The Cornered Cat

Awhile back, I asked a large number of avid shooters — people who own guns and carry them — some questions that have long puzzled me.  Here are my responses to some of the answers they gave me.

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The Question

I’d like to invite speculation about training from people to whom the following apply:

  • You’re into handguns for self-defense.
  • You have a carry permit, and carry at least some of the time.
  • You haven’t had any training, OR you have had only as much training as your state requires in order to obtain a carry permit.
  • You have no real intention of taking any firearms classes in the near future.

So how ’bout it, folks? If you carry a gun for defense but don’t plan to visit a gun school — why not? What are your thoughts & reasoning about this?

Send me an email.

The answers which I have received so far have been very instructive. I haven’t (and won’t) argue with anyone about whether they, personally, need or do not need training, so don’t be afraid to tell me what you think. Collecting these answers has simply allowed me to target my writing, both here and elsewhere, and I’m grateful for those who have taken time to write to me.

If there’s a common trend, it is that most people who have never gone to a gun school simply do not see the need for doing so. Professional firearms instruction can be quite expensive, and many people suspect they will not receive value equal to the money spent. The awful truth is that most gun schools and firearms instructors in general have done a really poor job at communicating what it is that they do and why they do it. As a result, people who have never been to a gun school often do not understand what benefits they might expect to receive from formal firearms training.


“I can teach myself how to shoot.”

Let us start by discussing the difference between education and training. To educate someone is to provide them with facts about something. To train them is to teach them how to do something. When I learned to drive, I took Driver’s Education (sitting in a classroom taking notes) and followed it up by taking Driver’s Training (ain’t dual brakes grand?). College education is followed by on-the-job training.

Firearms schools generally provide both education and training. Both firearms education and firearms training are important, but of the two, training is the most critical. If your education is lacking, you might mess up your own life by breaking a law you didn’t know existed. But if your training is lacking, you might kill someone by accident.

The distinction between education and training is very important to people who, like me, tend to be self-taught in most things. An avid reader and a lifelong autodidact, I soon discovered that defensive handgun is one of the subjects that does not easily lend itself to self-teaching. Very little of what a defensive handgunner needs to know can be learned from a book or from websites such as this one. Like most physical skills, defensive handgunnery is best learned through hands-on training.


“No, really. I can teach myself how to shoot.”

A good class shows you exactly what you need to work on, why you need to work on it, and how to get better at it. Then you go home and teach yourself how to shoot.

Some people dislike the idea of being shown the basics of stance, grip, trigger control, and sight alignment. They think they already know those things, or can figure them out on their own. The fact is, there is no shooter on the planet, including the legendary greats such as Rob Leatham or Brian Enos,  who cannot benefit from good and specific coaching on the basics. Or as John Farnam says, “There’s no such thing as an advanced gunfight.” Good shooting always comes back to the basics.


“I’m not Rambo …”

One of my respondents opined that he isn’t Rambo, just an ordinary citizen who carries a gun for self protection.  I can certainly appreciate that perspective.  How could a normal person fit in among all the police, military personnel, and armed guards in a shooting class?

Guess what.  That’s not quite the way it is.

Who do you think fills most firearms classes? I’ll give you a hint: it ain’t the cops. Police departments usually have their own trainers, and usually work with  certified police instructors on dedicated ranges.  It’s a rare officer who gets extra firearms training on his own and pays for it himself.  It ain’t the militree, either. They’ve got this thing called Basic Training which the military folks believe imparts all the ballistic wisdom a soldier needs to know.

So who’s left? Accountants and office workers and housewives and lawyers and auto mechanics, that’s who.  No matter how the gun school sells itself in its advertising, the fact is that most of its students are ordinary citizens who do normal stuff for a living.


” … so I don’t need that high-speed, low-drag ninja stuff.”

Here is a look at some of the typical skills taught in firearms schools, and how they apply to ordinary citizens in real life.

