Saturday, July 12, 2008

Stage Breakdown

Stage Diagnosis

A huge area of your performance in practical shooting. This is the freestyle aspect of IPSC that is so popular amongst shooters - the ability to solve a problem creatively. Developing a concise and efficient plan to shoot each stage is a challenge and also is paramount to your score.

Hit Factor

IPSC matches are scored on a points per second basis. This is called your hit factor. The way your hit factor is determined is by taking the sum of all the points you shot on a stage (minus any penalties) and divide that number by your time for the stage. A hit factor under 7 is considered accuracy intensive, 7 is considered average, and above 7 is considered speed intensive.

That being said, I have personally lost a stage that was a 14 hit factor (VERY speed intensive) on points. So regardless of the hit factor, both speed and accuracy are still required for successful performance.

Now fortunately we can use the hit factor scoring system to our advantage while planning a stage. To do this requires you knowing your ability. When you go to a match you should know exactly what your reliable split and transition times are at different distances (5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 yards is good). You also need to know what points you usually shoot at those distances and take that into account.

Knowing this information allows you to determine your approximate hit factor before the stage is shot. For example in a hypothetical 150 point stage, through practice and experience I have determined that I can shoot all of the targets in the stage in approximately 14 seconds including movement. Considering the difficulty of the targets I deduce that I will drop anywhere from 6 to 10 points. Knowing that information tells me that I can expect to shoot around a 10 hit factor for this particular stage.

This may seem like useless information, but it allows you to figure out the most efficient places for you to engage targets. For example, if there is a target you can take from either position A or position B, knowing your approximate hit factor on the stage before you shoot will tell you if it is better to take said target from position A or B.

In all honesty, this is not a tool I use often, but there are times when it makes a big difference to your score. Learn it and put it in your toolbox as something you can use when you need to.

Short, Medium, and Long Courses

The IPSC rule book defines a short course as no more than 9 rounds required and no more than 2 shooting positions. A medium course is no more than 16 rounds and no more than 3 shooting positions. A long course is no longer than 32 rounds. The recommended balance for an IPSC match is 3 short courses to 2 medium courses to 1 long course, however this nearly never happens in USPSA.

The vast majority of the time short courses are regarded as survival stages. With a maximum of 45 points available, chances are that you aren't going to gain much ground if you crush the stage. However if you happen to try and smash it but make a mistake or two, you can quickly find yourself 20 points down. Not a place you want to be. Therefore unless you are supremely confident in the layout of the stage - do not push it. Just get out of that stage with as many points as you can.

Medium courses offer a bit more area to gain ground. Usually there is a bit more movement, but crisp execution is still the more important thing. Survive these stages - but be on the look out for an opportunity. Be careful as these stages are frequently where matches are lost.

Long courses of fire are where matches are normally won. This style course is what we normally see at major matches in the United States. These stages have the most movement and highest round count. They are also the hardest to perform consistently on.

Rules of Thumb

There are certain things to look out for when breaking down any stage. Keeping these things in mind will hopefully give you a reliable process to figuring out the best way for you to shoot the stage.


I can't even describe the number of shooters I see (including some top tier GMs) break down a stage with no regard to the terrain they are shooting on. It is a very critical aspect of stage breakdown that is all too often ignored.

The first step is to stand back from the stage and just take in a good panoramic view. As you go up to the stage, look for these points:

  • What kind of ground is it on?
  • If it is gravel, is it loose and where is it loose?
  • If it is grass, is it (will it be) wet or dry?
  • Is there wood you are walking on? Is it (will it be) wet or dry?
  • Are there any mounds, divots, cables, or stakes in the free fire zone?
  • How tall are the fault lines? How is the ground around them?
  • What time are you shooting the stage in the morning?
  • Will the sun be in your eyes?
  • If there are props, how stable are they?
  • Do you need to twist the door knob and does the door open in or out?

The condition of the ground matters from the perspective of what kind of footwear to where and how aggressive you can be in movement. Be sure to bring different types of footwear. There is nothing against the rules about changing shoes between stages.

If the bay mainly consists of gravel, figure out if it is loose and where it is loosest. The reason for this is that if you decide to use the drop-step and push method of exiting a position, you don't want the drop-step to bury your foot in 12 inches of loose gravel. As a general rule of thumb, try and use the most stable ground for your path through a stage. There is no benefit of traction from cleats on loose gravel. I suggest wearing something with good ankle support.

