IDPA vs. “Real Life”


In my last article, I outlined some reasons why I do not believe that competitive shooting in general, and IDPA in particular, should be one of the first steps one takes in learning to use a firearm defensively.  In that article, I provided my own definitions of “training” and “practice” and why competitive shooting falls into the latter category.  

In this article, I am going to delve further into this topic area.  In particular, I thought it might be useful to describe some differences between how one shoots an IDPA match and compare that with how skills, techniques, and tactics are taught by those who have “seen the elephant”. 

Readers take note:  I have not seen the elephant.  But the assortment of AARs I have written for the blog is illustrative of the level of instruction I have had in these areas.  Thus, I feel qualified to point out the more obvious differences between IDPA and training for “real life”.   The below list is not meant to be exhaustive, but merely the first things that jumped out at me about this topic.

(Also, note that this is not a “competition will get you killed on the streets” article.  It is primarily geared toward those, perhaps newer to shooting, who have been told that IDPA is great training.)

Shooting While Moving

IDPA stages often involve shooting while moving.  In my limited experience, these tend to be limited to moving forward or moving backward, though in my last match there was a generic “movement” requirement that, due to the setup of the stage, required some side-to-side movement. 

I have a few issues with this.  First of all, few people can shoot as well while moving as when stationary.  An instructor I hold in the highest of regard, Paul Howe, wrote in one of his monthly newsletters a few years ago that, in all of the engagements in which he was involved while with Special Operations, he NEVER shot while moving.  His opinion was that if he was moving, he was going to move fast enough to not get hit, and moving that fast while shooting (accurately) was impossible.   If he slowed down to try to get some accurate fire down range, he would make himself a better target while his own accuracy would not be up to his highly capable standards.  If he had to shoot, he would post up and take the shot. 

In many training classes, shooting while moving is done while walking slowly forward or backward, shooting when the sights dictate an accurate shot can be taken.  Although some students probably think that they are being taught some sort of tactics, in reality the instructors are just trying to teach other lessons (shooting when sights dictate, walking while “chewing gum”, etc.).  In all of the training I have had to date, the only instructor who taught me how to shoot accurately while moving in a manner in which I might not get shot in return was Kyle Defoor (see here).  Of course, I have seen videos of phenoms like Gabe White shooting hanging bowling pins at 10 yards while sprinting side to side, but I think we can all agree that he is the exception.

Another issue I have with shooting while moving is what constitutes “moving” in IDPA.  If one has to engage a target while moving forward or backward in IDPA, one can take the smallest of steps (literally just a few inches, like a slow Michael Jackson “moonwalk”).  Oddly, if you have to reload while moving, you are allowed to do that while stationary!  If anything, those two tasks should be reversed (shooting while stationary, and reloading on the move).  When people tell me how IDPA is “defensive” or “tactical”, I always point to how the rules define movement and laugh.

Finally, the other issue I have with shooting while moving is that moving straight back from the target is often included as part of a stage.  Indeed, in my last match, two stages featured shooting while moving in a straight line back from a target.  One does not have to search long and hard at police or other real-life shooting videos to find examples of people falling down while attempting to shoot while moving backward.  Even if you are backing over territory you just covered moving forward, things are different when moving backward.  Every instructor with whom I have trained to date has always advocated moving off to the side, NEVER straight back.

Prescribed Number of Rounds per Target

I realize that IDPA is a “game” or “sport”, and so all shooters have to shoot the same course of fire in order to be able to compare them (and figure out who “wins”).  Nevertheless, determining ahead of time how many times you will shoot each target may not always be the best policy.  First of all, what if the prescribed two or three rounds did not do the trick?  This problem COULD be partially solved if all targets in IDPA were reactive and could be programmed to fall after different numbers of rounds (unknown to the shooter), but that is not really possible at most/any matches.  Secondly, it can pre-program you to always shoot that same number of shots.  Don’t believe me?  In my first match of this year, the first five stages we shot required two shots per target.  However, on the last stage my squad shot, each target required three shots.  At least two competitors from my squad did poorly on this stage because they only shot each target twice, just as they had done all day up to that point.

