IDPA: Gaming vs. Training

As I mentioned yesterday, I noticed some definite differences at my first IDPA match between those people who were shooting it as a sport/competition vs. those who were shooting primarily for defensive firearms practice/training. I’ve been thinking about this topic anyway since Bob Mayne‘s excellent Handgun World podcast recently in which he and Ben Branam discussed this issue in the context of the Aurora shooting.

In my view, IDPA can be just a fun game you get to play out on the range, or it can be a supplement (though not a replacement; more on that in a moment) to your defensive firearms training regimen. If you’re going to treat IDPA as training, though, you’re going to make some different decisions than if you’re playing as a game. Here are some of the things I think make IDPA better training:

  • Shoot the gear you carry. Your scores will almost certainly do well if you shoot IDPA with that competition-ready Glock 34 with the ultralight trigger job, fiber optic sights, beveled mag well, and so forth. But if your day-to-day carry rig is an M&P 9c in a Crossbreed Supertuck, you should be shooting IDPA with that gear. Remember, if you end up in a crisis situation where you have to use your weapon, you’ll fall back on your conditioning. Why not condition yourself with the gear you’ll actually have to deal with?
  • Hit the stages as cold as you can. A brief walkthrough of the stage is a necessary thing, especially when the instructions involve procedural stuff. But, honestly, the less pre-planning you do, the better you’re training yourself to make judgements in the face of unfamiliar circumstances and adrenaline. You won’t get a call saying “I’m going to climb in your front window in 20 minutes, walk down the hall, kick in your door, and…” Well, you get the idea. The less pre-planning you do for your stages, the more realistically you’ll replicate this “decision-making under fire” experience. (And yes, I recognize IDPA isn’t necessarily set up to work this way, and I realize there’s a balance point that one has to reach here to stay within IDPA’s rules.)
  • Keep your tactics as realistic as you can. I’ve seen shooters who, when faced with the instruction “engage the targets while advancing” would take huge running steps up to about five feet away from the target, and then fire their shots while moving forward inches at a time on tiptoes. Ditto retreating, and some of the “use of cover” scenarios. While technically the shooter was advancing, you’d never do that in a real gunfight, so why do it in training?
  • Shoot your carry ammo at least once in a while. Ammo is expensive, and so it’s only natural that people want to use the cheap stuff for an IDPA match where (a) you aren’t actually depending on the ammo to stop a bad guy, and (b) you might shoot 200 rounds for a local match and many times more for larger matches. Shooting very many IDPA matches with CorBon DPX or Hornady Critical Defense can get awfully expensive. But I still think it’s a good idea once in a while, for two reasons. First and most important, if a particular kind of ammo isn’t going to work in your gun, you need to know that before you have to deploy your gun in a defensive situation. Second, some guns simply shoot more accurately with some kinds of ammo than they do with others. Again, an IDPA match is a way better place to discover that than when you’re looking over your sights at a bad guy.
  • Dont focus on your score. If IDPA is defensive handgun practice for you, focus on practicing your defensive handgun skills, in the way you trained them, and don’t pay too much attention to your score. Or at least, don’t pay too much attention to how you scored in relation to others. Focus instead on your personal performance – did you have too many points down? How many FTNs and HNTs did you record? How accurate were you? Did you get hung up in the reloads? These are the skills you’ll need for defensive gun use, and although working on them will improve your score, your focus should be on the skills and tactics rather than on squeezing out that last point at the expense of realism in your shooting.

One more thing: I firmly believe that IDPA can be a great place to practice your defensive handgun skills, but I don’t think it should be the only component. IDPA is a great place to practice and hone your skills, but I think it’s critically important (and also way better if you ever have to defend your actions in a court of law) that you learn and ingrain the right habits beforehand through good defensive handgun training. I noticed during yesterday’s match a few bad habits I’ve developed, and a few items I need to add to my training and practice regimen to overcome them. While an IDPA match is definitely a better place to discover those discrepancies than an actual gunfight, starting with the right habits from the get-go is way easier than retraining bad habits that develop.

So, what do you think? Can IDPA be good for training, or should people treat it like “just a game”? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  1. Mrs. Groundhog says:

    I started reading your blog because of Agirlandhergun pointed me here. I have enjoyed reading your posts. When I read your post today, it was really cool because Ben Branam is a personal friend of my family. it was good to see his name in print. If you are not familiar with his blog, check it out at

    • Thanks for your comment! I read Ben’s blog daily and, in fact, will be having a guest post over there soon. I thought I’d added it to my blogroll, too, but it seems not. I’ll be fixing that shortly. Thank you for reading my blog – I’m glad you find it worthwhile!

  2. Since it’s shot on the clock and has rules, IDPA is a game.

    I agree that it should be shot “as you carry” and using cover like there truly is incoming fire. What I don’t like is that when using cover, normally you can’t back away from cover and usually must be right behind cover. However, I do like that using cover is part of the “game.”

    Probably the greatest benefit is stress inoculation, which is a component of most competitive type shooting.

    Keep at it!

    • The stress inoculation piece is huge for me. I think you really have to experience it to know how much stress can affect your ability to perform basic tasks, much less aim and shoot a gun. Truly bad things could result if the first time you experience that is in a real combat situation. Thanks for reading and commenting!


  1. […] The stages each IDPA club uses are as varied as the imaginations of the match staff, but you’ll definitely test your skills – and find your weaknesses – shooting IDPA. Although I did better yesterday than I did in my first IDPA match, I can still see areas where I need to put in some serious practice (those 25-yard shots, for example). If you want to use IDPA as a way to train, and not just as a game to play, there are ways to do that. […]

  2. […] commented before on the issue of “IDPA as training” vs. “IDPA as a game”. But I wanted to […]

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