The Similarities and Differences of Civilian Competition and Combat Shooting - ITS Tactical

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The Similarities and Differences of Civilian Competition and Combat Shooting

By Craig Sawyer


Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Please join us in welcoming former Marine, Navy SEAL and DEVGRU Operator Craig Sawyer as a contributor on ITS Tactical.

The main parallels I see between combat shooting and competition shooting are that in each case, you need to be able to put your shots on a given target in a timely manner. Both disciplines can involve shooting, moving, reloading and problem solving.

Other than those similarities, the two scenarios are worlds apart. One of the main points to consider in combat shooting is that your life is in immediate jeopardy. Someone is trying to kill you. This is simply never the case in civilian competition shooting. In my mind, that’s far and away the largest factor to consider.

Shooting Stress

In a life and death fight, the stresses on the shooter can be extreme, depending on his background, level of training, mental prep and actual combat experience. One thing I’ve noticed about my own reactions to sudden, violent confrontation over the years is the lack of significant increase in heart rate. Looking back on my own experiences growing up as a fighter, I clearly remember getting a massive adrenaline rush and an elevated heart rate to the point that my fighting actually became less effective with the physiological symptoms that come with an extreme elevation in heart rate.

Over the years, with more and more exposure to violence, I found myself much more calm under these conditions and making much sharper decisions; fighting more effectively. The same dynamic applies to fighting with weapons as well. There’s no difference in physiological effect. A shooter who gets too amped is still likely to experience auditory exclusion, loss of dexterity, tunnel vision, repetitive tendencies and lack of mental clarity. All these things are detrimental in a modern firefight.

Because there is no sudden, inter-human violent confrontation, civilian competition shooting simply is unlikely to present such stress on the shooter. If the shooter experiences this level of stress shooting in a civilian sporting competition, I’d have serious concerns about his ability to perform to any degree, whatsoever, in a real life and death confrontation. Conversely, just because someone has performed well in combat, that doesn’t mean they will necessarily do well against experienced competition shooters in their environment. Someone who trains extensively for perfect conditions will absolutely become very good in those conditions. We all adapt to the stimulus we’re challenged with most often.

Combat Shooting

In combat, at least the Spec-Ops combat most of us are familiar with these days, the considerations of the shooter are many. The first glaring difference, after the fact that his life is in danger, is that it’s not all about him. He has specific responsibilities which are part of a coordinated effort. Let’s face it, in a Spec-Ops unit, we’re not worried about getting shot so much as we’re worried about failing to cover our sector or clear our zone, which would get one of our teammates, our brothers; shot. In a tactical unit, we are together when we can’t be alone. The effectiveness of our unit is far greater than the mere sum of its parts. In single-man civilian shooting competitions, there is no such consideration.

Another aspect of combat shooting is cover. The combat shooter must consider that he is a target and must make effective use of cover and concealment whenever possible. In such an environment, the shooter has to take into account how he is perceived by his opponent(s) as he moves through the fight. If a civilian shooter is not behind a flimsy plywood barricade, there is no harm. If a combat shooter fails to make effective use of actual cover from the specific weapon his opponent is firing at him, he can be injured, killed, or get others in his unit killed. This is a severe penalty that cannot be replicated in the sport of civilian competition.

I could go on and on with the differences, but those are the first that occur to me. I could easily add the fact that many combat engagements throughout history have been at close-in distance to face-to-face proximity, resulting in hand-to-hand fighting to some degree. It isn’t for the feint of heart. The use of grenades, booby traps, IED’s, the many aspects of mastering various forms of comms, night vision gear, lasers, illuminators, the various methods of fire support, insertion, extraction platforms, working with the dogs, intel assets, emergency medical/trauma procedures, the heavy gear necessary to pull all this off, the physical training necessary to be an effective member of such a fighting force and many more considerations all play a part in the overall scheme of a modern day combat scenario. So in many cases, the shooting might very well be the LEAST of the considerations a combat “shooter” must weigh out at any one moment in time.

