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Carry A Gun? Take It To A Match

If you carry a gun for self-defense, you should try shooting competitively. There are plenty of benefits, including learning to shoot under stress. Here's my experience and some tips to help you prepare for your first match.

Carry A Gun? Take It To A Match

Don't be intimidated by the prospect of shooting competitions, it's easier than you may think to get started and the experience can better prepare you for an armed self-defense situation. (Photo by Dara Hennessy)

Summer of last year I completed my Concealed Carry course and applied for my concealed carry handgun license in Kansas. One piece of advice that resonated with me during my CCH course at Home on the Range in Winfield, Kansas, was the comment from owner, Chris Jarvis: “If you carry, you should consider competing.”

After hunting season concluded in 2023, I set my sights on competition. Since spring of this year, I have competed in every handgun competition at my local outdoor range, Trigger Guard, in Wellington, Kansas. In this article, I am going to share my own personal experiences coupled with input from law enforcement professionals with decades of field experience, as well as an assortment of competition accolades.

So, if you’re reading this and asking yourself, “Should I?” I will assure you: The answer is 100 percent yes. Should an ounce of doubt remain, read on to eradicate all hesitancy.

HOW DOES COMPETITION COMPARE TO A DEFENSE SITUATION

Avid bowhunter and the host of Primal Divide, Johnny “Utah” Mulligan retired from law enforcement in 2016 after serving 16 years, half of which was spent operating undercover in a Narcotics/Vice unit in northern Kentucky, approximately 10 miles south of the Cincinnati city line. He served in a strike force operating alongside multiple-jurisdiction agencies such as the FBI, DEA and ATF. Dynamic entries were a near-daily occurrence.

“You do all the precautionary stuff and you run your confidential informants to get one last little bit on intel as to how many guns or how many fighting-age males are inside the building or residence,” said Mulligan. “But numerous times, monthly, I was in a situation where I was drawing a gun with the anticipation ‘I’m not sure how this one is going to shake out.’”

At writing, Mulligan was training for the Tactical Games Iowa Regional, and is focused on both fitness and shooting capabilities. When asked how competition compares to his experiences undercover, he replied, “Knowing you’re kicking through a door and the other person has a gun, nothing is going to quite elevate your heartrate like that does.”

Training for Tactical Games
Johnny “Utah” Mulligan trains for The Tactical Games Iowa Regional, a competition focused on both fitness and shooting accurately while physically exhausted. (Photo by Johnny Utah Creative)

Getting oneself to the point of physical exhaustion, in order to elevate the heartrate and simulate stress is one method of training. Mental exhaustion is another, where one must rely on subconscious competency to function. Competition, by itself, introduces stress through the courses themselves, which often require both accuracy and speed. Having dozens of people watch you also adds another layer of stress.

“In a high-stress situation, in a firefight, you had better be a 10 out of 10 on paper, because you’re probably going to drop to 70 percent accuracy when it gets real,” said Mulligan.

ANYONE CAN COMPETE

Mike Yoder, age 65, has over 40 years of experience as a Police/SWAT instructor in Kansas and, for the final 20 years of his career, he served as the SWAT commander and firearms instructor for Sumner County. He still teaches handgun and rifle skills to officers and civilians. He opened and operates the Trigger Guard outdoor range, and hosts a number of both sanctioned and non-sanctioned competitions. Yoder started shooting competitively in 2009 and holds the rank of Master Class Shooter in the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF).




“If you say the word ‘competition’ to someone, the first thing they say is ‘I’m not good enough for that,’ but what they don’t understand is you don’t have to be good for that.”

Competition is for everyone
Anyone can compete. The key is finding a competition that is both accessible and fun, but will also help you grow in your goals as a shooter. (Photo by Jack Hennessy)

Every second Saturday of every month, weather permitting, Trigger Guard hosts a non-sanctioned Steel Challenge. Mike runs it the same as the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA), complete with standardized stages and rules, but with a couple main differences: competitors are not required to draw from a holster, and the Range Officers (those officiating each shooting stage) are less strict in terms of what constitutes a miss. For example, if a competitor hits a post and the Range Officer doesn’t immediately call a miss, they will count it as hitting the plate versus penalizing the shooter.

“We’ve got shooters of all levels, from the very, very beginner to people like Andrew,” who his is son, also a Master Class Shooter in GSSF, but also with two “MatchMeister” titles under his belt at the age of 34.

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The first thing Yoder recommends doing before competing for the first time: Attend a match. “Understand the range rules, the procedures, then just jump into it.”

But before jumping in, both Mike and Andrew Yoder agree a shooter should have a little experience. “It could be frustrating if [an inexperienced shooter] comes out, does horribly, and that could deter them from ever wanting to come out again,” said Andrew.

For inexperienced shooters, a basic handgun class may benefit them and lay a foundation for knowledge and help one understand the fundamentals.

