IDPA vs USPSA: What’s the Best Handgun Competition?

There can only be…two?

In the world of practical shooting competition, there are two major organizations: the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) and the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA).

IDPA vest
A competitor in an IDPA match

Both are exceedingly popular (in fact, they’re two of the largest competitive shooting organizations of all kinds, not just practical shooting), so it can be tough for prospective competitors to figure out which competition is right for them. 

Good thing you’ve got this guide, huh?

welcome to the internet i'll be your guide
We gotchu.

I’ll walk you through the similarities and differences between the two organizations to help you figure out if you want to compete with one or the other or even both. 

Let’s start with the basics. 

Table of Contents

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Procedures

At their core, both IDPA and USPSA are practical shooting competitions meaning that competitors try to balance speed and precision, trying to shoot as quickly yet accurately as possible, on a non-traditional course that’s basically an obstacle course for shooters. How they go about testing that skill is quite different, however.

IDPA Logo
IDPA Logo

IDPA competitions are primarily in the Self-Defense Format. These matches are intended to simulate real-world self-defense situations.

To do so, they require competitors to shoot anywhere from three to twenty yards and typically ask the shooter to change firing point and shooting position throughout their round. Shooters may have to reload during the match and must do so behind cover.

IDPA Shooter
IDPA Shooter

Scenarios are typically based on real-life situations like carjackings, convenience store robberies, and more, and are sometimes even based on real crimes pulled from the news. Self-Defense matches frequently require shooters to shoot from odd angles and in awkward positions.

USPSA competitions, however, are more freestyle. Shooters are given a line or box that they can move along or within at their discretion to engage with the different targets.

USPSA logo
USPSA logo

Particular shooting positions are not required, though the layout of the course may encourage particular shooting locations or positions. Targets are hit on an “as and when visible” basis.

USPSA Shooter
USPSA Shooter

Reloads are not required but shooters will have the option to reload, though they may be restricted to designated times during the stage

In both IDPA and USPSA, targets are typically a mix of paper and steel. 

Both organizations also offer other formats as well, but those are the main ones.

For example, both also offer Standard Exercise Formats, which are designed to test specific gun skills like drawing, strong and weak hand shooting, and sighting, and must be shot in a specific way so that everyone is on a level playing field, and completing the stage in the same way. 

Scoring

IDPA scoring is pretty straightforward.

score
Go you!

It just takes your raw time, meaning the time it to you to actually complete the course, then adds on time using a formula based on accuracy. As you would imagine, greater accuracy means less time added and lower accuracy means more time added. 

USPSA scoring is a little more complicated. Before you even shoot, you need to know your round’s power factor.

Hangover Math Gif
Scoring for USPSA be like…

You can figure it out by multiplying your bullet’s weight by its velocity, which officials will measure using a chronograph, then dividing the product by 1000. Power factor is used to reward shooters using ammo that gives more recoil. 

Confused? You can read more about power factor here.

Common Bullet Sizes
Common Bullet Sizes

After you’ve shot, officials can calculate your hit factor, or final score, by taking the number of points you’ve scored, adding time for your penalties with the amount of time added being based on your power factor, then dividing the sum by your time.

Firearms & Equipment

IDPA has eight different divisions of competition:

  1. Stock Service Pistol
  2. Enhanced Service Pistol
  3. Custom Defensive Pistol
  4. Compact Carry Pistol
  5. Revolver
  6. Back-Up Gun
  7. Pistol Caliber Carbine
  8. Carry Optics

The Revolver division is further broken down into Stock Revolver and Enhanced Revolver sub-divisions, and the Back-Up Gun division is further broken down into Semiauto and Revolver sub-divisions.

USPSA competition includes several of each handgun, rifle, and shotgun only divisions, as well as multi-gun divisions where competitors shoot all three. You can learn more about the various USPSA divisions in our guide to the subject.

USPSA GLock production division
Certain factory modded Glocks are allowed in USPSA’s production division.

For both IDPA and USPSA, each division has its own restrictions on the firearms used, with limitations placed on power factor, caliber, modifications, weapon dimensions, accessories permitted, and the number of rounds allowed.

IDPA prone shooting
IDPA matches recreate self-defense scenarios, such as shooting from cover.

IDPA limits equipment to the types of things you’d have on you in the sort of defensive situation they seek to recreate, so shooters typically use a concealed carry holster (in fact, concealed carry holsters are required, and shooters typically have to start stages with their gun concealed) with an EDC carry belt and carries only minimal spare magazines. 

IDPA Gear
IDPA Gear

USPSA provides a lot more freedom for the guns and gear you use, though there are of course still limitations.

In addition, USPSA competition typically requires more rounds than IDPA competition, so it’s not uncommon for competitors to have several magazines and a very sturdy shooting belt to support them. Shooters typically used dedicated competition holsters. 

USPSA Gear
USPSA Gear

For either competition, you’ll want to make sure your equipment is secure and doesn’t impair your mobility since you never know what positions and angles you’ll have to shoot from. 

USPSA Divisions Guide
USPSA Divisions Guide

To decide what firearm and gear you want to use, find a range that rents and try a bunch of things out so you can decide what works best and is most comfortable for you. You’ll also want to try out different positions and holster types, such as appendix, small of the back, and OWB. 

