The Cornered Cat
"Owning a musical instrument does not make one a musician. Owning a firearm does not make one a fighter. Get training!" Image courtesy Oleg Volk, Used by permission.

Looking for a firearms instructor whose teaching matches your learning style might not be quite as difficult as finding a life mate, but it’s probably a little harder than just finding a date for Saturday night.

One reason for this is that firearms instructors don’t exactly advertise. You’ll rarely find an instructor directly through print or radio ads (though you might find one through the pages of a firearms magazine). The yellow pages are worth a try, and so is a Google search. But for the most part, firearms instructors rely upon word of mouth to reach potential students.

What Type of Class Do You Need?

The first step, before doing anything else, is to define the type of class you want to find. There are a wide variety of classes aimed at specific types of students. There are classes for law enforcement, classes for beginners, classes for target shooters and competitors, and many more. There are big classes and small ones, co-ed classes and women-only classes, classes taught entirely in the classroom and classes taught only on the range.

Sorting out this muddle of possibilities is going to take a little effort, but it can be done once you know a little about class types.

Familiarization Class. A familiarization class is a basic, entry-level class which is designed simply to get people familiar with firearms terminology, the simple mechanics of how firearms work, and the safety rules. This type of class is usually very inexpensive and occasionally even free. It will often be taught by a part-time instructor or volunteer, and usually will be very short, often only a few hours. Some of these classes are spent entirely in the classroom rather than on the range, but if shooting is included, it won’t be a whole lot of shooting — maybe 50 rounds or so of ammunition. Equipment requirements for this type of class are minimal or non-existent, and instructors often supply everything needed, sometimes including firearms.

State-mandated Concealed Carry Class. Not every state which issues permits requires classes. In those that do, the important thing to remember is that the primary purpose of these classes is NOT to teach the student how to protect herself. The primary purpose of this type of class is to assure the state that people who obtain carry permits have been exposed to the state laws governing concealed carry and are minimally capable of using firearms safely. That’s it. Having said that, it’s important to add that there are a lot of really good CCW instructors out there, and a state-required class from an excellent, motivated instructor can indeed teach you some of what you need to know in order to defend yourself. But if that happens, it’s a happy bonus. You should never count on it happening because it’s not what the required class is designed to do. I hate getting political here, but one reason I’m wary of state-required classes is because going to such a class often gives people the impression they’ve now been “trained” and have learned as much as they need to know about self-defense. Most often, that is simply not true. Although both familiarization classes and state-mandated concealed carry classes can be a good first step, neither type is sufficient, by itself, to teach people the skills most likely to be needed in self-defense. These baby steps are necessary, but in my opinion they are really not enough for someone who is serious about learning the skills to protect herself.

Sport class. Often associated with IDPA or IPSC. May be advertised as a way to “improve your scores.” These usually have super-high round counts, often 1000 rounds per day or more. These types of classes consist mostly or entirely range work, with little or no lecture. If lecture is a part of the class, lectures will focus on shooting techniques and games strategy, and won?t include discussion of defensive firearm use. Sport classes are great place to develop smooth gun-handling skills and speed, but because the recommended gear will usually be sport-specific and not necessarily appropriate for concealed carry, you may find that after a class like this you’ve gotten really quick at grabbing for gear you don’t actually have on you when you need it. Similarly, if you’re interested in self-defense but are struggling with mindset issues or have legal or ethical questions, this type of class will not address those needs.

Self-defense Class. A defensive firearms class may teach students how to use handguns, shotguns, rifles (carbines), or all three, but the most common type teaches handguns only. One or two day formats are probably the most common, because they fit so nicely into a weekend, but some classes run for a very full five or six day week. Defensive classes usually feature a balanced mix of range time versus classroom time, with lower-level classes having slightly more classroom time than upper-level classes do. Sometimes homework will be given during the class or as required reading before the course begins. Classroom topics may include the legal implications of using deadly force, how to handle the immediate aftermath of a shooting, developing a good defensive minset, and more. On the range, the focus will be on defensive shooting skills, often at short distances (from contact distance out to 15 yards or so), using firearms and gear appropriate for concealed carry. Many classes will be run “from concealment,” meaning the instructor expects students to have a cover garment to work with. Human-shaped silhouette targets, or cartoon pictures of human beings, are often used. Round count will vary according to the school’s instructional philosophy, but will rarely be as high as in a sport class.

