Steel Challenge—Where Excuses Go To Die

posted on July 13, 2016

A while back, we made the case that competition is a crucial step in developing truly durable firearm skills, particularly where a handgun is concerned. 

There are many reasons we think this so, but if pressed for a “Number One,” this would be it: Short of actual gun fighting—an undesirable commodity to come by—competition is the only way to develop the facility of making good shots when you must, as opposed to perfect shots when you wish

We concede that the distinction is subtle on first consideration, though the benefit ought to be clear eventually: When the physical complexities are reduced to near reflex, you free mental processing resources and physical assets, adding to your available reaction time. With luck, the resources can be applied to situational analysis and awareness that may prevent the need for any shot at all in extremis. That’s always a good thing, we’d say. If you’re looking to build this sort of skill, it’s particularly useful to find a recreational engine for doing so ...

If you’re looking to build this sort of skill, it’s particularly useful to find a recreational engine for doing so—feel free to read that as “fun”—and to our way of thinking, the fun coefficient in Steel Challenge-type shooting is very hard to beat. 

A detailed rundown of Steel Challenge is available at the SCSA website of course, but it doesn’t take much effort to expound or understand the basics. There are eight courses of fire, or stages. In a full match, each course will be shot five consecutive times, with the fastest four strings (plus penalties for any misses) recorded for score at that stage. Add up all eight, and that’s your score—lower, obviously, is better. 

There are only three different target sizes and shapes—10-inch round, 12-inch round and 18x24” rectangle, but they are arranged in eight different configurations, combinations and distances. A little trig is needed to compute shot lengths to the inch (because diagonal distances are involved), but it’s close enough to say that the longest shot you’ll take is 35 yards (at those “big boy” plates too, so easy, right?), and the shortest a little over seven yards. Engagement order is up to you, and the source of a lot of good-natured arguments as to what is actually best. The only catch is the last hit. This is determined by the fifth or “stop plate” on a different-colored stand, and must be hit after all others. (Hence the name, duh.) Start position is always the same (“drop from surrender”) and only one stage normally requires movement between shots. 

It may not be clear where we think this is right in the Exercise Your Freedom wheelhouse. With its mix of shot difficulty, the timer’s all-but-unique ability to prod, and the reinforcement that comes with repetition—though not to the point of boredom—it’s an engaging formula for rapid improvement. Every shot that isn’t a draw is a transition, which makes you reclaim good sight picture, yet huge distance differences won’t let you abandon good trigger discipline and related grip mechanics. (Or go ahead, if you like: Try slapping that may barely pass on Smoke ‘n’ Hope on Outer Limits or Speed Option. Bwahahahahaha!) If you’re a CCWer, take that cover garment. Many match directors will give you your own class to compete in if they don’t already have one. 

There’s another reason we’re big fans of Steel Challenge shooting that may be less obvious, and that is the low “kit” burden it imposes. A serviceable five-shot almost-anything is the absolute minimum that will work, though some of these divisions are “wildcat” and not recognized at larger matches. But if you have a striker-fired, 1911-style, or revolver, you’ll have multiple divisions available to you depending on round count, sights and compensation, and only firearms like your own will be scored with yours. With its mix of shot difficulty, the timer’s all-but-unique ability to prod, and the reinforcement that comes with repetition … it’s a winning formula for rapid improvement.

Unlike most other action-oriented competitions, if light-recoiling, lower-cost rimfire is your thing, there are multiple divisions for various configurations of rifles and pistols. Don’t think rimfire is just for the wee scions of your house, either: Though it’s a great way to make it a family affair, dazzling adult shooters are regular denizens of the rimfire ranks as well. Some matches even have shotgun divisions, and pistol-caliber rifles are generally welcome, too. In other words, there’s something for just about everyone without an automatic trip to your retailer to gear up, though a holster and five magazines (or speed-loaders, revo folks) are “gotta haves.” 

Though local matches are easy to find (often best-two-of-three for time constraints) and shot mostly for fun and bragging rights, SCSA matches on the regional and national scale are available, too. We shot a regional match recently—the Burris Optics Area 2 Steel Challenge in Pueblo, Colo.—and it was quite an affair. Run year in and year out by our friend and occasional A1F contributor Tom “Hoser” Freeman, it’s probably the icon of the match type: Fabulous organization and a generous prize table (especially from Burris) sent everyone home with a smile. If you can’t have fun at one of these affairs, we don’t know what to say. At the very top level (the SCSA World Speed Shooting Championships), you’ll recognize all the names; quite naturally, the performances are correspondingly impressive (Max Michel and Jessie Duff emerged victorious in 2015, and will defend this year at San Luis Obispo, Calif., Aug. 25-27). 

So now your excuses, at least theoretically, are down to zero. You probably have the gear, you likely need the practice—we sure do!—and it’s summertime. Go find an SCSA match.


Randy Kozuch
Randy Kozuch

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