HOW TO FIND COMPETITIONS NEAR YOU

Luckily for all of us, Google altered their algorithm a while ago so anytime you search for a topic, search results present local options at the top of your list. Search first for shooting ranges by you, perhaps read reviews, check out their website, then visit the range, shoot there, ask the staff if they host leagues or competitions.

If you’re reaching dead-ends via Google, check out the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s (NSSF) landing page for range listings, WhereToShoot.Org.

gaad-why-i-carry-jh-20
There are competitions for every kind of firearm — rifle, pistol, shotgun — and tons of specialty matches and shooting disciplines. Sports like The Tactical Games combine fitness and marksmanship. (Photo by Johnny Utah Creative)

WHAT TYPES OF MATCHES AND LEAGUES BEST FIT YOU

Your choice of competitions should help you reach your goals and grow as a shooter in the way you wish to grow. There are many, many types of competitions for rifles, shotguns and pistols, including a few that incorporate a combination of all types of firearms. There are also several governing bodies, including the USPSA, the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA), the GSSF, and USA Shooting, among others. There are many options, but potentially fewer for new shooters with a mindset centered around personal defense.

Accuracy will always trump speed, especially in a defense situation. The stories of stray bullets killing or injuring bystanders are out there. It is essential to remember we can only shoot as fast as we can settle our sights on target.

“If you’re going to fire rounds at a real target, you’re responsible for everything that leaves that barrel, hit or miss,” said Yoder.

So, for many new shooters with the purpose of training for self-defense, competitions such as a non-sanctioned Steel Challenge or a GSSF (both of which don’t require drawing from a holster) are a great place to start. “Glock shoots are more accuracy-based,” said Andrew Yoder. “You have to keep your groups tight, but you also have to be fast about it.”

As a competitor advances in terms of skill, matches through USPSA and IDPA might benefit a shooter more, as those competitions require drawing from the holster and executing reloads, sometimes while moving.

But to start, participating in matches that have higher time penalties for misses will help teach new competitors the value of taking one’s time and getting those hits on target before turning up the speed and incorporating added mechanics.

Competing In The Rain
Competing with nervous, sweating hands is one thing. Competing in the rain is next-level as GSSF MatchMeister Andrew Yoder demonstrates here. (Photo by Jack Hennessy)

WHAT GEAR IS ESSENTIAL, AND WHAT ISN’T

At my second competition I met two guys who were competing for their first time: Ben and Matt. Ben had a no-frills, iron-sights SIG P320 and two magazines, no mag pouches, and was wearing the belt he always wears. Matt, on the other hand, was decked out in a complete battle belt setup (including an IFAK and tourniquet), T.Rex Arms holster, Glock 17 setup with a threaded barrel, Trijicon RMR, and multiple other upgrades. Ben claimed he had never been to a range before, while Matt stated he had some formal training from instructors at local ranges.

Long story short: Ben’s total time was better than both Matt’s and mine. One potential reason: Ben took his time. He knew he had just those two 15-round SIG magazines and needed to make a total of 25 hits between five strings of fire at each stage. He made every shot count. Both Matt and I had five 17-round magazines and “wanted to go fast.”

There’s nothing wrong with working with a complete kit or a tricked-out gun, but the truth remains: You cannot buy your way to the top of the leaderboard. It’s also been my experience across several competitions that the guys with the fancy guns either don’t shoot well or experience malfunctions. Often, at least here in south-central Kansas, it’s the old timers wearing overalls who started plinking cans at age five and still rock “Old Ironsides” in .45 ACP, men and women who don’t transition between targets any quicker than they drive on Sundays — these are the folks outshooting most others.

That said, there is some gear that may improve your experience. Below are some suggestions and why:

  • Gun Belt: A firearm is heavy and if you’re carrying — whether daily or during a competition — you want something sturdy. My EDC belt is a $60 KORE, and I run a Blue Force Gear GRID battle belt during competitions.
  • Quality Holster: I’ve tried a few for conceal carry and prefer the Tier 1 Concealed Axis Elite for appendix carry, then when working from a battle belt, I am a huge fan of the T.Rex Arms Ragnarok holster with the Safariland QLS fork attached to a QLS receiver on a UBL mid-ride.
  • Magazine Pouches: Whether a few singles or a double or two, if you will need to incorporate a reload, these are essential. I started out with Bladetech’s Signature Double Mag Pouch and felt it was quality, especially for the price. Right now, I run Blue Force Gear pouches on my GRID belt.
  • Electronic Hearing Protection: I’m specifying those that both amplify low-level  audio, like range commands, but also suppress loud, impact sounds such as gunshots. With regular muffs or plugs, I sometimes have trouble hearing ROs call misses or rounds hit steel. I tried out Caldwell’s E-Max Shadows and they work well for me. These buds lower the high-noise levels to safe levels so I can still hear what is going on around me. They don’t get the best reviews on the site, but I think that’s because people complain about the Bluetooth audio quality. I’m not using them to take calls or listen to music, and I think they work great for shooting.
  • Range Bag: large enough to hold both a firearm and several magazines. A bag helps keep most gear in one place (ear and eye pro, gun, magazines, car keys, etc.) and makes moving from stage to stage easier. I found a decent one on Amazon for $40 but hope to upgrade at some point.
Ear Pro
Quality electronic earing protection will lower loud noise to a safe level and can help you still hear Range Officer commands as well as rounds hitting steel. (Photo by Noah Taylor)