Most people believe they are already safe gun handlers.  Many do not believe they need to be taught the first and most basic lesson most instructors stress: the ability to safely manipulate a firearm. I’m here to tell you, those who haven’t had a class from a competent instructor often overestimate their abilities in the safety department. The folks I’ve seen in classes who are notoriously the most dangerous are the people who’ve been shooting for years and think they’ve already got the safety thing down pat. I’d be willing to lay out money, by the way, that 98% of the folks who read this will think I am not talking to or about them — and the other 2% will be offended that I’ve insulted their unsafe gun handling because after all, they haven’t shot themselves (yet!). 1

Safe gun handling includes the ability to load or reload your firearm quickly under stress. Again, this one sounds kind of silly to most of us; what are the odds of needing to reload in a hurry? Are we going to take on a horde of invading zombies by ourselves? Doesn’t seem likely. Yet this skill is simply a subset of safe gun handling. If you cannot easily load your firearm quickly under stress, without pointing it at any important body parts, and without losing muzzle awareness, then you have not yet completely internalized how to handle your firearm safely. And if that is the case, you are at risk of negligently shooting yourself or a family member if you ever need to handle your home-defense firearm under the extreme stress of a home invasion.

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All That Ninja Stuff
  • Safely manipulate a firearm
  • Reload quickly and safely
  • Shoot accurately
  • Shoot quickly
  • Draw from a holster
  • Multiple targets
  • One-handed shooting
  • Moving targets
  • Moving while shooting
  • Working in low light

Accurate shooting is usually next on the syllabus. Again, most people reading this probably already consider that they are accurate enough. Yet a fellow who opines that if he were engaged by a criminal at 15 feet he would simply “fire in the direction of the target” is not only at risk from an attacker – he is a risk to the rest of us.  You are responsible for every bullet that leaves your firearm, not just the ones that hit the intended target. (An aside: Most people are unable to judge distances at all, let alone to do so accurately under stress. That poor fellow might surprise himself someday by trying to shoot at someone who is a lot further away than he has ever tried to shoot at the range.)

Once accuracy is achieved, speed is often stressed.  Firearms instructors show their students how to bring the gun out of its holster and onto target quickly.  How fast is fast enough?  How much time would you have to draw and fire if you were attacked?  When a student asked defensive firearms instructor John Farnam that question, Farnam replied, “The rest of your life.”  While the answer sounds flippant, it cuts right to the heart of the issue.  You do not know, in advance, how fast you will need to be.  But it is a good idea to learn to become as fast and as accurate as you are able.

There is another reason to learn how to draw and fire quickly.  This is because a fast draw is a smooth draw, and a smooth draw is a safe draw.  Not everyone will need to draw fast, but everyone with a holster should be able to draw safely.  A smooth draw brings the gun out of the holster without fingering the trigger, it doesn’t get tangled up in the clothing, and it doesn’t point anywhere it shouldn’t on the way up.  A smooth draw is a safe draw.

Being able to shoot multiple targets well is another subset of quick and accurate shooting. While being attacked by a herd of rampaging criminals might seem a bit far-fetched, the fact is that few criminals attack when they think the odds are even. Criminals like the odds to be in their favor when they attack.  If you are young and healthy looking, you are very unlikely to be accosted by a lone criminal, but your odds of being confronted by a gang of criminals working together are relatively higher.

Another subset of quick and accurate shooting is the ability to shoot well with only one hand.  This looks like a show-off range trick, but the fact is that in real life, it is quite possible that if you need to fire your weapon, you may not be able to use both hands.  Maybe one hand will be carrying a small child, or keeping a grasp on a larger child so you know where she is.  Perhaps it will be fending off a close attacker, or shoving the door shut while an assailant tries to open it.  Or perhaps, heaven forbid, one hand will be disabled in the initial attack.  If you carry a gun for self-defense, you should know how to safely draw and use the weapon with either hand alone.

Moving targets are fun and challenging on the range. They really catch the students’ attention and they appeal greatly to the Walter Mitty fantasy guys. But that’s not why good classes include moving targets. Quite simply, good classes include moving targets because in real life, criminals do not just stand there and imitate a piece of cardboard; they move. If you are unable to reliably hit center mass on a moving target, you are not yet prepared to deal decisively with a living opponent.

