The Cornered Cat
Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced

Bunch of related stuff, putting here as a core dump.

You may want to grab coffee before you dive into this one.


Per John Lott, as of 2017 there are 16.3 million concealed carry permit holders in the US.

According to Claude Werner’s best guesstimates as of a couple-three years ago, there are probably 15,000 class slots every year (this includes NRA’s PPOTH and everyone else he could think of on the defensive handgun side of the market, plus some generous padding). Just to be on the safe side, I would double Claude’s number to 30,000 class slots.

This means that if every person with a permit decided to take ONE class other than / over and above the state-required ccw permit-getting class, we’d still have people standing in line more than 500 years from now. My doubled estimate could be off by an order of magnitude and we’d still have people in line five decades from now.

To say that we have not even begun to tap the potential market for training is a severe understatement.

Keep in mind, most training slots are mostly filled by the same people, year after year. Training junkies like us, people who’ve taken multiple classes from multiple instructors. We all swap those same students around and compete for their training dollars.

And that’s my starting point: we in the training world are an Itsy Bitsy Tiny Little Blip on the radar for most people who own guns and carry them for self defense.

To most gun owners, the entire training industry barely even exists. That’s key.


To people who have not taken a class from a pro trainer, the state-required permit class itself is Advanced Training. This includes the craptastic ones that do nothing more than run people through online diploma mills or the live ones that require them to shoot a whopping ten untimed rounds at a piece of cardboard twice the size of Texas. No matter how contemptuously we might look at a program like that, for the vast majority of permit holders it’s still far more training than any of their gun-owning friends have bothered to get — or ever even heard of. That makes it, and them, Advanced.

How utterly arrogant are we, to say that our definition is the real one, when our version of ‘beginner’ doesn’t even start where most shooters have finished?

(“And what do you mean, someone has to be taught how to use a holster? Dude, it’s not rocket surgery. It’s a bucket that holds a gun. You put the gun in, you take the gun out. D’oh! How stupid do you think we are??”)

For these folks, a Beginning class is almost certainly measured by the standard of NRA Basic Pistol: hours of sitting in a classroom, learning to name the parts of a gun. That’s just a stupid waste of time, even for people to whom the names of the gun parts are a revelation. So how dare you offer us a Beginning class in your school of gun-fu! We are obviously — obviously! — beyond that! We’re not Beginners anymore. We’ve been shooting for years, you know.


On this scale, being a non-Beginner — an Intermediate shooter — might mean that a person knows how to make the gun go bang. It probably means they can hit the target more often than not, at least as long as the target is big enough, and as long as we define hitting it as ‘somewhere on paper.’ They can load the gun by themselves.

To us, whatever process they use to get rounds into the gun may look sloppy, slow and clumsy; to them, it’s just loading the gun and how else would you do it? They can load and fire the gun without any help, thanks.

Plus maybe they even know how to get the gun running again when it hiccups. (“First wait at least 30 seconds in case there’s a hang-fire, then tilt your head to one side as you bring the gun up toward your face so you can look in puzzlement at the side of the gun. Then look down the barrel, probably with your finger still on the trigger. Stare at the barrel for a few seconds, then sloooooooowly unload the gun and fiddle with it for ten minutes before you finally shrug and reload it…”).

No matter how ridiculous the process might seem to us, eventually they can fire the gun again so they do know how to clear a malfunction and thus – obviously! – don’t need an instructor to teach them how to do that.

So that’s Intermediate.


On this same scale, being Advanced means you got your concealed carry permit. It means you took The Class. (There’s really only one, you know — the one that allows you to get a permit. No other classes exist.)

Or — and here’s the Great Leap Forward — being Advanced is being invited to shoot on the Super Squad in USPSA or being the top shooter on a reality show.

There’s no level of Advanced between those two points on this scale. It either means you got your carry permit or that you’re a USPSA Grandmaster. Other than those extremes, everything else will be shades of Intermediate.

And for most, Intermediate was reached the day after they held a gun for the first time.


Had a talk awhile back with a group of women, all of whom had been shooting for less than five years and all of whom had recently received NRA instructor certifications. They were (justifiably) proud of those certs, because it had taken real effort and work for them to get them.

If I had said to that group of people that this cert – the one that they worked so hard for and which to them represented the be-all, end-all apex of all possible firearms achievement – was actually just a basic place to start and otherwise an incredibly low bar for anyone who thinks of themselves as an instructor, not only would I have been being a jerk, but they would have looked at me as if I were… Um.

