Handgun Action Shooting Events: USPSA vs IDPA


Practice is the critical component to learning how to shoot well and this goes doubly for learning how to shoot well enough to responsibly use a firearm (presumably a handgun) in self-defense.  That said, the typical indoor handgun range with its single targets set along fixed lanes of fire can build ones skill set only so far.  Luckily opportunities for more useful practice are readily available in the form of the action – also known as practical – shooting sports.

There are two major branches of action shooting sport in the US, the US Practical Shooting Association (USPSA) and the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA).  Before I go any further, let me be clear that what follows is simply a summary and NOT an attempt to fully explain the various equipment, scoring or competitive rules in either sport; such a thing would literally take volumes and still be subject to multiple interpretations from various participants (I’m convinced that some competitive shooters enjoy lawyering the game as much as they do shooting the guns).  If the material on the websites is too esoteric, the Wiki pages offer useful summaries (USPSA here and IDPA here).

That out of the way, some background on the history of the sport is useful in understanding the differences between the two games.  The USPSA is by far the older of the two, the International Practical Shooting Confederation founded in 1976 by the legendary Colonel Jeff Cooper (The USPSA is simply the American branch of IPSC and, given the traditionally liberal attitudes towards firearms ownership here, the largest branch of the sport globally).

The sport was devised as a tool to competitively train in the practical handgun techniques pioneered by Colonel Cooper, focusing on the principles of speed, accuracy and power.  Notably it was from Colonel Cooper’s origins that the sport inherited some of the traits it carries to this day, especially in the area of target design and scoring and the bias in favor of larger caliber, duty-size pieces.

Colonel Jeff Cooper, renowned firearms instructor, prolific author and pioneer of the practical shooting sports.

IDPA was formed in 1996, coming about as a reaction against the perceived excesses found in USPSA (mostly among Open Division – so-called ‘race gun’ – shooters).  As someone who was an active shooter at the time, it struck me as an unnecessary reaction; there were plenty of people shooting in Limited classes and the concerns amounted to sour grapes among people who couldn’t simply enjoy the events as lower tier competitors (My main goal is to get into B-Class, which is actually still far above the average shooter).  IDPA has always seemed to me as if was devised as a form of the kids’ standby of ‘Taking your ball and starting your own game’; in fact, many IPDA shooters consider it an insult to characterize their sport as a ‘game’ (Spoiler alert: Tactical mumbo-jumbo aside, IDPA is still a game).

Gear is mainly auto-pistols, although each sport has dedicated revolver divisions.  Besides the gun itself, a belt, holster (strong-side, outside the belt only for safety reasons) and at least two magazine holders (four preferable for USPSA) are needed.  The equipment requirements are lengthy to explain; to avoid redundancy, I’d recommend going to either the sanctioning body’s website or the Wiki pages.

Left: My USPSA rig, Bladetech holster on early-90s era Ernie Hill belt, 40 S&W (Limited 10, Major) far left and 9mm (Limited, Minor) center left. Right: My (erstwhile) IDPA rig, Fobus clip-on holster on Duluth Trading Western belt, G19 9mm center right and G22 40 S&W far right (I won’t even attempt to explain the IDPA’s arcane and tedious system of classifying guns – just run a Glock).

Targets and Scoring

The targets and scoring systems are set up in formulas that seek a balance between Colonel Cooper’s original three principles of practical shooting: power, accuracy and speed.  Regarding power, there’s mass/velocity energy threshold that all rounds must meet, usually accompanied by minimum caliber requirements to prevent the more adventurous from attempting to meet the energy requirements via handloading (as was common in decade’s past with people attempting to squeeze Major power out of 9X19).  The old Major/Minor distinction is much less relevant now than it used to be; most of the popular iron-sight, double-action plastic pistols shoot in categories where Minor caliber scoring doesn’t apply (Again, check the websites or Wiki pages for details).

