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By RenagadeDave

Practical pistol shooting is lauded by many as the ultimate in preparing for self-defense, while dismissed by others as potentially getting you killed in the streets. Regardless, the simulated stress of performing in front of others while on the clock with challenging target presentations is not something most folks get exposure to on a square range. Those who have access to proper pistol bays can’t be bothered to lug out all the props. I’ve been a match director for an International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) match for about a year now. While it’s clearly a game at its core, it still tests fundamentals in a way that self-directed practice doesn’t. Each week we have 25-35 shooters of varying levels of experience and skill, so conservatively I get to watch 75,000 rounds (plus my own training regimen) poke holes down range.  The experience has been invaluable, and taught me a lot about competition shooting, shooting in general, and people . . .

It’s the Indian, not the arrow…unless it’s the arrow. Given the discipline we shoot, people want to shoot their actual carry gear, which is laudable. The problem: Most people have bad fundamentals and learning fundamentals on a tiny 9 is very difficult. Small guns have compromised grips and heavy-ish triggers. Plus they’re light. If you don’t understand how to grip a pistol and press a trigger, you’re facing a more daunting task than you realize. Which leads to my next point….

People are generally not proficient with their carry gun and gear. We run a semi-annual “In the Streets” match where running actual carry rigs is encouraged. Most folks come away humbled. Generally speaking, nobody is as proficient with skinny 9mm’s as they are with a fighting nine.  These matches lead me to giving up the skinny nine in favor of a more substantial grip that’s less comfortable for carry, but shoots better. Everyone else realizes they don’t practice presentations from their daily concealment near as much as they should.  And remember….

If you can shred targets while shooting a full-size gun, you can generally do it on a compact. Guys who can blaze on a G34 can blaze on a G19, too. Guys who shoot SP01 Shadows can shoot P01’s or 75 Compacts to similar effect. M&P 9Ls to M&P 9Cs, so on and so forth.  Your skill level with a similar platform will be about the same, even in the absence of the go fast action parts that are “must have” for competition. That said, folks going from double stacks to single stacks generally don’t port as directly. I suspect it’s the grip that makes the difference. That slim, short grip sure conceals well, but it’s hard to grip with enough firmness to prevent the barrel from moving during trigger manipulation.  Establishing a quality firing grip on an IWB holster with a skinny gun further stacks the deck against you.

Switching to a different/”better” platform doesn’t lead to improvement. Unless the previous platform just did not fit your hand, it’s unreasonable to think a “better” gun is going to lead to better performance.  Invariably folks switch platforms, backslide against their usual competition, put in a lot of effort in practice to get back to where they were, and in the process they  get used to the gun and as a result of practice end up better than they started.  The gun itself is less important.  Going up in gun size does generally lead to better results.

Guys who’ve been shooting for 30 years can’t be told anything, even when they’re wrong (and it’s obvious).  Homeboy shows up with a Wilson Combat 9mm 1911.  Cool.  Nice gun.  Gun keeps failing to fire.  “It’s the ammo!”  Not really, it’s the fact you don’t rest your thumb on the safety so in recoil your strong hand thumb is slightly activating the safety and inducing malfunctions.  Similarly…

If you learned how to grip a handgun from movies or the internet without the help of someone who understands what a grip ought to be, you’re probably not gripping your gun right.  You’re probably not using enough grip force (with either hand, but especially the support hand), you may be folding your thumbs down like it’s a revolver.  Your support hand may be worthless with how it addresses the gun.  You won’t fix your grip at a match.

Guys who carry guns for a living have issues taking range commands from civilians.  This can lead to disqualification.  It’s usually the ego of the professional involved and not the profession itself.

Position Sewell leads to breaking the 180 when moving to your support side.  It might have applications in real life, but it sure gets folks DQ’d.  It’s also not as fast back to target as breaking your grip and re-establishing it as you enter a shooting position if there’s considerable movement between shooting positions.

The “Go Fast” guys are generally the safest.  It makes sense if you think about it, they play by the rules and want to win.  Safety is a rule foundational to winning, so they follow it.  Generally, the folks who very vocally proclaim that safety is important, but are not as practiced as the go fast guys, are the ones you have to watch.  Only one shooter stands out in memory who might be an exception to that rule.

Non-competitor Civilians do not practice clearing malfunctions, including those caused by dry magazines.  The first reload on the clock usually involves a solid 1.5 seconds of staring at the rear slide plate in disbelief as you watch the muzzle dip as the trigger is pulled again… and again.  Sometimes again for good measure.   Vocal cues of “Tap, Rack, Bang” are usually required for legitimate malfunctions. Even if they know what they’re supposed to do, they aren’t practiced at recognizing the visual cue to do it.

Most folks don’t train with targets beyond 25 feet. Twenty-yard shots on an open target prove to be a lot harder than they aught.

