The Ultimate Guide to Steel Challenge Shooting Competitions

Steel Challenge shooting competitions are governed by the Steel Challenge Shooting Association, also referred to as the SCSA. If you’re a gun enthusiast who is looking for the next big challenge, then this ultimate guide on the Steel Challenge will go over everything you need to know about this popular competition, how to find a competition near you, what it takes to win, and what type of firearms are allowed.

What is the Steel Challenge Shooting Competition?

The Steel Challenge is a competition that’s all about speed. It consists of eight stages, each of which has five steel targets that range from round ten-inch plates to eighteen-inch by twenty-four-inch rectangular plates.

Each competitor in the competition will be scored based on the length of time it takes for them to complete each of the stages. The winner of the competition is the competitor who has the lowest overall time.

A competitor will get a total of five strings per stage, shooting each stage five times. To establish the competitor’s match score, the five stage scores will be added together.

One hit is required per target, for each string. The competitor is allowed an unlimited number of rounds. The stop plate is the last target to be shot in a stage. As soon as the stop plate has been struck, the timer will stop. Any targets that are hit after the stop plate has been hit will come with a three-second penalty per hit. For a run, there is a maximum time limit of thirty seconds. The competitor will have to stop and reload if they reach the thirty-second-time limit.

Steel Challenge History

In 1981, the Steel Challenge was founded by Mike Fichman and Mike Dalton. Over the years, this competition has grown to be the biggest professional pistol competition in the United States. In 1981, seventy shooters competed during the first competition for their share of $20,000 in cash and prizes. As of 2007, there were over 220 competitors from all over the world who competed for a portion of $390,000 in cash and prizes. In 2007, Mike Fichman and Mike Dalton sold the Steel Challenge to the USPSA, or United States Practical Shooting Association. Since then, the USPSA has been organizing the competition in the United States every year.

Runs/Strings

Each stage will require the competitor to make five timed runs through the plates, with twenty-five rounds minimum per stage. The best four runs will be scored. The competitor’s score is the combined seconds of every scored string. This will also include any penalties incurred. However, the Outer Limits stage is the exception. For this stage, the shooter will engage a couple of targets from the starting box, with the timer running, then move approximately six feet to another box to shoot the remaining three targets.

Starting Position

For rifles or rimfire handguns, there’s no holster and the competitor will begin aiming at a low ready position or flag. For centerfire handguns, the competitor will begin with the gun holstered with their wrists above their shoulders.

Scoring

The scoring process of the competition is pretty straightforward. The shooter’s time is their score. The competitor with the lowest time will win the competition. The total time for every stage determines the order of finish. The top four out of five strings will be counted toward the shooter’s total score per stage, except for the Outer Limits stage. The Outer Limits stage will be scored based on the best three out of four strings.

Sound Actuated Timing System

Sound actuated timing involves the use of a shot timer that can hear each shot. The shooter’s elapsed time will stop after they fire their last shot.

Misses

Any plate that hasn’t been hit before the stop plate counts as a miss. Every miss on a plate results in a three-second penalty that will be added to the shooter’s time for that specific string.

Stages

As I mentioned above, the challenge consists of eight stages. Each stage will always remain the same. At each stage, there are five metal plates that are either round or rectangular. One of the plates will be marked with a red post. This is the stop plate. The targets are placed at a variety of distances ranging from seven yards up to thirty-five yards.

The eight stages include:

  • Five to Go
  • Showdown
  • Smoke and Hope
  • Outer Limits
  • Accelerator
  • Pendulum
  • Speed Option
  • Roundabout

Each of the stages will require the shooter to fire from square boxes.

Five to Go

Steel Challenge - Steel target

This stage features a single shooting location and five plates, including the stop plate. There are four ten-inch plates, each of which is placed further away than the last, beginning at ten-feet, twelve-feet, fifteen feet, eighteen feet, with the stop plate at seven yards.

Showdown

Rosebud Arrow Rod & Gun Club - Technical drawing

This stage consists of a couple of boxes. For the first stage, the shooter is required to make two runs from one of the boxes. For the two following runs, the shooter will make the runs from the other box. On the last run of the string, the shooter can have their choice of which box they want to shoot from.

