In the civilian self-defense world, there are two basic paths to becoming a firearms instructor. 1 Both paths have something to recommend them, and both have some pitfalls or shortcomings to watch out for. The two traditional routes to becoming a defensive firearms instructor for regular people are:
- Certification, and
I chose the second route—or rather, it chose me. When I decided to become a defensive firearms instructor, I found the path long but relatively clear. That’s because I’m among the small minority of people who live near a world-class instructional facility (the Firearms Academy of Seattle) and because I was blessed enough to find a mentor there who was willing to take me on.
Apprenticeship is the traditional way new instructors are created within the ranks of the “tactical” side of the shooting community. When you talk to instructors at any of the big-name firearms schools, you’ll find they came up through similar formal or informal programs that allowed them to work with experienced mentors within the training community. At most schools, people who want to become instructors first complete that school’s curriculum to show they are good students, and then begin working as assistant instructors where qualified lead instructors can help them become good teachers. The best of these programs require the apprentice to learn from instructors who work outside the school as well as from those within it, and many have ongoing, advanced training programs intended solely for staff assistants and instructors.
For example, at FAS, instructor candidates must first complete the school’s own curriculum, which totals roughly 80 hours of class time. They also pass the FAS Handgun Master test, which measures shooting ability on a wide variety of skillsets that include accuracy, draw and shooting speed, moving targets, multiple targets, moving and shooting, reloading speed, one-handed skills, and shooting skills in low light environments. FAS requires its instructors to attend other schools, getting a total of 200 hours of professional firearms training by the end of the program. The heart of the program is working as an assistant for other, more experienced instructors, which allows candidates to safely and efficiently get a huge amount of first-hand experience in working with students under the watchful eyes of experienced others.
Apprenticeship provides a proven method of safely creating new instructors. It allows advanced students to gradually become new teachers, moving along at a comfortable pace within their own interests. It lets new instructors develop their strengths and shore up their weaknesses without short-changing any students during the learning process. It allows new instructors to learn from experienced people, and gives those experienced people an opportunity to pass along range management skills and tiny little instructional tricks of the trade that you’ll rarely find written down anywhere, even if you know to look for them. It also—and not incidentally—gives master instructors a steady supply of willing assistants, which lets them run larger classes with a greater degree of safety and oversight. When it’s done right, an apprenticeship program creates strong, well-trained, well-rounded new instructors.
Despite these advantages, apprenticeship does have a few drawbacks. The most serious potential weakness is that, unless the head instructor encourages or even requires his apprentices to take courses from other instructors outside of the school, apprenticeship training tends to create instructors who are very adamant that their own school or franchise has the “best” material—without actually knowing what other schools are teaching or understanding why they’re teaching it. It is not enough to talk about what another school teaches. Unless the apprentice has actually taken a course, his information is only secondhand knowledge at best. A head instructor who says, “You don’t need to take a class from so and so, his stuff is all such and such,” is actually doing his apprentices a disservice.
Apprenticeship is not a path open to everyone. For one thing, few people live close enough to a world-class facility to make it possible for them to pursue it. And for another, most potential firearms instructors don’t consider it a career—it’s just a fun job that might sometimes provide a little extra income on the weekends. It’s not how they feed their families or support themselves. That being the case, this relatively large commitment of time and energy proves too much for many prospective instructors, even those lucky few who do have access to a master instructor who offers it.
Finally, right now there’s a huge influx of new blood coming into the defensive handgun world. That’s wonderful! But it means there’s a strong demand for more instructors, while the previous generation of mentors can only take on so many new protégés. This quickly-growing industry requires a more available source of new instructors.
A lot of people become firearms instructors by taking a class. Yup, just one class. Two days! That’s all it takes to become an instructor by the certification route. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, as long as those who go that route fully understand the limitations of their training—what it has done for them, and what it cannot do for them. Let me explain.
In my training notebook, I have several fancy pieces of paper with my name on them. Each certificate shows that I attended a single weekend class. Most come from courses that are literally impossible to flunk. Several say that I’m now an instructor. The strictest ones required me to pass both a tough written test and a high-skills shooting test, but even these simply show that I spent a few days with an instructor and passed a test on that instructor’s material. Although I highly value these certificates—especially the ones that came from excellent master instructors at good schools—not one of them proves, by itself, that I’m qualified to develop my own program as an instructor in my own right.
So why do I value these certificates? I value them because they are valuable. Each one shows that I dedicated 16 to 24 hours of my life to learning something about defensive firearms use. To put this in perspective, it takes roughly 128 credit-hours to get a bachelor’s degree at most colleges. It seems reasonable to expect that a defensive firearms instructor has attained at least the equivalent of a college degree in defensive firearms use. Like individual college classes, each firearms training class has a small value in itself, and a much greater value when added alongside others. Like college classes, the value of each class truly depends on the quality of the instructor and the credibility of the schools they come from.
