This section covers the safety rules, skills, equipment, and techniques you must know to become a safe Practical Shooter.
If you learn nothing else from Practical Shooting, learn the four laws that are the foundation of all safe gun handling. Remember that - Someday you will have an Accidental Discharge (AD)! The only questions are when, where, and how. If you are obeying the Four Laws of Gun Control when it happens, it will be scary. IF YOU'RE NOT, IT COULD BE TRAGIC!
So EVERY TIME you pick up or draw a gun, inspect it in a safe manner (control your muzzle) and always treat it as a loaded gun.
The only safe way to operate is to assume the Worst Case Scenario: Pretend that your 'empty' gun is loaded and that it's going to function perfectly. When you press the trigger it will FIRE! Since you are prepared for that, you only point the gun in a Safe Direction. This way, when Brainfade does result in an AD, it will be into a safe impact area and there won't be a tragedy.
Bullets can penetrate lots of things, many of which will surprise you. Identify your target before firing - even before dry-firing at home. If you are not sure, DON'T FIRE! Make sure there is a safe impact area behind it before firing. For home dry-fire practice, find and aim only at a BULLET PROOF BACKSTOP. Even though you have checked and double-checked your gun, you should still treat your gun as though it is loaded. Plasterboard walls and outer walls are not bulletproof. A handgun bullet will easily travel through several rooms before stopping. Who is in these rooms? You don't know, and you still aimed in that direction?! Shame on you!
Almost all of the ADs during a match are caused by a finger on the trigger when you were not ready to fire. Some examples: Finger on trigger during reloading, during movement, during the draw, and during jam clearing have led to ADs and disqualifications (DQs). Finger on the trigger during reloading or movement is a DQ - you don't have to AD - and two ROs are watching for just that. Of the five Match DQs at the 1988 US Nationals, four were ADs.
Owning a gun doesn't make you a safe shooter. It can make you a dangerous one if you are not willing to learn how to control the force at your fingertip.
The application of these basic LAWS of gun safety are applied to the procedures used to run matches. The specifics of match safety are addressed in Section 3.1.
The best advice is DON'T GO OVERBOARD until you understand what you are getting into. Shoot some matches. See if Practical Shooting is really for you. Learn to function under pressure with your chosen gun. If you live where possessing firearms for self defense is legal, it doesn't make much sense to rely on one gun for self defense and put all your practice time and money into another for sport shooting. Still hot to spend? Want a shopping list?
MINIMUM EQUIPMENT - A gun (9mm or greater semiauto, .38 special or greater revolver), belt holster that covers the trigger guard of the pistol ('Uncle Mike's'-style or better), magazines or speedloaders for a minimum of 36 rounds, and eye and ear protection.
GUN BELT - You probably noticed that when you drew, the belt flexed and the holster wiggled. Both are bad. Try a stiff gun belt mated to the holster to hold it in the correct position. Safety rules prohibit you from using your other hand to steady the holster while drawing. You will bedisqualified if you do this. The modern gun belt is about 1/4' thick and has a strip of spring steel inserted by way of the holster to reduce flex even further. For men, the gun belt must be worn at waist level, ladies may wear this belt at the hip bone level. Only one belt may be worn, with all gear on it. Ernie Hill and Safariland are two of the most commonly used brands, but any competent leather worker should be able to make a suitable belt at a reasonable price. There are also 'double-belt' systems that use velcro to join an 'under' belt which is usually worn through the belt loops with an 'over' belt that holds the holster and magazine pouches.
These belts are very convienent for long matches as they allow the shooter to remove the outer belt during lunch breaks or between stages without disturbing the positioning of the mag pouches and holster.
HOLSTER - This key piece of safety equipment is a fine solution to the eternal question: Where do I tuck my gun? The holster must cover the trigger of the pistol and the muzzle must point downward to within 1 meter of the wearer. (See Section 3.1 for more information on match safety regulations.) If you use a nylon holster with a snap or velcro strap, that retention device must be used when holstering the gun. Tie down rigs are prohibited unless it is your duty rig. The holster must also retain the gun through jump and roll tests, yet release it easily when you draw. Again, safety dictates that you can use only one hand while drawing.
You may have noticed the experienced shooters wearing highly efficient high-tech holsters. They seem daringly low cut, but they hold the gun while you go full speed over a 6' wall and permit a smooth draw from the shooting box on the far side. The most commonly used of the high-tech holsters are made by Safariland, Ernie Hill, Gilmore, and Hellweg. There are also a number of excellent 'tactical' holster makers. Police duty rigs are acceptable for competition.
SPARE AMMUNITION is carried in speed loaders or magazine carriers worn on the belt. It is a good idea to have at least 36 rounds available during a course of fire. This usually means 2-6 spare magazines or speedloaders. An experienced competitor will always have enough spare magazines or speedloaders so that there is at least one un-used at the end of a course of fire. The un-used device is 'malfunction insurance'.
