By: Lawyerman
31 August 2004

Most of us have guns. They are useful tools for self defense and putting food on the table.

However, having a rifle no more makes you a rifleman than driving a Monte Carlo makes you Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr.. At some point many of us who are really serious about preparedness think about taking a class in weapons handling. It can be confusing trying to decide who to train with, what kind of class to take, what gear do I need, how much will it cost? I have been lucky enough to have attended a number of first class shooting schools and courses taught by some of the best in the business. I have learned quite a bit in the process and it is my goal to share what I know about going to a shooting school in this article.

The first question to answer is what kind of a class do I need to take? That depends on you. What training have you had if any? If you have previously had training as a police officer, security guard, through hunters education, as a concealed handgun license holder, military service etc...you will have at least been exposed to the basic rules of firearms safety. If you have never had any training I would suggest a very basic course in firearms terminology and safety as a good place to start. Most good ranges or gun clubs have a program, there is a hunter’s safety instructor nearly everywhere and that is good place to start as well. The NRA also offers basic instruction through it’s network of volunteers. You can contact them for a list of local instructors.

If you are comfortable with your basic skill level and understanding of safety aspects of shooting and looking to improve your skills the next step is a true shooting school. What will you learn at shooting school? This depends greatly on the instructor and the specific class but a basic course outline includes marksmanship fundamentals like stance, sight picture and trigger compression/reset. Next on the list typically are weapons manipulation skills including malfunction clearance, presentation to target, weapons transition drills and reloads. The last material covered is usually tactics-how do you clear a building or use a particular piece of cover in the best way? This is a building block approach, first you learn to hit what you are shooting at sometimes while moving or in odd positions, then how to deal with problems with the weapon or getting it into the fight and lastly how to fight smart and beat the other guy.

Shooting schools teach through demonstration and then repetition. I have been told by various trainers that it takes approximately 2,000 repetitions of a skill to “hardwire” it into your muscle memory so that it is an automatic response. What this means is that you will not have mastered your new skills when you complete the class. The course serves to expose you to new skills and the correct way to do them or apply them. It will be up to you to continue to practice what you have learned once you leave the school or course, this is very important. Don’t get into the trap of thinking that because you have done something once that you now “know it” for life. False confidence can buy you a lot of trouble.

There are generally two types of shooting schools fixed base and mobile. The fixed base outfits usually have substantial facilities where they conduct their classes, students travel to the site for training. Mobile trainers travel from class to class and go wherever they can get enough students to make it worth their while. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of course.

Fixed base schools like Thunder Ranch, Gunsite or Blackwater offer quality ranges with a variety of simulators that are not usually available to traveling instructors. Typical of these is Thunderville at Thunder Ranch. It is literally a small town street complete with mail boxes, street lights, parking bumpers, doors and windows. Targets are remotely triggered and come into view only briefly and then disappear. This allows students to engage targets in a very realistic manner. These facilities are very expensive to maintain and keep operating, they are very conscious of their reputation for the most part and strive to have professional staff on hand with low instructor to student ratios.

The downside to these schools is the travel involved and their cost. Since the schools location is fixed you will have to get from where you are to where they are, depending on where you live that can be a real hassle and expense. Most of the schools are located in warm and sunny places, these offer the most weather factor free training environment but tend to be located out of the Midwest, Northeast or Rocky Mountain areas. This is changing though as more quality schools open around the country. Cost, a five day course at most will run over $1000, and that doesn’t include travel, hotel, meals or ammo.

There are quite a few mobile trainers these days. Many of them are well known, Mas Ayoob, Chuck Taylor, Louis Awerbuck, Gabe Suarez.....there are probably two dozen guys or more that will come to you to put on a class. Generally the instruction is pretty good. The cost is usually quite a bit less than fixed location operations as overhead is lower, a three day class runs $300-500. Travel expense, meals and lodging can be much less if the host location is close to where you live. The downside to these schools is that anyone can market themselves as a “trainer”, the facilities that are usually available and student to instructor levels will generally be higher as the trainer is often a “one man show”.

While there are many good trainers out there, there are plenty of guys who think that because they were a cop twenty years ago or they served one hitch in the Marines that they are now an Expert Trainer. Maybe, maybe not. Like most things firearms tactics and techniques have evolved significantly in the last few years and not everyone has kept up. In choosing a trainer look at their reputation. There are many websites such as The High Road (Formerly the Firingline) that have training forums on them where people who have taken courses at various places will write about their experiences, research them. What is the persons shooting background? Have they been in the military? If so did they actually have someone shoot at them or shoot at people? Makes a difference. If they come from a police background where were they working? Mayberry is different than Los Angeles. Were they a competitive shooter? These things and other information can often be found on the instructor’s website.