Given the action origins of the sport – ‘combat’ is a frowned upon word for a variety of reasons – the targets are roughly the size of a human torso with scores dropping the further one gets from the axis of the central nervous system.  Two hits are typically required per target, with extra shots either being left unscored or penalized (IDPA in particular doesn’t like extra shots).  The targets are cardboard, brown on front, white on back, with the brown representing ‘Shoot’ and the white ‘No Shoot’ targets (In IDPA, No Shoot targets are represented by a pair of squiggly black hands painted on the target) with penalties assessed for all hits recorded on No Shoot targets.  Targets can also have portions painted over black, representing hard cover which is not penalized (apart from being scored as a miss if two hits aren’t recorded).  There are also various steel targets – more in USPSA than IDPA – set up to fall when hit solidly (and sometimes set up to remain annoyingly upright when hit low or from an angle) and just scored for being toppled.

Left, Standard USPSA target: Center, Politically-correct non-anthropomorphic IPSC ‘International’ target: Right, IDPA target.

Time is where the two sports differ the most, with USPSA placing a greater emphasis on speed while IPDA seems to work directly against it by adding time to one’s score for various procedural demerits.  To my way of thinking this is where the IDPA’s tactical conceit undermines their own argument; if someone really is threatening my life, then it will definitely be to my advantage to score hits on them in the quickest possible time, regardless of what some rule book indicates as the preferred tactical technique.  In this sense – again, just my opinion – the USPSA’s ‘Make your hits as fast as you can’ scoring system is a better training tool, with the added benefit of simply being more fun.

Courses of Fire

Naturally, safety is the first concern when doing the actual shooting.  Leaving aside the basic safety rules, the single most important rule is to never break what’s referred to as ‘the 180’ – in other words, always keep the muzzle pointed down-range or into the side berms, never turning around to run back up-range.  This is fairly straightforward yet more complicated than it sounds, since V-shaped courses of fire and 180 traps are becoming more common (Of course, drilling both muzzle awareness and concentration under stress is part of the training value of the sport).  Best advice to the novice is to move deliberately at first and condition yourself to walk backwards whenever you need to move up-range.

There are two basic types of courses in USPSA, classifiers and field courses.  Classifiers are usually fairly simple courses of fire, specifically designed so that they can be set up even in smaller ranges with quite precise measurements so the scores can be compared among all shooters nationwide with classifications calculated (thus the terminology ‘Classifier’).  And the system is quite impressive; after a lengthy hiatus I began shooting again and found scores from matches nearly 15 years earlier still on record.

Classifier 5

SImple six target classifier.

Classifier 2

Four target classifier with gun left on table instead of drawn from holster.

Classifier 3

Classifier aptly titled ‘Mini-Mart’ with counter-style prop.

Stage 3 Comp

Classifier using International style targets. Shooting is done from the box.

The classifiers are enjoyable enough, some quite challenging despite their simple set ups, offering excellent tests of the shooter’s accuracy, speed and gun-handling skills.  Every match is required to include at least one although many clubs run matches either heavily or exclusively made up of classifiers (especially early in the season).

But what the sport is really known for are the larger, more elaborate set ups, widely known as Run and Gun or field courses.  Field courses are usually designed by the club hosting the match to fit their space and the props available.  Typically they’re complicated enough that there are multiple ways to shoot the course of fire and, for safety’s sake, shooters have to walk through the course, leading to the excessive rehearsals that many – especially IDPA shooters –  find objectionable (Tactical objections aside, novices are advised to really rehearse how they plan on safely moving around with the gun in hand, it’s a good mental exercise).

Field Course 1

Boundaries for shooting lanes are marked with PVC pipe. Barriers are considered to stretch entirely to the ground.

Stage 1 Comp

All shooting is done from within box. Most larger courses of fire are designed so that each barrier needs to be deliberately cleared to prevent skipping targets and incurring the dreaded – by me anyway – Failure to Engage procedural.

Stage 4 Comp

A 30 round speed course. Start in box and advance to barrier to shoot hidden targets.

Stage 5 Comp

This course included a drop turner target actuated by a steel popper, engaged through the port in the barrier.

IPDA’s courses of fire are a bit different. First of all, they seem to eschew the simpler Classifier-type set-ups and oddly so, given that such rapid shooting in compressed spaces bears a distinct resemblance to many self-defense uses of handguns (The Mini-Mart course from above is a perfect example of that).  They also limit walk-throughs, ostensibly as part of their tactical conceit, although there are perfectly reasonable safety benefits to having shooters familiarize themselves with the course of fire before commencing with live fire. And – annoyingly in my opinion – they reject simple mechanical, safety-centered instructions before the shooting in favor of somewhat absurd and pompous ‘scenarios’.