Finding possibilities

Once you decide which type of class you’re looking for, it’s time to start gathering leads to instructors and schools in your area.

Important Tip

Don’t ask specifically about women’s classes at this stage, even if that’s what you’re looking for. Just ask about classes. Third parties often do not know exactly what an instructor offers, and may not tell you about a known instructor if they think you are looking for a specific type of instruction. But you want them to give you all the instructor names they can think of, not cross names off your list for you. Even if that particular instructor does not offer what you are looking for, the odds are he will know someone who does and can tell you about them when you call him.

Firearms stores, gun shows, and shooting ranges are a good place to start. A full service gun shop which includes range facilities is likely to have an instructor associated with it, but don’t overlook smaller stores where the folks behind the counter may be able to tell you about local classes.

Don’t know where the gun stores are? Walk your fingers through the local yellow pages because the odds are there are a lot more stores in your area than you realized. Look under “Guns,” “Rifles,” and “Firearms.” Don’t bother calling pawn shops. These might be good places to get a deal on a gun, but a pawn-shop proprietor isn’t likely to know much about the shooting world.

You can do a lot of your research on the phone, but you might have better luck in person, because in person you can check the bulletin boards and counters. Look for flyers, business cards, or brochures offering classes.

Next call: your local cop shop. The local police very often will have leads to nearby firearms instruction which is otherwise not advertised. Similarly, if your state has a training requirement, the police department or sheriff’s office will probably have a list of state-approved instructors in your area. Many instructors who teach the state-required classes also offer advanced self-defense classes, so don’t overlook this source.

If you do your research via phone, remember that at this point you are just after names and phone numbers of potential instructors. Any details you get from third parties are going to be fuzzy and might be outright wrong. Unless it is obvious that the person on the other end of the line has some personal experience with the instructor, take all details with a grain of salt. Just get the name and contact details, and move on.

When calling a gun store, club, or range, ask first whether they themselves offer instruction, then whether they know anyone who does. Finally, ask if they know someone else you can call who might know someone who teaches classes.

Unless you are really internet-savvy, researching shooting schools online isn’t as easy as it sounds. For one thing, too many professional trainers aren’t quite up to speed on this whole “welcome to the early 90’s” internet phenomenon. But once you have a school or instructor name, you’ll probably be able to Google the specific name and get some useful links and reviews.

Narrowing down the choices

Now it’s time to call the instructors and figure out if they are offering what you need. Remember the basic categories up above. You are listening for buzz words that might tip you off to the type of training being sold. Here are some questions you might want to ask.

Class Costs

Prices for local instruction vary wildly from one part of the country to another. For professional training from an established school with a dedicated range, expect to pay upwards of $150 per day of instruction. Local instruction will cost less than that, sometimes a lot less. If money is an issue for you, discuss this frankly with your prospective instructor. Some schools offer scholarship programs and some instructors, especially for beginning classes at the local level, may be willing to consider a work exchange if you have skills to barter.

Do you have a few moments to chat about your class?

This isn’t just common courtesy. You’ll get better answers if they aren’t rushed for time and are able to concentrate on your questions rather than pondering how to get you off the phone without being rude.

How long have you been teaching? How often do you do classes?

Both of these questions will give you a feel for how much instructional experience the person has had. You shouldn’t write off someone who does classes only occasionally, but if they seem very fuzzy about their answers here, you may want to look elsewhere because that’s a tip off that they aren’t very serious or professional about what they’re doing.

