The Cornered Cat
Seeing the baby elephant

This post is about firearms training, and especially about instructor credentials. Honest. It’s just going to take a weird route to get there.

Let me start with a little personal background about something else entirely. I have been pregnant six times, and given birth to five children with the assistance of five different care providers in three different states. 1 Do you know what this means? It means I have a wider experience with childbirth than most people will ever receive.

Half the population (the male half) cannot get pregnant. They will never experience labor or delivery. Among women in America, roughly 20% will never have children. Of those who do, most will have only two children. And most of them will use the same hospital and same medical provider for both births.

Of course, there are many women who have had just as many or more births as I have. But I’m still toward the top end of the curve. Unusual.

Knowing that I have this unusually wide experience with childbirth, would you choose me to manage your next labor and childbirth? I hope not! Because no matter how many babies I have had, I have no medical training beyond basic first aid. The things I know about childbirth, I learned only by personal experience. I can tell you a few things that can go wrong, because I lived through them. I can tell you a few things that seemed to help make things go more easily for me. But I have not studied childbirth. I’m just a woman who had a lot of babies.

On the other hand, the medical professionals who managed three of my deliveries had never been pregnant. They had never experienced and will never experience pregnancy, miscarriage, labor, or childbirth. The doctors who performed surgery to save the life of my youngest child had no idea how that surgery felt. But they had each helped hundreds or thousands of women through labor and childbirth. They had studied the dynamics of labor, the normal outcomes and possible complications, the medical choices individual moms might face and how to help moms make the best choices possible for themselves and their babies. They knew a lot because they had studied a lot of different experiences with childbirth, even though they had never had such an experience of their own.

The women who helped at two of my deliveries were moms, so they had each been pregnant at some point. That was comforting. But their pregnancies were irrelevant in comparison to their other credentials. Don’t get me wrong! The “been there” factor definitely did help them express compassion and empathy for me when I most needed it. They answered the kinds of questions that the male doctors never could answer. But it was their other credentials — the ones they got by study, not by personal experience — that really qualified them to teach and to oversee other women’s labors.

Not only that, but without ordinary moms willing to share the most intimate secrets of their bodies with medical strangers, nobody would know the things obstetricians know. Even midwives would be useless. These childbirth professionals would have nothing to study, nothing to observe, nothing to research, nothing to learn … and no way to help anyone else. They would have no basis for anything they said about labor and delivery.

This means that childbirth professionals and care providers need the moms. They have nothing useful to say without them. Everything they teach must first be learned from people who have been pregnant and given birth.

But at the same time, each individual mom has only her own experience to go by. Even someone like me, with a really wide and varied experience with childbirth, has barely scratched the surface of directly learning what a person might need to know about having babies. The experience of giving birth helps, but it’s not all there is to the story.

What does all that have to do with firearms training and instructor credentials?

It’s like this: there are a lot of people who will tell you to take defensive firearm classes only from someone who has “seen the elephant.” Usually this means someone with a law enforcement background or military experience, someone who has dealt with life-threatening levels of violence. 2 The idea is that someone who has not been there simply cannot know what it is like. People who have “been there” have insights into the nature of violence that people who have not been there simply cannot grasp.

From my perspective, this is both true — and false.

Someone who has “been there, done that” absolutely can say things about surviving violence that no one else can say, just as a mom who has been through childbirth can tell you some things about being pregnant and having babies that a medical doctor cannot. No matter how deeply the scholar studies acts of violence and ways to survive them, until that person has come face to face with violent crime and dealt with its horrors for himself, he cannot know what it feels like or even grasp what it is. There are some things about violent encounters that can only be learned via direct, personal experience.

At the same time, though, there’s a lot more to learn in this area than any one person can ever experience directly. No matter how wide any one individual’s experience with violence might be, it won’t be nearly as wide as the whole field of possibilities. Personal experience can’t provide the same breadth of view seen by someone who has intensely studied a wide spectrum of violent events and learned from them.

Not only that, but the ordinary people who have had some personal experience with violence — no matter how minor, but especially the more extreme types of violence — these people have stories that the rest of us need to hear. A self-defense instructor needs to study personal stories of survival just as a medical doctor needs to study the experiences of women in childbirth. Without people willing to share their very personal accounts of violence with others, nobody learns anything important about the ways crime develops, or how ordinary people can effectively fight back against it.

Students often ask a prospective instructor, “Where have you been?” or,  “What have you done?” Those are good questions. But by themselves, they aren’t enough.

