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Combat Shooting Versus Competitive Shooting: Similar but Different

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Are there differences between combat shooting and competition shooting? The answer is yes. Likely, this blog does not have enough room to cover all the aspects of this argument, but let’s touch on the subject anyway. As for that fact, let’s talk to some of the guys I know and get their opinions and ideas as well; the more the merrier, right? How about a Navy SEAL shooter and a federal officer?

In competition shooting, seldom is the shooter’s life in danger.

I think they qualify to speak on this week’s topic about the differences between combative shooting and competition shooting. These gentlemen both were kind enough to write about this subject. The first is a well-known and respected former Navy SEAL. He knows his stuff. The second was featured on Top Shot season two and is a well-respected member of a federal law enforcement entity. I would trust both of these men with my life. I am not declaring myself an expert on this topic. However, I know hundreds of guys who have way more combat shoot-outs than I do—is that a good thing? From Army and Marine servicemen to California police officers. In my opinion, I think just one combat use of your weapon state-side or overseas, qualifies you to speak on this topic, so here we go…

Parallels Change With Scenarios

When I asked the former SEAL his opinion, he stated, “The main parallel 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 couldn’t be further apart from each other. One of the main points to consider in combat shooting is that your life is in jeopardy. This is simply never the case in civilian competition shooting. In my mind, that’s far and away the largest factor to consider.”

The law enforcement representative then said, “OK, I’ll try to keep it as simple as I can and not be too drawn out. As for how they are similar, both involve intense training: hours and hours of trigger time, weapons handling and fundamentals, and pushing yourself beyond the basics. They involve safety while requiring being very highly in tune with your firearm. It has to be an extension of your body to be proficient at it to the level of actions without thinking.

Shooting a handgun through a car windshield

In a combat situation, the bullet may not have an unobstructed path to the target.

It takes approximately 5,000 to 8,000 repetitions of a certain action before the body commits it to muscle memory. Both combat and competitive shooting share this. Where they differ is environment, mindset, objective, psychological factors, physical stressors, and oh yeah, the big one…bullets coming in your direction.

In competitive shooting, it’s usually a shooter going through a set course without having to worry about being pursued or engaged by a threat. With combat shooting, you expect to be shot at and still perform. That being said, the environment for competitive shooting is not threatening and, sure they have stress to perform well and it can play on their psych. However, a combat operator knowingly goes into a threatening environment, which could cost him his life…and yet he still does it. For both, you need to have the training time behind the gun. But the training is quite different.

Training to shoot a bullseye can carry over to combat shooting—to a degree—when you want to be accurate. Combat shooting rarely transfers over to competition. Combat shooting involves administering trauma to a subject to render them incapable of continuing to be a threat. In competitions, the goal is to hit as many targets as you can, accurately and quickly, moving to the next target without any further concern. Combat shooting involves hitting targets that pose a threat to you or your team and ensuring they continue to be a non-threat or addressed again. Concern is given to always watch your six and make sure the threat is down and secure.”

Now if you think these two do not know what they are talking about, or have not put the time in to study the profession of being a gun fighter, I can’t help you!

Under Stress Training Video cover

Is it possible to replicate combat stress in training?

Competition Stress Versus Combat Stress

What about stress in a competition versus stress in a combat situation? How does stress play into shooting and accuracy?

The former SEAL summed it up for all three of us by saying, “In a life and death fight, the stresses on the shooter can be extreme, depending on his background, level of training, mental preparation, and actual combat experience. One thing I’ve noticed about my own reactions to sudden, violent confrontation over the years is the lack of significant increase in heart rate. Looking back on my own experiences growing up as a fighter, I clearly remember getting a massive adrenaline rush and an elevated heart rate to the point that my fighting actually became less effective with the physiological symptoms that come with an extreme elevation in heart rate.

Over the years, with additional exposure to violence, I found myself much calmer under these conditions and making much sharper decisions, fighting much more effectively. The same dynamic applies to fighting with weapons as well. There is no difference in physiological effect. A shooter who gets too amped is still likely to experience auditory exclusion, loss of dexterity, tunnel vision, repetitive tendencies, and lack of mental clarity. All these things are detrimental in a modern firefight.

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. In combat, at least the spec-ops combat, most of us are familiar with these days; the considerations of the shooter are many. The first glaring difference, after the fact that his life is in danger, is that it’s not all about him. He has specific responsibilities that are part of a coordinated effort. Let’s face it, in a spec-ops unit, we’re not worried about getting shot so much as we’re worried about failing to cover our sector, or clear our zone. We worry more about which of our brothers, our teammates, would get shot. In a tactical unit, we are together to accomplish what we can’t do alone. Our effectiveness of the unit is far greater than the mere sum of its parts. In single-man civilian shooting competitions, there is no such consideration.”

