2023 Staccato Area 4 Championship

Admittedly, I was apprehensive about the 2023 Staccato Area 4 Championship as it was my first major USPSA match. I would have liked to have performed better, but the lessons learned will help me grow as a competitor and a handgunner.

The 2023 Staccato Area 4 Championship was my very first major match and it was a fantastic experience. It was everything I expected and then some. To an extent, I’m still processing the experience, but I figured I’d go ahead and share some of my thoughts and lessons learned. I suspect the process of organizing my thoughts and writing them down will do me some good at this time.

Where shall we begin? I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to start by explaining what a major match is and go from there.

Minor matches are often referred to as local matches because they are typically run by a local gun club at a local range on a scheduled basis throughout the year. “Local” is the operative term which is relative to what is available near a person and how far they are willing to travel for them. In the context of USPSA, minor matches are categorized as level 1 matches. These matches are usually made up of five to six stages and require roughly 125 to 150 rounds of ammunition to complete over a duration of three to four hours. Entry fees for these matches are the most affordable and typically run around $20 to $30. The number of competitors can vary a bit depending on the season, the date, and weather, but cap out at around 60 to 70 competitors. At least, this has been my experience. According to the definition of level 1 matches in the rule book, there isn’t a hard limit on the number of stages or round count, some a minimum of 2 stages and 28 rounds are recommended. These matches don’t require competitors to be active USPSA members either and are therefore open to the general public.

Major matches are all the matches that have a level higher than level one. Level 2 matches are annually held sectional or state level matches. Sections are geographic areas that group several clubs together. Level 3 matches are annually held area championships. Areas are groupings of states. As the level increases, matches have higher recommended minimums and have additional requirements. For example, level 2 matches recommend a minimum of 75 rounds, 5 stages, and 50 competitors. Level 3 matches recommend a minimum of 150 rounds, 8 stages, and 120 competitors. Level 3 matches also require the use of a chronograph to ensure competitors use ammunition that meets the required power factor for the match. Major matches also require that competitors be active USPSA members and must be sanctioned by the NROI (the National Range Officers Institute). It probably goes without saying that the match entry fees go up as the level increases. Travel is another investment required by major matches unless one is lucky enough to reside near a location where a major match is held, but even then travel is necessary to participate in other major matches.

The 2023 Staccato Area 4 Championship, as the name implies, was a level 3 match for area 4 which is made up of four states (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas) and consists of 59 clubs and 8 sections. It was a four day event which started with registration and staff only squads that shot the entire match on a Thursday. Competitors had their choice of picking an all day Friday squad or a two-day Saturday/Sunday squad. For the two-day option, the squads participated in the morning on one day and the afternoon on the other day. Registration was also available on Friday and Saturday right before the squads started the match.

There were a total of 405 competitors. The most popular division was Carry Optics, the division I participated in, with 159 competitors. That was followed by Open division with 87, Limited division with 54, Limited Optics with 49, PCC with 36, Production with 20, Single Stack with 6, and Revolver with 1. In terms of classification, B-class made up the biggest chunk of participants with 107 competitors followed by C-class (that’s me) with 75, Master class with 67, A-class with 65, Unclassified with 55, and D-class with 14. The match consisted of 13 stages plus a chronograph with a minimum round count of 296.

I finished the match in 315th place overall and in 127th place in Carry Optics. There were 27 C-class competitors in the Carry Optics division and I finished right in the middle – 14th out of the 27. I had hoped to do better and was confident that I would do better going into the match, but I’m good with the results given two or three bad stages that I’ll cover in more detail shortly.

I should have probably opened the post with the gear list because it’s the inevitable question that somebody will ask, but as they say, “better late than never”. Here is what I used:

Let’s get into the lessons learned and takeaways from this match. The very first one that comes to mind is that a major match is just another match. Yes, 405 competitors is significantly larger than the local level 1 matches I frequent, but at the end of the day it’s just you, the stage, and your squad. Sure, there were some very big names that showed up to the match including current and former national champions. I won’t say that I didn’t experience more anxiety and more apprehension going into the match because that would be untrue, but once there it was just another match. All the additional anxiety and apprehension went away once I was focused on the shooting problem at hand.

I already mentioned that I’m good with my results. There are a few reasons for this. I admit that I wasn’t expecting to finish in the bottom 25% of the participants. Besides the “bad stages”, which I’ll get to really soon, the makeup of the competitors is different from what I typically see at the local matches. For example, almost 25% of the participants were either Master or Grand Master class shooters in this match whereas the local match Master and Grand Master distribution is normally a bit lower at around 15%. That’s understandable, or at least I think it is, given casual or less dedicated competitors are less likely to sign up and attend a major match given the difference of the investment required in terms of cost and time. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I understand my results rather than saying I’m good with them. That understanding comes as a reminder that if I want to achieve better results, then I need to stay hungry and continue putting in the work in order to improve.

