On the surface, self defense and competition shooting share the same goals:
Draw faster, shoot better.
Some pistol training skills crossover, however, many of the elements of shooting that allow someone to become an accomplished competition shooter are quite different from those associated with self defense. This article will focus on two attributes in particular and how they contribute to developing a handgun shooter in self defense training vs. competition training: gear and mindset.
The training implements that lend themselves to self defense training as compared to competition training are distinctly different. Depending on the competition (for the sake of simplicity, the competitive shooting focus for this comparison will be centered around USPSA), the holsters, mag pouches, belts, and guns themselves are some of the most obvious dissimilarities.
Different USPSA divisions have different regulations for gear, even to the point of restricting where the holster can be placed, how much of the pistol it must cover. The “open” division is the most all-encompassing, including modifications to the magwell, grip, sights, trigger, barrel, or slide. As such, the craziest-looking pistols with the most minimal holsters (which may even be dropped and offset from the hip) make their way into this level of competition.
“Production” is on the more restrictive end of the competition spectrum. These guns are removed from the lines of custom “race” pistols, but often feature slight improvements to the original design. For example, my first USPSA match, Ben Stoeger (2012’s USPSA National Champion) loaned me one of his Beretta Elite II pistols. It’s a full size 9mm very much like my own Beretta M9, but the slide is thinner, the trigger is lighter and crisper, and it lacks a manual safety, opting for a decocker instead.
Other competition gear important for USPSA is involved in the rig – the holster, gun belt, and mag pouch accessories. Competition gun belts often feature a more flexible nylon-and-velcro underbelt (which is threaded through one’s belt loops), and a stiffer nylon (or leather) overbelt with a velcro backing. This overbelt is the component to which the holster and mag pouches (anywhere from 2-10, or more) are attached, and is then affixed to the underbelt via velcro.
Self Defense Gear
A wide variety of handguns are used for self defense, but one trend that occurs frequently with handguns selected for concealed carry are pistols that are somewhat slim and lighter weight (there are certainly exceptions, for example, my own Kimber is slim, but as a +2lb handgun, it is not a featherweight). Handguns selected for CCW often are design approaches that attempt to compromise capacity, caliber, and overall footprint. This makes handguns such as the iconic Glock 19, chambered for 9mm, or the S&W M&P40 popular options for self defense.
Holsters designed for concealed carry are often placed within (or along) the waistband. And while USPSA holsters may be minimal in design (some only cover the trigger guard, leaving the majority of the firearm exposed), the general trend of self defense holsters is to cover the majority of the handgun from the trigger guard down to the end of the barrel. More coverage allows the pistol to be comfortably carried on the body and helps to conceal or obscure the firearm’s profile. Open carry holsters are an exception to this trend, however, but generally include the same degree of coverage to protect the gun and to keep it secured to the body. However, self defense holsters also include accommodations for less traditional methods of carry, including on the ankle, along the waist (such as in a belly band), or even hanging from the neck. Mag pouches (often one or two , or none at all) included in self defense gear also usually demonstrate a compromise between keeping extra ammunition accessible to the wearer while maintaining an easily concealed profile.
Gun belts for self defense are designed to be practical for every day wear. They have only one piece that threads through the belt loops (unlike the 2-belt system of competition rigs), and are usually either stiff nylon or sturdy leather. This allows them to look unassuming with regular clothing while still being strong enough to support the additional weight of the gun in its holster.
Both self defense and USPSA shooting benefit from developing an economy of movement; in competition, it shaves seconds off stage time, which improves score, but with regard to self defense, efficiency in draw and firing could save one’s life. Another shared focus of competition and self defense training is to learn to shoot accurately on the move. Many competition stages feature complex obstacles that must be navigated, either by shooting through openings in concealment, angling one’s self around cover, or even firing at a moving target. USPSA shooters are judged by a combination of their stage time, as well as their target accuracy, so it behooves competitors to learn to shoot from nontraditional positions, strong hand and weak hand, as well as cultivating efficient manners of executing movement and firing. These skills can apply to self defense training scenarios, as no one can predict exactly how a self defense encounter may occur. As such, students of self defense shooting often train how to engage attackers in a variety of scenarios.
The key break in mindset between self defense training and competition training is the fact that training for the former is for improving one’s odds in life-or-death situations, while the latter is for sport. As such, there are specific regulations for every component of USPSA shooting, for safety of the competitors, spectators, and officials, and for fairly scoring all competitors. Even the targets allowed in USPSA matches are limited by the restrictions outlined in the USPSA rulebook. While the stages of every match can vary wildly, the rules, as well as the general operation of courses, is similar for every competition. There is no such element of predictability or restrictions for self defense shooting engagements. Therefore, students are generally advised to train with the setup they wear for regular concealed carry. Because of the mentality behind self defense training, the associated gear is designed less for open access and speed of use, but more for a compromise between utility, concealment, and retention. Also, the mindset taught for self defense training is more defensively oriented in a way to give the student skills that may be applied to a wide range of situations – and how to minimize interactions, or avoid them entirely, versus the more strictly regulated rules of [efficient] target engagement for competitions.
My first introduction to USPSA shooting was exhilarating. The stress of having an audience of other shooters and with a running timer while navigating courses with a variety of targets amongst clever obstacles made shooting challenging in a more engaging way than I had heretofore never experienced, even with the exposure I had to self defense training. And while I may wish to further pursue USPSA shooting (it’s just too much fun not to try more), I still feel that it is important to also keep up with my self defense training. There are some skills, such as being efficient with my shots and the movements required to draw and fire, that crossover for both types of training. However, having such disparities in the different gear required, and the different ultimate goals distinguishes has reinforced with me the necessity of maintaining unique training for either style of shooting. What has your experience been with training for self defense compared to training for competition shooting?