Journey Into Competitive Shooting Ep. 9: IDPA

Gordon Carrell, shooting on the move at the 2015 Pan American Championship.

To refresh your memory, this series is about getting the new shooter, who might not have a friend or family member involved in competition, out to the range to give it a try!

Today’s topic is: IDPA (International Defensive Pistol Association).

Shooting IDPA can really help new shooters improve basic skills and their preparedness for self-defense situations without overwhelming them with too much information or giving them a task that is out of their wheelhouse.

The Series

Ep. 1 Getting Started
Ep. 2 Steel Challenge
Ep. 3 USPSA Pistol
Ep. 4 Shotgun
Ep. 5 3 Gun
Ep. 6 High-Power Rifle
Ep. 7 Cowboy Action
Ep. 8 Shotgun II
Ep. 9 IDPA
Ep. 10 Bulls Eye Pistol
Ep. 11 Smallbore Rifle

What is IDPA?

In its own words, IPDA describes itself as “the use of practical equipment… to solve simulated ‘real world’ self-defense scenarios using practical handguns and holsters that are suitable for self-defense use.”

During a match, the shooter navigates a course of fire with their pistol, shooting targets as they become visible, but with attention to skills like retaining magazines (a deviation from USPSA and IPSC rule sets), utilizing covered shooting positions and using what they call “an order of engagement,” which is basically the sequencing for what target to shoot first and why.

Founded in 1996 by a group of shooters (Bill Wilson, John Sayle, Ken Hackathorn, Dick Thomas, Walt Rauch and Larry Vickers) who felt USPSA was an unrealistic equipment race (How many people carry $2,000 race guns on them day-to-day?), IDPA was born as a competitive discipline geared toward one’s duty pistol and other practical equipment.

Indoor matches held year-round, and predictable courses of fire make IDPA a discipline that it is simple for a new competitor to jump into.

What you do at a match is very predictable, and that’s good for a new shooter.  Your stage cannot have more than a set number of rounds and there is generally little variation to the way a stage can be shot.  The reason for this is because of the order of engagement.  IDPA teaches shooters to engage targets in a tactical priority, which typically means the closer the target, the higher the priority — unless the target is not visible in which case the shooter engages the target when it does become visible while moving through the course.

Being of the mindset that there is more than one way to skin the cat, this is one aspect to IDPA that I see as both a pro and a con.  It’s a pro because you truly can compare your time to someone else running the EXACT same sequence.  It’s a con because everyone is doing the EXACT SAME THING.  There is no room for improvisation or learning from others how and why they approached the course in the manner they did.

Where To Find A Match?

I knew where to look for my local IDPA match. I got right on our state’s shooting website that hosts calendars for events organized by discipline and I came up with not only an IDPA match, but one that was not terribly far, AND the $25 match fee came with pizza… had to be good, right?

I convinced my youngest son, Andrew, that he was going with me and after several Facebook messages to Mike and the other guys at Family Shooting Academy, I grabbed my STI in .45 and our 9mm we shoot for 3 Gun and a few holsters and headed to the range.

What to Expect & Gear to Bring

A pistol, ammo, a belt, mag holders, and a jacket or vest you can quickly deposit your spent magazines into are all you need to shoot an IDPA match, as well as eye and ear pro.

You will need a pistol, a belt, mag holders, eyes and ears, and ammo.  From what I understand, the new rule set has done away with concealment garments, yet many people still wear them.  Due to the need to retain your magazines while running the course, this seems prudent!

At our match, Andrew and I shot our 9mm STIs, and .45 STI DVC Classic.  You could shoot a Glock, M&P, revolver, your concealed carry gun, etc.  And this is the great advantage IDPA has over USPSA, you can shoot and be competitive with the gun you would normally carry every day.  There’s tremendous value in becoming more familiar with your EDC gun.

Just like USPSA pistol, IDPA has different divisions which are outlined in the rules on IDPA’s website: There are six divisions in IDPA: Custom Defensive Pistol (CDP), Enhanced Service Pistol (ESP), Stock Service Pistol (SSP), Stock Service Revolver (SSR), EnhancedService Revolver (ESR) and Back-Up Gun (BUG). Each division is based on the type of pistol a competitor uses.”

Randi Rogers at the IDPA Nationals. This is what “no-shoot” targets in IDPA look like.

What to Expect – Different Rules

Besides gear that is more “true to life”, IDPA also has some rules that are designed to mimic reality.  For example, you retain magazines that aren’t empty, and sometimes you are only allowed a set number of rounds. For our match, Andrew had three penalties. He didn’t plan to stow a magazine, so he dropped one, and after the 2nd mag change, I saw an expression on his face that said, “Forget that,” and he dropped it and continued the course.  So maybe learning the real life skill of, “Think for yourself and make it work for you,” was something he not only accepted but ran with, penalties and all.

