Fishbreath Competes: 2020 USPSA Roundup

It’s the end of October, and that means it’s the end of the Western Pennsylvania USPSA season. How did it go?

Generally

I started shooting in Revolver division this year. I’m happy with my choice; my inkling I would enjoy playing the modern cowboy1 proved to be correct.

There are other articles here that explain in depth why I find Revolver fascinating, but I have a few further thoughts on the division after a year of shooting it.

First: it’s punishingly difficult sometimes, especially at local matches where the rule about how a single position can’t require more than 8 rounds is a little more loosely applied. The development of competition firearms pretty clearly states that nobody shoots a long, relatively heavy double-action trigger by choice. Getting my hits is not nearly as easy as it was with a red dot, and an eight-round capacity means that I don’t have nearly as much opportunity for makeup shots as I was used to with previous guns. Of course, I see that as a good thing. I was getting sloppy with my more race-y guns.

Second: it’s even more of a brain game than I expected. I’ve heard people slam the lo-cap divisions as just reloading whenever you move. That’s often the case, but not always, and I find that I have to spend a whole lot more thought on how to slice up a stage, and how to move through it efficiently, than I ever did with Carry Optics or Limited. The LCSA October match had a fair bit of this, although it’s not a great performance by any means.

Third: the heat isn’t quite as far and away better than me as it is in other divisions, which I suppose means that Revolver, in practice, is a little easier than Carry Optics. I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. If one of my goals in this sport is to be properly good relative to my peers (and it is), it seems like I could do worse than picking a division where I’m naturally advantaged.

Fourth: it’s a conversation starter! Everyone’s curious about the gun, the gear, and the why. On more than one occasion, I’ve been told, “You make that look really fun,” which is a good compliment.

Fifth: earlier in my Revolver career (so, June), I described the division as wheelgun-specific esoterica layered on top of the very, very basics of the sport. In the last few weeks, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not strictly accurate. For many of the form and technique items I was doing differently than I would with a semi-auto, I’ve swung back toward the semi-auto methods. A grip is a grip, no matter what shape of handgun it’s formed around; a double-action trigger pull is a double-action trigger pull, whether it’s turning a cylinder or not2. What I can’t say for sure is whether this is an absolute truth or a ‘local’ one—is it just me, or is it a more broadly-applicable lesson?

Moving on, I’ve started listening to Ben Berry’s Short Course podcast, and although I grant he’s not saying anything especially novel, he approaches the sport in the same way I do and says things that I don’t think I would have hit upon quickly without someone else saying them. Two items in particular are worth calling out. First, the value of live-fire training. I was previously in the camp of, “I’ll do my live-fire practice at matches.” This, of course, is a bad idea. You may burn a lot of ammo at a match, but you’re spending a very short amount of time on any one skill, and you don’t have the time for analysis in between every few shots like you would running drills at a range. Two, how to practice generally. His mantra is that it’s very hard to drill your way to faster times, and that improvement comes much more frequently from doing something different instead of doing it quicker.

There are a bunch of other things too, but I’ll save those for a separate post, since this one’s already 1200 words long and I’m not even close to done yet.

Gear

Everything pretty much worked. I realize that this is a slightly strange thing to say in a season where I was plagued by light primer strikes, but those problems were largely of my own devising. A 10lb hammer spring and Federal primers are a reliable combination. I was trying to get a little too cute, and paid the price for it3.

It took most of the season, but I think I’m pretty well acquainted with the double action trigger on my chosen Ruger Super GP100 now. I have more to say about the gun, but I think it’ll work better as an article unto itself.

Long story short, the gun did its part, except when I was doing ill-advised tinkering. What am I feeding it with? Originally, it was a diet of factory .38 Special. The hotter factory stuff tends just barely to make minor power factor. I had planned to reload from the beginning, since I get all my brass back on handy little clips, and it seems wasteful not to use it, but I was planning on .38 Special. Difficulties with getting moon clips in and out of the gun convinced me to make the switch to .38 Short Colt4. Although the exact load is still a work in progress, it ejects from the cylinder more readily (the ejector pushes fired cases fully free of chambers even on a partial stroke) and drops in easier, too (the cases still wiggle in my moon clips, but the magnitude of the displacement at the tips of the bullets is smaller, since the loaded cartridges are shorter). All in all, this is another place where I decided to take my lumps and do the thing everyone’s doing—a painful thing for a hipster like me to admit, but in this case, they’re not wrong. The last thing on my list for easier moon clip dropping is cylinder mouth chamfering, which I’m having done over the offseason.