Smoke and Hope

smoke and hope

This stage features heavy transitions. At the rear, placed in the center, you’ll find the stop plate, with four other plates set up at two different distances, with one and two on the left, and three and four on the right.

Outer Limits

Outer Limits

This stage is the only one with movement and features the longest shots in the competition. Instead of five runs, like the other seven stages, this stage only has four. Additionally, the three boxes on this stage are much larger compared to the boxes on the other stages. The competitor must begin the run by starting on their weak hand side, then moving to the center box, engaging two plates on their strong hand side before they go for the stop plate.

Accelerator

accelerator

This stage consists of both rectangular and circular plates of different sizes.

Pendulum

pendulum

The pendulum stage is a fan favorite and is considered tricky because of the two ten-inch targets that are basically a blind transition that comes off plate one and plate four. Most shooters will count the plates from left to right, with the large twelve-inch plate all the way to the left as plate one. The plate directly next to one is plate two, skipping over the stop plate and moving to the next plate is plate three, with plate four on the far right.

Speed Option

Speed Option

Many shooters love to hate this stage. Competitors often number the plates left to right, not counting the stop plate.

Roundabout

Roundabout

Starting left to right, most shooters will go for plates one and two, and then take a little more time to hit plate three, which is the furthest back, then move to plate four on the far right before going dead center to hit the stop plate.

Steel Challenge Rules – Categories, Divisions, and Classifications

A division involves the type of firearms used in a match. As an example, the Single Stack division will only allow 1911 style firearms and includes set guidelines for holster location and magazine capacity.

Classifications are the level of proficiency that’s achieved in a division. The highest level of classification is a Grand Master.

Categories refer to special recognition such as “senior” where a competitor is fifty-five to sixty-five years of age.

Official rules tend to change from year to year. If you want to stay on top of the newest changes, click here for the official Steel Challenge Shooting Association rulebook!

Classifications

To be classified, a competitor must shoot four stages at a Steel Challenge Shooting Association affiliated event. Any competitor that is an active SCSA or USPSA member may be classified in one or more divisions as long as the shooter has shot a minimum of four out of eight of the stages. When a competitor shoots an additional stage, the times that are shot on that stage go towards classification. A shooter can be classified on a range of four to eight stages.

A classification measures a shooter against the top competitors in the world.

Each division and stage have a PST or peak stage Time. A peak stage time was created by using an average of 2014 and 2015 World Speed Shooting Championship’s stage winning times for each division and stage. Those numbers were reviewed further and modified where appropriate, to create the peak stage time that’s used for calculation. The World Speed Shooting Championship’s peak stage time is reviewed annually and adjusted if appropriate. Stage time is the compiled time for the stage from a match, usually the total of the best of three of four or four of five, times for the stage per match.

Classes include:

  • Grand Master >95%
  • Master>85%
  • A Class>75%
  • B Class>60%
  • C Class>40%
  • D Class>0%

The classification percentage is calculated based on the following:

  • The shooter’s total time for all classifier stages that they shot is added up
  • The total peak times for each stage they shot is added up
  • The shooter’s percentage is defined as total stage time and total peak time
  • The shooter’s percentage is then mapped to a classification

This means, if a shooter achieves approximately 66% of the total peak times for the stages they shot, they’ll be classified as a B class shooter.

The classification system is updated every Wednesday morning.

Divisions

This competition allows for a wide selection of firearms, with many classifications, categories, and divisions within the competition. The number of divisions will allow shooters to compete within a group, in addition to competing against the entirety of the match. This creates several matches within a match, grouping competitors so they can compete against others with similar skills and equipment.

The competition features the following divisions:

Pistol Caliber Carbine Open

All pistol caliber carbines and short-barreled rifles are allowed. Compensators and optics are allowed. Suppressors are not allowed.

Pistol Caliber Carbine Irons

Any type of iron sighed pistol caliber carbine that doesn’t have optic sights.

Rimfire Rifle Open

All rimfire rifles are allowed. Compensators and optics are also allowed.

Rimfire Rifle Iron Sights

Any type of rimfire rifle that’s iron-sighted without optic sights.

Rimfire Pistol Open

All types of legal rimfire firearms can be used. Compensators and optics are also allowed.

