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Part 3 – What You Need to Know

Lets talk about some things that you need to know before heading out and shooting your first match.

First things first. Safety is always #1. Ranges that host matches will always be a “cold range” meaning that everyone’s guns will be unloaded and holstered at all times. Some ranges have different rules about when and where you can handle your pistol. It is always a safe bet to leave your unloaded, cased (or bagged) pistol in your car, and ask where the safe area is when registering for the match.

Whether the range has a designated safe area or if the safe area is at your vehicle, there are a couple things you need to know: Never, ever, load a pistol in the safe area. Your pistol should be placed into your holster, unloaded (no ammo or magazine), and it should remain that way until you are told to load it by the range officer. Don’t take your pistol out of the holster for ANY reason, without the direction of a range officer.

One thing to remember, is that you, as a new shooter, are among friends at a match. Find someone who looks like they know what they are doing, tell them you are new, and ask some questions. We are all gun nuts, and as such, most of us like to talk about our guns, holsters, belts, loads, etc. Nobody is expected to know all of the rules their first time out, but everyone is expected to be safe.

In action pistol type matches, you have 2 basic types: The bigger, national type shooting matches, like IDPA, USPSA that have very defined rules regarding type of firearm, capacity, division, etc. Then you have some of the more local “outlaw” matches that have looser rules about equipment.

Before you go to a match, know how to run your pistol. Know how the safety works, know how to load, and unload, and clear malfunctions. If you are not able to manipulate your pistol while keeping it safely pointed down range, you need more practice before starting to shoot competitively. As stated in the beginning of this post, safety is always #1, no matter what match you go to shoot. If you do not know how to manipulate your pistol, you will not have fun in a competition. Now, I’m not saying that you need to be able to detail strip your weapon down to every last piece, and put it back together blindfolded with one hand tied behind your back, but you need to know the basics. Load, unload, show clear, and clear malfunctions.

Lets go over some range commands that are commonly used in different shooting matches. Generally you will have some sort of score card that is turned into the score keeper at the beginning of the match, or the beginning of each stage. This generally determines the shooting order. As a new shooter, I would recommend you telling the score keeper that you are brand new, and ask the scorekeeper to move you to the bottom of the list. Being on the bottom has an advantage for newbies, in that it allows you to see everyone else run the stage first. You get to see where they are messing things up, and work on how you will shoot the stage.

So, your name has been called, and you approach the firing line. The range officer will ask you “Do you understand the course of fire?” If you do understand, say “yes”, if not, now is the time to ask any questions you have about the stage. Once you acknowledge that you understand, the range officer will tell you to “Load and make ready” or just “make ready” depending on the game. At this point, and ONLY at this point, you may remove your pistol from the holster, insert a magazine, and chamber a round, and then you can place it back into your holster, keeping your finger off the trigger at all times. Once your pistol is back in the holster, the range officer will ask “Are you ready?” If you are, nod, or say “yes”. The range officer will then say “stand by!” and in about 2-4 seconds he will hit the timer, and you will hear the beep that tells you to start shooting.

You run the course of fire, and finish. When you are finished, stop. Drop your magazine, and clear the chamber. I like to lock the slide to the rear, and have a nice look into the pistol to make sure there isn’t any ammo in the the pistol. After I have checked the chamber, I wait for the range officer to also check the chamber. Once you have both visually checked the pistol, the range officer will tell you something like “Slide, hammer, holster”. This means you drop the slide, dry fire the pistol (while keeping it pointed safely into the berm) and them place it into your holster. The reason the pistol is dry-fired, is to make absolutely certain that there is no ammo in the pistol, so the range can go clear, and targets can get re-set for the next shooter. If you have a problem with dry-firing your pistol, get over it, or get a different pistol.

This probably goes without saying, but one of the most important range commands is “STOP!” or “CEASE FIRE!”. If you ever hear these words on the range, immediately stop what you are doing, and get direction from the range officer. It could be nay number of things, someone could have crossed the firing line, resulting in an unsafe situation, or the range officer could have heard a squib load in your pistol, that you didn’t hear. It doesn’t matter why, but if you hear STOP!, or CEASE FIRE!, stop what you are doing, and get direction from the range officer.

Are you Finding This Helpful?

I hope you’re finding this ‘Getting Started’ series of posts really helpful. If you want even more, I’ve got a 9 part PDF that I’ll send you if you sign up for my newsletter below. I send an email or two a week, and I hate spam as much as you, so I only send stuff that I think you’ll find helpful.

The 180

With very few exceptions, shooting ranges generally follow the 180* rule, which means that there is an imaginary plane that extends from your right and left, and up and down, that moves with you a you shoot the stage. You’re muzzle is never allowed to break this 180* plane, and if it does, you will be disqualified from the match. This is a safety precaution to make sure that everyone on the range stays safe. If you have any questions about whether or not shooting at a target from a specific position will break the 180*, ask your range officer before attempting it.

Here’s my best attempt at illustrating the 180*:


Here at the end of part two, I believe I’ve covered enough to get you out and shooting. Certainly you will want to buy more gear, belt, magazine pouches, magazines, sights, and all that stuff once you have been shooting for a while, but hold off on the purchases until you have a couple matches under your belt, that way you will be a better informed buyer, and you wont end up selling a bunch of stuff that you didn’t need (ask me how I know…). Try out some different games, and see what you like, then you can tailor your purchases to that game. Purchases for shooting USPSA Open will be a lot different than purchases for Stock Service Pistol in IDPA.


  1. Rylee jean robertson

    are there matches where u can just use a pistol and a rifle

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