How many students in your classes, on average? What kind of instructor/student ratio do you aim for?

A private class, one on one with the instructor, might sound ideal, but it may not be comfortable for you if you are very shy. Whereas a 20 to 1 ratio is definitely not a good idea. One instructor or coach for every 4 to 6 students is about right for a beginning level class.

How many women do you usually have in each class?

Unless you are prepared for it and not blindsided when you walk in, it can be daunting to discover you’re the only female student in a large group of guys. The answer to this question may tell you how comfortable the instructor is working with women, and gives you a general idea about whether other women have been comfortable working with him or her. 1

Do you work with other instructors or have assistants helping with your classes?

An instructor who has gathered a team of people around him, rather than being a Lone Ranger, is usually more professional and probably has more teaching experience. A team can also handle larger classes more safely than an individual is able to manage.

What topics do you cover in class? What would I need to bring with me?

This helps you figure out whether the class is a familiarization class, a sport class, or a self-defense class. It also forewarns you if the instructor expects students to come with a bunch of gear you haven’t yet purchased.

Where did you get your training and instructional credentials?

Can you give me the names and phone numbers of some former students who are willing to recommend your classes?

Most reputable instructors will be happy to do that. Be brave and call those people. Ask about their experiences with the instructor, and before you hang up be sure to ask if they have any advice for you when you take the class.

Where can I find the state laws about concealed carry?

This one’s a sneaky question. How the instructor answers will tell you whether he is knowledgeable about self-defense issues. He doesn’t have to know the statute number off the tip of his tongue, but he should be able to tell you in very general terms where you can find it, or how you can look it up for yourself. If he can’t, look elsewhere for a self-defense class.

Keep in mind that the specific answers to these questions don’t matter nearly as much as the “feel” you get from the conversation. If the class fits within the category you want, and you hit it off well with the instructor, and you don’t spot any major red flags, chances are you will enjoy taking that class.

If it turns out the instructor is not offering the type of class you are looking for, or isn’t the type of person you want to work with, conclude your conversation by asking him about other instructors you might try. Most trainers have a pretty good idea of who is offering classes within their general area, and will usually be willing to give recommendations to students who aren’t a good fit for their own classes.

Women-Only vs. Co-ed Classes

Female students have an additional option not open to men: they can opt to take a firearms class offered for women only. Will such a class be a good fit for you? That depends.

Classes for women offer:

  • A friendlier, less competitive atmosphere. Women’s classes tend to be a lot of fun because the students are more likely to feel comfortable with each other rather than competing with each other.
  • More personalized instruction. Women’s firearms classes tend to be less crowded than the same classes offered in co-ed format. This translates to more one-on-one time with the instructor and more time for questions.
  • Help with female-specific issues, such as how to find a holster that works with a woman’s body shape, or how to most safely carry in a purse.
  • A chance to learn how to shoot without a well-meaning loved one pushing you along.
  • (Sometimes) Instruction tailored for verbal and visual learners, and fewer assumptions about students’ mechanical knowledge.
  • (Usually) The same instructional outline and course of fire given to an equivalent level co-ed class.

Co-ed classes offer:

  • More choices. At all levels, it is significantly easier to find co-ed classes than it is to find women-only classes.
  • More classes at upper levels of training. It isn’t too hard to find an entry level class intended for women only. But advanced classes for women are rare and difficult to find.
  • More competitive atmosphere. This can be a good thing at intermediate and advanced levels, when increased pressure helps a student focus. At lower levels, it can be a distraction, sometimes a significant one.


The Bottom Line

Although it seems an overwhelming task at first, finding good firearms instruction is really not that hard. Once you get past the initial fear of picking up the phone, you’ll find a large network of people out there who are ready to help you get started and eager to help you on your way. Good luck in your search!


  1. If you want to take a co-ed class, but are bothered by the risk of being the only woman in the class, consider inviting a friend to take the class with you.