Tools of the Trade

The last point I’ll make is on the tools of the trade. Civilian shooters love their tricked out 1911 race guns, which work so smoothly on the range when perfectly clean and lubed, with just the right ammo. I’ve owned and shot some nice ones. Impressive, to say the least. So smooth, they shoot “like buttuh!”

In combat, however, such a “princess” gun is a liability that cannot be tolerated. In my experiences with the Spec-Ops world and as an advanced tactical instructor, I’ve seen more malfunctions from other units’ fancy 1911’s than any other weapon, period. I’ve seen them fail in JSOC demonstrations to Congress. I’ve seen them fail on the ranges, with sights falling off, failures to feed, eject, etc.

Heck, I’ve even come back off SEAL missions with rounds spun backwards in my SIG magazine. Why? A little sand and salt bound up the magazine follower, preventing upward pressure on the rounds. Once the first couple rounds are fired, there’s no more pressure and the rounds can tumble front to back. NOT what you want when you reach for your backup in combat.

With a weapon that’s finely-tuned with very tight tolerances and geared for downloaded ammo, there just seems to be a far greater incidence of malfunction, especially with the introduction of any foreign material like a bit of sand, carbon, lack of lube, etc. This is unacceptable in a weapon that must be counted on for survival. In combat, the weapon MUST fire, period.

Accounting for Murphy

Murphy’s Law demands that when you need your sidearm, you’ll happen to be in a fight for your life that’s so pressing, your primary has already gone down or gone dry and there is no time to correct it. Now you’re down to your pistol.

Are you hit? Where? Your primary hand? Are you bloody now? How banged up are you? Helo crash? How many are coming for you? How close are they? How many of your teammates are hit? What is your position relative to your teammates? Do you need to continue to move to continue covering them as you press forward your assault? Do you need to sprint to get into position? Are you winded? Night vision focused, or splattered with anything? Are you covered in bile, spinal fluid, feces, dirt from blasts, hydraulic fluid, dust in your eyes, night blind by a blast you didn’t expect? Wearing a gas mask, sucking wind like a lung shot buffalo? Heart rate screaming? NOW shoot your civilian race gun with your bloody weak hand!

Make sure to get a perfect grip, because that grip safety won’t negotiate. Get it perfect, or it doesn’t shoot. Great thought, huh? Oh, and don’t forget to flip that lever with your numb and bloody weak hand before you shoot, or you’re DEAD! Oh, and keep that lever from flipping up while you’re fighting for your life, because if it does, you die! Don’t forget to change those single-stack mags twice as often with that one hand, because those thin single stacks don’t last but a couple seconds in a violent confrontation.


I know, you’re cursing me for pointing out that the “Princess” guns are not as cool as we all thought, especially after forking out a few grand for a big name brand. Well, some of those are the ones I’m talking about. Whatever a combat shooter chooses, it should be, above all, simple and RELIABLE under adverse conditions. Why? Simple. Inter-human conflict is an inherently imperfect scenario. A flawed arrangement. Struggle is awkward, ugly, far from glamorous and rarely goes according to anyone’s perfect plan. A complicated and finicky sidearm is the last thing an operator needs to have to worry about when it’s all down to that. This is of course just my take.

I have quite a bit more to add about the positive aspects of competitive shooting, which are many. I can already say those points will include that it’s FUN and that it definitely improves your shooting. No doubt about it. I’ll post more on all that soon.

Rage on! ~SAW

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Please join us in welcoming former Marine, Navy SEAL and DEVGRU Operator Craig Sawyer as a contributor on ITS Tactical. You can read Craig’s full and extensive biography on his Website and catch him as an “expert” on this season’s Top Shot on the History Channel.

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  • Alexander Osha

    Great article! I’ve been in the same mindset lately, as well, trying to shed any of my more “gucci” type of weapons or gear, going for what works instead of what has all sorts of cool gizmos. Such as making sure my rifles have fixed FSBs, reducing one step to getting back on target if my optic fails, and the like.

