Bowling Pin Shooting

Updated 4/12/2005

Why bowling pins?
The first pin shoot recognized as such was conducted by Richard Davis who demonstrated the effectiveness of his companies bullet proof vests by shooting himself with a large caliber handgun while wearing his vest then using the gun to shoot 5 bowling pins off a table. As you can guess this demonstration for his Second Chance bullet proof vests has proven very effective. Why has shooting bowling pins taken off to the extent it has? Because it's fun! Bowling pins are a dynamic target, if you hit them off center they tend to fall down instead of going off the table. Once they're lying down they'll usually spin when hit on the ends instead of going off the table. These factors make the simple statement of "clear the table of 5 pins" more challenging than it sounds.

Basic Rules
Competitors stand at a rail 25 feet from the front edge of the pin table. The start position is with the gun or hand touching the start rail. Long guns must have the barrel touching the start rail. The gun, hand, and arm must be in an approximate 45% angle with the ground. The safety may be off or the hammer cocked as the range officer allows.

In the matchs I've shot in the tables have been 4' x 8' with the pins evenly spaced and set set 12" from the front edge of the table. In the 22 LR classes pins are set on the back edge of the table so the just need to be knocked over to clear the table.

Tables were typically made from partical board or plywood and layed across saw horses roughly 3.5 feet high. The boards were replaced after being shot until holes developed in them that would catch a pin. Metal tables can be used but are more expensive and generally require a more permanent location.

The pins can be shot in any order. The competitor continues until the last pin is cleared from the table. If necessary the shooter may reload or if using a revolver may go to a backup revolver and continue firing. A maximum time of 15 seconds is allowed per run at most matches.

Scoring can be done several different ways. I've been in matchs where everyone made 5 runs, discarded the slowest time and averaged the rest to determine a winner. I've also shot in matchs where it was double elimination "man on man", that is 2 shooters would start at the same time, whoever cleared their table first won. In those cases time didn't matter, only that you were faster than the other person in any particular run. Personally I find those matchs more fun than just shooting against the clock.

There are several different classes in pin shooting. Open where any modified handgun is allowed, Stock where essentially unmodified guns are used, Revolver, 22 caliber, Shotgun and Rifle. Any caliber handgun can be used, however pins are heavy and take a good shove to clear the table. In this you want a load that has significant momentum, not high energy.

Guns n Loads
In bowling pin shooting it's all about making your shots count and momentum. If you can't clear a table in 6-8 shots having another 8 in your magazine isn't going to help you win the match. Those who do best tend to use lightly customized 45 semi-autos or large caliber revolvers with less than full power magnum loads. Take your standard 125 gr 357 magnum load. It has around 582 foot pounds of energy (fpe) and 25 pounds/foot of momentum, while your standard 230 gr hardball 45 ACP has 369 fpe, 27 momentum. The 45 will tend to do slightly better than the 357 magnum at clearing tables and will be far easier to control in rapid shooting as well. Compare this to a standard 115gr 9mm load at 1150 fps, 337 fpe and only 18 momentum. Looking at the relative energy of the 9mm vs the 45 ACP you'd think they would perform about the same but that's not the case. On a perfect hit the 9mm will take a pin off the table but anything else and it will only knock it over leaving you to shoot it at least one more time to clear that pin. The 45 gives you more momentum and a slightly larger bullet giving you more margin for error for those less than perfect shots.

My personal favorite load consists of a 45 caliber 255gr LSWC moving at 875 feet/second. This load generates 433 fpe and 31 momentum and does extremely well at removing pins from the table in one hit. I use this load in my 1911 and a simlar load in my 45 Colt revolver. I've seen people use anything from small 380's to 44 magnum Desert Eagles in local matches. While the monster magnums do clear pins when they hit the shot to shot time is so low they don't do well against the clock. It's all about the skill of the competitor, not the gear. You can hand your tricked out $4,000 customized pin gun to most of the people at local matches and they won't do significantly better, if at all, than they do with a stock guy. Why? Because to do well you have to not miss and if you can't hit with a stock gun you aren't likely to with a custom one either. If it takes you more than 6 or 7 shots, to clear a table chances are your time has gotten so high you have little chance to win. You're much better off shooting a little slower and taking 5 shots than blazing away and having to reload.

How fast is fast?
So you have a frame of reference for how quickly your times are compared to shooters in the International Pin Shooting Association (IPSA) (Note: Since writing this article the IPSA seems to have closed and no longer has anything on their website) matches here are some of the statistics from recent top pin matches in the open handgun class. These scores are the cumulative 5 fastest runs out of 6 measured in seconds.
Average times (fastest/slowest times):

  • A Class: 18.9 (15.2/20.7)
  • B Class: 23.9 (20.2/27.4)
  • C Class: 47.5 (27.5/75)

Average time/table for each class is 3.78, 4.78, 9.5.

Where do you find these matchs? Check with your local range, many indoor and outdoor pistol ranges will hold weekly matchs that you can enter for a small fee. If none of your ranges currently do this maybe you can get them to start. Bowling pins can usually be obtained from bowling lanes (where else?) for free or a minimal ammount. The lanes get rid of less than perfect pins, but a dented or slightly cracked pin makes a great target for pin shooting.

John Knutson
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