The Cornered Cat
Advice to new firearm instructors

Some advice here for people who want to become better handgun instructors. Sometimes, some people act as though getting the credential means they have already learned everything they need to know in order to do a good job for their students. Hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but that’s not necessarily the case. Being a good self defense instructor, a good handgun trainer, a good teacher of shooting skills — all of those things take more work and more exposure than a simple weekend class can possibly give you. You’ll need to commit to ongoing training.

The interesting thing is, even people who agree with this basic idea sometimes believe that they will benefit only from “instructor” classes now that they are instructors themselves. This is emphatically not true!

To continue your development as an instructor, you really need to spend many more hours in basic shooting classes than you would expect. Yup, that’s what I said: the best teachers in the defensive handgun training world have spent a lot of time learning from other good teachers in beginning classes. They aren’t shy about starting in the base level classes and working their way up, and neither should you be.

Take those classes from the best and most professional trainers you can find, and never take one just to “punch the ticket” so you can brag about where you’ve been or who you’ve met. Take them to learn! Focus your attention on all the things you don’t yet know. Dedicate yourself to finding, and then studying, the things you still need to learn.

What do you as an instructor still need to learn? And how can you find those things in basic-level classes?

First and perhaps most important, you need to continue developing your skill as a teacher. If you want to become a better instructor, model yourself after qualified others. Spend time watching master trainers as they deal with novice students. How do they set up their classes? How do they maintain order for safety? How do they explain basic ideas to new shooters? In some cases you will want to adopt or adapt a particular instructor’s method of dealing with questions. Maybe you will hear a new way to explain some foundational ideas, or be struck by the strategies the trainer uses to keep the class moving smoothly. You might focus on the ways an experienced teacher connects with the difficult student, the struggling student, the student more advanced than the class is intended to reach, the physically challenged or aging student. Focus on these important teaching skills and grab every possible opportunity to model yourself after good teachers you have seen in action.

As a shooter, you can also use very basic classes to develop your shooting skills in a more rounded way. How can this be, if you’re already past the stage the class is designed to teach? Simple! Take the class with an unfamiliar gun – with a revolver if you’re normally a semi-auto shooter, or with a semi-auto if you normally prefer revolvers. If you’re normally a right-handed shooter, buy yourself a left-handed holster and take it through a class from a good instructor, running your gun just as if you were a left hander.

Research tells that that between ten to twelve percent of Americans prefer to use their left hands for most tasks. Every left-handed shooter deserves an instructor who can teach them the ins and outs of running the gun left-handed. Do you know how to rack the slide as a lefty? What about reaching the slide stop lever, or the safety, or dropping the magazine? Can you perform an efficient revolver reload as a lefty? When you work with a lot of students, you will occasionally come across a left-handed revolver shooter. Are you completely up to speed with the most efficient gun manipulations that student will need to learn? You can use the shooting drills in basic classes to stretch your ability to coach and demonstrate for your left-handed students.

It’s even more critical that you take some classes with your non-dominant hand if you yourself are a lefty, as I am. Left handers are a minority in this world! Although you might prefer to shoot with your left hand at other times, you will need to demonstrate gun handling skills as a right hander for your right-handed students – who will, after all, make up the majority of the students in every class you teach. Running through a few basic classes as a right-hander will give you the confident gunhandling skills every trainer should be able to demonstrate on demand.

Just as our students benefit when we know how to demonstrate for both left- and right-handed shooters, they also benefit when we learn how to run many different types of guns. Many of your students will bring guns to class that are unlike the one you carry. They will bring semi-autos and revolvers. They will bring double-action guns with decocking levers, and single-action guns with manual safeties, and striker-fired guns with miniscule little grip safeties that lock up the slide if you don’t press them firmly while racking. No matter which gun type you prefer for your personal use, you will have students who prefer a different type for their own use.

This means you and your students both benefit when you learn to run different types of guns, especially when you build your skills with those guns inside the structured environment of a basic class designed to build gunhandling skills in a sequential way. So while you’re building up your mental models of how different good trainers work with their students, take one of those different gun types through the entire class with you. Learn how to use that gun as efficiently and effectively as you can use the gun type you prefer. Then do it again, with a different type of gun. Keep expanding your teaching horizons.

By taking – and continuing to take! – basic classes from excellent instructors, you will learn a variety of things you can learn in no other way. You will expand your repertoire of teaching techniques, and improve your ability to connect with your students. When you take basic skill-building classes with different types of guns or different gear, you develop a stronger sense of good techniques that apply to a broader spectrum of students in a wider range of circumstances. By shooting the drills as if you were a lefty (if right-handed) or as a righty (if left-handed), you improve your ability to work with shooters of different backgrounds.

Keep learning!

3 Responses to Advice to new firearm instructors

  1. Shandower says:

    As an instructor, I honestly think I enjoy taking basic classes best. The structured practice to someone other person’s cadence isn’t something I can do by myself.

    As you say, every class I try to take whatever my weakest gun is. And if I don’t HAVE a “weakest gun”, then I use that as an excuse to go buy a gun that’s popular, maybe, but that I don’t particularly like myself. That way, when a student has one, I am better equipped to know what they’re dealing with.

    Then one day Marty Hayes told me to go through a basic course left-handed. I’ve shot with my offhand before, of course, and I’m pretty good that way, but there’s a huge difference when it comes to drawing and manipulating the gun. Now I don’t have to buy QUITE so many guns (not sure that’s a GOOD thing), I just have to find left-handed holsters for them.

    I’ve seen new instructors (in my instructor classes) who couldn’t pass their own proficiency exam, or who completely lack (and aren’t interested in getting) any experience shooting, say, weaver. They “know” that the best gun is a Glock in and the best position is isosceles, so they don’t see the point why anyone would ever teach anything else, and they’re not shy in saying it.

    The saying about “Those that can’t…” I don’t think applies to skill teachers. Students copy whatever it is you do, and if you do it wrong, they’ll do it to.

  2. larryarnold says:

    Just got back from Memory Lane. Your article sent me on a trek remembering an old teaching partner.

    I met Bill not long after I got my NRA certification, when we got stuck on a gun club committee. After we wrapped up finding a new location for the club range we taught our first class together. Afterward I asked him if he had any advice for a new instructor.

    He said, “Always be a new instructor.”

    At the time, of course, he was setting me up to take the Hunter Education instructor class. (He was the Area Chief.) But it’s still good advice.

    If instructors aren’t learning more than their students, they’re doing it wrong.

  3. Rick says:

    Taking more firearm classes at all levels are great ways for instructors to continue to develop their skills, but there is much more to being and instructor than shooting skills. I ask prospective instructors how many books they have on shooting. Invariably I get a lot of responses with large numbers. I then ask how many books they have on teaching. ::Crickets::

    Some great training opportunities exist for instructors that are not shooting related. Join a local Toastmasters group and let them hone your presentation skills. Read Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, a classic that strongly applies to the skill set great instructors need to have.

    When we become instructors we need to focus less on being great shooters and more on the skills needed to makes others great shooters. There is a subtle, but significant, difference.

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