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How action shooting sports can help law enforcement

You will understand your capabilities and limitations while tackling shooting scenarios that are unwieldy or impossible to replicate at your department training

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This isn’t a replacement for all firearms training; it’s an addition.

Photo/Michael Cavanaugh

By Michael A. Cavanaugh

Even the best-intentioned and most proactive departments face an unavoidable problem: Even when we want to train our officers, there’s only so much time available.

Between scheduling, staffing shortages and increasing responsibilities, finding time to train is becoming harder and harder. When we do manage to train on firearms at an agency level, it’s typically infrequent, using large blocks of time to simplify scheduling.

We know now that skills-based learning is best done in small, frequent, focused bursts. When we look at the greats in any specialty, they don’t get there from standard training – they make it part of their life. If you want to see serious improvements in your shooting and weapons handling, action shooting sports are worth your time.

Action shooting brings benefits

There are as many styles of competitive shooting as there are martial arts. Like their hand-to-hand counterparts, they range from practical to pure art form.

If you want to shoot for the enjoyment of shooting, there are matches like cowboy action or bull’s-eye (the tai chi of shooting). If you’re looking to bolster the most pertinent skills to defensive shooting, then your aim should be on action shooting sports. Specifically, I’m talking about the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA), International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) and three-gun/two-gun/multigun (which I’ll just refer to as multigun) shooting. USPSA, founded in 1976, and IDPA, circa 1996, are national organizations with participating clubs across the country. If you have a paved road by your house, odds are you have a USPSA or IDPA club within an hour’s drive.

Both organizations focus on handguns, although USPSA has added some multigun matches to its calendar. Multigun is less organized and acts as a catchall term for matches that incorporate handgun, semiautomatic rifle and shotgun. Currently there isn’t a strong national organization, though many clubs have banded together to create regional groups. Rules and equipment requirements vary.

Although each organization and event (“match”) will have its own flair, the basic structure is the same: Shooters are grouped into small squads that cycle through several courses of fire, called “stages.” Competitors shoot one at a time under the direct supervision of a range officer, who watches for safety/rule violations and keeps track of your time to complete the stage.

Each stage is unique; some may be very quick with little or no movement, some much longer with obstacles to manage.

Generally, the way you decide to shoot a stage is up to you. What targets to shoot from what position, when to reload, whether to shoot from a static position or while moving – all decisions you make so long as they’re within the rules. After they complete the stage, a shooter’s performance is scored by some combination of time and accuracy of hits (“score”). The exact method of scoring varies by organization.

What they all have in common is they are timed, scored, three-dimensional matches that will force you to move quickly, shoot accurately, adapt to changing circumstances and keep your cool while doing it. Targets will be numerous and varied – partial targets, moving targets, targets at different heights and a few no-shoots (aka “hostages”). You’ll need to navigate around walls, terrain and some interesting obstacles while maintaining muzzle discipline and thinking clearly. At the end of the day, the person who records the most accurate hits the fastest wins.

What are officers’ reservations?

There are things USPSA or IDPA won’t prepare you for, namely tactics. But when it comes to actually putting shots on target, under pressure, as fast as possible on realistically sized target areas, it’s hard to find anything better. I’ve been fortunate to meet several other police officers on the local shooting circuit. We all see the value of testing our skills and the reinforcement of good shooting habits. We also share similar stories of trying unsuccessfully to get coworkers to join us.

So what keeps more cops from attending these matches? Sometimes it’s personal schedules, understandably. Sometimes it’s ego. Nothing rocks the world view of a top shot in the department like getting smoked by some accountant wearing calf-high white socks (I can personally attest). Mostly what I hear from coworkers is misconceptions about what action shooting is and what it claims to be. Sometimes they come from a place of innocent ignorance and sometimes from bad outside information. I’ve read articles in police magazines that cautioned against competitive shooting, and the reasons they gave were clearly misinformed. So, let’s address some of the misconceptions.

Myth 1: “Competition shooting is about speed above all else.”

USPSA, IDPA and multigun all use a combination of time mixed with target scores to determine your ranking. USPSA uses a points-divided-by-time system it calls “hit factor.” IDPA and multigun use an easier-to-understand “time plus” scoring where the lowest stage time wins. Hits outside the A zone add time to your run, between 1-15 seconds, depending on how badly you did. Good hits in the A zone (smaller than a sheet of paper) are what everyone is looking to achieve. Accuracy with urgency is the name of the game. This isn’t a spray-and-pray sport; it only looks like it if you’re not used to seeing people shoot and move as quickly and accurately as these shooters do.