I had a round not go off on my last stage.  It was a stage where we were required to load six and only six rounds in each mag.  It could have been a high primer, they were in a bin labeled “practice ammo” of .45 that we had left from Singe Stack Nationals last year.  Obviously labeled “practice” for a reason.

But nevertheless, I cleared it, but couldn’t shoot my sixth round because it wasn’t there.  So not only did I get a miss, but I got penalized for not shooting six rounds.  Hmm, I think this part of the rule book is silly, as a shooter new to IDPA, I didn’t like it.  I always load my mags with extra rounds because if you have a light strike or other malfunction, clearing and continuing to shoot requires ammo.  So that is my only constructive criticism: maybe instead of telling people how many rounds to load in a gun, they just tell you how many rounds you can shoot.  USPSA does that, and it’s called a Virginia Count stage.  And being able to count how many rounds you’ve shot can be a very useful skill!

“Failure To Do Right”

Randi Rogers shooting at the 2015 Pan American Championship. Using the cover provided by a wall is part of the old rule set for IDPA, but this rule changed in 2017 when they went to fault lines.

One of the big reasons I’ve never shot IDPA was that there can be a penalty for, “Failure to do Right.”  It means you tried to game things or didn’t shoot it in the spirit of the stage.

It always sounded to me like a subjective and small-minded way of being able to account for the shooters that outsmarted everyone else.  I’ve even heard horror stories about FTDR being applied when someone didn’t like who was winning a stage or match.  This wasn’t an enamoring characteristic.  I like thinking for myself.  But there’s often that one guy at a match that ruins the fun for everyone else and causes a stage to get thrown out because they gamed it and argued the rules to the point the match director has no recourse but to throw the stage out.  So FTDR has its place… maybe.

In my experience at the IDPA match we shot, the only failure to do right is on the part of the rule-writers. Malfunctions happen, and I wanted to have the opportunity to shot all six rounds on my last stage.  Penalizing the shooter by not allowing enough rounds to engage the target, or a way to address it isn’t right.  Failure to do right seems to historically have been used most when the R.O. judged the shooter’s use of cover.  The new set has brought about taped fault lines so that a shooter can simply be within those and not be called on a procedural.

But Really, Why Do I Need a Half-Empty Mag?

Just like USPSA and IPSC, IDPA uses different settings to simulate real-world shooting positions.

Retaining magazines is one item in IDPA that differs from the USPSA and IPSC rule sets.  During the course of fire, you cannot drop a magazine on the ground unless it is empty – if there is ammo still in it, you must retain it.   So a new shooter might ask why retain magazines?  Well,  if I’m fighting for my life, I may not take the time to save a mag, but what if during that fight I run out of ammo, heck, I might want that half empty mag!  But if I’m racing for time, I know that getting hits faster is often a bigger advantage to the score – stopping to stow a mag will bring the score down.  So, what do you do?  How shall you train?

Well, IDPA teaches you to save those magazines.  It’s part of the game.  But more importantly, it may come in handy in a real-life situation when holding on to that half-empty magazine might be the difference between getting out of the gunfight and being pinned down.

What You Don’t Know Can  Help You 

The biggest thing I took away from shooting this IPDA match was that what I don’t know can help me.  I’ll understand IDPA shooters a little better.  I’ll look at stages with a different eye. I will also consider that while a lot of practical shooting involves looking at everything, stepping back, considering all your options, then forming a plan, IDPA pretty much asks you to shoot the stage straight up, as it presents itself.  They even have a rule forbidding memorization stages because it’s about the shooting, not who memorizes hidden targets better.

There’s something to be said for a test of shooting skill versus gaming skill.  I see pros and cons to both, but the reason to try them all is to make yourself think differently.  To test your skills in an unfamiliar environment.  To find a new challenge and conquer it.  To see what presents itself and address it as it comes.  That’s a life lesson, and a competition lesson: see, assess, execute.  In the words of Sean Connery in The Untouchables, “There endeth the lesson.”

About the author: Becky Yackley has been shooting competitively since she began as a teenager with service rifle and smallbore. She’s lived near the typical Marine Corps bases and spent 10 years near DC while her husband was active duty, but has settled into Wisconsin and shooting 3 Gun, USPSA, and Bianchi pistol with her three boys and husband. An avid runner and outdoorswoman, she shoots guns and photos, and sometimes her mouth…which her friends often remind her keeps them “alert” at late hours on road trips. Never known for being quiet, she’s bringing her brand of humor our way this year in hopes of sharing her love for shooting sports with our readers.

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Mike Mullen May 21, 2017, 8:31 pm

    As a former Master class shooter in both USPSA and IDPA I can opine on both;

    As for being a pure shooter, hitting the target, reloading and moving at maximum speed with a balance of accuracy USPSA is king. IDPA has it’s place, with it’s genius being in scoring penalizing the shooter for being inaccurate. Almost every USPSA Master will overcome this very easily, except for the ridiculous FTDR penalties, which I liken to the infernal debates the Martial Arts world had back in the 1960s when a young Bruce Lee challenged all off them pointing out that being forced to fight within fixed forms and doctrines that led nowhere would allow ones opponent to easily defeat them by merely thinking outside the box. These theories were all proven decisively decades later when the very first MMA Ultimate Fighting Championships were held.