    • Tony

      The reason I love my Glock so much…My model #21 as I favor the .45acp round I also have a Sig P220 .45 great gun….But have owned a Glock and .40 many other pistols as well,This is not to debate calibers…But to praise the simple design,large capacity,and overall fuction of Glock pistols…As the article states refilling the single stack mag..Flipping of levers ect. None of which is required by the Glock,there may be the arguement that Glock is a “plastic gun” I hardly think that justifies it’s simplistic, reliable function..Which I have and will stake my life on..Great article very realistic thought on actual combat shooting. As for a primary small arm,as the situation dictates the GalilARM in .308win has my vote or secondly any AK type weapon in general. In my humble opinion…lol..

    • Tony

      LOL …APC ACP,oops

  • Tim in Austin TX

    Just out of curiosity has the author of this article done any significant competitive shooting?

  • “Doc”

    Well said! Except for the comment about the sig fucking up, which we all know is not true 😛 this article is on point!

  • Enzo

    I couldn’t agree more… all except the anti-1911 bit.

    I am not sure I would deliberately jump into a swamp with my old style stock Kimber….

    But my9 rounds with my “go to gun”, generally out performs 16+ with most other systems.

    May not be best at fending off the hords from a burning helo.

    But definitely my first choice for making the first few shots count.

  • Chris

    Spot on. I see a tendency for a lot of guys to practice what they’re good at so they can feel good, or shoot some monster of a race gun to get some extra points. These are usually the same guys carrying a J-frame that hasn’t been shot in months.

    I think you are a voice of reason. Could you share some of your experiences and lessons learned so that we (who are wise enough to listen) could learn form them?

    Thank you for your service and for taking the time to write an excellent article.

  • Rod

    Nice job, Craig. Spot on. I’ve been a competitive shooter back in the day before race guns. I am a retired police officer. The only thing I can offer is that during every qual, from 7 yards in, I shot sans sights. I always tried to make something unrealistic a little more realistic for myself. In later years, we stopped doing a weak hand, one hand combat reload. I think that should go back on the list. In the vain of being realistic, I always said that detectives and supervisors should spend some time pulling their weapon out of a drawer and firing from the desk they are sitting at. ( I was a detective supervisor ) We never did though.
    I think that competitive shooters would be a better backup than someone that rarely touched a weapon. But I’d take a SEAL over them, anyday. Thanks for sharing your expertise. I look forward to hearing more advice.

  • Mitch

    Craig, I agree with all points. Since leaving the Army I have a family to protect so I have my CCW. I shoot a 12+1 .45. In the first 6 months of ownership I put 1000 rounds through it. I do a lot of different drills, under less than good conditions. I do this to ensure that regardless of the situation I will be able to protect my family and self. In my world I have me and me alone, the sole operator. While competitive shooting is not the same would it not help to hone some skills needed? I understand in the competitive world they tweak for perfect conditions but we as amateurs(so to speak) use this not for the competition so much as muscle memory, etc., then practice those all important drills over and over again. I practice every single time as if my life depends on it. and some day it will. I may be getting ahead of the article, but what can you suggest to do to help improve ourselves since we don’t have a team to train with. I get the whole difference thing. But my real world room clearing drill is very different than that of a team of operators. How can we make our practice more realistic? Since “combat” shooting only occurs in combat. And for the guys here that may still be contract operators.

  • Nice article. Funny how the single stack debate always comes up an they (single users) always try to defend their platform.


  • James

    Some very good points in this article. I watched a buddy induce a slide malfunction on his 1911 by riding his trigger finger indexed alongside the frame while pulling the slide to the rear. The pressure of his trigger finger caused the slide stop pin to be pushed out slightly jamming his gun. It took a bit of time to get it fixed. Several friends of mine in LE seem to base their weapon/caliber choice on their ego or the CDI factor. One can go to any shooting competition and watch many “gaming” the competition. Still there are others that use the stress of competition to make themselves better shooters. IMO, using Simunitions against other live aggressors is the best way to simulate a shooting. Especially when done in front of your peers. Though the engagement should end after the initial first contact. After that, it turns into a “game”.

