Safety and Training

Throwback Thursday: Combat Shooting vs. Competitive Shooting

MH-60 Helocast by U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Matt Daniels

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?

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 firearm — stateside or overseas — qualifies you to speak on this topic,. Here we go…

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

Parallels Change with Scenarios

When I asked the former SEAL for his opinion, he stated, “The main parallel I see between combat shooting and competition shooting is 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.

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.

Shooting a handgun through a car windshield
In a combat situation, the bullet may not have an unobstructed path to the target.

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. Sure, they have stress to perform well and it can play on their psych, but it is not the same.

However, a combat operator knowingly goes into a threatening environment, which could cost him his life…and yet he or she still does it. For both, you need to have the training time behind the gun. The training, stress, and tactics are quite different though.

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 competition, 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 ensure 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 vs. 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 a 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.

Woman shooting handgun with instructor
A competent instructors are worth their weight in gold.

“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.”

In the Hot Seat

As an instructor, I tell my students that our job did not start until our 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 breach the doors and we have some good intel about what is inside, but not the whole picture.

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.

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.

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 experience 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.

Bob Campbell drawing 1911 pistol
While the pistol has its place, in combat it is commonly only used when the operator’s primary weapon has failed or run dry.

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.

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, or 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!

How do you train? Do you train differently for combat shooting and competitive shooting? Let us know in the comment section.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in July of 2018. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

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!

Comments (20)

  1. Harold, I know you didn’t mean it this way, but saying your department shoots on average 35-40 suspects a year makes it sound like you’re bragging about a contest you won. I’m sorry; it made me laugh. All kidding aside, you do make some very valid points. I have seen the issue of realistic training arise several times before. A careful review of police training across the country and the world indicates it may occur in cycles. Each generation comes up with what they believe are good ideas, only to have them modified and “improved” by each succeeding generation until nobody can recognize the original program. Then the cycle starts over. As an example, how many people have ever heard of Fairbairn and Sykes fun house? What’s old is new again.

  2. Spot on perspectives! I am a veteran that continues to train and maintain some sort of tactical proficiency, competes in 3gun, and carries for protection. Although you get a little of the elevated heartrate and offhand shooting, ect, in 3 gun shooting, you still dont have to check your 6, consider hard or soft cover, cover any teammates, or evade fire when transitioning firing positions in a match. Nor do you have to consider friendlies downrange, or having to shoot through glass, drywall, vehicles, ect, as well as interaction/compliance with approaching law enforcement, like in a defensive/carry shooting situation. For me, I try to associate the mindset/preparation with the kit which varies with the 3 applications, as well as the firearms being used. The mental prep and considerations differ greatly between the 3 and training reps in all three types of shooting has been important in being able to discern and remain properly tasked mentally.
    Yes I run a Gucci’d out Tangfo comp 1911 style pistol for competitive shooting, I run a custom XD(m)45 as a Tac sidearm and a Lightened Glock 19 with RMR as a carry gun. Although my steel frame hammer gun is silky, and reliable, it took alot to get it there and a couldn’t fathom operating in the desert or emerging from a creek with it, without even considering weather being operated in. Nor could I conceal carry it comfortably with its weight/size considering vehicle operation, ect. The only pistol that can bridge the 3 is th XD(m)45. Although it is difficult to conceal, especially in summer, and is heavier than my EDC gun, I have conceal carried it many times, even with a light, and I have competed with it in heavyweight division, and done very well with it(capacity and accuracy being huge factors).
    Again for me, I try to enter the mindset right a the daily or task driven kit and firearm selection from the safe or case(transitioning when arriving to, or leaving from a competition, as an example). I wouldn’t wear a helmet or armor in a 3 gun match, or try to strap on Quad load rigs in a home defence shotgun scenario, so to speak. Repetition and continuous training is where it’s at!(and a bunch of guns, I suppose, just like the 25 types and sizes of screwdrivers in the toolbox, that expensive, shiny, snap-on driver may not be whats best to do the job at all) KB

  3. I worked for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the largest Sheriff’s Department in the United States. Our Deputies shoot an average of (35-40) suspects a year. We hold proximately (50,000) suspects at gun point every year.

    We have heavy, non-competition triggers on our pistols so we don’t have negligent discharges.

    Light triggers are prone to go off if the Officer is under stress of a life and death decision.

    Since the Competitive Shooters took over the Combat Handguns, every gun is supposed to have a light trigger. Wow. I’ve beaten a number of Big Name Shooters in the Police Olympics and won a Gold Medal in the Master Class in 1992 when each stage represented real life shootings. Then the competitive shooters took over with non realistic scenarios, so that they could win and I stopped going.

    Deputies live in a “Shoot Don’t Shoot” environment that Competitive shooters don’t understand.

    A long time ago, I was invited to the War in Southeast Asia. The “shoot don’t shoot” scenarios were straight forward and obvious between civilians and soldiers——–sometimes.

  4. Based on widely available evidence, anyone who is currently a “member of a federal law enforcement entity” is complicit in treason.

  5. Well written and informative perspective on issues to be aware of during a Code Red scenario. Hope to see more articles on handling real life events.