Stage1

Typical IDPA course of fire.

Stage2

IDPA course with prop briefcase – because IDPA loves their props – set next to barrel on left with a quite excessive 180 trap.  The tactical conceit of this course was especially ridiculous, a James Bond like adventure to bear some treasure off through a collection of bad guys.

Stage4

A carjacking ‘scenario’, apparently set in the UK, Japan or some other right hand drive country.  The groping hands marking the No Shoot targets are clearly visible and, predictably enough, attract a steady stream of sophomoric comments.

Stage3

IPDA course of fire with doll prop representing an injured ‘civilian’ that the shooter is tasked to bear to safety. I ended up dragging it by the face as a protest against the preposterous white-knighting conceit.

USPSA v. IDPA: A Practical Comparison

Now my experience between the two formats is rather unbalanced; I’ve shot in probably +60 USPSA matches while only four or five IDPA matches, so this should all be taken with a grain of salt (Although the fact that one format is so much more enjoyable and agreeable to shoot – despite the fact that the club I’m a member at runs IDPA matches, with the added bonus of volunteer hours for set-up duty, I still don’t consider it worth my time – is in itself revealing).

That qualification made, several things stand out once someone shoots both side-by-side, the most obvious being the quality of the ROs. The organizational maturity of the USPSA really stands out here; four decades of matches run by clubs across the country has produced a deep reservoir of institutional experience to call upon when it comes to running a match safely and efficiently (As a testimony to the diligence of the respective organizations, it’s actually easier to find dates and locations for IDPA matches on the USPSA’s website).  And the more sporting, pure shooting nature of the game seems to help, keeping the USPSA ROs focused on squarely on safety, and not dispensing poseur-iffic ‘What you would do in a real gunfight’ advice.

Even worse than the ‘advice’ given after the course is run is the prompting IDPA ROs offer during the actual shooting; for some reason most IDPA ROs seem to fancy themselves R Lee Ermey wannabes, bellowing tactical instructions about using cover, or where one changes magazines, or whether one is firing while stationary or moving, all of which are non-safety procedural penalties (At times one thinks the name should be changed to the ICSPA – International Chicken Shit Procedural Association).  While this is no doubt considered ‘helpful’ within the tactical conceit of the game, it is quite distracting – sometimes even to the point of being unsafe – while someone is doing a live fire exercise.  Even worse is the habit of IDPA ROs to hover closely behind the shooter, introducing an additional hazard of tripping over the Walter Sobchak lookalike shouting at you about which target to shoot next and which hand to shoot it with.

In my estimation, the ‘tactical’ conceit ultimately works against IDPA; both forms of shooting are ultimately games and thus practice.  Despite all the gamer criticisms of USPSA, to the extent that their matches offer more shooting, they offer more practice: and, to the extent that they offer more complex shooting courses with a greater emphasis on speed, they offer better (read: more mechanically challenging) practice.

A course of fire doesn’t become ‘tactical’ simply by virtue of reading some white-knighting scenario synopsis before it; experience with police officer-involved shootings show that, outside a military context, the vast majority of gunfights are brief affairs where neither reloading nor shooting from multiple positions are required (And one can reasonably infer that the numbers are even starker for civilian self-defense shootings).  For pure tactical realism, the best sort of exercise would be something like a USPSA classifier – multiple targets compressed into a constrained space, limited round counts, emphasis on speed, penalty for misses – with some added physical stress like sprinting 100 yards or doing pull-ups immediately before (Although, given the athleticism on display at the average shooting match, one can see why that is avoided).

As anyone who has competed in team sports knows, various drills, while not being realistic replications of game conditions, are still invaluable in terms of building the muscle memory necessary to consistently perform mechanical tasks at a high level; an ice hockey player will never stick-handle through a line of cones in a game, but the fact that they can carry the puck while keeping their head up and eyes on the play is a necessary part of playing the game well.