A good minimum number of rounds to take to a local match is 150.
GUN - At the least, must be serviceable and safe. It may be inspected at any time and withdrawn from the match if deemed unsafe. A good basic criteria for a competition firearm is that it is accurate and reliable. Guns based on the 1911 .45 design dominate IPSC shooting in one form or another throughout the US, while high capacity 9mms such as the CZ are popular in many countries. Many beginning competitors start out with a stock handgun.
You may be wondering about the value of all the modifications offered. The choice really depends on you and your uses. Is it a match gun, a self-defense gun, or a combination? Let's see what John Shaw - twice IPSC national Champion recommends:
'We all agree that an out-of-the-box .45 (1911 type) is going to need several modifications right off the bat, including sights, a new trigger and trigger job, lowering the ejection port (unless it's a Commander or a Gold Cup) and throating the barrel. If you're just getting started in match shooting, or if you carry the gun on the street, I recommend a high-visibility fixed sight. I recommend either the Wilson or the Millet. You'll need a new front sight as the stock one tends to reflect sunlight. If your gun is a duty gun, however, or one to be carried on the street, you should go with a ramp front to the facilitate drawing the gun from a holster.' (from John Shaw: You Can't Miss)
Look at what other competitors are using, and ask around. Often used guns (especially those built on 'single-stack' frames) are available from shooters who are upgrading their equipment, or getting out of the sport. However, you shouldn't wait to have the 'right' modifications made before you start to play the game. Unless your gun is frustratingly unreliable you are guaranteed to have fun right out of the box.
RELOADING EQUIPMENT - This is the equipment that makes it possible for us poor folk to shoot thousands of rounds of ammo each year. Even if you don't reload your own, it is likely that you will be able to buy reloaded ammunition at half the cost (or cheaper) than commerical ammo. If you choose to purchase reloading equipment and make your own ammo, then you will probably reduce your cost by another 50%. Most reloading equipment pays for itself within the first 1000 rounds or so. Before you buy, ask around at a match, find out what the experienced shooters are using and what they say about it. Most are using some type of modern progressive reloader with an automatic powder drop (prevents empty or double-filled cases). In particular, Dillon equipment is used by the majority of competitors.
CLOTHING - Should allow you full freedom of movement and be adequate for outdoor use in your area. Clubs dislike seeing shooters in camouflage clothing or shirts with those controversial slogans favored by overly armed gun store commandos, It gives us Image Problems. We're sure you'll understand. Matches are run in all weather conditions, so having foul-weather gear (raincoat, gloves, etc.) is suggested. Some competitors are now carrying knee and elbow pads for use in events that require the shooter to go prone or kneeling as quickly as possible. Athletic shoes are also suggested. Many shooters prefer to wear cleats of some kind to assist with traction, especially in muddy or gravelly berms.
EYE AND EAR PROTECTION - Safety or shooting glasses and ear protection IS REQUIRED. Most clubs won't even let you spectate without these. (Sunglasses ARE NOT safety glasses.)
ACCESSORIES - Nice to have: Gun case for transporting your pistol. Bag for spent brass. Carrying bag to tote ammo and accessories around the range (those stools with a bag under the seat are very useful). Thermos and lunch. Pen for scorecards. Calculator for checking scores. Essential to have: whatever paperwork and/or locking devices are required to comply with gun control laws where you will be shooting.
Most Practical Shooters have already taken a firearm safety course from their club or another source. In some places (eg. Canada) you will be required to take an IPSC training course before competing in a sanctioned match. Practical Shooting challenges you to integrate body and mind as you explore the limits of the man-machine combination. This involves a whole new set of unfamiliar gun control skills. To help improve your safe gun handling and shooting, we've prepared a summary of points to remember, and skills to practice. Study this first, then practice, SAFELY.
ACCURACY is fundamental. Align the front and rear sights. Focus on the front sight. Press the trigger without disturbing the sight alignment. Make sure that your gun is sighted in at a medium distance, such as 25 meters. Know where it prints at longer and shorter ranges. Shoot slow-fire groups and work on trigger control. Successful IPSC shooting will result from learning to be accurate quickly. You cannot miss fast enough to win.
Fast and accurate shooting is aided by proper grip and stance. Watch the better shooters in your local club and imitate them. Read Brian Enos' and J. Michael Plaxco's books on Practical Shooting. Both books have excellent sections on developing a 'freestyle platform' for IPSC competition. Often 'Master' or 'A' ranked shooters will offer lessons in competition techniques which can accelerate the learning curve for a beginning competitor.
J. Michael Plaxco suggests that you should always strive to shoot a minimum of 85%-90% of the possible points on a stage. If you are shooting 95%-100% of the points, you should speed up. If you are shooting less than 85% of the points, you should focus on accuracy.
