Shooting Competition - An excellent source for firearms training

by Nicholas Weidhaas, The Police Marksman

Bennie Cooley is a law enforcement officer and top 3-Gun competitor.

It is my contention that many of the shooting competitions currently run around the country are excellent sources of firearms training for law enforcement officers. We have all heard the adage, “train like you fight,” meaning our training should mirror what we expect to see and do during a deadly force encounter. In a perfect world, this is the ultimate goal—in this same perfect world, every officer would receive an appropriate amount of diagnostic, scenario- based, decision making and lowlight training. However, we all know that far too many officers don’t get the training they need.

Budget restraints prevent some departments from providing adequate training. Most states recommend or require officers to pass a yearly qualification course, meeting a proficiency standard with the weapons they are required to use. A d m i nistrators routinely require firearm instructors to qualify officers during this allocated training time. Training and qualification is not one in the same—the terms should not be used synonymously. Many state firearm qualification courses are not a very good skill assessment. T h e y are basic, only requiring an officer to stand in front of and hit a static target “x” number of times, from varying distances within a time limit, (usually a pretty generous amount of time.) Many qualification courses are the most basic diagnostic assessment and often don’t require off icers to perform reloads, use cover, shoot from awkward positions, shoot on the move or with a flashlight in low light. They certainly don’t provide training.

Many stages have elaborate, but realistic props. Notice the hands on the target which indicates it is a non-threat target.

In my opinion, Simunition®-based training best requires an officer to use all the skills necessary to survive a deadly force encounter. This type of training differs from others in that role players (potential threats) can shoot back, adding a certain level of stress—something that’s missing from many state qualification courses and firearms training in general. As you’re most likely aware, Simunition® makes a FX marking cartridge that is fired from a dedicated Simunition® firearm or a firearm converted to fire only these cartridges. This firearm represents the weapon the officer will be carrying on the street. If properly planned and implemented, this scenario-based training will test an officer’s diagnostic skills (ability to effectively hit a threat, perform a reload, clear a stoppage, etc.), and decision making ability. These scenarios can be done in low light and are beneficial because the officer may have to shoot on the move at a moving threat.

What other options are available?

Shooter is moving to cover as he draws his weapon at an IDPA match.

I recommend you train on your own time by participating in one of the shooting games discussed below. Yes, I realize that many aspects of competition shooting do not allow you to train like you fight. Why? Because the targets don’t shoot back, you normally know where they are before you shoot the scenario and many of these games have rules that don’t require you to use proper tactics. That said, it’s better than nothing. The skill sets you will develop participating in these games will make you a more accurate, more efficient and better prepared law enforcement officer.

I think that many officers don’t like the idea of competing because they don’t want to shoot in front of people who are not law enforcement. They are afraid that these civilians will shoot better than they do (in many cases they do.) They don’t want to be embarrassed by the fact that they may do poorly. Some officers don’t see the training benefits of competition— they are willing to accept the minimal training provided by their department, rather than swallowing a little pride and trying to make themselves better. The little bit of stress or embarrassment you may feel shooting in front of strangers is nothing like the stress experienced during a deadly force situation. Okay, the first couple of matches may be a little uncomfortable, but you would be surprised how supportive the shooters are. One of the best advantages of going to these matches is that you are among people who know about concealed carry, defensive pistol use and training—it’s a great venue to share information.

I’ve had many shooters ask me why more police officers don’t shoot. They say things like, “if I had to carry a gun every day, I’d make damn sure I knew how to use it.” Or, “I’d be shooting every match I could get too.” This is not rocket science boys and girls—there is a great opportunity here. Use these matches as a means to test your skills, identify your weaknesses and better prepare yourself.

In fact, some of the top competitors in the country work in law enforcement. They often compete on their own time and dime and, they started out just like you. Take the first step and give it a try.


Before we discuss the actual games and organizations behind these shooting sports, I think it is important discuss mindset. I’m talking about going into a shooting competition with an open mind, willing to learn. As they say, life is a learning process. If you are willing to look at the positive aspects of participating in a shooting sport, if you are willing to learn, you will be a winner no matter what the scores say at the end of the day. Your willingness to prepare yourself greatly influences your chances of survival— it’s all about mindset.

Objective of the Game

The objective of these shooting sports is similar. Matches or competitions are made up of stages or scenarios. To add realism, these stages will often have obstacles and props that you have to shoot around or negotiate. You are required to move from different shooting positions, engaging targets throughout the stage. Local matches usually will have three to six stages. National matches can have 10-30 stages, shot over several days. The stages are made up of targets arranged in various manners. They are generally cardboard silhouettes that have scoring areas, with the highest point value for a center of mass hit. Steel targets that fall when hit, are often used as well.

In addition to requiring accurate shooting, the shooter is also timed to see how long it takes them to shoot the stage. The idea is to shoot accurately and quickly. Shooting sports use different methods to determine your final score. Generally the time it took you to shoot the stage and the point value of the hits on targets is used to determine your score. Normally, no-shoot or non-threat targets will be inter dispersed among the targets. Hitting a non-threat target incurs a penalty, which is added to your score. Misses can also result in a penalty or a loss of points.

