USPSA rules have several allowances for differently abled competitors to play our game, but on occasion a person is physically unable to comply with the design elements of a stage. That’s when the Special Penalty comes into play.
There is often confusion over how, when, and why to assess the Special Penalty covered under rule 10.2.10 and it’s subsections. The rule basically states that if a competitor is unable to fully execute any part of a course of fire, due to incapacity or injury, that he may request to be assessed a penalty instead of performing the required action. Usually, that action is something like going prone, or kneeling/stooping for a low port, or mounting a set of steps to a platform. It’s not normally an action spelled out in the WSB, but rather something physical that must be done to see and engage targets. The only course of fire that can specify going prone, kneeling, sitting, etc., is a Standards, and in that instance the alternative to going prone, etc., is usually clear and straightforward. Where it gets tricky is when a course of fire has low ports or something to climb, especially at some position that isn’t the last normal position used.
Why apply the special penalty? In order to maintain competitive equity. Rather than going prone, or climbing stairs, the competitor is asking to be allowed to shoot the targets from a more advantageous position, thereby saving time and effort. If the competitor is unable to manage the physical requirement, then it’s time to consider the special penalty spelled out in 10.2.10.
Some of these issues can be solved with course design and layout. For example, by placing a low port at what most stage plans would use as the last position, you might eliminate a number of requests to circumvent that requirement, simply because many people can get down on the ground, but have difficulty getting back up. By placing the low port last, you allow them to comply with the physical requirements of the position, and then take their time, off the clock, while getting up, even if they need help to do so. However, sometimes an individual may not be able to go low, or prone, or mount the stairs. In those cases, they can request that the Range Master apply the special penalty.
When a competitor requests that the penalty be applied, it’s up to the RM to decide whether to apply it or not, and if so, what level of penalty to apply. It’s also up to the RM to determine some way for the competitor to engage the targets in question without complying with the physical test required to do so. This may involve cutting a port in a wall, or allowing the competitor to shoot around the wall, even if it means faulting to do so, in order to allow them to engage the targets. At this point, it’s probably prudent to assess the penalty at its maximum value of 20% of the points as shot, as spelled out in 10.2.10.2, rather than the single procedural penalty allowed instead. Although not commonly done, in some cases of severe disability, the RM may choose to waive the penalty altogether. My general rule of thumb when considering this penalty is whether the incapacitation is temporary or permanent, and the extent of the incapacitation, such as being confined to a wheelchair, versus having a sprained knee from yesterday’s touch football game.
How is the penalty applied? First, the degree of advantage gained by non-compliance must be determined, and this will direct the Range Master’s decision. Time saved and target availability must be considered. If there is a significant advantage to being allowed to shoot around a wall instead of going prone, then 20% of the points as shot should be assessed. If there isn’t a significant time or sight picture savings, then one procedural penalty may do it. Either way, this is noted as a procedural penalty in Practiscore, with one procedural penalty being listed as a General Procedural, and the 20% of points shot being selected as a “Special Penalty”. The points must be calculated and manually entered. For example, on a 100 point stage, where the competitor shoots 75 points, they would be penalized a total of 15 points under the Special Penalty selection.
Lastly, let’s discuss strong and weak hand disabilities. 10.2.10.1 specifically allows a competitor who has physical use of only one hand to use the same hand (normally their strong hand) to shoot the stage without penalty, regardless of the requirement for weak hand shooting. Note that this depends solely on physical use of the hand, and not lack of strength to hold the gun–in that case the special penalty would apply. We take the competitor’s word for the physical inability to use the hand in question, as we do for any other claimed disability, but lack of strength isn’t considered. In all cases, the competitor must request the RM consider the special penalty before they shoot the stage.