Over the weekend, I got a little first-hand experience with Steel Challenge for the very first time. It was the smallest possible little slice of the game I could get: shooting one stage with no special gear, just my carry gun. But even that much has given me a lot to think about on the topic of this sport.
I never really paid much attention to it, because it’s like a run-and-gun sport without any running. And that’s boring, right?
But it turns out there’s more than meets the eye. In particular, something I wouldn’t have appreciated six or twelve months ago is how Steel Challenge, at least at the higher levels of competitiveness, is a very pure shot-calling exercise. If you are spending time waiting to hear the ding of your bullet on steel, you’re already way behind. Part of that is because the scoring system is so exacting and every tenth really counts proportionally more than in any other sport. For example, in USPSA, the stages with the most targets contribute the most to your overall match victory, so and an extra tenth of a second on a 30-second field course is relatively insignificant, and that’s before factoring in points for your hits.
On the other hand, it seems like a sport where it would be very easy to slip up and get lazy and just start relying on hearing the steel dings instead of using your sights and calling shots. We shooters have a saying that “Steel steals your eye,” meaning that it’s often hard to keep your focus on the front sight when you have a big steel target to shoot at. And it turns out to be hard to hit, especially with any speed, when you aren’t paying attention to that nub on the front of the gun. I get a good sense that, if you aren’t diligent with your practice and match technique, it’s easy to get sucked in to the black hole of middle-of-the-pack final scores by just slinging lead and waiting to hear it hit home.
I was also struck by the interest aspect of shooting new and different Steel Challenge courses. In my younger days, watching videos and reading about Steel Challenge at the national and international level, they always shot the same eight stages. Every single time. It’s like having an IDPA National Championship where you just shoot the classifier. Snoozefest, right?
Well, in one way I’m still not the biggest fan of that approach, because it means that having the facilities and resources to build all eight stages and specifically practice them is key to being competitive at the national level. But I’m coming around to the idea. What I found particularly interesting, though, is the IDPA- or USPSA-like stage analysis and breakdown to shooting a Steel Challenge stage that isn’t one of the standard eight, like the one I shot this past weekend.
There’s not a lot of planning or visualization required here, except perhaps to visualize each sight picture and waiting precisely until you have an adequate sight picture and not a tenth longer. I saw a lot of people watching other shooters do their thing on the stage and tell themselves “Oh, well I should be faster than that.” Maybe they were making specific time predictions in their head. Setting arbitrary goals based on what they think they can do, rather than what they actually can do. So I deliberately didn’t program in my head any concrete times or transition goals, just performing each motion as quick as possible and pulling the trigger when I had an acceptable sight picture. And it worked out for the most part. I came it at the low 3 second range per run, where I had roughly estimated the stage at 4 seconds.
In the end, I think that Steel Challenge attains a quality that every game, from gun games to video games to board games, strives to achieve: easy to learn, hard to master. It’s very transparent to the beginner how the game works, and it’s easy to see how some quick speed gains could be made with small technique improvements in the beginning. After that, it’d be climbing the increasingly steep diminishing returns curve until you’re eking out tenths of a second here and there to be nationally competitive.
It’s really hard to draw many more conclusions from my limited experience, but I’d definitely like to see a club start this up locally.
Bonus points if they run a Scholastic Steel Challenge team from some of the local high schools or college to get the next generation of shooters in to the action pistol sports.