Finding the right shooting instructor
September 22, 2017
\I often hear stories about this or that instructor. They range from awesome to keep it positive to not awesome. This column started with the idea that I regale you with a few of these stories concerning my fellow man (and, in some cases, woman). Then it occurred to me, why not discuss what to look for when it's time to spend hard-earned money on firearm training?
The Résumé I will jump right on this hand grenade: Having a good résumé does matter. What matters less is what is on that résumé when it comes to life experiences. If you want a shooting instructor, find an individual that has what it takes to teach you to shoot. Having many notches cut into their pistol grips does not make them better shooting instructors. And if you haven't got it yet, it is as simple as this: One doesn't have to have shot terrorists in the face to be a worthwhile instructor. I have met several effective shooting instructors who have no experience in combat. (Some of these folks tell the best war stories, which is a credibility problem. These types of individuals have the belief that colorful war stories make them a better man. This is simply not true.) Does combat experience count for something? Sure. But it isn't a prerequisite in the shooting instructor world.
However, I do recommend researching a prospective instructor's résumé well enough to know if what they say about their career is true or an embellishment. If an instructor has an issue with telling the truth, you should question their overall character — or lack thereof.
Good instructors don't have to shoot, right? Many times I've heard, "You don't have to be a good shooter to teach shooting." This might be true in beginner and basic course circles. It is not true when it concerns advanced shooting. If you want an instructor who can tell you how to do it but can't demonstrate, you'll get nothing out of that class. Stepping onto the range with a person who can't (or won't) step up and demonstrate what they're asking students to do should lose all credibility. There's no problem letting students shoot awhile without a demo, but at some point, you must be able to step up and show exactly what you are trying to teach. The instructor doesn't need to be the best in the class, but they should be competent enough to actually show you what their intentions are, safely.
Carry a gun. "I took a class and the instructor didn't even carry a gun." Holy moly! How could this be? If you are a shooting instructor, or if you are a student researching for a shooting instructor, it would be a good idea to find one that actually carries a gun. I never thought that I would have to say this since it should be implied. For some, the train fell off the tracks along the way. I am not saying one can't reach out to a student and borrow a firearm to demonstrate, but an instructor should have their own.
Students should be taught to use the tools at hand. Long ago in a land far, far away (East Tennessee, that is), I took a shooting class from a well-known instructor. I couldn't wait to hear the volumes of knowledge that would be bestowed upon my class of mere mortals. This class was to teach the finer points of the use of the combat carbine. Right out of the gate, this instructor belittled every person in the crowd carrying an AR.
"The only reliable battle rifle on the planet is the FN-FAL!" he said. "Nothing else will do."
I couldn't believe my ears! Could this little man be so dense that he hadn't realized the modularity and shootability of the AR-type battle rifles? There was one lad in the class with a bolt-action .308; he was told that he was the only man who had made the right choice. So, here we have a group that consisted of three parts. One part was military shooting issued M4s. The second group was a law enforcement contingent that also had no dog in the fight when it concerned their issued ARs. Lastly were the citizens in the class who had spent their own hard-earned money on an AR carbine. So, of the 20-person class, only one individual had two brain cells rubbing together to select the finest of all combat bolt-action battle rifles — circa 1917.
If you are a shooting instructor, you should teach your students to use what they have to the best of their ability. If you have some high-speed, whiz-bang setup to show, then great. Ultimately, students need to leave the class with the ability to perform better with the tools they are issued or have purchased. As a good shooting instructor, you should try to instill confidence in your students and not chastise them for choosing or being issued the wrong tool(s) . In the end, it was maddening to tell students that the most prolific battle rifle — with its unique modularity and great ergonomics — was bad.
This instructor lost credibility at that point and would lose more when he only fired one round over three days. Not surprisingly, he didn't even have a rifle in his possession, which almost drove me to drink. With that said, I absolutely did learn from this instructor; no matter the class, there is always information to be gleaned.
Tricky Trickster Can you shoot a stock pistol and carbine well? I am absolutely guilty of being the Tricky Trickster sometimes. I have modified my guns to have better triggers, better accuracy, grip modifications and sometimes prototype sighting systems. I would say that I have an excuse, but I don't. I want to shoot the best I can, so I modify my firearms to make that possible. In my defense, I allow shooters to shoot the toys I carry to the range so they can experiment with these modifications before going out and spending their money. When I shoot with military and law enforcement classes, I try to shoot something similar to what they are carrying, which goes a long way in establishing credibility.