The “go fast” guys aren’t cutting corners on technique, they’re executing fundamentals faster. Their accuracy is usually as good as or better than their slower counterparts.  There isn’t much space for excuse or justification for getting beat by them other than they are better at running a gun and hitting what they’re aiming at than their competition. They may exploit stage design or dump rounds to force more favorable reloads, but even if they didn’t, that’s not what separates them from the pack.  The “I’m a serious self-defense guy” excuse is just that, an excuse.

Nobody is as proficient with handguns as they think they are. The folks who come in with the most confidence are usually the most silent once the shooting is done. It’s a huge check to your ego when you have actual objective data to compare your ability to your peers, and that’s a good thing. You learn about yourself and your capabilities in competition. If you’re un-tested you might consider rolling out and trying it. Even if you don’t pick up competition as a hobby, it will provide very rich feedback for how you should be directing your practice.

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  1. Where the heck is THAT facility? Does it do double duty as an operating room for the local hospital?

    • I agree, but I’ll differ with the author on the “go fast” folks generally being the safest shooters. Many of the folks in this group that I’ve seen shooting have been shooting long enough to get seriously complacent, and it shows in their gun-handling habits. See: audience-directed/fancy-pants chamber-clearing at the end of each stage, etc.

      I’d guess that any club that has facilities as nice as shown in the pix, is also very serious about safety, and that is reflected in the behavior of the regular shooters seen by the author at that facility. Which is a good thing, and should be emulated by other clubs, IMO.

      • As an aside, I flip and catch at unload and show clear, it’s not inherently dangerous when done correctly, but it is not a basic technique either. The risk for open chamber detonation is no higher than other methods, but the ones that are dangerous is putting your hand on the ejection port when running the slide. I find folks who run the slide to the rear for the SO to catch the round generally appear to use more force in clearing the gun.

        “complacent”… they generally will not break the 180 because they think about it alot, they’re more practiced gun handlers so they don’t point it at themselves or anybody else. Whether they put holes in their houses at home practicing “Dry Fire” I guess I’ll never know.

        • Dave, that’s the usual defense of the flip-and-catch clearing method, but at its heart, the entire action is completely unnecessary.

          It takes a larger-than-normal slice of the shooter’s attention off the gun (to follow/catch the flying round) at an absolutely critical moment in the clearing process; if the catch is bobbled, it often causes a body/arm movement which points the pistol in an unsafe direction; and if the shooter has (for whatever reason) failed to remove the magazine prior to clearing the chamber (rare, but it does happen), it significantly raises the probability of a loud noise and flying/ricocheting lead during the next step in the clearing process. If the flip-and-catch had ANY redeeming qualities outside of audience entertainment and skill-signalling value, I could probably get behind it. But it really doesn’t, from my point of view.

          At least you didn’t try to tell me how much time it saves everyone over the totality of the match by not having to bend over and pick up the rounds off the ground (another usual defense), and I thank you for that.

          Again, I very much enjoyed the article, and thought it was very well-written.

        • Not removing a magazine could happen with ANY method and is the SO’s responsibility to deliver the clearing commands and not do it by rote but visually inspect the chamber AND THE GUN prior to issuing the command. But that’s a shooter failure AND and ESPECIALLY an SO failure. The technique itself is not the cause for a dangerous USC. You’re shoehorning unsafe gun handling in with the technique, which is a bit of a straw man argument if we’re intellectually honest.

          I get the risk of pointing it at yourself bit, but there are rules for that already. As I mentioned, it’s not a “basic” technique. If you bobble the flip, there is no catch, and that’s a very real outcome every single time someone attempts it, most guys are OK with missing it.

          This debate is generally something that amounts to a religious discussion.

        • Only for the “true believers” who think it is necessary, for some reason. It isn’t.

          I’m not “shoehorning” it in with unsafe gun handling; it IS unsafe gun handling. Anything that detracts attention from the primary task reduces safety.

          That’s why all pilot checklists have (or used to have) “FLY THE AIRCRAFT” at the top of each page, bolded. Running the checklist itself (even to prevent a crash) subtracts attention from the primary task.

        • I should specify that I was referring to emergency checklists, for military pilots (my only experience in this area).

      • Eff that shizz. I flip and catch because I shoot 38 super. Do you know how expensive that crap is? I lose enough brass to the range gods, I’m not losing even a single live round. Say what you want, that’s what I do, and I’ll continue to do it regardless of your opinion.

        • I am surprised you don’t catch the brass between shooting positions before it hits the ground, you must not be shooting fast enough! Lol.

  2. Just an option…..

    A gas powered airsoft pistol makes for a nice training tool as well. While most are full size pistols, there are some mid size as well. The “gas” guns are fully functional with slides that recoil and even lock back when empty. Many are licensed replicas of the real deal, so all the functions/ dimensions are identical. You can train force on force at home when you don’t want to go to the range or even practice inside your own home for a very realistic home invasion simulation. (airsoft bbs will dent your drywall)

    • I would be real careful about that. I love shooting my CZ with a 22 upper, but it can throw me off when i switch back to 9mm.
      Also things like the force of racking the slide, safety and seating magazines can be quite a bit different.
      You may be better served with laser training cartridge and snap caps.

