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:

  1. Mental Control
  2. Weapons Handling Skills/Marksmanship
  3. Preparation/Tactical Advantage
  4. 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.


  • garcia96099

    Dude… it takes a tremendous amount of courage to write such a thing. I’ve been maligned for being a “coach” of champions because I wasn’t (at the time) a master gunner. I had been before, school house trained, and a successful one at that. But apparently once you go down the road to competition, you’ve lost your mind.

    Being a master of skill is no secret. There is even a repeatable process to follow to achieve remarkable results.
    Here it is:

    Plan: Identify threats, conditions, requirements which necessitate capability requirements

    Resource: Determine what resources are required to deliver capabilities

    Train: Imparting of knowledge through lecture, study, reading, interactive learning, understanding theories, terms, concepts, characteristics.

    Practice: The doing. Applying knowledge gained during the execution of the elements trained upon, in a practical application. AKA rehearsals, drills, dry fire, simulators, etc., We do this with the goal of progressing from conscious competence (thinking while doing) to unconscious competence – the subconscious mind executes tasks correctly in the most fluid and efficient manner.

    Compete: The pressure test in a controlled environment. This is the part of development that presents individuals and teams with opportunity to apply the skill (both conscious and unconscious) through adversity. The individual or collective skill being pressure tested is gained through planning, resourcing, training and practicing, and challenged through controlled ambiguous and stressful circumstances in competition.

    Although these elements are described in linear order, or in a cyclical fashion, the best administration of this development model blends each of these so that they are happening concurrently to maximize efficiency and quality of production.

    The dissenting opinions indicate that competition is seen as a separate, adjunct, entity. A game separate and unrelated to training is the way most organizations participate in competition, unfortunately. Yet, it is not the best way to incorporate competition into development of our nations gunfighters.

    The goal of all institutional training programs is “Mastery.” Yet, training is really only a part of human individual and collective development, and not the most important part either. The reason most organizations never get past a skill level that I would label “familiarization” is because they’re always “training,” metaphorically stuck in a low gear, as evinced by your performance in the 3 gun match you described above.

    Institutional training alone will never deliver its learners to mastery through training alone.

    Train, Practice, Compete are the key elements, but it isn’t necessary that they happen in a linear or cyclical fashion, ideally they happen at the same time, in the order and amount as determined by the level of measured unconscious competence of both the learner and the instructor. By unconscious competence, I mean doing a thing correctly and efficiently without deciding to act or being aware of the steps required to act correctly, given a set of conditions they just execute, there is no conscious decisions evaluating courses of action as the correct course of action is apparent subconsciously, it’s the right action given the circumstances on the face of it, and it’s done correctly, and efficiently in any conditions or circumstances.

    Professional trainers that believe competition is nothing more than a game are in the wrong business, after all isn’t mastery the goal? If the goal is execution of training for the sake of training, then a trainer can do that all day on his head. I think that’s what most organizations do and why they’re not satisfied with results in skill.
    With gun fighting, American’s believe that skill at arms is a god given birthright of all Americans. In each of our hearts there is a warfighter wanting to fight like he’s Jason Bourne on red bull. The conventional, fundamentals based, rudimentary, unrefined thinking regarding development stifles that tremendous American fighting spirit.

    Creativity allows us to build development plans that include training, practice, and competition simultaneously and incrementally, with each of those three key elements as one yarn in a single blanket. In practice, ideally, we would fit the competitive element to the level of unconscious skill the competent trainers believe the learners ought to have at the phase of the development we are in AND the level of competition the trainers can conduct given ability, time, and resources.

    Like a check on learning, competition is like a practical “Ask, Pause, Call” it challenges the learner to demonstrate successful adaptation to the training and practice as it was imparted to him. Competition most often meshes well with qualifications, but doesn’t have to always blend with qualification. Qualification is an activity associated with practice. Competition introduces an element of stress through a challenge that often presents the learner with ambiguity, but doesn’t have to.

    In the least desirable implementation of the developmental models containing all three key elements (training, practice and competition) each element is separate, and each element is conducted in a conventional, rudimentary, Flintstone mobile, linear fashion: “this follows that.”

    If done correctly as an integral part of the developmental process, competition sustains unconscious competence and builds confidence and capability. No skill developmental strategy will ever produce mastery within individuals and or organizations without a deliberate, scalable, carefully built competitive element to pressure test and sustain them.
    Competition shows us what we can do, not what we have to do.
    Healthy competition inspires us to keep digging, keep pushing to find a more efficient and effective way to outdo what’s been done before, in the process elevating everyone’s skill by unleashing their own creative fighting spirit to adapt and overcome as we apply our skills in our own unique ways when faced with challenging, ambiguous, and stressful competition.