Competition Shooting Overview: How to Shoot for Fun, Fame, and Funds

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Going to the range is an enjoyable pastime, but do you sometimes feel like there could be more to it?  

If you’re like me, you might wonder how you can figure out if you’re actually getting better at shooting or how you stack up against other shooters.

One way to do it is competition.

speed shooting competition
Dave Sevigny shoots at a target in the Bianchi Cup shooting competition in Columbia, MO. Photo: Dan Brenner

It might sound scary, but that’s okay.  Anyone who competes remembers what their first matches were like and isn’t interested in laughing at you….at least until we know you better!

Competitive shooting can be accessible to anyone who knows how to handle their firearms, whether they are on a shoestring or lottery winner budget.

You can use it as an occasional leisure activity, pursue it to the highest levels of international championships, or find a happy medium that fits your life and goals.

Competition is also a great way to get more time on the range, often with setups that might be difficult or impossible for you to put together on your own.  All you really need to get started are the guns you’ll be shooting, some ammo, and maybe some range bag essentials.

Getting to run around and blast targets, shoot interesting challenges, or master new skills are all exciting and fun.  

competition shooting shotgun
Competition shooting takes many forms…the one thing uniting them all is fun.

They might not be “real life,” but they can also be a useful way to benchmark your progress over time and against shooters you don’t already know.  In some shooting sports, you can even track how you’re doing directly compared to the very best in the world.

Plus matches can be fun social events to spend time with people with similar mindset and interests whether you just want to hang with new friends or battle for wins in good-natured rivalries.

As for the fame and money the big shooters bring home?  Fame might be limited to your local club or the sport you compete in, and you might win no more than a pat on the back or a trophy for your mantel, but the sky’s the limit.  Haven’t you heard of Jerry Miculek or Julie Golob?

Still interested?  I’ve organized this summary of shooting sports roughly by the kinds of guns involved: pistols, rifles, shotguns, or some combination of them (but not bows, sorry archers!).

However, many types of competitions have separate divisions or sibling sports that are nearly identical but use other guns.  Make sure you read every section even if you think you’re only interested in competing with one type of firearm.

First up…handgun shooting sports

Playing with Pistols

Handguns are popular for many reasons, between being available at reasonable prices, being relatively small and easy to transport and store, and being versatile for many different uses.  

It’s no surprise, then, that many shooting competitions are focused on handgun shooting.

Glock Shooting Sports Foundation (GSSF)

One pistol competition, though, is limited to exactly one brand of gun: GSSF or Glock Shooting Sports Foundation.

GSSF matches are the same across the country and allow people to compete against each other by shooting relatively straightforward and standardized courses of fire that use paper and steel targets.  

Winners get Glocks.

Sounds pretty good right?

You do need to already have a Glock to shoot these matches, but nothing else besides magazines and ammunition.  That makes them very accessible to newer shooters while leaving room for experienced shooters to come and have fun too.

 Rimfire Challenge

Fortunately for those of us who aren’t Glock owners, there are plenty of other pistol competitions.  One of the most beginner-friendly is NSSF Rimfire Challenge.  

As you might be able to tell from the name, Rimfire Challenge shooters use .22lr guns to shoot targets – steel, in this case.  It’s here under the pistol section because that’s what a lot of competitors use, but .22lr rifles are welcome too.  

No holsters are required; you just need to be able to shoot five to seven targets in any given stage.  The stages can be different from club to club and match to match.

If you’re interested in Rimfire Challenge in particular, be sure to check out our choice for the best beginner rimfire rifle money can buy.

 

Steel Challenge

Somewhere in between is Steel Challenge, also known as SCSA.  Almost any kind of pistol, no matter how plain or fancy, can shoot the five steel targets in each Steel Challenge stage.  Rimfire and pistol caliber carbines (rifles) can also play.

The standard stages are always the same, which leads both to simplicity and familiarity for people just dipping their toes into the sport…results in some very fast shooting as competitors learn the most efficient way to shoot the targets.

And similar to GSSF and Rimfire Challenge, all but one Steel Challenge stage is shot from a simple standing position with no movement required.

If you love the nearly-instant visual and audible feedback of shooting steel, but want a little more excitement, there are also “Pro Am”-style and “falling steel” matches, almost all of which are shot with centerfire pistols only.

