USPSA: Disappearing Target Strategy

In USPSA, there are several styles of moving targets.  The most common types seen include drop turners, bobbers, swingers, and “max traps”.  Each type provides a unique target presentation, but they all perform essentially the same function:  moving targets create a timing problem that must be solved by the shooter for a given array of targets.  By controlling the presentation timing and limiting the amount of time a specific target is available to be shot, the problem may be solved in any number of ways by different shooters according to the respective skill level of each.

As we know, some moving targets are set to remain visible when they stop, and some are not.  There is a massive difference in how these two types of targets are scored:  If a moving target remains visible after it is activated and stops, misses on that target are subject to the normal extra penalty for each miss: -10 points.  However targets that are not visible after they have been activated and come to rest are scored differently.  They are not subject to the “extra” miss penalty, so misses on these targets simply give up the points available (normally up to 10 points on each target for two A’s) and do not incur the extra -10 points for each miss.  Additionally, there is no specific penalty for not engaging them:  No FTE is assessed for not shooting at them, as there is for a non-disappearing target.  This specific difference must be accounted for by the shooter when developing the best stage plan.  Specifically, due to the lack of the miss and FTE penalties being applied to disappearing targets (misses on these targets are commonly referred to as “no-penalty mikes”, or NPM) the possibility is sometimes opened to a plan that generates the highest hit factor by not shooting the disappearing targets at all.

So how do you decide whether shooting a disappearing target is the right call?

I consider this to be a relatively high level stage planning strategy, because more input is needed to make this decision correctly than is needed for more common and average stage planning decisions.  Many newer shooters are not even aware this is a decision that needs to be made, because they are not always fully aware of the difference in the scoring rules (outlined above) and/or do not properly understand the list of inputs needed to make a good decision.  Required information includes some fundamental pieces:

  • A good estimate of your total time, assuming you shoot all the targets. There are two potential sources of this information:
    • Our own ability to estimate our time, which we should always be improving and refining.
    • Scoring information from other shooters that might be posted or otherwise available. If any shooters that you are very familiar with have already shot the stage and had their scores posted (and you know their stage plan… specifically, did they shoot the disappearing targets?), you are in a favorable position to make a very good estimate of your time on the stage.  Estimating your total time is very important.
  • A good estimate of the amount of time required to engage the disappearing target. Again, you need to be very familiar with your own shooting ability here.  You need to know how long the target takes to present from the time the activator is hit, and how long any applicable splits and transitions will take.  If there is a reload saved, how much time will that be?  At this point you want to have two different complete stage times in mind:  one that includes shooting the disappearing targets, and one that does not.  The delta is the amount of time it will take you to engage the disappearing targets.
  • Estimate of how many points you are likely to score on the disappearing target(s). If the target in question is a drop turner right in your face, the chances should be pretty good that you will get two As.  If it is a fast swinger at 20 yards, the chances of scoring well are diminished.  As always, it is a judgement call that you need to make based on your own ability.

Once these estimates are finalized, it is a simple matter to compute probable hit factors, review any other issues that could possibly impact your score, and make a decision.

Application – How Does This Process Go On A Real Stage?

For purposes of illustration, I will utilize stage 7 from the 2016 South Carolina Sectional.  This was an excellent, challenging stage that incorporated a variety of shot difficulties, and included two disappearing targets, a good bit of movement, and some shooting on the move.  There were a total of 34 rounds/170 points available.  Also note that the stage diagram in this case was exceptionally accurate as compared to what was put on the ground. (continued below)


In this example, there are two disappearing targets:  T8 and T9 in the back center of the bay.  They are activated by mini popper shots taken from about 17 yards, and are relatively rare movers that I refer to as “flipper” targets:  the activator causes them to rotate up, and then down, with no pause at the top of the movement.  They “flip” over in a rapid fashion.  When I see a difficult-to-hit disappearing target such as a metric at 17 yards that is only fully available for a fraction of a second, I know that I need to consider the possibility that not shooting the target is the best option for me on the stage.

