Can competition shooting skills help you in combat? Can lessons learned in combat make you a better competition shooter?
Combat marksmanship (CMMS) are the shooting skills that directly relate to tactical applications like war or law enforcement. Competitive shooting focuses on skills that can be applied during matches and usually follow a set of rules and regulations.
There’s one glaring difference between combat and competition: competitors don’t have to worry about getting shot back at. The “two-way range” experienced by the military and law enforcement and the unknown location of potential targets means much of the training must be handled differently. Both cover and concealment can be lifesavers. Shooting while moving is paramount when cover isn’t available.
There are a few other key differences.
The Unknown vs. the Known
Predictability is another huge difference. Competitive shooters usually get a walk-through of their stages and get to watch others shoot them before they shoot. Most targets are stationary and even the ones that do move follow a set and fairly universal trajectory. Thus, the shooter can anticipate where to stop, the angles to shoot at, and when to reload. Targets require a set number of shots to score a “kill.” The real world is nothing like that. Targets appear and disappear. They move at odd angles and vary their speeds. Some will go down with one shot, while others may require ten or more. A soldier can go from standing at a checkpoint yawning for 10 hours to being in a life or death shootout with explosions and automatic gunfire in an instant. Life compared against a competitive stage is both unknown and unpredictable.
Single Task vs. Multi-task
In a combat situation, a person needs to be able to multi-task efficiently, while in competition shooting a singular focus is required. Being able to tune out the shots from the stage on the range next to you, the other competitors talking behind you, or your phone vibrating in your pocket are what high level competitors do, and that helps make them successful. Cultivating awareness of the situation and the surrounding environment is necessary to survive and thrive in an actual gunfight; one must be able to return fire accurately without depleting ammunition too quickly, communicate where the threat is to others, coordinate with other units or cells on the radio, treat casualties, direct air attacks, move to better fighting positions, etc., without becoming overwhelmed by the events.
Universal Shooting Skills
• Speed: going from the holster, high/low ready, or depressed muzzle to shots on target can mean life or death in combat, and can mean crucial seconds in a match.
• Accuracy: in combat, accurate fire ends the engagement. In competition, accurate shooting (combined with speed) is how you win matches.
Unique Target Shooting Skills
• Planning: you know the course. You can mentally rehearse how you will tackle it.
• Timing: knowing when to change magazines and how to transition between targets will save seconds on each stage.
• Magazine Changing: in a competition, everything is done against the clock, so the faster you can change a magazine, the faster you complete the stage. In combat, you start with full magazines and can do tactical magazine changes during lulls in the action, transition to a different weapon, get behind cover and change magazines, or change magazines while a team member provides fire. (I’m not saying it isn’t important to know how to change magazines in combat, but it’s so much more important for competition shooters).
Unique Combat Shooting Skills
• Problem Solving: no one is explaining the stage to you. You need to figure it all out. Also, understand you don’t have a berm for a backstop, so anticipate what will happen to your rounds if you miss.
• Angles: find the angles that help you neutralize the threat. Watch the angles that are a threat to you. Threats can appear in all 360 degrees, as well as vertically.
• Threat Assessment: keep shooting a threat until it’s no longer a threat. Sometimes it takes one shot, sometimes it takes one magazine. In a split second, you may need to weigh the options of transitioning from one target to the next after one or two shots without knowing if it’s completely neutralized, or finishing one target off before moving to the next one.
To answer the questions posed at the beginning, competition shooting can definitely make you a better combat shooter if you can separate yourself from range rules (especially the one where you can’t break 180 degrees with your gun or you have to shoot certain targets a certain number of times). Being in combat can help inoculate you to the stress of a competitive stage, but won’t help you shoot faster and more accurately in a match. Practicing CMMS will improve your overall marksmanship, but unless you isolate certain skills, it may not translate as well to competitions. It may even cause you to use cover during a USPSA match which is completely unnecessary and will cost you valuable time.
In the end, the important part to remember is what are you training for and why.
The author wishes to remain anonymous. He’s spent over a decade in Special Forces and is still active in the SOF community. He participates in shooting competitions as a form of cross-training and as a reminder of how much work he still needs to do.