The business of the shooting sports: United States Practical Shooting Association

Today in part 3 of our coverage of the business of the shooting sports, we look at the smaller (in terms of membership) of the two practical, pistol only shooting sports, the United States Practical Shooting Association. Part one covered general trends, and part two covered IDPA. A discussion of USPSA must be extension include a small discussion of the international version of the sport, IPSC, as well as a look at Steel Challenge, which is owned entirely by USPSA.

Less than a month ago, I took a hard look at USPSA and was concerned about the organization, because it appears that USPSA is losing shooters, sponsorship dollars, and media coverage to the current hot-rod sport, 3-Gun. But at the same time, participation in USPSA matches at the club, area, and national level is strong. MDs from local clubs I’ve talked to indicate they’re getting more shooters at their local matches, and a quick check of the various Area matches shows strong participation there as well. This all raises the question, what’s up with USPSA?

Unlike IDPA, it is organized as a 501c(3) not-for-profit corporation. The leadership is composed of an elected Board, an elected President, and non-elected administrative staff, the head of which is the Executive Director (ED). Since 2008, when we launched this site in its current form, USPSA has only had two presidents and two executive directors. The presidents have been Mike Voight and Phil Strader, the EDs have been Dave Thomas and Kim Williams. Phil and Kim are currently serving, and Phil has indicated he not seek re-election. It is an election year for USPSA, with multiple contenders vying for the role of USPSA President, which is voted upon by the members of the sport. Revenue for USPSA is generated via membership dues, club activity fees, sponsorship dollars, and advertising sales in Front Sight (their in house publication).

In the past two years, one of the biggest successes for USPSA has been the revitalization and salvation of the Revolver division and national championship. In 2013, the match was moved to the same location as Single Stack Nationals, and held back-to-back with SS Nats. In its first year, it attracted over 100 shooters to the one day format, a huge increase over the 20-and-change that attended the 2012 match. In 2014, the second year for the back to back format, it attracted over 100 shooters again, and filled to match capacity. The back to back classic Nationals have been an unequivocal success for USPSA.

What has not been a success has been the absolutely decimation of the Steel Challenge World Championships. In 2011, the match was held in Piru, CA for the last time. It attracted ~300 entrants, was held on a great facility, and generally had the feel of an important, World level championship. In 2012 and 2013, the match moved to Universal Shooting Academy in Frostproof, FL. Participation fell each year, to the point where the 2013 match had fewer than 100 individual entrants. For 2014, the match has been moved again, this time to Utah, the same range that hosted one of the Nationals last year and is home to the Area 1 championship. As of this writing, we are approximately 20 days from the match starting, and as of last count, there were 30-40 entries. That’s not good.

That brings us to the current state of USPSA. As an organization over the past five years, it has had a mixed bag of success and failure. Successes include growth at all the major National Championships, the fact that it alone of the pistol sports attracts the absolute top tier in shooting talent, and Revolver Nationals. Failures include Steel Challenge, and losing an opportunity to be a meaningful influence in the 3-Gun world despite having rules and hosting a multi-gun championship. Here’s a summary of the State of The Sport in USPSA’s own words, taken directly from their 2014 report to members:

Here’s A Look Back:

  • 2013 was the second year in a row that we entered more than 100,000 scores. A comparison to 20 years ago? In 1993, USPSA entered just a little over 66,000 in two divisions. Even just five years ago we only entered 88,000 in six divisions. That’s growth we can get behind. Perhaps in 2014 we can top 120,000.
  • We beat our 1998 record high of 400 active clubs. We’re currently right at 412 and have no intentions of slowing down.
  • Over 65 major matches were posted to the USPSA online calendar. From coast to coast and beyond, over 22,000 active members were busy throwing some serious lead downrange.
  • Nearly $400,000 in cash and prizes was awarded at our National Championships, to say nothing of our Area Championships. Our sponsors and partners continue to impress and amaze with their unprecedented support of our organization. Please continue to support those companies who so graciously support you.
  • We now have nearly 100,000 followers on Facebook – that’s from just a little over 14,000 in January, 2013. Everyone’s talking and we hope you’ll join the conversation.

Let’s take an hard look at those numbers for a second. 22,000 members is good, that’s excellent. However, the growth in “scores entered” and active clubs isn’t really that significant. If five years ago they entered 88,000 scores, and in 2013 entered 100,000, that’s only an increase of 2,400 scores (not shooters, scores) per year. Club growth is similar and shows a trend that everyone should be concerned about: churn. If in 1998, 16 years ago, there were 400 active clubs and now there are 412, that means there has been a net gain of 0.75 clubs per year. That’s either indicative of extremely slow growth, or considerable amounts of churn.

