You may have seen it on television, in a gun magazine, or at a local range. A shooter runs and guns through an obstacle course of realistic props. Paper targets and steel plates are engaged, rapid-fire, as moving targets are activated and drop in and out of sight. Blazing man-on-man shootoffs where hundredths of seconds decide the winner. Incredible feats of shooting skill performed at warp speed. What you saw was practical shooting competition, perhaps at the USPSA Nationals, Steel Challenge, Bianchi Cup, or one of the thousands of other matches shot each year by clubs all over the world.
Practical shooting is a sport in which competitors are required to combine accuracy, speed and power to successfully complete many different types of shooting 'problems'. Competitors use centerfire handguns in large calibers (9mm/.38 special is the minimum allowed) and shoot full-power loads. Fewer points are awarded to competitors using 'minor' power loads. These handguns are carried in belt holsters and are accompanied by spare magazines or speedloaders in pouches also attached to the belt. Unlike bullseye or skeet, the events shot in each practical shooting match are different each time - which requires competitors to be diverse in their training. At any given match a shooter may be required to shoot targets 2 meters away in one event, and 50 meters away in the next. Sometimes the targets are paper, sometimes they are steel. Often 'no-shoot' penalty targets are placed near 'shoot' targets. Points are subtracted from a shooter's score for hitting the 'no-shoots'. Realistic props are used to simulate a scenario that the shooter must complete. Shooting may be done from freestyle, strong hand, weak hand, prone, or any other imaginable position, depending on the course of fire. Since scoring uses both total points and elapsed time, the shooters strive to find the best combination of accuracy, speed, and power to win.
Practical Shooting is what you want to make of it. You can shoot a match with your 'carry' gun to develop your self defense skills and test your equipment. You can gear up and become a Serious Competitor. The choice is yours. The sport recognizes many different aspects of individual excellence. There is a wide diversity of attitudes among the shooters at a match. For some, the match is part monthly practice, part social occasion. They enjoy the challenge, the fun and social aspects of the sport, and don't take things too seriously. At the other end are the athletes - the Serious Competitors. They respond to the challenge by employing modern sports training techniques to condition mind and body to peak performance. In between are all sorts of shooters.
The following principles are established to define the nature of practical shooting. They are accepted by all members of the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) as conditions of membership.
'Combat Shooting - Action Shooting - Practical Shooting - IPSC - USPSA'. These terms and acronyms have been seen a lot in recent years. The big money matches, and indeed the many club matches from which they sprang, all have one thing in common. They all have a common root. All developed from Practical Shooting, and the organization that developed that sport: The International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC).
The basic game originated in Southern California in the 1950's and was known as 'Leatherslap' matches. Very little was standardized. As the game evolved it became an amalgam of many elements. Some old-west fast draw, sometimes an obstacle course to run around and through, some 'street-smarts' challenges to decide what to shoot and what not to shoot, and more points were given to heavier calibers.
IPSC (pronounced 'ip-sick') was created as an organization in 1976 at Columbia, Missouri, by representatives from nine nations where the sport of 'combat' shooting was becoming popular. This became known as the Columbia Conference. The term 'practical' went into the name instead of 'combat' in deference to public image and Jeff Cooper who was elected the first President. Jeff's writings and philosophy of 'practical pistolcraft' were highly regarded and earned him the title of father of the sport.
As the organization grew, member nations developed their own national sanctioning bodies to administer matches in their own countries, and to hold their own national championships. For the United States, the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA) is the sanctioning body. Within the international administrative structure the US is designated as an administrative 'Region'. The member elected president of USPSA also serves as 'Regional Director' (RD) for the US IPSC program.
An important part of USPSA is the National Range Officers Institute (NROI), which sends instructors around the country to conduct training and certification courses for volunteer USPSA/IPSC range officers. Thus insuring that the highest standards of safety and scoring integrity are maintained at official matches, right down to the local club level.
Some people have criticized practical shooting for 'forgetting its roots'. The proliferation of 'race guns', with compensated barrels, electronic sights, and quick-release holsters, has discouraged many competitors who cannot or do not want to get into the 'equipment race'. Many serious shooters choose to take advantage of the freedom IPSC allows to experiment with new technologies that can reduce muzzle flip, increase accuracy, and speed up target acquisition. An expensive gun is not required to shoot an IPSC match. A reliable, accurate gun, a safe holster, and spare magazines or speedloaders are all you should need to get started. In response to the desires of the membership, IPSC formally recognized competition for guns that are stock or with limited modifications. In recent years there has been considerable growth in the Limited category which prohibits some of the 'less practical' technology. Most of the increase in this area is a result of many competitors choosing to compete with the firearm that they own for self-defense reasons or general target practice. Others simply like the money saved by competing with stock guns.
Practical Shooting is a sport with roots in a martial art. It won't teach you tactics or sort out the moral and legal questions of deadly force. But it will help you develop basic shooting skills and that's a good start. Multiple targets, moving targets, partial targets, knock-down targets, No-shoot penalty targets that cover or obscure 'shoot' targets, barricades high and low, doors, windows, walls, tables and other props are blended together by our ingenious Course Designers to create constantly changing situations that challenge the shooter to think and shoot. Keep in mind that it is a game and that many of the techniques that are 'practical' on match day may not always apply to a real-life situation. Many of the courses we shoot would likely not be survivable under real-life conditions. These courses are, however, intended to improve your practical shooting skills under conditions in which firearms might reasonably be used.