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Competitive Shooting: A Beginner’s Guide to Shooting Sports

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Competetive shooting with a pistol

We all want a fair game, right? Doesn’t matter if it’s a sport, board game, or a childhood race across the park.

“That’s not fair!” is commonly heard shouted across the playground as children make up rules on the fly for impromptu games. New rules will get hollered across the playscape in an attempt to balance the game out.

Pre-established rules avoid issues of fairness to help ensure a level playing field for the schoolyard. 

Competitive shooting is no different.

What is Competitive Shooting?

Competitive shooting provides a safe and structured method of pitting shooting skills against others with competitive equity.

Competition Shooting

When all competitors are running the same course of fire and working with a predetermined set of rules and equipment – we can maximize our safety, focus on a particular shooting style, and ensure all shooting skills get measured in the same way.

A consistent comparison of shooting skills then provides the foundation for individuals to measure and improve their shooting performance.

Despite the extremely high level of shooting skill demonstrated across all the various competitive shooting disciplines and formats, there’s often resistance to diving into the fun that is local competitive shooting.

What are the Benefits of Competitive Shooting?

For most competitors participating in their local shooting sports, it’s simply a fun weekend hobby at the range.

They aren’t trying to become a top competitive shooter – they want to compete and have fun with friends. Shooting competitions are an enjoyable way to spend a weekend and hang out with cool people.

Skeet shooting competitor

For some competitors, the weekend match doesn’t need to be anything more than that. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

Most shooters at the match are very interested in getting better with their firearms. Doesn’t matter if the goal is to improve for conceal carry, performance on duty, hunting, or home defense – the common thread stays the same, getting better with their firearms.

The reasons to compete definitely don’t stop at “it’s fun.”

Measure Skill Levels Against Other Competitors

Participating in competitive shooting events makes it possible to observe how other people shoot the same course of fire and what kind of results they generate. A technique comparison like this can show new (and experienced) shooters new levels of shooting skill.

The skill ceiling is way higher than most gun owners realize.

It makes sense – the majority of gun owners don’t have much of a frame of reference of what is possible at the top-end levels of shooting skill.

To the average gun owner, making small-ish groups on a bullseye target at five yards in slow fire at the local shooting range is “good” shooting. The average gun owner often doesn’t even know what fast shooting is like since many shooting ranges don’t allow rapid fire, draw from a holster, multiple target transitions, and other key skills.

USPSA competitor shooting on the move

With no additional frame of reference outside of the entertainment industry, it is a reason to not understand what top performance is like.

Attending a match at the local gun club can be very eye-opening to see what serious competitors are capable of with a firearm.

I’ve seen many new competitors show up to a match thinking they’re on the upper level of skill, only to fall way short compared to the local gynecologist or web developer.

Some shooting sports even operate under sanctioned bodies with classification systems. This provides a way to measure skill against other shooting competitors throughout the nation, or the world.

The direct comparison of scores at the end of a match demonstrates to new competitors how much higher the skill ceiling goes. This tends to excite many gun owners, pushing them to get better. Other new shooters give up and never return to their own detriment.

Measure Technique Against Other Competitors

When you shoot at a local match, you can observe other shooters and how they execute various techniques on the range. This provides near-immediate feedback on whose execution is superior. The amount of learning opportunities from the comparison is immense.

As the saying goes, “the shot timer never lies.” (Or for other competition formats and events, the target down range doesn’t lie.)

If someone else can execute a better score, they can act as a source of study material to observe, ask questions, and learn from.

Out of all the ways to learn new shooting techniques, studying fellow competitors is one of the most cost-effective and fun!

Try New and Unique Shooting Challenges

Most gun owners can access a fairly standard shooting range with a firing line and a single target down range. That can get very boring very quickly. It’s probably one of the primary reasons why most gun owners only go to the range once or twice a year.

Many very important shooting skills aren’t allowed at shooting ranges like these. No rapid fire, drawing a pistol from a holster, shooting multiple targets, moving around between multiple positions, shooting on the move, engaging moving targets, shooting from awkward and impromptu positions, and the like.

Shooting competitions allow competitors to do all sorts of fun (and important) things, like all of those examples.

Can we claim to be skilled with our pistols, rifles, and shotguns if we only ever prove our skill in slow fire at a single target without any time constraints?

Learn from Challenges Set by Other Competitors

By running a course of fire designed by someone else, it avoids the natural bias of only doing what is the most fun or what one is already good at.

