A great way to start training or brush up on non-live fire soft skills is to take a free class. And yes, they do exist! Multiple nationally sponsored organizations offer free information-only classes for shooters of all backgrounds. In addition to special courses offered by local instructors, U.S. Law Sheild and the USCCA have sponsored multiple free courses over the years. Most recently, the USCCA paired regional sales reps with USCCA-certified instructors to provide short (1-2 hour) courses focusing on topics such as legal use of force, home security, first-aid, and concealed carry options. These classes have been offered at local gun stores, conference centers, and 5.11 stores across the country. Further, U.S. Law Shield offers first-aid (Stop the Bleed), self-defense, situational awareness, and legal use of force classes on a similar model.
I am, among other things, a USCCA-certified instructor and I have coordinated both USCCA, NRA, and US Law Shield free classes through my role as director of training at Indy Arms Company in Indianapolis, IN. Though I have not taught any of these classes directly, I have attended many of them over the years. Through these experiences, I have developed a general set of thoughts regarding free training courses.
Generally, these classes have two components. The first component is a sponsoring organization that provides the physical and fiscal resources to offer a free class. This usually includes content, slides, handouts, space, and an instructor. The second component is the instructor, typically an expert in the given topic (often a practicing lawyer in legal classes for instance) and/or certified by the organization. They are generally provided with a stipend for providing the content by the sponsor.
There is not much to complain about regarding the price; free is free! Additionally, such free classes are a great way to get an introduction to self-defense tactics and considerations that may be under-discussed in many traditional live-fire classes. Although the fundamentals and mechanics of safely using a firearm are at the core of many paid classes, there is also great value in learning how to avoid needing to use your gun in the first place. As these free mini-classes are designed to be easily adapted to any location, they are generally focused on those softer skills of crime avoidance and deterrence such as exploring situational awareness, legal issues in the use of force, methods to avoid looking like a victim, and dissuading criminals from targeting your home, among others. Although these topics are often addressed in live-fire classes, they typically feel more perfunctory and rushed in the effort to utilize the time focusing on the ‘harder’ skills of gun handling and use (live-fire).
Such classes are also usually well-advertised. Additionally, some stores have partnered with training organizations to provide regular in-store seminars. An example is the “ABR Academy Classes” conducted at 5.11 in collaboration with the USCCA. As these free classes are meant to provide quality information while exposing people to the sponsoring (training) organizations, those who are selected to teach these classes are usually highly vetted. Not only are they certified instructors, practicing self-defense lawyers, or trained EMTs, but they are often selected out of a large pool of applicants to present these classes to a wider audience.
Though there are many advantages to free classes, no matter how much vetting occurs, there will still be variations in the quality of the instruction. I have attended some very high-quality free classes, but I have also attended some in which the instructor struggled a little. Such instances are often the result of being unfamiliar with the content (usually pre-prepared by the sponsor). I have also seen instructors spend more time promoting themselves or their paid classes than the material they need to present. Although the salesy nature of these classes will be addressed in the next section, adding further sales can be the unfortunate result of conflicting goals of the instructor and the sponsor.
Unfortunately, there are also those classes in which incorrect information is being provided, which is likely a function of selecting a very skillful live-fire instructor to provide information on legal issues or situational awareness skills that are not their area of expertise. Free is free, but just recognize that though generally sponsored by a national organization, the information provided may still need to be vetted or at least examined critically.
I wholeheartedly support attending free training, and I often attend such classes myself though more from a practical interest in how such information can be positively communicated in short sessions. However, I do caution that such free classes should be the start of such training, not the end. I have learned a lot by attending 90-minute and 2-hour sessions on the legal issues of force. These free classes are generally offered by multiple national organizations that provide financial support in the case of needing legal defense from a use of force case. None of those sessions came close to the amount of correct and detailed information I received from attending a paid 5-hour deep dive on my state’s self-defense laws taught by one of the leading self-defense lawyers in my state.
My point here is to make sure you are supplementing your training and knowledge learned from free classes by taking focused instruction on self-defense as well. As we will discuss in the next section free is rarely truly free and though paid classes cost, that cost usually means the content has survived the competitive nature of the training marketplace. In other words, sometimes you get what you paid for.
Nothing is ever truly free, and so free information comes at a cost, and that cost is usually a sales pitch. We live in a capitalistic society and any training free or otherwise should be evaluated under the lens of who is monetarily benefiting from offering the training and how. When paying for training, the person profiting is the range and the instructor. The fees are paid by the student and go to the facility and the instructor. This straightforward system of capitalism also becomes a de facto measure of quality. The longer the instructor has been able to succeed in changing their training, the more likely a large group of people have found that instruction to be worthwhile. With free classes, the money trail may be more circumspect. Generally, a larger organization is paying the featured instructor and paying for the facilities to host. This organization is likely doing this in order to better sell its products. That product is usually self-defense legal funds protection paid for monthly or yearly, but can also be other products such as holsters, flashlights, or further training.
As far as I am concerned, this results in three unfortunate events at such free training. One, the quality of the instruction is no longer the measure of success as it would be in a paid class. Two, the content provided by the organization may not be factually inaccurate but may be presented in such a way as to sell the need for the service to be sold at the end of the course. And finally, no matter how well done the instruction is, there will inevitably be a sales pitch at the end.
Like all training, free classes need to be evaluated on many factors. Also like all training, there are very good classes and maybe not-so-good classes. Recognize that there is still a cost to free classes and that cost is the metric of the classes’ success and you will pay for the ‘cost’ by having to potentially sort through the content for the sale as well as accept the sales pitch at the end. However, assuming you recognize the limitations and critically examine the information provided based on that knowledge, such classes are a great way to enhance your skill sets for only a commitment of your time. Additionally, they can serve as a great first step into becoming more independent and in charge of your own self-defense.