  • Ric

    Although I agree that competition shooting won’t prepare you for combat I see many simplifications and generalisations in this article, ie.:
    – One doesn’t have to compete in open division with race guns. There’s production division where people use guns as they came from the factory.
    – Matches often include one handed and weak-handed shooting.
    – AFAIK most shooters using 1911 use double-stacked versions
    – There are lots of people using non-1911 guns, ie. Dave Sevigny uses glock 17

    The biggest disadvantage of IPSC/IDPA is lack of combat-like target selection and using of cover. During matches competitors select targets in order to finish the run as fast as possible – situation when target could shoot back won’t happen. In reality target selection is much more complex. But still I think that competition shooting can help increasing overall shooting skills and speed.

  • Pingback: Perspectives on competition vs. combat « Stuff From Hsoi()

  • KR

    The long term trends – both in IPSC/IDPA/Steel competition and in armed citizen concealed carry – have been away from the 1911 and toward striker fired pistols, mainly the Glock, XD and M&P.

    It’s always fashionable within “tactical” circles to bash IPSC “raceguns” — but if IPSC Open class shooters had not done 10+ years of RDT&E for the manufacturers, running red dot sights on their match guns, even when the sights were terribly unreliable at first, there would be no red dot sights on “tactical” rifles now. Just as auto racing drives innovation that eventually leads to improvements in street vehicles, competition shooting has led to many improvements in modern firearm design.

    IPSC began back in 1976 as an attempt to create a sport that tested shooting *skills* — not *tactics* – relevant to interpersonal — not tactical team– combat. It, along with offshoots IDPA and Steel Challenge, still fills that role very well, particularly for its original target market, which was the individual armed citizen, who uses competition as a more useful alternative to traditional duffer/plinker target practice at a commercial range or in grandpa’s pasture. Local matches are an easy, cheap way to put rounds downrange in an environment where you must perform under moderate stress (particularly if you shoot matches in bad weather), where there are no do-overs if you or your gear fail.

  • KR

    FYI the reason “flimsy plywood barricades” are used to simulate actual structures on match day is because, for some odd reason, people aren’t willing to spend days or weeks constructing and then tearing down actual buildings simply to run a local match. The IDPA rules have attempted to address the “failure to use cover” issue by imposing strong penalties on those who fail to use cover effectively.

    There are limits to how much realism can be incorporated into a live fire event. Scenario based, structured force on force training, with skilled roleplayers and clearly defined learning objectives is a much better way to address the gaps and failings of live fire training on inanimate targets. Many of the points raised in this article are similar to someone complaining that a hammer makes a poor screwdriver, when both tools have their use and unique function.

  • Michael Honeycutt

    Great insight. Always pertinent to learn from a warrior who has been there.

  • Enzo

    Use of cover and Winning by having the best time…. Never teaches good habits.

    How about speed unloading and speed holstering! TERRIBLE HABITS THAT I HAVE TO UNTRAINED!

    Lets not forget Level 0 retention holsters… I get in lots more fist fights that gun fights.

    How many IDPA shooters use a slide stop as a “slide release”…. now there is a fine motor movement not conducive to being in a real fight.

    Lets dump half full mags on the ground just to get a better time.

    Make sure your weapon is up high and in your direct vision during reloads… because faster is the name of the game!

    Mr. Sawyer is very right…. and in my mind, the games can teach really bad habits. Why don’t we all just go back to put our .38 brass in our pockets.

    • pm40-45

      dont mix IDPA and ISPC they are two differant worlds in the relm of comp shooting

      one example idpa doesnt allow dumping half full mags

  • “Hinges”

    Nice addition ! Excellent article by Sawman , as always. If any of you guys every get a chance to train with Sawman ….you will be very pleased. Looking forward to more articles from Sawman.

    Semper Fi

  • Cpt.HardDerps

    Screamer of an article… gota go sell my 1911 now haha :-p

  • A Kimber is what you show your friends, a Glock is what you show your enemy 🙂

  • CenterMass

    Most of us arent high speed-low drag guys who get to go out to the range every other day and can afford to send 1,000 rounds down range when we do. Competition gives an opportunity for the more lay-person shooter to learn fundamental skills and, more importantly, it lets those who participate be able to go out an shoot their guns.

