One of the most common arguments among shooting sports enthusiasts is “who is better, IDPA shooters or USPSA shooters?” It’s a popular argument, because shockingly enough people that shoot competition seriously tend to be competitive. Generally speaking, USPSA matches tend to offer tougher shooting challenges to their shooters than IDPA matches, however the IDPA scoring system places a higher premium on accuracy in a given stage. To really analyze “who’s better” there are three important metrics to compare: classification systems, match performance, and directly related to match performance is depth of the match field.
First, let’s look at each sport’s classification system. Here are the various classifications in order from least skilled to most skilled:
- Novice – (anyone who shoots the classifier and fails to make at least Marksman is classified as Novice)
- Distinguished Master – (only persons who win a National Championship or finish with 3% of the winner earn this title)
- D class: 39.9% or less (anyone who fails to shoot C-class classifiers is automatically D-class)
- C-class: 40-59.9%
- B-class: 60-74.9
- A-class: 75.84.9%
- Master: 85 – 94.9%
- Grand Master: 95-100%
How USPSA and IDPA decide a shooter’s classification is different, and that’s important. IDPA uses a single classifier match, a 90 round course of fire consisting of three stages. Your score on the classifier determines your classification. Shooters who win their class/division at major matches can also be bumped to the next higher class, assuming that certain participation numbers are met.
USPSA determines your class by taking a running average of your scores on the sanctioned USPSA classifier stages, which are usually inserted into club matches as a single stage. You National Percent on an individual classifier is your hit factor (points per second) taken as a percentage of the “high hit factor” on that given stage. USPSA then takes an average of your most recent classifier scores, which determines your classification. Certain scores are dropped if they’re too low or too old.
To the uninitiated then it would appear that the ranks are roughly equal, right? Novice = D class, Marksman = C-class, etc. Unfortunately, experienced has proved that to not be the case. In generally, a mid-to-high level B-class shooter in USPSA would have a reasonable expectation of shooting the IDPA classifier and making Master. I made IDPA Master in all five divisions, and when I finally got classified in USPSA, I made it right in the middle of B-class. Now, where this argument usually goes off the rails on forums is that people make the assumption that because a B-class USPSA shooter should be able to make IDPA Master, that an A-class or higher USPSA shooter is automatically better than an IDPA Master.
The problem with that is that it fails to account for something that USPSA does fairly well with the classification system, which is filter shooters into tighter bands of ability. Looking at that B-class shooter for a moment – he or she has a very good handle of the fundamentals of marksmanship, understands manipulations, and generally knows how to shoot pretty well. USPSA will then take that skills and break it down into those increasingly smaller bands of talent with their A-GM classifications, where IDPA simply says “Master class.” What that leads to is a wild disparity of talent within IDPA’s Master class. Take a look at the scores from the 2013 IDPA Nationals, where the top Master in ESP finished with a time of 241.85. Compared to the bottom Master, who finished with a 358.72. That’s a difference of 116 seconds. To put it in USPSA terms, it would be like a GM shooting 48% of the winner at a major match. Comparatively, the last place Grandmaster at the 2013 Production Nationals finished 62% of the winner. Of course, drawing two single data points doesn’t really prove or disprove anything, as USPSA has a similar problem at the top end of shooters; there are obvious tiers of Grandmaster shooters within the classification.
IDPA attempted to address the issue of clutter in the top band of shooters by creating the Distinguished Master classification. As mentioned above, to become a DM a shooter must win a National/World Championship, or finish within 3% of the winner. There are currently 18 shooters in all of IDPA classified as Distinguished Masters, and of those 18 at least 50% are also USPSA Grandmasters.
From looking at the classification systems, we can draw two very simple conclusions. The 1st is that USPSA does a better job of stratifying its shooters according to skill level than IDPA. While the USPSA classification system isn’t perfect, there is at least in theory less clutter at the top end of it than in IDPA. The second conclusion is that a shooter who is an IDPA Master could fall anywhere on a fairly large scale of talent.
Both of those conclusions lead to the importance of match performance and depth of field to answer this question. We’ll look at that in part two, which will go up tomorrow.