Beginner’s Guide to Action Pistol Shooting

Beginner’s Guide to Action Pistol Shooting

First of all, if you’re interested in becoming a better shooter, I STRONGLY encourage you to try some sort of competitive shooting. This guide will mainly focus on practical handgun shooting, since that’s where most of my experience lies.

In general, most shooting sports competitors have a tremendous level of camaraderie. Some of my closest friends are people I only met within the last two year at competitive shooting matches. It’s also not uncommon for someone you barely know, if at all, to offer to let you borrow thousands of dollars’ worth of gear to get you started or provide a backup if your gear fails. Besides the camaraderie, competitive shooting is a fantastic way to improve your shooting, plus it can be a ton of fun! You will quickly learn what skills you need to improve and generally there will be folks around that will be happy (perhaps a little too happy, sometimes) to give advice on how to improve those skills.

Now, let’s dispel some common misconceptions and excuses.

#1. I need to practice more before I shoot a competition. False! If you use this excuse, you’ll never make it out to a match. You are not going to win your first match, anyway, so come out and shoot with the skills you currently possess. Shooting a match or two will more readily identify the areas you need to work on, rather than spending time at the range prior to competing.

#2. I need to buy a bunch of gear before I can compete. Mostly False! So yes, there’s a chance you might need some gear to shoot in a competition, but as far as pistol competitions, you really only need a decent quality holster. And even then, if you have a common gun, chances are there is someone that has extras and will let you borrow the requisite gear to get you started.  From my experience, at least 25% of the people at a match will happily do whatever they can to get you through your first (and maybe even second, third, etc.) match. To put it simply, “run what you brung.” You’ll only learn the specifics about your preferences in regards to gear AFTER you shoot at least one match. Trust me on this. The difference between practice and match performance can be astounding in regards to the way you and your gear perform.

#3. I want to come watch a match before I compete. Fine, but at least bring your gear with you to the match. There’s a good chance that it won’t be as intimidating as you think and that you’ll want to shoot it while you’re there.

#4. I don’t have a good (or the right) gun for competition. First, so what? Second, you might be surprised. Bring what you’ve got and shoot it! Chances are it will fit into a division, even if it’s at a disadvantage (don’t sweat it, remember you’re not going to win anyway). If it isn’t a legal gun for that particular competition, talk to the match director and I’m willing to bet they’ll let you shoot it anyway, even if not for official score. Do some research on the different divisions ahead of time, if possible and ask questions to help you understand what guns and/or modifications are allowed for which division. That type of thing can be confusing, but there are lots of folks that are willing to help. Just remember to pay attention to the facts of the conversation and take peoples’ opinions with a grain of salt. Only you can decide what particular model of gun you like, so make that decision for yourself, even if it’s not a “popular” choice.

#5. I’m too old/slow/out of shape. False! We’re talking about shooting your first match, not competing for a national title. You very well may be older/slower/more out of shape than some of the other competitors, but probably not all. While the competition aspect is certainly an exciting and addicting part of the sport, it doesn’t always have to be about winning. Come enjoy the people, shooting guns and increase your shooting skills.

#6.  I need to be a member before I shoot a match. Not Necessarily. GSSF requires membership before you compete, but IDPA and USPSA do not. IDPA allows you to shoot 3 local (Tier 1) matches before you must become a member. USPSA does not require membership to shoot local matches, however you must become a member to become classified.

What to know/how to prepare for your first match.

#1. Be safe with guns. Don’t bother coming out to a match until you can safely manipulate a gun. In fact, don’t even load the gun until you can safely manipulate it. Competitions provide an added level of stress to the handling of firearms, so you really need to have all the safety rules ingrained in you to the point that they’re second nature. Things can and will happen under pressure; so, the more familiar you are with firearms safety, the better everyone will be. No matter how poorly you may shoot, no one will remember it as long as you’re safe. If you’re unsafe, EVERYONE will remember it and you very likely won’t even be allowed to complete the match.

#2.Know the safety rules and range commands. While the basics should be explained (especially to the new shooters) before the match, it’s best for everyone to learn and understand the safety rules and range commands before you arrive. Tell the match director and your RO/SO that you’re new. Check your ego at the door and let them help you so it makes everyone’s match better.

Things can be very different from match to match and range to range, but here are some general safety guidelines that should keep you from getting DQ’d before the match begins:

– Arrive with your gun in a case or rug, separate from anything else. No magazines/ammo/etc. should be with the gun. Some ranges will have a safety table/area where you are allowed to touch the gun, some won’t. Don’t handle the gun or remove it from the case until you find out where you are allowed to do so.