Where have they taught before? Starting out everyone has to make their mark somewhere. If they have worked under veteran instructors that speaks well for the most part. Many of the traveling trainers have taught, and continue to teach, at Gunsite, Thunder Ranch or other long established names in the business. Find out who they train. In classes taught by quality instructors it is not unusual to have people from the FBI, D.O.E, US and Foreign military, Diplomatic Protection units, Swat teams etc....in class. Do people who depend on their training with their lives train with them? Next, ask around. There are tens thousands of graduates of the various schools and trainers, someone will have been to the course you are wanting to attend and have an opinion on it. Is the trainer published? Read what they have wrote, does it make sense to you, what do other writers have to say about their work? Beware of glowing magazine articles, magazines exist to sell copy and advertising space, trust but verify.

Mobile trainers are often constrained by their facilities, they are at the mercy of the host in terms of what kinds of range and classroom they have to work with. These run the gamut from pretty darn good to muddy cotton fields. There are some drills that require significant range facilities, it’s tough to do ground drills or building clearing exercises on ranges designed for plinking or sighting in deer rifles. The better mobile trainers will have innovative target types and drills that make up for some of the range shortcomings. The range limitations are not quite as important in the entry level classes. As your skill level progresses though a traditional square range imposes limitations that are harder to overcome.

A huge upside to traveling courses is the breadth of the material offered. The fixed base schools have started offering more options but as yet can’t compete in terms of the sheer number and depth of courses available through the mobiles. Speciality course offerings in CQB, knife fighting, tactical medicine, legal considerations of self defense and others are not as widely offered at the fixed base schools. The fixed base schools tend to be more dogmatic about techniques and equipment. Gunsite for example is known as a 1911 school that teaches the “modern technique of the pistol”. Mobile trainers tend to be more cutting edge in their doctrine, this can be good or bad. If the latest tactic or technique is sound then it’s good. If it’s not you have learned something that you will have to unlearn and that may get you killed in the meantime.

You have decided to take a class and have even found a school or trainer. Now what class do you take? There is a huge variety of courses available these days. Courses range from CQB with knives and sticks to.50 Caliber sniper rifle employment and even aerial gunning from the skids of a helicopter! For a first class I would suggest a handgun course. It is the most practical in many ways and offers a lot of value for the money along with being a fundamental building block. With the advent of shall issue concealed carry more people are carrying handguns every day and the handgun while not as certain a fight stopper as the long gun is the firearm most people are likely to have with them all the time. Good trainers have a skill set they teach that translates from weapon system to weapon system-Tap, Rack, Attempt to Fire is the same with a 1911 as it is with an AK47. If you learn the handgun you can more easily learn the others. On the scale of difficulty I would say the usual course offerings are from easiest to hardest-shotgun, urban rifle, handgun, precision rifle. The long guns use more gross motor skills than handguns and offer better sighting systems making them easiest to master. In addition, most folks are more familiar with long guns than handguns having some hunting or military experience. Precision rifle is a whole discipline within itself and the most demanding of all in my opinion, much less of the skill sets from the other weapons systems transfer.

You are signed up for a handgun course. What do you do now? Are you physically ready for the course? This is not as trivial as it seems. You will be outdoors usually from early morning to 4 or 5 o’clock every day with a break for lunch and a few short rest breaks. Often it is hot and there will be no shade on the range, much of the time you will be on your feet. Most of the courses will involve movement- creating distance, move to cover, go from seated to standing etc....The exercises are designed to stress you and test your abilities. More than one person has been evacuated by helicopter off a range for health reasons. Nobody wants to be that guy or gal.

Look over the course gear list carefully but don’t believe it entirely. The gear lists I have seen from most schools tend to run short. I break gear down into two categories for shooting courses, shooting gear and comfort gear. Shooting gear speaks for itself. Comfort gear are things that I have found make the experience a whole lot more comfortable and as a result learning much easier-which is the whole point of going to a course.

Shooting gear starts with your weapon. Simple rules here, make darn sure it is going to work. Many folks show up with a new weapon, and have problems with it, this detracts from your learning and annoys both the instructor and the other students. Make sure it works before you show up. On new guns shoot a minimum of 200 rounds before class so you know it will work and are familiar with it. In my opinion, simple weapons are better. I have seen plenty of guns cluttered with accessories choke because the techno widgets malfed. One is none and two is one. Take at least two weapons with you. I have seen innumerable quality guns, Colts, Smith Wessons, Kimbers, Glocks, Berettas all go down at courses. You do not have time to mess with a finicky gun, time is money-yours and everyone elses. Get your spare and get back on line and learning. You can try to fix it at lunch or a break, don’t waste everyone else’s time. Always take extra ammo, you can bring it all home but it can be hard to get on short notice on the range. I have shot 1,500 rounds at a school where the course said 1000 rounds were needed.