Rimfire Pistol Iron Sights

Any type of rimfire pistol that’s iron-sighted without optic sights. Fiber-optic sight inserts are allowed.

Carry Optics

A safe action or double action striker-fired semi-automatic pistol with an optic sight. Ports and compensators are not allowed.

Open Revolver

All legal firearms are allowed.

Iron Sight Revolver

Any type of iron-sighted revolver without an optical sight, barrel ports, or a compensator are allowed.

Optical Sight Revolver

This is any type of revolver that’s equipped with electronic or optical sights.

Single Stack

Only 1911 models are allowed. Holsters used must meet USPSA guidelines for this division.

Production

Any safe action or double action pistol that’s on the USPSA Production gun list is allowed. Holsters must meet the USPSA handgun rules for this division.

Limited

Any type of iron-sighted pistol that doesn’t have an optical sight, barrel ports, or a compensator. Fiber optic inserts are allowed.

Open

All legal firearms are allowed. Compensators and optics are allowed.

Categories

Every shooter will compete for overall placement in the competition. However, they can also compete for category-specific awards that are based on certain characteristics. A shooter can enter more than one category.

Lady

Anyone that is listed as female on their government-issued ID or license can compete in this category.

Law Enforcement

To qualify for this category, the competitor must be a full-time law enforcement officer with arresting powers.

Military

Any military personnel on current active-duty orders can compete.

Pre-Teen

Shooters under the age of thirteen years old on the first day of the event will qualify for this category. A liability waiver must be signed by the child’s parent or legal guardian.

Junior

Shooters under the age of eighteen years of age on the first day of the event will qualify for this category. A liability waiver must be signed by the child’s parent or legal guardian.

Senior

Shooters between the ages of fifty-five and sixty-five years of age qualify.

Super Senior 

Competitors who are sixty-five years old or older qualify.

The Gear You Need

This competition is all about speed, with scoring that’s set up so that it favors high-speed shooting. If this is your first time entering the competition, then you’ll want to be prepared and bring all the right gear and wear the proper type of clothing. Many beginners are concerned that the gear can cost big, and in some cases, it can.

Ammo Costs

Most experienced Steel Challenge competitors will tell you that one of the biggest expenses for this competition, aside from the firearm, is the ammo. But this will depend on the division.

Buying your ammo in bulk or reloading your own are both good ways to keep the cost down. The average amount of ammo you’ll need is around 250 to 350 rounds. This is assuming that you’re shooting all eight stages and you don’t hit the target with every shot.

Clothing

In terms of clothing, you’ll want to wear clothing that feels comfortable, breathable, and doesn’t hinder your range of motion. You may have watched plenty of videos of guys wearing fancy clothing, shooting guns with compensators and optics, at lightning-fast speeds. But these videos don’t show you that over 90% of competitors shoot their carry pistols and wear jeans and t-shirts. Wear what’s comfortable for you.

Hearing Protection & Protective Eyewear

man in shooting gear

All competitors and spectators are required to wear shooting glasses and hearing protection at all times.

Cost Based on Division

For the most part, the equipment you need to compete in this challenge is inexpensive. But the cost of equipment can also depend on the division. The limited division is where things can start to get expensive. This is a division that’s dominated by high-performance firearms, such as STI 2011s, which have a starting cost of around $2000. The open division can also cost big. These firearms require special rigs and holsters and have red dot optics and compensators. You can easily find yourself spending around $4000 on one of these setups.

This competition allows for a wide range of gear and holsters that can be pretty expensive. A normal magazine carrier, holster, and belt used in other competitions, such as the International Defensive Pistol Association’s competitions will work well for the Steel Challenge production division.

Magazines

It’s important to keep in mind that the stages in the Steel Challenge have a higher round count compared to other competitions. If you’re shooting in a division that has a low capacity, such as the single stack or 1911, you’ll need additional carriers and magazines. A thirty-two-round course of fire with eight-round magazines means that you’ll need a minimum of four magazines, but that’s also assuming that no make-ups are needed, and your shots are perfect.

An average single stack shooter will carry about five or six magazines. If you’re shooting the limited division, where you’re allowed to load magazines up to capacity, then a couple of magazines will be plenty. If you carry a Glock 17 with seventeen round mags, you can shoot in the production division, only loading up to ten rounds, but you’ll need extra magazines. Another option is shooting in the limited division and loading to capacity. Shooting in the limited division means that you’ll be scored against other competitors that are shooting using fancier gear.

