Training: We Can Do Better

There are a lot of people “teaching firearms” in America, including your humble scribe. This instruction runs the gamut, in terms of just about everything.  Firearms instruction covers pistols, shotguns, carbines, rifles, and just about any other projectile launcher you can imagine.  What is being taught, as it pertains to firearms, also covers just about every aspect of them, from how to build and maintain them, to carrying them for defense, to legal offensive use, shooting clay pigeons, and all manner of other skills.  If my Google Fu was better, I could probably find a school on how to build and employ a trebuchet for home defense.


It is being taught by people who were (or are) police officers, soldiers, Marines, and sailors.  By people who never served in any capacity.  Men are teaching, women are teaching, gay/lesbian/transgender and questioning folks are teaching.  Competitive shooters are teaching, as are those who will never compete.  Tall, short, fat, thin, young, old, Republicans and Democrats, instructors come in all shapes, colors, sizes and affiliations are out there teaching firearms.

With the best estimates running to over 300 million privately owned firearms in the country, the fact that there are so many people out there trying to teach others to safely handle and use firearms is a good thing.  For those who are concerned and involved with such things, it is important to ensure solid firearms knowledge is advanced and propagated. 

For those of us “in the industry”, it is critical that we not only instruct others in the safe, appropriate and effective use of firearms.  We must do this to the best of our ability, teaching efficiently and effectively those who seek out our instruction.  We must strive to constantly improve, both our content and our instructional craft.

From my own admittedly non-scientific observations and conversations with others, the vast majority of people have similar experiences surrounding firearms instruction.  Certainly, there are exceptions, both in terms of those who carry firearms professionally and those who have not, but in general, it seems that we all tend to fall into a few buckets surrounding firearms instruction.

The large majority of gun owners, even those who carry them for self-defense, have absolutely no formal firearms training.  None.  Zero.  Zip.  The early experiences of most folks seem to start with a family member or friend taking them out to a field, quarry, or other range of some kind, running through some firearms safety rules and presenting the day’s instruction.  From there, they are off to the races.

Some folks attend concealed carry classes, either because it is mandated or voluntarily.  Those classes, usually with a curriculum lifted from the National Rifle Association or mandated by the issuing state, usually center on the applicable laws (insofar as they can be addressed in the short time available) and, occasionally, a demonstration by the student of basic skills with a firearm.  Rare are the examples where these classes able to present actual shooting instruction.

Should a person wisely desire to avail themselves of addition training, there is an industry full of instructors standing by to assist.  It is difficult to go far in this country without finding some level of professional firearms instruction.  In general, these classes break out into three types. 

There are usually one- or two-day long classes to be found at local ranges.  These classes are generally the aforementioned concealed carry course, as well as a smattering of day long instruction on a few topics, such as introductory classes (including some designed specifically for women), competition “how to” classes, and perhaps a “tactical” class of some kind.

Then there are the classes in which a range or a group brings a “big name” shooting instructor to town.  Lasting from a couple days to a week, these are classes delivered by people who have a degree of fame in the shooting community and some established bona fides as a practitioner.  These classes usually involve a higher level of professional instruction as well as a higher round count.  Students usually get to shoot a lot in these courses, with intensive, focused instruction from the instructor.  Tuition climbs here, plus the cost of the required ammunition, so that taking these classes asks the student to make a more significant investment in both time and treasure.

Finally, there are the shooting schools.  These are fixed points on the map where professional instructors have established a school that does nothing but provide classes by a cadre of full-time instructors.  Courses at such schools are typically a week long and are not usually within commuting distance for most folks.  As a result, prices for this kind of training rise.  Not only associated travel costs, but tuition, housing, and increased ammunition requirements drive the price for this kind of training up even more.

Certainly, there are variations on these basic themes, but this is a decent description of the vast majority of instructional experiences in America.  This works, as far as it goes, and has for years, so it has become the norm.  I would suggest that we can do better. 

Educational research provides us with a great deal of information that we, as firearms instructors, should make more use of than we do.  We can use this information to improve our methodologies.  And we should. 

When it comes to instruction having a positive impact on student out-comes, the literature is clear that long-term, continuous instruction and practice is far more effective than “burst” training.  We as instructors want the information we present to be useable in the moment and for that to happen, it must be retained, perhaps for years until it is needed.

Lecture retention rates, especially for adult learners, are terrible.  Hovering generally around 10%, the idea of using lecture to improve firearms skills is close to ridiculous.  Happily, the majority of firearms instruction currently available is experiential, in the “practice by doing” realm.  Here we see some real dividends, with retention rates running about 75%.  Coupled with the fact that we are talking about physical skills that are better taught by doing than by discussion and you see that our current methods are not BAD, per se.  However, they can be better.

Pick just about any other sport or physical activity and you see that they are taught through coaching.  Martial arts, tennis, golf, yachting, baseball, hockey, you name it.  By coaching, I mean that the students are presented with instruction and structured practice, under the mentorship of a skilled coach, on a regular basis for extended periods of time.  As in weeks, months, and years.  Students pay a monthly fee and attend regular practices.  Often, these regular practice sessions are occasionally augmented by a visit from some big-name practitioner or instructor in a seminar format, the lessons from whom are then incorporated into the continuing coaching long afterwards.  Competition with other practitioners is also a regular part of such a program.

If we are really, as a profession, interested in creating and fostering student excellence, we need to alter the current paradigm and move in this direction.  Of course, student excellence is not our only concern.  Most of us are also trying to make a living and the overhead involved in creating something like I describe can be daunting.  It is easier (and more fun) to move around as an itinerant instructor, dispensing firearms knowledge on the move, or enjoying the benefits of economies of scale when creating a nationally known shooting school. 

Creating a local shooting school, offering regularly scheduled classes and practice sessions, week after week, is not glamourous.  It would be a difficult path, one that would be hard to build and maintain in the long run.  It would not be likely to make one wealthy.  But it would do wonders for student learning and improvement.

And after all, isn’t that the point?