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Pistol Shooting Competitions – Guide to the Shooting Sports

There’s no better way to become a better handgun shooter than by participating in pistol shooting competitions. Competing in matches is a great way to improve your gun handling skills, accuracy, and confidence. 

Let’s take a look at the top pistol shooting competitions you can participate in!

Top Pistol Shooting Competitions

In the U.S. specifically, the most popular pistol shooting competitions are:

  • Steel Challenge
  • IDPA

Let’s take a closer look at these pistol shooting competitions to see which is right for you.


a man competing in a pistol shooting competition

The United States Practical Shooting Association, or USPSA, is the largest practical shooting association in the United States with over 37,000 members. USPSA is a member of the International Practical Shooting Confederation, or IPSC, a world-wide competition shooting organization that recognizes handgun, rifle, shotgun, and action air shooting disciplines.

USPSA matches feature shooting stages that challenge a shooter’s speed, accuracy, and gun handling abilities under the clock. Matches will have a number of stages set up, each with a unique array of USPSA targets, steel targets, and/or IPSC Classic targets. Shooters engage the targets in whatever manner they like unless stated otherwise in the stage brief. This not only tests the shooters speed and shooting capabilities, but also their stage planning abilities. 

There are eight USPSA divisions shooters can compete in, based on the gear they have. This makes it easy for a new USPSA shooter to find a division that the gun they have will fit into. USPSA requires centerfire pistols or pistol caliber carbines to compete.

New shooters will find USPSA matches to be welcoming to newcomers. I’ve had shooters lend me magazines, holsters, and even ammo when I needed it at a match! If you’re interested in shooting your first match, check out our Guide to Getting Started in USPSA!

Steel Challenge

a girl shooting a steel challenge stage

Steel Challenge is a speed shooting competition affiliated with USPSA and officially known as the Steel Challenge Shooting Association (SCSA). 

It differs from USPSA in a couple ways. The format of the sport is simple: shooters engage eight different arrays of steel targets. These eight stages are set up the exact same way at every match across the country. Whereas USPSA incorporates moving and shooting, Steel Challenge focuses on shooting primarily in one place, with only one stage requiring the shooter to move. Because of its simple format and lack of moving and shooting, I find Steel Challenge to be the best match for new shooters to compete in. 

The Steel Challenge divisions are similar to the USPSA divisions, but with one major difference – Steel Challenge allows rimfire pistols and rimfire rifles! That means shooters can compete with a .22LR pistol or rifle, making it more affordable to compete in than USPSA. 

We’ve made a nifty Beginner’s Guide to Steel Challenge to help you get ready for your first Steel Challenge match!


a man competing in an idpa match

The International Defensive Pistol Association, or IDPA, is a practical shooting sport created to bring practical shooting back to its practical roots after many shooters found USPSA to be too gamified with fancy race guns and expensive equipment. IDPA features rules and scenarios rooted in self-defense skills. It doesn’t have complicated equipment requirements unlike USPSA, with most common carry guns fitting into one of the IDPA divisions. Shooters are required to conceal their gun in some way when shooting a stage. Your concealment garment can be a shirt that covers your gun carried inside-the-waistband, or a vest or jacket that covers your outside-the-waistband holster.

IDPA stages most commonly use IDPA targets and steel targets. Shooters engage the targets from behind cover as one might do in a self defense situation. Some IDPA stages may require you to shoot targets in a certain order. As a beginner, it will be important to listen to the Safety Officer to know what the stage requires. Like USPSA, you are trying to hit the targets accurately and quickly.

Other Pistol Shooting Competitions

Although we’ve covered the most popular pistol shooting competitions, there are others you may come across. For example, Glock has the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation which hosts competitions specifically for Glock shooters. The NRA hosts pistol competitions like Precision Pistol and the Civilian Marksmanship Program hosts the Bianchi Cup. You may also find that ranges put on their own matches that aren’t backed by a larger organization.

Every match I’ve been to has been filled with friendly, helpful shooters who want to grow their sport. As long as you show up with a good attitude and safe gun handling skills, whichever match you choose to shoot will have shooters that welcome you.

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