Walking the stages on registration and staff squad day was a great decision. The match book, which was published a few weeks before the match, contained all of the stage descriptions along with a diagram and round count. Studying the stages in the book gives one an idea of potential stage plans that may work for each stage. Walking the physical stage is still necessary to land on a single stage plan which can then be visualized and internalized for execution. There are nuances in each stage that one doesn’t get from the match book. The thing is each squad only got four minutes to examine each stage before they begin shooting it for score on match day. That’s not a lot of time. I don’t think that is sufficient time to identify the nuances of the stage, finalize a stage plan, and internalize the stage plan – especially when one is the first shooter on that stage. Deciding the show up a day before my squad is scheduled to start to inspect and walk the stages was extremely beneficial. It was a coincidence that that day was registration and staff squad day since I was on an all-day Friday squad. I suspect that walking the stages on Friday for folks who were on the two-day weekend squads is also beneficial, however the stages were rarely not in use on Friday compared to Thursday. Either way, walking the stages the day before provided ample time to finalize a plan and internalize it for match day. I think this also helped minimize the additional anxiety I took with me onto each stage when it was my turn to shoot.

The mental game can’t be understated when it comes to competition. Yes, marksmanship and physical fitness are critical, but not any more critical than the mental game. One has to focus on the task at hand in order to perform well. External thoughts can increase tension which leads to mistakes. Mistakes lead to penalties, disqualifications, and time lost. All of which have a negative effect on your performance and ultimately your score and results. A bad performance on a stage tends to stay with you and linger in your mind which negatively affects the mental game. 

Stage 10, which was my fourth stage, was my first “bad stage”. What made it bad is that I recall having a particularly good run and was surprised when the range officer (RO) called out an alpha mike on an easy target. For those of you who are not familiar with USPSA scoring, an alpha refers to a hit in the A-zone which awards five points for that shot, a charlie refers to a hit in the C-zone which is worth three points, a delta refers to a peripheral target hit in the D-zone which is worth one point, and a mike is a miss which awards a penalty of -10 points.  I recalled calling two very good shots on that target so I went and looked at it myself. Sure enough there was one hole right in the middle of the A zone. Upon closer inspection, I saw something that indicated a second grease ring which made me think I stacked two shots right on top of each other. Given what I recalled and how easy the target was I asked the RO to take a second look. He did and disagreed with my challenge. There was a lot of tape already on the target and he said that what I thought was a second grease ring was from a tear on the tape in his opinion. His opinion counts and he called out alpha mike once again which the score keeper echoed again. The second echo is important because I didn’t realize it until lunch time when I checked the current standings that I received two mikes on that stage, but there were only two mikes called and both on the same target. My disagreement with the called score messed with my head immediately to where I didn’t even bother to double check the scoring details when I could have challenged it and had it corrected. Had those mikes been recorded as charlies I would have ended up in 306th place overall and 125th in the Carry Optics division. I’m well aware that it isn’t much better, but it’s better nevertheless.  And while I didn’t know where my final placement would be, I knew the mike would negatively affect my placement. I got bent out of shape and carried that emotion with me into the next few stages which translated into tension that resulted in far more charlies than I normally would accumulate. “Letting it go” is far easier to say than it is to do.

The other “bad stages” didn’t get under my skin the same way. The performance was based on decisions and mistakes I made or things that were entirely out of my control. For example, I failed to call and make up a delta on Stage 1 (which was my sixth stage of the day). I also called a delta in Stage 3 that I also failed to make up, but it turned out to be a mike. On Stage 4B, I opted for a slower stage plan to avoid a low port that would have taxed my knees which were already reaching their limit for the day. And then there was this crazy malfunction on Stage 4A that took me over 15 seconds to clear. The malfunction was a random case that ejected and got caught between the overhang of the SRO and ejection port. Tap, rack, bang didn’t do the trick and it took a moment to figure out that the edge of the case had embedded itself into the Stone Bridge Gun Works target focus trainer that I had left on the SRO to keep it occluded for the competition. It was a nasty malfunction, but it wasn’t something that I could have predicted after thousands of rounds through the Shadow 2 in its current configuration affirmed reliable operation. I suppose I could attribute some of these mistakes to the scoring disagreement head trash I carried around for a few stages, but they were my decisions and mistakes to own which made it easier for me to let them go and focus on the next stage. Regardless, keeping head trash out of a stage is part of the mental game that is a critical element to good performance.

There is so much more to say about what I took away from this event. A fair number of the remaining takeaways, if not the majority, were lessons that were learned before and were just further reinforced. Rather than going into everyone and making this post insufferably long and repeating topics and items that I’ve covered before and will likely cover again in the future, I’ll turn my attention to how this event has reshaped my perspective on my local club and it’s members. While I very much enjoyed meeting and shaking hands with current and former national champions, I appreciated bumping into several members of my local club. The greetings were friendly and the conversation was filled with interest about each other’s performances and authentic encouragement. Seeing a couple of our top performing members finish in fourth and ninth place overall amidst the pool of highly accomplished shooters filled me with a sense of pride, but also with a sense of esteem for our club while realizing that it is an organization where high level competitors can cut their teeth. 

Overall, I’m pleased with the experience. It was fun and rewarding. The exposure to competing at a higher level has made me hungrier for improvement than I was before. Even though I’ve barely dipped my toes with major matches, I feel as if I can encourage those who already compete with some regularity and are curious about what a major match is like to go make the investment and go for it. There will undoubtedly be some emotional and psychological angst associated with taking that first step, but it’s simply another match that offers some additional personal growth opportunities over what is typically found in a local level 1 match.  While there may be more higher classification participants than one is used to, there are also plenty of less experienced folks who are out there having a good time and I honestly can’t wait for the next one. If nothing else, one is likely to get a few ideas they can take back to their local club to improve the quality of the matches they hold. 

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