“Just give me a nod when you are ready.” I almost nod, but say “OK” out loud instead. I take a deep, calming breath. Then I nod. “Shooter ready!” comes the alert from the safety officer. Behind my head he presses a button that begins the timer. A high pitched “BEEP” is my signal to fire away . . .
In this scenario, I have to run and arm myself, return to my start point and engage a target, then shoot while moving to take down several more. I step lively to where my M&P .40 awaits on an overturned barrel. With a smoothness that surprises me, the magazine seats and I rack the slide and return to my point of origin, having slid my spare magazine neatly into my left pocket.
The first target’s a steel plate that, when knocked down, activates a second one. I manage to hit steel with my first shot. As it falls, it yanks a cable releasing the second target, a cardboard silhouette. It rotates to face me but only for a moment. I shoot twice, and begin the move and shoot part of the routine.
Moving right, I take two shots at each cardboard silhouette tucked in between stacked plastic barrels until I’m empty. I jettison the seventy dollar magazine and slap a fresh one into the well. Two more shots while moving, then two more quick ones – well, I thought they were quick – into the last target.
So goes my first try shooting in an International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) match. The event’s hosted by the Arnold Rifle and Pistol Club. This match is a series of stages, each set up with targets of cardboard and steel, some “threats” and some non-threats.
Will Steffan is our match director for the day. He explains “IDPA is a game, it’s a competition. It’s not tactical or law enforcement training.” He’s directing traffic in the early Saturday chill and offering pointers to new shooters. “The most important thing is safety. Just remember a few rules – keep the muzzle of your gun pointed downrange, keep your finger off the trigger unless you are shooting. Listen to the Safety Officers and you will have a lot of fun.”
The shooting bays are wide, deep berths made from huge interlocking concrete blocks. Stacked like enormous Legos, the walls separating the bays extend back into a hillside where rounds ultimately fall. Each of these bays are a flurry of activity during morning setup. I arrived early to help out, a step that earns me half off the entry fee.
The physical makeup of the stages includes various items that provide cover. Walls are four by six frames with a lightweight scrim material stretched over them. It reminds me of the stuff tacked underneath a mattress or box spring. An unintentional discharge would travel right through the thin material unimpeded and land safely against the hillside. Certainly better than a shower of splinters.
Some of these panels have windows framed in them, some have a small door installed. A full size door is present in one of today’s stages. All of these accoutrements are meant to simulate places where you’d take cover as you engage a threat.
And taking cover is a big part of the challenge. At a typical range, you’re effectively practicing a showdown between you and Black Bart on the street in front of the saloon, though instead of drawing from your holster, you pick your firearm up from a table.
By contrast, IDPA stages set up walls and barrels and other items to force the shooter to use cover and concealment. While there’s definitely a gameplay component of IDPA, it’s clear that the rules are built to reinforce good habits and penalize the bad.
For instance, you have to engage targets in a certain order. If three threats are beyond a wall, you have to engage the targets beginning with the first target you can see. The safety officer is watching to see if you expose too much of your lower or upper body. That means you have to “slice the pie” and come around the corner methodically.
If you fail to keep your precious bits sufficiently out of the line of fire, the SO will shout “cover” as a warning that you’re too exposed. Other mistakes are corrected with shouts of “muzzle” when you are not pointing the weapon in a safe direction and “trigger” in which your booger hook is on the go pedal when you’re not actively engaging a target. Screw up too badly and the SO will yell “STOP” and you’re done. The shooter has to await explicit instructions on how to proceed, usually beginning with clearing and holstering your weapon.
For most stages, you owe each threat two bullets. Every hit has a possible score of zero (best), one (OK) or three (not so OK). There are penalties for failing to follow procedure, such as not engaging the targets in the correct order. Unless the stage is limited in the number of shots you can put on a target, you’re free to go all NYPD on it and light up a target til your mags are empty. The best two shots are scored.
The time it takes you to run a stage is your base score and like golf, lower is better. If you hit all the targets in the zero zones, no additional time is added. Each point you accumulate adds a half second to your base time and procedure penalties are stiff – three seconds. But it’s missing that really sucks, costing you a full five seconds.
