Tactical vs. Competition? There’s no controversy

The topic of competition shooting as a vector for all manner of ills that will get you killed has been popping up in various places of late, and I have to confess it’s an argument that I find completely ridiculous. Pose the question and somebody is inevitably going to show up and tell you that competition will get you killed. Like, perhaps, this:

Am I picking on the two guys from PDN there? Kinda. The topic is competition and yet we get an immediate segway into an account of a police officer in a scenario who is panicked and making poor decisions under stress. Now I have no doubt that scenario played out as quoted because I’ve seen people melt down in scenario training, too. It is inappropriate, however, to blame that on competition shooting. Did the panicked police officer learn never to pick up magazines from anywhere? Perhaps he was just, you know, freaking out and not thinking logically under pressure. If he did learn it somewhere, I’d imagine he picked it up from a police range (Google the Newhall Massacre for information on how police range procedures can show up in a gunfight) because police ranges are some of the most irrational places on earth. Officers who are required to patrol with loaded firearms have to show up at some police ranges and immediately clear their weapons because the leadership of their department freak out at the prospect of their own officers handling loaded firearms. Perhaps this is because the department realizes how poorly they’re training the officers….but that’s a rant for another day.

Today I want to focus on the question of whether or not shooting competition is going to cause you to die screaming if you ever need to use a gun for the purposes of self defense. The short version is of course not. Invariably that answer will be challenged by somebody who is super-duper TACTICAL!!!! so let’s take a little stroll back through history.

From the IPSC.org page, a photo of the Columbia Conference. See if you can name some of the "Gamers" in this picture.
From the IPSC.org page, a photo of the Columbia Conference. See if you can name some of the “Gamers” in this picture.

That picture is a photograph of the “Columbia Conference”, which may mean very little to the average person but it was basically the foundation of the International Practical Shooting Confederation, probably better known today as IPSC. You may not recognize some of the faces in that picture, but you probably will recognize some of the names. Jeff Cooper. Ken Hackathorn. Mike Harries. There were no sponsorships. There were no multicolored jerseys, no company banners, no red dot sights and compensators. Just a group of serious shooters (including the father of modern pistolcraft) who were keenly interested in improving their skills. Competition shooting, of course, didn’t start with IPSC. IPSC was an attempt to put some structure around something that had been going on for more than a decade before. Col. Cooper started out doing “leather slap” competitions sometime in the 1950’s, in which the object was to draw and make a hit on a target at 7 yards as fast as possible.

Yeah, you heard me…Col. Cooper was a gamer. Col. Cooper and those shooting with him pretty quickly came to the conclusion that point shooting had serious limitations in terms of reliably hitting a target at more than a few feet. That led to new techniques like actually using the sights for a “flash” sight picture. Look at a Colt 1911 of the day and you’ll notice the vestigial nature of the sights. Look at one of Col. Cooper’s customized 1911’s and you’ll notice sights that are bigger and much easier to pick up at speed, aiding in placing a shot accurately in a hurry.

That’s the important bit…placing a shot accurately in a hurry. See, it turns out that being able to place a bullet exactly where you want it as quickly as possible is a pretty useful combat skill. People like Col. Cooper and Ken Hackathorn figured out that competition, when used properly, helped to develop that skill. Jim Cirillo, who survived 20 gunfights during his time on NYPD’s famed Staekout Squad, wrote in his book that one of the factors which predicted good results in a gunfight was a track record of being able to perform in competitions. Mr. Cirillo himself had been shooting competitively for years prior to getting assigned to the Stakeout Squad. Oh yes, Virginia, the man many called a modern day Bill Hickock was a gamer before he started putting bullets into bad guys. Delf “Jelly” Bryce of FBI fame? Also a competition shooter.

Starting to notice a pattern, here? Competition shooting didn’t arrive like a bunch of invading Orcs marching from Mordor on an endless quest to spoil our TACTICAL!!!! and get us all killed in gunfights. It has been used all the way back to the days when English peasant conscripts were shooting in archery competitions with their longbows as a means of sharpening important combat skills. Placing something on the line, whether it’s money or fame or a trophy or just plain ol’ pride, and then making people compete against each other tends to sharpen their skills and provide stress innoculation. When you’re shooting someone else’s program in front of an audience and being measured by a timer, it can be stressful. It is by no means gunfight stress, but it’s stressful enough that it impacts your ability to perform and to think. Robb Leatham is widely regarded as one of the coolest customers to ever step up to the line in a match, and yet I distinctly remember a video clip of him in a competition going prone during a stage…only he hadn’t planned on going prone when he walked through the stage earlier. It was easy to tell because after the stage ended he remarked to himself “…and WHY did I go prone?”