    That was precisely my problem with IDPA; the FTDR penalties (and the Range Lawyers that point them out) hampers the shooters ability to solve the tactical problem and win the fight. The IDPA purist may refer to it as “gaming” but in the real world, there are no range lawyers and no FTDRs. You always cheat and always win when fighting with guns and bad guys or you end up dead in a box with your family members and loved ones burying you. If you want to play with guns and practice your marksmanship and handling, USPSA and IDPA can accommodate you. if you want to learn how to fight with them, go to a professional trainer who has actually thrown lead and had it thrown back in anger……..

    • Becky Yackley May 22, 2017, 8:45 am

      Mike, thanks for the comments! LOVE the MMA comparison and Bruce Lee info! Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences.

  • Craig Moritz May 19, 2017, 9:31 pm

    The best thing about this kind of competition is that it trains the shooter to fire from behind cover. Running around as fast as you can and blasting away, like USPSA, is fun. But, if you ever found yourself in an armed conflict you will do what you are trained. Shooting from behind cover is a great way do not get shot. Isn’t that literally half the battle?

    • Becky Yackley May 21, 2017, 9:03 am

      Craig, this is a valid point, and part of why different people shoot different disciplines. The running around has its place too though – for myself, I came from a highpower rifle background, and realizing how fast you CAN get good hits, learning how much you must slow down and when you did or did not call a good shoot, those skills are just as applicable in a self defense situation as use of cover.

  • SteveG May 19, 2017, 6:33 pm

    I shoot IDPA (and USPSA) on a monthly basis. I’m no pro, but I regularly invite non-competitive shooters to come out and watch or actually shoot with me. I made the mistake today of forwarding this to one of those people without reading first. First of all, there are several major inaccuracies in this write up: IDPA does mandate concealment (I dislike the vest so I conceal under my t-shirt just like I normally carry) and you can memorize a stage all you want. You can’t go through a stage as many times as you want and you certainly cannot “air gun” a stage but if you can memorize a stage in the time allotted then have at it. Those of us that compete regularly call this a “plan”. Plans go to you know where in a basket as often as not so memorizing is nothing more than a start to executing a stage well.

    More importantly than the inaccuracies listed, the focus on the negative is here is just awkward. I’ve competed in +/- 30 IDPA matches and haven’t seen ONE failure to do right. Not one. I would never warn a beginner about this as it’s nearly irrelevant. And half empty mags? Really?? Yes, I’ve been penalized for dropping a half empty mag. Tac reloads are a pain and shooting a stage to avoid them is part of the challenge, but this is not a beginner level problem. Nor should a beginner be worrying about it!

    I’d talk to a beginner about being safe, what that looks like, and commands they’ll hear on the range. I’d also talk to them about having fun! We’d also talk about having competent equipment. Some folks thing of a thigh rig when they think holster. Or cloth mag carriers with VELCRO closures. Those things really aren’t helpful and in some cases not safe. They’ll certainly slow you down. And while being fast isn’t a primary concern for a new shooter, no one wants to come out and feel like they’re wasting other peoples time, etc. I know because I’ve heard newbies talk about this.

    This article makes is sound like someone came out and had a bad time, didn’t like the sport, but had to write a cheery article about the sport anyway. Way to be an ambassador for the shooting sports.

    • Becky Yackley May 21, 2017, 9:26 am

      Steve, thanks for the feedback. We really enjoyed the match we shot. Part of why we personally have never been drawn to IDPA is the sheer number of rules that seemed subjective, but the new rules seem to be an attempt to address that by means of the fault lines added. As for the “tac reloads” and memorization… most of us who shoot several disciplines are used to walking a stage and airgunning, establishing landmarks for where we’ll post up or where a target becomes visible – that’s what I’m referring to as being prohibited in IDPA. You kind of need to hold your hand out to gauge if your going to be high in a port, and get down into position to see if you can see x target from x spot. For the match we shot, it felt they want you to look at a stage, but not too much, lol. And a new shooter should know about the need to retain mags because, A) it will help them not leave pissed because they incurred penalties for dropping mags, and B) when they shop for a tactical vest, they can consider if and how their mags will fit! 🙂 In the end, this series is about getting new people out to the range. A frank assesment of each discipline without candy-coating it can help new people choose where to start. If you go back and read the series, you see we cover a lot of range commands common to them all, as well as safety, and we offer suggestions on which are the most gear friendly and new-shooter friendly. Thanks again for the feedback!

  • Luis Rivera May 19, 2017, 5:31 pm

    New rules and idpa please let me know, po box 8981plaza Carolina pr, 00988. And paper.

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