In my next stage I sit on a chair with my loaded weapon in a closed briefcase on a table. Next to it is my second mag. I nod ready, and a moment later comes that annoying BEEP. I stand up, remove the weapon and as I move to a corner, I slip the extra magazine into my pocket and start to line up the first target.
“Cover” the safety officer calls out.
I scoot back, rattled a little. I manage to strike the first and second targets. Then I back out and begin to move left.
“Muzzle!” one voice alerts. “Trigger!” another, louder voice booms. I had let my muzzle drift skyward and my finger was on the trigger. Before I plant my feet, I reset myself, and get my frickin’ finger off the trigger while the seconds slip away. I move to the corner and begin to slice the pie to get on the next set of targets.
“Cover!” comes another warning cry. “Move your foot back,” I hear, rattling me even more. I shoot my targets and get ready to complete the stage.
To finish, I have to drop to my belly, knock open a hinged door and shoot a steel target. That steel target in turn sets off a pop-up threat that’s quickly covered up by a non-threat. The shooter only has an instant to hit center of mass, otherwise it is a head-shot from a prone position.
I’m eight rounds into the shoot, with only have three shots left. The steel plates can be stubborn – I’ve seen other shooters have to ring the gong more than once to make some of them fall. I decide to drop my mag and load the spare. I slap in a 10 round backup and rack the slide causing a chambered round to eject. The needless slide rack costs me precious time.
Dropping to my belly, I knock down the little door. That’s when the plate rings out a “gong” and the threat target pops up. I get one round off before the “hostage” target appears. I reset my aim and send a round through the “head.”
“If you are finished, drop the magazine and show me clear” says the safety officer. I drop the mag and rack the slide, ejecting another cartridge. I hold the slide open and he declares it empty. “Muzzle downrange, hammer down” he says crisply. I reacquire my grip and aim for a patch of dirt on the hillside. Click. “Very good, stand up and holster your weapon.” the SO commands.
I stand, and try to get the weapon back into my Galco “King Tuck” inside-the-waistband holster. When I fumble, the SO tries to help. I end up handing the gun to him and he slides it into my holster for me. A second safety officer hands me my first dropped magazine. “I’m sorry Tim, this is a penalty.” he says. “The only way you can drop a mag is if it’s empty and your slide is locked back.”
Chagrined over the rule violation and embarrassed about needing help re-holstering, I pull out my Remora holster. It will sit reliably in the same position as the King Tuck, but I think I can get the gun into my waistband unassisted. I note that another shooter has a Crossbreed IWB holster and I haven’t seen him needing any help.
The rest of the stages unfold. Some targets have blackened areas that indicate “hard cover.” If your round lands in a black area, that’s a miss. I think I’m shooting in the upper third of the pack. I get some encouragement now and again. The men and women running the monthly event are as nice as pie. Tom offers to let me use his shooting vest for a stage that requires a cover garment. A safety officer takes a moment to coach me after a rough stage. They exude the openness and the welcoming attitude Midwesterners are known for.
Today there are 20 brand new shooters, people who have never shot an IDPA match before. Despite so many rookies, though, things run smoothly. Everyone queues up, everyone does their thing and everyone is patient with their neighbor.
Each bay has a “squad” and today each squad is fifteen strong. It takes time to run fifteen people through a scenario, score the targets then “paste” them afterward. As I fumble with my camera after a shooter completes a cycle, others in my squad swarm over the stage elements to stick cardboard-colored stickers over bullet holes and reset the steel targets. Everyone’s eager to be cooperative.
Each squad has several safety officers who also shoot in the round. Some are clearly exceptional shooters, others are only good but all the SOs are sympathetic and helpful to the new shooters.
If you can find a club running IDPA matches near you, I’d encourage you to give it a whirl. I spent a good deal more time than I would at an indoor range, but actually spent less spondulix shooting at the Arnold Rifle and Pistol Club match than I would during a regular shooting session. For the price of two boxes of ammo plus a couple bucks, I got some invaluable experience hitting – and not hitting – targets.
Drawing, moving, shooting, using cover and handling your weapon are the skills a responsible gun owner – much less someone who carries concealed – ought to nurture and anyone who shoots IDPA with a group like those at the ARPC will be very well served. I’ll definitely be back.