Gun Training and Competition: Both Are Beneficial

competition

Competitions are tons of fun and allow you to do things that can improve your shooting mechanics. Photo: author

There has been a lot of bickering lately between defensive trainers and skilled competitors within the shooting industry. As someone who is a member of both niches, I find myself stuck in the middle. In this article, I will present some of the reasons I believe gun training and competition are both things that shooters benefit from participating in.

Gun Training and Competition Are Different

Any individual who is interested in training and/or competition has to realize that they are in fact two different things designed to develop two different skill sets. One of the main reasons some professional trainers have become at odds with competition guys is that some hardcore competitors have implied that having competition skills or winning matches somehow negates the need to train specifically for self-defense. On the flip side, there are some professional trainers who have suggested that participation in shooting competitions is something that ought to be avoided at all costs because it will “get you killed on the streets.” The rift exists largely because both sides feel that their skills/methods/followers are being threatened by that of the other side, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Games can be games and training can be training, and any given shooter can benefit from participation in both, as long as he realizes they are in fact different.

Why I Compete

First, going to matches is a great way to meet other shooters and become part of the local shooting community. People at the local club level usually go to matches because they love guns and want a good reason to go shoot them and hang out with other shooters. I would never have been introduced to the Combat Focus Shooting program or PDN if I hadn’t gone to a match and met some guys who told me about it. Shooters usually flock to where other shooters are, and USPSA and IDPA competitions are a big deal these days. Matches have largely replaced gun-shop counters as the place where serious shooters hang out. I expect to continue to use matches as an opportunity to meet new people and even grow my training business organically through conversations between stages.

Second, shooting competitions are fun! “Gun games” may be a term that carries some condescension with it. But in truth, games are supposed to be fun, and matches definitely are. Most men and women who are serious shooters have Type A personalities and a competitive nature. Many of us are athletes and like to display our abilities. Competitions give us the opportunity to do that at the local, regional, and national levels. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the desire to win trophies for doing what you love.

Third, there is no doubt that shooting competitions can help refine your gun-handling abilities and physical shooting mechanics. You can’t win at competitions if you don’t possess, refine, and exercise basic fundamental shooting skills. Sure, there is a different application of those fundamentals that won’t always work in the context of self-defense, but that goes back to the point of realizing they are two different things. I can personally attest that shooting competitions have made me mechanically better at handling my firearm, and I have been able to carry that over into my defensive training endeavors.

The problem that often arises with competitive shooting is that it can become an obsession. To be able to compete on even a regional level requires very real dedication to practicing within the constraints of a very specific set of rules and controls, which is what makes it a game. Not everyone is capable of performing at the level required to win big matches. If you take a new shooter to a match and they perform poorly, it can turn them off of shooting for life, and they may be embarrassed that they aren’t at your level. I’ve seen it happen.

Some clubs are friendlier to new shooters than others. The clubs that are doing a disservice are those where everyone has a jersey and 15 trophies and gets annoyed with the first-time shooter who takes longer to get through a stage because they are nervous. You have to suppress the obsession sometimes and just let it be fun, or it can become a burden to the casual player — and may kill their interest in shooting altogether.

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Competitions have objective standards that allow them to be scored, which is the primary factor differentiating them from defensive training. Photo: author

Why I Train

First, I own firearms primarily for the purpose of self-defense. I carry concealed 24/7 within the limits of the law because I want to be prepared to defend myself and my family from violence. If you ask people why they own firearms, the overwhelming majority will say the same thing. There aren’t many folks who will tell you they own guns because they want to win the USPSA or IDPA national championship. They may well have that desire, but that won’t be the primary reason they cite for gun ownership. We aren’t seeing a huge increase in people buying guns because they want to win trophies. They are doing it because they want to survive defensive encounters with bad guys. That being the case, training within the context of an actual fight is critical.

Second, like all gun owners, I have limited time and resources: only so much time to spend at the range and only so many dollars to spend on guns and ammunition. Since I own guns primarily for the purpose of self-defense, I allocate my resources primarily to meet the goal of being prepared to defend myself. Whatever resources I have left are what I might spend on competitions.

When times are good financially and ammo is cheap, I buy nice guns specifically designed for competition and spend more time going to matches and practicing with the goal of winning them, without neglecting my primary goal of self-defense. When times are tough and ammo is scarce, I spend what little range time I get working on defensive skills and wind up skipping some matches if I have to. It’s a simple matter of prioritizing.

