigger modifications, and a red dot you are likely to shoot Open for USPSA, Open for 3 Gun, and in IDPA there is not a division that allows for compensators to be used. (As I said before most local matches will allow you to use whatever equipment you have when you are first getting started. When you move into major matches such as sectionals, regionals, state matches and nationals you must adhere to all rules per the discipline.)
The rule books for each of these disciplines will list out all requirements for each division. To find the best division that suits you, I recommend reading through the descriptions and seeing which applies to the gear you currently shoot. As you start to participate in matches, talking with the local competitors also will help provide a guiding light. That was the main resource I used when I first got started. It is one thing to read about it. It is another thing to experience it and be able to have your questions answered in a dialogue. Most experienced shooters are happy to see new people at the range so do not be shy to ask questions.
There has not been another time in firearm history that allows the user to customize their firearms as much as you can now. Some accessories will improve your shooting more than others. Know that you DO NOT NEED to modify your firearm, it is simply an option to help optimize your experience. Some of the most common upgrades people make to their firearms are the following: Sights, Trigger, Recoil Springs, Magazine extensions, and grip modifications.
Sights are usually the first priority for people to change. This goes for iron sights and electronic dot sights. If you are shooting iron sights, fiber optic front sight posts are preferred. This allows the shooter to be more precise with their aiming. Fiber optic front sights are generally thinner than factory front sights. A thinner front sight post will allow for more light to come through when lined up with the rear sight. That helps with sight acquisition at speed. Some companies to look at are Dawson Precision, Wilson Combat, and Warren Tactical.
Electronic dot sights have been increasing in popularity over the last years. It allows the shooter to be target focused throughout their entire course of fire. All you do is place the dot where you would like the round to go. Some firearms come ready to install an optic like the Glock MOS, M&P9 C.O.R.E., and Canik TP9 SFX. Dots range in price and characteristics. Different companies will offer different sight profiles, lens size, reticle color and style. Some of the best value optics are the Holosun 507c V2 and the Vortex Viper, both can be had for around $200 with excellent warranties. The choice optics for competition are the Trijicon SRO and Sig Sauer Romeo 3XL, both optics are north of $500. It is generally accepted that an electronic dot sight is easier to shoot but that is something you should find out for yourself!
I am sure most of you have heard of a "competition trigger" but what does that really mean? It means that the trigger has a lighter pull weight, reduced travel, and custom wall where the trigger "breaks." The break refers to the trigger engaging the sear to drop the hammer or striker. Please note that some divisions do not allow a trigger to be modified. There are various companies that offer aftermarket triggers for many different models of firearms. The main reason competitors modify their trigger is to have a more consistent trigger pull and be able to shoot their gun faster in succession.
Tuning your recoil spring will help manage felt recoil. Most factory guns come with a recoil spring to handle all ammunition under the sun. If you end up shooting a lighter recoiling round you can run a lighter spring in your gun. This allows there to be less felt recoil because your gun is not cycling as violently. The less felt recoil allows you to keep your gun flat and track the sights better. Overall, you will be back on target sooner because you will spend less time finding your sights.
Some divisions allow you to increase the capacity of your magazines. For example, Carry Optics in USPSA allows you to have 140mm length magazines. This will typically translate to a +5 or +6 extension. For IDPA most divisions are 126mm length magazines. This length does not provide any additional capacity, but it can provide extra weight for your firearm. The extensions are called magazine base pads. Base pads are usually made from aluminum or polymer. There are select companies that make them out of brass to help increase the weight of your firearm. The increased weight also helps with recoil management. Figure out what is allowed in your desired division and use the correlating extension length.
There is temporary grip modification and permanent grip modifications. Temporary grip modifications include talon grips (grip tape), rubber straps, and removable backstraps. Permanent grip modifications would be stippling and silicon carbide. Changing the grip texture allows for better friction between your hands and the frame gun. More friction will help you control the gun from moving in your hands. It also helps when your hands get sweaty after spending half the day at the range. Everyone has their own preference of what "feels" the best. The best course of action is to try and feel other people's guns before making any modifications to your gun. This will ensure that you are spending your money wisely and do not regret any modification you will make.
