USPSA Training: Speed or Accuracy?

USPSA focuses on three factors during competition: Power, Speed and Accuracy. Power meaning the use of Power Factor (PF=mass x velocity/1000) in determining relative point values for given hits, Speed meaning simply the time elapsed while shooting a course of fire and Accuracy meaning hits in the highest point-value areas of targets or simply hitting a steel target on the first shot. I’ve seen comparisons done between IDPA and USPSA and there is a clear distinction: USPSA rewards speed much more than accuracy compared to IDPA. What this translates to is that if you shoot a stage perfectly in USPSA then shoot it with several “C” hits but in 80% of the first run’s time, you will actually have a higher score on the second run. In IDPA the same exact scenario will always result in a lower score on the second run.

I first discovered this facet of USPSA scoring when I began to really push through stages, shooting them as fast as I possibly could. I suddenly found myself having significantly higher hit factors (HF is essentially “points-per-second”) than ever before even though my accuracy was much less than before in general. Not only that but it was incredibly exciting and hugely fun. This then creates a dilemma for many of us: do I train for speed or for accuracy? The simplistic answer is “both”, but in reality which you choose to focus on will likely yield different results, some quite surprising.

As many of you may know I am a licensed ham radio operator, KX1Y. I was licensed originally in 1992 in the days when a Morse Code test was part of the licensing requirement. In the intervening years the Code requirement has been entirely removed but the experience of learning it has had a lasting impression on me. When I first began to study the Dits and Dahs, I did it like most folks did: I listened to tapes and on-air transmissions at a very slow speed. The conventional wisdom was to learn the characters, one-by-one, then gradually speed up the tempo until fast enough to pass the necessary test for a given license level. Novice was 5 words-per-minute (WPM), General was 13wpm and Extra was 20wpm.

As you can see, this is similar to how most of us learn and practice shooting in USPSA. We try to shoot slowly and accurately, then we gradually try to increase the speed and thereby improve our match results.

Some years ago I stumbled onto what is now known as the “Farnsworth Method” for learning Morse Code. The concept is simple: begin by learning individual characters at full speed (20wpm) but with spacing between characters only at 5wpm. This forces the brain to process the characters by pure sound/cadence rather than using a mental “look-up table” to convert dits and dahs into characters. Another system called the “Koch Method” involves starting with only two characters and as proficiency builds, add one character at a time until the set is complete.

Once I realized that I could achieve high scores by focusing primarily on shooting really fast, I remembered the Farnsworth/Koch system and thought it might be applicable here too. It turns out that the experience of making numerous shots on targets at very high speed requires a different set of skills compared to slow, carefully aimed shots. Learning to see the sight picture not as a still frame, but as a flow or a progression rather than a snapshot. This involves a very dynamic set of perceptions and actions required by us as shooters.

As the field of Perceptual Psychology has proven, our visual systems (eyes, optic nerves and visual cortex) are by far the most advanced sensory components of our brains. In fact some in that field consider the eyes more an extension of the cortex rather than as a separate sensory organ. There are tons of studies showing that we take in absolutely enormous volumes of data each instant visually but almost all of it is discarded. What we are left with at the back end is a set of summary data that we further process to use in decision making. I think that for shooting at speed we have to leverage this torrent of data to be able to decide not only when it is time to break the shot but when it will be time. This allows us to set in motion the muscle activity to acquire the target, prepare to break the shot, break the shot, precisely time the reacquisition, break the second shot and begin driving the gun to the next target.

So, how does this relate to the whole Morse Code stuff? Well, the classic dit/dah look-up table is analogous to performing each of the above shooting steps as discrete, sequential actions taken independently. Obviously if each step has to stop before the next one begins this will be slower than if several are happening at once. Hearing the dits/dahs as characters is what psychologists call “chunking”, i.e., allowing multiple elements of meaning to be viewed as a single element. I hear “K” or “L” but if you ask me how many dits or dahs are in each I have to stop and think about it.

Similarly the series of shots taken on one or more targets in an array can be viewed as a single event rather than as a series. This may seem counter-intuitive but it works. In practice, the gun never really stops moving. We roll in on the target and break the shot before coming to a complete stop and then break the second shot while beginning to roll out. It is a continuum of perception, motion and action.

So, how do we put this into practice? It’s not as hard as it sounds. Set up some simple stages and try this for yourself. Just force yourself to shoot as fast as you can, anticipating the sight picture and trusting that your eyes will tell you the truth, even if you don’t consciously see that perfect sight picture for each shot. For many this will be very uncomfortable and may require a great deal of effort to accomplish but you can do it. And you will probably shoot better than you expect. Once the speed is in hand, accuracy will improve steadily as you begin to trust that visual system more and more.

So, is this the “One True Technique”? Certainly not. This method may not work at all for some folks. I don’t see myself as an expert but I have seen good results from this method personally. How it works for you is up to you to discover.

About William Daugherty

William Daugherty is a firearms enthusiast, competitive shooter and Second Amendment advocate living in the Upper Connecticut River Valley region of Northern New England.
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One Response to USPSA Training: Speed or Accuracy?

  1. PeterVermont says:

    Great column.

    I have often felt in many fields that beginner skills have little to do with later skills. Skiing, for example. I recently taught a friend to ski and , with his permission and knowing he was a coordinated fellow, I taught him parallel from the start. It worked great — he instinctual used his edge to slow himself rather than reverting to snowplow.

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