If you are preparing to defend your life and the lives of those you care about with a gun, being armed with one is only half of the battle. The other half is knowing how to use it. Practicing with your gun is important, but only training will confer the skills needed to successfully endure and prevail during an attack or major social unrest.
To get those skills you need to take a class from an instructor who knows what they are talking about. While there are plenty of instructors all over who know a little bit about guns, took a 2-day instructor seminar and hung up their sign, if you want serious skills for surviving life and death confrontations behind a gun, the pool of people truly qualified to teach you a holistic skillset is very small in comparison.
In this article, I’ll be giving you some advice on choosing the right teacher, what you should look for as well as warning signs that will show you who to avoid.
What Are We Training For?
Let’s get serious: much of the “training” and practice we engage in does not prepare us for the demands and stresses of a gunfight.
Punching paper bulls out week in and week out on a well lit square range is certainly great marksmanship practice, and good marksmanship is vital if we are to survive a fight, but it is a far cry from learning the skills that we most certainly will need to sharpen if we are to prevail.
In fact, I would venture to say the majority of shooters, and this includes a great many cops as well as plenty members of the armed services outside of combat arms units are not drilling the skills they need to fight well.
I make the distinction between fighting and shooting because most of the shooting we do is only a small piece of the puzzle needed to fight well.
Think about it, on a flat range, our lighting conditions, distance to target, timetable and signal to start shooting are all known and/or shooter-decided.
The target does not move, shoot back, or even think. It simply stands there soaking up shots all day until we decide the shooting is done and we go home.
Our mental state is either calm or mildly excited (unless you are a real nervous shooter!). Malfunctions, misses and mishaps have no consequences, no real ones anyway.
Compare that to a fight where we need to shoot to live: the start time, duration and conditions will all be of the attackers choosing or out of your control. The first signal that you are in a fight may be you taking a wound or having a gun jammed in your ribs.
The target wants you dead or submitted, and will set about getting this however they think is best, to include beating you, shooting you, or running you through with a blade. The fight will likely be pretty intimate, at bad-breath distance or a little farther.
You can shoot a bad guy all you want, but unless you hit small vital areas of high importance, the fight is likely not over until he says it is over.
To say your stress levels will be through the roof compared to a sunny day at the range is a terrible understatement. Everything will be very different, from your mindset to your draw.
You may have a hard time thinking or focusing, and your slick four point traditional draw may be impossible to execute safely when a bad guy is in your bubble with a fistful of your shirt and gun in your chest. Speaking of that, you do have a plan for dealing with a contact distance gunfight, right?
This is only the adversarial portion of the problem: we must also likely contend with a public space full of people we don’t want to shoot, including our loved ones, each of them moving and potentially reacting to the problem at the same time you are.
This gravely complicates the issue of delivering fire and accounting for each of those rounds. Be honest: when was the last time you even stopped to consider your background out in public if you had to draw and shoot right now?
Essentially, all of your fundamental skills, from drawing and shooting accurately to reloading quickly and even clearing malfunctions, no matter how proficient you are, is only the ground floor basics when it comes to fighting with a gun.
Mastering all of those component competencies does nothing but prepare you to learn to fight. You will not even have touched on footwork, situational awareness, recognizing pre-attack indicators and a host of other fight-essential skills.
So knowing that, what should we do? In a case such as this, it would be best to find a teacher who will teach to fight, and has based their entire curriculum on that, not punching paper according to a curriculum that they are reading out of a manual.
Not All Firearms Instructors are Teachers
Why do I make this distinction? Simply put, there are way, way too many trainers out here who are instructors! An instructor is simply someone who is paid to read you the instructions out of the manual. They may know the content, they may be passionate, but they lack the experience and personal education to really ground their knowledge.
Teaching, real teaching, is always collaborative between the teacher and the student, and we all know plenty of experts in their craft who could not honestly teach someone to come in out of the rain; teaching, relaying knowledge in a useable way, is a skill unto itself.
Firearms training is a hot, cool and sexy trade right now, and it has been since the middle of the 2000’s. So many enthusiastic gun owners and shooters decide they have what it takes to pass on this skillset to others and they go out, pop $300 for an NRA instructor course, then hang out their sign and start enrolling students.
Nothing wrong with that, on its face, since that NRA cert will only “certify” an instructor to teach NRA basic skills classes. They might even be good at it.
The problem is that too many of these instructors are not content to just do that, and help ease the transition of the newly baptized gun owner from greener-than-green beginner to proper novice.
