Why bullseye is the most popular pistol shooting sport

If I asked you, dear reader, what you thought the most popular pistol-based shooting sport in America was based on participation, what would you say? IDPA? USPSA? GSSF? Well, if you picked any of those, you’d be dead wrong, because the answer is bullseye.

Colt National Match Cold Cup Series 70
Colt National Match Cold Cup Series 70

Yep, good old fashioned boring bullseye. Why is that? Is just because of tradition? Or is there something more to the fact that the Camp Perry Nationals had over 600 shooters last year?

There are actually two directions I kind of want to go with this post, the first thought I had for it would be a mild rebuke to action pistol shooters who seem to think that USPSA/IDPA is the center of the universe, when in reality no one really cares. The second, and what I’m going to focus on though is why bullseye continues to be successful, because when you look at their “secret” it’s actually quite ingenious.

1. Simplicity
Bullseye pistol has a simple formula, and the first documented historical match is when two Jean-Pierre challenged Jaques to a hand-cannon accuracy contest to see who could hit the largest tree in the village with their new pistolets. Much like track and field or weightlifting, the secret to bullseye’s long continued success is its simplicity. The 100 meter dash is simple: run the fastest. Weightlifting is simple: lift the heaviest. Bullseye is simple: be the most accurate. Over the years, all three of these sports have evolved special gear and rules to ensure good competition, but the fundamental concept of how to win at any of these games is something that small children can grasp and practice on their own.

2. Recruitment
Quick, make a list of all the gear you need to get a junior shooter involved in action shooting. At the very minimum you need: gun, belt, holster, magazines, and mag pouches. Now here’s the list of everything you need to get a junior started in bullseye: A Ruger MkIII and a spare magazine. Obviously I’m not counting eyepro and earpro here, and yes the rabbit hole for bullseye equipment goes every bit as deep and expensive as any other sport at the top level, but I’m talking about newbies here. It’s really easy to get guns and gear squared away for a bullseye match. Some high schools have pistol teams, and 4H clubs often have air pistol teams as well, which serve as great feeders for the next item.

3. College
The Ohio State Buckeyes have a varsity pistol team. So do all the service academies, including the Coast Guard Academy, where I got my start in bullseye.

A USCGA cadet aims her free pistol
A USCGA cadet aims her free pistol

The college aspect is important, because it creates a passionate base of talented, younger participants in the sport who will likely carry their passion through adult life. Unlike football players, if you’re a talented collegiate pistol shooter, you can continue to practice your sport at a very high level for the rest of your life, even if you have a regular job as well. That is actually an important factor in guaranteeing future participation. It’s pretty cool to be able to say you were a varsity athlete in college…for shooting.

4. The military
The military really cares about Camp Perry. A lot. Actually, I’m not going to go into this too much because I want to write an entirely separate post about it, but suffice to say that every single branch of the service sends a team to Camp Perry, and some even send multiple teams.

5. The Olympics
You can shoot bullseye at the Olympics. That’s a hell of a thing for a 19 year old Buckeye to aspire to. You will never be able to shoot IPSC at the Olympics, no matter what Vince Pinto says.

There’s a lot more meat to really get into this post, I could write multiple posts about how bullseye and the NRA specifically have created great feeder systems that consistently bring fresh talent and new shooters into the sport of bullseye, without the sort of hand-wringing you see from other pistol games about “how do we get juniors/girls to play?” Yes, part of that is tradition, because bullseye has been around forever and is an established sport, but a huge part of it that bullseye is quite simple, still manages to be fun, and you could even go to the Olympics.


  1. All of these are excellent points. I think that something else that goes into this is that most people when they go out and shoot recreationally, they are usually practicing bullseye shooting. Most people at a public range have a bullseye target, at a known distance, and they carefully take their time to try and hit the bullseye. They judge how well they are doing based on how many hit the bullseye.

    Basically the natural practice of shooting for fun that most people do, is really just bullseye shooting. It would make sense that when people want to compete, that is what they naturally go towards. The speed and relatively coarse accuracy requirements of IDPA, USPSA and Steel Challenge are an entirely different shooting paradigm then people are used to. I’m almost always the only shooter on the range using a timer, and the only thing close to speed shooting I see other people practice on the range is controlled pairs (I don’t consider blazing away with a bump fire stock to be serious rapid fire practice so I have ignored that obvious exception).

    A few universities are now shooting a sport called SPP which is basically steel challenge with different stages, but it is only club level (fortunately I go to a school with a team). I hope that it can grow and bring action shooting sports with it.

    Unfortunately I’m spoiled from USPSA and shooting bullseye no longer excites me.

    1. The Scholastic Steel Challenge program had a lot of potential but has been really catastrophically mismanaged from the get-go.

    2. There are often legal restrictions. No range “I” can afford even permits a holster (New Jersey) on range.

      1. Do not confuse the club’s private rulebook with statute.

        In SE PA, you have to go out to the greater Lancaster area to find clubs that don’t believe in having huge tomes of rules; All the ones closer to Philly are just too bureaucratic.

        1. SEPA is still PA. I live in the Peoples Republic of N.J.! The one “private” range I belonged to did not permit holsters nor magazine feed in long guns. PERIOD! you were allowed to fire 5 rounds through a mag ONCE to test function. And that was in the 1980’s. No public range indoor or outdoor allows holster carry. That’s what they ALL tell me.