The last item on the gear list is the belt and associated equipment. I’m still using the same Midway USA two-layer belt I bought for my Limited P-09. It still works just fine. My revolver gear is heavier than my Limited/Carry Optics rig, so I get a little bit more flex, but not so much that I care to change up the belt itself.

Since Revolver is a race division, I might buy parvusimperator’s old Double Alpha jobber. I’ll have to try it and see how I like it first, though. The SpeedBeez Kydex race holster is perfectly functional. I don’t feel like I’m giving up that much time on draws, and the Kydex holster may actually be more forgiving in terms of getting a good draw out of a bad start, because there’s a place where my knuckle hits to tell me if I’m on target.

The SpeedBeez moon clip rack works fine. It’s not adjustable like the Double Alpha individual moon clip holders, but I don’t see any need for adjustment, and Double Alpha claims their magnets hold the moon clips more tightly anyway, which is the last thing I need. The SpeedBeez rack was also about $40 cheaper than the equivalent number of DAA racks. The one downside to the SpeedBeez unit is that it’s curved to fit the front of a body, and since I wear it slightly around to my left side, it doesn’t quite contour perfectly to me. Not enough of a problem to merit a change, though, I don’t think.

Goals (2020)

I didn’t have many explicit goals for 2020, because the season got off to such a strange start with the initial pandemic closures and all. I did sort of develop two goals as we got a bit deeper into the year.

First: maybe make B class? I’ve been languishing in C class for a while across all my divisions, and was trending toward B in Carry Optics last year as I developed further familiarity with the gun5. This year is the most seriously I’ve taken the sport by far, and despite having to get used to the revolver, I put in a pair of good classifiers in July and August (73% and 56%). That was a good base to work from, but my my classifiers in September and October have not been up to the same standard, except for last Saturday’s 56%, and so I’m not going to make B this year—especially since the 73% gets bumped from the list-o-recent-scores soon.

Second: shoot two matches a month for the length of the season (this year, it was June to October). This was not, I grant, a particularly hard goal to hit this year, given how much I was itching to get out to matches during the COVID lockdowns. After we started back up, the main obstacle to that schedule was weather, but this was a pleasant enough summer in that respect, except on two occasions: LCSA in July, and the Battle for the North Coast match at the end of August. On both occasions, it rained. For LCSA, I decided to tough it out and get the match in anyway; for Battle for the North Coast, I was already out at a hotel in Ohio, and it would have been a little silly not to shoot the match given that it was free for staff.

Goals (2021)

That was 2020. What’s the story for 2021?

To answer that question, I think I have to ask about goals more generally. What do I want to get out of USPSA in the long run?

Number one: I would like to get good at Revolver. There’s a continuum of acceptability here; the bottom end is M-class (which I think should be attainable even if I don’t have the natural skill to push deeper), and the top end is ‘nationally competitive’, by which I suppose I mean ‘can finish in the top half of a Revolver nationals field’. Dream big, right?

A brief aside before I move on: that’s a performance goal, which I’ve come to dislike. In the short term, it’s much better to have process goals. The only thing process depends on is your own motivation, which is entirely under your control. Process goals need verification to guarantee that the process is working, however, and that’s where the long-term performance goals come in. They don’t have a time horizon, but I can use them to check my progress, and therefore the efficiency of my process.

Long-term goal two: give back to the sport by playing staff at more big matches. This plays into a short-term goal (shoot more major matches). This is not an entirely selfless aim: my shooting budget is relatively limited, so saving $100 to $200 in match fees and most or all of a hotel means I can get to more majors.

Long-term goal three: advance through the RO certifications. CRO for sure. Range master maybe? It might be nice eventually, but the range master page says, “This isn’t just so you get a nice certificate on the wall, it’s so you can work matches on a regular basis,” and I don’t know if I want to make that kind of time commitment to officiating specifically.

Finally, number four: classify in every division. This is obviously not as serious a goal as the rest, and pretty much depends on a) classifier matches and b) guns I can borrow.

Of those four goals, only the first three are more than for kicks, and I can only work on the first two in the near term, given experience/time requirements for higher-level range officer certifications. That leaves two to work on. As the saying goes, a goal without a plan is just a dream, so what’s my 2021 plan to move toward those goals?

Item one: shoot three times a month through the USPSA season, which is about March through October here, with at least one of those three sessions being practice rather than a match. My ammo budget allows for 5,000 rounds next year, which comes to a bit over 600 rounds per month. Given my usual local matches, that means probably about 300 match rounds and 300 practice rounds if I go two-and-one.