But the bare minimum remains: Gun, ammo, five magazines. You can even consider running non-OEM magazines for competition (like Magpul PMags) or work with fewer magazines if someone helps you reload between stages.

COMPETING WITH YOUR CARRY GUN

For those competing with the intention of becoming better prepared for a defensive situation, Mike Yoder recommends keeping everything exactly the same, specifically the position of your holster and spare magazine(s). “Put that gun in one spot and leave it there, so you aren’t asking yourself, ‘Where am I at today?’ Because I’ve seen officers on the range do it; when they switch holsters or magazine pouches, they go to reload and fumble around.”

The same logic applies to everything on and in your firearm, meaning if you’re running a light (something most defense experts recommend), that light should stay on your gun during competition. Yes, running a light will likely place you in an open or unlimited division depending on the competition. Yes, others in that division will have likely invested far beyond just a light — perhaps they’re running a $300 match trigger, $400 compensator and barrel setup, whatever.

Accept the fact that even though you may, due to your handgun setup, get placed in a division with other shooters running the “Gucci-est” of the “Gucci guns,” that doesn’t mean you should too. Keep your carry gun as stock as possible while making only the necessary modifications that will benefit you in a personal-defense situation. This will include deciding between factory irons, perhaps an upgrade in the form of a fiber-optic front and blackout rear, or even the addition of a red-dot optic. I don’t think you should ever replace the factory trigger on your carry gun, but that’s another article.

If you carry expensive FBI-approved personal defense ammo, competing with it can get very expensive, and it may be not allowed in some competitions. At a certain point, it becomes a matter of what degree do you keep everything the same. Michael Jones of the Garand Thumb YouTube channel, in his “Basics of Conceal Carry” video, talks about how he only runs 124-grain NATO-spec ball ammo because he knows exactly how his handgun will cycle with that ammo, and his optic is precisely dialed to that ammunition (versus hollow points, which will have a different point of impact). At the time, he also varied between carrying a Glock 17 and a Beretta 92, which begs another question: Do you have more than one carry gun? And how much do you compete with your carry options?

Carry Guns
The setup options — from firearm model and size to internal and external components, as well as ammo choice — are seemingly endless. How exact you wish to keep your competition rig to your daily carry, that is up to you, and there are pros and cons for every decision. (Photo by Jack Hennessy)

Perhaps most importantly, understand this: A race gun is not a carry gun. The crisp and accurate nature of a high-end 1911 or 2011, for example, may benefit a shooter at the range, but may also demand very regular maintenance and may not tolerate hard-use scenarios like a polymer-frame striker-fired pistol will. 

HOW TO PREPARE FOR YOUR FIRST MATCH

As mentioned above, attending a match will help you understand what to expect. Below are some other tips:

  • Request any info or documents on the courses of fire days ahead of the competition. Upon arriving at a stage, ROs will ask if you understand the course of fire. If you don’t, they will explain it to you. But how well do you listen and understand when nervous? Better to have a good understanding prior to stepping up to the stage. Find out what you can, and if it’s an established stage, you may also be able to find some tips online about how to best execute the course of fire.
  • Have everything packed and prepped the night before. No need to increase your stress level by scouring the house for your ear pro.
  • Bring extra ammo. Yes, a string a fire may call for five hits (ideally five rounds) but you’re going to miss far more than you expect you might. I’d recommend doubling the suggested ammo amount.
  • Dress for the conditions with a focus on comfort and ease of movement. Your footwear should be supportive and close-toed. There may be places to sit between stages, but you may be standing most of the time. Choose lightweight ear pro. Electronic muffs can get heavy after a while. I also discovered muffs atop a ballcap can press down on that little metal button and it can start to ache. Outfit yourself in apparel that doesn’t detract from your focus on the competition.
  • Regulate your caffeine intake, unless you would prefer not to. Perhaps the jitteriness of two Venti Americanos is exactly what you want to bring that heart rate up, or it’s not. Keep in mind caffeine also restricts blood flow to muscles so if you’re both dehydrated and dealing with lower oxygen distribution up your arms and shoulders, you might be dealing with an elevated level of tremors versus if you stuck to water.
  • Arrive with an unloaded gun. This is something I got wrong at my first competition. With a CCH, I assumed I could go wherever, whenever, with a loaded gun (aside from legally restricted locations), so I stood there during the safety briefing at Trigger Guard with my Glock 17 at condition zero in my holster. Not an intentional disobedience by any means, but competitions have strict safety protocols and designated areas for handling firearms. The only time one should “load and make ready” is after you have arrived at a stage, shown the RO a clear firearm, and are explicitly instructed to “load and make ready.”
  • Make fun your only expectation. Your position on the leaderboard, especially during your first competition, means absolutely nothing. But, if you let yourself have fun you are far more likely to return and that’s the whole reason you are doing this, right?
gaad-why-i-carry-jh-18
Even when attempting to simulate a high-stress, uncomfortable situation, there are still some general best practices to help you get the most out of competition. These include dressing for the weather and the event, as well as staying hydrated, especially during warmer months. (Photo by Jack Hennessy)

