IDPA As Training?


From time to time here on the Civilian Gunfighter blog, I think it is prudent for us to downshift and remind our readers—and ourselves—why this blog exists.  John and I created this blog for several reasons, among which were that we wanted to help out newer shooters/concealed carriers with answers to common questions, to emphasize the importance of training and practice in defensive skills, and because we both just like to write!

Over the last few years, as I have frequented the various “gun-centric” online forums, I have noticed one pattern of question and answer that we have not, to date, addressed here on the blog.  I will often see someone who introduces himself as being relatively new to firearms and to concealed carry asking what to do next:  to improve in the fundamentals of marksmanship, to gain the necessary skills to successfully carry a concealed firearm, and to defend oneself from attack.  Some will recommend dry-fire while others suggest taking a class or two (rarely with direction as to what classes to take or with whom).  But, invariably, someone will say something akin to “find out where your nearest IDPA or USPSA matches are and start shooting matches.  No better training out there.”  Is that so?


I think it is important, before we go on, to point out my biases.  I am someone who has only relatively recently begun shooting competitively (5 IDPA matches plus a classifier as of this writing).  I did not jump into competition feet-first as a new gun owner.  Instead, I chose to spend, over the course of a few years, a few thousand dollars and hundreds of hours on training with instructors in the fundamentals of marksmanship, tactics, etc.  So just like someone who buys a .45 might feel compelled, at times, to defend that decision, so might I choose to believe that the path I took was the better path.  I recognize this potential bias, and I want our readers to see this as well. 

In addition, my strong bias toward professional training is obvious from the many articles and AARs I have written for the blog.  While I do not believe in government-mandated training, I consider the ownership and/or carry of firearms to be a great responsibility.  Accordingly, I think people should seek out professional instruction as early and as often as possible.


I am not saying that what follows is as “Webster” dictates, but these are some terms and the definitions that I use here and in other articles:

1.  Training—training to me is something that is basically synonymous with “coaching”.  It is receiving instruction from a live person to either learn new skills or to develop and refine existing skills.

2.  Practice—practice to me is something that you might do on your own or perhaps with like-minded peers.  It is during practice that one would engage in repetition of skills learned during training in order to build speed, efficiency, the mapping of neural pathways, etc.

To borrow a boxing analogy, training is when your coach teaches you how to throw a better punch or perhaps how to use some strategy or tactics against an opponent who has been scouted.  Practice would include things like speed and heavy-bag work and sparring.

Some might have issues with these definitions, and that is fine, but let us try to stick with them for the rest of the article.

My Experience at IDPA

As noted above, I have only participated in handful of IDPA matches to date, and all have been at that same venue (another potential bias).  My experience at these matches has been entirely positive.  Competitors and match directors have been friendly and helpful, and safety has been strongly emphasized at all times.  I have definitely seen a mix of skill levels at the matches so far, both in terms of regular gun handling (see this article about my introductory IDPA class) as well as the nuances of competitive shooting.  But I have not seen anyone try to hide the “secret sauce”; participants have always been quick to help each other out, either with quick critiques right after a stage (always constructive as opposed to some sort of trash-talking), or suggestions just before a stage.

However, my experience at the most recent match I attended made me stop and consider those comments referenced earlier when people suggest starting IDPA right away because it is the best way to train.

At this most recent match, my squad included a new shooter.  Notice I did not say new competitor.  This guy was totally new to handguns and seemed to barely understand how his operated.  He was shooting a Smith and Wesson M&P (I hope it was a 9mm!) and had to be coached through basic manipulations in order to load and make ready, clearing the gun (at least once I saw him rack the slide and THEN drop the magazine.  Fortunately, the RSO was paying attention and made him eject the spent round still lingering in the chamber.), and even how to properly grip the pistol (he shot his first stage with his thumbs crossed behind the beavertail, fortunate to have thin thumbs, as he would otherwise have been asking for band-aids or stitches!). 