Exposed G19 in Hidden Hybrid Holster
Trying out different holster positions gives you a chance to see what feels best to you.

Just keep in mind the rules of whatever division you want to compete in to make sure you’re not wasting time and money on things that aren’t allowed anyway. 

You’ll also want to try different carry positions 

Is IDPA or USPSA Right for You?

That about wraps things about. 

Of course, this isn’t a complete accounting of the differences between the two organizations and their competitions, but hopefully by now you’ve at least got an idea of the basics of each. 

USPSA Competition

Both styles of competition can be a lot of fun and which one you should go for just depends on which seems like more fun to you. 

If you’re still not sure, check out some videos or, even better, go out to some IDPA and USPSA competitions near you to watch the action in person. Most competitors will be happy to talk to you about their experiences. 

IDPA Competition PCC
IDPA Competitions allow pistol caliber carbines, too!

Of course, you can also do both, though it may be best to get a good grip on one before picking up the other to make sure you’re not getting overwhelmed or confused learning and keeping straight the rules for both styles of competition. 

Once you decide which one you want to pick up, you’ll need to enroll with the respective organization via their website before you can compete then, leading up to your first competition, be sure to take time to practice both speed and accuracy. Make shooting drills are your best friend. You can even do dry fire drills on days you can’t make it to the range. 

Dry Fire Drill with Obstacles
Dry Fire Drill with Obstacles–perfect for training!

Don’t worry if you’re new to either competition and aren’t sure exactly how to complete the stage or are confused about the rules. Range officials and other competitors are typically more than willing to walk you through it as long as you have a good attitude.

So does IDPA or USPSA stand out to you? Do you have experience with either or even both? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments, and for yet another type of practical shooting competition, check out our guide to Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS), or learn about starting shooting competition in general with our Competition Shooting Overview. 

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5 Leave a Reply

  • Jon C

    Some form of competition shooting is better than no competition shooting, but one sport is clearly superior to the other. The raw skill required in USPSA is on a completely different level than IDPA. Your average master class shooter in IDPA is only a B-class shooter in USPSA, at best. The article cites the "difficult" shooting position in IDPA as a difference between the two sports, but the reality is that I've shot in much more challenging positions in the average USPSA match (kneeling, prone, hard leans, etc). The bottom line is that IDPA is much slower than USPSA, so it caters to a lot of old people, and allows much more room for error on any given stage because the average times are so slow. There's a reason the best shooters in the world, e.g. JJ Racaza, Max Michel, and Ben Stoeger don't mess around with IDPA...its sheer existence is an insult to shooters who are actually skilled. The average age of participants is probably close to 15 years younger in USPSA. Lastly, you don't need fancy equipment to shoot USPSA. I made master my first year rocking a stock Glock 19, a cheap bladetech holster and mag pouches, and my every day carry belt. It was all I could afford at the time. Go to any local match and you'll see close to half of the competitors shooting stock Glocks, Sigs, or Walthers in production division. Gear doesn't matter. The only thing that will separate you from the pack is practice- tons of dryfire and occasional live fire. If IDPA is all you have around you at the local level, then go to those matches because it's better than nothing. But again, if you have the choice, USPSA will be exponentially more bang for your buck in regards to your development as a shooter.

    9 months ago
  • Bull o' the Woods

    I was around when IDPA was founded in 1996. The main reason it was founded was that USPSA had become removed from real defensive shooting situations. To be competitive in USPSA, you must have a heavily-modified race gun, hand-loaded ammunition, and a speed-draw holster. None of the items is practical for self-defense. In short, USPSA is an equipment race rather than a shooting contest. Over the years, IDPA has become more technical and bureaucratic due to attempts to "game" the matches by introducing minor technical innovations. Unless you really like spending money and shooting laser guns with little practical application, IDPA is still the way to go and would be my first choice for any new shooter looking to get into competition.

    9 months ago
    • Jon C

      This is a typical response from someone who prioritizes equipment over skill. I made master my first year in USPSA w/ a stock Glock 19 and a basic bladetech holster with 2 mag pouches. It's not an "equpiment race" by any means. Plenty of people shoot stock Glocks or Sigs in production. USPSA is test of raw, unfiltered skill, period. If you actually care about getting good at shooting and not just trying to look tacticool with a bunch old guys- USPSA is for you. I also hold a master classification in IDPA, and the skill level between the two sports isn't even close to comparable. Your average master class shooter in IDPA is a B-class shooter (at best) in USPSA.

      9 months ago
      • Dean Goodman

        I shot IPSC/USPSA in the late 80s and it WAS an equipment race.. I still have my second and third race guns to prove it... one built by Ed Brown... And dot sights made it "how fast can you shoot all 5s. USPSA had to add the non-race-gun classes to get back the shooters that got tired of spending $3500 every other year.

        5 months ago
  • Frank Gao

    You missed Carry Optics as one of the USPSA divisions.

    If anyone's thinking of trying one of these comps, just go. You won't win, just try not to get disqualified. You have no idea which areas of your shooting need improvement until you shoot under pressure, while moving, and on a timer.

    9 months ago
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