Third, self-defense is more than the ability to point and shoot a firearm when you are in fear for your life. If you don’t understand how your body is going to react under the stresses of an actual fight, you will likely find yourself improvising in order to cope with the situation regardless of how well you shot on the range the day before. It is very important to understand the psychology and neuroscience of self-defense in order to integrate that knowledge into your mindset and training. Verifiable evidence exists that even individuals who were mechanically “good at shooting” were forced to improvise when their lives were on the line. Some of them survived their fights, but that’s not a bet I’m willing to take.

We have a wealth of knowledge and information available to us today. Dash cams and video surveillance can help us design training programs based on reality instead of stopping after we learn basic shooting mechanics. Learning to make the gun go bang and put holes in paper are the easy parts, but only two pieces of what goes into real training.

Like competition, training can be problematic when it becomes an obsession. Some shooters like to have a certificate from every single trainer in the industry and make training every Saturday a part of their identity. They’re called training junkies. If you are always in “condition yellow,” constantly scanning your environment such that you can’t carry on a conversation with your significant other, you might be a training junkie — and that’s not a good thing.

Another way this manifests itself is when you find yourself always being condescending toward people who are simply hobbyists. There is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist and no reason to mock those who choose to buy 100 guns and spend zero time training with any of them. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t try to educate these people when given the opportunity, but you have to realize some folks just really like guns and aren’t actually interested in training to defend themselves with them. You can be the training expert without being antagonistic or condescending about it.

boring

Standing stationary in front of paper and shooting groups is “check the box” training and never going to be fun. You’re doing it wrong. Photo: author

Make Training Fun

A common misconception holds that training is monotonous and boring. If that’s the case, you probably aren’t doing it right. During my time in the military, we had to do a lot of things we called “checking the box”: mandatory training that carried little value. It usually came in the form of sitting all day on a hot qualification range just to get five minutes on the line with our rifles. That training was beyond monotonous and boring; it just plain sucked.

Conversely, I have very fond memories of spending all day running scenarios inside shoot houses, going through full days of reflexive fire training, and even running dry-fire reps in our “glass houses” to get the platoon ready for a specific mission. What was different about this type of training compared to the “check the box” stuff can be summed up in one word: context. The context of the “check the box” training was to meet an arbitrary standard that would fill in an empty space on a PowerPoint slide, and no more prepared us for battle than a good afternoon of playing video games. The shoot houses and reflexive fire classes were designed to simulate the context of the actual mission as closely as possible, and were therefore more valuable and far more exciting.

Make no mistake about it: being prepared to defend yourself and your family from bad guys is a mission. Everything you do in training should be geared toward that mission. If all you do is stand in front of paper and work on shooting tighter groups, that’s going to be boring; all you are really doing is “checking the box.” Your training sessions should be based on the context in which you will most likely have to defend yourself or your family.

Drills you do when training in that context should require you to process information, move dynamically, make decisions, and then shoot when appropriate to get the hits you need. I’ve never taken a training class that was “boring,” and when I leave, I carry the drills with me to my personal range sessions. Obviously, you aren’t going to be able to duplicate everything you might be able to do at some specialized classes, but on this website you’ll find a wealth of drills that you can easily duplicate on most ranges, and none of them are inherently boring.

Training Partner

Working with a training partner will make your training sessions more fun and allow you to critique and instruct each other. Photo: author

That being said, if you are training by yourself, or doing anything by yourself for that matter, it can get tedious. It’s always good to have a training partner. It keeps you honest and makes the training session more entertaining for both of you. As you work on developing a specific defensive skill in context, you can trade-off between being the student and being the instructor. Teaching and critiquing your buddy and having him or her do the same for you is one of the best ways to ingrain skills and have fun at the same time. When you get honest feedback from a training partner, you’ll be surprised at how fast you improve. Training partners can also help you push yourself to your limits. One easy way to avoid boredom is to find your boundaries and constantly break through them. Having a training partner will help you do that.

You should also document your training so you can see how you progress, and use it as motivation for the next training session. It’s as simple as getting a notepad and pen, or if you want to get sexy, video yourself running some drills. Our brains are good at using the visual feedback we get through watching ourselves perform skills we are learning on video to help us refine them.

Take some classes, find a training partner, get out there and run some drills in context while documenting your improvement, and I bet you’ll find training fun.

Conclusion

Plenty of folks are neither competition obsessed nor training junkies. A rift doesn’t have to exist between the two communities just because the fringes of the two are at odds with each other. Both groups enjoy plenty of things, namely shooting guns, and both competition and training can be fun if you do them the right way. Both pursuits have intrinsic value and, like most things, you can do both and benefit from both.

Discussion
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21 Responses to “Gun Training and Competition: Both Are Beneficial”
  1. Randy Sonck

    Great point. I know many shooters who only shoot IDPA and think they are prepared for situations where a defensive mindset is required . Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. Me… I would like to be a little more sure. Proper training is always a good thing.