Myth 2: “You use ‘race guns’ that aren’t for duty use.”

If you look at the history of competitive shooting and duty gear, you’ll see a lot of the same things, separated by a decade and now painted black or FDE instead of candy apple red. I remember when everyone said pistol-mounted red dots were only for “race guns.” Future gear aside, action shooting competitors are separated into divisions based on equipment. You could compete in an “open” division using a $6,000 race gun, operating on the razor’s edge of reliability. Or you can enter the “production” division and shoot your standard factory Glock. I still shoot a mostly stock Glock 17 with a Safariland ALS holster like my duty gear. In fact, all these sports have specific exemptions for LEs to use their duty equipment even if it technically violates some of the equipment rules. There’s a division for you, no matter what gun you bring.

Myth 3: “It’s not realistic. You get to do a walk-through to plan your run.”

True, you do get to plan out how you’re going to shoot the stage. Is that so much worse than standard LE firearms training, where everyone stands at an exact yard line and shoots an exact number of rounds at a fully exposed silhouette directly in front of them? Your mental rehearsal before shooting a stage only takes you so far. As any competitor will tell you, things change quickly. One missed shot, one overstep, a swinging target that moves a little off-beat, and suddenly you’re scrambling to get back on course.

Is mental rehearsal such a bad thing anyway? During field training, I was encouraged to do mental rehearsal for calls I would respond to. It established clear goals and mental shortcuts when faced with situations for real. The actual call rarely plays out exactly how you imagined, but the preplanning still pays off by making the small tasks even easier and letting your brain focus on dynamic and fluid problems. So is competitive shooting “realistic”? No, of course not, but it gives you practice in mental training, feedback and firearm handling at speed. This isn’t a replacement for all firearms training; it’s an addition.

What to expect

There is a harsh reality all LEOs need to face: You’re not as good as you think you are. When you go to your first match, you’re going to lose – most likely badly. You can either soothe your bruised ego by lying to yourself, saying it’s just a stupid game that has no relevance to a real gunfight … or you can acknowledge there’s still a lot to be learned and this is a place to learn it safely. Even if you’re struggling with your department qualification, competitive shooting will welcome you with open arms and help make you better. The breadth of skill at any local match is as wide as in your own departments, and all are treated fairly.

Action shooting has made me a better and more prepared police officer. There are no timeouts in this sport; when you have a problem, you fix it on the clock. If you fall during a stage, you get up and finish. So long as the range officer hasn’t stopped you for breaking a safety rule, you get on with it. I’ve experienced all the malfunctions and missteps that can happen while shooting, and I was able to do it in a safe environment while still feeling the stress of needing to find a resolution quickly. Instructors always talk about adding stress to training. What’s better than the combination of your drive to win, the risk of public humiliation and a shot timer?

Where does competition shooting fit in the picture of a complete training program? It’s a great complement to force-on-force/simunitions training. Where force-on-force will give you a high-level experience and test of tactics, action shooting will test your gun handling and shooting mechanics to the highest degree. Including both force-on-force and action shooting in your training regimen can build a complete skill set.

Competitions aren’t run by your department. You won’t be limited to one or two times a year because of internal scheduling issues. Each club typically runs one match a month, and there are likely multiple clubs within easy driving distance of your house. Where I live, for example, I could potentially shoot eight matches or more a month. More repetition means more skill development.

How to get started

USPSA and IDPA are membership organizations, but you don’t have to sign up just yet. You can shoot at matches without a membership. Rulebooks and details can be found at the shooting organizations’ respective websites, and PractiScore has cemented itself as the de facto match organization and scheduling tool for shooting sports. You’ll find a list of matches and match details and can register to shoot through On the sign-up page, you’ll find the necessary information to shoot a match and, most important, the match director’s email. For your first time, drop them a line and let them know you’re new. They’ll help you from there.

Action shooting is a skill-building exercise. It’s supplemental to your training, not a replacement for other law enforcement training. It won’t teach you tactics or procedures. Competition shooting will work to refine those shooting muscles so your brain can focus on the non-trigger-pulling part. You will learn to be safer, more accurate, faster and truly understand your capabilities and limitations while tackling shooting scenarios that would be unwieldy or impossible to replicate at your department training.

About the author

Michael Cavanaugh is a full-time police officer of 14 years, currently serving as a patrol sergeant. He has been the lead firearms instructor at his department for over a decade and was assigned to a county narcotics unit for five years. Michael has a passion for teaching and developing others both in and outside law enforcement. In his off hours, Michael is a civilian firearms instructor, avid competitive shooter and sci-fi nerd.