28 March 2014

You've Decided To Shoot A Match - Now What?

Last weekend, I had the honor and pleasure of being part of the instructor staff for A Girl and A Gun Women's Shooting League's Second Annual Training Conference. While I spend a good deal of my time at the Conference on the range, one of the classes I was most excited about teaching didn't directly involve shooting at all. It's about an important topic, and one that got a lot of interest both from new and experienced competitive shooters, so I wanted to share it with all of you who couldn't come or who didn't take all of the notes you wanted to. What was it? Match etiquette. What to expect and how to behave once you've rolled up as a new shooter in a big crowd of people who all seem to know where to go and what to do. This is going to be a monster post, but I think you'll find it valuable. Before we dive in, I'd like to thank the many people across a variety of shooting disciplines who read my early class notes and outlines and contributed their own two cents, which I've tried to distill into what I hope is a complete guide to the "social scripts" of competitive shooting.

Good match citizenship isn't just a matter of politeness to smooth the way, though that's a big part of it; it's a safety issue too. Both aspects will make everyone's day more enjoyable and rest assured - your efforts will be noticed! In most cases, memories of your scores will disappear long before memories of your attitude. If you leave a positive impression as a thoughtful and considerate shooter, you’ll find a friendlier and more helpful community waiting for you when you go back.

Before the Match
As I've said before, safety is one of the core concepts of what we do on the range. You must know and be able to apply gun safety rules before you shoot a match, where your ability to maintain muzzle and finger discipline in particular will be tested in a more dynamic and stressful environment than many shooters have experienced elsewhere. Even those of us who have been to a lot of matches can find new safety challenges at a new club, major event, or different sport where a safe direction might be different than our home range, there might be more/different guns in play, and just more pressure than a local club match among friends. An exercise I give many shooters interested in going to their first match is to simply pick a safe spot or direction in their house, have them point a finger gun at it, then practice moving around while keeping their finger pointed there. It's a great way to safely figure out how to turn up-range and other moves you can't do at most ranges.

Another safety note: almost all competitive shooting events are held on cold ranges. Generally, you will not be permitted to have a loaded firearm except under direct supervision of match staff (see below on how to handle your carry gun). Chamber empty and magazine out should be your default state, with guns in a holster or bag, safely stored on a rack or table, and possibly with a chamber flag in place. How will you know what will be required? Now, before the match, is the time to find out.

You don't need to be an expert before you show up, but it's a good idea to spend a bit of time before your first match in any sport getting familiar with the basic rules and equipment requirements. You will almost certainly be given a brief introduction at the match to the rules that will matter for your first time out and many match directors will allow a new shooter to use slightly non-conforming equipment, but you probably don't want your first match to be the first time you're exposed to these concepts. At this point, the details are relatively unimportant as long as you know things like what kind of holster is acceptable, how many magazines/speed loaders/moon clips you need, and a general idea of what your targets will look like. Check your club's website! Ours includes much of this information. Failing that, try contacting the match director, although I'd recommend not waiting until the very last minute both to give him or her time to respond and for you to pick up any gear you might need.

You might also contact the match director in advance or when you arrive at the range if you have a physical limitation or health issue that might affect you during the day. When we design and review stages before a match we run, we will take into account known disabilities when possible by, for instance, eliminating a kneeling position and replacing it with a chair or at least have a plan for an alternate way to approach a stage (though they may come with a minor scoring penalty). You should also notify the match director, your range/safety officer, or a trusted friend who will be with you if you have a medical condition like a bee allergy or diabetes, so you can be treated appropriately if necessary.

Arrive early! It will give you time to get situated by meeting a few people, locating important areas like the bathrooms, and walking through stages and getting some personalized introductions helping with set up. Set up only requires willing hands. I find it very helpful to have someone assist with even the simplest things like stapling targets I'm holding up or carrying some light-weight props and equipment to where they need to be...and I always remember to give a few extra hints to new shooters who pitch in to make sure they'll have a match to shoot. My more experienced shooters who show up early will often take a newbie under their wing for the match, especially if they see the newbie at set up.