  6. The contributors to this article raised many valid points. From a civilian perspective I would focus on defensive training and forgo combat oriented exercises unless you are planning a trip into a war zone. The discussion of precision tuned pistols and the problems they create reminded me of the time in the 1980s when Air Force Combat Controllers were using Colt Gold Cup pistols. The Air Force gunsmiths told me they were a bit too delicate and parts kept breaking on them. At the time I owned several customized 1911s, built for me by a retired Air Force gunsmith. I still own them, but they have long been safe queens. Would I have carried one in combat if allowed? Probably, but I am much wiser now and the list of available rugged, reliable, and ergonomically well designed handguns is far longer than it was back then. Hi-viz day/night sights and a strong light are the only customization I do these days, though I am exploring the Red Dot systems as my eyes keep aging.

  7. Thanks for the articles, found them to be very enlitening! Thank you for your service. Blessings.

  8. I took two defensive handgun training courses over the past six months. The biggest takeaway by far is the fact that defensive shooting is nothing like target shooting at the range. In defensive shooting things happen really fast and your response has to be spot on if you want to succeed in a defending yourself. I had to unlearn much of what I have learned with respect to target shooting. The most engaging aspect of the training was a simulated home invasion. Much to my surprise, my breathing and heart rate went off the charts during this experience. When I fired six rounds I wasn’t even sure that I hit the “target” because it all happened so fast. All I can say is if you have not taken a defensive training course you should definitely take one because you’ll learn skills that do not come intuitively to target shooters.

  9. When I first got out of the Army, it took me awhile to become minimally socialized enough to really venture out in polite society. I got a job in one of the larger hospitals in the state I had relocated to. The woman who hired me told me she did not really have a place to put me but she did not want to lose what she saw on my application and the DD 214 copy I had attached to the job form. She decided to put me in the ER. I went there and never really looked back. There were some incidents where a drunk decided to punch out people and I was repeatedly cautioned that I was “TOO AGGRESSIVE” in those kinds of situations. But, almost every one of the drunks’ behavior improved after our initial contact for the rest of their time in the ER and more than one female nurse came to me afterward thanking me for intervening. I was also told after a Disaster Drill that I did not take it seriously enough. I said after what I had seen, it was hard to take people who were not hurt trying to act like they were and they had no clue how people really acted after a true disaster. My boss did not understand what I was saying. SHe had never picked up body parts off the ground.

    After I had been out a year or so, I decided to try some competitive shooting. I found a Smith Model 59 through a cop friend and had a little work done on it. Back then, I did not have enough coin to get a 1911, they were all going for premium prices and those I had seen were a couple of months salary, or more, for me. Too rich for my blood or my paycheck, it was the mid 70’s, after all. I bought ammo and went to the range and practiced, a lot.

    Someone suggested I try competition after watching me on the line. I went to one competition to shoot. There was not a single veteran there, to my knowledge, but all the other shooters knew more about what the real thing was like than I did and told me so, repeatedly. Several people commented to me that they did not think I took it seriously enough and I would never make it in competition for that reason. I did not tell anyone what I had done, where I had been, or any of my background other than where I worked. But, to tell the truth, I did not, could not really take it as seriously as they did. No one was shooting at us. That makes you serious. One arrogant so and so actually told me that if I had been in the Army, I would have been killed my first time out in the field. As much as I could tell from listening to his bluster as he was talking to others, his military experience was just from second hand stories from in-laws, outlaws, cousins, uncles, etc, and maybe movies and TV. I just nodded and said nothing. After I packed it in at the end of that day, I never went back to another competitive shoot.

    Some time after that, I was awakened in the middle of my sleep (I was working 3-11 shift) by the sound of someone going through stuff in my apartment. Some important background here, a friend of mine who was a cop had told me (after I moved in) that my apartment complex was a frequent target of thieves who would raid the place during the day when most of the occupants were at work. A lot of people would come home from work and find almost everything of value had been taken. He didn’t know I was even thinking about this complex or he would had told me before I moved in.

    Just thinking about this incident has raised my heart rate, just like it did then. I had hollowed out the yellow pages from another city to hold my gun and it sat under the white pages on the floor by the phone. Back then, I did not sleep wearing much, read any, clothing. When the sound woke me up, I retrieved my gun from it hiding place, as I said, my heart began to race. I locked the weapon against my hip, with my finger off the trigger and my thumb on the safety, I walked out to where the noise was coming from. To say I was stressed would be an understatement, I struggled to control my emotions as I went into the other room. In my head, I was heading back to a very dark time and place that I did NOT want to be. I was seeing things that I did not want to see.

    It turned out to be a maintenance guy who was replacing something in the kitchen. To see me, with a minimum of clothing holding a gun, albeit not pointing at him, just to the floor was traumatic for him, not to mention what it did to me. As I said, I found myself going back to a very dark time and place that I did not want to be resurrected. He told me he knocked and no one answered so he came in. He also decided that he didn’t have anything more to do in my apartment at that time. He came back a couple of hours later to get his toolkit. I could not go back to sleep and it was a day or two before I did sleep well. I did not renew my lease, and they were good with that.

    From what I have seen and heard, I can tell you NO competition can really compete with being in the field for a week or so at a time, carrying live weaponry, knowing that negative contact was possible, probable, or highly likely, and you were not going to let your guard down until you got back to base, and that was if someone didn’t decide to throw a party of the incoming kind in the middle of the night just to keep you from getting any real rest. Not a contest at all.

  10. This is a really good article. I learned so much, thank you for sharing. And for those of you who served, thank you for your service, both military and law enforcement.

    Don’t forget to head out to the range for range day Friday, it’s always a fun day.

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