In those, there are many more steel targets with much more variety in shapes and sizes, and they may need to be shot at from different positions in the same stage.  Pro-Am is unique for its limitations on how long a shooter has to shoot as many pieces of steel as they can during a stage.

Falling steel tends instead to be scored by how long it takes the shooter to finish shooting all of the steel available.

USPSA

Running around and shooting targets with pistols isn’t limited to steel-only matches.  A very popular shooting sport is called USPSA.

Named for its governing organization, the United States Practical Shooting Association.

USPSA is a “freestyle” shooting sport with both paper and steel targets, though generally more paper than steel, where shooters compete to see who can shoot stages fastest and with the most accuracy.

It’s most well-known as a pistol sport but pistol caliber carbines are also starting to become an option there – what guns in particular?  See our article about picking USPSA divisions for more.

IDPA

Another popular choice for running around with handguns is the matches organized by the IDPA, International Defensive Pistol Association.

IDPA is somewhat less freestyle in that it dictates how shooters must engage targets on a stage, in an attempt to be more defense-oriented, but it also values the balance of speed and accuracy.

It’s also different from USPSA in that permitted pistols are a bit more limited, and they normally must be carried and drawn from underneath a concealment garment, much like a concealed carry gun in everyday life.

These factors make IDPA attractive to people who are interested in practicing with the guns that they use for self-defense.

While this is the pistol section, it’s also worth noting that USPSA and IDPA in particular often form the basis of very similar matches where there’s running and gunning at all sorts of targets, but with a rifle.

Tactical/action rifle competitions can be found all over the place, but aren’t generally gathered under the umbrella of a single governing set of rules.

NRA Action Pistol

All of these types of matches tend to be relatively fast-paced, but not all pistol competitions are.  One exception is NRA Action Pistol, sometimes also known as Bianchi Cup because the Cup is one of the most visible matches in the sport.

Action Pistol requires shooters to use pistols to shoot round steel plates up to 25 yards away, and at paper targets up to 50 yards away.

The highest scoring zone on those paper targets is a circle merely four inches across.  

The catch?

Well, competitors are given a limited amount of time for the required number of shots, which adds pressure and excitement to the game.  Because each string of fire in Action Pistol is limited to six rounds, it is one of the few pistol sports where revolvers aren’t disadvantaged in any way against semiautomatic handguns.

Bullseye Pistol

Another is the even slower-paced traditional bullseye pistol and its close relative, the Olympic pistol sports.  Bullseye shooters stand and shoot, one-handed, at distances as far as 50 yards, using centerfire and rimfire pistols.

It’s the kind of shooting you might see at the historic Camp Perry National Matches.  While there are some time limits, they might seem relatively generous, especially when compared to some of the faster shooting sports.

The size of the highest-scoring ring on the target, just under 1.7 inches across at 50 yards and about two-thirds of an inch across at 25 yards, doesn’t make the competition easy to win, however, even with all of the time in the world.

The various Olympic pistol sports are similar, but are fired at distances ranging from 10 to 50 meters using rimfire and air guns.  

The targets are even smaller than those used by bullseye shooters, making Olympic pistol shooters the most accuracy-intense pistol competitors out there.  As you might imagine with the highest scoring part of some targets literally the size of the period at the end of this sentence, it’s an extremely difficult sport, just in a different way than the other competitions I’ve described here.

These are just a few of the many organized pistol sports, but handguns are also one of the most popular guns for “outlaw” local club competitions that aren’t under any particular rules though they may seem very similar to one of the ones described. It’s definitely worth checking out what’s going on at the range you shoot at, because they may already have competitive events going on and they are a great way to get started.

Rifle-Oriented Sports

Most of the rifle-only shooting sports are focused on various forms of precision shooting: hitting very small targets or making very tight groups of holes on a target under varying types and levels of challenge.

Small Bore

Perhaps one of the most classic is small bore rifle, which are rifles in .22 caliber.  

small bore rifle competition
Small bore rifle competition shooters on the line.

While they can be shot with the .22lr rifle you got as a kid, high-end competitors use custom rifles that are specially adjusted to precisely fit their bodies from manufacturers like Anschutz, Feinwerkbau, and Walther.  Of course, a heavily modified 10/22 is also a good, cheap(ish) entry point to get you started.

