The Cornered Cat
Which certifications make a qualified firearms instructor?

From my email box:

“Ms. Jackson,

In selecting a qualified firearms instructor, what certifications, etc. should one look for?”

My answer:

The short answer is, if you’re looking for a good teacher you can trust, don’t look for specific certificates as go/no-go gauges.

Instead, look for an ongoing pattern to the person’s resume. What you want is someone who is a good shooter and life-long learner who prides himself or herself on meeting the needs of the student. Certifications and award medals matter only in the sense that they document a person’s activity toward that end.

The experienced instructor’s resume should show an longstanding and ongoing pattern of relevant training in many different aspects of armed and unarmed self defense, and should also include studies in teaching adult students.

The shooting skills are really just the bare beginning of what a defensive firearms instructor needs to know, although they should definitely have good shooting skills. You’d want the list of classes your instructor has attended to include

  • many different shooting classes for students at different levels of ability from several different instructors and schools;
  • medical classes that include CPR and stabilizing a gunshot victim;
  • classes that explore legal issues as well as criminal behavior and avoidance;
  • classes specifically dedicated to adult learning and/or public speaking; and
  • classes in physical skills that could include both unarmed self defense and using lower-level tools such as pepper spray or Kubaton.

For newer instructors, the resume won’t be anywhere near that rich or that varied, and that’s okay. But you should be able to see a pattern like that beginning to form even from the earliest days. Look for a person who exhibits at least as much enthusiasm for learning and seeing their students improve as they do for getting bodies in the door and you’ll be doing well.

Of course I have my own prejudices and biases as far as specific schools and classes go, and I’m sure not going to tell you that every school has equal value. (That would be both silly and wrong.) But the differences in where people started tend to even out once they start moving around a bit and cross-pollinating their ideas and techniques with ones from different sources. That’s why I’m generally less trustful of resumes where all the experience comes from one school or franchise or clique. But early on, people should get a lot of experience at one place before they really begin to branch out. So there’s a balance to watch there.

Again, the specifics don’t matter nearly as much as whether the person’s history shows an ongoing pattern of actively studying defense-related topics, from a variety of sources that may include (but should not be limited to) the NRA, USCCA, SAF, and whatever local, regional, or national school or trainer most appeals to them.

Although good instructors tend to start with a deep dive into one school’s way of thinking, once that has happened I personally prefer to trust those who have explored with an open mind versus those who have stuck within one paradigm for their entire learning experience. I also tend to lean toward those who have presented at Tom Givens’ (Rangemaster) Tactical Conference, because those are folks who tend to learn from each other and spur each other on to do more, better. They also tend to be folks who are willing to give back to the community, as evidenced by donating their weekend to that cause. Again, that’s not a go/no-go gauge, just one factor I tend to favor.

Someone who has spent significant time as an assistant, protegee, mentee, etc, under the wing of an experienced master instructor — those are all good things too. These are high-value experiences that doesn’t necessarily show on the resume, but will often show up in written bios or casual conversation.

Oh, one more thing. I’d be a little wary of instructors who have nothing but instructor certs on their resumes, rather than a mix of shooting classes and instructor classes. I’d look especially hard at a resume that offers a long list of instructor certifications in different shooting disciplines, but does not have any student-level classes that explore any one of those disciplines in greater depth. I want my instructors to have spent some significant time as a student, perhaps even taking comparable student-level classes repeatedly from different schools so they can absorb how different master instructors cover a similar spot in the student learning curve.

So that’s the long-winded short answer for what to look for in an defensive shooting instructor. On the other hand, if you’re asking about what your own resume should look like because you’d like to become an instructor yourself, see above. 🙂

Hope that helps!

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