If you normally carry a defensive firearm, you'll need to deal with it appropriately when you have arrived. Appropriate does not mean trying to surreptitiously unholster and unload your carry gun in the parking lot. It means finding the match director or a range/safety officer immediately and asking them what the procedure is at their range. Most will take you to a handy berm and ask you to unload and show clear under supervision, then stow your carry gun appropriately (even if it's just in your holster if you plan to shoot the match with it). In some cases, I suggest that you may find it easier not to carry to your first match so you don't need to worry about it. As with all carry-related decisions, you need to decide what's right for you.

With the rest of your gear, I recommend packing your gun in a separate case from everything else so that you can put on your belt, holster, ammo carrier pouches, etc and fill your magazines/speed loaders/moon clips whenever you are ready, because handling your gun will almost certainly not be permitted outside of the designated safe areas which are generally limited in size and won't allow you to handle ammunition and/or magazines. Safe areas or safe tables are almost always designated by an easy-to-find sign but if not, you can ask anyone who looks even just a little less lost that you are. They're places where you can handle your firearm without supervision to get it in or out of its bag, practice a few quick draws, or perform minor maintenance, all while keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. To prevent mistakes, ammunition is never allowed at a safe table and magazines may not be allowed either. A good practice is just to bring your gun's case with you to the safe table. Since space is limited, be considerate of your fellow shooters and don't spread your gear out all over or spend lots of time here getting ready because you'll need to register.

If you haven't pre-registered for the match, just a few words of advice for registration: follow directions and write neatly. Match staff will also appreciate it if you bring exact change and let them know that you're a new shooter or if you have any squadding requests. Your squad is the group of people you'll spend all day with and while it's a great opportunity to meet new people, it's also nice not to be separated from the friend you brought for moral support or who is your ride home. Keep in mind, however, that squad requests are just that - requests. You may be shuffled around to a different squad for purposes of match balance and flow. Either way, once squads are called, pay attention to who you'll be with and where to go so that you can be in the right place once the match starts.

Shooting the Match
You've made it! This is the big event! Now what? Start by paying attention to the match and stage briefings, which will give you info specific to the club and to each course of fire. A quick bit of background vocabulary for very new competitive shooters: the entire event is a match, and each separate bit of shooting is a stage. Stage briefings in particular are a good time to ask your squad's range/safety officer questions for that particular stage that you might not have been clear on, such as whether you can make up shots by firing extra rounds at a target than the number of hits required for scoring purposes or when and where you can reload your firearm during the stage. The stage briefing is also normally when the squad's shooting order is called.

It's important to know shooting order because it's the key to moving a match along at a smooth pace so you can go home at a reasonable time. A squad will normally shoot in the same order for every stage of a match except that the first shooter on one stage rotates to the bottom of the stack for the next stage. As a new shooter, you should be able to ask to not be one of the first up at any point during the match. As an experienced shooter, I've been known to do the same...just with a bit less success than a new guy or gal (but it's always worth asking!). While you'll hear shooting order early in the match or stage, you should also hear it after each shooter is called to the line, using the "on deck/in the hole" system. It'll sound a little like this: "Annette is the shooter, Mark is on deck, and Rusty Jamz is in the hole!" That means that I better be at the start position and ready to go. Meanwhile, Mark should be confirming that his gear is in order and hanging out ready to step into the start position. Rusty should be making any last-minute adjustments to his gear and finishing up any mental preparation or review he wants to do before he shoots. As soon as I'm done shooting and the range/safety officer calls the range safe, Mark should go to the start position and get ready up to the point before his gun leaves his holster to load up for the stage, Rusty should get into the on deck position, and the next shooter in the hole should do his or her thing. While Mark gets ready and shoots the stage, I'll immediately prep for the next stage by topping off my magazines, going to the safe table if maintenance is necessary, and grabbing a drink of water or a snack. Then I'll join the rest of my squad to watch the shooters and help out with other parts of running the match.

