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By Ed D.

Owning a handgun doesn’t make you armed any more than owning a guitar makes you a musician.” – Jeff Cooper

Like many people that grew up in the city, my first exposure to firearms occurred while I was serving in the US Army (sometime during the Pleistocene Era). After spending a considerable amount of time learning the nomenclature, disassembling, cleaning, reassembling, marching with, cleaning, sleeping with, cleaning, drilling with, cleaning, practicing shooting positions, cleaning, perfecting my sight alignment with, and cleaning the well-worn M-16A1 that I had been issued, I managed to qualify ‘Expert’ on the rifle range. At the time, this meant that I was able to put a round somewhere on to a human silhouette target out to 300 meters. Flash forward a decade and . . .

In answer to a flyer at the local range, I decided to try my hand at Service Rifle competition. After all, I had qualified ‘Expert’ in the Army; this should be a piece of cake, right? I had an M-1 rifle that I had acquired in a trade, the sight picture was essentially the same, and, except for the weight and caliber of the rifle, I should be able to utilize everything I learned under the gentle guidance of my Drill Sergeant (“You call that CLEAN? Drop and give me fifty!”) to do well at this.

Soooo, armed with a box-stock M-1 rifle and delusions of grandeur, I attended my first rifle match. The results were humbling (spelled h-u-mi-l-i-a-t-i-n-g) to say the least. You see, the Army didn’t teach me how to shoot a rifle, it taught me how to operate and maintain a rifle. It’s one thing to put a round into the 18 inches of a human silhouette target that gives you the satisfaction of falling over, no matter where you hit it. It’s another, entirely, when your 18 inch group is on display for the world to see, right next to the target of someone who fired all 10 shots of the string into the ’10 and ‘X’ rings, on their target.

That sobering experience led to my spending the next several years shooting every match I could find including the National Matches at Camp Perry, Ohio. Eventually, I managed to elevate my skills to the level of ‘competent’. While I never attained the coveted ‘Distinguished Rifleman’ badge, I got a post-graduate education in marksmanship. After spending the entire summer shooting at X-Rings 200, 300, and 600 yards away, a 150 yard shot at a deer in the fall was akin to shooting at the side of a building.

Alas, the human memory is short.

Along the path of my firearms odyssey, I had acquired several handguns, my favorite being a Kimber 1911. My first exposure to this type of handgun was once again compliments of the US Army. I was given an M1911A1 that had probably been in the inventory since The Battle of the Argonne Forest. It rattled like a handful of bolts in a tin cup. I was given instruction in the proper form and proceeded to put 7 shots somewhere on a human silhouette at 25 meters.

Much later, after I had discovered the magic of reloading, I shot at least 500 rounds a week on the local range. Through this, I became an above average pistol shot on a square range. Being able to shoot little, tiny groups on a target at a known distance taught me a lot about operating a handgun. I was confident in my ability to hit a target at considerable distances. If the kind of trouble that required the judicious application of a handgun arose? No problemo, I felt secure in my ability.

Several moves, 2 kids, and 4 states later, I was invited to shoot in an IDPA match. IDPA stands for International Defensive Pistol Association. Simply put, it is a competition where the average shooter, with a minimum of equipment, negotiates a course of fire while being timed. Courses of fire vary from match to match. Most are derived from the twisted imaginations of the competitors, with inspiration coming from  current events and history.

Since I already owned the necessary holsters and such, and I knew I was a good shot, I figured that this would be a cinch. (Are you detecting the pattern here?) On match day, I arrived full of confidence and enthusiasm. By the end of match day, I was a hollow shell of my former self. I botched the draw on one course of fire as a result of inadvertently stuffing my t-shirt into my holster while preparing to shoot. No one noticed because my concealment garment, well, concealed my ineptitude. I also discovered that no target is so close, or so large, that I cannot miss it. But the most important thing I learned was that I had been living under the illusion that I was competent.

And therein lays the value of competition.

It is one thing to stand on a square range and shoot at a target when you have nothing but time, and no one is there to gauge your ability but you. It is another, entirely, when you add the element of being timed, and the ego-crushing reality of your results being displayed for the entire world to see.

You can lie to yourself all that you want, but to perform in front of witnesses eliminates that option. It also forces you to evaluate your skill and equipment with brutal honesty. That nifty holster you bought after reading about it in some gun rag might not work for you. Despite what Jeff Cooper and a veritable army of adherents might say, the 1911 might not be the best pistol for you. And, being able to shoot itty-bitty groups is nice, but if you want to do so quickly, you are going to have to practice. A lot.

All of this to say, if you think that you don’t have the skill to be competitive, you’re wrong. If you can safely manipulate a firearm, you can compete. Skill? That grows with experience. And the only way to make it grow is to leave your ego at home and get your ass on the firing line.

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  1. There are only two types of shooters. Those that have experienced exactly what you are talking about. And those that will.

    • There are two types of people in the world. Those who divide everyone into two groups, and those that don’t.

      • There are only 10 types of people in the world; those that understand binary notation and those that don’t.

        • There are 10 types of people in the world: those that will read the previous numerals as “one-zero” and those that won’t.

