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For nearly 20 years I was a serious smallbore rifle shooter and competed at a ton of high-level matches. I don’t say this to brag but to make a point: Despite my competition experience, for years I was too chicken to shoot a local action-pistol match.

The discipline that intrigued me most was the one run by the U.S. Practical Shooting Association. It’s a blend of speed, accuracy and athleticism, but it was my friend Jim Tarr who unwittingly discouraged me. “It’s problem-solving with a gun!” he would say.

Well, I didn’t want to solve problems with a gun. I love shooting handguns, but frankly, I’m a duffer. The only things I wanted to be able to “solve” were how to shoot accurately with speed and get better at reloading.

Then last year my buddies at Federal invited me to Minnesota, along with several other writers who lacked competition experience. The goal of the event was to promote the company’s new Syntech Action Pistol line, and the way they did it was genius: Take writers who weren’t competitive shooters and have them shoot a USPSA match with the new ammunition.

You have to walk before you can run, and the afternoon before the match we started with the basics—static draw and shoot, under the watchful eye of Federal pro Josh Froelich. After observing us and being relatively sure he wasn’t in mortal danger, he moved us to a bay where he had set up a typical USPSA stage.

Now there were problems to solve, and I was immediately intimidated, but Josh patiently broke it down for us. We began at the start location and shot the first few targets. We ran through this a couple times to get comfortable. Then we proceeded to the next set of targets, and the next, until finally we had shot all the pieces of the stage.

With that accomplished, we ran the entire stage, which taught me a number of things. First and foremost, the “problem-solving with a gun” aspect isn’t nearly as overwhelming as I expected. It was actually fun and not that hard. I enjoyed figuring out how many targets I would engage from certain positions; where I would reload; how fast I could or should shoot the targets; and how I’d move from place to place safely and quickly.

USPSA stages can appear overwhelming to new shooters, but learning how to tackle them is not that hard, and you can usually count on the help of fellow shooters on your squad.

The next day was the match, and yes, I was nervous. But our crew was squadded together, and Josh was kind enough to shoot with us. It was a blast. As the day progressed, the anxiety subsided, and as my confidence grew, I was able to make some sense of what I was doing—or at least what I was trying to do—on each stage.

Did I make mistakes? You betcha, including a decision I made on a reload that nearly brought my muzzle to a dangerous (and disqualifying) position. Josh was quick to point out what I’d done, and not only did I learn from the experience, I actually felt more confident once I realized how to make better choices.

I thought it was important to tell this story because I’m sure many of you have had the same thoughts regarding competitive shooting. Well, I’ve gotten over the hump, and you can, too.

Where to start? USPSA’s website ( It lists member clubs and local matches, as well as rules and regulations on guns, ammunition and gear.

The equipment question is important because it’s something that can keep people (I counted myself among that number) from taking the plunge. Here’s the skinny: If you’ve got a repeating handgun in good working order and chambered in 9mm or larger, you can shoot USPSA.


You’ll want an outside-the-waistband holster (I’d suggest one without retention devices) and a good gun belt. The only things you might need to buy are additional magazines or speedloaders and magazine pouches or speedloader holders for your belt. You’ll want at least five magazines in good working order.

A lot is made about USPSA’s ammunition Power Factor. It’s why Federal came out with Syntech Action Pistol in the first place—and it’s an excellent choice because it’s guaranteed to make Minor Power Factor of 125 (bullet weight times velocity divided by 1,000). But in your first match or two I wouldn’t sweat it if you want to shoot whatever you already have.

As long as it makes Minor and runs in your gun, use it and don’t worry if it’s more powerful than it needs to be. Once you’ve got some experience, you can look into other factory options or reload recipes.

Once you’ve located a club or match, visit that particular website. It will usually tell you how much ammunition you’ll need to complete the match, along with setup and start times. Here’s a tip: If there’s a setup time listed, match directors really do want you there to assist. So be a mensch and show up to help. You’ll meet your fellow competitors, and you’ll get an early look at the stages. Plan to stay for tear-down, too.

Before the match starts, you’ll get a chance to walk through the stages so you can figure out your strategies—and you’ll get another opportunity immediately prior to shooting each stage.

There will be a match briefing, and if you’re a new shooter, you’ll probably be required to attend a new-shooter briefing. Don’t let these briefings put you off. You’ll get to meet the people you’ll be shooting with as well as those who will be running the match, and you’ll be more comfortable once you know the lay of the land.

I benefited from a unique opportunity to be trained by a pro, and I would urge anyone with an interest in USPSA to seek out someone willing to help get you started. At the very least, as Smith & Wesson pro Julie Golob advises, before you shoot your first actual match you might just want to go watch one.

But as long as you’re a safe shooter capable of running a gun and hitting a target, if you show up at your first match and tell the people on your squad you’re new, I almost guarantee they’ll help you. Shooters are some of the nicest people on the planet, and aside from the skills you’ll develop as a competitive shooter, I’ll bet you make some new friends as well.

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