    • I just use an O ring on my FPB CZ’s, and nothing in my shadows. I used a snap cap until the pads wore out.

    • Airsoft BBs will also dent wooden moldings. Indoors is not the place. My select-fire M14 will also shoot clean through several prickley pear cactus pads, which, fortunately for my marriage, grow back.

  3. There are cuter contest entries, but I think I appreciated this one the most.

    Maybe it’ll be the kick in the tail I need to get going on competing.

  4. meh, it CAN make you a better shooter but it can also develop some serious training scars that will most definitely get you killed.
    IPSC is bad about teaching people to stand out in the open and sometimes standing completely still.
    IDPA is bad about teaching people to police items( quick loaders mainly) that would get you killed in a firefight ( which is whats is supposed to be designed around preventing)
    both teach you good and bad.
    but as he states, nothing will make you a better shooter than humility.

    • Hat’s off to the first “Killed in the streets” comment.

      That said, balance that against the fact that either discipline will have you deploy your sidearm faster and deliver hits more accurately than if you’re just doing barrel rolls in cargo pants watching instructor zero and james yeager videos. You hyper focus on SD and you’ll have access to more information of what to do and when it’s appropraite, the USPSA and IDPA guys will be able to do it faster and more accurately (generally). Couple that with most civilians don’t end up in gunfights.

      Most of the top competitive heat these days are also top level competitors.

    • That is why you should not always shoot for score and not only shoot IDPA or IPSC. In a wildcat match, I got a chance to test out CZ75 25 round magazines. A lot of the time, I will not step in and out of the box, especially if I’m braking in a new carry gun. If I’m shooting an IPSC match with a carry gun, I will always shoot and reload from cover or on the move.

  5. The change in grip size and trigger are the issues, not so much that slim 9s are harder to control. I had not touched a double stack 9mm for 6 months and was only shooting Kahrs in matches. Took out a CZ75 compact for a skills and drills practice. I was so pissed off with it, I left it on the safety table and did better with my carry CW380.
    Even carrying a gun that you are good in matches can bite you. Was running a Kahr CW9 in IDPA and almost always reloaded from the slide locked back. When I did another skills and drills with a new K9, reloads did not require retention, so i was reloading with the slide forward and not getting the magazines seated.

    • I think the operative word there is “new”… the magazine springs being super stiff will likely make a forward slide reload difficult. Lots of folks advocate downloading reloads by 1 round to ensure seating works out. Usually if you wear in the mag springs you can get it to work.

      • Was at a rifle/pistol match a few weeks ago and there was a guy in my squad DQ’d for doing just that. He had gone to a bunch of SD Classes and on the first stage he went to retreat and broke the 180. Props to that guy though, he stayed the rest of the match, scored, and help tear down. Don’t see that often.

  6. Nothing wrong with competing if you seperate real world practice and go-to-win practice

    Weapon manipulations, shooting skillset applied, and tactics are very different when you are shooing for podium and for life

    Just make sure you dont do the competition thing in real life

    Other than that, it’s a great way to improve your shooting (not fighting, though)

  7. Good article. I totally agree. If nothing, competition breeds familiarity with your firearms and the need for fast problem solving with them.

  8. I shoot both IDPA and USPSA and like both. But I shoot my carry gun out of my carry holster instead of any race gun or race rig. I guess my concern is that since time is fundamentaly important, neither disipline reinforces threat assessement or the order of engagement from a threat perspective. Sure, there are lots of things to learn and running the gun smoothly is hyper important obviously.

  9. Love the article and appreciate the sentiment. Competition breeds excellence.
    One thing that does kill me to see though is competitors reloading while moving to cover. I wish this was a disqualification or a points reduction in competitions for that. Maybe because it was just drilled into me during CQB courses in the army. If you have cover, reload, then move. Don’t walk away from cover with an empty gun.

  10. Nice article.

    Cooper wrote that the first principle of tactics is speed. USPSA competition stresses speed. It has its faults but making you want to go faster is not one of them. For those who do not compete, yes, there are stages of fire with barricades, ports, shooting on the move, etc. It’s more useful to think of USPSA as a toolkit. What you see at a match reflects what the stage designers have chosen to create, not necessarily the limits of the toolkit.

  11. A tip of the Stetson to the author for an extremely well-written piece. I enjoyed reading it.

  12. DVC…..Speed, Power, Accuracy. Keep those 3 items
    in your tool kit

    One Item of speed that never gets enough attention
    in a writers lineup is, the function of clearing leather
    then sights to target. Most of us competitors used to
    say, “Economy of Motion”, or as I liked to say; “Take
    your time, as fast as you can.”

  13. The determination to shoot better in competition–and the associated practice–makes you a better shooter. However, competition is not a substitute for practice. That buzzer tends to create and reinforce bad habits. The only way to instill good habits is practice.

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