The following observation is from a now-retired police officer and soldier.

I am not an expert, just a retired cop and former soldier with more than a few years carrying and using a gun. I spent 33 years in one uniform or another. 9 in the military, split between NG and active Army (no combat). Then 24 as a street patrol officer. I was also trained as a Police/Army firearms instructor by the Army, FBI, NRA and Sacramento County SO among others. That and 10 bucks will get you a fancy cup of coffee at the local Hippie Hangout.

I’ve also been involved in what are euphemistically called Dynamic Events by some, including real world “holy shit, did that really just happen?” shootings. I once very stupidly even wrestled a much larger man over possession of a handgun (his) he was desperately trying to kill me with. I spent 2 years in the Army and about 12 in the police department teaching firearms fundamentals and tactics. Until yesterday, what I had never done was put on my gear and try my hand at competitive shooting.

It was a very understated event with a total of 10 guys shooting. It was clear that what was expected of me was not to shoot myself or anyone else and otherwise to just have some fun. But it was competition where everyone was doing their best and trying their hardest to grind the other guys into the dust. I was the last shooter and by the time I got up for my first string I was feeling a lot of the same stuff I went through when I was in just about every dynamic event I was ever a part of. No, it’s not exactly the same. In some regards it was much easier to handle. In others, it was worse.

Easier. I had no fear of imminent death. I knew I could pack up my stuff and walk away anytime I wanted to, losing the respect of others and for myself notwithstanding. I could laugh at my flounderings with no more consequence than the joined mirth of my fellow shooters. I could take my time, plan things out and envision the stage before I ever fired a shot. It was just a match, not life and death.

Worse. The police events usually happened very quickly and were over just as rapidly. There wasn’t usually a lot of time to dwell on consequences though being suddenly dead did pass through my mind a time or two. In contrast I found myself sitting on the bench waiting for my turn in the barrel with visions of complete and utter failure running through my head. That’s stress stretched out over a looong time. Throw in 4 stages and 4 cycles of that and you have a very stressful environment.

My mouth went dry, my legs felt weak and I most certainly did experience the fight or flight phenomena. There’s an old saw that fits; I didn’t quite know whether to shit or go blind. I found my hands and fingers were clumsier than they should have been considering the level of the stressors involved and my lungs were pumping like a bellows. I had trouble seeing misses and had to keep asking the RO if I was clean. Interestingly to me that much improved as the match went on. In fact most all the stress indicators started to lessen as the match continued. That tells me that competition has value as a stress inducing shooter training tool. Without question, at least in my mind. Anything repetitive that teaches you how to deal with stress, any type of stress, is a good thing.

I’ve now experienced many of the things any shooter can expect to go through short of actual combat in a hostile theater of war and I can attest to the value of competitive shooting. I was kinda floored that it was as stressful as it was. Actually, I was kinda floored at all the things I learned. I can only chalk that up to a couple of things;

First, we all really are at least moderately Type A personalities. We hate to lose, especially at something directly tied to our own perception of our value in society and to our families. That makes competition, even low level competition, important to us. That creates a stress event that our bodies will react to the same way they do to any such exterior pressure.

Second, shooting under time pressures in front of those we consider to be our peers is an either/or proposition. Either we can respond in a manner we deem to be acceptable or we can’t and there’s no real way to know short of gearing up and taking a swing. We desperately want to succeed and be perceived as what we want to be; competent. That creates a stress event that our bodies will react to the same way they do to any such exterior pressure.

Third, Competition shooting is training, period. No one wants to fail in training. No one. That creates a stress event…yada yada yada.

What did I learn? Well, for starters, I learned how difficult and rewarding shooting well in a match can be. I re-learned how adrenaline affects me and all the stuff I need to do to combat it. That’s something hard earned and easily forgotten. I wonder how running a match a month for a couple of years will equip me to handle a real world stress inducing event? I’m betting it’ll help, probably a lot. I also learned that I’ve been wrong for a very long time and competition shooters are very dangerous men and women with a loaded pistol on their person. If you ask me right this very minute I’d tell you that the last guy I’d want to face off with with death on the line ain’t a Sicilian, It’s Ben Stoeger or really any of the top flight USPSA shooters. They’re scary good with a handgun and that is the absolute and utter truth. When the FBI started teaching us a new and improved grip with the meat of the off hand in contact with the grip of the pistol it was a competitive shooter they got it from.

It’s really hard to adequately explain how match jitters feel. You really have to experience it for yourself. So. Here’s my challenge to anyone who doubts or questions the value of competitive shooting. Grab your gear, find a club hosting either a match or shoot of some kind where evaluation, scoring and ranking will be taking place and give it a try. I did and I’m a better equipped self defense shooter for it. I’m an old police firearms instructor who poo-pooed the whole competition thing for decades. My eyes have now been opened wide and I clearly see the value in such. I anticipate my skills improving and my confidence along with it. Learning to shoot quickly and accurately in a stressful environment? What’s not to like? I am not even hinting that such should (or even could) replace self defense training but it can surely complement it. Hey a shoot house is a shoot house and USPSA has a shoot house stage. A shoot house under time and score pressure in front of a crowd. How cool is that?

And that’s what a lot of this boils down to, Training. You can pursue one school to the exclusion of all else or you can keep an open mind, try some new stuff and see what you can learn. I freely admit that I went way outside my comfort zone yesterday but, man, am I ever glad that I did.