The really critical question is, “What have you learned?


  1. #1 son arrived in Big City, CA via an induced labor in a hospital setting. I had a pitocin drip and an epidural that worked very well. It was an easy labor, less than ten hours start to finish. He weighed a little over 9 pounds at birth.

    I had a miscarriage at 12 weeks between my first two babies. The miscarriage happened in CA at a different hospital than either of the first two births.

    #2 son was born in Big City Suburb, CA via a spontaneous labor in a hospital setting. I had an epidural that didn’t work at all – made things worse, in fact. The labor took more than 24 hours start to finish. The labor itself was extremely rough and the delivery even rougher. The baby weighed 11 pounds at birth.

    #3 son came to us in Hot Place, AZ via a planned homebirth. The midwife – an experienced, well-trained woman without a formal medical degree – helped me manage the labor with a minimum of pain. The delivery was hard work, but not excruciating, and my son weighed almost 9 pounds.

    #4 son arrived in Small Town, WA via a planned homebirth. The midwife – a registered nurse who worked for years in a hospital setting before setting up in private practice as a midwife – suggested a few herbal teas for me to drink in the last month of pregnancy. They must have worked, because I never felt any pain at all. The first contraction hit at 7:30 that morning. Around 3 in the afternoon, experiencing regular but painless contractions, I was sitting at my kitchen table playing rummy with my parents when the midwife arrived. We stepped into the back room so she could check me. She took one look and said, “Don’t you feel like pushing?” My 10-pound son was born 15 minutes later.

    #5 son arrived in Different Small Town, WA via emergency c-section. More than two weeks before my due date, I woke up in a gushing puddle of blood, with a tearing sensation in my right side. Turned out I had placenta previa and a partial abruption. Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, we both survived. The baby weighed a little over 8 pounds.

  2. Keep in mind, though, that many law enforcement professionals will go through an entire career without ever facing deadly-force levels of violence (although most LEOs become very, very familiar with the lower levels of force). Similarly, many soldiers have been technically “in combat” without ever shooting anyone or getting shot at. A person’s job title does not tell you what their personal experiences have actually been.

14 Responses to Seeing the baby elephant

  1. wkeller says:

    As they say – “variety is the spice of life” . . . and of training.

    I agree that for much training, actual combat/gun fight experience on the part of the instructor adds little value. I would much rather take a CCW course from someone who actually carries every day and has a solid reputation as a good trainer from students they have actually trained than from an unknown “operator” who has “been there, done that”.

    That said, if a student continues to train (as they should), they will eventually hit a wall that can only be scaled by working with an instructor with “real world” experience. If I’m working on room-clearing, exiting a vehicle, advancing/retreating under fire, switching between a carbine and a handgun . . . . it helps to take some instruction from someone who has done these things while under actual threat. All IMNSHO, of course! 🙂

    I also say that as an instructor. If I want to learn a new skillset or enhance one I already believe I have – I need to find instructors that will push me and demand of me a higher level of performance. In today’s defensive pistol arena – much of this level of training comes from combat vets or LEOs with street experience. Once learned, much of these skillsets can be passed on to students to make them better shooters.

    The great thing about the training industry today is that there is a broad range of course work available, most of it is well reviewed by folks how have taken the courses and it covers everything from NRA Basic Pistol to dynamic room entry. That’s what’s great about free enterprise – demand drives the market!

    Heck, there’s even room for old farts like me!! 🙂

    • Kathy Jackson says:

      You are so right that there’s room for all of us.

      “That’s what’s great about free enterprise – demand drives the market!”

      Hmmm. Started to answer this briefly, but now I feel another somewhat-long article coming on. Thank you for that.

  2. larryarnold says:

    To me it’s about two questions:
    Does the instructor’s real-world experience translate into what I need to learn?
    Carrying a concealed handgun is completely different from carrying an M-16 in combat, and both are completely different from open carrying a .40cal Glock in a police uniform. Carrying a concealed handgun every day doesn’t prepare an instructor to teach beginning shooters. Neither does a world championship in competition shooting.

    Not to say that experience is worthless, just that it needs translating.

    Second question is whether the instructor can teach, which is an entirely different skill set and requires its own training.

