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“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.”

Well shit.

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.

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  1. That’s my gun club! I was there yesterday as the event was concluding. LOTS of people there. I should give this a try sometime.

  2. I tried this a couple of months ago at the gun club I belong to in central NJ. Great fun, though I was terrified about committing a safety violation (which is probably a good thing for a noob). I’m planning on going again when the weather gets warmer.

  3. Great post! I am also an IDPA noob with a grand total of two matches under my belt. At my first match I had a bad case of nervous jitters which was not helped by the fact that it was the standard IDPA classifier match designed to provide a brutally frank (for me) assessment of ones skills. I had two embarrassing fumbles. The first was on a string requiring the shooter to draw, and with strong hand only put two shots on each of three targets. I listened carefully to the SO’s instructions, repeated them to myself in my head to make sure I understood, but when the beeper went off I instinctively gripped the gun with both hands and got off two shots before correcting myself. My second blooper was at the end of a stage when it was time to unload and show clear. I pulled the slide back to eject the chambered round and canted the gun slightly so the SO could get a better look at the chamber … without first dropping the mag. Duh! At my second match I felt much more relaxed. I still shot very much like the novice I am, but managed to make through cleanly without any procedural errors.

    I also encourage anyone with matches in their area to try it out. The only downside I found is that with a big turnout it means a lot of standing around with relatively little actual shooting. On the other hand, a opportunity to meet and socialize with other shooters is not a bad thing. I also found that the SO’s and other experienced competitors seemed to genuinely enjoy showing noobs like me the ropes.

  4. I too participated in my second IDPA match last weekend. What a blast. As a CPL holder, I wanted to participate in some regular shooting sport to improve my shooting skills. Based on what’s available to me at my gun club, IDPA came closest – draw from concealment, shoot behind cover, shoot while moving, etc.

    I too have had my moments getting flustered – on my second match I was selected to be the first shooter in the first stage. Luck me. All the additional stress is probably good training and conditioning.

    The match director has been kind enough to let me take some surplus targets after the matches for me to use to practice. Since my first match, I’ve been hitting the action range every weekend to practice. I’ve also drafted my 14yo son to shoot with me – he’s having fun, improving his skills and it gives us some quality father/son time.

    Practice set ups are based on the more basic skills oriented stages of past matches. I usually work on shooting from cover, faster double shots, weak and strong side one hand shooting and moving while shooting.

    A couple of the best shooters in our squad in the last match observed that a shot to the -1 section of the target only deducts .5 second from your score. Consequently, it’s seldom worth the time to take a third shot to get the required -0 shots. Another very fast shooter suggested that this also means that taking extra time to get all your shots in the -0 area may result in a poorer score compared to someone who shot faster but with somewhat less accuracy. As Tim observed above, what really hurts is when you miss the target completely – or shoot a hostage.

    • Would you be willing to elaborate just to give some idea of the not so positive aspects of the sport? No worries if you aren’t comfortable sharing.

  5. Hmmmm…Lots and lots of rules, time penalties, lots of standing around in lines, lots of doing set up work, it’s not really real…sounds a lot like SCCA Solo II autocross. Something that I used to participate in. Something that I have heard described as “the handjob of motorsports” (sorta exciting, but when you get down to it, you realize you’re missing out on so much more). Something that holds no interest to me whatsoever. I might sound grouchy, but at least I know what takes place at an IDPA event and know that it holds very little interest for me. For that, I thank you!

      • Wow, I came across a lot grouchier and snarky and a$$holeish than I intended. My bad. Missed my Sunday afternoon nap. I do appreciate your write-up, I thought it was well written and highly informative. So much so that I realized that it doesn’t sound like a ton of fun to me. Something that I might try (and who knows, I might love it!) at least once, to try it for myself. And “Sounds like an autocross!” was the first thing that popped into my head when reading your description. All this to say, I also know, with 100% certainty that I would be absolutely terrible at this in my current state of un-trainedness. So, I apologize for coming across so jerky, I’m sorry for that.

    • I needed a nap too.

      I doubt it is something I will do all the time, but every other month or so would be great. It depends on how many people are shooting. This event did tend to crawl, but how else are you going to train where you draw, move and have to place shots carefully?

  6. “I jettison the seventy dollar magazine and slap a fresh one into the well.”

    Wait, what? Seventy dollar magazine?!

    • I may have only paid 39 for it, now that I look into it. Still a lot of dough to drop on the ground, but then if you don’t learn to drop an empty mag, you ain’t learning combat shooting.

