What is cover?

In IDPA, the rules stipulate that all reloads must started and completed “behind cover”.  The problem is that IDPA doesn’t define what cover actually is.  This leads to all sorts of shenanigans at matches, and is the reason for my policy of asking the SO on every single stage I shoot “what are we defining as cover here”.  This is the most effective way to avoid procedural penalties, as ultimately the Safety Officer is the one that determines what is and isn’t cover.  There are three different schools of thought on what “is” cover in IDPA, and they go like this:

  1. Cover is whenever you’re not exposed to un-engaged targets.  This means that if you have an array of three targets in front of you but you’ve shot them all and you’re not exposed to the remaining targets on the stage, you’re “behind cover”.
  2. Cover is whenever you’re not exposed to any targets, regardless of your distance to the actual barrier object.
  3. Cover is only when you are directly behind the barrier object that is providing your “cover”.

The above diagram, borrowed from a poster at the official IDPA Forum perfectly illustrates all three definitions of “cover”.  Because IDPA allows you to reload on the move when behind cover (clearly stated in the rulebook) the definition of cover becomes important for shooters looking to save time.  In definition 1 of cover (not exposed to un-engaged targets) you can reload at any point on the graph after you’ve shot T1-T3.    Cover definition 2 would say that you could only reload when you’re between the blue lines on the graph, as then you’re behind cover from the remaining targets.  Finally, cover definition 3 would say that you have to remain at P1 to reload or cannot reload until you’re on top of the wall at P2.

The problem that we have is that I have seen all three definitions of cover used at sanctioned, major matches.  The problem that we run in to is that even in the IDPA rulebook, cover only subjectively defined with regards to your distance from the barrier object.  In my opinion, it makes sense that you’re “behind cover” as long as you’re not exposed to any threat targets, regardless of how far you are from the visual barrier object.  Other Safety Officers, including one of my best friends in the sport, disagree.

So I’m interested to hear from my IDPA guys out there – what do you think cover is?  Obviously, I’m a fan of definition 1.  I think it makes the most sense within the confines of the rules of the game, but I’m willing to accept definition 2 as well.  If I were running that course of fire with a wheelgun, as soon as I finished shooting the first array of targets I’d be reloading while moving to the next position, since I’m not exposed to any threat targets.  What would you do?  Also, if I shot it with a semi-auto there is a chance, albeit a small one, that I’d do a RWR while moving instead of having to top off in the middle of a string.  I’d like to hear how you would shoot it, and more importantly where you think it’s legal to reload.


  1. What would you do if you didn’t know the precise positioning of targets T4, T5, and T6?

    1. In IDPA that’s a moot point since blind stages are illegal. However, assuming for the moment that I didn’t, I’d still believe that a strict interpretation of the rules would allow me to reload as long as I’m not exposed to any threat targets.

  2. Def 3 has more use for LEO and MIL, although the movies have them doing def 2. My problem with def 1 is: if a grunt/cop/ccw guy/gal is “in the open” and engages and neutralizes threats they are still “in the open.” They have no way of knowing Who will come from Where, When or even How Many. So best get your butt behind cover.

    How about some examples from fiction? Owen Z Pitt wastes a room full of baddies, he is standing in full glory in the middle of the room surrounded by engaged ex-threats lying at his feet. Is he in cover by just standing there looking cool?

    Sorry this next one is really silly. So King Kong is on top of the big building and the planes are still on the ground. Technically he is exposed to no UN-engaged threats. Lets say that in the next remake the ape wins, the planes are burning wreaks, all threats are engaged. So the now heroic Kong, roars triumphantly for the whole world to see. And, technically, he is behind cover. What?

    Well, until MHI shows up.

    All kidding aside, I’m taking you seriously but I want to illustrate the thinking of the other side.

    Personally, I’d like to see IDPA allow def 1 BUT have def 3 “off the clock.”

    1. Well, unless your cover involves a long straight tunnel, or you’re in an organized combat team and your team has 100% secured the ground behind you to the next two terrain features, there is no way you can ensure that new baddies won’t walk up from BEHIND you anyway.

      So, you’re just as much potentially exposed to “new” fire in Def 3 as you are in Def 1 or 2.

  3. What if definition 1 is in effect and you (or I) shoot poorly, failing to neutralize one or more of T1 – T3? Will you then be exposing yourself to a threat as you reload on your way to P2 and subject to a procedural while a shooter who did neutralize all three targets would not be subject to that same procedural?

  4. IMHO, IDPA cover is when you are not exposed to any threat targets. It does not matter if you have engaged the threats or not. Distance to the barrier does not matter. Are you exposed from your position or not?

