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Gold Medal Gunslingers

Combat Shooting Targets the Olympic Games

Section Four: A Combat Heritage

The military roots of combat shooting can be traced back to its infancy in 1948. In that year, Jeff Cooper and a colleague developed the "Advanced Military Combat Pistol Course" to teach the "realistic use of the sidearm." This was eventually published as a manual to teach soldiers to kill efficiently with handguns in what Cooper refers to as "combat pistolcraft."29 Nowadays, combat shooting is arguably the world's most popular method of training military, paramilitary, and police forces to shoot in close-quarters battle.

Attempts to transform this serious training exercise for military and law enforcement officers into a diversion and a "sporting" event for the general population began shortly after its initial development. As Cooper describes the early stages:

In 1959 the Bear Valley Gunslingers were established in California with the avowed purpose of introducing realism and variety into sporting pistol competition. In due course the Gunslingers evolved into the Southwest (�Combat') Pistol League....The purpose of all this was to 'get real' and to evaluate the systems by which fighting skills with the handgun could be properly evaluated and rewarded.30

Cooper continued his promotion of recreational combat shooting and, in 1976, was elected first president of the newly minted IPSC and named its Honorary Lifetime Chairman.

Given its military pedigree, the continued focus of combat shooting on lethality, self-defense, and the "practical" application of anti-personnel shooting skills is not surprising. Indeed, enthusiasts frequently emphasize these links when they talk about combat shooting�and companies stress them when selling related products.

Wilson Combat President Bill Wilson makes this sales pitch clear in an advertisement for the company's Model Special Ops CQB�supposedly a "sporting" weapon�in which he declares, "I personally trust my safety and the safety of my family to a Defensive Combat Pistol."31

The IPSC also highlights the link between combat shooting and military and law enforcement trainees by organizing special tournaments for them. According to IPSC President Nick Alexakos, the IPSC Executive Council should choose "a Director of Military Competition and a Director of Law Enforcement Competition for each continent." Alexakos notes that the "IPSC needs to assist in the organization and promotion of inter-military and inter-law enforcement competitions." 32

While thus exploiting its "practical" heritage, the IPSC and others involved with combat shooting also recognize that its emphasis on lethal force is�understandably�a severe impediment to its widespread acceptance as a sport. In response, while continuing to trumpet these aspects with sympathetic audiences, promoters have consciously downplayed them when speaking to the public at large.

This subterfuge began with the very name of the activity. Cooper and his colleagues acknowledged as much when, in 1976, they altered the public description of combat shooting to the more innocuous "practical" shooting. In its official handbook, the USPSA explains that the name change was necessary "in deference to public image."33

Cooper recalls such concessions in a tone laced with sarcasm�placing the blame on society's failure to see the sport in his deadly diversion:

Any international competition must submit itself to the jurisdiction of the nation in which it is held. Certain useful techniques are viewed askance, or in some cases forbidden, in countries where the nature of the art [of combat shooting] is not fully understood�and that includes most of them.

Pistolcraft is by nature a fighting art, and in our increasingly emasculate century fighting is held to be politically incorrect. (We had to extract the word 'Combat' from the title of the Southwest Combat Pistol League because it offended the California Secretary of State. The poor fellow!)34

This acknowledgement of the controversy surrounding combat shooting extends even to the descriptive language used at combat shooting events open to the public. "Head shots" become "upper A-B zones," "assault trials" are downgraded to "field trials," and "hostage" targets change to the less offensive "no-shoots."35

Having rechristened themselves and their activities, the "practical" shooters face a more fundamental image problem involving the very nature of their activity. In a 1994 Blue Press article explaining how U.S. gun clubs could recruit new members to aid the National Rifle Asociation, pro-gun advocate David Kopel alluded to this challenge:

[A]t any shooting event open to newcomers, don't even think of using human silhouette targets, which many people find extremely threatening. Stick to the good old-fashioned bullseye. Save the silhouettes for advanced IPSC shooters.36

When a change in the shape of the official IPSC target was proposed in response to such concerns about public relations, the ensuing debate over the idea provided a window into combat shooters' views about their public image.

Overtly humanoid, the original target is a life-size cardboard cutout of the human head and torso. The highest scores are awarded to "head shots" and "heart shots." In catalogs offering "IPSC Combat Type Shooting Targets"37 there is no doubt regarding the purpose of the official human shape:

Combat shooters have almost as many choices as bullseye [sic] shooters. Called variously �police combat,' �silhouette,' or �torso,' they are designed for those who must shoot to the center of mass�meaning police, military, and combat competitors.38

Original IPSC Target

Needless to say, this image�human targets being shredded by high-powered weapons�does little to advance the IPSC's goal of worldwide respectability and participation in an international sporting event dedicated to "encouraging the establishment of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity."