The strength of the certification method for creating new instructors should seem obvious: it’s fast, it’s relatively inexpensive, and it lets a new instructor get to work right away. It’s also very concrete: one day you are not an instructor, and the next day you are. It provides a very accessible way to get new instructors up and running within a short period of time. When another instructor or organization provides the material you’ll be teaching, it also provides a good framework for passing your existing skills along to others. These are all good things.
The weaknesses of the certification process should seem equally obvious. One brief class cannot possibly give you enough information or experience to become a good instructor on your own. A short weekend (or even a long one) cannot and does not give you the tools you need to develop your own material from sources you yourself understand thoroughly. This is true no matter who offers that piece of paper, and no matter which school or franchise backs it up, or how many years they’ve been doing it. Within such a limited time and constrained format, one class simply cannot provide enough breadth and depth to make those things happen.
If you already shoot competently and have spent a lot of time on well-run ranges under the watchful eye of experienced others, one short class can get you to the point where you can repeat the key points in a program someone else has developed for you to use. But it cannot give you the type of full, well-rounded background you need in order to develop and teach your own curriculum. It won’t even give you the solid groundwork it takes to safely tweak someone else’s material.
One certificate is certainly enough to get you moving down a good road! It’s truly a great place to start. Just as a single college class sets a student on the road to reaching a bachelor’s degree, a single firearms training class can set a shooter on the road to becoming a fully-qualified firearms instructor.
When you are ready to go further and do more, you’ll need more breadth and depth than a single class can give you. As you get ready to develop your own programs, and if you take your responsibilities to your students seriously (as all good instructors do), you’ll soon realize that you owe your students a lot more than you can give them if you stop here.
The do-it-yourself road
If I wanted to become truly qualified to teach other people how to defend their lives with a firearm, and could not do an apprenticeship with an experienced professional trainer who was willing to be my mentor, here’s the path I would take.
- Get the NRA Basic Pistol certification, followed by the NRA RSO and Basic Pistol Instructor certifications. Start teaching classes within the NRA program, working with a team of other instructors whenever possible. Teach these classes without any alteration or addition, staying strictly within the approved format.
- Regularly volunteer for events such as National Take Your Daughter To The Range Day and other outreaches to new shooters. Make sure the people you’re working alongside know that you’re new to RSO work, and ask them to help you improve your coaching skills. (If you don’t ask, they may not realize that you are there to learn, and might be shy about letting you know how you can improve.)
- Assist with safety in classes taught by qualified professional instructors at every opportunity. Don’t skip the classroom portions of such classes, either. Sit in the back and take notes about the instructor’s teaching style and techniques. Ask the lead instructor to help you learn more about teaching. When you work behind the line, pay attention to your students, and also pay attention to what the other coaches are doing and saying. Be the fly on the wall at every possible opportunity.
- Take at least 40 hours of additional training from a professional firearms training facility, such as Gunsite, Thunder Ranch, Rangemaster, Firearms Academy of Seattle, DTI, Active Response Training, or others.There’s almost certainly such a school in your corner of the country, though you may need to drive a few hours to get there. If there is not, you may be able to get a well-qualified traveling instructor to visit your area so you can get your training that way.
Why a minimum of 40 hours? It’s the equivalent of one weeklong class, or three weekend classes, which means this number of class hours is reachable for most people within one year of setting the goal. It’s about the same number of firearm training hours as most law enforcement personnel will receive during their academy days. More importantly, there seems to be a breakover effect that happens for most shooters around that time. Before that number of hours are reached, students often have to re-learn the basics—including basic safety—if they stop shooting for a while. But after that number, you might lose your edge if you put the gun away for months at a time, but you almost certainly will never forget how to handle it safely.
- In addition to that 40 hours of professional training, take at least a MAG-20 class from Massad Ayoob. That’s Ayoob’s core legal material, and it is information that every firearms instructor should know very well. If you can swing it, take MAG-40, which includes his core legal material plus shooting instruction. Every firearms instructor should have a very solid handle on the legal requirements for using deadly force in self-defense, and should be able to provide their students with solid, reality-based advice about handling the aftermath of a defensive shooting.
- Join the Armed Citizens’ Legal Defense Network and watch all of their educational videos that address important legal concepts surrounding the use of deadly force in self-defense. The videos that come with your membership provide excellent value, far more than the cost of joining the organization even without any other benefits. Joining the ACLDN also gives you a 10% discount to attend many different training schools. All of these factors make the ACLDN an excellent investment for defensive firearms trainers.
- Join a local Toastmasters club and learn how to give an engaging speech. A firearms trainer gives at least a dozen two- to five-minute speeches every range day, and sometimes more. Those speeches should be clear, confident, and entertaining enough to hold the students’ interest. They should be memorable. They must be brief. The best way to get there: work at it! Learn how to organize a short speech, then practice in front of a friendly audience until you can do it well. (Quick note for those who believe they’re already skilled at this part: read here.)
