Excellence vs. Competence

The other day I read an article on the Firearm User Network discussing an Army white-paper that contained a comparison of the error rates between snipers and upper teir High Power and Long Range competition shooters. The research found that the snipers tended to miss more than the High Power or Long Range competitors. This really shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone.

If someone invests considerable time, effort, and attention into developing a particular skillset, odds are that they will achieve a relatively advanced level of skill that will surpass those who have not made the same investment. This seems logical enough…and yet when we apply that relatively benign statement to guns suddenly people begin to exhibit completely irrational behavior.

Accurate use of a firearm requires devevlopment of a particular set of skills. As it is with most other pursuits, those who invest the most time, effort, and attention into developing these skills will usually be better than those who do not. Generally the people who invest the most time, effort, and attention into developing skills with firearms are (surprise!) firearms enthusiasts. The guy who loves to shoot and loves to compete will probably develop a much higher level of skill than the person who is issued a firearm as a part of their job that doesn’t have the same interest. The guy who dedicates a significant chunk of his free time to being on the range, drilling to improve his skills, and working towards achieving that next level will almost always be better at those skills than your average armed professional. Often they’ll even be better than your exceptionally skilled armed professional. The enthusiast who exposes himself/herself to a wider world of skill is usually better at assessing their skill level than many in armed professions who can easily become complacent by measurement against peers.

A recently retired friend of mine was one of the better shooters in his police department, and had done well at a number of law enforcement training events and qualifications, including SWAT schools and the like. In his peer group, he was pretty good. When I got him a slot in a class with some folks outside his peer group, however, his understanding of what skill with a handgun was changed dramatically. A relatively small group of enthusiasts exhibited skill that was well above anything he’d ever encountered in uniform up to that point. He told me that even the best law enforcement shooters he knew of would struggle to try and keep up with some of the poorer performers in that small group. It’s not surprising…because the enthusiasts were pursuing excellence, and most of the law enforcement world is focused on competence.

The same is true of the comparison between snipers and competition shooters. Actually taking the shot is a pretty important part of the sniper’s job, but it’s not the whole of the sniper’s job. A basic sniper school is not several weeks of shooting. It teaches a whole host of things that the sniper has to be competent at before they are useful in the field. If a 12 week school was nothing but 10 hours a day, 7 days a week of dedicated focus on developing a superior level of shooting skill it would doubtless produce some superb shooters. If, however, those shooters can’t navigate to an objective or properly camouflage themselves at the objective then they’re functionally useless. The goal of a sniper school isn’t to produce the best shooter on planet earth. It’s to crank out snipers. Training people to a level sufficient to allow them to do the job we need snipers to do.

When I see discussions about skill there seems to be little appreciation for the relevance of excellence and competence to the conversation. The enthusiasts often harumph armed professions because they don’t persue excellence in the same narrow skillset that the enthusiast thinks is important. The armed pfofessions camp often dismisses the skill and achievements of the enthusiasts because they lack competence in other important areas. There’s often more than a little ego involved in the mix as well, contributing to a whole lot of people just talking past one another.

As an example, look at the Hackathorn Standards. To most, shooting a good score on the Hackathorn Standards is a tall order. To a very select few enthusiasts, it’s a breeze. I’ve actually seen people complaining that the Hackathorn Standards are too easy…but that misses the point. The point of the Hackathorn Standards, at least according to Mr. Hackathorn, was never to crown the best pistol shooter in the world. It was designed to help a group of armed professionals judge whether or not a trainee met the level of competence needed to carry out the missions of that unit. Based on years of experience training people all over the world, Mr. Hackathorn came up with that course of fire as a way of giving a go/no go assessment of someone’s handgun skill for the sorts of things armed professionals have to do when it comes time to pull the trigger.

This is important because there’s more to being in an elite unit than shooting a handgun. There’s CQB training, escape and evasion training, communications and coordination training, field medicine and trauma response training, explosive breeching training, clandestine infiltration training, ropes and climbing training…and the list could continue for hours. There is no shortage of areas where the armed professional needs to be competent. With limited time and resources and a wide range of things they must be prepared to deal with on a mission, it would be stupid to require that every member of an elite law enforcement or military unit has to be sufficiently skilled to smoke Bob Vogel at the next championship match. If the individual armed professional wants to develop that particular skillset to the highest possible level on his own time, that’s fantastic and it will contribute to the success of his unit/agency. Excellence in one or two areas is wonderful to have, but competence in a number of areas is absolutely necessary and perfection in one or two areas cannot be pursued to the exclusion of sufficiency in other important areas.

On the flip side of the coin, I often see armed professionals who can’t bring themselves to admit that they’re competent…not excellent…at something. Like the friend I mentioned earlier, they may well be among the best of their peers at a particular skill, but once outside the universe they are accustomed to (no matter how elite it is) sooner or later they’ll come across someone who has a higher level of skill. Sometimes the reaction is learning and adaptation, incorporating new ideas and techniques to improve performance. Sometimes the reaction is deciding that good enough is really probably good enough and continuing to do things the way they’ve always done them. (A perfectly rational decision if done for the right reasons.) Every now and then, though, ego gets involved and it turns into dismissing a higher level of skill, often by pointing to areas of competence that the person with the higher level of skill doesn’t have.

Skill with a handgun/carbine/shotgun/bolt action/whatever is skill. Period. Returning to the white paper that generated this line of thought, if a sniper looks at a civilian High Power competitor who just beat him on a string of fire and sneers because that civilian doesn’t have competence in camouflage or escape and evasion, it’s pretty silly. Take the ego out of it and the sniper might ask the civilian for some pointers and might get some useful input that would help his performance.

Confusing competence and excellnce can happen as a result of totally benign ideas, but most often when I see it ego is heavily involved. The guy over there who shoots X% lower than me sucks and is incompetent, but the guy over here who shoots Y% better than me is a gamer and his stuff would never work in the real world. Or the guy over there that shoots X% worse than me is a total n00b and a “Tactical Timmy” who doesn’t know spit even if, in reality, the dude has actually won some gunfights and has an indisputable track record of preparing others to win gunfights.

It’s nonsense.

We can avoid this problem by taking the time to rationally assess our goals and to intelligently construct a path to achieving them. If my goal is self defense, I need competence in a number of different areas. Pursuing excellence in one or two of those areas would probably serve me well, but isn’t strictly necessary for my situation. If my goal is to win the next USPSA or IPSC championship, I need excellence in my shooting and manipulation skills. If I devote all my time and energy to those pursits, however, I shouldn’t allow myself to think that I have a good grasp on the dynamics of violence on the street because my reload times from my competition gear are amazing.

Don’t confuse competence and excellence, or misconstrue the significance of pursuing either one. Both have their place and dismissing one or the other doesn’t contribute anything useful to you.



  1. Nice write up. The only thing “shocking” about this revelation is the number of people that refuse to believe such simple, obvious facts.

    I recommend seeking advice from the demonstrated leaders in a given field. Need to get stronger? Ask a competitive powerlifter. Faster? Look for a track and field champ. A current or former spec ops trooper might be more fit than an average soldier but likely didn’t aspire to the highest level of excellence in fitness as an actual champion has. Shooting is no different.

    Other write ups along this line:


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