Is competitive shooting a good or bad idea for armed defenders? This has been a recurring topic that’s piqued my interest quite a bit throughout this year. One that’s been discussed both at length and in passing by several folks I hold in very high regard. The opinions and positions expressed are more varied than I could have imagined. I found myself nodding my head in agreement with some of them on one end of the spectrum and cocking my head in disbelief on the other. The common factor here has been me listening intently while processing the information in an attempt to understand it without bias in order to get the most out of it.
Here is the thing. I enjoy competitive shooting. At the same time, I’m deeply interested in armed self defense. I’ve been on a constant mission to become better at both. As of writing, I hold a very strong opinion that competitive shooting sports provide a lot of value to armed defenders and firmly believe it is something they should be actively participating in. I’ll explain why I hold that belief while also looking at some of the arguments against it because I think there is some value in them. Let’s dive right in.
Shooting is shooting. There is a whole lot more to self defense than shooting. Nevertheless, if it comes down to no other option than lethal force and one deploys a firearm then shooting is going to be involved. Getting into competitive shooting sports and working towards becoming a better shooter in order to obtain higher classifications or winning a match is going to make one a better shooter. This means one will improve their marksmanship skills in order to get good hits faster. This, to me, is pure gold and the primary reason I got into competitive shooting in the first place. I’ve yet to come across anyone who disagrees that being a better marksman is a bad idea when it comes to self defense. Better marksmanship improves our chances of neutralizing a deadly threat while increasing the safety of anyone else in the vicinity of the ordeal. In other words, better marksmanship reduces the possibility of negative outcomes (as defined by Claude Werner).
While I may not find a dissenting opinion against better marksmanship, a counter argument against competitive shooting for armed defenders is that competitions are not real life and the targets don’t shoot back.
There is a lot to unpack here, but let’s start with the “competitions are not real life” part of the argument. My understanding of the premise for this part of the argument is that because competitions are not real life and the goal of a competition is to win then one might do things that would be ill advised in a real world self defense scenario and doing these things repeatedly could ingrain habits that increase the likelihood of negative outcomes. One example of this includes pushing themselves to take shots faster than they are able which may yield a miss or impact something that shouldn’t be shot. Another example of this is sweeping “no shoot” or “non-threat” targets with the muzzle in order to transition between targets faster which resembles muzzling bystanders or innocent parties in a real world scenario.
I agree that putting holes in things or people that don’t require holes is bad. I also agree that taking shots one can’t make is not a good thing. Furthermore, pointing a gun at a person who shouldn’t have a gun pointed at them is not only bad, but it can also lead to a very serious legal problem. To prevent these types of habit from forming, one could be more judicious with their trigger presses at matches and make it a point to avert their muzzle at “no shoot” targets. The problem with this is that it essentially hamstrings a person in a competitive environment. Not doing these things in order to be more competitive is the foundation this part of the counter argument is based on.
On the surface this might seem like a lose-lose situation, but I think there is another approach to address this potential downside. That approach is to mix and match competitive doctrines. Participating in different types of matches forces us to adapt different rules and scoring criteria. Consider the rules and scoring for USPSA and IDPA matches. In USPSA, hit factor is everything when it comes to winning and achieving the next classification. Hit factor is a function of points per second which tends to incentivize speed over accuracy. While good hits are still needed to get more points, it usually behooves the competitor to move on after putting two hits in either the small A-zone or the occasional C-zone (the next area surrounding the A-zone) on the target. In IDPA, a C-zone hit incurs a 1 second penalty and in this doctrine time is everything. This scoring mechanism prioritizes accuracy over speed. As such it incentivizes the shooter to do what is needed to get better hits and make up the occasional C-zone hit before moving on to the next target. Having an ability to adapt marksmanship to different scenarios is fantastic and something that defenders should all strive to have. The nature of real world violence is chaotic. Things happen fast in an unpredictable manner that may have no regard for the environment they are happening in, making adaptation a key component of survival for the fight and the legal aftermath that follows.
Competing in different competitive doctrines, while I think it’s of high value to armed defenders, isn’t the only response to the argument at hand. Competitive shooters are in it to win it. While it’s true that one may opt to push and shoot at a faster rate than acceptable hits can be made, this isn’t the normal mode of operation since wild shots are not likely to yield the results they want. This means that folks are working towards making good hits at high speed in order to maximize their score at the next match. In other words, it is my opinion that pushing beyond one’s level is an outlier that is not likely to become habitual. Even within the context of single competitive doctrine, one is likely to learn to adapt. While there is time to plan a stage and visualize how one will execute it, one will have to adapt to the stage once they are shooting it. Things don’t always go according to the plan. Mistakes happen. Maybe it was a bad trigger pull that requires a make up shot. Maybe it was missing the spot that one had planned on moving to by a few inches. Whatever the deviation from the plan is, one has to adapt to what is going on in order to finish a stage. That’s the nature of it.
None of what I’ve mentioned addresses the potentially developed habit of sweeping “no shoot” targets with the muzzle. My take on this is elementary. Whether one is a competitive shooter or not, muzzle discipline is something that all have to develop. In competitive shooting, we have to maintain muzzle awareness to ensure we don’t break the “180º rule” which results in a disqualification when broken. For real world scenarios, it behooves us to learn muzzle aversion positions such as, but not limited to, the low ready position, the temple index, muzzle averted retention position, or position Sul. Each of these have different applications and uses, but they all provide a way to keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction when it doesn’t need or should be pointed at another person. Additionally, there are drills that can be (and arguably should be) practiced to transition the weapon from one target to the next while not pointing it at another person who isn’t a threat in the process. So yeah, muzzle discipline is a thing that shouldn’t be ignored. However, I don’t think it’s fair to say that competitive shooting is a bad thing in of itself when it is incumbent on each one of us to develop the skills and habits necessary to have strong, consistent, and reliable muzzle discipline that can be counted on at all times.
These points are sometimes countered with some sort of rebuttal that sounds like, “but it’s still not real, I mean the targets are still mostly stationary and don’t shoot back”. This type of rebuttal feels emotional to me. It’s akin to a tantrum thrown because one realizes they are about to lose an argument. Of course the targets are mostly static and don’t shoot back. It’s a stage, not a gun fight. There is plenty of practice drills and training available to armed defenders that make use of stationary targets. Most of which is considered to be good for armed defenders. There are also force on force classes and other formats of training that provide exposure to the chaotic nature of violent encounters that place a focus on developing the ability to maintain cognitive function and make decisions in real time under stress. Competitions, again in my opinion, are one of the tools in the toolbox that can be used.
I think Matthew Little said it best in a recent interview on Ballistic Radio. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something to the effect of: shooting competitions expose us to executing marksmanship skills at the highest level we can when things are happening at high speed. There is nothing else short of a real gunfight that provides us with that opportunity. In that same interview, Matthew pointed out that the world’s top competitive shooters are often invited to teach elite members of armed forces and law enforcement. It’s no coincidence given these are folks who shoot with the highest levels of skill.
I’ve been a little long-winded here, but suffice it to say that I am squarely in the camp of competition being a good idea for armed defenders. It’s not the end all be all. There is plenty of learning to be done and various formats of practice which help us develop the skills and abilities necessary to be a competent self defender.
Now, go shoot a match.