Similarly, while it appeals to wannabe warriors to shoot while their feet are  moving, that’s not why good classes teach students how to do so. The reason moving while shooting is taught is because anyone with half a brain is going to be running for cover when a criminal attack happens. If you carry a weapon, you owe it to yourself and everyone around you to learn how not to shoot the innocent grandmother putting her groceries in her car on the other side of the parking lot while you boogey to cover and get away from the bad guys.

Most criminal attacks happen in the dark. Of course a good class will teach you the most obvious tactic: turn on the lights and equalize the environment if you can. But if you cannot turn the lights on, it’s really a good idea to be sure you can hit the bad guy instead of the innocent bystanders.


“We don’t need no stinkin’ tactics.”

It’s surprising how many people malign learning good tactics. Undoubtedly this is because “tactical” is such a joke online. On chat boards, people post the most amazingly convoluted, idiotic scenarios, stuff that could never possibly happen in real life in a million years … and then everyone is surprised when the ensuing  discussion is silly and stupid. (But if we ever get attacked by mutant zombie bears while armed with any one firearm produced before 1963, by golly, we’ll all know what to do!)

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Little-Known Fact

The tactics taught by good instructors are not at all like the fantasy battles fought by online warriors.

Trust me on this one.

A tactical firearms class, simply put, teaches students how to think about and solve life-threatening criminal problems. Such a class might teach students how the physical body reacts under stress, and then how to use the body’s stress reactions rather than simply endure them. Students might practice making shoot/no shoot decisions with cartoon targets or tactical teds, first under the mild stress of a timer and later under more extreme types of stress. The class  might discuss specific scenarios, but this is usually in the larger context of discovering how to solve a tactical problem.

Look at it this way.  If you could figure out how to win a fight without getting hurt, why wouldn’t you do it? In the long run, learning good tactics just means learning how to do what you want to do (survive!) with the least amount of damage to yourself and to the people you love. It isn’t as though any particular tactical problem in any shooting class will ever be repeated in real life. Nobody expects that! The trainer’s goal is to teach the students how to think on their feet to solve these types of problems. It’s kind of like taking a class in mathematics. The teacher’s goal isn’t to teach you the answers to the specific questions on page 23; his goal is to teach you how to solve mathematical problems, period.

By the way, every single criminal attack is a tactical problem.  Even if the intended victim is unarmed, she still must employ some sort of tactic in order to survive the situation. Carrying a gun gives you more options, but the most important tool you carry is still the one between your ears.


“I can’t afford a class.”

Many of my correspondents mention money as the reason why they haven’t gotten training.  Believe me, with five teenage boys to feed, I understand budget constraints better than most people!

If money is really the only thing that has kept you out of classes, there is a way to train for nearly free. You can get together with one of the nationally-known traveling trainers, and be the one to organize a class for that person to teach in your area. If you are the organizer, you will generally be allowed to participate in the class at no cost or at a very reduced cost, and since you organized it, you know in advance that the training will suit your work schedule and your vacation plans. You’ll schedule the class close enough to your own home that you will save on travel expenses too. It will still cost you money for ammunition, but if you are serious about learning to shoot you would be buying ammunition to practice with anyway – and ammunition fired in classes is purely beneficial whereas ammunition fired off in undirected range play sometimes isn’t.  Organizing a class is serious work, and it’s not for everyone.  But if money is the only thing keeping your from getting advanced training, this route is well worth considering.

For the folks who said they can’t see laying out that much money, not knowing what they are getting, I sympathize. My advice on that one is to do your homework. Ask around about specific trainers, and listen to what folks who have actually taken training from that particular instructor have to say. (Don’t listen to the folks who haven’t. They don’t know, and it won’t help much to listen to rumor-mongering about what your buddy’s friend’s uncle’s brother-in-law’s nephew’s cousin said …)  There are many active online firearms discussion boards, such as The Firing Line, The High Road, and Glocktalk, where you can expect speedy replies to questions.  Keep in mind that one respondent might give you a skewed response, but if you have more than a few replies on different boards which say the same basic thing, you can probably trust the consensus.