- Shoot regularly. Set strong goals for your shooting ability, and work until you can pass those goals. Then work until you can pass those same goals every single time you try, whether you’ve warmed up or not. Shoot alone and with other people. Shoot with people who are better than you. Shoot with people who look up to you. Shoot competitions. Shoot under pressure. Shoot when there is no pressure. Shoot!
Shoot standardized courses of fire such as the LFI Standards, the US Air Marshal qualifications, the Farnam Drill, the Hackathorn Standards, or others. Pick up a copy of IALEFI’s Tactical Firearms Handbook, which offers proven standards from many different law enforcement agencies. Practice until you can pass your chosen qualifier cold (without warming up) and on demand (no do-overs). Then move on to master the next one.
- Read—a lot! In addition to learning about firearms, shooting techniques, and holsters, you’ll need to learn a little bit about crime, criminal psychology, defensive living, legal concerns, human physiology under stress, motor skills development, and a whole host of other things. You’ll find most of what you need to know in books, which means you’ll need to read a lot. Some of what you need to learn can be found on videos, but there’s far, far more information that can only be found in books.
- Add 128 hours of additional training as you go along.Attend at least two, two-day classes every year for your own development—and more if you are able. Look for a strong mix of instructional styles that supplement your own natural leanings. Avoid simply reinforcing things you already know, and actively seek out ways to stretch your ideas about self-defense and firearms uses. Take beginner-level classes from as many different sources as you can, because that’s where good trainers explain their teaching philosophy and their ideas about the most critical fundamentals. Take advanced and instructor level courses to push your own shooting skills to the limit.
To get a good idea of which trainers you’d like to learn from, I can strongly recommend attending the Polite Society Match and Tactical Conference at Rangemaster in Memphis, which brings together dozens of professional trainers from across the country in an affordable format where you can sample their work.
Goal: attain at least the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in defensive firearms, reaching at least 128 hours of training before you begin teaching your own material on your own authority.
- Keep learning. Every opportunity you have to watch another instructor at work—take it. Every chance you have to improve your shooting—improve it. Every time you can add something worthwhile to your skillset—do it.
You will notice that my list above looks a lot like a do-it-yourself apprenticeship program. That’s because it is. The strengths of learning from others, of multiple repeated experiences helping in other people’s classes and watching master instructors at work, of building a solid set of skills on a strong foundation, of learning your craft from multiple sources—these provide a solid, true core for creating your own programs.
Please also notice that the do-it-yourself route is a journey, not a destination. You can begin by teaching basic classes that have been written by other instructors. I recommend teaching NRA classes to begin with, because they are widely available and because they are designed to be led by people who do not yet have any other training or outside experience. As you fill in your own resume with wider experiences and more advanced training, you will gradually become qualified to first tweak the material you’ve been working with, and then finally to build your own coursework. This will not happen overnight, but it will happen as long as you keep moving that direction. 2
Unfortunately, there are a lot of instructors out there who stop at what I’ve listed as Step One above (or at a similar place with another brand of certificate, or within a franchise, or at a similar place with law enforcement or military experience). I say unfortunately, because while getting that first, awesome certificate that says you’re an instructor is a great place to start, it should never be the stopping place for those who want to teach their own material. People who develop their own classes, or tweak material provided by someone else, truly need to go out and get more background than a single class can provide. They need a wider understanding that comes from working with more than one school, more than one instructor, and more than one set of ideas about how to do defensive firearm training.
If you want to teach others how to protect themselves, take your own training seriously and never skimp on it. When you become a defensive firearms instructor, you’re literally asking students to bet their lives on the quality of your material and on your ability to help them learn that material. You owe it to them to learn as much as you reasonably can, and to keep learning to be sure your knowledge is always up to date.
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- Note the words “civilian” and “self-defense” here. Many firearms instructors start with either military or law enforcement experience, and build that experience into a teaching business with non-military, non-LEO students. Others start as competitive shooters, and parlay their wins into opportunities to teach. However, when they enter the civilian self-defense world, many of these people also follow either the apprenticeship or certification models to some degree. This article addresses people who do not have (and do not intend to get) a background in either military or law enforcement work. ↩
- Never tweak anything, from anyone’s program, unless and until you can list at least three other ways to do the same thing, and give strong arguments for and against each method of doing them. If you can’t do that, you don’t yet have the robust understanding you’d need in order to avoid removing components that may be critical to something else within the same program. A well-built instructional program tends to be an organic whole, not just a collection of little pieces that can be moved around without consequence. Until you have a wide enough background to easily see everything that’s affected and how it’s affected, it’s risky to move any pieces around or remove them. This is why organizations that offer classes taught by people who haven’t developed their own curriculum usually forbid their instructors from tweaking the program at all. ↩