By order of a career-related circumstance (company picked up the entry fee) my first experience at a legitimate, organized shooting competition was a National level ordeal. The year was 2011, during the height of 3-Gun’s blazing growth phase, and the event was a major match in Arizona, pitting nearly 300 of the Nation’s top shooters against each other. I remember scanning the crowd of jerseys, under-impressed by the bearing and appearance of the standard issue competitor, but also reminding myself to not judge a book by its cover. I was 30 years old, I had plenty of hard-earned gun experience, and I had grown accustom to generally standing out among my peers in shooting related activities. While I was uninitiated to organized competition, in my mind the forthcoming match was nothing more than an opportunity to unabashedly demonstrate real skills in a pool of small fish. By the end I was 164th place and had never been so powerfully humbled in all my life.
My ego’s extensive defense mechanisms started coordinating their assault on the truth as I subconsciously began crafting excuses. This isn’t real shooting, I thought. The skill-sets are totally different than what’s required in a gunfight. I continued by criticizing the game. Those guys are playing with toys! They’re not even treating them as weapons! Thankfully I got that shit in check before verbalizing any of it and publicly salting the wound of insecurity with poor sportsmanship. I thought first that I might never want to shoot another 3-Gun match. I focused on all the things I didn’t like about it, and reinforced my weakness by convincing myself that I’d develop bad habits for combat shooting if I continued to play this game. In the part of my brain where pride doesn’t live I knew it was all garbage. I knew that I performed poorly that day solely because I was unprepared and lacked the skill necessary to win. Most importantly I knew good and well that combat shooting and sport shooting fully compliment one another and all my effort to disparage that truth was nothing more than me making excuses for my poor, damaged pride.
After some consideration and a fair amount of mental convalescence, I decided to examine the relationship between real-world gun work and competitive shooting in order to find elements of the latter that I would enjoy focusing on and improving my skill. I asked myself: What are the archetypal elements to a successful gunfight? Besides luck and lack of opponent’s skill of course, the answer is clear:
- Mental Control
- Weapons Handling Skills/Marksmanship
- Preparation/Tactical Advantage
- Physical Agility/Speed/Endurance
In sport shooting of any kind, and particularly the action shooting sports like 3-Gun, nothing about these elements wholly change. The obvious variation is that no one is shooting back at you, but that statement follows the same line of preemptive ego sustainment mentality I so cowardly fell into after my own first match. When I really looked at it, and really considered root level skill development, I could find no detraction to combat skill in the training and preparation for competitive shooting sports. Let’s dive in a bit deeper.
Mental Control: Performance anxiety is the closest thing I have found to combat stress. I suggest that the Veteran readership of this piece will agree; the thought of failing openly in battle is far more terrifying than battle itself. Forget the enemy, letting one’s Brother in Arms down during a moment of truth constitutes the single most horrific thought in a Warrior’s conscious mind. Guess what that fear is? Performance anxiety. I have felt a bite-size portion of that terrible, yet exhilarating emotion every time I have waited for the buzzer to go off in competition, or approached a station on a clays course, or attempted a tough shot in a precision match after my name was called on the firing line, my peers observing the results. Every single time, without exception. To compete regularly is to expose oneself to that anxiety, and to improve our ability to cope with it; to remain focused and in control while in the face of fear. That’s good brain food.
Weapons Handling Skills and Marksmanship: Make no mistake; practical sport shooting is a game. Stages are designed to be fun and challenging, not to prepare you for your next dance with the devil, but it ain’t going to hurt your odds. Look at the macro elements: speed and accuracy, properly set up equipment that you’re familiar with, ammunition management, oh, and SAFETY!!! These practices find themselves equally relevant in scenarios of violence, and to argue that is pointless. Believe me I tried.
Tactical Advantage: About 2 stages into my cherry match in Arizona I found myself criticizing the game on the premise of the walk-through; a five-minute prep time to allow 3-Gun competitors to mentally plan their approach to the stage. I remember thinking how ridiculous everyone looked as they physically rehearsed their plan. Not gonna have that luxury in a gunfight my subconscious protested as I prepared to post yet another lack-luster stage finish. In my self-loathing and disappointment I failed to recognize the walk-through as a form of training, simply on a condensed timeline. Rehearsals are a pre-mission necessity practiced with discipline by any self-respecting and fundamentally grounded special operations unit. Why not knock one out before you head into a 3-Gun stage?
On the battlefield, geometry of fires is a chief consideration in establishing tactical superiority. Maneuvering to points of domination with advantageous fields of fire remains a constant priority. As such, the ability to analyze terrain and identify what that topography looks like, and how to achieve it in the most efficient manner is a worthwhile study for any discipulus bellum. This exact concept quite typically separates the men from the boys in practical shooting competitions. Efficiency and position set-ups that make the best use of the competitor’s equipment and skills related to the target to be engaged. Between fight and game, the only variation in this practice is the use of cover and concealment. Though the real advantage in training value comes from the aspect of problem solving, a skill found to be quite useful by veterans of violence.
Physical Ability: Face the music. Everything is better when you’re fit. Phenoms and anomalies do live among us, but they are the exception and not the rule. And they too would be better if they were fit. Fitness feeds confidence, and confidence feeds mental control – the principle element of success. Physical Training for competitive shooting need not be the most athletically arduous endeavor you set forth on, but without question, is an element of success.
In no way is this to suggest replacing focused tactical training with sport shooting as a means to prepare oneself for armed conflict. To the contrary, I hope to remind those individuals committed to such preparation that this other world of gun-based activity exists. Get out there and try something. You may just expose a chink or two in your armor, and more importantly, discover a way to strengthen it.