Firearm accessories are just that, accessories. They are not needed to perform. Your gun will be able to function without having to heavily modify it. These are just simple suggestions to better help you in the competition space. Get some time behind your gun before you start to modify it. Read up on the division you are interested in shooting and follow the rules so your gun meets all of the requirements for that discipline.
The belt you use will depend on the discipline you are shooting. IDPA requires a standard belt that you may wear for EDC. USPSA allows double layer competition belts. 3 Gun has very little limitations due to the amount of gear the shooter is required to carry.
All belts are going to require a holster and (2) magazine carriers. A kydex holster is going to be the best option for all 3 disciplines. Kydex is plastic that is a common material for most holsters. Universal holsters that are made from fabric are not recommended. They can be unsafe because they do not secure the firearm. Safety is the biggest focus in competition shooting.
Dressing for your environment will ensure that you remain comfortable and do not get fatigued from the elements you are exposed to. I can't recommend enough to tuck in your shirt. Loose fabric can be dangerous when holstering and unholstering. Tucking in your shirt will help you keep a clean path on your draw and when you holster. If you are shooting in an area that has a high UV index, consider covering any exposed skin from the sun. Overall, there aren't any requirements for attire. Wear what you feel comfortable in and allow you to wear your belt securely.
As I have stated previously, for your first matches just bring what you have, and the community will help you out. Gear isn't as important when you're starting out as long as you have the basics. Make sure you have a firearm, magazines, proper holster, magazine holders, and protective equipment like glasses and hearing protection (Ear Pro). As you dive further into the competition world you will start to understand the requirements of each of the divisions and gear associated with them. Your first goal should be getting to the range and participating in your first match.
How do I sign up?
When I first started, I was completely blind to this process. I first searched for local shooting ranges in the area. Next, I asked if they held any practical shooting competitions. Practical shooting encompasses shooting sports as a whole. Typically, these ranges will have a calendar that shows all matches they are hosting. Some ranges will allow walk-up sign-ins where you do not need to register online. Most clubs use a website called PractiScore. PractiScore is the website used by most practical shooting organizations. When signing up online it will ask for some personal information as well as what division and class you are. If you are unsure of what they might be, make your best educated guess. No matter what, reach out to the match director and inform that you are a new shooter. They will inform you of any specific steps you might need to take for that specific club.
Your First Match:
I recommend getting there early, so you have ample time to get ready. First step should be to check in with the range or the match director depending how the club is set up. There is usually some sort of safety brief before the match. The match director will go over the range rules and the rules for that discipline. DO NOT PUT YOUR GUN ON YOUR BELT AT YOUR VEHICLE. This is a common mistake among first time match shooters. Ranges will have a designated area for handling firearms. If you are handling your firearms outside of those designated areas, it could result in getting disqualified from the match. Match directors and range officers are there to make sure that the range is a safe environment. Listen to them and it will set you up for success.
Your first match is something that most of you will remember for the entirety of your competition career. A local match director from Pima Pistol Club in Tucson, AZ, Zach Huff, said this regarding your first match, "be safe, have fun, ignore the timer." I couldn't agree more. Your first match is about gaining experience and calming your nerves. When Zach says "ignore the timer..." he means that you should not be concerned with getting through the course of fire at a competitive speed. Go as fast as you can safely. Keep a solid control of your firearms and adhere to all the rules of that discipline. As you get more comfortable, start stepping up the pace. It is fun being able to test your skills and abilities. As you continue to shoot you will have identifiable matrices to measure your growth from. This is where the sport can become addicting. The road of self-improvement is endless and training is only limited by time and money. Competition is the practical application to improve your skills as a competition shooter.