  2. Where are you getting the info on the number of unique competitors in bullseye? IPSC (USPSA) and IDPA make it somewhat easier because you can look at the number of members, which is obviously lower than the number of unique competitors because local matches often don’t require membership, but I’m not aware of any similar tracking system for bullseye competitors that shows that there are more than IPSC or IDPA.

  3. The number of competitors in bullseye can be approximated by looking at how many NRA members hold current classifications and how many are registered with the CMP. Membership numbers in USPSA can be very misleading; at my club’s monthly matches we have about 1/3 to 1/2 of our shooters that are not members, many of them shoot on a regular basis.

    As one of the rare ducks that shoots both disciplines, I can tell you that bullseye shooters are very concerned that they are, as a group, getting older and there aren’t enough younger shooters. Caleb has some very good points however. I was a smallbore rifle shooter in college and occasionally shot bullseye. Today, at age 61, I regularly shoot bullseye, USPSA and sporting clays. It can truly be a lifetime sport.

  4. Caleb, I agree that bullseye is the most popular sport.

    It can be practiced on nearly every range that allows shooting.
    You can compete by mail because there is standardization.
    It is easily understood by even the most casual observer.
    Getting a bulls eye by chance is fun and doing it consistently is the addictive quality.
    Physical disabilities are mostly not a factor.
    The newest shooter can try it.

    As for the most accessible at all levels I would specifically say 10m air pistol. From the youngest junior to the highest international level air rifle is it.


  5. Recreational, casual bullseye shooting may be popular but competitive Bullseye shooting as we know it is fading. By 2030 it may not even exist.

    Majority of the shooters are seniors and grand seniors. Check out Shooting Sports USA November 2014 edition. Dennis Willing, Director of NRA Competitive Shooting Division writes that the future of Bullseye is grim.

    Junior Pistol Camp at Camp Perry has not been conducted for the past three years because of insufficient attendance. 86% of the competitors at Camp Perry were Seniors and Grand seniors–thats 552 of 641 competitors. The remaining number had only 29 juniors!

    1. Many bullseye shooters would say USPSA is boring because you spend too much time standing around waiting for someone else to shoot. In an Outdoor 2700 match, you shoot 3 different guns with 90 rounds apiece. When was the last time you shoot 270 rounds in your average monthly USPSA club match?

      1. “When was the last time you shoot 270 rounds in your average monthly USPSA club match?”

        When the match director busted out the polish plate rack.

  6. You forget one last reason for bullseye. Health. Even a gimp like me can shoot bullseye. I would need traction after an action shooting event even assuming I could finish.

  7. I like Bullseye. However, the issue I have with it is the course of fire. 20 minutes to fire 20 rounds? It drives someone like me with ADHD nuts. What I like is that it emphasizes the basics, Sight picture, trigger control, breathing and follow though. Where it goads me beyond comprehension is the long wait in courses of fire.

    1. International Slow Fire is 60 rounds in 120 minutes. Same for International Air Pistol. Yet the time seems to fly when you are having that much fun.

  8. I was an avid bullseye shooter until I moved to central Nebraska. Not a bullseye club or competition without driving 5 hours. Now I live in Western Colorado and it even worse. Most clubs do not want to commit to setting up a bullseye course (turning targets etc). Compounding that is most bullseye shooters are getting old and young people feel out of place. Sorry, but its a dying sport, unfortunately.

    1. It’s in eclipse today because school shooting teams were out of vogue for several decades. There was a time where most schools in this country had ranges and shooting teams; Today, I’m not aware of any schools in my area that have shooting teams, much less ones that practice and/or compete on school grounds. Still, the pendulum is swinging back the other way, and we’re likely to see a steady increase in the number of school shooting teams over the next few decades.

      For a variety of reasons, bullseye shooting is ideal for this demographic, and the decline in it’s apparent popularity is thus likely due to the decline in the prevalence of school shooting teams; Those who shoot bullseye today likely got their start in the sport either through direct exposure to it in school, or through friends who were so exposed.

      Thus it’s conceivable that competitive bullseye shooting will see an increase in popularity. Then again, today’s young shooters were all raised on modern FPS games, so most of them are likely to gravitate towards more modern gungames when on their own time, and when given the choice.

  9. What part of Olympic competition is Bullseye? Air pistol? Free pistol? International Rapid Fire? Standard pistol? Centerfire? I shot both International/Olympic (multiple Expert classifications) and Bullseye (Distinguished). They are very different.

    1. You know exactly what I mean when I use the term bullseye as a catch all; so you’re just being a pedantic twat at this point.

      Also, only Expert? Lol.

  10. And don’t forget us old farts, too old to run around shooting, but we can stand and punch paper all day, well, most of the day, with breaks every now and then 🙂

  11. Late to commenting here, but I was really hoping that Caleb would actually try to defend the title of this post with some evidence. It is a really interesting point, if defensible. But other commenters, especially Andy, offer suggestive counter-points. So, is bullseye more popular than action shooting disciplines whose participants Caleb wants to rebuke? And even if so FOR NOW, what about the unfavorable age distribution of participants?

    I don’t have a dog in the fight either way, but when you make a bold empirical claim you ought to at least back it up.

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