A lot of people probably don’t realize it, but many of the Olympic events that are included in today’s games actually have their origins in mortal combat.

It is not difficult to see how skill in the javelin throw could have benefited a spear thrower in Grecian times; or how the raw power behind a shot put could prove disastrous to an adversary in the field of battle.

The list of Olympic events that embraces combat-applicable skills is long and distinguished—think of sports like wrestling, boxing, archery and fencing.

And don’t forget the rifle, shotgun, and pistol events that are an integral part of today’s modern games.

Self-defense gurus have always emphasized the need for training and practice, especially for those of us who carry and use firearms for personal protection.

Does participating in shooting competitions actually make you a better shooter? Will shooting competitively actually help you survive on the street?

Time to give it some serious thought!

“No” to Raceguns

I have never in my life owned what competition shooters refer to as a “racegun”, nor do I ever intend to own one. If someone gave me one, I would probably accept it graciously, although I have never actually thought about purchasing such a thing, or attempting to build one.

Call me old-fashioned, or pig-headed (or both), but I have always believed that competition should be a form of preparation, and not an end in itself.

I still compete regularly, but have always entered shooting competitions with a view to acquire skills that are translatable into survival tactics. Winning a competition occasionally is nice, but it isn’t the end-all or be-all of the exercise (a least not to me).

Viewing competition as training for actual defensive encounters, I deliberately seek out competitive events which lean towards improving my chances of successfully surviving life-and-death encounters.

Thoughts on Competition Equipment

Now as a shooter, I have always understood the importance of high-capacity magazines.

I have learned to appreciate fiber-optic sights that glow during the day, and Tritium night-sights that glow in the dark.

I have even employed laser sights on my carry guns.

But I have always seriously doubted whether the other accoutrements that accompanied certain types of competition made any sense at all.

Compensators

I seriously doubt, for example, that I would have occasion to fit a compensator on a full-size handgun. The extra length of a compensator would simply make the gun too long and unwieldy to carry concealed, and slow down my draw from concealment.

In many modern competitions, a compensator is affixed to the gun’s muzzle, and is employed to vent violently-escaping gases upwards. Venting these gases upward creates a downward force, which is meant to counteract the gun muzzle’s tendency to rise as the bullet leaves the barrel.

This allows competitors to shoot faster, using more powerful cartridges.

Ported Barrels

This development has trickled down to the defensive handgun market, where many manufacturers now offer “ported” barrels to help the user control recoil.

Now the trouble with ported barrels (especially short ones) is that they sap the expanding gases that are being used to accelerate the bullet. Instead of putting more ‘oomph’ behind the projectile, those gases are bled and redirected upward to counteract the handgun’s recoil.

The objective, of course, is to permit the shooter to employ more powerful cartridges but, to my mind, the whole thing appears to be a self-defeating exercise.

Let’s say you’re firing a .357 Magnum from a 2-inch-barreled revolver. The recoil from such a small gun is apt to be punishing, so you decide to have the gun “ported” to mitigate recoil. What happens is that whenever you fire the gun, a proportion of the expanding gases behind the bullet are diverted by the port holes, and are used to offset the gun’s recoil impulse.

Because you’ve reduced the amount of expanding gases behind the bullet, what happens is that the bullet winds up traveling more slowly. You get a lot more perceived noise and, at night, the gases escaping through the top (or sides) of your barrel are going to be bright enough to ruin your night vision. (Try borrowing a ported handgun if you have a friend who owns one, and experience it for yourself.)

If you have to through all this trouble to fire a .357 Magnum round out of a snub-nosed revolver, my advice would be to get a normal snubbie in .38 Special, instead. You’re likely to get the same results downrange, minus all the fuss and the drama.

Why, then, do manufacturers turn out such things, you may ask? Simply because people want them, and many unenlightened shooters buy such things.

Reduced-Power Ammunition

I also decided that I would never carry underpowered ammunition, for fear it wouldn’t do the job of successfully stopping a violent attack.

Using ammunition loaded to the barest minimum power that will qualify is one way that competitive shooters increase their shooting speed. While the practice produces incredible scores, it has little place on the street, especially when a 300-pound thug high on crack is coming at you with a machete.