To do well in competition you have to learn to tune out the stress and focus on what you need to do. You have to be able to think on your feet, solving problems that crop up with your gear or with a target’s placement or a swinger’s unlucky swing. This isn’t exactly like problem solving when the bullets are going both ways, but show me someone who has never been exposed to the stress of competition in some fashion or another and I’ll show you somebody who probably won’t be able to hack it in the real thing, either. That’s what Jim Cirillo was getting at with his assesment of competition shooting. The best guys in the Stakeout Squad were all competition shooters or hunters…people who had experience making quick judgment and pulling the trigger when the adrenaline was flowing that proved useful when the stakes were much higher.

Have you ever noticed how no one ever says that competing in a BJJ tournament will get you killed on the street? That’s because it would be pitifully easy for an accomplished BJJ competitor to take the guy who said that and turn him into a pretzel in a matter of seconds. See, the Brazilian Ju-Jitsu competitor has had to learn grappling skills and has had to apply them at speed and at full force against someone else who is trying just as hard to do the exact same thing. He’s likely had his game plan trashed by circumstances and has had to figure out what to do when in a disadvantaged position. He’s sharpening his skills and his ability to manage stress using the crucible of competition…but replace BJJ with a handgun and everything changes? Nonsense.

Every piece of gear and technique seen in competition isn’t useful for the street, certainly. That’s not the point. If used properly the way that Col. Cooper did it, competition lets you explore the limits of your skill and your equipment. …and that’s really the crux of why competition gets such a bad rap. There are a lot of people out there who have absolutely no interest in exploring their limitations or the limitations of their equipment. They want to construct an alternate reality under which TACTICAL!!! is magic fairy dust that can be sprinkled over their inadequacies. Example:

I’m sure those folks felt all kinds of TACTICAL!!!! when they were performing their ridiculous ballet of safety violations, but look at the gun handling in the video. Look at where their hits are going. Look at how they are performing basic manipulations with the weapon. When they try to perform basic weapon manipulations it looks about as graceful as a monkey making love to a football. Their “instructors” probably spent all the time in the course talking about the pointless ballet moves (like dropping to the ground fast enough to not get shot by the guy behind you who is going to blaze at the target) and very little time working on stuff like, you know, hitting the target. I’m sure the instructors would yell all sorts of stuff about TACTICAL!!!! and WARRIORCOMBATALPHASHEEPDOG but the bottom line is that their students have a pitiful level of skill. You know what would make that glaringly obvious? Showing up at a competition and watching a retired lady in her 50’s clean your proverbial clock by, you know, hitting the target.

Bill Rogers and Ken Hackathorn. Both have used competition to sharpen their skills...both have taught thousands of good guys who went on to shoot lots of bad guys. Epic facial hair not required, but it helps.
Bill Rogers and Ken Hackathorn. Both have used competition to sharpen their skills…both have taught thousands of good guys who went on to shoot lots of bad guys. Epic facial hair not required, but it helps.

There is more to using a firearm for self defense than shooing skill. No sane person argues otherwise. When it comes to actually stopping a threat, however, the ability to put a bullet where it needs to go is kind of important. Having developed a high level of shooting skill and put yourself in situations where you’ve had to deliver to someone else’s standard under some level of stress means you are better prepared for the moment than you otherwise would be. It’s not the same as force on force training, but it is considerably better than what most people get for stress innoculation…which is nothing.

You can take your carry gun and find a way to compete. You don’t have to wear a silly jersey. You don’t have to mount 19 pounds of extraneous gadgetry to your pistol. You don’t even have to win. If you’re doing it right…doing it like those guys from the Columbia Conference…you’re measuring your skill, testing your limits, and improving your ability to deliver under pressure. Now that really is tactical.

Everybody from Jeff Cooper to the guys who hunted Osama Bin Laden have used or benefitted from skill development that took place in the competition realm. Somebody who tells you competition is useless or counterproductive is either ignorant or has such a severe case of cranial-rectal inversion that the lump in their throat is their own nose.

Want to improve your skill? There’s no quicker shortcut than going to a competition and putting your ego on the line. Want to just feel awesome about yourself? Watch those carbine DVD’s for the umpteenth time while eating Cheetos, then look in the mirror and say “I’m good enough, I’m tactical enough, and by gum my enemies fear me!” Then argue on the internet about how there’s no timers in gunfights. I’m sure that’ll work.