THE BIGGEST COMPETITION IS WITH YOURSELF

Don’t get intimidated by other competitors standing around at check-in. Yes, they may have the tacti-cool setup, but as mentioned earlier, it’s the farmers in overalls you should fear. Yes, some guys may be built and carry themselves like they’re special operators, but then you watch them shoot and realize “Call of Duty” is more their speed.

Have goals and remind yourself why you are there. Your level of investment in terms of both experience and gear may not mirror the competitors in your division, but if you learn something, and continue to learn, getting better each time, that is what counts. Then, potentially, you may wish to transition to a more competitive mindset, upgrade your gear and add digits to your mileage gauge as you attend more competitions nationwide. Again, it comes down to want you want, and why.

WHAT MY FIRST, THEN SECOND MATCH TAUGHT ME

I finished second-to-last at my first competition, a non-sanctioned Steel Challenge-type event. I realized I had some work to do. At my second competition, I found myself far more nervous.

Whereas with the first competition, I had zero expectations, with this second go-through, I felt trembling up my arms at the first stage. I also picked what I considered the hardest stage to run first with the logic I’d have less adrenaline coursing through my veins. That was a mistake. Apparently, there is a sweet spot between initial jitters and adrenaline, and it may be worth working in the hardest stage during that sweet spot whenever possible.

Incorporating gear with which I had not practiced was also a mistake. At my third stage, I decided to don shooting gloves. It was my worst stage for the day. I also learned I may or may not drop the magazine during a slide-lock reload and that, as a general rule, the magazine release on my Glock 19 isn’t as easy to actuate as it is on my Glock 17. That led to an informed gear upgrade as, upon leaving the range, I promptly ordered the Vickers Tactical Extended Magazine Release. Working on my reloads — both from in-battery and slide-lock — was also crucial.

But, during what I considered a more chaotic competition for myself, I started to discover what felt like a vastly more reliable trigger pull, something I don’t believe I would have ever found while punching paper. Like a piano tuner finding the precise pitch of a string, I knew immediately when the right amount of finger and pressure started to pull. So, I replicated it over and over until that became my trigger press.

I finished better than second-to-last. At my most-recent competition, I was lucky enough to have Andrew Yoder run me through the stages. “You do realize how fast you’re trying to go?” he asked me at the second stage. “Slow down, Jack” he advised. “Call me Ricky Bobby,” I answered.

Suppressing the urge to go fast is something I’m still working on. I know I can empty a Glock 19 magazine in three seconds, but I will have flyers and a bird hole (not bug hole) at 5 yards. I have to remind myself: One should work up to speed, or, at the very least, be able to work down from speed when accuracy suffers.

When Yoder saw me starting to shake in the arms, he suggested, “Pull back more with your support hand, squeeze more.” He pointed out that the first shot sets the tone for the course of fire, so take that extra half second to get sights aligned and squeeze off the perfect first shot.

I’ve competed in five competitions over the past few months. There is that first minute when scores get posted when my heart sinks, then like the relief that follows every bruise, I am calm. I realize there are things as simple as dry firing more at home that will benefit me at the range. Or perhaps just drawing and presenting frantically like some after-work aerobics class to build muscle memory.

Practice Gear
Something as simple as a DryFireMag helps simulate trigger pull and trigger reset without have to rack the slide. It’s a great tool to use at home when practicing target transitions or simply drawing from a holster and taking a shot. (Photo by Jack Hennessy)

A path forward exists and, truth be told, it’s cyclical and always returns to the fundamentals, which I find comforting. 

Becoming a better shooter isn’t complicated, but it is time intensive. There is no wave of a wand to turn you into the ultimate warrior, an unbeatable-on-the-draw protector. The best can always be better. Your best will always get better. I take solace in that.

Questions or thoughts? Let us know by emailing gaeditor@outdoorsg.com, or reach out to the author on Instagram: @WildGameJack

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