Many reputable and established trainers offer a money-back guarantee, so even if you choose badly and think the class was completely worthless, you might be able to get your money back at the end of the day.


“It’s a guy thing.”

Women often feel intimidated by the testosterone-laden environment of an ordinary range, and expect a gun school to be even worse that way.  This feeling isn’t without reason.  The usual male to female ratio at most co-ed shooting classes is around 7:1. That means if it is a small class, a woman might be the only female there.

This doesn’t have to deter you from training, though.  Many schools offer women-only classes.  There are several well-known female instructors, for those women who simply aren’t comfortable taking a class from or with men.  If neither of these is an option in your area, the other possibility is to talk a friend into going to the school with you.


“I took a class once, and hated it.”

To the folks who had one bad experience, let me point out gently that one bad restaurant meal probably didn’t cause you to swear you would never eat in any restaurant ever again. There are a lot of schools and trainers out there, and if one doesn’t suit you it is probably worthwhile to look around for another that does.


“The gunshop guy says taking a class might get me into legal trouble.”

On the contrary, taking a class shows that you are the kind of person who has done everything in your power to assure that you will never make a deadly mistake. It shows that you take the responsibility of being an armed citizen very seriously, and that you are a conscientious person who wants to be sure you are able to do the right thing under stress.

How well the legal questions are addressed depends upon the type of class you take and how prepared your instructor is to deal with such questions. Truly competent instructors take the legal side of things very seriously indeed. Any trainer who has been in business very long will have had some experience with the legal system, and will either be able to answer the legal questions you ask in class, or be able to direct you to people who can answer those questions for you.


“I’m not good enough to take a class.”

Firearms classes are available for all types of shooters, from people who have never fired a gun before right up through advanced shooters. If you doubt your ability to keep up with an advanced class, sign up for a basic class instead. If you are uncertain whether your abilities lag behind a particular class you’d like to take, call the instructor and discuss your concerns. Instructors have a vested interest in making sure their students are well-matched to the difficulty levels of the classes they offer, and many will carefully tailor their classes to match the students who sign up.


“What’s in it for me?”

There are a lot of unheralded benefits of good training. One of these is that upon taking a class, you have access to a wonderful network of like-minded people. If you find yourself in legal trouble, this network might literally save your life.

But on a more personal level, you will find people you just plain want to spend time with — to shoot with, to train with, to buddy up at the gun show with. Sure, you can get some of these things online or from books. But I dare you, next time you want someone to critique your drawstroke, to find a book that will say to you, “Tell you what. Let’s get together next Saturday and work with the timer.” Most online friends live halfway across the country, so you aren’t likely to find one who would be willing to let you rummage through her holster box and try one of her old holsters for a week, while you decide whether that’s a style that’ll suit you. And even the most extensive web site cannot look at your specific grip and stance, diagnose what your difficulty is, and suggest some specific ways you might improve.

Because I started taking classes very soon after I began shooting, I was privileged to have other women’s shoulders to cry on as I figured out what would work for me and what wouldn’t. Although the group wasn’t there when I first began shooting, what’s maybe contributed most to my growth as a shooter has been the chance to work with a really great group of women at the Firearms Academy of Seattle in their Women’s Study Group (open only to women who’ve taken at least one class from FAS). I’ve been spoiled by the opportunity to compare notes, help and be helped by other women as we all learn to shoot better, listen to sob stories and triumphs, and just watch as other women worked through a lot of the same questions I’d faced early on. It’s been a rare privilege to have that kind of a support network in place and I kind of feel sorry for the majority of new shooters who simply don’t have access to something like it.


  1. In a series of studies reported in the December 1999 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 77, No. 6), researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning examined the idea that the least skilled people often have the highest perception of their own skills. The study is titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” and it won an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000. It’s also a very funny read, if you like that sort of thing.