While chatting with your squad can be one of the high points of the day, it's nice to keep the volume down a bit. Electronic/active hearing protection can pick up a lot of conversations that you might not intend to be overheard, especially by someone who is trying to focus on the stage they are shooting right then. That's one of the reasons I often just turn my electronic muffs off when I'm on deck. Chatting can also turn into a low point if you let well-meaning advice become a distraction. Competitive shooting is generally a pretty friendly sport and shooters often want to help out 'the new guy or gal' with a few tips given with the very best intentions. As the recipient of that advice, it can be both confusing and distressing to hear that you've been doing it all wrong, and you should be focusing on safely completing the match rather than changing up technique midstream. Being suckered into arguments about the "right" way is unproductive and can alienate people offering valuable guidance. Instead, I suggest responding by saying things like “Thanks”, “I’ll try that out at my next practice”, or “Let’s talk about that after the match; I’d like to concentrate on my shooting right now”. Then actually do think about what was offered to you - it might make a positive difference next time you're at the range! And when you find yourself in a position to offer a few tidbits yourself, don't forget what it's like to be that new shooter bombarded with hints and wait for the right moment to offer help without being pushy.

When you are the shooter on the line, the range/safety officer will tell you exactly what you need to do to "load and make ready". He or she will walk you through the steps of loading and holstering or positioning your firearm, with as little or as much detail as you need. Don't feel like you need to rush this process or anticipate the commands; you won't get any bonus points for being fast and you won't get any penalties for taking a reasonable amount of time. At this point, you'll be asked if you are ready. You can say no. You can ask any last-minute questions. Even though it's not required, I might use this opportunity to tell the range/safety officer if I'm planning on moving or turning a specific direction or shooting the stage in an unusual order, so that he or she can plan ahead on where to be while I'm shooting. You can say yes or just nod your head. I like to keep my hand on my pistol's grip while I finish my last quick mental rehearsal, then move my hands to their starting position once I'm ready. Then it's just waiting for the start beep and finally - shooting!

When it appears you have finished shooting a stage, the range/safety officer will ask if you are finished and if so, they will walk you through the steps of the "unload and show clear" (or other steps depending on stage and match flow). If you are standing, start by squaring yourself to the rear backstop, then follow the commands like you did when you went through the load and make ready. If you end the stage in some other position, you may be directed to unload and show clear before standing and holstering and/or to place your gun on the ground or a table before standing and completing the unload and show clear process. Unload and show clear isn't on the clock, so you can and should take your time, especially since you, as the shooter, are ultimately responsible for making sure that your firearm is completely unloaded before you step off the line. When unloading, you can let your magazine drop to the ground if you aren't comfortable catching it and hanging on to it or stowing it in a pocket while you continue. If you do so, leave it on the ground until after your gun is holstered. When ejecting the live round out of your gun's chamber, let it fall out naturally and, like a magazine, leave it on the ground to be picked up later. If you're watching someone else unload, it's nice to note where it fell so they can find it later! Don't try to "flip" the round out to catch it because this can lead to losing control over muzzle direction. Similarly, don't try to "roll" the round into your hand, risking the possibility of an out-of-battery detonation if the extractor hits the primer - rare, but potentially very damaging. Gravity is a neat thing; use it. Once you have emptied your gun, you will need to show the range/safety officer that your gun is clear. Locking the slide back is usually optional but if you don't, you'll need to be prepared to hold it open long enough for someone to easily see that your chamber is empty. Either way, you are solely responsible for confirming that you are completely unloaded.

During all of the time you aren't shooting, on deck, in the hole, or dealing with your gear after you have just shot, you should be helping with the small tasks necessary for a match to run. My mantra is that everybody works every match. Why? Because matches are volunteer efforts; your fees very likely do not go to the pockets of any individual as a result of their work managing or otherwise working at the match. As a new shooter, you can help with the simple but necessary tasks of taping/pasting and resetting a stage after each shooter is finished, the range has been called safe, and the targets have been scored. If you can't or don't know how to reset a piece of steel or a moving target, ask a squadmate or move on to something you can do so that somebody else can handle the heavier, more complicated things. Taping/pasting is only a matter of putting a sticker or piece of tape over the holes in a cardboard or paper target. I call it arts and crafts time, and it's about as difficult as any kindergarten art project. Work efficiently and don't linger downrange so that the squad can get back to shooting that much sooner. If it just so happens that you're shooting a sport that allows individual walk-throughs, this is a great time to squeeze one in so long as you get taping/pasting and reset done and don't interfere with getting the next person shooting.