Big Reflex Sights

A full-sized red-dot sight on my carry gun would, of course, be positively ridiculous.

The extra bulk would make it even more difficult (if not downright impossible) to conceal, and would likely constitute an unnecessary complication.

And yet, all these extraneous elements appear to have become standard in many handgun shooting contests. To my way of thinking, they render certain competitive events totally unrealistic.

Personally, I enjoy the simpler games that handgunners play, although I have always insisted on playing them with generic, un-specialized equipment. (Preferably, something I can actually use in a gunfight.)

Right now I am looking at the smaller, slide-mounted version of these reflex sights, to see how viable they are on concealed carry pistols. They appear to hold promise, especially for older shooters whose eyesight is no longer what it used to be.

The downside, of course, is that these devices still require batteries, which is an additional complication better left unaddressed in the realm of everyday carry.

Rapid-Fire Competition, Anyone?

One of the gun clubs I joined early on was fairly serious about Olympic-style rapid-fire pistol competition. At the time I signed up, I couldn’t afford an Olympic-grade .22-caliber pistol, so I settled upon a bull-barreled, stainless steel Ruger .22/45 to get into the game.

Did I win any rapid-fire competitions at the club?

Of course not. I was shooting against Walther GSP’s, Benelli’s, Hammerli’s, and the like, so I suffered no loss of face there.

My fellow competitors were using purpose-built race guns, expressly-designed and usually custom-built (with hand-fitted grips) to win a single, very demanding Olympic sporting event. Most of these exotic pistols fired match-grade .22 Short, which has less recoil than the standard .22 LR that the Ruger .22/45 uses.

But I had a lot of fun, and I learned a lot of things that translated directly into defense-related shooting.

Olympic Course of Fire

Rapid fire events are conducted in three segments, and all segments are shot against 5 circular dueling targets standing one meter apart at a range of 25 meters.

In all three segments, you begin while holding the gun in your dominant hand, at low ready.

No one needs to hold a timer to your ear—the targets are invisible until they turn to face you. You raise your gun as the targets start to pivot, and start shooting. The rules dictate that you fire one shot at each target.

In the first segment, the targets disappear after 8 seconds, giving you approximately 1.5 seconds to engage each one.

In the second segment, the 5 targets disappear after 6 seconds, so you have about a second to fire each shot.

In the last segment, all 5 targets disappear after 4 seconds.

Lessons from Olympic Rapid-Fire Shooting

The Olympic rapid-fire course is a very precise exercise, and teaches lessons that are directly translatable into defensive handgun use.

Firing One-Handed

Let’s start with firing strong-hand only. If you’ve fallen into the rut of always shooting with both hands, you’re bound to be flustered the first time you try Olympic rapid-fire shooting.

You’ll need to practice raising your sights precisely to eye level, without having the gun swing past your line of sight, otherwise you’re bound to lose precious time.

Changing Your Stance

Your stance is also going to be entirely different. You’ll quickly discover that it’s better to position the foot on your weak-hand side behind you (in contrast to in front of you, as when you assume a Weaver stance).

Engaging Five Targets

Then there’s the problem of engaging five targets at a time, in one continuous string of fire.

If you’ve never done the “El Presidente” drill before, you’re bound to be in trouble. The classic “El Presidente” requires you to engage 3 targets one meter apart, at a range of 10 meters. You fire 2 shots at each target, reload, and engage each target two more times. To be considered good, you have to do it all in 10 seconds.

The trick to Olympic rapid-fire shooting is transitioning from one target to the next quickly and seamlessly. And to get it all done in a matter of seconds, before your targets disappear.

During the times I was at it, I made that Ruger .22/45 perform as close to a race gun as I could, without any major modifications. The only thing I felt necessary was to replace the original front sight with a slightly wider one, to get a tighter sight picture whenever the gun was held at arm’s length.

.22 Silhouette Shooting

The game in which the .22/45 really shone (at least in my hands) was .22 Silhouette Shooting.