The picture that springs to mind is of a glowing humanoid creature, dressed in spotless white robes, with beautiful white feathered wings fluttering behind her, with a halo on her head, saying, “So who’s this Jesus fellow you’re talking about? I’ve never heard of him…”

You can almost see the little “TILT!” sign popping up in the listeners’ eyeballs, like some old Warner Bros cartoon.

Even if they were able to set aside the social offensiveness of it, the actual message would not have gotten past the TILT sign.


Had a conversation with a group of skilled shooters awhile back. One of them proposed, “Maybe we shouldn’t say, ‘intermediate’ or ‘advanced’ but we should just define them by what we can do at each level. A beginner can load the gun and hit the target … so let’s make a list! What’s a beginning level of skill?”

The others looked at her and at each other, and … well. Here’s where we run immediately into Dunning Kruger [pdf]. Because did you ever play the game, in school or maybe in some touchy feelgood teambuilding seminar, where one person is given a complex picture to look at, and then must use words only (no gestures or facial expressions!) to tell another person what to draw in order to create the same picture? The other person is not allowed to ask questions, or to make any noise or even wiggle their eyebrows. They simply must draw whatever the other person tells them to draw. No eye contact allowed.

The problem with this set up quickly becomes hilariously obvious to the spectators, but — up until the big reveal — both participants think they are communicating clearly. The sender thinks they are explaining well and being very precise and providing good instructions, and the receiver thinks they are doing exactly what the sender is telling them to do. They are both right, and they are both absolutely wrong. And the resulting picture never looks much like the one the sender intended.

So when you and I set out to make a list, and we say, “A beginner should be able to load the gun by herself,” we both have a very specific picture in our heads of what that looks like. It does not involve the shooter fumbling around or doing stupid-clumsy things with it, like picking it up left handed off the bench to put the magazine in with the right hand, then awkwardly juggle-bumping it from one hand to the other, forgetting to rack the slide and never putting the safety on. And so on.

We also have a picture in our heads that definitely does not include the person pointing the muzzle at one of their own body parts. But how often have you worked with a “grew up around guns” shooter who had an obviously longstanding habit of doing exactly that — and didn’t even know they were doing it?

People don’t know, literally cannot know or step outside themselves long enough to see, that kind of thing. If they could, they wouldn’t need us. So asking them to self-assess in our absence is bound to end badly. (“Of course I know how to load a gun! What are you, stupid? I can shoot!”)

Even a good solid objective standard (five shots in a five-inch circle, at five yards, in five seconds or less) leaves room for all of that problem with definitions to happen anyway. It narrows the gap, sure. But it doesn’t fix it, because we only measure the result without actually seeing the process that got them there. Did they muzzle themselves at any point in the process? Keep the finger off the trigger except when actually shooting? Hold the gun in a dangerous way, with the thumb precariously behind the slide, and only escaped getting slide-bit by sheer dumb luck? They don’t know. And unless we are there watching while they shoot the objective test, neither do we. When we’re there in person, we can see. When we’re not, we can’t.

That’s the weakness of long distance communication without immediate feedback. We can’t see the process people use, only the recorded result.

Oooh, fun rabbit hole there. Does the process matter more than the result? Or does the result matter more than the process? (My answer may not be congruent with yours. Set it aside to discuss sometime!)



All communication leaves the obvious unsaid. It has to. There’s not enough time in the universe to spell out every single one of the assumptions inherent in any given conversation. We take almost everything for granted, and communicate only in a very narrow band.

But what’s obvious to a generic me isn’t necessarily obvious to a generic you. For complex ideas (and especially those that may activate the monkey brain) we need a feedback loop to check if each individual part of the message is getting through, because sometimes it doesn’t. People bridge this gap in personal conversations all the time (or think they do), mostly by using and analyzing each other’s movement patterns, facial expressions, and vocal cues that don’t quite rise to the level of language. We set up a continuous feedback loop so we can check if the message has been sent and received — and we do it so fast and for the most part so subconsciously that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. (Well, except for the poor broken ones of us who have to do it consciously all the freaking time. That’s a deep hole too.)

So the complete communication process is a feedback loop, a spiral, where participants constantly send unspoken messages from one to the other and back again so fast and so continuously that we don’t usually realize how often we change our speech based on those messages. We’re constantly correcting misperceptions and reframing and adding additional information that we might have left unsaid if it weren’t for the microexpressions of doubt or confusion or disbelief that we didn’t consciously see but that we reacted to anyway.