The rifles are normally paired with special canvas or leather shooting coats and pants that help the competitor move as little as possible while shooting. You’ll also see similar equipment in small bore’s close cousin, air rifle competition.

There are several variations of small bore competitions, including ones found at the Olympics.  They are shot from as close as 50 feet and as far out as 100 yards, using either a prone position lying flat on the ground or a combination of prone (lying flat on the stomach), sitting or kneeling, and standing positions (when you might hear it called “three position” or “four position”).

The goal?

Hit the middle of the bullseye with every one of the limited shots the competitor is permitted to fire.  While that might not seem so hard with the targets you’ve seen at your local range, the highest scoring part of the bullseye for an Olympic shooter could be as small as 0.5 millimeters across – less than a quarter of an inch.

NRA High Power

If small calibers don’t excite you but competition shooting at tiny targets does, there are the various NRA High Power and Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) rifle competitions, including F-Class and Palma.

NRA High Power shooting Competition
NRA High Power Shooters

The standard High Power match is shot at varying distances out to 600 yards, where the highest scoring part of the target is a 6-inch circle, with long-range F-Class and Palma matches stretching as far as 1000 yards – over half a mile!

As you can imagine, a deep knowledge of ballistics, including how factors like wind can affect a bullet’s travel, becomes increasingly important with these types of competitions.  Some of these matches are shot in a combination of positions, but others only require the competitor to shoot from prone.

The equipment across these types of matches varies quite a bit, from “Service Rifle” all the way to F-Open rifles, with lots of stops in between.

Service Rifles are AR-15 rifles that meet very exacting military-correct specifications with iron sights or limited-power scopes.  To help control movement, competitors can wear shooting coats and pants and use a sling, but nothing else.

At the other end of the spectrum are F-Open rifles, which permit nearly any modification you can imagine to make a rifle easier to shoot more accurately, including bipods and powerful scopes.

Since they shoot at 1000 yards with the highest-scoring X-ring of the target only five inches across, even having all that technology in the gun is no guarantee of high scores, however. Check out our precision rifle roundup to get an idea of the types of guns you’ll be competing with…and against. 

Fortunately, many of the High Power matches can be shot in a division called “Any Rifle” which is, as it sounds, basically any rifle that is able to safely complete the course of fire.

Generally, muzzle brakes aren’t permitted because of their effect on other competitors shooting at the same time, but otherwise, it’s a great place to get started or practice with your gear for other matches.

Interested?  Check out our list of great surplus rifles to get started in the “Any Rifle” division relatively cheaply…always best to dip a toe in the waters before divin’ on in.

surplus rifles for shooting competitons
Surplus rifles are a great way to get into rifle shooting without breaking the bank?

While small bore and High Power competitions require shooters to hit (rather small) designated places on bullseye targets, there’s another area of rifle competition that partially focuses just on making the tiniest groups possible with multiple shots.

Benchrest

It’s called benchrest.  Benchrest rifles must be mechanically very accurate and can be fully supported when shot in competition, but the shooter is still responsible for aiming the gun and pressing the trigger.

With world record 10-shot groups as small as 0.512 inches across at 300 yards, there’s no margin for error.

In fact, as with High Power, loading ammunition precisely with a load matched to the gun is nearly as important as the actual firearm and shooting itself.

While benchrest, High Power, and small bore are fascinating from the academic aspect of how accurately and precisely a person can shoot a rifle, they can be a little bit boring for some folks, especially since targets are standard bullseyes and time limits are usually quite generous.

Silhouette

One alternative is silhouette competition shooting.  

With divisions for all sorts of firearms from the types of rifles you’d find in small bore or High Power to hunting rifles to lever action rifles, along with air guns, silhouette is a very inclusive sport. You can even compete with pistols in very similar matches.

It also does not permit the use of many accessories that can be used to enhance accuracy, such as shooting coats and jackets, so it’s a bit more affordable and accessible to get started and not feel like you’re already behind on the equipment race.

The neat thing about silhouette is that competitors shoot, while standing up, at metal targets that are shaped as outlines of chickens, pigs, turkeys, and rams.

Each target falls over or is knocked off its stand when successfully hit.  The unique targets and instant feedback are more exciting for many shooters than paper bullseye targets.

Precision Rifle

Even more fast-paced and with much more variation are precision long-range matches that fall under the umbrella of the Precision Rifle Series and similar organizations, as well as in one-off “outlaw” matches that operate under a single range’s local rules.