At another club which conducted this event, twenty very small animal cutouts made from steel plate would be spread out over a range of 5 to 25 meters, and you were expected to knock everything down without manually adjusting your sights, in the shortest possible time. Easier said than done—especially when you were shooting against Olympic rapid-fire pistols that fired .22 Short and only held 5 rounds(!)

Silhouette shooting has a way of evening out the odds, however. The rule is that targets not knocked off their perches don’t count as hits.

To my amusement, it sometimes appeared that the .22 Shorts fired from those expensive Olympic raceguns didn’t have enough energy to knock the metal animals off the stands.

Besides which, replacing a 5-round magazine four times wasn’t quite as quick as inserting a 10-round magazine into a gun, twice. I quickly discovered that 10-shot pistols that could fire high- or hyper-velocity .22 LR rounds ruled that competition.

In retrospect, I think it was actually my training in Olympic-style rapid-fire competition that helped me win several of these .22 Silhouette events. The disciplines relating to multiple target acquisition and speed, translated directly into a formula for winning Silhouette matches. Recoil recovery with .22 LR was never an issue (as anyone who is used to shooting 9mm and .45 ACP will testify).

Bowling Pin Matches

Another gun club that I liked to visit regularly sponsored bowling pin matches.

To successfully complete this event, you were expected to knock five wooden bowling pins off the table as quickly as you could, starting from a low-ready position, while standing 5 or 7 meters away from the targets. Bowling pins knocked down but not swept off the table did not count, and you were expected to keep firing until the table was completely cleared of bowling pins.

You could use either a revolver or a pistol, preferably in a caliber powerful enough to knock those heavy bowling pins clear off the table. It was generally recognized that the minimum caliber for a pistol was 9mm and, for a revolver, .38 Special. .40 S&W and .45 ACP were considered better calibers in pistols; so was the .357 Magnum round in revolvers.

Wrong Gun for the Job?

When you’re in the process of raising a family, a second hobby gun doesn’t exactly top the list of priorities, so I saved all of $125 and purchased a well-used, nickel re-plated Smith & Wesson Model 36 with a 3-inch barrel.

OK, I’ll admit it was pretty cocky to buy a 5-shot revolver to compete in an event where you had to knock down 5 targets. Especially when your fellow competitors were shooting 15-shot 9mm pistols or, at the very least, 6-shot revolvers. Like I was repeatedly told, a 5-shot revolver simply left no room for error (!)

But I was happy just to be able to compete, and did my damnedest to make do with what I had. It didn’t matter that the Model 36 had fixed sights, and that the gun shot about 4 inches high and 3 inches to the left at 25 meters.

The bowling pins I was shooting at were 5 to 7 meters away, and misaligned sights didn’t make that much of a difference at those ranges!

Did I ever miss having more than 5 shots in my gun?

Of course I did! Especially whenever I’d hit all 5 bowling pins and one (or sometimes two of them) would topple over but lie down on the table! (Remember—you needed to keep shooting at the pins until the table was clear.)

In cases like that I had to reload as quickly as I could. I discovered the magic of revolver speed loaders, and became quite adept at using them.

Actually, there was no onus to reloading during a bowling pin match—I once saw a fellow competitor with a 15-shot 9mm pistol reload two times, before he could clear the table of bowling pins.

Incredibly bad things can happen when the pressure of competition gets to you.

Lessons from Bowling Pin Shooting

I believe that shooting at bowling pins is pretty good training for defensive shooting.

The range is short—5 to 7 meters—and statistically, that’s where most defensive encounters can be expected to take place.

The discipline requires you to engage multiple targets, at maximum speed.

You need to use a fairly powerful handgun—something that delivers enough force to get the job done.

And most importantly, you don’t stop shooting until all your targets are out of commission.

But, yes, I will personally vouch that with a lot of practice and a bit of luck, it can be done with a 5-shot, short-barreled revolver!

Getting Even with S&W’s 4506

I think that if there was ever a handgun built to dominate the bowling-pin event, the S&W 4506 was probably it.

I picked up this gun much, much later, when budgets weren’t so tight anymore.

As I t turned out, the heavy .45 ACP bullet was perfect for knocking wooden bowling pins off a table, and delivering perfect scores whenever a shooter did his part.

