USMC sight picture illustrationThe various pistol, rifle, and multi-gun competitions are often billed as good training for self-defense and even for police and military operations, but they aren’t for a number of reasons:

Too much emphasis on the quick draw

Perhaps the generations of Hollywood westerns that dominated the American cultural mindscape from circa 1950 to 1970 are to blame: the vast majority of the founders and rulemakers of these sports are Baby Boomers, whose cultural formation took place in the Cowboys and Indians period.

The quickest draw, of course, is the one where the gun is already in your hand, and people know this even if event organizers don’t. In an actual defensive situation, it may well be more important to draw the gun with stealth than with speed. But “practical” shooting goes for quick-draw flash every time.

This complaint could actually be more generalized: these sports overemphasize speed in general, leading to risk-taking in the interests of speed. This is an incentive badly aligned with the needs of military and police forces. The quick draw and the snap shot are advanced skills to be pursued only when aimed deliberate fire is not possible.

Not enough emphasis on good judgment

When there are lasting consequences from a shooting in the military or police, it’s seldom because the shooter wasn’t quick enough. It’s almost always because the shooter could have exercised better judgment. Speed pressure is, of course, corrosive of judgment. When to shoot is almost always a decision of subordinate importance to whether to shoot. Exercises that test that judgment don’t fit into the speed/accuracy/penalty scoring paradigm of most events.

For decades, aviation safety experts pursued better pilot skills, but in the last 20 years of wo they’ve fully internalized the idea that most mishap involve, in some way, a pilot of perfectly adequate stick and rudder skills being tested in his judgment and found wanting. This has led to an air safety revolution, as the training and evaluation base has added judgment analytics, scenario-based-training, desicision-making exercises and counteraction of hazardous attitudes to its toolbox. Combat weaponscraft is ready for a similar revolution.

Almost every tragic combat shooting story we cover here is a tale of judgment. Why isn’t this part of practical shooting events?

Optimizing vs Satisficing

Those are two approaches economists and decision-theory wonks see as alternative decision modes.  Optimizing is well understood. It is done by evaluating the possibilities and getting the absolute optimum one. Satisficing is a much less frequently encountered word, even though it’s a much more commonly used decision strategy — one that recognizes that time spent optimizing is itself a steep opportunity cost.

Satisficing means, essentially, setting a bar (threshold) and accepting any outcome that crosses that bar. Real gunfights are like that: if you’re alive, your opponent(s) dead, and no friendly fire or collateral damge has taken place, that’s a win. So in the real world every disabling shot into a human target has equal value: there is no x-ring. In the competitions, there’s great weight on very minute variations in speed and accuracy. It’s probably impossible to design a “practical” competition that’s weighted the way combat is.

Encouraging gimmicky weapons and holsters

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 9.55.21 PMHow practical are these rigs, really? In some events you see 6″ barreled 1911s with trigger jobs that are not safe off the range and mounted optics, dangling in gimmicky mid-thigh holsters. Carry that for a week and let us know how it’s working for you.

Adding a real field-oriented test or two to the stages might bring some reality back. Like thrust the gun in a 55-gallon drum of mud before a stage. How you like your red dot now?

Unimaginative targets

ipsctargReal enemies don’t stand still, and don’t make straight line, linear moves as if they’re on rails. Most of the targets presented in competition do one or the other of these.

The scoring rings on the IPSC target, also, are somewhat unrealistic. But there’s no really realistic way to render the way that the human organism absorbs shots — because there’s so much individual variation and chance involved. The IPSC rings are a trade-off, and while we have to think there has to be a better trade-off, we don’t have one to suggest right now.

Wrong penalties on the wrong things

The penalties assessed for time are probably too high, and those assessed for missing the target are too low. Particularly shooting a “hostage” or “bystander” — that should be not just a stage forfeit, but a tournament misconduct. Pushing speed and going mild on collateral negligence is not practical. In the real world, there are no backstops: solid hits are at a premium.

The bottom line

The bottom line on these sports is that they are, well, sports. They’re not without value — nothing motivates like competition, and speed and accuracy are things that are worth pursuing. But you should never mistake these stylized sports for actual preparation for combat. Two different animals.

There’s an irony in that, of course: the ATF recognizes none of these sports as sports, just as it is blind to game hunting with modern sporting rifles. Its idea of what is “sporting” is frozen in 1968.

In the end, competitive “practical” shooting is about as useful preparing you for a combat or defensive gun use as the Daytona 500 is to prepare you for your morning commute. So why do it?

The only reason we can come up with is: it’s a blast. There is that.

This entry was posted in Pistols and Revolvers, Weapons Education, Weapons Usage and Employment on by Hognose.

About Hognose

Former Special Forces 11B2S, later 18B, weapons man. (Also served in intelligence and operations jobs in SF).

5 thoughts on “Six reasons “practical” competition isn’t


Dead on! We need a defensive CCW course of practice, not competition for real-world training.

Not 87 pages of rules, so the wealthy can “game” the course of fire.

We need NASA like simulations of everything that can go wrong, not the BS of “practical” games.


I’m a competition shooter, RSO, and low-level training junkie, and agree with almost everything you say here. In fact, I may push for a rule change with my local “outlaw” club to have our hostage penalties increased (substantially) after reading this.

One question though: what competitions bill themselves as training?

Hognose Post author

Insightful question. Can’t answer it!


Mr Ragnar Skanaker, the Standard Pistol and the Olympic Rapid Fire Pistol .22lr) make better shooter with monies left for more ‘Social Relevant Guns’ and munititions to feed freedom.


Great post.