– Once the gun is in the holster, don’t remove it unless you are explicitly directed to do so by the RO/SO per the range commands.

– You can generally handle ammo and magazine anywhere EXCEPT the safe area, but it would be a good idea to have your magazines already loaded to division capacity and don’t remove them from your bag until you find out where you’re allowed to handle them.

As far as range commands, know what they are, what they mean and practice performing the necessary steps to follow those standard commands prior to the match. Keep in mind that when you’re performing the “Unload and Show Clear” steps after you are done shooting the course of fire, YOU ARE NO LONGER ON THE CLOCK. Take a deep breath, relax, and take your time performing those steps. In all likelihood, your adrenaline will be pumping, which makes it even more imperative that you are very deliberate so as not to get DQ’d from an easily avoidable oversight or mistake.

#3. Pack all your gear the night before. Yes, that even means loading your mags (to division capacity, if possible). Remember it’s easier to remove rounds from a magazine than it is to load them. The more prepared you are before arrival, the easier it will be for you to learn what you need to know once you get to the range and the smoother everything will go.

#4. Get to the range early. Not only will this give you more time to prepare for the match, it will give you time to meet other competitors, introduce yourself to the match director, help setup stages (which I highly recommend), and/or walk the stages to familiarize yourself with them.

#5. Bring plenty of ammo. While most competition shooters will be happy to let you bum a few rounds to finish up a match, you don’t want to put yourself in that situation. Find out the proposed round count for the match and bring lots of extra (like double). Besides any possible misses and make up shots, you never know when a prop will malfunction requiring you to re-shoot a stage. Plus, you never know when you might want to stick around after the match to do a little practice.

#6. Don’t try to go faster than you’re comfortable. If you feel like you’re out of control, then you probably are. It’s very easy to get sucked into going too fast, especially if the person ahead of you just had a smoking run. To put it simply, don’t go any faster than your sights will allow. In my experience, it’s a lot easier for an accurate shooter to learn to shoot faster than it is for a fast shooter to learn to be more accurate. Following your sights will also typically lead to more consistent results.

Which (pistol) shooting sport is best for beginners?

There is no singular right answer for this question, so I’ll outline a few of the more common organizations.

Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (
While GSSF matches are relatively few and far between, they are great for beginners. They simplify the competition aspect to just shooting. There is no drawing, reloading, or movement required on the clock. While speed is certainly one of the aspects, poor accuracy will ruin your score very quickly. One of the drawbacks to GSSF is that the matches are limited to Glocks only, but there is a division for every Glock they make. GSSF is also very liberal with their prizes. Not only do they offer cash prizes and gun certificates for top finishers, they have a lot of random drawings for prizes as well. The initial investment can be a little steep, since you are required to join GSSF at $35/year before you can shoot a match. Add $25/division on top of that and it can get expensive quickly.

International Defensive Pistol Association (
IDPA is also a good place for beginners to start. The gear requirements are minimal, but the rules could be considered…extensive. The stages will typically be straight forward with a designated stage plan you must follow. You will use props as “cover” in simulated defensive shooting scenarios. Even at the highest level, all you need for gear is a hoslter, 2 mag pouches (or one double pouch), 3 magazines and a cover garment (can be a vest or large shirt that covers your gun while holstered). Don’t be intimidated or overwhelmed by the rules, most of your fellow competitors will be able to teach you the most pertinent ones pretty quickly. A drawback to IDPA is that some guns are simply not allowed in any of the standard divisions. If you happen to have one of these guns but still want to compete, you can shoot them in “Not For Competition” division, however all of your other gear must be IDPA legal. Check the rules and/or ask questions for rule and equipment clarifications.

United States Practical Shooting Association (
USPSA can be considered a high speed, gear centric sport, but it doesn’t have to be. It is much more free-form than IDPA and USPSA stages generally allow the shooters to shoot the stages as they see fit. Stage planning can seem overwhelming at first, so I would recommend shooting with someone familiar with USPSA your first time. They’ll be an invaluable resource to keeping your match going smoothly and teaching you some of the basics for stage breakdown. Pretty much any gun can be used in USPSA in one Division or another. If you are a new shooter and want to try USPSA, I would recommend shooting in Limited or Open Division (if necessary). That way, you can load your magazines to capacity and simply focus on shooting all of the targets. I’m not going to get into USPSA gear, because it is so varied and will depend on the division you shoot; however, standard IDPA gear is legal and can be plenty competitive in USPSA.

This is in no way a comprehensive guide; it’s just something I’ve been meaning to put down for a while. A lot of this is my take on things, combined with ideas and suggestions I’ve heard from others, so I certainly can’t take credit for all (or even most) of it.