Having trained police and SWAT officers over the last several years, there have always been two distinct camps when it comes to cops and firearms competition. One camp believes competition is a way to build a winning mindset. It is not so much about reality but competition and a safe and structured environment that involves shooting guns. Any structured time behind the gun is good for officers. It is recognized as a game, but games have winners and losers — just like fights.

Participants develop a winning mindset they take into the real world and there’s a chance survival skills needed in a real fight may even be picked up. But primarily it is about creating winners, and winning is critical when losing means you end up seriously injured or dead.

This is especially true for SWAT officers. They encounter the deadliest and most determined criminals. I cannot imagine any self-respecting SWAT officer thinking it is okay to lose. You may recognize the possibility that you will not always win, but the taste of losing should be bitter and one you try and avoid. It is the chance of losing that instills the desire to win, and in order to do that, one must compete.

The other camp looks upon competition shooting with a great deal of disdain. The mantra is “cops don’t play games, they play for real,” the inference being that when one engages in shooting competitions they are not “real” and, therefore, provide no value. It’s the same tired old story used by those who cannot win and hate to lose, especially true when they lose to civilians. Some claim the officer will “learn bad habits” that are ineffective in a real fight.

In fairness there is some truth to this, especially if the competition stresses tactics and not shooting skills. It isn’t that some tactics used and/or stressed at competitions are not useful…some are. But sometimes tactics that are nothing more than “one man’s opinion,” and that’s the man who makes the rules. Rules are necessary for safety and they also level the playing field as best they can, which is fine, but inherent in rules are enforcement and that makes them black and white. Gunfights are fluid and rules seldom apply. Training with one set of tactics is problematic. I prefer competitions that simply allow me to dictate tactics so long as they are safe.

A tactic that may work in one situation may just get you killed in another.

Shooting Speed
Speed is also a topic that surfaces often. Most shooting competitions place some degree of emphasis on speed. There is always some old timer who says something like, “I don’t need to be fast, just good.” That works unless the guy trying to kill you is not only good but also fast. Over the years that myth has been pretty well “busted.” Data from places like the Force Science Institute has proven otherwise. Much of their groundbreaking studies have shown that many bad guys are markedly faster than we thought. Few law enforcement firearms instructors today discount speed completely. Clearly it is better to be good and faster than the guy trying to kill you.

One of the more egregious things heard over the years is that “cops should not compete with civilians because they may lose — cops should always win.” Sorry, but in the real world cops can lose, especially if they are not trained properly. They shouldn’t always be placed in “no win” situations, but even situations that are winnable can be lost if you screw them up. The idea is to win by not screwing them up, and that’s best learned by having the possibility of losing built in and actually losing on occasion.

Police officers often suffer from an equipment disadvantage, but that sounds mostly like losers making excuses. Most well run competitions separate the race guns from the duty guns today. That is where the “rules” work, and can level the playing field. Many of the most elite law enforcement units, military units and covert operators today learn their shooting skills from the top competitive shooters. Many of these shooters have never been police officers, SWAT officers, or members of any special operations forces. They simply are the best at what they do — hitting what they are shooting at, with whatever they are shooting, and doing so faster than anyone else.

When partaking in competition, start out with the proper mindset. You are there to have fun, compete, meet some new people, and practice what you know. That means you are not necessarily going to “win the match.” Do yourself a favor and go with no expectations of “showing everyone how it is done.” It’s ridiculous to think that just because you are a “trained professional” you automatically know more than anyone. Meanwhile, the idea that cops shoot more than the general public is pure fantasy and fabrication. Many of the local competitors have been shooting for many years and are incredible at what they do. You are not going to compete with them, so don’t. Go in with an open mind and you may actually learn something. As you improve and learn the game, then you can start competing in earnest.

Gear & Guns
There is no “need” to buy another gun or equipment. Most shooting sports today have production divisions allowing the use of your duty weapon. You can also use your duty gear and should do so, especially to start. The division in which you shoot will be made up people who shoot pretty much the same weapon as you. If you decide to step up the game a bit you can still keep it practical. Use the same sighting system.

My pistols have black rear sights and a front fiber optic sight with the same on my duty weapons. I try to keep the triggers of each similar as well. My limited pistol is a single-action CZ-USA .40 S&W. My plainclothes carry and off-duty weapon is a 1911 10mm. My SWAT pistol is a Smith & Wesson M&P45; the gun I shoot in production is an M&P Pro in 9mm. The 9mm just makes it easier on the pocketbook when buying ammunition. I use a simple Kydex holster that is very similar to any jacket slot holster. Although it doesn’t have the same retention, it is in the same spot on the belt. I carry two spare magazines just as I would on my duty pistol. My limited gun carries more ammo, but there are two spare magazines. This allows me to compete with the rest of the crowd but still maintain practicality. Is it exact? Not really, but it’s close enough that the skill sets are the same. It is still a pistol: you load it, line up the sights, and shoot it. Use the same ammo your department uses as practice ammo. You can load the light stuff later, but this way the recoil is the same. They may even issue you some to use — it never hurts to ask.

Practice the tactics you have been taught by your department instructors, so long as they are safe. I would like to say that everything taught on a department range is practical and safe, but I would be lying. Often I have seen some really scary stuff being taught by the “latest greatest tactical guru.” Just because it is cool, and one of the tactical gods out there said it was great, does not always mean it is either safe or practical.

The bottom line is to make it as real as you can within the rules. Be safe, use proper tactics, and focus on getting better. Try to win for sure, but compete within the division you are shooting, and with those you can practically compete against. As you progress you can change divisions and compete against the best…it just takes time. Along the way you become a better shooter, and likely a better gunfighter.

Final Notes
There is nothing wrong with competing in law enforcement restricted competitions. However, as a profession we often miss out on many positive and productive experiences by restricting everything we do. Law Enforcement restricted sniper competitions are great, but a ton can be learned at some of the open competitions. Much of the equipment on my entry M16 comes from the 3-gun world. I have watched other shooters to become better at what I do. It has allowed me to compete not only with myself, but those clearly better than me. It drives me to be better and try and win where I can. It combines the competitive mindset and the weapons we carry on a day-to-day basis. It does so in an atmosphere that is safe and enjoyable, at the same time you get to meet and interact with a variety of really good people who may or may not be police officers. It is always good to step outside that “police bubble” when you can.  Being able to do so while fostering a winning mindset, improving your skills, and having a really good time is not a bad thing!

Up Next

Intelligence chief says U.S. may target American extremists abroad.

Having trained police and SWAT officers over the last several years, there have always…