    And more to the point, if competition shooting is so bad, you got Larry Vickers, Ken Hackathorn, Massad Ayoob, who were at one time all big names in IDPA. Theyre also some of the most well respected instructors in the defensive firearms arena. If they have a background in it, then, in my book, it cant be all bad.

  • “Hinges’


    Let’s not miss the point of the article! I know Sawman personally….and he will be the first to say that Comp shooting can be used as a Tool. Also , he does do alot of shooting with some of the TOP Comp Shooters in the USA. I myself, train with a well known Comp Champion. The reason : to increase my speed and accurate shooting on the move…while maintaining a “good tactical mindset”. I will never shoot as fast as a Comp Champion or some of you guys that Comp shoot. But that is not my aim and purpose. As was mentioned, alot of good things have come from the comp shooting community that have greatly impacted the tactical community! Just think about John Shaw and Mid-south institute.

    Semper Fi

  • jarod

    This is really well written I agree 100% with this warrior. Thank you for sharing.

  • Doug

    Great article !

    Yagyu Munenori and Miyamato Musashi both taught to keep the mind calm, not to get fixated on one thing. Even though the point of this is the difference between combat and competition shooting, I think the greatest lesson from this is the following ” I found myself much more calm under these conditions and making much sharper decisions; fighting more effectively.”

    “What is called “sickness” is fixation. “expelling all the sicknesses of the mind, engendering the ordinary mind, and yet abiding amidst sickness…this is the state of being without sickness.”
    “Apply this to the world of the arts. when practicing archery, if your mind is occupied by thoughts of shooting the bow, your aim will be disordered and wander.
    When the man shooting the bow forgets about the mind that is shooting the bow and releases the string with the ordinary mind he has when doing nothing, the bow will be tranquil. When plying a sword, riding a horse, writing something, or playing the koto, take up the ordinary mind that does none of these or anything at all. Then. no matter what you do, you will do it with ease.”
    “In the martial arts it is a sickness if you do not leave the mind of the martial arts behind. In archery, it is a sickness if you do not leave the mind of archery behind. If you will only use your ordinary mind and take up the sword or draw the bow, archery will not be difficult and the sword will be used with freedom.
    Not being surprised by anything, the ordinary mind will be good for everything. If you loose your ordinary mind, your voice will shake no matter what you are trying to say.”
    The Life Giving Sword. Yagyu Munenori.translated by William Scott Wilson.

    “The mind that stops or is moved by something and sent into confusion-this is the affliction of the abiding place, and this is the common man”
    “The right mind is the mind that does not remain in one place. It is the mind that stretches throughout the entire body and self.”
    “The confused mind is the mind that , thinking something over, congeals in one place. When the right mind congeals and settles in one place, it becomes what is called the confused mind”
    The Unfettered Mind. Takuan Soho translated by William Scott Wilson.

    “It is important to place yourself in a state of calm and to work out your way of mastering your own mind and work on the manner in which your vital energy emanates from you. However, if you are lacking in resolve when you place yourself in a state of calm, your mind, your energy, and your body will fall asleep and weaken. You will have the mind and energy of a corpse.”
    “If you are capable of mastering your own mind by placing yourself in a state of calm, you will be able to see clearly what is happening to your opponent.”

    Gorin No Sho. Miyamoto Musahshi. translated by Kenji Tokitsu

  • Mike

    Was looking forward to reading an article comparing competition and combat shooting.. Only to be disappointed to see it turn into another 1911 bash article..

  • Maverick9110e

    Great article, but there are a great number of us, who the closest thing we can get is the competitive shooting. Some training is better than none!

  • Sheep.Dog

    Great article bro. From a 1911 owning, comp shooting, wait for it. . . . .glock owner! Love 1911s. Like shooting competitions. I just know their place. It’s not in condition red.

  • Craig Sawyer

    Hi guys,

    I’m glad to learn some of you enjoyed the article. Because it was really intended only as my take on the subject of “Differences and Similarities of Competitive and Combat Shooting” it should be taken as such.