IPSC leaders have long recognized that to obtain Olympic recognition they must change the shape of their target. In the established shooting disciplines that have been a part of the Olympics, targets are designed to avoid any human resemblance. Current Olympic shooting sports�which involve considerable precision and skill�still use age-old circular "bull's-eye" targets.

So, as it set its sights on Olympic recognition, the IPSC announced a new target which retained the same size and scoring pattern as the traditional combat shooting head-and-torso silhouette, but bore a more abstract resemblance to a human target. The new target was dubbed the "Classic," perhaps in an attempt to conceal its recent vintage.

New IPSC "Classic" Target

The appearance of the "Classic" target on the IPSC and USPSA web sites immediately caused controversy among members. In publications and Internet correspondence, combat shooters voiced their concerns about the new target. In one newsletter, USPSA President Andy Hollar wrote:

What do you think? Should USPSA/IPSC adopt a 'headless' target? Would doing so be seen as a step toward capitulating under pressure from the left?...Would we get more sponsorship with less humanoid targets?...[Humanoid targets] reinforce our heritage as a self-defense oriented sport....I say let's add some new, fresh challenges, have more fun and not worry about what non-shooters think.39

In response to such criticisms, IPSC President Nick Alexakos, a Canadian and Olympic booster, offered reassurances that, although the target was modified, it still retained its human characteristics:

A common misconception is that the proposed target is �headless.' Not so. The Classic has all the same features as the current target. It can �peek' over, or around walls. It can be used in exactly the same manner as the current target, however the actual overall dimensions are smaller. This is a good thing.40

Typical of the reaction by rank-and-file members to the debate was this contribution to the IPSC E-mail Digest:

Regarding lopping the heads off targets...whatever, but it won't change non-shooters' perception of the sport...of the hundreds of people I've helped bring into the sport over the years, the SINGLE BIGGEST FACTOR has been that these people thought the courses were cool. Every time a hot movie featured a 'Hogan's Alley' type shooting scenario, I got a blip in my club memberships...the biggest praise from shooters and the gun media comes for courses with lots of cool props that closely resemble either the Real World (such as it is) or our Fantasy World....Only a complete moron would fail to understand that the targets are 'humanoid'...using R2D2, tombstones or whatever type targets in order to blunt media/public perception that IPSC shooting involves humanoid targets assumes that the media and the public are stupid.41

Some contributors to the E-mail Digest, especially those from outside the United States, were more sympathetic to the IPSC's efforts, including these writers:

Making the targets less obviously humanoid is simply one very small logical step to securing our future.42

To divide ourselves is not the way to fight the anti-gun international lobby. If this sport is going to grow we need to be in the same global boat. Personally, I don't give a s**t what the target looks like, but...some regions need...this sport in order to keep their guns, think about that. This sport must grow and be internationally based to be recognized by the public in general. That's the way to go! We can make it happen but only if we are united.43

Such foreign views drew rapid return salvoes from the U.S.:

How naive can you be to think that by changing the target you are going to give the appearance of being politically correct. We shoot guns with real bullets, remember?44

I have no desire to see IPSC lead us headlong into global �compromise'. We should be drawing a line in the sand.45

Ultimately, the lure of Olympic participation and its associated respectability appears to have won the "Classic" target debate. In early 1999, IPSC president Alexakos announced:

It looks like the Classic target is here to stay. More and more IPSC Regions have officially requested to use and evaluate the Classic and presently there is little doubt that it will be voted in as an authorized target at the next General Assembly.46

While the IPSC's leadership has made the quest for Olympic recognition its Holy Grail, a small but vocal segment of combat shooters�composed primarily of United States "right to bear arms" pro-gun advocates�has begun waging a war within the organization to abandon the quest for Olympic recognition. These shooters object to any form of compromise aimed at making combat shooting more politically acceptable.

In answer to the "no compromise" wing of combat shooters, Alexakos assured members that any changes, such as altering the combat shooting target, would be purely cosmetic:

IPSC has no intentions of changing our character, our dynamics, or our 'raison d'�tre' to conform to anyone else's sense of correctness. We are however, going to continue to grow and evolve�evolve into a recognized, respected, and accepted sports shooting organization.47

In their attempt to balance the happiness of hard-core members with the goal of Olympic recognition, Alexakos and other IPSC leaders face a daunting challenge. With promises such as these, they declare their intention to preserve the lethal shoot-�em-up character of combat shooting, whatever image they present to the general public.

Go to Section Five: The Road to Olympic Recognition

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All contents � 1999 Violence Policy Center