Woman shooting handgun with instructor

A competent instructors are worth their weight in gold.

In the Hot Seat

As an instructor, I tell my students that our job did not even start until your heart rate got to around 150 bpm or above. If you can still perform teamwork and utilize your tactics and techniques in that zone, then you have been trained well. Imagine a USPSA shooting course that lasted four to eight hours, and that might be similar to what you would feel in a Troops in Contact (TIC) situation. At other times, the TIC may only last a few minutes. Either way, the adrenaline you feel is the same.

I think this is one of my biggest problems when I go to a USPSA shoot. I am too informal about the whole course of fire and do not focus enough. For my first five or six competitions, I did not even do a walk through. On the course, I saw people taking minutes to rehearse over, and over again, and I did not understand. In military training, they just give an unknown scenario and throw you into it. A shoot house is a perfect example. A team of assaulters is ready to breech the doors and we have some good intel about what is inside, but not the whole picture.

A perfect example of this was the Bin Laden raid. That assault force ran into children used as decoys, they ran into fake rooms with brick walls behind doors, and so on, but were still able to perform the entire house clearing, from infiltration to exfiltration to done in less than 50 minutes! There was no walk through. There were rehearsals, I guarantee, but that is another huge difference.

Todd Jarrett, in white ball cap and neon yellow shirt shows off his shooting skills at the USPA Steel Challenge

Competition shooting has rules and classifications that simply do not exist in combat.

The one other thing I am still getting used to, are rules. Now I know you have to have rules for any, and all, types of competition, but I have always found it ironic that gun fighting has rules. What gun I can use? Really? How about whichever one I bring to the fight? What holster, what ammo, what power factor and on and on and on. I have always felt these “rules” put on people in competitive shoots will actually be a crutch against them in a real defensive scenario, with one of the biggest crutches being the weapon itself.

I asked our SEAL what he thought about this same topic and he pretty much ended the story with this response, “Civilian shooters love their tricked-out 1911 race guns, which work so smoothly on the range when perfectly clean and lubed, with just the right ammo. In combat, such a “princess” gun is a liability that cannot be tolerated. In my experiences at the Tier-1 level, and as an advanced tactical instructor, I have seen more malfunctions from fancy 1911s than any other weapon; period. I have seen them fail in JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] demonstrations to Congress. I’ve seen them fail on ranges, with sights falling off, failures to feed, eject, and so on.

The SWAT cops, who were so proud of their fancy guns, were scratching their heads, wondering how their precious works of art could embarrass them so badly. With a weapon that is finely-tuned, with very tight tolerances, and geared for downloaded ammo, there just seems to be a far, far greater incidence of malfunction, especially with the introduction of any foreign material, like a bit of sand, carbon, or lack of lube, to name a few. This is unacceptable in a weapon being counted on for survival. In combat, the weapon MUST fire; period.

Bob Campbell drawing 1911 pistol

While the pistol has its place, in combat it is commonly only used when the operators primary weapon has failed or ran dry.

Murphy’s Law demands that when you need your sidearm, you’re in a fight for your life that is so pressing that your primary has already gone down, or gone dry and there is no time to correct it. Now you are down to your pistol. Are you hit? Where? Your primary hand? Are you bloody now? How banged up are you? Helicopter crash? How many are coming for you? How close are they? How many of your teammates are hit? What is your position relative to your teammates? Do you need to move to continue covering them as you press the assault? Are you winded? Night vision focused, or splattered with anything? Are you covered in bile, spinal fluid, feces, dirt from blasts, hydraulic fluid, dust in your eyes, night blind by a blast you didn’t expect? Wearing a gas mask, sucking wind like a lung-shot buffalo? Heart rate screaming? Now shoot your civilian race gun with your weak hand!”

Shooter! Are You Ready? Standby…

Thanks for reading, and again, this is just a light sprinkle on this topic. I love shooting in competition and I currently have a D rating in the USPSA. Something about those classifier stages that matter or something. Anyway, I suggest that you also take the time to take a concealed carry course or a tactical course. They are all over the country and very affordable; if you do not think so, just ask yourself how much is your life worth, or your family around you? Now go shoot something!

The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!’s blog, “The Shooter’s Log,” is to provide information-not opinions-to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!



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