Another task a newer shooter might be asked to help with is scoring. Don't be intimidated - it's often a straightforward chore and a great way to learn some of the nuances of your new sport. The person asking you to help out with scores can tell you where to write down times, points, and penalties, and the range/safety officer responsible for the squad or stage will tell you what to write down. Just enter it neatly into the proper spots and repeat back what you are entering so that the range/safety officer can be sure that you have the right numbers. Unless you are specifically directed or permitted to pick up brass, taping/pasting and reset time is not a good time to do so. Keep in mind that while most ranges have their own brass policies, you should plan on a match being a "lost brass" event until at least the match is completely over and everything put away, in which case you should plan on replacing your own brass and not taking someone else's clearly marked (or oddball caliber) brass.

Taking video or photos of a shooter isn't part of working a match, but you'll see it quite a bit if range rules allow it. If you'd like to get some movies or pictures of another shooter, ask before your whip out your phone or camera and don't forge ahead if they say they'd rather not be in your camera frame. If a shooter says yes, it would be appreciated if you shared your footage with him or her privately (great way to get contact info for your new friends!) and to share links if posting anything publicly, assuming he or she doesn't have a problem with you sharing with other people. Remember that many shooters aren't comfortable with non-gun-friendly friends, family or coworkers finding out about their hobbies or may be subject to job-related restrictions on publicity. Some shooters also prefer to edit and post their own footage to keep it all in one place. Either way, if you are taking videos or photos, make sure you don't interfere with match flow or safety by staying up range, not getting in the way of range/safety officers, and remembering to tape/paste and reset. And don't forget, if you want a few cool pictures or videos of yourself, feel free to ask your squad mates. They'll be happy to help out as long as they aren't getting ready to shoot, just as you should be if you are asked.

After the Match
Once everyone has finished shooting, the match isn't quite over yet. Because everyone works every match, everyone should be involved in tear down: putting away all of the equipment used in the match. Tear down tasks range from pulling targets off the sticks or backers they are mounted to, disassembling props, and neatly piling up target stands in the appropriate areas, to delivering or putting away score sheets and timers, taking shot-up targets to the trash, and collecting stakes and other accessories used to hold props together or make activated targets work. While some heavy lifting is always required, you don't need to be Superman or Wonder Woman because those lighter-weight things need to be done too. Either way, stash a pair of work gloves in your range bag and you'll look like a hero and be remembered for being prepared and eager to do more than participate in the entertainment portion of the day. And while you're tearing down, don't forget to say thank you to the match directors, staff, and your squadmates.

Finally, results. You probably will want to know how you did now that you've been through all of the work, stress, and fun of the match itself. Normally, scores are posted or emailed within a few days to a week after a match. Ask your squadmates when and where you can expect to find them. Remember that getting these up is also a volunteer job, so pestering the match director about when you'll get scores or issues you have with scores is generally not a good idea. Polite questions are always acceptable, though, so don't feel like you have to stay silent if scores seem to be taking a long time to become available or if you're confused by the results. It might be something as simple as your email address not being in the right list or a typo.

Here's a parting secret: you don't have to care about your scores, and chances are extremely good nobody else cares about them. What we, as match staff and more experienced shooters, care about much more is that you are safe, that you had fun, and that you participated in all of the match including the grunt work. When we see that, you're much more likely to get all of the help you want in getting your shooting to the level you're looking for, because you're who we especially want to see back on the range. Because beauty isn't just perfect doubles and blazing fast Bill Drills...it's also many hands making light work and a smoothly and efficiently run match that everyone can enjoy.