Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Can Firearm Competitions Get You Killed in a Gun Fight?

I came across a few articles recently concerning firearms competition and real life that I thought I would mention. Steve Reichart's blog carried an article earlier this year written by Craig “Sawman” Sawyer, who disparages firearm competition, or at least training for the same. He writes:
The main parallels I see between combat shooting and competition shooting are that in each case, you need to be able to put your shots on a given target in a timely manner. Both disciplines can involve shooting, moving, reloading, and problem solving. 
Other than those similarities, the two scenarios are worlds apart.
One factor he uses to distinguish is the absence of stress in competitive shooting. Sawyer states:
One of the main points to consider in combat shooting is that your life is in immediate jeopardy. Someone is trying to kill you. This is simply never the case in civilian competition shooting. In my mind, that’s far and away the largest factor to consider. 
... Over the years, with more and more exposure to violence, I find myself much more calm under these conditions and making much sharper decisions and fighting much more effectively. The same dynamic applies to fighting with weapons as well. 
... Because there is no sudden, inter-human violent confrontation, civilian competition shooting simply is unlikely to present such stress on the shooter. If the shooter experiences this level of stress shooting in a civilian sporting competition, I’d have serious concerns about his ability to perform to any degree, whatsoever, in a real life and death confrontation.
He believes the competitive shooting to be  inferior also because, in his mind, it does not adequately deal with issues of using cover effectively.
The combat shooter must also consider that he is a target and must make effective use of cover and concealment whenever possible. In such an environment, the shooter has to take into account how he is perceived by his opponent(s) as he moves through the fight. If a civilian shooter is not behind a flimsy plywood barricade, there is no harm. If a combat shooter fails to make effective use of actual cover from the specific weapon his opponent is firing at him, he can be injured, killed, or get others in his unit killed. This is a severe penalty that cannot be replicated in the sport of civilian competition.
Sawyer also notes that the combat shooter must be concerned with numerous factors about the mission, equipment, and so on, whereas there is no comparable level of responsibility for the competitive shooter.

Finally Saywer focuses on the handguns--especially concerned with the high-end .45 "race guns" that are used in competition that are, he contends, impractical in the real world. In short, Sawyer thinks that competition engenders habits and practices that can get you killed in a real fight.