Obviously wet grass gets very slick very quickly. Cleats are great for either wet or dry conditions but really make a difference after a rain.

If you have ever tried to walk on wood boards with cleats, you know this can be a hazardous idea. This is especially true of wet wood. I've flipped ass over teakettle many times during a stage on wet wood, which is dangerous and also a bit of a time waster. If there are a lot of planks at the match, or any of them are wet, wear a good pair of tennis shoes or boots. Cleats should be avoided.

Any mounds, divots, cables, or stakes should be noted immediately in your walkthrough. Make sure your plan through the stage does not make those things a factor. Tripping in the middle of a stage does nothing good for your score, image, or confidence.

The height of the fault lines matter because it gives you a good point of reference for where you are in a stage. For example if you are having a hard time setting up in the correct position to shoot a target, you may be able to use a foot on the fault line for a reference so you hit it specifically when you are shooting the stage. Also if there is loose gravel around them, you can shift the gravel around a bit to have a clear presentation to the fault line. This is useful when sliding your foot to the next shooting position.

Knowing if the sun will be in your eyes or not is a mistake I made once as an Open shooter. It tends to be a bit worse while shooting Open because the dot gets washed out by the sun. Although there isn't much you can do about it, you can try and plan your stage so that the light interferes with you as little as possible. This may be something as small as standing back behind a barricade a bit more to be in the shade of it.

That list is not the “end all, be all.” Do yourself a favor and whenever you are at a match, bring a notebook and pen with you. Write down all the glaring mistakes and great ideas you see others and yourself do throughout the course of a match. My list is a good place to start, it’s up to you to fine tune it to your ideals of performance.

Shooting positions

All shooting positions need to be considered with the next position in mind. Your position should not only give you an effective angle to the array but also be in line to the most direct route to the next position. For example, if you can ever help it, don't have a shooting position where you will have to go around something to get to your next position.

Another good rule of thumb is to always end on the hardest position. This is good for two reasons. The first is that you can devote all of your attention to the most difficult shot (which you should be doing anyways - but we don't live in a perfect world). The second reason is that you then don't have to worry about getting out of that difficult position which would take more time than normal.

Finding All the Targets

I was at the Area 8 match several years ago. First area match I ever shot. I was shooting Production, was having a decent match. Won a stage overall (in Production) as a B shooter earlier in that match. Get to the 2nd to last stage of the match which was a bit of a memory stage with lots of transitioning from left to right and several ports in the middle. I ended up being the first shooter and to make a long story short I forgot two targets. Six penalties and the 20 points I didn't shoot put my match in the hurt locker.

After that fiasco I vowed that I would never forget a target again - and to this day I haven't. Here is the process I go through on each stage to ensure I don't make that mistake again.

The first step is to determine how many targets and how many rounds are required for the stage. You will see most shooters trying to find every target from within the free fire zone. In my opinion, this is a mistake. You would be better served by going behind the stage and looking at it from that perspective.

It also helps if you have a partner. The partner can stand in each shooting position while you stand by each target. This way you are double checking with each other to make sure you aren't shooting a certain target more than once or not at all.

Only when you are confident that you have found every target should you start programming the stage. This is the reason why it is usually a good idea to arrive the afternoon before the match and check out the stages if they are open to viewing. It gives you a big boost of confidence to be able to go out to dinner the night before the match knowing how you are going to shoot each stage.

10 Things I’ve Learned

1) Plan everything you need to see or do throughout the course of a stage.

2) Know what your reliable times are for splits, draw, loads, and transitions at various distances.

3) The best plan in the world means nothing if it isn’t within your ability to execute it.

4) Visualize. You aren’t doing as detailed or as many times as you should.

5) Make a checklist and memorize it. Use it on every stage.

6) Know your target engagement order and why.

7) Bring a stopwatch to time activators. Always.

8) Rehearse a stage until you have no hesitation.

9) Eliminate extra motion. Take the most direct route you can.

10) Pinpoint potential “disaster” targets and plan for them accordingly.


ramas123 said...

Good stuff Jake, thanks. I have a question about surface an shooting on the move. If you have loose sand surface is it worth to shoot on the move or it is better to shoot standing in position? Thank you.

Jake Di Vita said...


Like any other time, it's going to depend on the targets you are engaging.

As a rule of thumb, if you can't shoot A's on the targets while moving - for whatever the reason - you shouldn't be engaging those targets on the move.

I personally have shot on the move in loose sand a lot, it has never bothered me.