Challenges designed by others can open the doors to identifying shooting skill deficiencies, which provide huge opportunities for improvement. Identifying skill gaps is critical for finding ways to improve.

Bullseye Shooting Competitor

Good match directors will create shooting challenges that work a wide variety of important skills, even ones that aren’t as “fun” – such as one-handed pistol shooting.

Competitive shooting sports act as a great accountability tool, forcing practice to incorporate diverse drills and skill focuses.

Measure “Subconscious Competence”

If we have to actively think about the motions required to take a shot, the split focus between the execution and the situation will slow down our performance and decrease consistency. 

Have we truly mastered shooting if we must slow down or pause our execution to take a good shot? Of course not!

What happens if external factors and stressors come into play, like an enemy attacker in a home defense situation? Stress will spike and the available brain processing power will plummet.

This causes skills to degrade to whatever level we can execute without thinking about the steps required.

Shooting a rifle from an improvised position

True mastery comes from the ability to execute without having to actively think about the execution.

This is where competitive shooting can shine. Competing against other shooters increases stress levels and degrades shooting. I’ve even talked with multiple police officers who claimed they were more stressed before shooting a USPSA stage than they were during an actual gunfight. While that isn’t always the case for everyone, it is a fascinating observation.

Competing in a shooting competition will show individuals how well they can perform under stress – I call it their level of “subconscious competence.” 

The stronger the shooting skills, the greater the subconscious competence will be. 

What are Common Objections to Competitive Shooting?

Competition shooter shooting from a barricade

Despite all these benefits and the downright fun, many people still dislike shooting sports and have various objections – particularly in the military and LEO communities. Most of these detractors have never even been to a match!

Competitive Shooting is Not Realistic

Many professionals who carry guns as part of their job object to the lack of realism in shooting competitions. They claim it’s not like “real life.”

However, 99% of firearms training isn’t realistic.

Shooting a target directly ahead on the firing line isn’t exactly realistic – or even difficult.

That’s perfectly fine!

Pistol competitor leaning around a barricade

Effective training comes from “skill isolation.”

Skill isolation is narrowing down a drill or series of drills to focus on a particular technique.

For improving shooting with a firearm, pick a particular shooting technique that needs practice, then run drills focusing on improving that specific technique. That’s a standard method of practice no matter what is getting worked on, and that’s what most firearms training is: repeat a drill repeatedly until skill levels improve.

The majority of practice time spent by a football quarterback doesn’t have a group of linemen trying to run him down. Throwing a football without the stress of getting flattened isn’t “realistic” compared to a football game. But that’s perfectly fine since it is another form of practice for the real game and all its stressors.

Football quarterback practicing

It would only be bad practice by the quarterback if he never practiced trying to throw a football under the pressure of getting run down.

Skill isolation is not realistic, but it is effective training.

Competitive Shooting Creates Training Scars

Many opponents of competitive shooting argue that competition creates bad habits or “training scars.”

The thing is, the average competitor goes to a match every other month or once a month. Only serious competitors attend matches multiple times per month. The cumulative time spent shooting a gun at a match is quite small.

Myles Training with World Champion JJ Racaza

For example, the average competitor at a local USPSA or IDPA match spends about two minutes total running and gunning across five to seven stages. Two minutes of shooting once a month at a local club match, or even multiple times a month, isn’t enough volume of fire to create bad habits.

Training and practice are where there are enough repetitions to create habits – good or bad. We’re talking about hours spent training – not two minutes once a month or so.

Training scars come from bad training – or sometimes even a complete lack of training.

Training scars don’t come from the competition itself.

Shooting Competitions Aren’t Good Tactics

This complaint is generally a combination of the previous two complaints, often from the military and LEO crowd. Detractors of shooting competitions often argue that competitive shooting doesn’t require perfect cover, teaching competitors to stand out in the open while they’re getting shot at – among other unsound tactical actions. 

Competitor shooting a rifle from a barricade

The rebuttal is similarly a cumulation of the two previous points. Training is a form of skill isolation. Bad habits come from the hours spent training, not the morning spent at a match shooting a gun for a few minutes.

This complaint about competitive shooting stems from a failure to understand the difference between technique and tactics. Both need focused practice, but they are still different areas.

“Technique” is a series of actions used to complete a task.

All the steps involved in drawing a pistol from the holster are a particular technique. However, there are many variations of the technique of drawing from a holster.

For example: drawing a pistol from a standing position, drawing a pistol on the move, drawing a pistol one-handed, drawing a pistol from a seated or prone position, discreetly drawing a pistol from the counter-ambush, etc.