Brandon Wright, writing at Innovative Shooting Concepts reaches a different conclusion. He writes:
All to often on the range, I hear "tactical" guys complaining about how this is all just a game, "this isn't real life," "if bullets were really flying," and you don't use any tactic's. The fact is, competitive shooting drives you to be fast and accurate. What you have to take away from a competitive match is your performance, your manipulations, and how you handle the speed and accuracy. This part of it could in fact, save your life.
He dismisses the naysayers, concluding:
 Finding something that forces you to shoot as fast as you can, as accurate as you can, and under some sort of stress is a positive. If you can improve your skills on the range shooting a match, it will only improve your skills in operations. You have to set your ego aside and work on skills that will improve your handgun skills. Where you place in the match does not matter. Questions you should ask yourself are: 
Did I improve my overall speed, with the same accuracy? 
Did I get in and out of shooting positions fast enough or faster than before? 
What could I improve on? 
Am I happy with MY performance? (Not my performance against everyone else in the match) 
   I have seen some tactical guys make excuses as to why they shot so slow in a match. I hear "this isn't real life,""the targets aren't shooting back,""my gun isn't a race gun." I want to say to them "everything is going to be okay." This is a game and just like all games, there are tricks to it. Until you are shown the tricks and have an understanding of what its all about, you may struggle. The most important thing about it, win or loose, is what did you learn from this experience. Nothing would please me more than to see guys shooting USPSA matches in their "Battle Rattle." The heck with trying to win the match, throw the standing and ranking out the window and go see what you can do in the gear you fight in. Take away from the match what you experienced and how to better YOUR skills for what YOU do.
Okay. Two different positions. However, going on to other opinions, Caleb, at Guns Nuts Media wrote:
 So when you compare the two articles, you’ve got Brandon Wright saying “competition will make you better at shooting” and Sawman saying “competition isn’t a gunfight and 1911s suck.” Which is fair, because some 1911s do suck, and competition isn’t a gunfight. 
But here’s the thing, and it’s something I think Brandon touches on a little bit and I wish he’d fleshed out more: no one is saying that competition shooting will make you better at tactics. We’re just not. We do frequently (and correctly) say that competition shooting will make you better at shooting and gunhandling, but it’s not going to teach you to do a solo room clear or how to negotiate a t-shaped hallway by yourself. 
We’ve reached a point now where tactical training guys have erected this strawman argument that competition will get you killed so many times that other tactical trainers buy into it without bothering to check to see if any competition guys are saying “hey, shooting competitions will make you better at tactical ninja skills.” Which, as I’ve mentioned, we’re not. Personally, if an instructor says “don’t shoot competition” to their students, I’m far less likely to take them seriously on other topics. However, if an instructor says “hey, competition is awesome because it makes you better at shooting, but just be aware it’s not about tactics” – that seems like a reasonable approach for a tactical guy to take.
 Tim at Gun Nuts Media expanded on the issue, writing:
Today I want to focus on the question of whether or not shooting competition is going to cause you to die screaming if you ever need to use a gun for the purposes of self defense. The short version is of course not. Invariably that answer will be challenged by somebody who is super-duper TACTICAL!!!! so let’s take a little stroll back through history. 
That picture is a photograph of the “Columbia Conference”, which may mean very little to the average person but it was basically the foundation of the International Practical Shooting Confederation, probably better known today as IPSC. You may not recognize some of the faces in that picture, but you probably will recognize some of the names. Jeff Cooper. Ken Hackathorn. Mike Harries. There were no sponsorships. There were no multicolored jerseys, no company banners, no red dot sights and compensators. Just a group of serious shooters (including the father of modern pistolcraft) who were keenly interested in improving their skills. Competition shooting, of course, didn’t start with IPSC. IPSC was an attempt to put some structure around something that had been going on for more than a decade before. Col. Cooper started out doing “leather slap” competitions sometime in the 1950′s, in which the object was to draw and make a hit on a target at 7 yards as fast as possible.
Yeah, you heard me…Col. Cooper was a gamer. Col. Cooper and those shooting with him pretty quickly came to the conclusion that point shooting had serious limitations in terms of reliably hitting a target at more than a few feet. That led to new techniques like actually using the sights for a “flash” sight picture. Look at a Colt 1911 of the day and you’ll notice the vestigial nature of the sights. Look at one of Col. Cooper’s customized 1911′s and you’ll notice sights that are bigger and much easier to pick up at speed, aiding in placing a shot accurately in a hurry. 
That’s the important bit…placing a shot accurately in a hurry. See, it turns out that being able to place a bullet exactly where you want it as quickly as possible is a pretty useful combat skill. People like Col. Cooper and Ken Hackathorn figured out that competition, when used properly, helped to develop that skill. Jim Cirillo, who survived 20 gunfights during his time on NYPD’s famed Staekout Squad, wrote in his book that one of the factors which predicted good results in a gunfight was a track record of being able to perform in competitions. Mr. Cirillo himself had been shooting competitively for years prior to getting assigned to the Stakeout Squad. Oh yes, Virginia, the man many called a modern day Bill Hickock was a gamer before he started putting bullets into bad guys. Delf “Jelly” Bryce of FBI fame? Also a competition shooter. 