FIRST MAKE A HOME SAFETY INSPECTION - Most of your house or apartment is unsafe for dry fire practice - particularly if there are people wandering in and out of the rooms around you. Apartment dwellers have a real problem - where ever they look there are thin walls and people. Floors, ceilings and walls are NOT BULLETPROOF! Look around until you find a solid wall that will stop an Accidental Discharge. A basement room would be ideal. If you have a gun safe, the inside of the safe or the inside of the door is a good place to aim. ONLY PRACTICE IN A SAFE AREA!!
ALWAYS INSPECT THE WEAPON BEFORE DRY FIRING - The first drill should always be CHECK YOUR WEAPON: Draw, point in a safe direction, ease the slide back to check for loaded chamber or magazine, ease it forward, AIM at a safe impact area, and press the trigger. No BOOM? OK, begin your practice. Check EVERY time you pick up a gun, even if you just set it down.
PRACTICE DRY FIRING - You don't have to fire a round to improve. Ten to fifteen minutes a day spent in practicing and refining your draw and fire, flash sight picture, reloads (empty magazines!), and pivots, etc. will pay off in increasing smoothness and speed. Dry firing does not bother a good gun, but dropping the slide on an empty chamber DOES nasty things to that nice trigger job. If the gun is empty, EASE the slide home. And keep your hand away from the muzzle when you do it!
Make a set of miniature targets and No Shoots out of cardboard. If available, check the course of fire diagrams and arrange them on that SAFE WALL to simulate the target arrays for the next match. Now practice smoothly drawing, aiming, pressing the trigger, and shifting between targets. Top shooters use mental conditioning and visualization techniques to improve their performance. Plan how you're going to shoot that stage. Try a walk-through. Go through the motions. Experiment and refine your movements. It works.
There are a number of different draw and fire styles. This style is simple and basic. As you do it, THINK: Smooth, flowing motion, rhythm, economy of motion, direct movement, FRONT SIGHT.
This description is based on a .45 automatic in a strong side holster. Revolver users: make needed changes.
GRIP - Your gun hand approaches the stock from above. It grips the pistol in a full firing grip. The thumb rests on the safety. The trigger finger is OUTSIDE the holster, parallel to the slide, ready to point at the target. At the same time the other hand moves into the GRAB position: forearm horizontal, fingers pointing straight towards the target, ready to mate with gun hand, hand clear of the path of the gun.
CLEAR - The gun is drawn up out of the holster until the muzzle just clears. You can feel the energy being stored in the shoulder, like the winding of a spring.
POINT - Your eyes are focused on the target. Now point your extended trigger finger at the target. Your shoulder drops, releasing energy as the gun punches DIRECTLY at the target (No arcing!). Meanwhile, back at the other hand...
SMACK & CLICK - The other hand travels out and up from below to meet the gun hand in front of your belly button. Make sure that the muzzle of the moving gun NEVER points at (covers) the weak hand. They smack together and interlock into a solid two-handed grip. The isometric push/pull pressure begins. The thumb flicks the safety down (off) and (1) rests on it or (2) continues down. (This is determined by your hand size. If option 1 gives you erratic performance of the grip safety, then try option 2. In both cases the thumb is captured by the other thumb.)
It is also possible to disable the grip safety, but if you own the gun for self-defense purposes,it is not recommended. On a firearm intended only for competition, disabling the grip safety (provided there are other safety mechanisms remaining) is allowed under IPSC rules.
SIGHT - Isometric push/pull tension increases to the max. Gun moves to eye level and the eyes shift focus from target to front sight to obtain the flash sight picture. The front sight is in sharp focus, the target behind it is fuzzy. The center of the first pad of the trigger finger rests on the trigger.
SURPRISE BREAK - While you are focused on the front sight, the trigger finger presses to the rear. When the gun fires, it should be a surprise. If not, you blew the shot. Continue to focus on your front sight. You want to line it up for the next shot. Avoid the desire to peer over the sights at the target (and miss).
THE RANGE READY POSITION - Take your finger off the trigger and return it to the 'pointer' position on the frame. Flick the safety ON as you lower the gun. Thumb rests atop safety. Grip remains the same but the pressure eases. Break at the elbows and bring your upper arms in until they rest against your chest. Your forearms and gun are level. The gun points down range into the berm.
In our version, the gun points into the berm, not at the ground (often seen) because of SAFETY. A bullet hitting the floor of the range will ricochet. You can move in this position (muzzle always pointed safely down range) and rapidly raise the gun to fire.
GETTING SMOOTH - Speed in shooting comes from smooth motions. Smooth motions come from economy of motion. All surplus movement is eliminated. The gun moves from holster to 'on target' with no wasted effort. To learn and practice this, watch yourself while you draw in slow motion. Examine and experiment with each segment of the draw. Eliminate all waste and unsafe movements. Soon you'll begin to feel a smooth flow of movement. You can do this at home without firing a round.
