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Combat vs. Competition Shooting: Not So Different

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Much ink has been spilled debating the difference between competition-focused shooting and tactical or “combat” shooting. The combat-shooting community has been the louder of the two voices, suggesting that the so-called “gamer” mentality used by competitive shooters would get them killed in critical situations. However, the shooting skills of top-ranked competitive shooters are hard to argue with. I’ve always felt that this division is over-hyped, but having never been a high-level competitive shooter or a combat veteran, my thoughts on the subject are hypothetical. Input from two qualified individuals have influenced my current opinions.

I’ve done my share of handgun training, and I have been attended classes taught by instructors with diverse backgrounds. Some of these courses were narrowly focused on tactical shooting, while others emphasized shooting skills and speed to necessary to win matches. Rarely, have I seen a class that combined both. In December 2020, I attended a pre-launch training event designed to introduce a small group of gunwriters to the new FN 509 LS Edge handgun ($1,500). Since the handgun was designed to incorporate elements from both the competitive and tactical perspectives, FN brought in instructors from each of those backgrounds: Dave Sevigny and Tim Kennedy.

(Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

Sevigny is one of the most successful competitive handgun shooters in history. He has captured more than 250 world, national, regional and state championships. He was an IPSC World Champion, a 13-time USPSA National Champion and has won nine IDPA national titles.

Kennedy comes from a different background. Once a top-level mixed-martial-arts competitor, he also known for military service. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Kennedy walked away from his fighting career and set out to become a Green Beret. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan during some extremely violent years of the insurgencies, was awarded the Bronze Star, and even deployed to Africa and South America. Kennedy was also part of an elite element within Special Forces known as the Crisis Response Force (CRF). CRF units are focused on direct action, counterterrorism and hostage rescue. Now a master sergeant, Kennedy has seen his share of gunfights and continues to serve.

Kennedy and Sevigney were hired by FN as consultants to help design every aspect of the 509 LS Edge. What we see as the result is that the lines have blurred between handguns carried into tactical missions versus those in competition. Red-dot sights; clean, relatively light triggers; extended magwells and magazine capacities; and lightening cuts are increasingly found on handguns used to defend life against death. The 509 LS Edge epitomizes this.

Arriving to the course, I was curious as to how Sevigny and Kennedy would mesh as co-instructors. Would their different backgrounds put them at odds as the class continued?

Combat vs. Competition Shooting: Not So Different
FN 509 Pistols are striker-fired compact, midsize or service-size pistols. Each is available in various sight configurations and capacities. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

Any hope for drama between them was nigh. Both men shared nearly identical perspectives on everything from trigger control to fast reloads. Though they had only met in-person on the previous day, their perspectives were shockingly in-line with the other’s.

One of the criticisms of traditional competition shooting is that the use of cover is not a priority. “I never want to be in the open,” Kennedy said. “I want you to see my barrel and my eye. You can try and hit one of those.”

I need pause here and make a clear distinction between shooting, firearm manipulations and tactics. The ability to place rapid shots on target is a skill — not a tactic. Transitioning efficiently from one target to another is a skill — not a tactic. Performing a fast emergency reload is a skill — not a tactic. The use of cover is a tactic.

Word choice may seem incidental, but they matter when training students. If there is a divergence in these areas, it usually falls under the tactics category. Kennedy used the emergency reload as an example, even though the end result might be the same.

Combat vs. Competition Shooting: Not So Different
(Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

“[Sevigny] views it as ‘What is the fastest way to do it, to have the fastest and most accurate time?’ I view it as ‘What is the fastest way to do it without getting killed?’” said Kennedy.

Shooting skills are still crucial though. Kennedy added, “Skills lead to tactics. If a monkey can shoot, I can teach it tactics.”

What often gets lost in this discussion is that shooters from both sides strive for ultimate efficiency. It makes sense if you think about it: Competitors want to shoot with speed and accuracy to win matches. Tactical shooters want the same thing, but to complete the mission and stay alive. Both are motivating factors and often land each camp to the same position. Sevigny laid it out in unambiguous terms, “Understanding accuracy and speed balance is what many on both sides struggle with. If you lean too far in either direction, you will not be a complete shooter. Timers and keeping score will prove where you really are skill-wise. The end-game, regardless of why you are shooting or how much you care about the results, is to deliver acceptably accurate shots as fast as you can. This is where competition- and defensive-minded handgunners should share some common ground.”