Here’s the kicker — all of that feedback is completely missing in written communication. Nearly all of it is missing in pre-recorded video and audio formats. That is why we need an in-person class for a lot of this stuff.

There’s the book you write, and the book they read. They are not the same book.

(Heh. From when I was a small child, I have a vivid memory of my grandpa, shaking his fist at another driver and shouting, “Where’d you learn to drive? Correspondence school??!” — an elegant insult I finally understood about ten years later.)

So I’m doubtful of any attempt to quantify beginner, intermediate, advanced with a list or set up an objective qual that involves students self-assessing or self-reporting, in the absence of a qualified other who can look at them and report what’s actually happening. Because Dunning Kruger.

Discouragingly, with all those factors in mind, I’m not even sure we can make such a list. Failing to carefully define terms would result in a misfire, while striving to define them carefully enough would almost certainly drown out the signal.


Oh, and there’s more. All advanced shooting is simply the fundamentals: Alignment, trigger, follow through. That’s all good shooting is and all it ever has been. ‘Advanced’ to me really just means being able to execute the fundamentals in a wider variety of more challenging circumstances. That’s it and that’s all.

All of the finicky stuff we quibble about (how do we hold the gun? how should we stand? at what point does the finger go to the trigger during the drawstroke? what exact shape does the path of the gun look like, as it moves from holster to target?) — ALL of it is simply designed to help us execute those fundamentals in faster, safer, or more reliable ways. The fundamentals are the thing that matters, not all the window dressing that helps us achieve them.

And yet we get students who think they are advanced because they have had some particular experience, such as having gone through a shoot house or shot at a moving target or in low light or in competition.  As if simply making the gun go bang is “advanced” (when even a monkey can do that much), as long as making the gun go bang happened within some specific venue.

Hmmm. Pinging hard on that thought. Because — all advanced stuff always circles back to the fundamentals. But I think at the beginning of the process, we tend to think that being Advanced is not just being better at the same skills, but actually doing different skills, than the Beginners. Beginners stand on a “static square range” but Advanced people are allowed to move — so obviously, if I’ve ever moved while shooting, I’m advanced.

The question isn’t, in how many different circumstances can you make the gun go bang. It’s have you learned to reliably and consistently apply alignment, trigger, and follow through despite challenges and distractions, despite added variables or missing ones.

Thus even a beginner might be able to experience a shoot house, or do low light work, or have a fun experience where they shoot from a downed position. And to some extent, they probably should. But doing those things does not make them advanced shooters, and their fear or comfort level with the added activity has nothing to do with their actual skill level. Their actual skill level is measured in their ability to safely and reliably execute alignment, trigger, follow through in those venues.

It all starts with being able to perform the fundamentals in the first place. That’s the key. There are a lot of places where the emphasis is on the experience, not on the … um. The thing that makes the experience work or be meaningful.

To the extent that those other experiences don’t harm the process of learning the fundamentals, they’re good and beneficial. But those activities, too often, turn into distracting clutter that makes you think you’re further down the road than you actually are. (It’s hard to learn anything when you already know everything.) Sometimes having those experiences actually stops you from learning because you turn your attention from performing the fundamentals correctly into thinking about everything else except the fundamentals. Or because you think you’re finally past paying attention to the fundamentals, too good for that now, when nobody ever really is. 1

Once you do have a grasp of the fundamentals, then it’s not just reasonable but required for your personal development, that you should seek out as many different shooting experiences as possible. More circumstances and more challenging circumstances will help you here. That’s when the shoot houses and scenario training, movement and multiple targets and oddball positions and all the rest of it really come into play. Because once the fundamentals are there, we can finally enjoy just working with the gun.[*]

That’s when the gun games become much more meaningful and fun. Before you’ve learned the fundamentals, shooting practice performed during a competition are as likely as any other shooting experience to engrain bad habits rather than good ones. Even though supervised games do have the advantage of correcting bad and obvious safety errors, 2all by themselves they will not fix equally-bad and equally-obvious shooting errors. After the fundamentals are well in hand, those added experiences definitely improve your ability to execute them faster and more reliably in more challenging circumstances.

But before you can reliably apply fundamentals in challenging new circumstances, you have to be able to do them in the first place. And too many people entirely skip that step.


[*] Oh, here’s a fun little side trail. Of course you can enjoy fiddling around with the gun before you know anything about the fundamentals. This is more-or-less in the same way that a child might enjoy going to the skating rink before he can skate well. He enjoys wobbling around the rink while clutched fearfully onto the handrail, and feels a great sense of accomplishment when he’s made a single circuit all by himself.

