Why I Compete

A typical IDPA stage. In this one, the shooter stared with the gun in the box on the table. At the signal, they would retrieve the gun, engage the three targets on the left before moving over to engage the three on the from behind cover.

For about the last 10 months, I’ve been competing in one to two pistol matches per month. If it’s a good month, I can get three in. I have wanted to shoot competitively for nearly 10 years. I first learned about IDPA in 2005 having moved back to my homeland of Western New York. I remember spending time on their website and investigating what I would need to acquire to participate. The biggest problem was the stupid laws in NY. In order to even own a pistol, you had to ask permission of the State. And that took many months and several hundred dollars to accomplish. I never got around to it. Then we moved to MN, and because we were only there for 18 months, I again never got to it. By the time I moved to CA in 2009, I was involved with other things, and competitive shooting wasn’t high on the list. But when I moved back to America two years ago, I was able to rekindle my desire to compete.

Back to IDPA

For a variety of reasons, I’ve chosen to focus on IDPA, which is the International Defensive Pistol Association. It really came down to that and USPSA, the US Practical Shooting Association. I have shot both kinds of matches, and while they both have their merits, I decided to focus on just one at a time. I have no beef with USPSA, I just liked IDPA better at this time.

The one with the hands is a no-shoot. As you can see, a few people racked up 5-second penalties hitting it.

Most local matches are shot with local clubs. The club I shoot with typically runs two matches a month and each match consists of 4-6 stages. A stage is made up of multiple target arrays with varying objectives. For example, a stage might be something like this: The shooter will start facing up range with hands above ears. Upon the sound of the buzzer, the shooter will turn around, draw and engage each of the three targets with three shots each while advancing, while avoiding hitting the no-shoot target in the middle. The targets to be shot will be spaced out in some configuration. Ranges of the shots vary from 1 yard out to about 10-12 in the indoor range where I shoot, but can easily go out to 40 yards in larger, outdoor matches.

Scoring is a simple matter of time. How fast did you shoot the required number of shots? This is measured with a shot timer. But accuracy matters, too. Each target has scoring zones with point values. The torso 8” circle and 4” circle on the head are the zero down areas. That’s what you want to shoot. The next ring out is -1, meaning if you land a shot in the -1 zone, 1 second is added to your time. The final, outermost ring is -3 which as you might expect, adds 3 seconds to your time. Complete misses and hits on no-shoots are 5 second penalties. Other penalties can be assessed as well, but I’ll leave you to read the rule book for yourself.

The winner of the match is the one who shoots all the stages in the lowest overall time (raw time plus down time and penalties). Doing well requires a balance of going fast and shooting accurately. I see a lot of people hose bullets all over the array, and while it sounds super-impressive, it’s also expensive from a time standpoint if they land them all in the -3 zone.

For example, if you shoot a stage in 12.85 seconds but are down three 1s and two 3s, and you missed one entirely, your final score is 26.85. If I shoot it a little slower, say in 18.45 seconds, but only drop two into the down 1 zone, my score is 20.45. Every match I’ve shot has been an exercise in slowing down and getting the hits as I was the guy trying to shoot super-fast at first. As I’ve slowed down and landed more and more shots in the 0 zone, my scores, and final standing, has improved steadily. The last match, I only dropped 3 points the entire match. The adage, “You can’t miss fast enough to win,” is very true.

But Why?

So that’s all well and fun, but why compete? Why do I drive 45 minutes to the other side of town to stand around for a few hours and only actually be on the trigger for 1-2 minutes? Two reasons, and I’m not entirely sure of the order. One reason is because it’s a whole lot of fun. While I’m not a terribly competitive person, I am a perfectionist. And few things feel as good as shooting a stage clean and in a better time than you thought you could. I practice a lot, and when it pays off, it’s genuinely rewarding. It’s also fun hanging out with a bunch of guys and gals who are becoming friends. We’re all gun people, but we have people ranging in age from early 20s to mid-70s; men, women; professional people, farmers, tradesman and hipsters. We all come together for the love of shooting. And that’s fun.

Another reason is that I have yet to find anything that I can do regularly that simulates the stress one would be under in an actual defensive shooting. There is something about the timer and being in front of a group of peers that elevates the heartbeat and increases respiration. That stress response is one of the biggest things to manage when shooting a stage. Typically, the shooting part is not all that difficult. But doing it quickly, accurately and smoothly while on the clock with 20 people watching is stressful!

Studies have shown that our bodies don’t know the difference between various kinds of stress. The physiological response is the same when you are standing at the line waiting for the buzzer as it is when someone attacks you. Well, almost. I would acknowledge the stress is higher under attack. But stress is stress, and there is no better way I’ve found to test my skills and inoculate myself to that stress response than shoot competitively.

Skills Test

That’s another key reason to shoot a match, now that I think of it. When I go to the range to practice, I can get into my stance, calm my mind, establish a good grip on the gun and carefully squeeze off shots. If I land one outside the X, no big deal. Try again.

When I shoot an IDPA match, I’m coming in cold. I head over right after a long day of work, and often I’m fighting my way through traffic. I put on my gun, load up magazines and the first time I shoot is right after the first draw. There is no warm up. Nothing tests your skills better than coming in off the street and doing something cold. If I’m ever forced to use my gun in a defensive situation, I’m not going to have time to warm up, get a good stance and manage my breathing. The draw to first shot is going to be over in 1.5 seconds, and it better be on target.

At the range, I practice fundamentals. At home, I practice gun manipulation—drawing, getting on target, trigger press, reloads—with an empty gun. But nothing tests all that like the first stage of a match.

So that’s why I compete. It’s fun, it simulates and inoculates me from the stress of an actual defensive encounter, and it tests my skills. I know for a fact I’m a better and more confident shooter having been through a couple dozen matches. I really look forward to where I am this time next year, and the year after that.

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