One of the catchphrases that’s bandied about the firearms training world, especially on the internet, is that regularly competing in a practical pistol match will cause “training scars” that will affect your ability to shoot when you need it the most. Discussions about this topic quickly devolve into arguments between the “gamer” and “tactical Timmy” communities, with little to no serious discussion on which specific skills acquired at a practical pistol match can actually harm your ability to defend a life with your firearm of choice. 

How Can Competition Cause Training Scars?

There are two major practical pistol organizations in the U.S.: the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA) and the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA). A third organization, the International Practical Shooting Confederation, is best thought of as “USPSA for the rest of the world.” In general all of these sports have matches that feature timed courses of fire in which you move about while shooting at least a dozen rounds at targets of varying sizes and various difficulties. In many ways, both practical shooting competitions and defensive pistol training owe their very existence to one man: Colonel Jeff Cooper. Lt. Col. Cooper was a WWII and Korean War Marine veteran who founded Gunsite, one of the first locations in the world dedicated to teaching defensive firearms usage to both armed citizens as well as military and law enforcement. In addition to this, he was one of the founding members of IPSC, the first practical shooting organization. In doing so, he realized that creating a sport built around defensive pistol shooting would help people become better marksman, in much the same that wrestling, boxing and other martial arts make you a better hand to hand fighter.

Square (Range) Dance

Let’s talk a bit about some of the criticisms of practical shooting that have come out of the tactical shooting community. One of the more common arguments I’ve heard is that running around a stage shooting a preset course of fire at targets whose location you already know has little to do with the chaotic nature of an actual gunfight. That argument is correct, just as long as you execute the plan you made beforehand to absolute perfection. The truth is, though, that “perfect stage plan” rarely happens, if at all. Whether it’s a steel plate that refused to drop or a missed shot on a target or some other calamity, something usually goes wrong on a stage. It’s up to you to adjust your plan on the fly and make the best of what’s now in front of you. While it’s true that if things go right, you’d follow a plan every time, but that rarely happens. Being able to improvise on the fly is a very useful skill for a tactical shooter and gamer to learn, and there’s an opportunity to learn it on almost every stage you shoot.

One Is A Lonely Number

Another benefit of shooting matches on a regular basis is that you get accustomed to performing a series of tasks while holding a firearm, and do so while undergoing a higher-than normal amount of stress. If you’ve never shot a match, you have no idea just how much the *beep* of a timer going off can mess with your mind. Your stress level zooms up, and what was once the simple task of putting sights on target and pulling the trigger now becomes one the seven labors of Hercules. Over time, these micro-doses of stress add up and help us react more clearly in stressful situations. The little bits of stress inoculation gained at a match can be a great help when you’re suddenly confronted with large amounts of stress, such as when you’re forced to defend your life with your firearm. What those situations don’t provide us, though, is any idea of what it’s like to have someone shooting back at us. This is where force on force training, with either simunitions or other safe methods can help channel that stress even more, and should definitely be considered as a logical next step for people serious about defensive pistol skills. 

Run Your Pistol Like Your Life Depends On It

One thing you will certainly learn at a practical pistol match is how to manipulate your gun under stress. Whether it’s reloading your gun on the move or dealing with an unexpected malfunction in as short a time as possible, shooting a match teaches you how to run your gun with as little conscious thought as possible. In addition to this, most of the basic shooting techniques you develop at a match are 100% applicable to defensive shooting. Take a look at this video of champion USPSA competitor Nils Johannason competing in a man-on-man shootoff at a match. Granted, Nils is shooting an Open Division pistol here, which is customized specifically to win this sort of game, but I think we can all agree that developing the skills needed to quickly draw a pistol, engage a 6 inch plate 10 yards away in around a second, then move your gun to a series of other 6 inch targets in around two seconds is very useful skill in just about any self-defense situation.

Living In Oblivion

Also Called The Red Mist

Sometimes, you can be TOO focused on what you’re doing at that moment

There are downsides to shooting a practical pistol match. For instance, I recently asked a friend to record me shooting a course of fire at a local match. He followed me around on the stage, recording what I did and all the while, he was safely right behind me, just inside my peripheral vision. However, I never saw or noticed him once while I was shooting. It was only after I was done with the stage and my gun was safely holstered that I turned and saw him there, giving me quite a start. Knowing where you are in your surroundings and what’s going on around is a vital self-defense skill, and because you have a tendency to focus on your stage plan, that skill is very difficult to learn at a practical pistol match.   Another downside to shooting a match is that while competition helps you think clearly when shooting a firearm, it does nothing to help you figure out how to de-escalate a potentially violent encounter or learn how to defend yourself with a knife or with empty hands. A firearm is a very effective tool for self-defense, but it is not the answer to every situation, and practical pistol matches tend to focus on the shooting parts of self-defense rather than all the other little things we need to do to stay safe. We know that Col. Jeff Cooper was the driving force behind both the modern study of defensive pistol tactics and the creation of the practical shooting sports. Following the example he set many years ago, serious students of the gun tend to have a foot in both the “tactical” and the “gaming” communities. The most elite fighting forces in the world regularly train with high-level competitive pistol shooters in order to learn how to run their guns quickly and efficiently.oth USPSA and IDPA have divisions which are specifically tailored to encourage the use of everyday concealed gear. Learning to perform well in front of other people at a match can help teach you how to perform well when confronted by an attacker. Learning what gaming can and can’t teach you about defensive pistol skills is important because, In the words of noted firearms trainer (and avid IDPA competitor) Massad Ayoob, a shooting match may not be a gunfight, but a gunfight is most definitely a shooting match.