      • You should try shooting Open division is IPSC! I regularly drop my $130 magazine on the ground. Of course, an Open gun can cost upwards of $3,000, so a $130 mag is cheap by comparison.

        BTW – I’m a member for ARPC as well. You should try an IPSC match if you haven’t already. More “wide open” and fewer “sllly” rules.

        • To me it seems like IDPA requires you to think and analyze the entire stage which attracts a different type of shooter while IPSC is more Run and Gun. IDPA shooters usually shoot IPSC but rarely the other way around.

  7. Tim,

    I enjoyed reading your post. I remember my first IDPA match, too. I had similar emotions and fears. But I stuck with it and now am addicted! Thanks for sharing your experience!

    Hey, question: are you the one who was taking some movies with a tripod? Did you capture me on Stage #3 (the one where you went prone to shoot through a low port?)? I was the one who asked the guy with the video cam to set up on the right side because I look better from that angle! 😉

  8. I dunno. I have heard some IDPA-types sneer at IPSC/USPSA, saying that it either isn’t practical or is too “sporterized”. IDPA’s ruleset is no less unrealistic, IMHO. Failure to do right? Restrictions on target engagement? No dropped mags unless you’re at slide-lock? Give me a break. In a real gunfight, the only rule is that you must win.

    • I think most people who do IDPA are aware that it is more a game than a faithful simulation of a gunfight. Since it’s challenging to design a game with people shooting live rounds at you — never mind how tough it would be to find people willing to play hostages — the rules are there to provoke just a bit more pressure. Still, if you approach IDPA with the right frame of mind it’s loads of fun.

  9. Good to hear I’m not he only noob that was nervous at a first match. At my first match, the stage I started with was perhaps the most difficult. Talk about nerve racking. By the fifth and final stage I had relaxed and felt more comfortable. The guys in my group were all great, helpful, and understanding. My sole purpose for doing IDPA is strictly to be more proficient and confident with my carry weapon, not to win. It may not be “real”, but with the eyes on you and the SO hanging over you with that buzzer, it sure gives you that sense of pressure and adrenaline you might feel in a real world engagement. More so than just shooting paper targets at a range. All I can say is give it a try. Before participating, do like I did and go watch a match. This gave me a better idea of what it’s about and what equipement I needed.

  10. Great post and I’m glad you had a good time. I’m still noobish when it comes to IDPA having shot about 10 matches and 2 qualifiers. I have found the people to be great and very welcoming and very helpful to new people, especially if you come out and say you are new. I suggest new shooters come out and watch a match first just to get a feel for what happens, the processes that are followed and it will help you formulate questions for other more experienced shooters and the safety officers. Great job and welcome to IDPA!

  11. My first IDPA match was last July. Being a woman and new to the sport, I felt that I was being closely scrutinized. I was, but it was just because they wanted to make sure I was being safe and correct. Since that time, I see that they do this to ALL new shooters. Safety is a number one priority in this game.
    I am now shooting some type of match almost every weekend and sometimes both days. It’s GREAT fun and the people are awesome! I would really recommend this sport to men AND women!

  12. Tim, that was a great article! I am an ARPC Member and I am really glad you had a great experience. I have been shooting IDPA Matches there for a year now and I still remember how nervous I was at my first one.

    I was especially happy to hear your comments about the shooters and staff. They really are a great group of people and that is a big reason that so many people shoot there regularly.

    I was a bit nervous that day myself as it was my first time working with a squad as a Safety Officer. I hope all of the shooters, especially the new shooters, had the same positive experience that you did. I will say that IMHO, the more involved you get, the more fun you have.

    Thanks for the great article! I really enjoyed reading it. I hope you continue to come out and shoot at ARPC.

    • The complete lack of grumbling really impressed me. The only thing people stressed up over was being safe. I am not surprised, though. Folks in our corner of the country are always pleasant to be around.

  13. Tim,
    I truly enjoyed reading this blog. Not only was it an awesome article, how it perfectly described your first IDPA experience, it allowed me to visualize the first ARPC-IDPA monthly I have missed without shooting another sanctioned match in over 2 and a half years. I had to go to Dallas for work and actually will be out of the game till April, but I hope to be at the April match. I look forward to meeting you and shaking your hand. Please introduce yourself to me if you make it to the April Match.
    Mark Goede

  14. Tim,

    Did you find that video you took of me on stage #3. I haven’t seen myself shoot in a long time. Do you have a drop box account? Or can you upload it to YouTube? Sorry to bug you. Thanks!

  15. Wow, great article. I was surfing for IDPA information and came across this blog. Very informative! Thanks for sharing.


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