A Primer on Shooting Sports

In Competitive Shooting by Jared Jensen0 Comments

The purpose of this short article is to present the most common shooting sports and how they differ. We are fortunate to live in central Texas where there are ranges hosting shooting competitions every weekend, most of which are within 1-2 hours driving distance from Austin. The closest are Best of the West in Liberty Hill and Austin Rifle Club in Manor. Cedar Ridge Range in Bulverde and the Copperas Cove Pistol Club also hold regular matches.

The most common matches are IDPA, USPSA/IPSC, and 3 Gun. There are also steel challenge, cowboy action, high power rifle, and benchrest.


IDPA is typically a pistol-only match. IDPA is intended to be more tactically oriented, but keep in my mind it is still a game and not tactical training. Shooters are expected to utilize cover and shoot targets in the order they would appear. For example, if you are moving around cover on the right, you would need to shoot the targets from right to left because the target on the right would be the first one to appear. In another situation, there might be three targets that simultaneously appear. In this situation all of the targets must be shot once before engaging them a second time. IDPA rules also dictate that reloads must be performed from behind cover, and partially expended magazines that still contain ammunition must be retained by the shooter. In IDPA, a pistol, holster, and two additional magazines with carriers will be sufficient. Also in IDPA the majority of the targets will be paper with some additional steel targets. IDPA scores favor accuracy over time as opposed to IPSC and 3 Gun. Paper targets have an 8-inch center hit zone. Anything outside of this zone will add a .5 second to your score, or even more time if you hit further zones. IDPA will have a lower round count than IPSC or 3 Gun, with 150 rounds sufficient for an average match. IDPA can also be frustrating because you have to memorize all or part of the stages where each engagement will take place. Because of the strict requirements for cover and engagement order, there will be little difference in the way each shooter approaches the stage.


When compared to IDPA, IPSC (USPSA is the US sanctioning body for IPSC)stages will have more rounds fired. IPSC stages will also have more variation in how the shooters approach their run. IPSC does not have the same tactically oriented rules that IDPA has. In IPSC competition, the shooters shoot the targets in the fastest way possible. Because of this, there is much more creativity in how a shooter picks their targets. As long as the targets are engaged safely, there aren’t rules about the order the targets must be engaged in. IPSC targets are also scored differently. After each stage the best shooter is awarded 100 points and the rest of the competitors receive a percentage of this based on their performance. Because of this, one bad stage doesn’t necessarily ruin your entire match like it can in IDPA. Although accuracy is still important, there are stages in IPSC where the speed that the targets are engaged can outweigh precision accuracy. This aspect adds another challenge in IPSC. There is a definite technique in weighing speed vs. accuracy. IPSC can be a little easier to start out shooting than IDPA. There aren’t a lot of engagement rules to remember. The stage is shown and then it is pretty much shoot them as you want; however, IPSC will require additional magazines. 3 magazines will work, but 4 or more is best.

Steel Challenge

Steel Challenge is the simplest pistol shooting sport and can be a lot of fun. Steel challenge uses 8 set courses of fire. Clubs may add a different stage such as a plate rack or something similar. The 8 courses of fire do not change and all of the targets are steel. Only one of the steel challenge courses requires movement and it is a simple lateral run to a shooting box. Each stage is run multiple times and the slowest run is dropped. Scoring is simple. The total time is added and the fastest shooter wins. A hit counts regardless of where it hits the steel.

3 Gun

3 Gun is the newest and fastest growing shooting sport. Shotguns, rifles, and pistols are used. 3 gun uses a kind of hybrid scoring of IDPA and IPSC. The stages are based on points like IPSC, but hit zones are simpler. On paper, 1 shot in the center zone or 2 shots anywhere on target receives max points. On steel targets the course will specify how many hits are required. This makes scoring simple, but also averages performance over an entire competition. Rifle targets can be placed anywhere from 0-500 yards. Typically the targets will be from 0-100 yards with one longer range stage. 3 Gun has intentionally tried to stay away from the tactical-type rules of IDPA. Stages may require engagements through ports or other specific firing positions, but these will be stated in the course of fire. 3 Gun uses grounding barrels where long arms are staged or dropped. For example, you may start with a pistol holstered and shotgun at the low ready. After engaging the shotgun targets, the shotgun will be grounded and a rifle retrieved from a pre-staged position. 3 Gun uses a mix of paper, steel, and even clay pigeon targets.

In all of the above shooting sports, duty gear is perfectly usable. Different divisions are utilized so that equivalent guns are shot against each other. Some common divisions are factory/production, 1911/single stack, or pistols with optics. 3 Gun uses similar divisions so that rifles with irons and rifles with optics do not compete in the same division. Shooting sports are very friendly to new shooters, so don’t be intimated to give it a try. When you arrive, you should not have a loaded weapon. If you do, there will be a specific table where weapons can be unloaded. It is ok to have loaded magazines, just don’t have one in a weapon. For 3 Gun, slings need to be removed from long arms. Pistols can be kept in holsters but keep the slide forward with the mag well empty. If you are going to use duty gear, wear the belt or put the pistol in a case or bag. Don’t walk around carrying a duty belt with a holstered pistol.

If you are interested in attending a shooting competition, feel free to email any of the marksmanship team members with questions. The most common match we attend is 3 Gun, but we will be at many others as well. Be sure to check our Upcoming Shooting Events schedule to see where we’ll be shooting next.

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