Starting to notice a pattern, here? Competition shooting didn’t arrive like a bunch of invading Orcs marching from Mordor on an endless quest to spoil our TACTICAL!!!! and get us all killed in gunfights. It has been used all the way back to the days when English peasant conscripts were shooting in archery competitions with their longbows as a means of sharpening important combat skills. Placing something on the line, whether it’s money or fame or a trophy or just plain ol’ pride, and then making people compete against each other tends to sharpen their skills and provide stress innoculation. When you’re shooting someone else’s program in front of an audience and being measured by a timer, it can be stressful. It is by no means gunfight stress, but it’s stressful enough that it impacts your ability to perform and to think. Robb Leatham is widely regarded as one of the coolest customers to ever step up to the line in a match, and yet I distinctly remember a video clip of him in a competition going prone during a stage…only he hadn’t planned on going prone when he walked through the stage earlier. It was easy to tell because after the stage ended he remarked to himself “…and WHY did I go prone?” 
To do well in competition you have to learn to tune out the stress and focus on what you need to do. You have to be able to think on your feet, solving problems that crop up with your gear or with a target’s placement or a swinger’s unlucky swing. This isn’t exactly like problem solving when the bullets are going both ways, but show me someone who has never been exposed to the stress of competition in some fashion or another and I’ll show you somebody who probably won’t be able to hack it in the real thing, either. That’s what Jim Cirillo was getting at with his assesment of competition shooting. The best guys in the Stakeout Squad were all competition shooters or hunters…people who had experience making quick judgment and pulling the trigger when the adrenaline was flowing that proved useful when the stakes were much higher.
Taking a middle of the road position, Nick at Indestructible Training opines:
While I am very much inclined to agree with these guys for a number of reasons, I do think the topic wasn’t 100% fleshed out. 
You can argue that competition could, at least in a small way, get you killed in a street fight. The trainers who support this theory will often cite the fact that competition has specific rules that tend to favor some sort of gaming. Players always adapt to the rules of a game, and it is unlikely for those rules to perfectly mimic the real world. 
Face it… if you focus on competition, some of the habits from that game will follow you into the real world. Not all of those habits will be good ones when viewed through the lens of a real life-or-death struggle. You might have a tendency to forget about follow through with a threat, you might shoot a certain number rounds instead of shooting to stop, or you might have any number of other competition-centric habits.
My thoughts on the matter is that if you can afford the time and cost, competitive shooting is a good training tool, even if it is not perfect or complete. First, like all martial arts, safety concerns have resulted in rules that keep you safe, but don't necessarily reflect a real world environment. For instance, you do not have a 360 degree shooting environment and, in fact, have to adjust posture and how you hold a pistol to keep the muzzle pointed down range. You can't use shoulder holsters or other types of common concealed carry positions. You have the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the location of each of the targets before each stage. Obviously, no one is shooting back, and you are not having to stumble over toys that the kids left on the floor, or a curious cat. Most of the competition matches are outside in bright light. Even the targets are not realistic. (See this article from Tactical Professor on "Why I Hate The -3 Zone").

It also teaches you to go fast, and, since you know where the "bad guy" targets are before starting a stage, you don't need to slow down and identify friend from foe, or evaluate whether you can lawfully use lethal force.

On the other hand, for many people, it may be the only time they can practice firing and moving, especially through an environment where there are "walls" and "corridors"; or shooting around obstacles or from anything other than a standing position. Although the competition may not put the same pressure on you as actual combat, it does create some stress. Mas Ayoob has noted this and recommended some form of competitive shooting to help you learn to shoot under stress. IDPA rules take into consideration cover, and you can be penalized for not using cover or concealment. And it certainly forces you to quickly make reloads.

Obviously there are ways to game the rules to help improve your time and, thus, your score. But you don't have to do so. For instance, in IDPA, you can use your nightstand gun or carry gun rather than a race gun. Even though you know where each of the bad guy targets are, you can still slow down and go through the course as though you are having to peek around corners to search for and identify hostiles. You can mentally note what is supposed to represent cover and what is only concealment.

Finally, Sawyers comments about all the other things combat shooters have to keep in mind that competitive shooters don't seems largely irrelevant in my mind to surviving a gun fight with a criminal. I'm not an operator. I don't go on "missions." My concern is the safety of my family and myself.

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