    • Kathy Jackson says:

      Larry ~

      You and I are very much on the same page with that one. But then… I think you knew that. 🙂

      • larryarnold says:

        I do know that. 🙂

        One of the students I’ll always remember:
        Way back when I was fairly new I was teaching an NRA handgun class to new shooters. Comparing semiautos and revolvers I said that semis were faster to reload. A lady in the second row got the frowny does-not-compute look, so I slowed down, restated the point, and gave her an opportunity to ask.
        “How can you put all those cartridges in a magazine faster than you can load a revolver?”
        “You load with a spare magazine.”
        “You mean a gun can have more than one magazine?”

        When she bought her pistol it came with one magazine. No one had thought to mention that she could buy another. That story keeps reminding me how “basic” a first shots class needs to be.

  3. larryarnold says:

    And before you dismiss us guys, Kathy, consider that I’ve spent 18 months during my wife’s two pregnancies and births where I was totally responsible for a situation I had very little authority over. That’s also an interesting experience.

    • Kathy Jackson says:

      Hey, no disrespect or dismissal intended on any level. Everyone has a piece of the puzzle, but nobody gets to see the whole thing.

  4. SteveG says:

    So far as I know Mas Ayoob has never been in a gunfight. However, he is widely regarded as the foremost expert on the use of lethal force in the world. To quote a former Police Chief, now private investigator and expert witness in digital forensics matters.

    I know I attach a lot of weight to what Mr. Ayoob has to say on the subject.

    • Kathy Jackson says:

      Steve ~

      Absolutely agreed. Mas is one of my mentors, and I’m proud to consider him a friend. His expertise comes from years of diligent study, and from interviewing survivors of violent crimes.

      Another expert is a man I was privileged to know personally before he left us too soon — Jim Cirillo. Jim survived more than a dozen gunfights as a member of NYPD’s Stakeout Squad back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Those experiences gave his teaching a depth it might not have otherwise had, but his expertise as a defensive firearms instructor came because he had studied… a lot. One thing that most impressed me about Jim was that when I met him, he was in his early 70s and had just taken a class from a young firearms trainer. He was very excited about the things he had learned from that other trainer. That was why I respected Jim Cirillo: he had been there, done that, and was humble enough to learn from others. Jim was one of the all-time greats because he learned from experience — his and others.

  5. A Girl says:

    Larry beat me to it:) Having real world experience does not mean he or she has the ability to teach. Knowledge and experience are important, but being able to get a student to learn and apply what they have learned are entirely different.

  6. Female and Armed says:

    Another excellent post! Just because I have faced a dangerous situation, and came out intact, doesn’t mean that my responses are relative to any of my students. No one really knows how they will react until they have to. We try hard to improve the odds by training, and encouraging students to practice What If and Visualtization. I know me, I’m fine until the threat is past and then I’m useless until the adrenaline works it way through my system. I’ve known people who could respond at all, frozen, and some in between. I can offer examples, I can offer experiences, although I don’t usually because they are relative to me but maybe not to them. To use your analogy, it would be like trying to tell someone what to expect fron childbirth based on my experience. We all respond differently.

    To paraphrase AGirl, experience doesn’t equal knowledge. My experince will never be exactly the same as yours, but I can teach you tools to help you think through and understand what is happening to your body when you are going through a dangerous encounter.

    Great information, and I love the analogy!

    • Female and Armed says:

      sorry, missing spell check!

  7. Spedie says:

    I was shot in the head when I was 9 years old by my older brother. He violated all four rules. I paid the price.

    I just recently bought my first weapon for HD. I am nearly 50, and outside of military experience did not own or shoot weapons other than one time as a civilian.

    In the past 41 years since my experience, I have always relied on a big dog, a home security system, and good ears. The first night I cleaned and loaded my new baby was the first good night sleep I had in years!

    I am a single mom with no man around the house. It’s just me and my youngest, out there, in this crazy world of ours.

    when I bought my first HD weapon I signed up for classes to get all the training I can get. My goal is to get my conceal/carry after some basic classes and range time.

    I suppose, after being the recipient of getting shot, on a personal level, I KNOW exactly what the flash looks like coming out of the barrel and that how it unfolds is not like TV or a video game. I was ten feet away, so it was up close, and personal. I remember every detail of the experience.

    Just cause I got shot does not mean I know that I do not need training and as much as I can get. In fact, cause I got shot and was lucky enough to survive, means that I respect the weapon, the training, and the four rules so much MORE.

    I think that having the experience of getting shot will make me emphasize training more to anyone that I shoot with. There is nothing like living through personal experience to really drive the point home!!!

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