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Polymer or Steel, Hammer or Striker; the debate over the best gun for Production division has existed almost as long as the division itself; At the start, the polymer, striker-fired guns were seen as the most effective, their lightness was felt to be better for transitions. Over time the heavier steel-framed guns have taken precedence thanks in the most part to the success of Eric Grauffel who shoots a Tanfoglio. As a few more top competitors switched to this or the CZ line of handguns the perception has grown that if you want to succeed then the Tanfoglio/CZ is the only viable choice. This view led to some changes to the proposed Production Optics division as the USPSA Board of Directors voted in a maximum weight limit for the provisional period, as a way to give the lighter guns a place to be competitive.

Which begs the question, what determines the winner ? Is it the Man or the Machine he uses?
The question was put to the test at the 2015 CZ-USA Production Nationals; Spread out over twenty challenging stages, the top competitors in one of the most popular divisions battled it out for 2040 points at the PASA Park range in Barry, Illinois. With temperatures topping out at 90 degrees and the high humidity at this time of year, the match was going to be a test of stamina as well as ability, and thanks to a deep field of talent the determination of our National Champion came down to the equivalent of a ‘C’ zone hit.

The match organizers had created an unusual relay system for squadding giving the competitors the choice of shooting in three half-days or one full-day and one half-day session. The top women were spread over three relays and four separate squads, while the top men were spread over three squads that were all shooting at the same time. With the top competitors spread out over four days and three relays and the use of paper scoring it was impossible to calculate who was leading at any given point. It was only at the end that the closeness of the contest became apparent.

Thanks to a combination of Minor scoring and magazines that are limited to ten rounds, shooting in Production becomes an exercise in accuracy, missing a single shot could force a standing reload and too many ‘C’ zone hits will easily overwhelm even the fastest stage run; And perish the thought of hitting the ‘D’ zone as that’s four points that will never see the light of day again. Calculating the most efficient method of attacking a stage within these restrictions is what attracts so many to this division, and makes it one of the most difficult to master.

There are two certainties in life, death and taxes, with regard to PASA Park we can add a third, the ‘standards’ stage which this year consisted of three turning targets, the outer two with diagonal hardcover. There were three strings, the first at 30 yards required two shots on each target, a reload and a further two shots per target. The remaining two strings were at 15 yards, each requiring two shots per target, one run strong-hand and the other weak-hand, all strings had an eight second time limit. A total of 120 points were available and Elias Frangoulis shooting the polymer-framed XDM 5.25 dropped a single ‘C’ to take a stage win, sixteen points behind was Bob Vogel shooting a Glock who tied with Ljubisa Momcilovic from Serbia who was shooting his CZ. It was clear that the striker-fired guns can hold their own in the accuracy department. Ljubisa was joined by a solid cadre of CZ competitors including Robin Sebo who just missed out on the podium at the last IPSC World Championships. Momcilovic would finish the match in sixth place, ahead of Leatham and Max Michel.

Nationals rookie Candice Juliano earned a seventh place finish on this stage, just four points behind IPSC Production Champion Maria Gushchina from Russia who was shooting her CZ. Juliano suffered from the same inconsistencies that afflicts many competitors at their first Nationals, though she was able to take a 12th place finish on Stage 1 and finished just a single point behind Julie Golob who was competing with her trusty M&P.

There was a mixed bag of small, medium and large stages to challenge the competitors, nine of these stages had 16 or fewer rounds and there were four stages that were over thirty, with a plethora of partial targets along with such a variety of stages, any mistakes were going to be tough to come back from. Finding the right strategy for every stage could save fractions of a second, and with a field as strong as this one those fractions could make the difference between victory or defeat.
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One of the most challenging of these was Stage 9, a thirty-two round field course made up of six enclosures, four at the front of the berm and two behind and a neat picket fence at either side. The two rear enclosures each contained a static and disappearing target which were activated by poppers in the center of the berm. It was the disappearing target on the left enclosure that caused a lot of discussion as it could be the final target. Time could be saved by skipping that left enclosure completely as the static target and another to the left of the enclosure could be engaged from the front of the berm, the downside was that the targets were further away and one of them was partially obscured by a no-shoot. Many competitors spent a lot of time walking this stage to figure out their game plan.

This stage was the first one for Randi Rogers, shooting the Smith & Wesson M&P, Randi chose to skip the final drop-turner but had to swing back at the end to pick up a popper that she had missed and this negated the advantage she was hoping for. The newest member of CZ-USA, Alex Larche chose to visit all the enclosures and pulled in a solid run, and his two top ten finishes on other stages ensured that Larche dominated the Junior category, beating his nearest rival Seth Clagg by over 150 points. Another member of CZ-USA, Sara Taylor won this stage for the ladies with a different plan as she ran to the right of the stage then left, the opposite of many competitors. Sara Taylor and Glock’s Michelle Viscusi suffered from the one design flaw in this otherwise excellent stage, the ports at the front enclosures were a little on the high side and as the targets within were at ground level, the shorter competitors had to come to a complete stop at these ports and stand on tip-toes to engage them.

