Pistol Competitions

Though informal pistol competitions have no doubt existed since the age of matchlock pistols, modern day, formal pistol competitions are the focus of this article.

Roots of Competition

After the National Rifle Association (NRA) was formed in 1871, they quickly got to the business of setting up local clubs across the country and holding matches, mostly rifle matches but pistol and shotgun as well. Broadly speaking these were matches where competitors fired from static positions at stationary targets and that is how competition shooting remained for many decades. This is not an exhaustive study of competition shooting. I am sure there was some innovative Schutzenverein (German shooting club) that was doing run and gun back in the 1700’s.

Why were organizations such as the NRA, setting up clubs and holding matches? They encouraged competition before there was big money and sponsorships in competition for the sake of improving the ability of shooters. More accurate soldiers, more accurate civilians who would later serve as soldiers would be more lethal in battle. The volley tactics of the battlefield had given way to precise aimed fire and with that, the individual needed to be trained in using the sights on his gun and pulling the trigger smoothly.

Much of what the NRA started almost 150 years ago, still goes on today and with additional more modern competitions such as the action pistol Bianchi Cup, at the National Matches held at Camp Perry, Ohio every year.

Jumping ahead to the post-World War 2 era, we find another group of people interested in improving their skills for the sake of doing their jobs better and better ensuring they make it home each night: law enforcement.

What follows is a brief summation of modern “action” or “practical” pistol shooting. It differs from much of what came before by placing emphasis on not only accuracy, but speed, and often having to move and engage a variety of dynamic targets. Essentially modern action shooting forces shooters to be both (somewhat) accurate AND fast.

Generally, the modern action pistol competitions are comprised of a variety of stages which much be shot. Some of them prescribe an order in which threats must be encountered, a certain number of shots per target, they may have “no shoot” targets, and often some degree of realistic props such as cars, walls, barrels etc.

Precision Pistol Competition (PPC)

1950’s and 1960’s

Also known as Police Pistol Combat, this competition may seem a bit archaic compared to modern day pistol shooting, however, we need to know our roots. PPC was indeed an evolution at the time, compared to 1 position, 1 distance bullseye target shooting. In PPC,  competitors shoot from a variety of positions, at a variety of distances. Compared to much of the competition shooting which came before, this was indeed progress is making the competition more practical for pistol shooters, both law enforcement and those carrying guns for self-defense in their daily lives.


International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) and United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA)

1970’s and 1980’s

“Run and gun” is born.

Combining some of the spirit of PPC with some of the “quick draw” type competitions, IPSC/USPSA is really the major leagues of modern pistol competition. USPSA is basically the US league for IPSC.

Here, IPSC will be discussed as a pistol competition in that IPSC has pistol specific competitions whereas 3 Gun incorporates all three: rifle, pistol, and shotgun.

I will put it this way, if someone shooting a PPC style match in 1958 had a top level IPSC competitor from 2017 show up at their match and race through the stage with their open division gun, shooting off of one foot after sprinting out into the open, they would throw them out for being “unsafe” and possibly think they were crazy.

What they could not do though, is argue with the results. IPSC is all about what works. Get the targets “down” in the shortest time possible with the least amount of errors, by any (safe) means necessary.

The origins of IPSC are indeed around practical shooting, though increasingly the stages are designed around forcing high levels of shooting, technical shooting, not what is necessarily seen in defensive shooting. This does not mean that much of what can be learned from the IPSC world, cannot apply to real world defensive shooting and shooting in general.

International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA)


The casual observer would see IPSC and IDPA as extremely similar and in many ways they are.

In response to IPSC becoming too much of a “game” in the eyes of many, IDPA was created. Essentially, there was increasing criticism that IPSC had become about the competition gear, reduced power ammo and many other aspects by which competitors improved their scores, but while getting farther away from real world defensive gear. For instance, IDPA matches are shot using concealment garments (often vests) and production pistols. Race holsters, race guns, and low powered ammo are not allowed. The stages are typically designed around somewhat realistic defensive scenarios as well.

As much as the founders of IDPA criticized what IPSC became, IPSC shooters have plenty of valid criticism for IDPA as well. Often this is from those who shoot IPSC. People “game” IDPA as they do IPSC but the rules are a bit tighter, so it is harder to do. IDPA is evolving and many competitors like some of the changes and dislike others. For instance, recently there was a change made where cover lines were put on the ground. No longer did the Range Officer have to judge when you were breaking cover or not. IDPA purists want it to remain as it was at its inception.

Mentioning IDPA here last isn’t indicating it is the pinnacle of pistol competition, it is one of the latest evolutions. Most agree the highest levels of competition remain in IPSC.

Final thoughts

It really is most appropriate to have discussed IDPA last, as some will shoot an IDPA match and consider it to be “tactical training”, whatever that means. Shooting any pistol competition can help to improve your skills. It is not training. It is not practice. It is competition, but that does not mean we cannot learn from it and improve. If you are learning your tactics from competition, you will do dumb things in real world defense.

IDPA scenario: “You are entering an alley with 5 threats”…ummm…how about do not enter that alley!

The same could be said for IPSC. Do not stand in the open shooting multiple targets when you could be using cover!

I am not negating the value of competition, whichever you choose, but do not confuse it with training in sound tactics.

If you have not shot in any competitions, I encourage you to try and find a local club in which to participate. I say “club” but most do not require formal membership, especially if not shooting regularly.

Which competition should you shoot? I really do not have a dog in this fight. Get out and shoot. I think the local group you shoot with is probably more important than in which competition you shoot.

Shooter ready?



If nothing else, that timer going off will add a level of stress and you will find out how you perform under some pressure.