At a lunch break during a recent class I teach at Gunsite Academy, my students reminisced about previous classes, and more interestingly, about their other shooting instructors. A well known and well publicized trainer’s name came up, and several shooters had very strong opinions about him—as many for as against. Another person said he nearly gave up on getting his concealed-carry permit because his instructor in the state-mandated class included some “teaching points” that, to this student, were not only irrelevant, but ill-advised.
A good connection between student and instructor can make the learning process. A bad connection can break it.
A good instructor and coach is there to help you bring out the best in yourself—to maximize your abilities through a safe and fun learning experience. In the firearms industry, instructors and coaches are usually one and the same, especially in the private sector. But, there is a difference: An instructor’s job is to introduce and teach, to induce understanding of information and technique. A coach’s foremost role is to help an individual improve his particular skill set, and then, if appropriate, to expand it. Shooters need both, and if you’re very fortunate, you’ll find one person who executes the two roles at a high level.
Selecting Your Instructor
So how do you choose a firearms instructor? First, some basic vetting is necessary, including a good look at an instructor’s professional experience, background verification, references, and compatible training objectives. In no particular order—they are all important—ask these questions:
1. How often does the instructor teach?
Instructing is a perishable skill. And the more you do it, the better you are. There are nuances in instructor skill that are enhanced with experience. One is how well an instructor recognizes when he or she is communicating with a student and when not. Another is simply how the form of communication to begin with; the best instructors will present the same information in different ways so students benefit from both repetition and different approaches.
2. How long and how many students has the instructor taught?
Again, more is usually better. A huge benefit of seeing more people shoot is being able to develop a body of data that directly informs an instructor’s ability to diagnose a particular student’s shooting. Not that the instructor is comparing you to others, but that having seen a particular issue/result/tendency a number times, an instructor may be quicker to identify and to correct it.
3. What do other students say about the instructor?
Although the interpersonal connection that you and your instructor develop will be unique, in the beginning, your learning may be more about the instructor’s general ability to communicate. Others’ opinions about this quality are valid and valuable.
4. What qualifications does the instructor have?
Is the instructor a military trainer? A regular instructor at a youth summer camp? A specialist in self-defense training, hunting, or competitive shooting? Are your interests in line with his or her specialties?
Remember that “shooting” and “firearms” cover a staggeringly broad and varied array of activities with guns. If you have something specific in mind, such as learning more about a type of competition or a particular firearm, or a clear objective—such as increasing your ability to defend yourself and your family–focus on that as you look for an instructor. Though many of the fundamentals of shooting overlap, the sooner you start working with an instructor who understands your specific mission, the more efficient your learning curve will be. And it is your responsibility to do the research so you can choose the instructor who best meets your objectives.
The Right Instructor
So what makes for a good instructor for you? First and foremost, he or she must be able to communicate the information you need. It’s not what others can understand–the only thing that matters is that your instructor can explain and describe things in a way that you understand. Similarly, the best instructors can show you how to do what needs to be done, and as importantly, to explain why. These instructors should leave few questions unanswered, and should be able to address yours in a way that satisfies your curiosity and leaves you nodding your head.
Once you start practicing handling and shooting your firearm, you’ll need coaching. Your coach, who may also be your instructor, is there to assess your individual technique. They will watch your movements, your body mechanics, your physicality. Importantly though, we tend to need more “instructing” at the earlier stages of our learning, and we benefit from coaching when we have learned and understood a core curriculum and are ready to execute and practice it.
In addition, your trainer should enable you to see a brighter future, even if you’re struggling with concepts or methods right now. You should feel encouraged after your training sessions, not deflated. A coach’s job is to bring out the most in you, whatever that level is. That requires understanding you and what makes you run, and even more, what pushes you beyond a line that you may not even see.
The Right Class
Finding the right class is as important as finding the right instructor. Choosing the right setting for you is equally important. Are you used to shooting with others shooting alongside you? Do you prefer a more hands-on teaching environment?
A one-on-one session with the instructor might provide all the information you need to decide whether to move into a group class. A private session could also go a long way to assuaging fears, identifying a subtle problem, or building confidence for that group class. And, of course, time spent with your instructor will help you get to know his or her style, and whether he or she is a good match for you.
I’m not suggesting that you have to be best pals with your instructor or coach; in fact, that can actually get in the way of good learning. Rather, your trainer must not only be able to walk the walk, but also to talk the talk with you. It’s a very subjective process.