Now let’s shift topics a little bit, and talk about the sport itself. USPSA is absolutely the best pistol sport in terms of product. Unlike IDPA, I can go to any USPSA match in the country and expect that the rules will be enforced fairly, impartially, and exactly the same as they’d be enforced at a club on the other side of the country. While local club culture is a strong driver in stage design and match administration, it doesn’t affect how the rules are enforced. USPSA has done a fantastic job of instituting stability of rules and enforcement across the entire nation. Their matches are the most fun pistol matches to shoot, and outside of Bianchi Cup present the toughest challenges of marksmanship for pistol shooters as well.

What appears to be the greatest challenge for USPSA is an apparent lack of vision for the organization. When you compare it to the other organizations discussed this week, USPSA lacks a coherent marketing message; a message which should indicate its vision and direction. IDPA has that – “We are the shooter friendly sport for CCW.” 3-Gun has it: “We are the X Games of the shooting sports.” Even ICORE has a consistent and well expressed vision. But USPSA, which has the best product of the pistol sports, doesn’t. It’s an organization that experiences major successes and major failures simultaneous, that delivers the best product in the pistol sports and can’t express a vision for that product. USPSA is a lot like having a super hot but super crazy girlfriend, to draw a vulgar analogy. She’s great to look at, great in the sack, but she’s emotionally unstable.

When kicking around how USPSA should market itself, it occurs to us that USPSA should embrace the fact that its matches are tougher, it has more top tier competition, and in general its product is better. “We are the Formula 1 of gun games” would be a perfectly reasonable message, and stress that at the state and area level, it is perfectly possible in USPSA to do the equivalent of drive next to Lewis Hamilton. That would be a strong message that resonates both with USPSA shooters, and is perfectly understandable to people not involved in the sport already. Maybe change it to NASCAR for clubs in the south, but you get the idea.

Later this year, USPSA will host the IPSC World Shoot. As the sanctioning body for the US arm of IPSC, this will be either a huge feather in USPSA’s cap, or…well, you know the “or.” It’s being held at Frostproof, and will attract shooters from all over the world. There is a tremendous opportunity for USPSA to use the World Shoot to showcase the national and international talent that attends this match, to make a proper grand spectacle of the sport that looks, feels, and is special. It could go either way, and our hope is that it is a triumph for USPSA. We want the sport to be grand and exciting.

At the end of the day, USPSA seems to be an organization of contradictions. The best product, the worst marketing, brilliant match successes, incredible failures. Tremendous shooter participation and engagement, slow growth. USPSA, in an election year, with participation in the shooting sports on the rise across the board, may find itself at the crossroads.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at 3-Gun, and on Friday we’ll wrap up with NRA AP and ICORE.


  1. I think I agree with you. 3-Gun is the cool sport for the guys who are really in to gear. IDPA is for new CCW holders and for people who think a fishing vest is a reasonable cover garment. Who is USPSA for? What does it offer that 3-gun doesn’t?

    It’s harder to get into as a novice than IDPA because of the stage length and the gear requirements. Once you’re into it… you already have to spend a ton in gear & ammo, why not take the next step and go to 3-Gun? A lot of the guys locally who shoot USPSA are really just doing it to practice for 3-Gun.

    It’s sort of an interesting problem… Personally, I’d be very tempted to drop the round count per stage (maybe to just enough to require a reload in all divisions) to make it more accessible. Try to go more head to head with IDPA than 3-Gun. I dunno, though, I’m not even classified yet.

    1. “Who is USPSA for? What does it offer that 3-gun doesn’t?”

      Club level shooters who can actually shoot descent with a pistol. *ducks*

  2. Personally, I find that USPSA needs to market itself as the shooting competition that is internationally recognized, offers a chance to shoot with the best of the best, and do so without ridiculous rules about flat footed reloading and “retention” reloads. “We’re smart enough, we’re good enough, and gosh darn it, people like us! Also you could go overseas to shoot in the IPSC World Shoot if you clean up over here.” Also, better prizes, but hey, just go to Nats.

    They could also emphasize that most of their matches are “concealment friendly” and steal some of IDPA’s bragging rights. If they had a “concealed” division, they’d probably be able to fill entire dumpsters with discarded fishing vests.

    The reason people like Jerry Miculek ran off to 3 gun is that he discovered that somebody with exceptional talent with a handgun will count more for you than if you were mediocre at everything. Thus, Jerry collects the fat stacks of prize money in 3 gun now. If Ben Stoeger, Bob Vogel, Dave Sevigny or Eric Grauffel took a 4 hour class about shooting shotgun and a weekend rifle course, they’d probably be able to go over to a 3 gun match and bootywhip everybody there based on pistol skill alone.

    1. Ben, Bob, Dave, and Eric would do well at any shooting sport they took up because they would practice all of it. You can’t do well at 3gun unless you can load a shotgun and shoot long range rifle.

  3. Caleb, that was a good, and fair overview of USPSA. It could have been a lot shorter. Great product, lousy advertising. I am going to work and shoot the IPSC world shoot this year and possibly the USPSA Nats. It is pretty cool that USPSA is going to structure Nats like the world shoot to try and prepare our shooters. Now if they would just tell everyone about it!

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