    The problem with engaged targets is we need a simple rule for the game we can follow in all courses of fire. Yes in many simple stages it’s easy for the SO to see you have neutralized the threat. But what if you have misses or only -3 hits. IDPA shoud not ask the SO to dynamically determine if a threat is neutralized. Then you have to evaluate multiple scenarios of where a legal reload could happen if the threats were neutalized. There will be arguements about when you reloaded and when the target was neutralized. etc…

    1. Definition 1 is also the definition that is most consistent with IDPA’s rules. Think about it; when you’re slicing the pie around a corner to engage targets you expose more than 50% of your upper body to the targets you’ve already engaged. So to properly shoot the three targets at P2, once you shoot T4, to get a proper shot at T5 you have to expose a little bit more of your body, thus exposing more than 51% of your body to an engaged target. The rulebook specifically states that you do not have to duck back behind cover to reload, which then implies that if you’re doing a slidelock reload in the middle of shooting T4-T6 (which you would be in this stage) then it’s perfectly acceptable to be exposed to engaged targets while reloading.

      1. I would say that you have a good point about consistency. If I were the IDPA, I’d change the rules so you have to duck back behind cover to reload. Given that they don’t require that, they should let you do whatever you want after you’ve neutralized the target.

  5. It’s also a quest for good stage design. T1-T3 should be moved back so you can do a valid reload behind the right side barrier. Or additional walls created to cover P2 from T1-T3. Or leave it as is and tell the people that got procedurals that the correct answer was to reload behind the left wall.

  6. Hard call.
    In R/L the threats would be capable of moving and their exact position would be unknown, if you are trying to simulate a real encounter I’d say you need to go with rule 3, I’d even go a step past that and require you be physically touching, preferably with your back, against the cover wall.

    In a less realistic game version I’d go with 1.

    1. Until the paper starts shooting back, it’s nothing more than a game. That’s why it’s important that the definition of “cover” be consistent throughout a match. Definition 1 is the only definition that is consistent with how cover is interpreted when you’re actually engaging targets.

    2. Touching cover = bad.

      Means ricochets are more likely to hit you than if you stand off from cover. (This is where the term, “Bullets follow walls” comes from — shallow riccochets are less dangerous the farther back you are from the initial impact. A round that would have bounced over head or behind your back can smack you in the mouth if you’re closer.)

      There are exceptions where you need to snuggle up to cover to get the line of sight, or if you really need support, but in general, you do not want to be right up on cover, much less touching it.

  7. It amuses me to no end how much this is like playing Nerf or water guns when I was a kid:
    “You can’t shoot me cuz I’m in the fort!”
    “You only hit me in the leg!”
    “The blue thing is a force field!”

    I think it was Caleb who said something like, “Whats the difference between a gamer and a casual shooter? A Master classification”. You’ll annoy the RO to no end covering these minute details before shooting a stage, but you also won’t get caught out on procedurals either.

  8. Until the targets heads explode to signal “engaged”, which would not be Olympic or sponsorship friendly, I’ve got to agree that method 1 is the rule that makes the most sense.

    Better players of the game will ask the questions during the walk through and good SO’s will answer as honestly as possible.

    1. Look at teh targets the Swedish Army started using — cardboard or plastic humanoids (like the “metric” IPSC target), but the target backing is a steel flat about 6″ wide, running up the center of the target to about halfway up the “head”. The shooter cannot see the steel – it’s behind the target. he knows where it is, basically, but cannot see it — like your spine and heart.

      Like a pepper popper with a standard target taped to the front.

      Hit the target and NOTHING happens unless you hit the steel — at which point it goes down. Unlike a standard cardboard target, periphial hits will not “finish” the target. But, unlike a standard popper popper, you have to picture the location of the steel in relation to the visible target.

      You could rule that shooters are penalized for any hits over 3 that struck the target — obviously you were shooting too poorly to actually put the threat down if it was still up after firing 3 bulets into it. Or only score the worst 2 hits, while multiplying the single hit by 1.5 (so as to have “2” hits on the scorecard, but still encourage people to try to actually put two in the target) for a target that goes down in 1 hit.

      Of course, now you’re doing steel work — but you could use the self-sealing plastic target material as backers. . . they make those that are reactive, just like steel.

  9. None of it is cover. It’s concealment.
    Sorry. Somebody was going to say it.

    As far as I’m concerned when I SO, if the shooter isn’t shootable from the target, they are behind cover. Whether they are standing at the starting position, moving to the next one, or back at the parking lot, if they have cover between them and the “live” targets, they are OK.

    But I’m usually so aggravated and distracted by people hugging cover that things like that don’t bother me.

Comments are closed.