March Madness

It’s that time of year again. A time when the best in the game square off and test their skills, and if they aren’t good enough…they get eliminated.

There you have my thinly veiled metaphor comparing our annual college basketball tournament to gunfighting skill…but it’s a valid one. Shooting a basketball and shooting a gun are both physical skills, and physical skills erode without regular practice.

But it’s not just about shooting, is it? After all, if all a basketball player did was stand and shoot set shots from the free throw line, what chance would you give him in the next big game? (And what if he only shot those free throws a couple of times a year?) In actuality, even if someone were 100% from the free throw line, but that was all they were any good at, you probably wouldn’t even consider them a complete basketball player. In order to be considered a basketball player, they’d need some ball handling skills, right? They’d need to be able to dribble and move with the ball, and do it without thinking about it.

And you’d have to be able to shoot from different distances and angles than just from the free throw line, too. Layups, hook shots, and even some 3-point shots all need to be practiced…and with either hand…to be considered a complete player. And in addition to competence in the physical skills, you’d need to develop some sense of game strategy and tactics; where to move, when to move, and then when and where to take the shot you’re capable of making.

So it is with the defensive pistol. Standing in a lane at your local square range and shooting a paper target at 7 yards is much like shooting free throws. It’s an important skill to have, but if that’s all you can do, you’re probably not ready to play in the big game. And at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, our game is to the death.

So what to do? My suggestion is to get your own March Madness on. In much of the country, this is the time of year when local gun clubs start spinning up their competitive schedule, and as you may already know, I am a big fan of competition for honing pistol skills. Don’t be intimidated to try it. There are all sorts of pistol games out there, for just about any skill level.

One type of match I recommend to get started in the competitive arena is a steel plate match. While some matches, like official Steel Challenge matches, may include drawing from the holster or a little bit of movement, most are much simpler. At a typical club level steel match, you’ll likely be allowed to shoot “off the table,” which is essentially from the low ready position. No holster required, and spare magazines, speed loaders, or moon clips can simply be laid out on the table in front of you. When the timer starts, you will shoot a certain sequence of steel targets for time. There may be a certain order in which you have to engage the targets, and maybe a mandatory reload, but that’s all there is to it.

And although it is relatively simple, the practice you get from shooting a steel match is a lot better than going to a square range and shooting “free throws.” You’ll fire multiple shots, at multiple targets, at different distances, and maybe even do some speed reloads…even on just one course of fire. These matches don’t require a lot of specialized equipment or a ton of ammo, and entry fees are usually a bargain.

The next level would be one of the “action” pistol sports, like USPSA or IDPA. These types of matches do usually require some equipment such as a proper holster and ammo pouches, but they don’t have to be fancy. While you certainly can get into a lot of specialized equipment, it isn’t necessary to get started.

In these matches, shooters will move through a variety of “stages,” or courses of fire which can be laid out in just about any way you can imagine. There will be multiple targets, sometimes moving targets, and some targets which may be partially obscured. You’ll shoot from all sorts of stationary positions, and sometimes on the move, firing multiple shots and reloading as you go. This is great practice for a variety of skills which can be critical in a defensive encounter…no “free throws” here!

Critics will often point out that these pistol games are just that…games…and that they don’t teach proper tactics. That is fair, but I don’t believe it is a problem, as long as you understand what you are getting from the game, and what you are not getting. While pistol competition may not be “tactical,” what it does give you is the opportunity to practice skills that you usually cannot practice on most public ranges. Skills like the draw stroke, multiple shots, multiple target transitions, reloads, moving safely with a gun in your hand, and even the occasional malfunction drill can all be worked in a pistol competition.
And in my opinion, the most important thing that this sort of practice develops is that it makes the mechanical operation of the gun itself automatic. When you can manipulate the hardware without conscious thought, it frees up your mind to solve the problem at hand, whether it is how to negotiate a USPSA pistol stage, or how to defend yourself.

So why not move past just shooting “free throws,” and get into some March Madness this year. Your pistol skills will improve, and you’ll have fun in the process.

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