Updated: Apr 14, 2021
Making progress is the goal of practicing. I speak about practicing, not about getting some range time for fun. There's nothing wrong about going to the range, enjoying the pew pew action and smelling some gun powder, but that ain't practice. Practice is about developing physical and mental capabilities: like getting faster, becoming more accurate, being more consistent, making less mistakes and so on. It's about becoming a better shooter.
Competitive shooting is about winning. Winning in matches is fine but there are a lot of influencing factors that determine where you land in a particular match, division and class. Winning also includes winning against oneself. Oneself? Yes! Becoming a better shooter, making progress, is winning against oneself. I really enjoy getting better at what I am doing and constant progress keeps me motivated to put in that extra work in the practice sessions.
One important point is to decide on a measurement tool allowing to assess performance and therefore progress. There are countless shooting drills out there that one could use. Some make sense and others maybe less so.
For an IDPA competitor, and maybe also for those that aren't, the classifiers are an obvious choice. There currently are two handgun classifiers in use by IDPA: the standard (72 rounds) and the abbreviated (5x5, 25 rounds).
The detailed descriptions and score brackets can be found on the IDPA website.
There's also a separate PCC classifier, but that's not the topic here.
The standard method includes a good variety of required skills while the setup is still relatively easy to do. It provides a very useful performance evaluation. In my experience, progress in the standard classifier translates more or less directly into progress in match rankings. Thus, practicing using the standard classifier makes a lot of sense.
Let's say you want to do a classifier event at your club in order to get the classification renewal done for a large number of members in an efficient manner. Then the 5x5 is the way to go. Otherwise, it doesn't really provide a very useful skills evaluation and the practice value is rather low. So, let's forget about it for the moment and concentrate on the standard method instead.
How to train with the standard classifier
Shooting the complete classifier is quite time and ammo consuming and just looking at the total score doesn't tell us where we need to improve and what to practice exactly. Let's introduce a very helpful scheme to break it all down. Obviously, one goes along the stages and the strings, but what about the scores? When practicing to attain master class in SSP some years ago, I used the following formula to define digestible pieces that I can practice individually.
Overall required score for MA/SSP: less than 73.0 (time plus points down) Stage 1: 20.0 divided into S1: 10.0, S2: 5.0 and S3: 5.0
Stage 2: 20.0 divided into S1: 10.0, S2: 5.0 and S3: 5.0 Stage 3: 30.0 divided into S1: 15.0 and S2: 15.0
This leaves a reserve of 3.0 (or 2.9 to be exact) to get under the required 73.0 seconds. In stage 3 the first string is somewhat more difficult than the second one, so it might make sense to change the breakdown to S1: 16.0 and S2: 14.0 to accommodate for that.
These breakdown-scores allowed me to practice the individual strings that are either 12 or 6 rounds each and thus make practice sessions both more focused and more efficient.
How to adapt for other classes
Let's apply the same formula to another class. Say you are in MM class and your next step is to promote to SS class. We reuse the same ratios from above. The first and second stages have a score of 2/7 of the total and their strings have 1/2, 1/4 and again 1/4 of the stage score. For stage 3 we take 3/7 of the total and 1/2 of that for the strings. This results in the following:
Overall score for SS/SSP: less than 142.0 Stage 1: 40.0 divided into S1: 20.0, S2: 10.0 and S3: 10.0
Stage 2: 40.0 divided into S1: 20.0, S2: 10.0 and S3: 10.0 Stage 3: 60.0 divided into S1: 30.0 and S2: 30.0
This again leaves a little reserve on the total. For stage 3 one can change S1 to 32.0 and S2 to 28.0 to be more precise. To get from SS to EX just apply the formula to the required EX score in the same way.
This still leaves us with 6 or 12 rounds per exercise, which is still too much ammo invested for the possible improvement gains. So we want to break that down some more. Let's take stage 1, string 1 as an example.
Stage 1, String 1
First priority here is to get 100% of the headshots. A single miss there is 5 points down and that's quite difficult to catch up later on. The time difference between hit and miss is often less than 1/10 or maybe 2/10 of a second, if at all. Mostly, the difference between hitting and missing is an insufficient or even lacking mental focus.
To practice those headshots, consider the following from 7y (6.4m): Exercise 1: Gun in shooting position, in slide lock with an empty mag inserted. Perform a reload and shoot one hit on the head. Make 10 repetitions and write down your hits and your times. Do the same exercise for a maximum of 2, maybe 3, sets of 10 repetitions each per practice session and then move to the next challenge. Don't get stuck with just one thing.
Exercise 2: Start in the same way as above but now make two hits on the head after the reload.
Exercise 3: Make one hit on the first target and one hit on the second target.
Exercise 4: Make two hits on the first and two hits on the second target.
... and so on.
An alternative to the above is to leave out the reload and just go from a ready position at chest height. Once that works fine, include the reloads. Another possibility is to do one to the body, reload then one to the head and all variations on all of the above. There are countless alternatives. Always remember: the purpose of shooting is hitting! Don't get carried away with going too fast too early, you still have to make those shots count.
After the headshots, we need to concentrate on the first part of the string, so: Next exercise: Draw and make one hit on the body. And again, progress from there until you get to two to the body on all targets.
You will find that having practiced the heads, hitting the zero on the body from the same distance will almost feel like child's play. That's where you can speed up while still keeping those zeros.
Eventually, you will want to perform the complete string and see where you are against the goals of the next class level, calculated using the scheme above.
Let's examine another example:
Stage 3, String 2
Stage 3 is where the majority of shooters struggle the most, especially with the points down. If you end up having a couple of +3s or even worse, some misses, then your scores are going to spiral out of orbit.
Again, you need to be able to make your shots count using cover from 15 and from 20y distance (13.7 and 18.3m) respectively, without taking forever to do so. Similarly to the previous examples for stage 1, divide the strings in exercises that you can focus on and then get those repetitions done. Some examples:
From 15y, holstered, from cover: Exercise 1: Draw and shoot one hit on the first target.
Exercise 2: Draw and shoot two hits on the first target. Exercise 3: Draw and shoot one hit on the first and then one hit on the second target.
... and so on.
From 15y, exactly 2 loaded, from a ready position at chest height, from cover: Exercise 1: Shot two hits on the first target, reload behind cover, move to the opposite position and shoot two hits on the first target.
Once you score consistently well from both of the 15y positions, adapt the exercises to start at the 20y position and thus practice elements of string 1. Again, keep the 10 repetitions and maximum 2 to 3 sets per session as explained before.
Write down your session program and repeat that same program over several sessions before you change it. Always work with 5-10 repetitions for each exercise and do 1-3 sets. Keep a record of your times, splits (for example for the reloads) and scores.
In order to learn, your mind and body both need repetitions and periodic sessions but they also need rest. It's better to do many shorter sessions each followed by 1-3 days of rest than to do a few monster-practice events with weeks of inactivity in between.
For the complete classifier, my recommendation is to do it maximum once a week. Real progress is based on consistent improvement. You don't want to have a lucky break once but you want sustainable superior shooting performance. That's how you win against yourself and eventually climb up in the rankings of competitions!
Beyond the Classifier
There are many additional skills that need to be practiced but are not part of the standard classifier. It's good to add those to your practice programs as well. Here are some examples: magazine change with retention (including doing that on the move), kneeling and prone positions, moving targets (swingers, up-and-downs, movers and turners), steel targets, advanced movement techniques, physical and mental fitness and so on.
Get those points into your sessions and define corresponding exercises and score thresholds. How to do that exactly? Well, that's food for future articles to come!
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more!