So, how do we acquire the key pieces of information we need to make a decision?  Running down the list from above for this specific stage:

  • Total Time Estimate:

Looking at the stage for the first time and considering the amount of movement and the number of shots that would have to be taken from 17 to 20 yards, I knew right away that the raw time on the stage was going to be at least 20 seconds no matter what (and likely significantly more).  I also knew that it would be easy to drop some points, given the average shot difficulty level present on the stage.  My initial assessment was that a hit factor in the upper 5’s was likely.

Since my squadding schedule had me shooting this stage as the last one of the match, I was also fortunate enough to have lots of information available from Friday and Saturday morning shooters, which helped me close in on an exact target time for the stage.  I estimated a total time of 24.5 seconds running a plan that included shooting T8 and T9.

  • Time to put shots on the disappearing target(s):

The first thing I want to see is the timing of the target presentation itself:  From the time the target is activated, how long until it is available?  A stopwatch can be helpful for this.  Once the activation-to-presentation time is known, I’m going to be able to add in other elements of the plan such as transition times, split times, and any other factors that may impact the total time, such as whether not shooting the target saves a reload.

In this specific case, estimating the timing was very easy, and did not allow for much plan variation based on level of shooter.  Each of the two disappearing targets was roughly the same in terms of overall presentation.  The time from activation to initial presentation was a little over a second: not quite enough to be able to transition and shoot another target, yet enough to start adding up quickly in the total time.  The very brief availability of the target meant the second shot would have to come quickly, whether you had a good sight picture or not.  Any delay past a 0.2 second split, and the target was effectively gone.

All things considered, I used a time delta estimate of three seconds.

  • Estimate of points that you will score on the disappearing targets:

As before, you must know your own skill level to properly evaluate this.  In this example, you have two flash targets at 17 yards each.  You have a window of about 0.2 seconds to break both shots if you want them to have the best chance of landing.  Definitely not impossible, but I judged the chances of scoring good points to be small.  My thought process in the end was that the best points to realistically hope for would be A/C on each target, with a very strong possibility of getting even less.

The Math

Once I have all my estimated numbers in place, I crunch them a couple different ways.

First, I look at the best case scenario that involves shooting the targets.  In this case I assumed I would shoot 150 points on the stage (and 20 points on the two disappearing targets), being realistic that ten Cs would be a possibility given the level of shot difficulty spread through the stage.

150 points/ 24.5 sec = 6.12 Hit factor.

Next, I compare that to an otherwise identical scenario where I do not shoot the targets at all.  Deduct three seconds and 20 points in this case:

130 points/ 21.5 sec = 6.04 Hit factor.

The first scenario is better, right?  Well, not so fast.  We ARE estimating, and for the purposes of estimation, 6.12 and 6.04 are a wash.  If our estimates are decent, we are looking at equal plans that come down to your individual execution of each.  So right here, I have enough information to know I’m probably going with the second plan, because it is simpler.  It requires four fewer shots.  Fewer shots means there is less to screw up.  So I default there at this point.

But additionally, I also run a “realistic” scenario for the first plan:  I assume A/C and A/D on the disappearing targets.  That was very possible in this case.

144 points/ 24.5 sec = 5.877 Hit factor.

My final analysis was that a perfect run shooting the targets would be the best by a very slim margin. However, based on the totality of the information, I selected the faster, simpler plan, and did not shoot the disappearing targets.  My final, actual numbers for the stage:

136 points/ 21.33 sec = 6.37 Hit factor.

My estimates were very close, and it resulted in a stage win!

Hopefully some of the concepts I used here will help take your game to the next level.  Let me know in the comments below!  I want to thank the crew at Palmetto Gun Club for another fine SC State Sectional.  Here is video of the run:

7 thoughts on “USPSA: Disappearing Target Strategy”

  1. There’s a faster way to break down if it’s worth it, that requires less math. There was about 1.5 seconds from hitting the popper until the mover disappeared. If you shot it for 10 points (which is obviously unlikely), that portion of the stage is 6.66. At 6 points per target, that’s a hit factor of 4.0 for each of those. If you expect a hit-factor about that for the stage, then you know the targets are going to pull your factor down.

    If you’re a lower level shooter, if you expect a hit factor closer to 4, it’s also likely that you’ll shoot even fewer points on those targets, making it still a good idea to skip them. Fortunately, those targets were essentially a wash for my hit factor, since I didn’t remember this concept until the drive home that night.

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