Taking on the Steel Challenge

Practicing the steel challenge for several weeks before the big day will be the key to a faster shooting time and a better overall performance. The biggest challenge is forming a strategy, depending on each stage and determining the shooting sequence for each one. This will take some experimentation on your part. You’ll want to time yourself with each technique you try and choose the sequence with the lowest shooting time.

Many beginners enter the competition thinking it sounds easy enough, so what’s the catch?

Well. To win, you need to be really fast. The more bullets you end up using, the more time gets racked up on your score.

While you’re allowed to shoot these targets in any order, you’ll have to take into account the stop plate, which must be hit last. Hitting this plate stops the timer, ending your run. If you didn’t manage to hit the other four targets before you hit the stop plate, you’re out of luck.

Focus on Your Performance

Beginners are not going to shoot as fast as veterans of the sport. A faster shooting time will come with experience. Instead of focusing on other shooters, challenge yourself and don’t worry about the scores the other shooters are getting.

The Average Run

The steps involved in a run are not complicated. Just keep in mind that everyone in the competition has had a first time at the shooting line. The first thing that’s going to happen is the shooter will get moved along with a group of competitors who are usually at the same level, in terms of experience. The number of shooters in a squad depends on how many people have signed up for the competition for the day. This squad will be with you the entire match as you move from stage to stage. These competitors can be a great source of information, plus, you’ll also get a look at what they’re shooting with, and you can pick up some solid tips that can help your performance.

Run Protocol

During a run, you’ll see that shooters will get called up to the line when it’s their turn, while the next person in line is announced as being on deck. The third person waiting will be “in the hole.” This line up helps prepare shooters and allows them to realize when their turn is coming up, without having to recall who shoots right before them. The competitor that’s up at the line will place their gun down on a table and when it’s announced that the line is hot, they’ll unpack their unloaded gun and five loaded mags, or they’ll unpack five loaded mags with their unloaded firearm in their holster at their side.

The competitor will be given a couple of moments to ready themselves and to take a sight picture of the course. This means they’ll be allowed to draw their firearm and take aim at every plate to get a feel of what aiming is going to be like for each of the targets. This step is an important one for every competitor since each of the stages will feature different shaped and sized targets at different distances from the competitor. When everything is ready, the range officer will ask the competitor to load and make ready, a request that instructs the shooter to load their firearm with a magazine, holster their firearm, and place their hands up into the surrender position.

Shooter Ready

The range officer will ask “shooter ready?” before the timer begins. If the shooter is ready, they’ll have a couple of seconds before the timer beeps. When the competitor hears the beep, they’ll draw their firearm and begin shooting. After every target is hit, including the stop plate, the run will be over. A magazine will be withdrawn and replaced with a new one and the process will begin all over again. After a total of five runs, the competitor’s turn is over. They will then be required to unload their firearm, prove that it’s unloaded by drawing back the slide to show the range officer the chamber is empty.

And that’s all there is to this competition. The shooter will go back into the rotation. Once everyone in their squad has had a turn, they’ll go to the next stage, which will have different configurations of targets, until they’ve completed all the stages.

How to Find A Steel Challenge Competition Near You

The official Steel Challenge Shooting Association website has a great search feature. To use, you’ll enter your address, and the search results will display all of the competitions available in your areas.

Another option is to sign up for Practiscore, a match scoring app for both Android and iOS platforms. This app allows you to search for local matches, upcoming competitions, view score results, and find local Steel Competition clubs.

Final Thoughts

Shooting in this competition can be a lot of fun for any competitor and can really help improve some of the important fundamentals of shooting, such as trigger control, grip, stance, and how to take proper sight pictures.

Steel Challenge shooting competitions are fast-paced, beginner-friendly competitions that can push your speed shooting skills to the limit. Practice, preparedness, and dedication will all be key when you’re training and when it’s time for you to take the stage. This competition allows shooters to explore different divisions, compete for classifications, and really put their shooting skills to the test.

This complete guide will help you on your path to entering the next challenge and includes all the information you need to train, prepare, and find a shooting competition in your area.

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