These matches are primarily for centerfire rifles, both bolt-action and semi-automatic, although there are also rimfire versions popping up.  

In addition to the rifles themselves, shooters are often permitted to use bipods or stuffed shooting bags as supports, but not special clothing, and they may be restricted as to how many extras they can use in various parts of the match.

Instead of shooting from standard standing, kneeling, seated, or prone positions all the time, precision rifle matches can require shooters to run around, move objects, and use props like simulated rooftops or vehicles as supports for their rifles.

Competitors may be permitted to fire as many rounds as they can during a limited period of time, be limited only by the number of rounds allowed to be shot, or some combination of the two.

Precision rifle also involves targets that can be as simple as steel plates or as complicated as “spinners” that have two steel plates at the ends of a vertical bar on an axle, and that must be shot so that the bottom plate flips over the top – a challenge of both accuracy and timing.  Paper targets might be used, but are generally rare though they can get very creative.

Precision rifle is also different from the other rifle competitions described because targets may be placed at varying distances that may or may not be known by the competitor before the match, and can be as near or as far as the range safely allows.

Shotgun Games

Much as with rifles, there are essentially two types of shotgun competitions: the traditional sports and the newer action/tactical sports.  Both of these go well beyond shredding cardboard at your local indoor range or shattering clay targets tossed by your buddy in the field out back.

Traditional

Traditional shotgun sports are the ones many people have heard of: trap, skeet, and sporting clays.  They involve shooting clay disks, called pigeons, which are launched into the air or across the ground by special machines known as traps.

Most require competitors to shoot at 25, 50, or 100 targets in any given match, making them relatively affordable from an ammunition and time perspective.

A successful hit on target means that the shotgun pellets fired cause the entire pigeon to shatter in a cloud of dust, though even a small piece of the target being broken off by the pellets is also counted as a hit.

These sports differ largely in how the targets are presented to the shooter.  In trap, the pigeons are generally thrown out and away from where the shooter stands.

With skeet, they move across the field in front of the shooter.  Both are very regimented: competitors can expect to stand in the same place and see clay targets presented at the same trajectory and speed almost anywhere in the world.

The details change between the different variations of each, such as with double trap, Olympic/international trap, English skeet, and helice (which also uses a completely unique clay target).

Because target presentation is consistent in trap and skeet, the challenge becomes being able to break every clay every time.

This becomes even harder not only with wind catching a clay and making it move erratically, but with the pressure of getting to number 20 or 23 and wanting to make it a perfect round of 25 targets hit in a row.

Sporting clays is something else altogether.  With that, every sporting clays club or event can have its own unique set of target presentations.

Some clays may be thrown outwards as in trap or across as in skeet, but they might also be rolled on the ground or tossed straight up, all to simulate various types of small game that might be hunted with a shotgun.

Many sporting clays courses take advantage of their natural settings and incorporate trees, ponds, or even abandoned buildings into their challenges.

All of the traditional shotgun sports can be shot with almost any type of shotgun, but the over/under is the most classic.

These shotguns have two barrels vertically stacked, with each one able to shoot one shell at a time.  They are loaded by ‘breaking open’ the shotgun by moving a latch bending the gun at the action, between the shoulder stock and the barrels.

Most are 12 gauge, but certain shotgun sports also require or allow the use of 20 gauge, 28 gauge, and .410 bore guns.  Pump and semi-automatic shotguns are also found in competitors’ hands, so don’t feel like you can’t get started unless you buy an over/under first.

Unless you want an excuse to go gun shopping, of course.  If so, our best shotguns for bird hunting will also serve you well when hunting simulated game. 

Tactical/Action

On the complete opposite end are the tactical/action shotgun competitions.

Much like the action pistol or precision long-range rifle matches described earlier, these types of competitions are about running and gunning.  

Targets can include steel plates to be knocked over, stationary clay targets, flying clay targets, and sometimes even cardboard targets.  

That’s because these types of competitions don’t just use birdshot, but also buckshot and slug ammunition.

Tactical/action shotgun matches aren’t just about the shooting…they’re also about dealing with both the quantity and variety of shotshells that may be needed for a particular stage.

Because loading is “on the clock,” competitors in this discipline have come up with several creative ways to carry ammunition and make it ready to load into the gun efficiently, sometimes two or four shells at a time (called duo-loading, load-2, or quad-loading).

