“A shooting match isn’t a gunfight… but the gunfight is a shooting match.” – Massad Ayoob
Competition pistol shooting has been gaining more attention from the general gun-owning public in recent years. Following a surge in new handgun owners since 2020, many have recognized the value of competition for sport and training value alike. Others have joined the firearms world specifically to get involved with competition shooting sports. Today we will take a brief look at some common considerations when getting involved with competition handgun shooting. How do I find local matches? Which associations are for me? What kind of gear do I need? Let’s get into it.
Firstly, there are many shooting associations which each have their own sets of rules, varied divisions accommodating different types of equipment, and different pretenses for the “game.” In all shooting sports, safe gun handling is the number one consideration and high standards of safety will be rigorously adhered to. The shooter’s goal in a match is to engage targets throughout a course of fire (commonly called a “stage”) with a balance of speed and accuracy. You will be shooting a mix of cardboard and steel targets. The rules and regulations of a match will be determined by which shooting association is hosting the event. We’ll discuss the two big shooting associations which are commonly found in the United States: USPSA and IDPA.
USPSA is the United States Practical Shooting Association. The USPSA game is more geared towards pure performance shooting without the specific pretense of defensive pistol use. Stages are generally longer than those found in IDPA, and there are fewer restrictions on gear and guns in USPSA. There are nine divisions in USPSA — think of these like weight classes in wrestling. Which division you will compete in depends mostly on the gun you are shooting. For example, in the Revolver division, only those shooting revolvers will compete against each other, whereas the Carry Optics division allows shooters to use semi-automatic pistols equipped with modern red dot optics. The exciting Open division allows pistols with all sorts of performance enhancing modifications and attachments, and there is even a PCC division for pistol caliber chambered carbines.
IDPA is the International Defensive Pistol Association. In IDPA the game is ostensibly focused on defensive shooting scenarios with concealed carry gear and shorter stages. Competitors are expected to draw from concealment, which entails the gun being hidden from view at the beginning of the stage. It is common for shooters to have a belt mounted holster under a loose fitting unzipped jacket or vest to meet this requirement. The eight divisions in IDPA utilize a different standard – your pistol must fit within a box of specified dimensions among other factors. Otherwise divisions work like they do in USPSA, separating groups of shooters based on what kind of gun they will be competing with.
IDPA is generally regarded as more friendly to newer shooters since the stages are shorter and less complex. The belt and holster systems used are also usually less complicated than those found in USPSA. That being said, there are more rules and restrictions in IDPA which newer competitors are likely to learn about the hard way. Expect to accrue some “procedural errors” as you become familiar with the game. This is normal, and as long as you are being safe and respectful, the rules will become second nature as you gain more experience in shooting IDPA.
USPSA generally has fewer regulations to trip over and you have more options in terms of what guns and gear you are competing with. Stages are typically longer with more targets and more to focus on during the actual shooting portions of the match. Navigating a more complicated stage, moving between shooting positions, and performing speed reloads are elements more common in USPSA.
Equipment selection for competition pistol shooting revolves around the belt-holster-gun system. It should be noted that as long as your belt and holster system is safe and fits within the ruleset of the game, you can compete. You don’t need to spend on the fancy high-speed competition gear unless you want to.
In USPSA, belt setups are usually designed for maximum efficiency and performance within the ruleset. Two-piece belts with a rigid internal belt and a larger outer belt are common. The outer belt holding your holster and spare magazine pouches attaches on top of the inner belt with Velcro. You will see holsters on belt mounts which drop the gun lower for a more natural and efficient draw. Two or more extra magazine pouches are usually attached around the opposite side of the outer belt to allow for speed reloads.
IDPA belt setups need to be slightly more conscious of bulk as they must fit your gear underneath your concealment garment. Two-piece belts can still be used but it is more common to see single layer conventional belts in IDPA. Holsters must attach directly to the belt — no drop plates or hangers. Magazine pouches are typically more low-profile, as they must also fit underneath your garment.
Let’s talk guns. The division you compete in depends mostly on what pistol you are shooting. In USPSA, the Carry Optics division is a modern favorite. Competitors in Carry Optics use stock semi-automatic handguns equipped with reflex dot sights (red dots). Heavy metal-frame guns with smooth double action / single action triggers are very common but polymer-frame striker-fired pistols are increasingly popular. Pistols like the CZ Shadow 2, Sig Sauer P320, Glock 34, and Canik TP9 are popular options for Carry Optics.
Red dot optics are rapidly increasing in popularity for good reason. Those with the motivation to train and become proficient shooting with a red dot will gain a huge advantage in the performance of their handgun. Red dots provide us a very intuitive and fast both-eyes-open target-focused aiming solution for rapid target acquisition and follow-up shots. Popular models for use in USPSA and IDPA are the Trijicon SRO, Holosun 507 COMP, and the Sig Sauer Romeo3 MAX.
It can be intimidating to get into competition shooting at first. However if you are safe, respectful, and willing to learn, the shooting sports community is certain to give you a warm welcome. Your local shooting club will be thrilled to hear about your interest in their sport and they will be happy to help you prepare for and navigate your first match in a safe manner. If you are unsure about whether there is a competitive shooting scene in your area, ask your local Shooting Instructors and the folks working behind the gun counter at your favorite local shop. Chances are good they can point you in the right direction.
This is only a quick look at competition handgun sports and there is much more to learn after reading this article. Regardless of what handgun you have, there will likely be a division for you to fit into. Your local shooting club can help you figure out what division you will shoot in and what kind of supporting gear is recommended. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is to be humble, attentive, and willing to learn. Take it slow at your first match — focus on safety, ask questions when they arise, and don’t forget to have fun!
Finally, I would like to address the quote at the top of the article. There is still a perception among some in the firearms world that competition or performance based shooting is somehow at odds with “tactical” shooting. Make no mistake that those who have deeply familiarized themselves with the experience of shooting under pressure will have an advantage when life is on the line. Even if you are not expecting or training for a defensive situation, learning to operate your handgun safely and effectively in a dynamic scenario can only benefit you as a responsible gun owner. Safe and efficient gun handling will become natural and your effectiveness with a pistol will greatly increase. If you own a handgun, I highly recommend getting involved with your local competition shooting group.
That’s all from me today folks. If you have any questions about pistol shooting and the competitive shooting scene, or want to improve your skills by having a lesson with me in Jackson Hole, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s give it a SHOT!
Ben Wesier moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the summer of 2021 after studying astronomy and astrophysics at the Ohio State University. Drawn to the valley by the rich wildlife and dark night skies, he quickly fell into teaching roles at Wyoming Stargazing by night, and Jackson Hole Shooting Experience by day. There’s nothing Ben loves more than sharing his passions and interests with others!
Ben is an active shooter in Jackson Hole shooting sports. His dedication to learning performance pistol shooting skills for competition has helped him become one of the most requested Jackson Hole Shooting Experience instructors for shooters eager to develop their skills.