Item two: dry fire three nights a week. Right now, I’m on a four nights pace, but I want to leave myself a bit more time to do other things next year, with the expectation that I can fill half an hour with some dry fire on the ostensible off nights if I don’t have other projects calling my name.

Item three: end 2020 with a one-year stockpile of reloading supplies. (And, ideally, load them over the winter.) I have orders in for bullets and primers (somehow, I found a case of 5,000 for a price that doesn’t make me sick), so all I need is to grab a bottle or two of powder from the FLGS one of these days.

Item four: work and shoot two major matches. Three would be nice, but I’d take two. (Or maybe even shoot two on staff day and work one without shooting it.) Gotta get that RO card populated. I’d love to go back to Battle for the North Coast as staff next year, and maybe I’ll see if I can pitch in at the Western PA section match too.

Lastly, item five: take an offseason from about mid-November 2020 to January 2021. That is, no regularly-scheduled dry fire, no belt-on practice. Why? This will help me deprogram any bad habits I’ve developed over the year, and set me up for a fresh start on the season in 2021.

Grokking Reloads

I’m going to wrap up this extraordinarily lengthy post with a quick note on reloading. If you’ve been following my videos, you might have noticed that I switched reload techniques after the first match. One of my most surprising discoveries while working up my wheelgun skills was that there are, to the best of my knowledge, zero written descriptions of the two major competition revolver reload techniques6 on the Internet. This coda is an effort to rectify that.

There are two schools, named after the hand which handles the ammunition: the strong hand reload and the weak hand reload.

The weak hand reload, which I tried first, involves opening the cylinder with the strong hand: the thumb hits the cylinder release, and the trigger finger pokes the cylinder open. The weak hand hangs around for a moment to palm the ejector on the way down to the belt. After the empties drop, the strong hand drops the gun to belt level, while the weak hand picks up a moon clip and drops it home.

The strong hand reload, which I settled on later, leaves the gun handling to the weak hand. The strong hand thumbs the cylinder release, while the weak hand shifts up to push the cylinder open with the fingers. (I use the middle finger and ring finger, leaving the index finger on the frame to aid in muzzle control.) While the weak hand brings the gun down to the belt, thumbing the ejector on the way, the strong hand goes for a moon clip and sets it in place.

The weak hand reload’s advantage is that it lets you keep your strong hand in place the whole time: no breaking your grip. The disadvantage is that it’s slower: your weak hand is doing nothing while the strong hand opens the cylinder.

The strong hand reload’s advantages and disadvantages are flipped: it can be faster (and indeed, a certain famed wheelgunner by the name of Miculek prefers it), but you’ll be breaking and re-establishing your grip several times over the course of stage.

For the short-thumbed, such as yours truly, the strong hand reload has a second hidden advantage: the weak hand moving up to the cylinder gives me the opportunity to move my strong hand so that my thumb can actually reach the cylinder release.

For me, match experience suggests the strong hand reload is the right one. I find it much easier to align the moon clip with the cylinder when the former is in my better hand. Too, my experience is that the strong hand reload is much easier to perform when moving in non-optimal directions—not just right to left, but even downrange to uprange. Pointing my thumb in a safe direction leaves open access to the cylinder no matter where I’m moving.

And there you have it. My 2020 season in review. Expect a one-season-in bit on the Super GP100 a little later on in November.


  1. My co-blogger, of course, realized this well before I did. Late last year, I was debating what my next division would be. He wrote ‘Revolver’ on a piece of paper, folded it, and told me to look when I made my final decision. Lo, he was correct. 
  2. Reloads are, of course, different. 
  3. In a Short Course episode I listened to recently, Mr. Berry made the switch to softer primers after a long struggle with getting CCI primers to go off. He admitted to stubbornly saying, “No, I should be able to get this to work!” Here, I make a similar mea culpa. “Just use the right spring!” 
  4. Also, everyone who heard I was shooting a .38/.357 gun said, “You using Short Colts?” It’s a curious little cartridge—about the size of a 9mm, and in its Starline incarnation, capable of withstanding similar pressures. I’m pushing a 158gr bullet with about 3.5gr of Bullseye, which is miles off the top end of the pressure charts for the cartridge in its original 1870s guise, but not all that unusual in the modern era. 
  5. I’d been shooting it for two years, although for the first of those two years it was in Limited guise. 
  6. It goes beyond that—there’s basically zero learning material out there for competition revolver. On the other hand, the Brian Enos revolver forum is one of the friendliest places on the Internet. They never seem to tire of answering newbie questions. 

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