Surviving your first few matches
Tips for New Competitive Shooters.
You want to shoot your first match? Great! It’s boatloads of fun and will likely have you addicted in no time! You can research quite a bit about guns and gear that work well for competition, and there are plenty of match videos on social media, shooting forums, and blogs to get you started in those areas. I’d like to spend a few moments to help you learn about some of the non-gun stuff you can expect at a match.
Where to Start: If you’re ready to get started, but don’t know anyone or have a mentor you’re already working with, reach out to the club at which you intend to shoot.
Match Director and club contact info can be found on uspsa.org, or grab your eye and ear protection, go watch a match and introduce yourself! Most clubs will happily provide information about new shooter classes, individual training, or set you up with an experienced shooter or mentor to help you through your first match. I know it can be intimidating, but being a part of all this includes making sure you have the knowledge and equipment to be safe and enjoy the experience. We play with live ammo, so there’s no room for folks showing up unprepared with no idea what they’re doing. When I was fairly new, I wanted to shoot a match at a club I wasn’t yet familiar with. I reached out to the MD (Match Director) and asked a few questions about shooting their match. They helped me understand how their match typically ran, and gave me a few helpful hints for first timer’s at their club. When I arrived, they were expecting me, greeted me with a handshake and put me on their squad. It was a great experience and I felt both welcome and prepared.
Welcome, Welcome: Shooters are, by nature, a friendly bunch. Rest assured, should you have equipment or gear trouble most of us will drop everything to help you fix it, or give you the gun out of our holster and the ammo out of our range bag to be sure you could finish your match. There’s a strong sense of community among shooters. You can expect people to be generally friendly, but there’s a lot going on at a match and everyone has a job. If it feels like people are “busy”, and things are swirling around you at 100 MPH, that’s okay. Do what you can, and ask lots of questions! It won’t take long for people to learn your name and start engaging in friendly conversation. You’ll find your groove, and a group of people you enjoy shooting with. But don’t force it. Friendships are built over time, among people with shared passions and experiences, of which you have none yet. The more you shoot, the more you’ll build those relationships and look forward to your time on the range!
Newbie Nerves: When you step up to the line for your turn to shoot, don’t be afraid to tell the RO (Range Officer) that you’re new! Local matches are usually more casual in nature, and coaching/advising is typically allowed for novice shooters. Asking for a little extra help, or a little extra patience is never a bad thing. As mentioned before, we play with live ammo, and EVERYONE’S first priority is safety. I don’t know a shooter out there who wouldn’t be willing to give you a little extra make-ready time, walk you through the course of fire, or answer a question about how to shoot the stage before it’s your turn. This stuff isn’t easy, and our brains tend to take a back seat when the buzzer goes off. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know”…it’s a whole lot better than hearing “STOP, unload and show clear”.
Pasting and Resetting: You’ll be expected to carry your weight. Most stages require a fair amount of reset. Pasting targets, resetting steel, picking up brass…it’s all part of the deal. If you find yourself idle and don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, ASK! People will be happy to help you learn what to do and when, and they’ll appreciate that you’re not just there waiting for your turn to shoot.
Taking the Clock or “The Board”: A lot of new shooters are eager to help, and there’s plenty to be done! However, taking the clock or the board as the stage Range Officer (RO) at your first few matches isn’t the best idea. The responsibilities are more complex than just giving a few commands and pushing a button, and really should be left up to shooters with some experience. The RO on the stage is responsible for everyone’s safety, as well as a fair application of the rules and procedures. The more you shoot, the more you’ll learn, and eventually you’ll be able to ask your fellow shooters to coach you through the process. There are entire weekend courses offered by the National Range Officers Institute on how to RO a stage. No one wants to be the new shooter who took the clock and missed a call, or failed to recognize a safety infraction that could have serious consequences. Again, we play with live ammo, and it’s important that corners aren’t cut when it comes to the rules just because someone wanted to be in charge on the stage before they were truly ready.
Overeager Beaver: There’s the temptation, as a new shooter, to just go straight to the top to get “the best” advice. Don’t be the guy who beelines it to who they think is the best shooter in the club and proceeds to ask a million questions all at once about gear, stage plans, practice tips, and the like. Those top guys get requests for advice on full-auto from every direction, and we all need to remember that they’re here to shoot too! Be thoughtful with the timing of your questions, and they’ll likely give you all the answers you want. However, be respectful of their pre-stage process and leave them be while they’re preparing to shoot. Once they’re done shooting their stage, and have reset their mags and gear, feel free to approach them and strike up a conversation!
