Is IDPA realistic?

That was a question posited over on TFL, which surely start the usual “IDPA IS TACTICAL AND USPSA WILL GET YOU KILLED” or the also popular “ALL GUN GAMES WILL GET YOU KILLED” debate.  The problem is that for anyone arguing any side of those points is that it’s just not that clear-cut.  However, to discuss the first point: no, IDPA is not realistic.  Paper targets do not shoot back, cardboard no-shoots don’t run towards waving their arms yelling “HELP ME” and obstruct your shot; the weird things that happen during a dynamic event don’t generally happen to mostly static targets on a pre-designed course of fire.  So no, in that sense IDPA is not realistic – but then again, neither is USPSA, Steel Challenge, et al.

I can now hear the tactical guys saying “See, I told you so!” and preparing to exult in their triumph over us game players.  The problem with all that is that anyone who is really honest with themselves about the gun games will be the first to admit to you that shooting USPSA/IDPA isn’t supposed to be tactical training.  It’s not.  No IDPA match will have you stacking in the door with your teammates, tossing flashbangs, and clearing a room – and it shouldn’t have these things because shooting gun games isn’t supposed to teach you tactics.  Shooting gun games does do something very, very important though – it teaches you to think with a gun in your hand under stress.  We all can’t afford to go to a force on force class, so shooting gun games provides a reasonable stress simulator to teach you to THINK with a gun in your hand.  Simple thoughts such as “did I hit that steel” suddenly become very important, because you have under a second to make the decision to take a second shot or to move on.  Opening a door becames a challenging task, because you know it will trigger a drop-turner that you’ve only got a half second to shoot, etc.

If someone tells you that IDPA will teach you tactics, they’re wrong.  It won’t, and it’s not supposed to.  IDPA is fundamentally a game, just like Bianchi Cup is a game.  You will have two kinds of people shooting IDPA matches, as well: people who are shooting with their concealed carry gear to practice and reinforce fundamental skills that might save their life, and people who are playing the game to win the game.  There is nothing inherently better about either of these schools of thought, because in the end both sets of people are putting rounds downrange and becoming better marksmen (and women) in so doing.

So to answer the question, no, IDPA is not realistic.  But shooting an IDPA match is a great way to practice certain skills that you may need to save your life someday.  I don’t know about you, but the ability to draw and put accurate hits on target in under 1 second might be pretty useful in a self-defense situation.


  1. I have both the privilege and burden of having the same home range as Rob Leatham, Angus Hobdell, Kelly Neal and whole bunch of other USPSA GM’s.

    It’s great that I can sit back and watch and learn as they shoot a stage, but it also sucks to be a non-gamer on a range that is chock-full of gamers.

    The vast majority of the people who shoot USPSA on my range are doing it (IMO) to win the match and not necessarily to apply what they do to their everyday lives, and in this case, I’m in the minority.

    I love USPSA, but it’s not my primary diversion, and on a range that hosts (on average) 2 or more USPSA/multigun/steel matches each week, I’m the exception and not the rule. Strangely, we don’t have any IDPA matches at all, and no, I don’t understand why.

    Now, all that being said, yeah, I’m gonna listen VERY hard to what TGO or Angus have to say about holding a pistol and moving and shooting in ANY situation, game or not. Watch any firearms training show or take any pistol training class and you’ll see a lot of skills being taught (thumbs-forward grip toe-heel movement, etc) that came to the tactical training realm from the gun gamers.

  2. The problem I ran into (and why I switched back to Steel Challenge), is that yes, it will teach you some good skills. But it will also teach you some bad ones. It forces you move through typical environmental problems too quickly like pieing corners, enfilades, etc. And so you’re practicing important skills that could also END your life. Those become trained skills because speed is so important.

  3. IDPA, USPSA and Steel all let you practice how to shoot. Steel makes you shoot fast. USPSA makes you analyze the course and find the fastest way to get all the shots. IDPA less so because of the many rules about how you must engage and reload. At the very least they all get people familiar with shooting quickly. Without these “games” few of us would be willing to practice and reach an advanced level of shooting performance. I don’t think either IDPA or USPSA will teach me to break cover and get shot in a defensive situation. Don’t limit yourself to the games. you should also attend defensive combat training (Gunsite, LFI, MAS, SigSauerAcademy, …) I would not worry for a second about Bob Vogel’s ability to defend because he shoots IDPA.

  4. “cardboard no-shoots don’t run towards waving their arms yelling “HELP ME” and obstruct your shot”

    You have kind folks designing your stages…… movers are hard, and picking out which are showing open hands and which have cardboard guns/knives makes it harder…..