Oh no. They start drifting out of their lane; teaching advanced skills, even things like “CQB” courses or other combatives related material.
This is especially egregious when their background has nothing in it to justify it, nothing at all. No military experience, no police work, no competitive shooting, not even personal or professional skill development courses.
This is not to say that you cannot get a skilled and worthy instructor of firearms who has not done any of those things. I know plenty who fit that description and are excellent teachers. But they stay within the confines of their experience. They do not pretend to be anything they are not, and their curriculum reflects that.
Consider that the best teachers, the real ones, are themselves eternal students. You will not find a professional high level firearms trainer who is not signed up for nearly a dozen classes themselves a year.
This is to ensure they are constantly learning, growing, expanding and testing what they think they know against the wisdom and experience of others, be they equals or not. This means that the info you will be receiving from them will be free of any dogma, bias and antiquation.
Face it, after a couple of decades at war, we have gotten really, really good at shooting people as a nation, and the sum of that wisdom, with time, has been distilled down into an extremely detailed, nuanced and refined body of work.
No one instructor has all the answers, but if you are able to train with the best, you will notice plenty of similarity when it comes to certain topics. This is for a reason, and it isn’t because they are reading the same passage out of the same tired old training manuals, either.
For a teacher to be worth the money, they must be knowledgeable in the subject matter at hand, experienced in its real-world application and a capable of conveying it effectively so that you may practice it and put it to use.
In the next sections, I’ll give you a list of skills and knowledge you should be seeking out to get trained up and also a battery of questions and prerequisites that you should require from a teacher before you commit to train with them.
Skills to Pay the Bills
Your fundamental firearms skills- accuracy, drawing, reloading, etc.- are called so for a reason and you should always be striving to maintain them. That being said, if you want to learn to fight, you have to train accordingly!
As with any improvement plan, you should be following a crawl-walk-run progression. If you have never engaged in any training or practice outside of working fundamentals in a very static, linear way, you should first seek to add movement and other variables into the mix.
Once you are comfortable and safe doing everything that you used to do static on the move, it’s time to make things even harder; discrimination and target discernment must become the order of the day, with an emphasis on doing it 100% correctly within compressed time frames.
An actual attack will unfold faster than you are imagining, and you still have no room for error when it comes to identifying the threat and articulating as much in the aftermath.
Lastly, it will be time to put it all together. You must advance to F.o.F., or force on force training. This will pit you, armed with a simulator gun firing marking projectiles, against a similarly or dissimilarly armed opponent, a role player.
Your instructor will set up the scenario to be purpose-driven and as realistic as possible, simulating a variety of everyday encounters leading to violence that you will have to successfully navigate. Other permutations may include sparring in the form of tussling over a gun or other weapon holstered or in hand already to simulate the very real threat of takeaways.
Other scenarios might be event-in-progress scenarios with multiple unknown role players and you are tasked with either moving through the situation to escape, rescue a VIP (a family member, for most of us, not a dignitary) or neutralize an active threat.
FoF training can run the gamut from standoff guns-only scenarios to anything goes near-full contact clashes. All of them have significant value over static square range training because the visceral threat posed by a thinking human opponent is jarring and stressful. Just like it will be on the street!
A short overview of fight-specific skills you must be seeking out, in ascending order of complexity. Think long and hard about taking a specific class if you have not mastered the prerequisite skills, and if you are ever in doubt, consult the trainer and tell them about your ability level so they may guide you.
It is no shame to wait on taking training you are not ready for, but biting off more than you can chew will slow the class down and adversely affect what you are able to take away from it.
Training of this type is easily added in to your usual routine, and is intended to engage the “shoot/no-shoot” part of your brain. If you are always training to fire the gun once it has reached full extension on a target, you are probably wrong.
You must be practicing to see, analyze and then decide a course of action for every potential threat. Basic training of this type will involve locating and shooting certain shapes, colors or numbers.
More advance variations will use photo realistic targets holding a variety of objects that may or may not be threats. This can be taken further by introducing physical stress and time constraints as well as distance.
All fights involve movement, and many will see you and an attacker moving all over the place. Standing still and shooting when you need to might be the right move, but it won’t be the right move every time!
You must train and practice movement to take advantage of cover opportunities, to get off a line of attack and to make yourself harder to hit in return.
