Competition Shooting Vs Defensive Training

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Defensive handguns and the skills to run them are applicable to many combat-style competitions. However, the tactics to win a match are not the same as those used to win a fight.
Defensive handguns and the skills to run them are applicable to many combat-style competitions. However, the tactics to win a match are not the same as those used to win a fight.

Competition Shooting and defensive training may seem similar. However, winning a shooting match and a real-world gunfight are not—and never will be—the same thing.

Why Competition Shooting Doesn't Replace Defensive Training:

  • Competition puts an emphasis on planning beforehand, not responding to unfolding events.
  • It's easy to get caught up in winning and not improving practical skills.
  • Matches de-emphasize important aspects, such as using cover and concealment.

Many shooters hypothesize that competition is a great way to train with the defensive handgun. There’s some truth to this: The speed and accuracy associated with competition shooting is a shared skill with the practical use of a defensive handgun. And, the stress involved in competition can show you how you’ll react under pressure. However, too much competition shooting can create bad habits.

After I became a cop, I realized the handgun training provided to police officers was seriously lacking. Looking for a solution, I became involved in competition shooting. I won several local and regional matches and even the West Virginia National Guard State Pistol Match. Competition was the vehicle that drove me to the place where I could get hits on targets swiftly.

But, as I thought more about it, I realized I was becoming a gamer, as opposed to someone skilled in the practical application of a defensive handgun. I was not making the best—or any—use of cover. I was solving problems before the shooting started, as opposed to working them out as they developed. I was standing out in the open with an empty pistol as I conducted a reload (granted, it was a fast reload). And, I was approaching situations from the standpoint of how I could get the best score instead of what would offer me the best chance of survival.

This might not seem all that important, but the problem was that some of my responses were becoming conditioned. In other words, I was training myself to react to the competition arena, as opposed to the survival arena.

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As a result, I stopped competing and started attending defensive handgun training classes. And, I changed my practice from how to improve my chances of winning shooting matches to how to improve my survival chances.

In a competition, you must play by the rules or lose. In a fight, there are no rules, and the winner is often the person who has the proper mindset and exercises the best tactics.
In a competition shooting, you must play by the rules or lose. In a fight, there are no rules, and the winner is often the person who has the proper mindset and exercises the best tactics.

An example of what I’m talking about was exemplified at Gunsite Academy while I was shooting some video of world champion handgun shooter Travis Tomasie. At the time, he was the captain of Team Para-USA. I’d recently completed the Gunsite 250 Pistol class, at the end of which they have a man-on-man shoot-off. I figured it would be easy to show Travis’s skill with a handgun while he embarrassed me on the shoot-off—a shoot-off I’d won at the end of my 250 Pistol Class.

We stepped up to the line, and on the “go” signal, I drew my handgun, engaged the first two targets, conducted a reload and hit the last target. While this was happening, I realized I was the only one shooting. After conducting a tactical reload (so I didn’t holster a handgun that wasn’t fully loaded), I looked over at Travis … who was standing there, smiling.

Laughing at himself, he said, “I forgot my pistol wasn’t loaded!”


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We both chuckled, Travis loaded his handgun, we ran the drill again, and he crushed me: Before I hit the second target, and before Travis’s last one had hit the ground, he’d cleared his handgun and shoved it back in the holster.

This perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about. With the competition/safety mindset deeply ingrained, Travis was walking around with an unloaded gun. Also, his first response after the drill was to clear his pistol of any ammunition. Now, I’m not suggesting Travis would do the same thing with his carry gun before or after a lethal encounter, but it does show how competition can condition you to do things that aren’t applicable to a self-defense setting.

Fast and accurate shooting applies to both competition and self-defense. However, an overly conditioned competitor might very well make tactical mistakes that could be very costly in a real fight.
Fast and accurate shooting applies to both competition and self-defense. However, an overly conditioned competitor might very well make tactical mistakes that could be very costly in a real fight.

Competition can be a great way to enhance your ability to shoot accurately and swiftly under stress. It can help you develop your presentation, reloading and stoppage-clearing abilities as well. Competition can also allow you to attempt to perform under stress. However, the reluctance to be embarrassed in front of other shooters will very likely lead you to start doing things that aren’t tactically sound.

For those who carry a handgun for personal protection, make sure the competition shooting you do doesn’t create bad habits—habits that might get you killed.

An Obvious Takeaway

A gunfight is not the same thing as a shooting match. A perfect analogy is the boxing match between mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Connor McGregor and boxing star Floyd Mayweather, who ultimately won late in the match with a technical knockout.

In a boxing match—just as with a competition shooting event—there are many, many rules. Had the contest been conducted under the MMA rules where almost anything goes (much as in a gunfight), McGregor would have been the clear and early winner. As a fighter, he was poorly equipped to win a boxing match, but Mayweather—conditioned to win matches—wouldn’t have had the necessary skills to survive a real fight.

The takeaway here is really very simple: If you’re going to carry a gun for personal protection, learn how to fight with it. If, like Connor McGregor, you want to do some “boxing”—that is, competition shooting—on the side, go for it. Just remember that although both are similar, winning a shooting match and a real-world gunfight are not, and never will be, the same thing.

The article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.


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1 COMMENT

  1. The article makes some good points, and I’d rather have an experienced combat shooter next to me in a fight than the best competition shooter in the world. But . . . competition does have some benefits.

    Just before I deployed to Iraq for 2 1/2 years as a private security contractor serving on personal security details (PSD) I decided to do some USPSA matches. I’d been shooting all my life, had been in combat arms in the Army and had plenty of training, but I thought USPSA would be a good addition to my training. It was. It definitely help tune my mag changes and malfunction clearance skills as well as drawing from a holster to shoot and moving around obstacles. No one can be in training classes all the time, but everyone can make a couple of USPSA matches a month. USPSA emphasizes everyday street skills over static shooting, so it’s something I recommend people look into.

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