That said, it is your choice if you want to be competitive and “shoot for score” or just use the scenarios/stages as a training opportunity. There is nothing wrong with shooting a stage as you would if it were real. You don’t have to go fast, you can use proper tactics and solve the problem as you see fit. The shooters that run these local matches often do so once a month. For $20 you can go and probably shoot four or five stages. What you get from it has a lot to do with what you put into it. If you think about it, the only person you are ever competing against is yourself. Yes, some of us will want to do well and place overall, but it is really our own personal improvement, skill development and confidence building that is important.

No Special Equipment Needed

The beauty of these shooting sports is that you don’t have to go out and buy special equipment to participate. All of the shooting sports discussed here will allow you to participate with your duty gun (pistol, rifle and shotgun) from the holster you use for patrol or when working in plainclothes. If you decide to compete with your duty gear, you will only be competing against folks using the same gear as you.

The Games

I recommend you check to see if the local gun clubs are running any IDPA (International Defensive Pistol Association), USPSA (United States Practical Pistol Association), Rifle (carbine), Two-Gun (usually pistol/rifle), or Three-Gun (pistol, rifle, and shotgun) matches. IDPA emphasizes the use of defensive pistols (your duty pistol) to solve situations that resemble those that one may face in a deadly force encounter. IDPA sets up what often amounts to elaborate urban scenarios. Movement, cover and multiple threats are hallmarks of IDPA stages and matches. Stages are often completed in the dark, requiring the shooter to effectively use a flashlight in conjunction with their firearm. Shooters compete in divisions based on the type of defensive pistol they are shooting. You only compete against those shooters in your division. The weapons used by most law enforcement officers would dictate they participate or compete in the Stock Service Pistol division. There are also divisions for Enhanced Service Pistols, Custom Defensive Pistols and Revolvers.

IDPA breaks the divisions down further by assigning shooters a classification based on their performance in the IDPA Classifier Match or based on their performance in competition.

Again, it is not necessary to really get excited about the competition side of the sport. As I previously mentioned, using the stages or scenarios as a training opportunity is the big incentive here. If you want to try and be competitive as well, that is icing on the cake. IDPA has rules that are similar to what law enforcement regards as good tactics. As examples, shooters are required to shoot from cover or when no cover is available, be moving to cover while engaging threat t a rgets. Reloads must also be completed from behind cover and you are not allowed to leave cover with an empty gun. Hmmmm. I think I’ve heard this somewhere before—ring any bells? Matches are held at the local level and a National Championship is held once a year. Some organizations hold larg e r matches. Smith & Wesson’s IDPA Winter Championship is held in February in Springfield, MA. Approx. 300 shooters come from all over to shoot 10 stages on the S&W Shooting Sports Center and Law Enforcement Academy ranges.

USPSA is an organization that supports what is referred to as practical shooting. Practical shooters compete in pistol, 3-Gun and soon, Multi-Gun matches. Since it’s inception in 1984, USPSA has continued to grow. USPSA has broken the country up into eight areas. Within each area, local clubs hold matches throughout the year. Annually there are larger area matches and a National Championship for both pistol and 3-Gun practical shooters. USPSA has divisions that separate shooters based on the firearms they use. They also have a classifications system for shooters within a division. One of USPSA’s most popular divisions is called Production. This is where law enforcement or defensive pistols get to shoot it out.

The rules for shooting USPSA are different than those of IDPA. USPSA does not require shooters to use cover, reload from behind cover, or utilize good tactics. This does not mean the sport is not a valuable training resource to law enforcement. Just because they don’t require it, you can still choose to use proper tactics when shooting a USPSA stage. I believe you can also put tactics aside for a moment and use the USPSA stage to practice or test a specific skill set. Just as we often separate different types of law enforcement firearms training, we can do the same when we approach a USPSA stage. Ask yourself what skills the stage is testing? Maybe it is shooting on the move, fast target transition, moving targets, shooting from awkward angles, etc. Use the stage to test that skill, knowing it is just that—a skill test—not a representation of a real-world scenario. I think we can do both if we have the right mindset. There’s that word again—mindset!

3-Gun Matches are run under USPSA Rules, and rules established by individual clubs. Here shooters have an opportunity to shoot stages with pistols, rifles and shotguns. Multi-Gun is a term you may also hear. Multi-Gun matches require shooters to shoot and transition between different weapons within a stage or scenario. Sound familiar?


Participation in these shooting sports gives you quality trigger time with your duty weapon(s). This time should be used to hone diagnostic and other skills like shooting on the move, effective target transition, use of different types of focus (front sight focus v. target focus), and shooting in low light. Since many agencies do not provide any training or much else for off duty shootings, this is an excellent means to fill that gap. If you shoot enough, your performance will give you an understanding of your capabilities and your limitations. Participation will not only lead to improved gun handling skills, but also confidence.

Confidence is a critical characteristic that will help you survive a deadly force situation. If a person is confident in their abilities, they are likely to perform better, especially under stress. I know that when I come to work every day, I have a sense of reassurance in my skills with a firearm. If posed with a deadly force situation, I don’t have doubts about my abilities, due to years of competitive shooting and firearms training I have sought outside my department. Why do I do it? Not only do I love to compete, but I work for one of those departments that provides officers with an average of eight hours of firearms training (to include qualification) per year. My family is pretty important to me and I want to see my kids grow up.

About the Author
Nicholas Weidhaas currently serves a Detective and Firearms Instructor with the Easthampton (Massachusetts) Police Department. He has been involved in the shooting sports for the last 23 years.

Reprinted from the November/December 2005 issue of The Police Marksman Magazine

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