You may also need to move to gain a safe angle with which to return fire in the case of intervening friendlies blocking your line of fire. You also need to be training on moving targets since your attacker will most certainly be moving during the encounter and if he isn’t and the start he sure will be when you start shooting back!
This is where it all gets assembled. It is imperative that you work your incorporated, holistic skill set against a thinking, working adversary. Without this crucial trial and verification, everything is just so much theory, FoF training will also reveal some things about the way you are wired that you just cannot discover any other way.
Do you keep your wits under grave stress, or does everything seem to happen by itself? Is your physical fitness level adequate or a major liability? Do certain glitches or errors manifest in your techniques when you are moving at 200% speed? FoF training is where you will find out.
Selecting the Right Instructor
Even among good instructors, they all bring a little something extra to the table in their own way, or excel in one particular field or another. So even if you have assembled an all-star list of talent that you want to learn from, picking one can be tough!
To make things a little easier, it helps to start with a clearly defined goal, your training objective, and then some smart questions to ask any prospective trainer.
A few words of warning: no instructor worth their salt, not one, will ever take offense to you asking respectful, pertinent details about their professional background as a trainer along with any questions about their prior professional experience.
Beware any instructor who cloaks their answers with hokum like, “That was classified,” or “I can’t tell you that,” and other such tripe.
Answers like that serve one of two purposes: either to over-inflate the resume of the person uttering it, or to conceal a lack of said experience behind a veil of counterfeit secrecy. Both are lies, and immediate disqualifiers.
Also beware any instructor, as mentioned previously, who is teaching a “high-speed, high-risk” class like CQB tactics and the like whose resume is totally filled out by non-police and non-military positions.
Similarly, any trainer with military experience not directly in personal combat arms (infantry, special forces, etc.) should be treated with a little skepticism: a fighter pilot or tanker may be a great shot and a great teacher, but professionally they were not spending much time kicking in doors or getting into gun fights on the street.
Some other questions you should ask:
“How long have you been teaching?” A short time spent teaching privately is not an immediate disqualifier. Time spent as an instructor for a police agency or military unit is valuable and an important part of some instructors’ development.
“How long have you been teaching [subject]?” This requires more discretion. A teacher who is new to teaching a certain subject may not have all the bugs worked out of the curriculum yet, or may be “newly minted” on certification.
“What qualifications do you have for teaching this material?” Listen closely here. A list of certifications from schools and other groups is fine, but what you really want to hear is experience doing it for real.
Consider a trainer who has plenty of real-world application and formal schooling to back it up to be near the top of your list. Again, any trainer who gets short or fussy about it may not be worth the trouble; there are plenty of egos in this field, but they should not assume that you know who they are or why they are qualified.
“What was the last class you attended? What was it for?” This will tell you much about the trainer, probably. The best teachers are perpetual students as we discussed, and you should hopefully get an answer that includes hard skills like shooting skill development as well as courses centered on teaching, instructional technology, and the like.
“What would you say your worst subject is as a trainer?” You are looking for humility here. Any trainer, no matter how seasoned, decorated or experienced has something they aren’t good at, and will tell you if they are honest.
Some trainers are highly specialized, while others are generalists, but any that claims to have no weaknesses as a teacher is most likely boasting without cause.
“What class do you think I need?” Based on a instructor’s assessment of your experience and previous training, they should be able to articulate if they think this class is a good fit for you or not, and if not which one they offer is.
If they don’t offer a class that they think is a fit for you, they should be able to articulate why and make a recommendation based on that. You are listening for intelligent questions directed at you. Any instructor who brushes off a potential
“Do you have any references I could look into?” Any good instructor will have at least a small pile of them if they have been teaching for any length of time, and should be more than happy to furnish them.
Reluctance to do so (if they have been teaching a while) is a warning sign. No matter what, do your due diligence and search them on firearms forums and in magazines using things like “[instructor’s name] class review” or “[instructor’s name] class AAR,” AAR being a common abbreviation for “after action report”; lingo for a review of how a class went and the student’s impressions.
These are invaluable for helping you zero in on the right type of class for your needs.
Being ready for a fight conducted with a gun in your hand is not the same as practicing and training to just be a good bullseye shooter. A gunfight is still a fight, with all that entails and if you are not training to handle yourself accordingly you are planning to fail.
For these reasons, you must seek out appropriate training and sort the capable instructors from those who are not quite qualified to teach you on such a serious topic.
Use the info in this article to plan your own training regimen and then use the tips presented to find the best instructor for your requirements.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.