    Reply
  2. frank Disbrow

    Many of my NRA Basic Pistol students attend an IDPA match. It is a great place to start them thinking about more than hitting a paper plate.

    Reply
  3. Bill Keller

    Well said and a nice balance between both worlds. I find I spend more time in the training world and less in the competition world, but fully enjoy both. I do not see the need for the arguments that one is better than the other – there is real value in each.

    Reply
  4. Seane Parker

    I completely agree. Shooting IDPA is a lot of fun and I think some skills transfer. But…I don’t think you get a walk through in a counter ambush situation. As for me, I will train defensively and play in a game.

    Reply
  5. Cristian Jiménez

    Most of the mexican shooting community thinks that being able to shoot in IDPA local matches is enough to defend themselfs, most of them lack the necessary combat mindset to prevail.

    I will recomend this article to all the people I know, it is a great piece to read and learn

    Reply
  6. ryan

    Interesting points. I don’t have time to participate in matches, but have always wanted to.

    Reply
  7. John M. Buol Jr.

    >> “One of the main reasons some professional trainers have become at odds with competition guys is that some hardcore competitors have implied that having competition skills or winning matches somehow negates the need to train specifically for self-defense.”

    Who are these “hardcore competitors” that said or implied this and where was it said/written?

    Reply
    • Dave Chang

      Go to any competition and look at the fundamentals of the shooters. Then ask them if they have taken any sort of Defensive Firearms class. In our local area (SE PA), a majority of the competitors will have never taken a defensive firearms class or even have received any formalized training in firearms. These people have no little to no idea about the many variables surrounding defensive shooting, from pre-attack cues to legal aftermaths, they literally have no knowledge.

      Reply
  8. Dave Chang

    Well written. We stress involvement in competition with our defensive shooters AFTER they’ve established a firm foundation in Defensive Shooting skills. We review with them, using articles such as these, the reasons why competition is extremely beneficial, and the reasons why they should remember it’s a game. we remind them that balance is the key to the improvements and skills maintenance that they seek. Thank you for writing this.

    Reply
  9. ARJAY

    I do not understand why there has to be competition (sorry for the pun) between COMPETITIVE shooting and SELF DEFENSE shooting. They both have their important points that are NOT exclusive of each other.

    There is a mindset for each. Just because the competitive shooter can hit the target with EXTREME accuracy in the CONTROLLED environment of the competition site, does NOT translate to the mindset in the UNCONTROLLED circumstances in a SELF DEFENSE situation!!

    So, why is there the infighting between the firearms lovers in this country?

    Both sides need to LIGHTEN UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  10. Gary

    Competition, while being fun as you call it, can lead to complacent attitudes and bad habits. Training on the other hand should be serious and designed to teach muscle movement. I can see where the rift comes from.and I have my own personal opinion on it. EITHER WAY, getting out and practicing/using your weapons are a good thing. You can’t leave them locked up in a gun safe and expect your body to react in an acceptable manner if you ever are woke in the middle of the night to find an intruder in the hallway.

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  11. gary

    My wife is one that does not regularly practice. So in this case, I send her through a refresher with a professional instructor every year just to maintain her skills and focus. I get regular range time, and although the instructor has pointed out some “Bad Habits” I am quite pleased with my accuracy. So is he. I learned to shoot in the military and I am comfortable with it. Can’t see changing my swing to please one person if my results are very consistent, safe and accurate across multiple platforms.
    .

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  12. Chris

    Interesting article. I think what it misses is that many shooters may not want to take a training class for various reasons. Perhaps they are not in great shape. Sure the classes say everyone is welcome but even more so than competitions most of the attendees are really good. At least in competitions you can usually find a local club where there are a variety of skill levels and many are willing to help the newbie. Lastly, no matter what anyone can say competition will help you draw and shoot accurately under pressure especially if you are using a gun you typically carry or one of similar design.

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  13. Gary

    Have been firearms training for nearly 40 years. Both law enforcement as well in the private sector. The article is on point and emphasizes a crucial point that all shooters should embrace. Thanks for your input.

    Reply
  14. Scott Puckett

    I completely agreewith Mr.Israel. I’m an old man now but I still like to shoot local IDPA matches. I also know that matches aren’t realistic in many cases. However they are good “training” when it comes to basic gun handling. I can not afford to go to gun schools at this stage of my life, but I can watch videos and learn from instructors while evaluating if what they are teaching is or is not valid. I’ve carried a firearm for 43 years both as a police officer and as a private citizen and still learn stuff all the time. Here’s an idea. Get some “force on force” training from a qualified instructor. It will change your mind on how much you knkow about using a firearm in a defensive situation.

    Reply