Another issue with knowing how many rounds each target “requires” is that, at least when shooting an “unlimited” stage, experienced shooters will shoot extra rounds in order to time up their reloads for maximum efficiency.  For those who do not understand this, let me explain.  A target in a particular stage requires two hits to be considered neutralized.  The shooter shoots it twice with two hits in the “down zero” zone.  Knowing that he has only one round left in his pistol and still more targets to engage, he fires that one as well, knowing that it will not count against him.  This way, he can reload on his way to the next target, and will not have to reload in the middle of engaging that target.  What is bad about this (in “real life”)?  Well, should we really just be shooting off extra rounds for no particular reason just so we can time a reload properly?  Does anyone else see a possible conflict here?

Limited Stakes for Misses

Whether shooting a limited or unlimited stage, the stakes for outright misses of targets or even hits on non-threats are limited.  There are procedural penalties for “failure to engage” and hits on non-threats, but in the end the stakes are probably not severe enough.  Even with the new rules of IDPA, which tend to reward a bit more accuracy than in years past, that emphasis on speed is still there.  Some sort of stage DQ for a hit on a non-threat might make things a bit more challenging.

Penalties for Dropping Magazines

In IDPA, there is a procedural penalty for dropping a magazine with rounds in it onto the deck.  The rationale for this is the “tactical reload” concept, that you should retain that magazine in case you need those remaining rounds later in the fight.  I’ll grant this technique in the IDPA rules, even though I have never heard of such a necessity in a gunfight on the street.  But what surprised me in one of my first matches was that I can incur the same procedural penalty if I have a round in the chamber of my pistol but my magazine is empty.  If that empty magazine hits the dirt while I have a round chambered, it is the same procedural penalty as when there are still live rounds in the magazine.  Of what sense this makes I have no idea. Why would I or should I retain a magazine with no rounds in it?  Why take the time and risk my life over an empty magazine?

Other Issues

I do not want to write a book, and nor do I want to make this a rant against IDPA, which I actually enjoy!  But a brief outline of a few more issues:

·         Artificial magazine capacity limits, depending on division

·         No optics on pistols permitted in any division

·         No use of AIWB holsters

·         Taking on a bunch of targets by yourself

·         IDPA “Shooting from retention” is from circa 1985 and reminiscent of the “Speed Rock”

·         Use of cover, even with the new addition of fault lines, allows too much exposure


It’s a GAME!

In the end, if something has rules by which to “play”, it is a game/sport.  I hate to hark back to that “there’s no rules on the street” argument, but it is true.  I just finished reading Rory Miller’s book “Facing Violence” (brief review soon to be posted in our Recommended Books section), and he describes the same issue between those who only train in the dojo or gym versus real fights on streets, in bars, in prisons, etc.  Whether talking about armed or unarmed fighting, it is important to recognize the differences between competition and real life. 

As noted in my article from earlier this week, IDPA is a useful way to practice outside the square range, particularly those ranges with highly restrictive rules.  It is also a way to pressure test (clock and peers) some of your skills, and shooting the Classifier (the course of fire for the Classifier does not change….this year notwithstanding) can help you determine if you are making progress in your skills.  It gets you moving, it gets you trigger time,  and it gets you fixing malfunctions and performing reloads under time pressure.  Also, as I noted in my previous article, it lets you test your ability to problem-solve while forcing the shooting part to be the easy part.  Even if the “problems” you have to solve are not exactly those you might have to solve “on the street”, I think there is a lot of good that comes from learning to do multiple things at once.   Finally, it is also a lot of fun!

As always, thanks for reading.  What other thoughts on IDPA/competitive shooting do you have as it might relate to “real life” scenarios?  We’d love to hear your thoughts.  Please post below or on our Facebook page.

One thought on “IDPA vs. “Real Life”

  1. A very thoughtful article, Rob. Your extensive gun skills training gives you a perspective on this subject that most of us don’t have. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s