There were no issues for Maria Gushchina who continued her domination of the women’s category, despite some uncharacteristic misses throughout the match, she was able to finish 28th overall and pulled in two top-ten stage runs in the process. Maria finished over eighty points ahead of Randi Rogers who took the title of National Champion from Sara Taylor by a similar margin, Nancy Huspek was third. Tori Nonaka’s bid for the title fell at the chronograph stage where her rounds failed to make the 125 power factor.
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The two Men’s Super Squads shot just five stages on their first morning and all five were won by different competitors, with a competition this close consistency becomes of paramount importance, one slip could end the chance of victory. And everyone slips up eventually, in one case, literally.

For the first couple of squads the damp grass on Stage 9 made for some slippery conditions as JJ Racaza found to his cost, charging forward he tried to come to a stop to engage the two partially obscured poppers on the right of the stage when his feet slipped out from underneath, falling hard backwards he was able to keep his gun within the 90 degrees closely watched by CRO, Dave Bold. There was another small slip and a standing reload before JJ finished his run, those issues cost him nearly twenty match points and was certainly not the start he was hoping for.

Racaza’s squad was followed by another group of contenders including Shane Coley and Max Michel. Coley, now shooting for Team Glock, took the win on Stage 9 just ahead of Max who was shooting his new Sig-Sauer P320 for only the second time at a major competition. No single type of gun dominated at Nationals, with an even split between stages wins by competitors shooting steel-framed guns versus the lighter striker-fired models.

Reigning National Champion, Ben Stoeger shooting with a Tanfoglio suffered from a rare miss and a slower time on Stage 10 that cost him over twenty-five points compared to stage winner, Nils Jonasson who was competing with a Glock, later Robin Sebo took a win on Stage 11 with his CZ.

Stage 12 went to BJ Norris with a Beretta that displayed some impressive muzzle-flashes even in the bright Illinois sunshine. Norris would win three stages throughout the match, one less than Max Michel who won more stages than anyone. Max had a solid morning, excluding Stage 12 where a couple of misses threw him way down the leader board, more consistency would be needed that afternoon if Max was to stay in the race.
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After a break for lunch Max delivered the goods on Stage 1, a blistering fast stage that started with an unloaded gun on a shelf and the competitor seated on a chair, seven targets (three of them partially obscured by no-shoots) were arrayed to the right, left and down the middle.

Max cleaned that stage faster than you just read the preceding paragraph. Shane Coley was just over a point behind, as only three people managed this stage in under eight seconds, Sebo was the other. Ben Stoeger was over a second slower but still snagged a top ten finish here.
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Nils Jonasson held a twenty-six point lead over Ben Stoeger as the first day of their match concluded, Bob Vogel was twenty-nine points back in third. The match was far from over, and storm clouds were forming.

Sunday morning and the final seven stages for the top competitors; And it rained, a lot. This caused a match delay due to lightning but once that had passed and the rain had reduced to a moderate downpour, it was time to start shooting. Stoeger, Racaza, Hopkins and Mink were all shooting the small stages (14-16) which had minimal movement, but some partial shots that were made all the trickier thanks to the bagged targets, meanwhile the other Super Squad was tackling the 150 point field course on Stage 20.

And Stage 20 was where the drama was at; That twenty-six point lead that Nils had built up over the first day evaporated with a run that was five seconds off the pace and cost him forty-three match points. No-one on that rainy Stage 20 had a good run except for Bob Vogel who snagged a sixth place finish here. By the time Ben Stoeger had completed those three small stages he was ahead of Nils, and Vogel was closing in too.

It was turning into a battle of the Glocks; While Vogel and Jonasson headed to the three quick stages (14-16), Stoeger and Alex Gutt were taking on the standards stage. Neither did well here and this allowed Jonasson to take the lead back, but Vogel narrowed that lead to just nine points. With the top shooters on different squads they had no way of knowing who was in front, its only after the event that this analysis is possible.
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With just three stages left, Vogel took the lead from Jonasson but then Stoeger took it right back after a solid run on Stage 18 and held it through the next stage but by less than nine points. It was all coming down to the last stage, for Stoeger it was Stage 20 and for Vogel and Jonasson it was all down to Stage 19. Nils won his stage but it was not enough to catch Vogel. Alex Gutt (Tanfoglio) finished strong with a win on Stage 20 but Stoeger had done enough to score the victory in one of the closest Nationals ever.

1.6462 points, less than the value of a ‘C’ zone hit, that’s the difference between a Champion and second place in USPSA’s Production Division. Glock’s, CZ’s, Sig-Sauer P320’s, Springfield Armory’s 5.25 and Tanfoglio’s were used by the top ten finishers. Only Max Michel, Shane Coley, Nils Jonasson and BJ Norris won more than one stage and of these, only Norris was shooting a steel-framed gun, the Beretta. The weight and the material of the gun is clearly not a deciding factor, no-one can buy a Championship with a gun.

Ben Stoeger did not win a single stage, but then he didn’t have to. The match was a battle of consistency and Stoeger was the most consistent competitor, almost flawlessly executed plans are needed to earn a Nationals Championship and Stoeger has accomplished this five times in a row.

To the extent that the gun has to be a good fit for the owner, reliable and accurate, the choice of handgun is not the path to becoming a National Champion, the results of this match prove that beyond any doubt. Tanfoglio did not win this championship, Stoeger did. It is not the hardware, it is the hours of practice, the drive to succeed, the confidence to shoot to your pace and not to be affected by the performances of others; Stoeger has been able to do this five times in succession, to take that title away it will be necessary to beat the Man, and not the Machine.