Innovation sucks. The opposite of the Tricky Trickster coin is also bad. Limiting your students and chastising them for making any modifications to their firearms is also a limiting factor for innovation and improvement. Some instructors have even belittled the use of optics on the combat carbine, for example. It is 2017! As I write this, I think back to how far optics and firearms have come in the last 10 years. An open-minded application of technology in the firearms world has brought us great innovations that were unheard of in the 1990s. It is important to see what is available, test it, evaluate it and then decide if it is worth further discussion. Many shooters that arrive at my VTAC classes are way ahead of me when it comes to cutting-edge equipment. It is great to see what is available and how it works for or against the shooter during the class. This also allows other students to analyze and decide if there is validity in this particular innovation and the direction they choose after the class.
How many rounds did you shoot? A real letdown to some is the number of rounds fired during a training course. Normally, those who shoot a lot are not disappointed, while those who barely warm the barrels can be a little bummed. Volume of fire is not the measure of a great class. The amount of good training and learning that aids you in becoming a better shooter is how you should measure a class.
If you have a shooting instructor that says you don't have to shoot a lot to be a good shooter, well, I would try to keep a straight face as I turned around and walked away. To get better at anything you must have repetition. Once again, this doesn't mean we should be wasting training funds on ammunition that is simply sent into the berm without purpose, guidance or analytical critique. If you shoot a lot, you should also go through a huge amount of targets and tape, ensuring that you get the necessary feedback from the logistics of producing once-fired brass.
I have heard from many students that the targets were not analyzed after shooting, or only one target was used for the entire day's training. Paper targets are cheap, and steel targets are expendable. Look for an instructor who has ample paper that is replaced frequently. I would also look for the use of targets that have scoring rings. If you are just firing at an E-type silhouette all day, good luck with figuring out how well you are doing. Steel targets are great training tools when used correctly. Steel can lead to sloppy shooting, so try to find an instructor that mixes it up with steel for increased training iterations and paper for increased accountability and measuring of standards.
Get ready for the ride. I have never taken a class where the instructor shot at the students or had students shoot at other students with live ammunition. When I say shoot at, what I mean is shooting targets with human beings within close proximity to the target. I'm not sure where these instructors came up with this buffoonery, but that is what it is. Having a student shoot at a target with another untested student standing beside it is unsafe and has no practical application to teaching someone to shoot or to be shot at, period. As a former high-level counterterrorism commando trained by the best in the business, I have never trained in this manner. If U.S. Army Special Operations Forces are not doing it, how can this apply to civilian or law enforcement training?
Ride the lightning. One great story I heard was about an instructor who used a stun gun to electrocute students as they shot from, in and around cover and concealment. If you enjoy this, then I say, "Ride the lightning!" I, for one, am not going to sign up for a class that uses this training technique. But, if you enjoy it and find some sort of sadistic fun in it, go get some.
Let's point loaded guns at students. Seriously? How can this even be a point of discussion? This statement directly violates one of the four most basic safety rules, and it should never be condoned by any instructor or student.
Physical Fitness Most shooting classes require at least a limited amount of physical fitness. At the very least, you will be standing up all day and wearing your equipment, which will suck if you aren't in shape. To add to this, some courses are extremely dependent on students being able to participate in all of the drills, physical or not. When I train individuals to use the 9-Hole Barricade, it is a physical workout. Be physically prepared, and the class will be fun.
"So this guy walks into a bar ... " If you are easily offended by dirty jokes and cussing, it would be best if you researched what technique your instructor plans to use so you can make the right decision. Most instructors nowadays can be found quickly on the internet. Or just call and ask around the training community! If you really want to shoot with an instructor and he or she has a potty mouth, you'll just have to deal with it or find a different instructor. This is going to go down in one of two ways: You might learn a few new cuss words or you will be distracted and offended, which diminishes the results you could get from the training. I am not easily offended, but that doesn't give me free reign to bash students.
Find the instructor that fits your needs. There are a ton of great men and women who have hung out the instructor shingle lately, and a bunch of them are not so great. I would note, however, that even if you wind up taking a class taught by a sketchy instructor, you are bound to learn something — even if it's how not to do it.