A word on ammunition. Don’t go cheap. It is very tempting to use reloads or buy El Cheapo ammo because you are spending a chunk of money to go to school, maybe you bought a new gun etc....Bad idea. Bad ammo is the number one cause of gun malfunctions in my opinion, followed by crummy mags and lack of maintenance/cleaning. While malfunction drills are a part of most courses they are distracting when you are trying to learn new skills. Drills move fast, there is a lot of material to cover, much of it new and a limited amount of time to learn the skills and techniques. The money you have spent so far is wasted if you can’t concentrate and learn-penny wise pound foolish.

Along with shooting gear are your gun accessories. You will need a good holster and magazine carriers. Crossdraw holsters or shoulder rigs are usually not allowed. The instructors who will be behind you critiquing your form prefer not to be muzzled as you draw. If the class is for a long gun it MUST have a sling. In a long gun class the sling is the holster. During demonstrations or explanations you will have to “sling up” to keep muzzle discipline in the group. A good belt is a must. It will hold your holster or magazine pouches where you need them. A “dump” pouch can be useful, it will allow you to carry empty mags and ammo and reload them while on the line. Ear protection, while expensive there are some real benefits to electronic ear muffs, they allow you to hear range commands and discussion clearly. You will need some kind of a “hook” to hang them on from time to time, I use a carabiner snapped through a belt loop.

If your gun uses magazines and the course material says bring at least three.....bring as many good mags as you own. You will typically load magazines during discussion or demonstration periods or at breaks, you will need enough to last you through to the next one. Eye protection is mandatory, I like clear Gargoyle glasses. A Leatherman tool or similar is great for quick fixes to guns and gear, a knife can be useful too. You should have cleaning gear available, you will want to clean your weapon after every day’s session. Knee and Elbow pads are a good idea, again many classes will have you up and down and these really help. You will need some kind of gear bag to carry all your stuff in and keep it organized.

Comfort gear/clothes. Bring plenty of water. A Camelback or other hydration system is a great idea but a canteen or water bottle is fine too. I take a medium sized cooler with sport drinks and my sandwiches and other snacks in it. I bring cookies and chips, nuts, sandwiches and energy bars to munch on. Bring moist towlettes. Before you eat wipe your hands and face down good, eating lead dust is bad for you! A towel or bandanna is a good bit of gear with many uses. Wear a wide brimmed hat to shade you from the sun, sunscreen is very important as well. Bug spray on some ranges is a necessity. A mini first aid kit is a great addition, aspirin and bandages are used often. A folding chair isn’t the worst idea, especially at lunch time. A pen and small notebook will let you take notes during lecture. Some courses will require a flashlight, this means a tactical light and not a Maglite for the most part.

I prefer lightweight, long sleeved, button up shirts. They keep your sweat close to your body and if there is any wind keep you cooler. They also lessen the chance you will take a piece of hot brass somewhere you don’t want it to go and provide some padding to your elbows if you end up on the ground. Boots or hiking shoes that offer good support will make the experience a lot better-you will be moving and on your feet all day. A light jacket is a good thing to have in your bag, you will shoot regardless of the weather and you need to be ready for changes. In pants I like BDU’s, comfy, durable, and lots of pockets to stuff ammo and mags in. Your belt is an important part of your gear, leather or synthetic are fine but they need to be able to support your holster or magazine holders. Wide and stiff are the rules for gunbelts, dress belts don’t cut it. A pair of light gloves is a good idea, you will find all kinds of sharp edges on your gun and gear you never knew were there due to the repetitions involved.

One of the best things you can take to a shooting school is a buddy. In class most drills are done in teams. It is always better to do these with someone you know and trust. It helps to have an extra set of eyes and ears to make sure that you are doing the exercises correctly.

Having a buddy along allows you to defray some of the cost as well. You can share the hotel and travel expenses. Remember that the schools teach through repetition? When you get back home you will have someone to drill with and to push you to practice your new skills.

The last thing to consider as part of your course is your attitude. It never ceases to amaze me the guys who show up, having paid their money to learn, who want to show off what they know or how good they are. A lot of people who are “gun people” are Type A personalities. They will argue with the instructors about how to do things and won’t do the drills the way they are asked to instead using their Malaysian-Israeli-Bushido technique. I have seen a few people asked to leave courses by the instructors. Stay away from these people, if they were really “all that” someone would be paying them to teach instead of the other way around. Unless the instructor asks you to do something that you feel you are unable to do and that would be dangerous do what they ask. Try it. You may decide after the course and especially after you have taken a couple more that some of the things you have learned are not the best techniques. Fine. But a mind is like a parachute, it functions best when open. Learn what you can-even the worst instructor can serve as a bad example if nothing else! Add to your toolbox and use what works for you.

See ya at the Range!

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