Kennedy pointed out that some individuals use their combat focus as a reason not to shoot to their potential.

“I always thought it was really strange that ‘combat shooters’ would use it as an excuse for their lack of speed,” said Kennedy. “You’re either a shooter or you’re not. It is different when it’s a two-directional shooting range. If you’ve actually put people in the dirt, you’ve earned your chops and codified what a competitive shooter does. It’s strange, though, when someone claims to be a ‘combat shooter,’ but has never been shot at.”

Combat vs. Competition Shooting: Not So Different
(Photo courtesy of FN America LLC)

Kennedy doesn’t shoot competitively very often, but he will drop into a match when he can. “Shooting is shooting,” Kennedy said. “If I had the time, I would definitely be on the competitive circuit because it is fun and amazing. That said, for my own training company, Sheepdog Response, I don’t hire competitive shooters. I want someone that has competitive-shooter times who has been in gunfights.”

After more than two decades of constant war, there are plenty of veteran gunfighters out there.

Much is made of the physiological responses to the stress of a life-and-death encounter. It’s often impossible to simulate that exact stress in training, but making the skills of shooting and moving with a firearm second-nature can help ensure that an individual will respond well in such a situation.

“We prepare young SF guys and Rangers for war by putting in thousands and thousands of reps,” Kennedy said. “We also [put them under stress] to the point that, when they experience combat, they’ve had that feeling before. Competitive shooting may help create some of that stress. I learned right away that competition forces you to be your absolute best to win, to identify where you need to improve, to handle your gun safely while making quick decisions, and to have a sense of awareness before, during and after each shot.”

Sevigny added, “With proper training and repetition, you begin to see and do things faster when the gun is up. What seemed impossible at one time becomes second nature”.

Combat vs. Competition Shooting: Not So Different
Follow Dave Sevigny on Facebook @1davesevigny and on Instagram @dave.sevigny. Follow Tim Kennedy on Facebook @TimKennedyMMA and Instagram @timkennedymma (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

To illustrate this, Kennedy used a well-known example: “Look at Jack Wilson [hero of the West Freeway Church of Christ shooting in Texas]. He’d never been in a gunfight, and wasn’t a competitive shooter. But he’d put in thousands and thousands of reps on the range. He understood the tactics and had carried a gun occupationally. The sport shooter gets those reps. Depending on his training, he might also get that psychological component of hard work. When that happens, it looks just like Jack Wilson. Bad dude smokes good dude. Good dude comes in the back and puts bad guy in the dirt. It’s over in a half-second.”

When asked whether he feels that the stress of competition can prepare someone for a gunfight, Kennedy agreed. “The tactical games make it pretty spicy. I would have no problem taking Dave [Seivgny] into a trench and not being worried about his ability to do his job really well.” That’s a heavy endorsement.

Many shooters who share Kennedy’s background are active competitors, and one benefits the other.

“If you look at the Special Missions Units, there are a ton of competitive shooters,” Kennedy said. “If you go out to Range 37, the Special Forces’ premier shooting school, three-quarters of [the cadre] are active competitors.”

These experienced individuals aren’t worried about a competition mentality getting them killed, they just want to be the best shooters they can be.

There is a fundamental difference in mindset between competition and combat, too. Gunfighting is different. Kennedy said, “The cool thing about competition and sport is that it makes it fair; the best shooter wins. I don’t want to get into a gunfight, and I definitely don’t want it to be fair. I don’t get to game the system. I either win or it’s blackness.”

As civilians, many of us will never find ourselves in a gunfight — which is a good thing. No one expects to be a victim, but it happens every day. By mastering the shooting fundamentals and putting ourselves in the stress of training and competition, we can prepare for those situations. The takeaway is to put in the reps and push yourself out of your comfort zone. For most of us, getting involved in competition might just be our best preparation.

FN 509 LS Edge Specifications

  • Type: Recoil operated, semiautomatic
  • Cartridge: 9mm
  • Capacity: 17+1 rds.
  • Overall Length: 8.2 in.
  • Height: 5.4 in.
  • Weight: 1 lb., 15 oz.
  • Materials: Stainless steel, polymer, aluminum
  • Grip: Polymer with interchangeable backstraps
  • Trigger: 5 lbs., 4 oz.
  • Safety: Trigger lever, internal disconnect
  • Finish: Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD)
  • Sights: Fiber optic (front), black (rear)
  • MSRP: $1,500
  • Manufacturer: FN America, 703-288-3500, fnamerica.com

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