Everyone in the squad knew this guy was a new shooter. In fact, he was so new that he chose to not even shoot for a score, but just to try to familiarize himself with IDPA.  He shot each stage last so that he could see what everyone else did first and also so that he would not hold everyone up.  Between shooters, I and some of the other competitors tried to coach him up a bit, and the Range Officer was great about giving him coaching along the way during each stage.  Stages that took the fastest in my squad 20 or so seconds to shoot took him close to two minutes.

Afterwards, in thinking about it, I thought about this guy’s experience vis a vis my own.  I started IDPA a year ago with what I would call a solid grasp of all of the fundamentals of marksmanship.  I also began with solid manipulation skills for things like drawing from a holster, reloads, stoppages, trigger finger discipline, and moving/running with a pistol in hand.  Finally, I also came to IDPA with experience in use of cover/”slicing the pie”, positional shooting, shooting strong-hand only and support-hand only, and shooting from a variety of distances.  Armed with all of these skills, it has still taken me a while to utilize them in the IDPA environment; indeed, I have still not been able to integrate these skills fully.

What this guy was doing—and he wasn’t doing a terrible job of it—was to try to learn the subtleties of an IDPA match while also learning how to shoot and how to manipulate his pistol.  An analogy might be that he was trying to learn to read while simultaneously trying to learn the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make.  For perhaps the first time, I really stopped and thought about how important “unconscious competence” is in the shooting world.  You cannot excel in the competitive shooting sports (or, presumably, defensive engagements) if your marksmanship and manipulation skills are not at unconscious competence levels.  Shooting tough stages in an IDPA match is all about problem-solving; the shooting needs to be the easy part (which of my instructors said the same thing about combat?  Hmmm.)

In short, I think this guy and others like him would be MUCH better off on a different path.  Personally, I would recommend starting with some of the NRA classes like Basic Pistol, Personal Protection Inside the Home, and Personal Protection Outside the Home.  Classes like these are offered at ranges all over the country and are typically inexpensive.  Next I would take a two-day “Pistol 1” or “Basic Handgun” class with a reputable instructor, someone who can really hammer home the fundamentals of marksmanship as well as introduce the student to some of the other manipulation skills that could prove vital in competition or in a real-life scenario.  I would then have the person practice the marksmanship and manipulation skills as much as possible.  Then and only then would I entertain the idea of sending this person to the competitive shooting world.   I think the person would be much less likely to become frustrated with the sport and would be better able to utilize the sport as a form of practice.  

IDPA As Practice

In short, I view IDPA and the other shooting sports as a way to practice, but NOT a form of training.  It should be the place where you test your skills under time—and perhaps even peer—pressure.  As much time as your peers and the Range Officer might be able to provide for you during a match for informal coaching, this is no substitute for proper, professional training done at a time and place where you can focus on the skills being taught.  Get yourself some training and then practice what you were taught in that training on your own.  Only then should you “test” yourself in the competitive shooting sports.  You may agree with my opinion or not, but I think we can all agree that those who say things like:  “find out where your nearest IDPA or USPSA matches are and start shooting matches.  No better training out there.”, are doing those whom they advise a disservice.  Competitive shooting can be a strong component to building a well-rounded defensive shooter, but it is no substitute for proper training.

As always, thanks for reading.  What’s your opinion on competitive shooting as a venue for training/practice?  Please share below or on our Facebook page. 

2 thoughts on “IDPA As Training?

  1. I too take try to take a defensive shooting class once or twice a year. I also compete several times a month, most recently focusing on IDPA. I agree that competitive shooting, of any sort, is great practice. In fact for many, myself included, it’s the only time we get to practice things like shooting while moving, around obstacles, even shooting more than two shots in a string. The pressure of the timer, and especially for male egos, the pressure of our friends watching, I believe helps to some degree. I vehemently disagree with those who say “competition will get you killed on the street.” Just like the different shootings sports have different rules, the rules on the street are different. If you can’t remember if you’re playing a game, or fighting for your life, you’re probably going to be killed anyway. And yes, it’s a game. There’s a timer, and we keep score, and follow rules. I agree that the new shooter you observed might have been better served by taking some training first, yet he is well ahead of a new shooter who neither takes a class nor goes to a match. The telling point will be if he comes back. I’ve taken many new shooters/competitors to their first match who have never returned, and that’s a shame.


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