Since the breakout of the Floyd Wars and Chinese Virus in 2020, a lot of Americans who had never touched a gun in their lives quickly became firearms owners almost overnight. This had a direct effect on the training market – citizens wanted to learn how to use their new tools effectively and they sought instruction. A lot of dudes stepped in or stepped up to meet the demand but, as with all things in life, a big enough sample size will bring a ton of bullshit along with the good. For every instructor pushing good TTPs, there’s an asshat peddling snake oil to less-than-knowledgeable shooters.
So, as somebody who wants to invest more into their knowledge instead of their hardware, where’s the best place to start?
There’s a huge amount of consideration that goes into pursuing education on your own – especially when it comes to firearms training. There’s a time commitment, as most open enrollment classes are at least 1-2 days in length; a travel commitment, especially if the class venue is not in your immediate area; and finally, a financial commitment, as ammunition, food, transport and lodging all add up. For the most part, these logistical factors can be planned around and prepared for.
The first part of this series will help to answer the question that must be addressed before any other planning even begins to happen: who do you even train with in the first place?
What Do You Want To Learn?
The first step in picking an instructor is to determine what subject matter you want to learn. There are tons of instructors out there – some good, and some VERY shitty – teaching everything from basic handgun to urban E&E, and all points in between.
Most importantly: you gotta be realistic about your expectations. If you’ve had little to no formal instruction, you really shouldn’t be concerned with coursework in Practical Night Vision Employment or Precision Rifle – you would be better served by a 1-day Fundamental Handgun to get a feel for where your skills are, and to see how you should progress when it comes to future training. On the other hand, if you can pass the 700-Point Agg or are scoring well at your local USPSA matches, it’s safe to say that you can dial back a bit on the weapons marksmanship/manipulation piece and start looking for courses that don’t necessarily involve shooting. These will help support and give meaning to your solid fundamentals: medical, vehicles, CQB, or intermediate distance shooting are great places to continue your education.
Also consider that while all skills are perishable, some degrade faster than others. I take as many handgun courses as my time and money will allow, but try to only take “basic” rifle courses once every twelve months as long guns are easier (for me) to pick up on after some time cold. “Ballistic Masturbation” is a term I was introduced to early in my shooting days, and one that is still very relevant – it refers to dudes who pull the trigger a shitload but don’t really get anything meaningful out of it. If you can clean the Redback One Operator Readiness standards and you’re absolutely skating through your third Carbine 1 of the year, guess what? All you’re doing is jackin’ it, except now every stroke is costing .45 cents to a dollar, depending on what caliber you shoot.
Who Do You Want To Learn It From?
Once you’ve figured out the curriculum you want, it’s time to narrow the search for an instructor. As mentioned previously – there are a ton of instructors on the market with varying levels of experience and relevance. Usually, you can separate them into one of three categories: Military, Law Enforcement and Competitive/Civilian. In some cases, an instructor will have experience in two or all three of these fields – and will be able to parse what material works for each lane, and what doesn’t. The specifics of what you want to learn will influence which background you’d be seeking in instructors, as each field brings its own unique experiences and TTPs.
As an example, consider the different aspects of pistol shooting: You might learn laser-focused accuracy on B8 bullseyes at 25 yards from a former GS dude, concealed carry and retention/ground fighting techniques from an LEO guy, or how to go really, really fast without letting the wheels fall off from the Carry Optics Master at your local range. All of these are essential knowledge for anybody that owns or carries pistol, so shop around, take classes, and pull what you need from each different instructor that you train under.
Furthermore: be absolutely sure the instructor you end up choosing has relevant experience within their background as well – for example, it’s better to take handgun curriculum from a former SMU guy than from the next “just ETS’d!” 11B/0311 who decides to start his own shooting school after getting out of the military. The former definitely has hundreds of thousands of pistol reps and high-level performance training tied directly to their resumè; depending on what unit they came from, the latter may or may not have that same level of experience.
Experienced and vetted civilian shooting instructors are gaining traction across the US; that being said, like the “McDojo” craze of the 1980’s martial arts world, an extra layer of caution is needed when parsing through these instructors. In the absence of professional experience or certifications, look for things like competition rankings and proof of continuing education through vetted schools; all good instructors should be putting this information on display, regardless of background. All good instructors will also be happy to point you in the right direction of other trainers they recommend; this kind of referral is super valuable.
How Much Are You Willing to Pay?
And now for the topic that is probably troubling many of you: course tuition. Paying out several hundred dollars for a training session is the factor that steers most people away from attending, but there are certain elements you can game out to ensure that your training cost stays within your budget. In most cases, the course tuition will be influenced by three factors that affect instructors:
1.) Length of the class. Most open enrollment classes are 1-2 days in length; some schools will offer a mix of these to cater to a wider variety of student availability. Obviously, shorter classes will cost less than longer ones. Remember – besides the instructor’s knowledge, you are paying for their time. Even just eight hours with a stellar instructor will have a great return-on-investment.
2.) Geographic range of instructor – are they local or traveling? Instructors that teach at different venues away from their “home” facility will have to recoup their own transport/lodging/range fees, and the prices will reflect that. In most cases, classes taught by local instructors at area facilities will be among the cheapest, but be careful – it’s easy to find bullshit salesmen at this level. Choose wisely; if the cost is too good to be true, it probably is. My first training class ever was $90 and it was an absolute shitshow, but there are some gems floating around there in the $75-$150 range.
3.) Pedigree of the instructor. Depending on where their professional experience took them, some instructors might feel it appropriate to charge more or less for tuition. Definitely keep the instructor’s background in mind if cost is a concern to you. A lot of these instructors have paid their dues, attending thousands of hours of specialized schools or earning their curriculum on the street or in combat; in most cases, the increased cost is worth it for the knowledge they bring to the table. Be wary, however, of instructors who use the prestige of their former workplaces as marketing tools – more often than not the juice isn’t worth the squeeze, and many of them offer more of “train with a SOF guy!” experience than any meaningful skill development. The loudest, most publicized ones are typically the worst offenders, while so-called “quiet professionals” are usually just that.
Carefully analyzing these factors will allow you to pick and choose the right timing and instructor for both your training goals and your budget.
Once you’ve locked down what you want to learn and who you want to teach it to you, hit that registration button and make it happen; the (mentally) hardest part is out of the way! In the next installment in this series, I’ll cover the steps I take for preparation in the timeframe leading up to a class – hope you can join us!