These shell carriers aren’t required for a match, but are part of the gear needed at higher levels of competition.

That also means the guns themselves are often modified so that they are easier to load and can hold more shells at once.  In some cases, box magazine-fed shotguns are used instead of the tubular magazines most of us are more familiar with.

Tubular magazines are often extended, and their loading ports widened so that it is easier for the competitor to shove shells into them quickly.

Shotgun modifications for tactical/action matches aren’t just for loading.  Most commonly, some sort of sighting system beyond the bead or rib may be added for increased accuracy on static targets, and controls are made larger so that they are easier to operate at speed.

However, one of the biggest issues for all guns in these matches is reliability, and ensuring that the shotgun doesn’t stop working in the middle of a stage is part of the challenge of tactical/action shotgun.

Multigun Competitions: More Guns, More Fun

3gun shooting competition
3 Gun competition shooting

As you can see, there are plenty of sports where you can show up with one of your favorite guns and have fun and improve with it. But if one gun is good, are two or three guns better? They can be!

Multigun sports are increasingly popular and there are two major types: modern and not-so-modern.

Modern multigun combines two or three of the single gun action or tactical shooting competitions described above.

While 3-gun – pistol, rifle, and shotgun – is most common, there are also multigun matches that are just pistol and rifle, pistol and shotgun, or rifle and shotgun.

The largest rule sets for modern multigun are 3-Gun Nation and USPSA Multigun, but there are also many other rules used at local ranges or that are particular to a single large match or group of matches.

Besides having to learn each of the guns involved, multigun also adds the complexity of learning to switch between the guns on the fly.

 Stages may also be designed so that competitors need to decide what gun they want to use to shoot at different targets, so it can be more difficult to plan the best way to shoot the stage for an individual shooter and to remember the plan when actually competing.

Cowboy Action Shooting: A Blast From the Past

Multigun isn’t just limited to modern guns.  Cowboy Action Shooting (also known as SASS or Single Action Shooting Sports) uses single action revolvers, pump shotguns, and lever-action rifles.

They have some of the largest organized competition shooting matches in the United States, including a relatively large proportion of women and juniors.

Unlike every other type of competition mentioned so far, all competitors are also required to select an Old West-style name that is used at matches and when reporting scores, and they must dress in period-appropriate clothing.

Yes, Cowboy Action Shooting is part costume party and part shooting competition, and by all accounts – all fun.

Ready to Start Competing?

This is necessarily a sweeping flyover of the many competitive shooting disciplines that are available.  There are so many shooting sports available that it would be impossible to list them all, but I’ve hopefully given you a flavor of the many ways that shooters have found to test and improve their skills against themselves and others.

If you’re already a competitor and I’ve missed your sport, tell us about it below! And if you’re ready to go out and try competition, use what you’ve learned, find a match on Google or through a local shooter’s group, dive in, and report back!

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David, PPT EditorGetfreightCarbonAnnette EvansCowboy Blob Recent comment authors
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Getfreight
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Getfreight

Thank you for the breakdown of the different competitions. Earlier this year some friends and I went to look into competitions in SLC Utah.

They seem to be difficult to find at times. But at the public range Lee Kay there were a few going on that weekend.

I have to say, I was not interested in Western Style at all until we checked it out. They happened to be out there with USPSA. The Western Shooting group was probably the most fun and laid back group.

David, PPT Editor
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I wish CAS would offer a division or a group that didn’t require dressing up and such. I would love to shoot it, but I refuse to LARP while doing it. That said, the people in the community are great from what I’ve seen. The clubs are very friendly and a good time to be around. The speed-draw people hold some of their larger matches in the parking lot of my BassPro since they are only shooting wax bullets, it’s always a good time to see them.

Carbon
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Carbon

Thinking of buying a Sig MPX pistol 8″ barrel; are there any competitions that allow that, with or without a stock?

Annette Evans
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Annette Evans

Yes! Now there’s a tough sport combining excellent aerobic fitness with precision shooting. One neat thing is that while Biathlon is a Winter Olympic sport because of the cross-country skiing, there’s also a summer version with cross-country running combined with shooting. Is that something you’ve tried?

Cowboy Blob
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Cowboy Blob

Ever hear of Olympic Biathlon?