RELOADING (during a course of fire, for semi-autos) Remove your finger from the trigger guard and bring the gun toward you with your strong hand until it is about chest level, muzzle still pointing downrange. At the same time, press the magazine release button with your strong hand thumb and get your fresh magazine with your weak hand. You will probably have to shift your grip on the pistol so that your thumb can easily reach the magazine release. If you shift your grip, be careful to keep the muzzle pointed downrange at all times. Look at the magazine opening of the gun, and seat the new magazine with the palm of your weak hand. Re-establish your two-handed firing grip and continue shooting.
A few things to avoid if possible: (1) don't use both hands to remove the spent magazine. You should be reaching for the new magazine with your weak hand at the same time that you are pressing the magazine release. (2) Make sure that the new magazine is completely seated before moving the weak hand to the firing grip. Some competitors choose to load their magazines one round short of full to make the magazines seat more easily. Depending on the course of fire this may be an acceptable option. (3) Watch your muzzle. When bringing the gun toward them many beginners have a tendency to turn the gun so that it points near the 180 degree line. The best way to avoid this is to rotate your strong hand's wrist as you are bringing the gun toward your chest. This brings the magazine well opening into view and leaves the muzzle downrange. Don't rotate your hand, however, until the magazine has dropped free of the handgun.
MOVEMENT - is often required during a course of fire. First and foremost, be aware of your muzzle. As you are moving through a course of fire an imaginary line extends 90 degrees left and right of you parallel to the back of the berm. If at any time your muzzle points outside this 180 degree zone (eg. uprange), you will receive a match disqualification. You are most likely to violate the 180 degree rule while moving. For this reason you should be aware of your muzzle at all times. Keep your finger out of the trigger guard while moving. When you arrive at the next shooting box, make sure you have an acceptable sight picture before firing.
If you are going to miss, it is more likely to happen as you are entering or leaving a shooting box, as you rush the shot. During your first few matches you should be concerned with safety and not speed. Walk between shooting boxes, concentrating on keeping your finger out of the trigger guard and muzzle downrange. With practice the safe gun handling will become 'second nature', and starting with correct habits will prevent embarassing and possibly dangerous mistakes later.
STRONG HAND, WEAK HAND, PRONE, BARRICADES, AND OTHER OBSTACLES Keep muzzle downrange while assuming whatever position is required. If shooting from a window or barricade, avoid using the barrier as a support. Use both hands to clear jams (no penalty for doing this even if one-handed shooting is required). For one-handed shooting, develop a consistent place to put the un-needed hand. This spot varies from shooter to shooter - experiment with what works for you. Many shooters fold the un-used arm across their chest for stability. For prone shooting, practice shooting groups starting in prone, and then practice getting into that prone position starting from a standing position. When opening doors, be careful to have your weak hand clear of the muzzle before drawing. Often course designers will require you to open the door with your strong hand to remove the possibility that someone will 'cover' their weak hand while opening the door. Again, safety is more important than speed.
SPEED vs. ACCURACY - New shooters often ask how to get fast. It's best to forget fast and concentrate on hitting the target. You can't get fast enough to make up for misses, but you can get carried away and have an AD. Speed will come with practice and increased smoothness. Don't worry about it. Concentrate on mastering the basics. Find a speed that will allow consistent 'A' hits at 10 meters. Mentally emphasize smooth hand movement to the weapon, smooth presentation to the target, front sight focus. Gradually increase the speed until your group opens up. Slow down again until all hits are in an acceptable group. Then move back to 15, 25, and 50 meters and repeat the process for each range. This will give you a sense of the pace needed to get results at various ranges. If you are forced to practice at a 'shoot one - load one' range where drawing is not permitted, practice your presentation from the Ready position. It works. A mastery of bullseye shooting pays off for a Practical Shooter.
As you progress in your practice, add in other skills on top of drawing and firing. Add multiple targets, reloads, and no-shoots. Practice shooting groups from strong-hand, weak-hand, and prone. If possible, set up multiple shooting boxes and practice moving from box to box. Some clubs have 'practice days' where a group of shooters will set up and shoot complex courses of fire multiple times.
A shooting timer is useful as the focus of your practice sessions shifts from developing safe gunhandling skills and accuracy to increasing speed. Timers are available from $130 and up, and provide the capability to measure draw time, split times, reload times, and other skills. You can use the points and time to establish a baseline against which to measure progress. It also makes a difference in making practice more like competition in that you will be shooting against the clock.
Everyone has a different body geometry. Developing a personal shooting style takes research and experimentation. You are searching for what 'feels right' for YOU. Try different ideas and techniques. Get a practice notebook. Take notes. Write down the exercise, the scores and your comments. You can track your progress and improvements.