The extra power of the .45 tended to make less-than-perfectly-centered hits more forgiving. In such cases, the big .45 bullets drove the bowling pins into a frenzied spin that would sometimes take more than one target off the table at a time (this was scored as two legitimate hits).

Every now and then I made it happen, but I never learned how to perform the trick deliberately.

Having gotten into the game with a 5-shot revolver, and then switching to an 8+1 pistol, a lot of my fellow shooters opined that I would have been better served by a 9mm with 15 cartridges in the magazine. Not being one to miss that many targets between 5 and 7 meters, however, I felt that the 4506 was all that was needed, and I proved myself right enough times to make some of them change their minds.

(If on the other hand, I had owned a hi-cap 1911 .45 or a Glock 21 at the time, I might have been tempted to employ either of these handguns.)

But in that time and place, my second-generation S&W 4506 worked just fine.

Service Matches

The same gun club that sponsored .22 rapid-fire matches also regularly held Service Matches, in which competitors shoot in various positions and at varying speeds, from 50 down to 7 meters.

It was a course originally designed for revolvers, but pistol users were happily allowed to compete. The minimum calibers were .38 Special for revolvers and 9mm for pistols.

Me? Shoot 50 meters with a handgun?

At that time, the farthest that I had been shooting with a handgun was 25 meters, which represented the longest distance at the indoor range where I usually practiced.

50-meter handgun shooting was something I had never done before, and I instinctively figured that a flat-shooting caliber coming out of a longer-than-standard barrel was what was required.

So I hunted around and managed to acquire an apparently mint-condition Smith and Wesson 586, second-hand.

This revolver had a full-lug 6-inch barrel and was chambered for 6 rounds of .357 Magnum. The fit and finish were both excellent, and the blueing was so deep it warmed your heart. A beautiful example of the gunmaker’s art!

Service Match Course of Fire

The standard Service Match began at 50 meters, firing from the prone position with two hands. Then you switched to the sitting position and fired more shots, finishing up behind a barricade from which you fired, first with your supported weak hand, and then your supported strong hand. There were time limits for each stage and, believe me, that added up to a lot of misses on the dueling target that mocked you from 50 meters away.

Next you fired from 25 meters with both hands, and then from 10 with your strong hand only.

Finially, you were required to fire unsighted (with the gun held below the shoulders) at the 7-meter line. (More misses for the uninitiated.)

Your score for the match is a total of everything you manage to put on the target, with penalties deducted for going over the specified time limits.

Smith &Wesson 586 Performance

How did the S&W 586 do?

Admirably well, when I could properly control it. When you’re trying to put full-house .357 Magnum loads into a target 50 meters away using your weak hand, things have a pronounced tendency to get iffy. Sometimes those shots wouldn’t even be on the paper(!)

Ditto for the first few shots I fired from the hip at 7 meters. Without any indication of where my shots were going (no puff of dust or bullet holes appearing) it was almost impossible to make the proper adjustments for the succeeding shots. (Remember, too, that this was before the age of Crimson Trace laser attachments!)

It wasn’t until a few months after I began shooting Service Matches that I discovered the .38 Special would do just as well as the .357 Magnum for punching holes at 50 meters.

Using .38 Special cartridges in a revolver chambered for .357 Magnum was a dirty business—the shorter .38 Special cartridges fouled up the recesses into which the longer .357 Magnum casings normally went.

This made the revolver’s cylinder holes harder to clean, but the results were worth the effort.

My scores improved, and my hands didn’t hurt so much after a match.

It was almost a year before I discovered that you could actually have .357 Magnum cases loaded down to .38 Special levels.

This effectively solved the fouling issue, and still delivered all the benefits of using .38 Special loads. That was when I really started to enjoy shooting Service Matches!

A Lesson in Reliability

I kept on using that Smith and Wesson 586 for the club’s Police Matches, until one day, the gun’s cylinder locked up and just refused to turn. The crane could not be unlatched, either.