Listen, Listen, Listen LINDA: This one is specifically for the ladies! One of the common challenges new female shooters face on the range is the onslaught of unsolicited advice. Certainly, new shooters need a lot of advice, and the shooting community is FULL of knowledgeable people, but at times it can seem so overwhelming that it forces us to just start nodding our heads and smiling, and we risk dismissing great information in the effort to maintain our sanity. There is no shortage of well-meaning guys suggesting gear upgrades, stance and grip modifications, and stage plan improvements, among other things. Filtering through that information, figuring out the good, the bad, and the ugly, and determining how it can apply to you is a huge hurdle for new shooters. By no means am I suggesting that we as a community stop helping newcomers, or that new people dismiss advice outright. But perhaps it’s prudent, at times, to thank Mr. Experienced Shooter for trying to impart his entire knowledge base in one breath and politely let him know that when you’re ready to cross whatever bridge he’s speaking to, you’ll reach out to him. If there are any experienced shooters reading this, I’m sure you’re probably calling me all kinds of names, and I get it. I know you’re recalling the last time you offered up a helpful tip to a newb and saying to yourself, “Damn Jess, I was just trying to help!”. I get it…and I’m just as guilty of this particular transgression as everyone else. However, in an effort to help new people not feel like they have to change everything about their performance in one match, let’s give them a chance to get comfortable before we lay down all our helpful tips and tricks.
The Expectations Game: Many new competitors are not new shooters. You may already have advanced pistol skills and are able to put shots where you want them. Heed this warning though: Resist the urge to put any expectations on your performance at your first match. They will only set you up for disappointment. This game is not intuitive, and it’s not nearly as easy as it looks from the outside. One of the two biggest reasons people shoot a match or two and never come back is that they failed to meet their own expectations. Trust me, I get it, it sucks to suck. But most of us did just that in the beginning. I took an informal poll a few weeks ago and over 85% of the shooters I talked to started out in C or D class. There are plenty of reasons for this. You’re not going to be comfortable running full out with a gun in your hand yet. (You’ll probably actually look more like Bambi learning how to walk!) You’re going to be thinking about keeping your finger off the trigger while you’re moving. You’re going to be cautiously ultra-aware of the 180 degree plane. You’re going to forget to reload, forget to engage an array of targets, and forget to activate movers. You’ll go to war with steel, you’ll miss head shots, and you’ll find a way to shoot more white paper than you ever thought possible! It’s all part of the learning curve. We all went through it. And if you stick with it you’ll find, likely sooner than you expect, that you’ve moved past those challenges and are getting into the nuts and bolts of becoming a great competitor.
Dairy Queen, Anyone? I mentioned a second ago there were two reasons new competitors stop shooting. The first being they didn’t meet their own expectations. The second, and most unfortunate of the two, is the reality that some people commit a safety infraction and get disqualified. We call it a DQ. Breaking the 180 plane, moving with your finger on the trigger, handling your firearm outside the safe area, handing ammunition inside the safe area, failing to follow the direction of an RO…there are lots of things that can happen. None of us like hearing the dreaded “STOP” command, but understand it’s vitally important that we maintain a safe environment. I know a few people who DQ’d at their first match, and I know people who went 30 years before they DQ’d. There’s a saying, “It’s not IF, but WHEN” and it seems to hold true here as well. When you’re pushing speed, you’re prone to errors in judgement. If this should happen to you, don’t be discouraged. Use it as a learning experience, seek advice on how to avoid putting yourself in that position, and remember how it feels so you can give thoughtful advice to new shooters you meet as you continue your journey. There are layers of safety in this game to be sure everyone makes it home to dinner, and as a community we want to do everything we can to ensure the rules are applied fairly and consistently.
For gun people, competitive shooting can be one of the most rewarding hobbies out there! Most will tell you the thing that keeps them coming back is the competition, the ability to see measurable improvement in their skills, and the camaraderie. In order to share in those experiences you have to make it through your first few matches, and hopefully this has given you a window into the sport so you can do just that! Please feel free to reach out to me on social media or email me with any questions!
Gun Racer and Gear Breaker
Facebook: Jessica Nietzel