How to Use Shooting Competitions for Training

Shooting competitions come in many different forms. Cowboy action matches, USPSA pistol matches, run and gun events, etc. Using competitions to improve shooting skill is a wonderful American tradition. However, there is a tendency in the competitive shooting community to lean very hard into the competitive aspect at the cost of realism or training value. Unfortunately, having what it takes to win a competition does not mean you have what it takes to win a gunfight.

That said, competitions are still a great way to build shooting skill if you do them correctly. Here are my tips for how to get training value out of competitions.

Tip #1: Don’t try to win

This is probably going to shock a lot of people. “What’s the point of a competition if you aren’t going to compete?” you ask. Remember, you are using competitions as training events. The objective is to train well, not to win. Competitions (especially those with time-based scoring) are often set up in a way that the highest score is attained by not using good tactics. Therefore, getting the most training value out of a competition means that sometimes you will need to do things that will make you slower.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to shoot well, just that you shouldn’t get hung up on your score. Once you get this out of the way and put your pride aside, then you can move on and focus on what’s really important.

Tip #2: Use your “real world” firearms

Many people fall into the temptation of making or buying a “race gun” that is designed to give them an edge in competitions. These tend to be very lightweight and may shoot low-recoil ammunition for extremely fast follow-on shots. However, this tends to come at the cost of reliability and combat effectiveness.

Light and fast, but would you trust your life to this rifle?

We’ve all heard “train like you fight,” and it rings true here. If you can shoot faster with the .22LR but your “patrol rifle” is an AK, why wouldn’t you want to get better with the rifle that you trust your life to?

This also goes beyond simply building skill with your “real world” firearms. Competitions are great places to learn what works and what doesn’t work on your weapons. During one match, I discovered that a certain type of ammunition gave me stuck casings repeatedly when the gun warmed up after firing 20 rounds in under a minute. I would never have discovered this issue plinking away slowly at 200m on a square range.

Bottom line, you need to be training with your actual defensive firearms. “Race guns” are counterproductive and a waste of your money.

Tip #3: Use your “real world” equipment

This goes hand-in-hand with the previous tip. By “equipment” I am referring to your load bearing gear, slings, magazine pouches, and clothing. For example, it makes no sense to practice reloading from open-topped magazine pouches when your “minuteman kit” has flaps on the pouches.

Many people are hesitant to wear their combat gear to a competition, and with good reason. When everybody else is wearing polo shirts and jeans, showing up wearing a helmet, plate carrier, and multicam head-to-toe will draw some weird looks. This is not what I’m suggesting that you do. Wearing normal clothing with your belt/LBV/plate carrier is not that uncommon at most events, as long as you take the context of the competition into account. 2-gun or 3-gun matches have a lot of people wearing vests of some sort to hold all their ammo, but a long-range marksmanship match won’t. Of course, if you want to wear a plate carrier to get used to shooting with it on, this is still America and you can do what you want.

“Real world” equipment can also mean that you wear less gear. Most people at pistol matches wear a war belt to hold their holster and ammo, but this is unrealistic. Very few of us do this on a daily basis, so it doesn’t make sense to train like this. Instead, for pistol matches, try to carry your gun in the same holster and the same clothing that you use for concealed carry. Not all events will allow you to do this, but if they do you should take advantage of it. Draw from concealment when you can. If you carry an extra magazine in your pocket, reload from your pocket instead of a pouch on your belt. This will cost you some time, but as I stated in tip #1, speed is not the goal here. Training is.

Tip #4: Go for accuracy, not speed

I’ve been to matches where guys who sprayed rounds at the targets and missed a lot scored much higher than those who shot the match “clean” with no misses. While speed is conducive to your score, accuracy is more beneficial for your survival. It’s a bad habit to fire three shots at a target and then move on to the next one without checking to see if you hit it or not. It’s especially bad to practice spraying rounds at a pistol match when you consider those actions in the context of self-defense with a handgun, and that you are responsible for each bullet you fire no matter where it goes.

Take your time, get accurate shots on target, and eventually the speed will come naturally. It is better to hit slowly than to miss quickly.

Tip #5: Take a friend

Having someone else to critique your shooting is incredibly helpful for seeking self-improvement. There is only so much that we can correct purely on our own, so having a friend that you trust to watch you and give you corrections is a great asset. Even better if they record videos of you so you can look back and see what you are doing wrong. Plus, shooting is always more fun with a friend.


Shooting competitions are great opportunities to improve your firearms skills, and they can be even better opportunities if you make them. If you can put aside your pride, forget that you’re at a competition, and handicap your score in exchange for better training value, you will see marked results in your real-world skills.

Speaking of training, I have classes on the training schedule. If you want to move beyond your individual skills and learn how to work within a team, register for a class and I’ll get you squared away. Email me at

Published by vonsteubentraining

Mike is the owner and chief instructor of Von Steuben Training & Consulting (VSTAC). A self-described “Tactical Scholar,” he spent 6 years in the Marine Corps as a radio operator and small-unit tactics instructor. He has dedicated his life to honing the tactical prowess of himself and his fellow patriots, guided by the wisdom of his commanding officer, Jesus Christ. He can be contacted via email at

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