But how much more enjoyable it is to whiz along with long and confident strides! To go fast enough to lift a breeze in your hair! To move smoothly with and through the crowd, unafraid of spills and able to watch the other skaters at the same time! To begin learning to spin and jump and do tricks!

All of these joys are out of reach from the beginner, who thinks he’s having fun (and he is) — but the limited and hesitant fun that he’s having is not to be compared to the more expansive fun being had by the skater who has the fundamentals under control.


Related, maybe. Had someone say to me in class, awhile back, that she was shooting poorly because we were shooting slow. “I shoot better fast!” — That was her reason for not slowing down when we were doing precision work, and also her excuse for doing very badly at it.

Well, okay, lady; show me that you can get highly precise one hole groups at your chosen speed, the same size as the other students are getting as they press the trigger in slow motion right now. But I’m willing to lay money on the table that if you learned to run a trigger better from the ground up, which includes having the humility to slow down and learn what I’m trying to show you in slow motion, you’d be shooting even better when you shoot fast than you can right now.

Sadly, we’re never going to know. Because you’re insulted that I’m asking you to do something that feels to you like a Beginner skill, shooting in slow motion, when you think you’re ready to do Advanced stuff like jumping out of a flaming helicopter with a knife between your teeth.

And here I don’t even have a helicopter, let alone one I’d be willing to set on fire.



  1. On the flipside, sometimes putting people in new and unfamiliar situations actually helps them shoot better because the setting feels so uncomfortable that they suddenly start paying attention to the fundamentals they were ignoring before. Part of the art of a good instructor is noticing when students need one type of work, or the other.
  2. At least when the safety errors happen slowly enough and clearly enough for the RO to catch them, and when they are committed by people the RO is willing to reprimand.

10 Responses to Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced

  1. DrLateBloomer says:

    “Advanced stuff like jumping out of a flaming helicopter with a knife between your teeth.” I LOL’d. I have SOOO met people like that 🙂

    And because they are so fixated on the “cool guy” stuff, the basic safety and skills do not interest them. Frustrating.

  2. jon says:

    Interesting article and perspective.
    BLUF: It’s really difficult to choose a class and instructor because little detail is provided on course content. As you note, course titles like beginner or advanced aren’t helpful. I prefer a clear task, condition, and standard approach but that could be a couple of decades of Army traiiing indoctrination.

    I recently left service after a couple of decades employing small arms in both line and support roles, and almost 4 years doing that on the two way ranges in the Mid East. I don’t consider myself an expert or even close. Any competent USPSA or IDPA competitor will score better on most any course of fire. That’s all context for my main point: many trainers do a poor job describing their content and the related skills.

    My previous experience is largely unhelpful to current context as a lone civilian. I’m now seeking training for this new set of conditions, where I am usually accompanied by young children. Tough to find that locally. Melody Lauer doesn’t get out our way often. So there is some use for books and video to explain principles.

    I will attend my first civilian class in a couple weeks with a national trainer. I struggled with the decision to attend the “advanced” class because I couldn’t discern what Advanced means in terms of skill level. With the expense of national trainers, I would not want to be under prepared and incapable of keeping up with the course. Seems the opposite of the problem you describe. I candidly don’t know a single person interested in spending more time in a 4 man stack doing forced entry, building clearing, and site exploitation.

    It would help me and perhaps other like me to have clearly published standards for training classes. That might help students spend their limited resources wisely. That doesn’t solve the core problem of variable lexicon that you describe but it might help encourage more people to invest in training.

  3. Kathy Jackson says:


    Forgive me, because I know you did not ask for advice, which means the advice I’m about to give you is likely to be at least three times more annoying than it might otherwise be. Please bear with me, though, and I’ll try to make the unasked-for advice as useful as I can.

    From what I understood you to say, you already have a skillset you trust, and you have already used that skillset in serious circumstances. This means you have a tricky job when it comes to finding a class that will help you grow the directions you want to grow. You especially want to find a way to import your existing skills into your current environment, one that includes protecting young family members. And naturally, you want to get the best value out of your training dollars.

