“SHOOTER READY. STAND BY … .”
Beep! Clang, clang, clang, clang, clang!
This is the fast and furious world of steel shooting competition.
The course of fire is very simple: Five targets are set up at various yardages, usually at very close range. The shooter starts either by drawing from the holster or from the low-ready position.
At the start, the object is to place one round on each steel target in a particular order and in the fastest possible time. Each stage consists of five five-shot strings, with the slowest time thrown out. Five or more stages usually comprise the match, and the shooter with the lowest aggregate time wins. The shooter can compete with a variety of handguns—from .22 semiautos to concealed carry-type pistols to stock or modified revolvers to full-blown competition pistols.
Rules and Regs
One of the great aspects of steel competition is that it’s an excellent training ground for marksmanship, gun handling and all-around shooting skills. The game is very simple; there aren’t a whole lot of rules, other than the standard safety rules: The shooter comes to the firing line with five loaded magazines, and, as already mentioned, starts either from the holster or from the low-ready position.
When shooting at paper, if the targets are set 35 to 50 yards downrange, for example, the shooter often has no clue if their shots are in the “A” zone, on the edge or even a complete miss. Shooting steel is very binary; it’s either a hit or it’s not, and if it’s not a hit, the shooter can go back and pick up a target that wasn’t hit. But that takes more time. Feedback from the shot is instantaneous. This is why steel competition is such as great training tool: The shooter has to be fast but also accurate.
One of the great aspects of shooting steel is the low cost for entry. All that’s required is a good-quality semiauto (a .22 is great for beginners), five to six reliable magazines, a range bag and about 200 rounds.
There are no expensive guns or specialized equipment needed. However, as the shooter gets more advanced in the game, there are certainly categories of the game for which a shooter can elevate their equipment; this includes optics and compensators.
There are several techniques that can help make the steel shooter more competitive. One of them is getting the first round off to get the sequence started. That is, when the shooter gets the start signal, the object is to raise the gun and get the first round on target; once the first shot is sent down range, the next four follow-up shots must be fired smoothly and quickly.
Some shooters get what’s called “chicken finger”—the inability to get the first round off. Then, they tend to panic, because they know the clock is running. And after finally firing the first shot, they will sometimes rush the four subsequent shots.
The end result is a bad string, usually accompanied by missed targets. Conversely, some shooters will begin to hurry and rush the first shot, usually missing the first target, causing the entire string to go out the window.
Tempo and Rhythm Fundamentals
There are two terms that the competitive shooter, and especially the steel shooter, needs to keep in mind; tempo and rhythm.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “tempo” as the rate or speed of a motion or activity. Applying this concept to shooting, we can say that tempo is the speed or how fast the shooter fires their five-shot string or the total time it took from the beep to the final shot.
The other term, “rhythm,” is defined as a strong, regular repeated pattern. Applying this concept to our shooter, this would be the split times, or the time between each of the five shots in the five shot string. The successful shooter will have good tempo—or the rate of fire or speed that it takes to get through the five-shot string—and also good rhythm, or the time between each of the five shots.
One point about rhythm: The more successful shooters will have good rhythm, because it allows an equal amount of time to apply good marksmanship fundamentals, such as sight alignment and trigger control, for each shot. The inexperienced shooter will sometimes hesitate on the first shot and then rush the subsequent shots. The usual result is misses and a bad string. Good rhythm allows equal time for good application of proper marksmanship fundamentals for each shot.
Guns and Gear
If your local range has one, a good training aid is a bank of falling plates. These can be shot with a .22 rimfire or a centerfire handgun and are a good way to practice rhythm and tempo while getting instant feedback: Either the plates fall, or they don’t! If your range doesn’t have a plate rack (and one of these can be a little pricey), a good alternative is a rimfire dueling tree, available from companies such as Brownell’s.
A rimfire dueling tree can be purchased for under $200, which is within reach if you and a couple of shooting buddies pool your money. It will really help develop good tempo and rhythm shooting techniques, and these skills will transfer to other forms of handgunning, whether competitive shooting or defensive handgun skills.
Another essential piece of equipment when practicing or training is a shot timer. There are a couple of brands available, and if you don’t want to spend any money but have a Smartphone, there are free apps available for iPhone and Android that perform the same function. I have one on my iPhone called Make Ready Lite that gives me split times and par times. Best of all, it is free.
You’ll also need reliable magazines. If you are competing with a semiauto handgun, nothing will ruin a good run like a malfunction attributable to a bad magazine. If the malfunction is not too severe, executing good malfunction drills can sometimes save a string; and remember, the slowest time of each five-shot string will be thrown out.
However, anytime a gun malfunctions, the possibility of another malfunction will be in the back of the shooter’s mind, thus breaking their concentration during the next string. The shooter should have a minimum of five reliable magazines for the gun they are using.
In addition, a shooter should have plenty of reliable ammunition—figure on five five-shot strings for each stage, and there are usually four to seven stages in a match. So, plan on taking 200 rounds or more to a typical match.
Many shooters use the same gun and gear for a steel match as they do for IPSC, IDPA, 3-Gun and other practical shooting matches because it contributes to the muscle memory needed to improve their gun-handling skills with these other forms of competitive shooting.
As far as guns go, because the match consists of five shot strings, six-shot revolvers compete in their own division and are a lot of fun to shoot. However, the 1911 reigns supreme in these types of matches for several reasons, but primarily because of the short, crisp trigger—and more importantly, the trigger reset distance is very short compared to other firearms designs.
All of this adds up to make for very low split times and subsequently, low overall times. All other things being equal, a shooter with a 1911 platform will have lower split times and lower overall times than a shooter with a Glock, Springfield XD, S&W M&P or other firearm design.
Double-action semiautos have their own unique idiosyncrasies. The long DA pull on the first shot and shorter pull on follow-up shots take some getting used to. But for the CCW holder who also wants to compete with their daily carry gun, it’s a great way to get a lot of shooting in and goes a long way toward becoming very proficient.
Here, the author has set up three IDPA targets with the paper targets turned around to present a blank surface. The drill is to draw and fire one round on each target from the closest target to the farthest and then come back to the near target and go through it again—for a single six-shot string.
This is to get split times down; in addition, the shooter should check the time for the first shot after the beep. All shots should be on paper and should be shot at about 15 yards. If you cannot keep your shots on paper, either slow down or get closer until all shots are on paper. Then, work on shooting faster and getting the first round off quickly and accurately. Remember, always use good tempo and rhythm.
Iron or Optical Sights?
This could be an entire article by itself, but I’m a firm believer that beginning and intermediate shooters should get proficient with iron sights before switching over to optical sights. Optical sights are inherently faster, simply because the sighting element is on one focal plane, as opposed to iron sights, with which the shooter has the rear sight and front sight on two separate focal planes.
Once a shooter has a firm grasp of basic marksmanship fundamentals with iron sights, optical sights can be used. Remember, it takes a high level of proficiency to go back and forth between iron and optical sights. The bouncing dot of an optical sight can play holy havoc with good rhythm, tempo and trigger control.
Steel competition is a whole lot of fun. If your local range doesn’t offer steel matches, consider talking your range officials into hosting a monthly match. Alternatively, find a nearby range that does. You won’t be disappointed.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the October 2016 print issue of Gun World Magazine.