Concealed carry draw

There are many different methods of drawing pistols from the holster depending on the given scenario, leading us into tactics.

“Tactics” is selecting the right technique based on the given scenario.

Good tactics involve observing the scenario, selecting a particular technique, and choosing the timing of executing that technique.

Drawing a pistol from the holster isn’t tactics – choosing when and how to draw is tactics.

The more shooting techniques an individual can execute consistently and quickly, the more tools are available for the tool belt. A diverse set of shooting skills opens a lot of possibilities to adapt to any scenario and increase the odds of overcoming an adversary.

This is where shooting competition can really shine!

Competing is an excellent way for participants to objectively measure the consistency and quality of execution of any given firearms technique.


JJ Racaza practicing entries

The final reason for avoiding competitive shooting is often the most common excuse but generally, the least acknowledged excuse.

Going to a shooting competition means putting out a performance that is publicly measured against others. You can’t hide a performance by deleting a video and only posting the good video on social media.

If someone lands lower on the scoreboard than they want, it hurts their ego. Instead of recognizing the opportunities to learn from people who are better, many people avoid competitions entirely to maintain an illusion of skill.

This doesn’t help anyone.

Set aside the ego, get out to a competition, and objectively measure shooting skill.

What Types of Shooting Sports are Out There?

USPSA target

Just like there are many shooting styles, there are many different competition shooting formats, from static target shooting for precision to dynamic action shooting sports that are more physical.

Despite what it may seem from the outside, there are very few barriers to accessing the world of competitive shooting sports.

Most competition formats have different equipment divisions to ensure a level playing field among the competitors. An out-of-the-box pistol with iron sights doesn’t have to compete against a tricked-out race pistol with a compensator, red dot, and tuned ammo.

You can use a stock gun that isn't modified and upgraded in competition.

Many shooting events have sanctioning bodies to standardize rules across the US (or the world) and a consistent style and quality of match format. Sanctioning bodies often also provide a classification system i.e. classes, to give people skill rankings based on standardized skill tests. Most sanctioning bodies will also have regional and national championships.

Outlaw matches generally will mimic the style of an established sanctioning body but get hosted by a local club. The rules will be created by that local club, and can often provide some unique skill challenges – for better or worse.

Practical Shooting Competitions

Practical shooting competitions tend to involve fast shooting that balances speed and accuracy. Popular practical shooting competitions are mostly focused around pistols, but rifle and shotguns are still common guns for practical shooting sports.

USPSA practical pistol shooting competition

These competitions tend to involve a dynamic stage with a field of targets, a designated shooting area, and various barriers designed to force people to move around to engage all the targets.

For gun owners interested in self-defense-oriented practice, these competition formats are likely to be the most relevant.

  • USPSA / IPSC – a practical pistol shooting format that emphasizes shooting fast and moving

  • IDPA – similar to USPSA/IPSC, but emphasizes accuracy

  • Steel Challenge – classified as “speed shooting,” pushing speed to borderline inhuman limits in standardized courses of fire

  • Multi-Gun / 3 Gun / 2 Gun – incorporating rifle, pistol, and shotgun within the same course of fire

  • Tactical Games – a competition heavily emphasizing physical fitness while incorporating shooting challenges

  • Run and Guns – 3-7 mile runs that incorporate rifle and pistol shooting stages along the way

Precision Shooting Competitions

Precision shooting is probably the oldest shooting sport and popular amongst gun owners interested in improving their hunting skills.

A precision rifle at a 1,000 yard firing line

There are many flavors of precision shooting depending on the equipment, firearm type and target distance.

  • Precision Rifle Series (PRS) – a long-range shooting competition format that pulls inspiration from the practical shooting world

  • International Benchrest Shooters – bench rest shooting competitions are potentially the pinnacle of accuracy standards ranging from 100 yards to a 1,000 yards

  • NRA High Power Rifle – a precision rifle competition involving standing, kneeling, and prone shooting at 200-600 yards

  • NRA Rifle Silhouette – a shooting sport knocking down animal silhouette targets within a fixed time

  • NRA Conventional Pistol – bullseye pistol target shooting at 25 and 50 yards

  • ISSF Air rifle – air rifle remains an olympic sport and a great way to introduce youths to shooting competitions


  • Skeet shooting – a classic shotgun competition format included in the Olympics involving shooting flying clay disks

  • Trap shooting – similar to skeet shooting, but the disk gets thrown in a randomized direction

  • Bowling pin – generally shot with pistols in a head-to-head format, the goal is to simply knock down bowling pins by shooting them faster than the other competitors

  • Cowboy Action – a very stylized shooting competition format involving single-action revolvers, lever-action rifles, and shotguns

How to Start in Competition Shooting?