A good example of this phenomena in shooting is the Texas Star, a large steel contraption holding multiple steel plates that begins to rotate once the first plate is knocked off.  Now a Texas Star is almost always at the center of at least one course of fire at every USPSA match (and sometimes even more elaborate double and triple axis set-ups) yet they’re regarded askance at most IDPA matches as being inconsistent with the tactical conceit.  Which is a pity, because the combination of hand/eye coordination, front sight focus, judging of movement and persistence in clearing the targets is an excellent drill for building overall proficiency with a handgun (Just to be clear, I am NOT the shooter in this video).

Two more elaborate Texas Star variations: 10 Plate, Dual Wheel, Single Axis (Left) and 6 Plate, Triple Axis (Right).

No one who has done both can really argue that USPSA matches don’t have the better shooters.  In any given squad at a USPSA match there will be at least two or three shooters who are really good; on the other hand, if my experience with IDPA is indicative, any given squad will include several shooters so ham-handed that you’ll watch in amazement as they manage to complete a course of fire without shooting themselves (I’m usually in the bottom quartile of shooters at any of the USPSA matches I’ve shot, while easily being in at least the top quartile of shooters the few times I’ve shot IDPA).  In fact, I’m convinced that a big part of IDPA’s attraction is that its tactical pretense offers a sort of built in excuse for the poorer shooter: “I may be slower and less accurate than those gun-gamers, but I make up for it in my tactical purity!”

The added benefit to being around people with more experience and a higher skill level is the ability to get better pointers; the A and Master Class USPSA shooters usually have pretty well developed dry-fire routines while in IDPA the ‘advice’ you receive is typically a (usually overweight) guy in a photographer’s vest who more often than not doesn’t even shoot better than you, droning on endlessly about what you should do ‘in a real gunfight’ (If the matches I’ve shot are any indication, by the end of the average IDPA match one will have heard that phrase at least a hundred times).

Another benefit of USPSA matches is, for all the complaining about ‘race guns’ and non-tactical equipment, many of the longtime USPSA shooters are people who really know how to run guns (reloading as well as the guns themselves). A matches I shot recently offered a perfect example, one shooter (absolutely excellent, by the way) who, being not only an experienced handloader but also in possession of a chronograph, bought a Glock in 40 S&W and saw how hot he could go before he began to damage the gun (by bending the pins).  On the other hand, I never thought I could see a person have multiple failures shooting a box-stock Glock 9mm with factory mags and ammo until seeing exactly that at my last IDPA match.

Match Etiquette

All the inside baseball criticisms of IDPA aside, any sort of action shooting event is better practice than the boring habit of going to indoor ranges and shooting endless strings of fire at single targets. Any novice shooter would be well served in finding and shooting a match, while I’d venture to say that anyone who carries concealed would be irresponsible to NOT seek out this sort of practice (Note: Shooting in these sorts of matches is practice and NOT training, which is something actively guided by an instructor).

There are several points relating to event-specific etiquette that the shooter should be aware of.  First are the rules regarding gun handling and safe areas; all matches have designated safe areas which are the only places (outside the actual courses of fire) where one can handle a gun (and where it is forbidden to handle ammunition).  All events are run under Cold Range rules, which means that guns are kept holstered in a completely unloaded (read: no magazine and hammer down on empty chamber) state until ordered to load by the RO in the Start Box.

Another point to remember is the need to help the squad reset the course between shooters.  This mainly involves pasting targets; the target system is quite nice, with the adhesive squares being a nice add to the range bag (But buy your own, don’t steal from the club!).  One can also help by setting steel, although I’d recommend that the novice leave the more elaborate contraptions to the experienced shooters – the heavy ones can swing back on you if you slip up.

Camouflage gear is frowned upon, falling out of favor during the big ‘Militia scare’ back in the early-90s.  IDPA will require some sort of jacket long enough to conceal the holster and magazine pouches, a requirement many of the regular participants meet with the aforementioned photographer’s vest (It really isn’t a joke – the Walter Sobchak character in The Big Lebowski resembles no one so much as the stereotypical IDPA shooter).

One other recommendation is to bring some high strength insect repellent and a few bottles of water; most shooting bays are in the direct sunlight, surrounded by berms covered with weeds.  A folding stool or chair could also come in handy.  Other than that, I would encourage anyone who doesn’t already have access to action style shooting to give either USPSA or IDPA a try and, if the club or particular style isn’t agreeable to them, to try another.

The worst that can happen is that you’ll improve your shooting.