    Most people, faced with that sort of dilemma, start looking for the most advanced courses they can find. There are good reasons for this, especially for those who have a solid physical skillset and some real-life experience under their belts. Like you, many people with good physical skills they’ve learned from other sources might be most concerned that they not slow down others in an advanced class, because they’re not sure what missing gaps in their own experience might be a genuine problem in the new context. But they’re also concerned for getting the best value they can from training, which means they naturally look for narrow-spectrum classes that teach very specific skillsets at a high level. I’d definitely recommend that route for anyone seeking to push their shooting abilities to a higher level, especially those wanting to improve their competition skills.

    But that’s not where you’re at or what you need right now. For you, I would recommend going a different direction entirely — not into an advanced class — and here’s why.

    1) You’re not really after physical skills; from your description, you already have most of the relevant ones under control.

    2) You aren’t after confidence or the feeling of being able to defend yourself; you already have that, too.

    3) You do want to be sure your foundations are strong, and you want to fill any gaps in your knowledge base so you can import your experience-based physical skills into civilian home life.

    So how to do that? Well…

    While every good business owner works really hard to make a distinction between themselves and others, the truth is that most nationally-known trainers offer a very similar two- or three-day class that will be the mainstay of their business. Students who attend this class are expected to already be fairly familiar with their firearm, to know how to load and unload, to have a concealed carry permit (or local equivalent) and to have a holster that works for them. But that’s about it.

    That level and type of class goes by a lot of different names from different instructors and schools, and it will very much have its own flavor and emphasis depending who you take it from. But in a lot of ways, it will cover much of the same material no matter where you go: holster work, reloads, malf clearing, shoot while moving, decision-making, use of cover, maybe a few others things.

    And mindset.

    It is in this level of class (and not in the more advanced ones) that we can most rely on the instructor to explain exactly why they teach the things they teach. This is where instructors explain the underlying core philosophies of their training methods. This is where they talk about the mindset and where they spend the most time building the foundations of self defense in a civilian context.

    Which means that if your own thought-foundations have any missing gaps, this is the level of class that will most likely find those gaps and fill them for you.

    (Some course names at this level include: FAS Defensive Handgun, DTI Defensive Handgun, KR Training Defensive Pistol, Rangemaster Combative Pistol…)

    Assuming you go this route, you will very likely be one of the strongest shooters in the class, but also (assuming the class is well-built and the instructor knows what they’re doing) that won’t really matter, because you’ll learn a lot of what you need to learn anyway. Since it’s not really specific physical skills you’re after, it won’t matter much that such a class will not push your physical skills. That’s not where your specific needs are, right now.

    You’re actually looking for something different: a mindset. You want to be sure the foundations of your thought match the needs of your new context. You want a way to take your existing skills and apply them to a new mission. You want to find better ways to think about defending yourself and the people you love, and better ways to apply those thoughts in your home environment. And those specific needs are the ones that the good trainers (the ones who do build a national following) work the hardest on in their ‘basic’ defensive handgun class.

    Classes with the ‘advanced’ label tend to fall into one of two categories.

    1) Classes that work on a narrow-but-deep skillset. This type of class can be an excellent value when a person is looking to refine specific physical skills, or wants to explore a specific set of skills such as shooting in low light or at moving targets.

    2) Generalized ‘advanced’ classes, such as “Defensive Pistol 2” or “Advanced Defensive Handgun.” These classes are typically designed to build on the mindset and technique foundations already laid in the generalized entry-level class at that particular school. Thus, even a skilled shooter might prefer to avoid taking these classes out of order from an instructor they haven’t studied under before, since the lower-level class usually explains the mindset and philosophies behind the techniques the instructor recommends.

    So, for you, right now, getting the best value out of your training dollar means finding an instructor you trust. Someone whose mindset matches the one you want to build and who appears to think about self-defense in the ways you most want to study. Find that person. Then take that person’s entry-level class. Or at least start from wherever that instructor thinks of as the beginning of their ‘real’ program.

    And move forward from there.

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  5. MikeinOK says:


    You and I have very similar backgrounds. I’m finishing up 28 years as an Infantryman, with 4 deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

    I’ve hopped all over the country, and taken over 40 classes from a variety of schools and instructors over the last 20 years.

    Using a pistol for personal protection is going to be a lot different than qualifying with one on the regular Army pop up target range, or carrying one while deployed. One of the biggest changes is going to be the nuts and bolts details of carrying concealed, and learning to handle the scenarios you are likely to encounter as an armed citizen rather than a soldier.

    Take two or three handgun classes, and then take a class on the use of deadly force and the laws of self defense. Massad Ayoob and Andrew Branca are both good options.

    What part of the country are you in? Are you already carrying concealed?

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  7. ibnaqil says:

    Thank you for posting this.

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