Why Competition Shooting is Different Than Combat or Defensive Shooting

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Last Updated on March 27, 2021.

Writer for Minuteman Review, handgun aficionado and artisan firearms reviewer. 

Why Competition Shooting is Different Than Combat or Defensive Shooting

There is no denying that competition shooting is an excellent way for shooters of all ages to practice their favorite hobby. Many competition shooting disciplines go beyond the typical static range, requiring fast movement and good reflexes, bringing together the benefits of a fun day at the range and a good workout.

However, many shooters believe that skill at the range translates into increased effectiveness in a combat or self-defense scenario.

Understand the differences between competition and combat, why competition shooting is not a substitute for combat training and practical shooting, and which alternative solutions you can use instead.


Where All Shooting Begins: The Fundamentals

In the purest sense, practicing any shooting discipline at all - whether it’s hunting, target shooting, competition shooting, military or tactical training, or something else - is better than not.

No matter what your background is, the shooting fundamentals remain the same. If you don’t have the necessary skills to hit the target, you won’t fare well regardless of how serious the situation is.

However, the fundamentals are not the only element that matters.

Competition shooting is about applying shooting fundamentals in the context of a clearly-defined environment with rules and objectives.

In other words, competition shooting is first and foremost a game. Being a skilled competition shooter may improve your fundamentals, but it doesn’t translate to effectiveness in other situations involving shooting, least of all combat or self-defense.

The Three Major Differences

Although it may seem obvious to point out, competition shooting is not a real-world situation. It is essential to avoid approaching defensive situations with a competition shooter’s mindset, as they can drill bad habits and result in severe injury or death.

In a combat situation, marksmanship and shooting fundamentals only provide the basic building blocks to ensure you are competent enough to hit a target. Combat introduces many other essential factors.

Targets do not shoot back!

It doesn’t matter how realistic or fast-paced your favorite competition shooting discipline is. In a competitive shooting environment, your targets don’t shoot back

As obvious as it might sound, this fact is the reason why there is a practical limit to the usefulness of a training or competitive environment.

People with combat experience use the “two-way range” euphemism to refer to actual combat scenarios, emphasizing why there is no expectation of danger or life-threatening risks at the range.

That is not to say there is no danger whatsoever (there is no such thing as zero risks), but the fact remains that a shooting range is intended to be a safe environment for practice, not a simulation of real life.

Cover and movement

Understanding how to use cover is a fundamental element of combat.  

In a combat situation, you must recognize the difference between cover and concealment, know how to navigate from cover to cover and avoid exposing too much of yourself when moving or shooting back.

Although some practical shooting disciplines (IDPA, IPSC…) emphasize movement and speed, moving and running with a firearm at the range is very different from a real-life situation.

Range safety rules tightly regulate all movement with a firearm in the interest of safety. Although strictly enforced, the rules are simple: competition shooters must abide by all gun safety rules and never point their guns anywhere but downrange, keeping their muzzles pointed in a safe direction.

In real-life scenarios, the concept of “downrange” ceases existing, but the gun safety rules still apply, leaving you with the responsibility of recognizing and locating threats before shooting.

Stress under fire

A combat situation is more stressful than any competition. You will be in a confusing mental state, your fine motor skills will degrade, and you might have issues focusing on the target.

People with combat experience expect they will perform worse in combat than at the range or in a competition. Part of having combat experience is knowing how to deal with the stress and impaired physical state, even in life-threatening situations.

Range accuracy vs. combat accuracy

Depending on your shooting discipline, the importance of your firearm’s mechanical accuracy may play a significant role, especially if you must shoot targets at extended distances or print the tightest groups possible on paper.

Your rifle’s minute-of-angle capabilities may be crucial to hitting the target at the range, but in a real-life situation, you only need to be accurate enough to hit and stop an opponent.

To put it more humorously, you only need “minute-of-bad-guy” accuracy in a defensive or combat situation. The NRA uses the term “defensive accuracy” instead, but the principle is the same.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how many MOA your firearm is capable of; if you’ve stopped the threat against your life without endangering innocents, you succeeded.

Although practicing at the range and using quality firearms and ammunition allows you to reduce the risk of hitting an unintended target, there’s no need to obsess over the numbers.


​Good Habits and Useful Mindsets

Sport shooting is an environment dominated by gear and equipment, using the most advantageous and specialized platforms to place the highest score.

In real life, not only will such equipment not help you win a gunfight, but chances are you can’t afford to use, let alone conceal carry, a race gun for self-defense.

Race guns may have all sorts of excellent ergonomic and accuracy-enhancing features, but are you prepared to lose a very expensive firearm? What if it ends up in a police evidence locker and you don’t get it back?

Here are a few tips to keep bad habits and unhelpful competition mindsets at bay:

  • Use the range to practice with the firearms you intend to use for self-defense. It will help you get used to the feel, handling, and recoil, allowing you to develop shooting habits relevant to the firearms you’re most likely to use in a serious situation.
  • Practice shooting in less-than-favorable conditions. Under low-light conditions, with your non-dominant hand, under poor weather, etc.
  • Take tactical shooting classes and CQB training to learn the fundamentals of shooting from cover and navigating in tight corners.
  • Don’t neglect the usefulness of force-on-force training or tools such as airsoft or Simunitions, which can replicate an environment where the targets do shoot back without the risks of using real firearms.


Last Word

There is no denying that competition shooting is plenty of fun and an excellent gateway to improving marksmanship and shooting skills.

However, it is essential to recognize that not all situations involving shooting are equal

The skills learned at the range do not teach you the tactics and movement necessary to survive in a real gunfight. Don’t treat your competition shooting experience as a replacement for tactical training or live combat experience.

Instead, get the appropriate training for the situations you wish to learn to handle; it will help you expand your skill set and broaden your capabilities.