Home / How to Get Started in Competitive Shooting: / Part 5 – Choosing a Pistol

Part 5 – Choosing a Pistol

One of the most important considerations to make when getting started in competition shooting is choosing a pistol to compete with. There are many factors to be considered, such as what competitions you plan to compete in, what divisions in those competitions, action type, and availability of holsters.

The first thing I want to say is, you do not need to go buy a big expensive race gun for shooting competition. Generally, a factory pistol, made by a quality manufacturer will get you started, and keep you going for a good long time. The first pistol that I bought for competition shooting was a Gen3 Glock 17. Other than adding some new sights, the pistol is still stock, and it still serves me well in many games.

What game do you want to play?

You need to first decide what game you want to play. If you want to shoot something like USPSA Limited, your pistol choice will be differ from a pistol for IDPA SSP.

Most of us like shooting several different disciplines, so finding a pistol that is legal for several different games is essential. Most games require a 9mm or larger in an auto, and .38 special or larger in a revolver.

Generally, one of the “Wonder 9″ pistols will get you started in any of the games. Something like a Glock 17 or Smith and Wesson M&P9 or a Springfield XDm are some of the most popular for a do it all pistol.


Most games have some limits on the capacity or rounds that your pistol can hold. However, you shouldn’t get too caught up on this and buy a low capacity pistol, as you can always just load your magazines to the lower capacity.

For example, I shoot IDPA with a Glock 34. My Glock 34 holds 17 rounds in the magazine, but IDPA only allows 10 rounds in a magazine. I can just load my 17 round magazines with 10 rounds. I am not required to go buy 10 round magazines.

Some other games allow you to run high capacity magazines, so for a do it all pistol, having some flexibility in this regard is a good thing. More rounds in a magazine will give you more flexibility on when and where you plan to reload, which can impact your score considerably.

Will it fit in “the box”?

Both IDPA, and USPSA Production require pistols to fit into a box of exact proportions for the pistol to be legal in these games. The proportions of the boxes are made available to the public, and generally, you will not have an issue fitting in the box with a regular duty type pistol.

The Glock 34 and 35 were both designed around the dimensions of the box, in order to give competitors the longest sight radius possible, while still being legal for IDPA and Production. For this reason, the Glock 34 is probably the most popular 9mm pistol for competition.

From what I have seen, the biggest reasons why someones pistol will not fit in the box, is that they are trying to use a pistol that is not legal for the game they are playing (shooting something like a Glock 24 6″ longslide in IDPA or Production), or they have added aftermarket parts to their pistol that made it too big for the box, like a big magwell, or a really big extended mag release, etc.

Go-fast parts are great, but make sure that you stay legal for the game you want to play.

Action type:

Certain divisions in games like IDPA split up guns into different divisions based on the action type. For example, IDPA Stock Service Pistol requires pistol to be of the double action variety, so Glocks, M&P’s, decocker CZ’s etc, all fit into this division.

Enhanced service pistol is for the single action pistols like 9mm 1911′s, etc.

Manual safety or internal:

Some people prefer a pistol with a manual thumb safety. I do not. Too many times I have seen experienced shooters come out of the holster, get a quick sight picture, and then fumble with the safety costing themselves several seconds. This is really a personal preference, and something that you need to decide for yourself. With practice, a thumb safety is not any slower than a pistol without one, so it’s totally a personal preference thing.

Holster availability:

Some of the more obscure pistols do not have a lot of companies making quality holsters for them. This used to be a bigger deal than it is now, with everybody and their brother jumping into the kydex holster business, you should be able to find someone relatively locally that can make a custom holster for just about anything.

The other thing to think about is magazine carriers for your obscure pistol. If you decide to go the custom route, you may want to have that person make you some mag carriers as well.

Personally, I’d just get a big-name pistol and shoot the mess out of it. A lot of people want to be “different” and buy an obscure pistol to shoot, and then use it as a crutch for not getting better at shooting. I just don’t want to mess with all that.


Are magazines available for the pistol you want to compete with? Generally, I think you should have at least 5 magazines for any competition firearm. This gives you enough to plan out your reloads on the bigger stages, and flexibility in the case of a malfunction.

In IDPA you are only allowed 1 magazine in you pistol, and 2 on your belt, so you can scrape by with the bare minimum in IDPA and only have 3 magazines. I would strongly encourage you to have a couple more in your range bag.

My Recommendations:

I would recommend a 9mm service pistol from a reputable manufacturer that has high capacity magazines, no external safety, and good aftermarket support.

The reason I recommend 9mm, is because ammo is quite a bit less expensive than .40 or .45, recoil is softer, and it will be legal in just about any game. Most shooters stick with 9mm, .40S&W, or .45ACP, and tend to stray away from rounds like .357sig, and .45GAP, because ammo is expensive, and hard to find.


  1. Note that USPSA “Single Stack” Division (you know, like a Kimber or a US ARMY surplus .45acp pistol) also requires that the pistol fit into “The Box”. Usually, that’s not a problem unless you have added a Magazine Well Adapter, which may extend the top-to-bottom length of the pistol. Also, the pistol is measured with the magazine inserted, so if you have added pads to the base of your magazines to make reloads easier, that may not fit in the box.

    • I would recommend a 9mm service pistol from a reputable manufacturer that has high capacity magazines, no external safety, and good aftermarket support.!
      Like what exactly ?

  2. Very good clear inf.,
    nice job.

  3. I shot “cowboy” before. Just witnessed tactical competition. Your info was very helpful.

  4. New shooter here, my wife and I are wanting to get into this but she has a problem and cannot close one eye when shooting (yes I know your supposed to keep both eyes open anyways) but long story short she can shoot great with a reddot on her pistol but pretty poor when it comes to the normal sights. Is their a beginner optic league or anything?

    • Hey David,
      If she’s more comfortable with a red dot, by all means, have her shoot with a red dot. USPSA now has the Carry Optics division, and IDPA is beginning to allow optics as well. What gun/red dot combo is she shooting?

      • She is still trying to decide which gun she likes. She has shot a few of our friends that have them. But she is leaning towards maybe a glock 17,19, 34, or springfield XDM (may have this wrong, not sure but it’s the one that comes with the vortex optic). I have her going to the range to try out which gun she like the best/shoots the best/ feels the most conferrable with. I think she will end up going with probably a vortex venom optic just for her first optic to make sure she really enjoys everything then maybe upgrading later on down the road to the Leupold Delta Point Pro. Given nothing else better comes out by then.

  5. Me and my 10 year old boy both shoot, great article thanks for the info. We are looking into going to some competitions and hopefully entering one day.

  6. This is helpful info. I’m putting together a small team in SC. Of course I am getting all the rule books that are published by the various organizations.

  7. Good afternoon
    First of all thank you for all the valuable information here. I am also thinking of going into competitions again (I am experienced with Olympic Style) and this cleared several things in my mind.
    But there are still questions and perhaps you can help.

    I have several in my mind.
    Glock 34 Gen 5
    Walther Q5
    CZ Shadow 2
    Sig 320
    I am almost sure I will end up with the Glock. Sadly the other models are hard to find to try them on a range. But what would you recommend?

    Do you have more information regarding trigger in the beginner area? I have in mind to exchange the one on the Glock if i get it. But i cant really find whats allowed.

    I have a Vortex Venom in mind or a Fiber Tritium sight. Any recommandations there?

    Thank you

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