    Drawing, moving, utilizing cover and shooting accurately under time pressure with your carry gun is a Good Thing. It is not a substitute for a trip to Gunsite, but it beats cold range bullseye paper punching all to hell.

    1. Oh, our courses have movers and swinging no-shoots and all that stuff, but those just aren’t the same as real live hostages!

  5. Confess, you first like to pie a corner when you…

    … played Doom (or Quake, or Duke Nukem, or whatever) for the first time. Yes, it’s not trigger time nor even close to a good tactical class, but a few minutes of playing a good multiplayer 1st person shooter will teach you the benefits of situational awareness and tactical movement very quickly.

  6. I agree that IDPA is not tactical training.

    Having the ‘self-induced’ pressure of being on the clock and having other shooters observe you performance, drawing your weapon while wearing a concealment garment, using cover, shooting while moving, shooting at moving targets, reloading (with retention and from slide lock), and target identification are a few of the benefits I see from shooting IDPA that are applicable to defensive hand gunning.

  7. The problem with IDPA is that it teaches a mindset that can be very, very bad in a real situation. There are so many ways to lose points due to the niggling little rules that this is what people focus on. “How many rounds until my reload?” “What kind of reload do I do next?” “I need to take these next targets in the right order.” That kind of distraction and preoccupation with peripheral issues are precisely what you don’t want in a live situation.

    Most of us will never be in a gunfight, much less multiple gunfights. We won’t have a chance to develop an aggressive mindset over time. If we’re going to get it, we’re going to get it on the range, or not at all.

    With its emphasis on speed above all, USPSA and steel actually do a better job of preparing shooters to get shots on targets fast. And that’s what counts most in 99% of cases. Not how you juggle your magazines.

    1. I actually agree with that, although the influx if USPSA shooters has helped IDPA get over some of their silly ass rules. You rarely see mandatory “Tac loads” (they do crop up) and most shooters can out game them anyway.

  8. Caleb,

    I agree with your premise 100%. As some one who has carried a gun for over 30 years (25 on the job), I think that any activity which gets you trigger time under any kind of pressure is good. for a lot of years the only training I got as an LEO was standing up and shooting at targets under ridiculously long time frames from a series of set distances. If not for being heavily into competitive shooting long before becoming a cop, I would have felt very inadequately trained.

    I got involved in IPSC (pre-USPSA) in the late 70’s- early 80’s, back when our competition guns were more like the average over the counter modern 1911 carry gun (actually with less bells and whistles) than the race guns which caused the formation of IDPA.

    Having been in three “for real” shootings, I can tell you that any amount of trigger time which causes you to become familiar with presenting and operating your gun quickly and under pressure is a good thing. Tactical training is good when and if you can avail yourself of it, but don’t listen to the “mall ninjas” disparage sports like IDPA when the only “training” they probably ever get is the occasional weekend plinking session.

  9. As someone who’s been involved in IDPA since the draft rules were under review, I have to say Caleb hit this one out of the park. People who think IDPA teaches fighting are in for a rude surprise the first time projectiles start moving in both directions. But those who fail to appreciate how well it can help refine someone’s shooting ability is no less clueless.

    The major problem with IDPA is that there are too many little tactical-wannabe rules (tactical sequence, ridiculous reload restrictions) and too many people who mistake those rules as actual fighting methodology. I’ve watched as 20-something IDPA Safety Officers at major matches scolded the likes of Dave Harrington or Ernest Langdon about “combat” technique, use of cover, etc.

    Like most things about shooting and competition, you get out of it exactly what you put into it. I can honestly say that my shooting skill has been pushed more by competition than any class I’ve ever taken. Exposure to great shooters like those mentioned above also sets the bar much higher than you could ever realize by simply hanging out at your local club.

  10. Sounds like this parallels unarmed combat. Karate isn’t the be-all-end-all, neither is TKD, BJJ, combatives, wrestling or aikido, but they all have valuable skills suited to different situations and attackers. The ideal way to train IMO is to learn as much from each of them and combine it to make something that’ll work for you in as many situations as possible.

    Good article, now I just wish I had some better local ranges and clubs. And more money, ’cause you can never have enough ammo. 🙂

  11. Ted, I definitely agree on that. IDPA/USPSA and other shooting sports are (IMHO) analogous to MMA fighting in that while it’s not a real (gun)fight, it’s certainly better than just shooting on the square range or shadowboxing.

  12. Practice is Practice… I disagree. If you enjoy IDPA, or any of the others – great! Any time you get to shoot is fun and practice, but make sure you are not practicing and automating habits that will get you killed. If you get in a real, stress-fire situation, make sure you don’t eject your 17 round magazine after 5 shots because that is what you’ve done a thousand times in practice or competition.

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