Joe Farewell shooting his rifle

A very common comment from new shooters is, “I’ll come to a match when I get better.”

That is a huge mistake.

Competition shooting is fun and an effective way to improve shooting skills – so why wait?

I’ve been to a lot of shooting sports events in at a lot of gun clubs and met a lot of participants of all participation levels. New shooters are generally the most popular people on the firing line because everyone is so excited to share their sport with new people.

Judgement against new shooters is extremely rare as most competitors are excited to have new people to share our passion with.

Don’t wait, go compete!

“Run what ya brung”

Competition Gear

It is very tempting to perform research to find the best guns and equipment, spend thousands of dollars on it, then go to a match. (I’ve done it and seen it many times.)

There are way too many options to perform sufficient research through a computer screen. Virtually every competitor has guns and assorted equipment shoved into the back of a closet that was supposed to be the latest and greatest but didn’t live up to the expectations.

The best guns and equipment is the what is already owned.

While at the match, ask fellow competitors about their equipment. Virtually all gun owners are extremely happy to talk about their guns with fellow shooters, so don’t be shy!

After attending a few matches and getting a feel for the competition options out there, then consider purchasing different equipment.

Shooting competition safety

We want to get better and have a great day at the range, but at the end of the day – shooting sports are just a game and safety is the most important thing on the firing line. The need for safety increases when a large crowd is involved, like at shooting competitions.

Range officer observing a competitor shoot a stage

The rules of gun safety absolutely apply:

  1. Always keep firearms pointed in a safe direction

  2. Treat all firearms as if they are loaded

  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot

  4. Always be sure of your target and what’s beyond it

However, every competition format has its own rules expanding on firearms safety rules. Be sure to know these rules or get disqualified and sent home.

Usually, the shooting range is considered to be a “cold range” – that is, all guns are unloaded at all times and only handled at a clearly marked safe table or under the direction of a “Range Safety Officer” (RSO) – sometimes simplified to “Range Officer” (RO).

If you are unsure of any unique match rules, contact the local club hosting the competition and ask for the match director to see what additional rules apply. Shooting sports organized under a sanctioning body will have rules posted online.

Matches also tend to have a safety briefing by the match director before the match, so pay attention to that as well.

Where to Find Matches

Competition shooter practicing

Shooting matches of various formats can be found at most gun clubs. Checking the calendar at a local gun club for upcoming matches is a great place to start.

Find out what shooting competition formats the gun club will host and make a list of the upcoming formats. Then search the web for some videos of people shooting that particular competition format, there will be plenty of sample videos to browse.

Don’t over think it – pick a competition format or shooting disciplines based on what tickles your fancy.

Some local gun clubs even have introduction classes or courses designed specifically for new competitors, making it a lot easier to feel comfortable before attending a first “real” match.

Practiscore.com is currently the go-to registration website for upcoming matches, from local matches to national championships, so it’s also a great place to look.

Regardless of the type of competitive shooting sports, Practiscore will list matches worldwide.

While at a match, ask fellow shooters at the range what other competitions they participate in. Sometimes a little networking can uncover outlaw matches that are hard to find but a blast to shoot.

Don’t Wait. Go Compete!

I’ve never met someone who said, “I’m glad I waited to go to my first competition.”

I have met a bunch of new competitors who said, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?!?

If you’re interested in shooting competitions, find some upcoming matches. Don’t wait, just give it a try!

Shooting sports are a blast!

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About the author

Brian Purkiss

Brian is a USPSA Carry Optics grandmaster and founder of LockedBack.com. Brian is a relentless student of performance pistol shooting, always striving to push speed. "Always a student, sometimes a teacher."

1 thought on “Competitive Shooting: A Beginner’s Guide to Shooting Sports”

  1. If I’m only competing against myself, why do I need to attend a competition with other shooters? I do not have the time and money that it takes to be competitive. I’m fairly sure most of the 100 million gun owners do not either. For those that attend and enjoy it, right on for you. I have observed a couple of matches and found it very exclusionary. No one there using anything like what I own. Almost no one shooting production. Everything else, yes. Not the welcoming environment that people often speak of. After you’ve worked a 48 or 56 hour week, the last thing on your mind is to take a beating at a competition. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion of course.


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