          Had one math guy completely ruin that joke for that reason. Could not get beyond “But you should say ‘one-zero'”.

  2. Here, here. Been there done that. Took my coyote rifle to a benchrest match. Pretty high opinion of myself hiting a coyote long range 99% of the time. Left the match a dejected man finishing last and a long ways from second to last. Since then I learned how precise precision really is and what that clock will do to you when the wind won’t cooperate. Now I place regularly at club matches but am no ways ready for the big time. Instead of being minute of coyote, my new rifles are minute of dime or better at 200 meters. My technique had to grow with my equipment.

    We talk about mall ninjas a lot but there are a lot of range ninjas. No clocks, no pressure, no rules makes punching holes in paper at the range make everyone look good. Those who don’t compete don’t know how much they suck yet. 🙂

  3. I like this one. I am forwarding it to a friend who got guns for when ‘the troubles’ arise, but will bury them until such time.

    • “Those who don’t compete don’t know how much they suck yet. :)”

      I know that’s somewhat tongue in cheek, but for 99.9% of the range ninja’s out there, being able to easily punch holes in paper at 10-25 yards means they will likely be able to punch at least one hole in a bad guy at 5-10 feet.

      I’d love to have even a small percentage of the sharpshooter skills that some others have, but since I don’t compete I accept the fact that I “suck”. It’s still fun to shoot tennis balls at 100 yards with my .22, even if I sometimes miss by an inch or two 😉

      That being said, if you have trouble getting even one shot on a paper plate at 10 yards, you do need some more practice. My double-taps definitely need some work, but if there’s someone coming at me down my hallway, I’m confident that there will be some perforations in them.

  4. One mistake in your piece.

    The Army wasn’t trying to teach you to shoot. It was teaching you to kill. Specifically, it taught you to render ineffective at least 35 out of forty potential opponents from 25 to 300 yards.

    And it did it.

    I have nothing against little bitty groups on paper targets. Or shooting games played out in front of an audience. But the Army taught you, and me, with same rattletrap M16-A1, how to take care of business. So if there are any instructors from the basic rifle marksmanship team at Ft Benning, circa 1983 reading this, thanks.

    • “…So if there are any instructors from the basic rifle marksmanship team at Ft Benning, circa 1983 reading this, thanks….”

      Well spoken sir.
      I have had the privilege with my work to travel to the UK and shoot with three of the best shooters in the country on a target scoring system. Days of non stop rounds down range. Although I have continued to shoot at ranges up to 100 yards since my time in the USMC, I haven’t shot at a distance for 20 years. The UK shooters offered me the chance to shoot with them this week. 11 for 12 in the black at 500 meters, 10 for 12 in the black at 600 meters using their 308s and 338 Lapua. Each shot was BRASSF(breathe , relax, aim, stop, squeeze & follow through) . Thanks to those outstanding Marksmanship instructors at Parris Island Recruit Depot in 1988, your patience and professionalism paid off twenty years later. Cheers mate!

    • Point taken. I would amend that, though with this; the US Marines have done an admirable job of teaching recruits how to shoot effectively for a long time, and no one can dispute their effectiveness in combat. Once upon a time, the US Army had a marksmanship program that rivaled our Marine brethren, but shooting well was de-emphasized in favor of gizmos and gadgets.

  5. Ed D. – Excellent article! I too many years ago learned the same hard lesson. IPSC/IDPA are still games, but those games both add an element of stress that will improve your weapons handling skills. It’s one thing to clear a jam or FTF alone at the range, but quite another to do it in front of one’s peers while the clock is running!

    Like the old adage – How does one get to Carnegie Hall?……………Practice, Practice and Practice!

  6. I shoot with a local service crowd and it has helped by field shooting immensely. I am confident if I can see it, I can hit it at up to 250 metres. One of my friends I used to hunt with said with shooting with different distances, stances, types of targets, timed exposures, I learned to shoot under stress which makes the field shooting easy in comparison.

    I went into service rifle shooting with almost a decade of UIT air-rifle competition. That helped me with factors such as sight-picture, alignment, trigger, position, and follow-through, I still had alot of learning. Many of us in the service competition consider it the best training for hunting, and we don’t mind people using hunting rifles in the competition (they compete in their own separate class). More than a few times I have shot in the “Field” class with a service rifle (typically a No4 Lee-Enfield), and won that class. The other competitors in the field class, far from being upset, enjoy having some serious competition to make them try harder.

    When you learn to do things such as 10-rounds-rapid with a bolt-action rifle, on a Figure-13 target (looks like a pig, even though it represents a machine-gunner and loader), in 50 seconds, or Ye Olde “Mad-Minute” where you start standing at the 200 metre line and the rifle is at your feet loaded with the action open. When the target pops up (4-foot square with a 8-inch stripe down the middle for a bull zone) you have to get into the sitting position, close the bolt, and start shooting as many rounds as you can, and you have to reload from stripper clips. My best is 28 rounds away with about 22 in the bull zone. Only a SMLE can get out over 25. A No4 will do about 25. A pre-98 Mauser (including Swedish), P14, M17, will do just on 20, and the Mauser 98s will do just under 20. If your Remchesterby got 15 away, you would have to be doing well.

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