    Some guys apparently got the idea I’m somehow down on competitive shooting. Not my outlook at all. In fact, the opposite is true. The topic of my writing was Similarities and Differences, NOT whether or not each was some kind of winner in a “good vs bad” contest. I’ve competed in a few different types of shooting competitions over the years and I’m currently increasing my involvement in various aspects of that hobby, rather than throttling back like most guys my age tend to do. There’s a ton to be gained from competing. I say, the wider range of competitions a shooter involves himself in, the better he’ll be prepared in a crisis.

    We all like to train at what we’re good at, or what’s easiest for us. It’s human nature. However, we MUST break out of that paradigm and force ourselves to venture into areas we’re specifically NOT comfortable in, in order to continue to stretch and improve our overall abilities.

    Participating in competitive shooting events also allows shooters to meet and network with other shooters and people in the industry. Lots to be gained from such involvement. I learn stuff every time I have a discussion with those who run various companies, or have been competing for many years, or competing in other areas of the sport.

    In most cases, shooting competitions are FUN, with lots of it. That’s not something to overlook as we discuss what makes us pursue the things we do.

    The 1911 issue came to mind because I had just recently taught yet another tactical training course where I watched, time and time again, the fancy and impressive-looking 1911 pistols fail their purpose for various reasons. If you like the 1911, that’s great. Shoot them and love them. Nobody’s looking to take that from you. (well, maybe the Dems…) Enjoy their impressive features, quality, gunsmithing, price, etc. Some are really works of art. I’ve owned and shot some that were like driving a Rolls Royce. Very impressive with all kinds of nice features to enjoy. For me, though, that’s not a platform I want in a real fight. That’s my observation for specific reasons I’ve learned first hand. Would I shoot them on the range in competition? Hell yes. Every day! Will you see one in my holster to grab when all else is failing around me when we have newer, simpler, more reliable options available? Nope. Each shooter ultimately has to choose what they use for their own reasons.

    I do have to say, I get a chuckle out of those who demonstrate their fragility when their choices aren’t championed as the best of everything. Emo isn’t tactical, but it definitely is funny. Thanks for sharing.

    I hope to see some of you guys out there soon. I’m currently deployed, but will be back in the states soon and competing in the Storm Mountain Sniper competition this Oct. Looking forward to that one. My shooting partner is fellow Marine Scout/Sniper and Congressional Medal of Honor nominee, Dakota Meyer. Dakota and I competed together last year in the Maximum Warrior competition and in the Heroes & Hotties event for Maxim magazine. This sniper event should be a kick!

    “Hinges”!! Great to see here ya, bro! Do these guys know how you got the nickname? I’ll keep it a secret for 5 bucks…

    Rage on!


    • Thanks for the comment Craig! Stay safe over there!

  • Ken Smith

    Did Sawyer actually have a point beyond his chest-beating?

  • Great article and reply to the comments. The article and the reply shows why experience has oppinion out clased every time. It’s a wonder anyone shares something important now a days. Seems there is always folks looking to pick apart than learn. If I got your point of the article, then please accept my humble thanks. I learned a lot. I am a former USAF Sgt. Cold War vet. Issued pistol 1911. I did a lot of soul searching and research to find reasons against buying a Glock, and dare I say it a 9mm. I’m confident in my ability and for it to do it’s job. Yours is the first article I’ve read that supports what I came to suspect for real life, not trainig. Keep your articles coming.

  • Justin Collett

    Pretty sure I have read this article (or a flavor similar to it) at least three or four times a year since at least the late 90’s. I am always curious why some people feel the need to point out the differences between a weekly USPSA or IDPA match and combat in any form especially SOF type actions. I have yet to hear a C class shooter fresh off a 12 second El Prez turn around and say “Let’s see DEVGRU do that!” I haven’t heard any GM’s say it after a 4 second run either. So it puzzles me why vetted combat veterans even think its worth the time to state the fact there is a difference. Its like stating “There is a difference between a Formula One car and a Prius.” The statement is pretty self evident and anyone who argues the point is not someone anyone with common sense is going to pay much attention to anyway. The topic is right up there with “9mm vs. .45” and “Ford vs Chevy” for generating comments though. It did get me.

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