Yup, right in the middle of a match. Not having a spare gun with which to continue, I was disqualified from that match (and rightfully so, I believe). A police officer whose equipment malfunctions doesn’t get DQ’d—he’s lucky if he doesn’t wind up on a slab at the morgue.

That malfunction was eventually rectified and I managed to get the gun working again, but after that incident I knew that particular 586 wasn’t a gun I wanted to keep.

IPSC Matches

Shooting IPSC matches is always challenging.

You have to deal with multiple targets, shoot from a variety of positions (some of them awkward) and more often than not, you have to move from one firing station to another to finish a stage.

The original emphasis in IPSC competition was preparing for real-world encounters, and it still holds true to a large extent to this day.

No two courses of fire are the same, so that you’re forced to think about the best way to successfully engage and score on your targets.

Most stages of fire will also incorporate several “no-shoot” zones, which penalize you if your bullets strike them.

Shooting the CZ75B

My pistol for IPSC matches was a CZ75B.

I had always heard that CZ made excellent pistols, and I was happy to discover that what other competitive shooters were saying was actually true.

Having owned that CZ75B and a good many other handguns besides, I can safely say that for me, the CZ’s grip is about as close to ergonometric perfection as any handgun can take you.

The angle was just right, and the grip supported my hand in all the right places. It offered my hand the correct level of fullness, which always resulted in a fairly tight grip on the gun.

It also ensured that the gun pointed naturally, like an integral extension of my forearm.

The only problem was that the CZ75B employed a damper inside the magazine well, which prevented empty magazines from dropping free from the gun. When you pressed the magazine release button, the empty magazine would pop out, but would not drop to the ground. You actually had to pull it out of the magazine well before you could insert a fresh magazine.

In retrospect, I suppose that the CZ designers did this to keep handgun users from losing their magazines, especially in the dark. I think that when the empty magazine popped out, you were supposed to get a hold on it and tuck it into your pocket or magazine pouch, before going to work inserting a fresh magazine.

IPSC Performance

In spite of the shortcomings I perceived, the CZ75B made me feel right at home at IPSC matches.

Its incredible pointing ability took me from one target to the next with decisive authority.

The gun’s substantial weight prevented over-travel when swinging from one target to another, and mitigated the recoil of full-house 9mm loads quite well.

The sights were honest and put the bullets exactly where you wanted them to go. I had 4 magazines for this handgun, and all of them fed flawlessly.

The fact that the the CZ would not let its magazines drop free was initially a pain and tended to increase my shooting times a bit; but I learned to accept that handicap, and compensate for it by shooting faster and speeding up the other stuff.

I scored well, sometimes in the top 3, and I was happy with my performances.

Final Verdict?

So in the end, I would have to say yes—shooting in competitions should help you survive in the street.

First and foremost, you learn what it’s like to shoot when your adrenaline is pumping. Granted, nothing is going to prepare you for the extreme stress of a life-or-death encounter, but shooting competitively can get you pretty close to it. When you feel the butterflies in your gut as you step up to the line, you’ll know what it’s like to be in a bad situation. Making your way through it and shooting as you go develops a mindset that casual shooting at the range can’t replicate.

Second, you actually gain the skills necessary to shoot better, faster, and farther than you’ve ever done before. You develop a clear idea of what you and your equipment can do in a given time and at a given distance.

Third, engaging in competitive sports shooting teaches you concentration and develops the confidence needed to survive under fire. If you can learn to shoot while gunfire is erupting all around you, you will develop the unique ability to concentrate on hitting what you’re aiming at under adverse conditions.

Finally, you are certain to learn what other shooters are capable of, in the event that you need to go up against people like them in a real-life encounter. Frightening as the prospect may sound, the possibility always exists, and I have always used that as a reality check.

Instead of scaring you into inaction, the thought of being in a gunfight against someone who is as good or even better than you, should inspire you to train harder, in order to shoot better under stressful conditions.

A final word of advice would be to choose the competitive events that you participate in carefully. Make your choice with the end-benefits that you want to achieve in mind. I’ve only presented a few possibilities here, based on what has actually worked for me. I hope these little anecdotes put you on the path towards your own personal development, and turn you into a finely-honed defensive shooter!

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