In Gunfighter Cast episode GC-115, I interview Tatiana Whitlock who is a top-level firearms trainer in every sense of the phrase but also excels in reaching the fastest growing demographic in firearms training —Women. Tatiana breaks out of the typical schools of thought and practice and finds ways to truly reach ladies and get them excited about training.
Listen in as Tatiana and I discuss women’s-only training classes, how the attitude toward women is changing in the firearm industry, caliber choices for training, and how instructors can meet the needs of their students.
Host: Daniel Shaw
Co-Host: Tatiana Whitlock
Introduction/Timeline: Stephanie Kimmell
1:14 Who is Tatiana Whitlock and what does she do?
A highly regarded individual in the firearms world, Tatiana Whitlock is involved in product design and development consultation in the industry — especially in the women’s market. As most of you already know, women are one of the fastest-growing demographics in the firearms industry. She spent a year as the Director of Training at Ann Arbor Arms Academy in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Recently, she took over a range that’s closer to home: Howell’s Gun Shop in Maine. There, she’s putting together a training program and academy. She also offers women’s and open-enrollment classes at ranges across the country. And as if that’s not enough, she also just joined GAT marketing as COO.
Still active as an NRA Spokesperson and part of the NRA Women’s Network, Tatiana recently traveled to Texas to film a series of videos for NRA TV, which can be found on Apple TV.
3:25 How does women’s-only instruction fit in the firearms training world?
As an example, Daniel mentions the founder of Fit to Fight, Ryan Hoover. He says Ryan’s training assistant is his right-hand woman who will “kick your head off.” She’s strong, technical, and a hard trainer. Sometimes people ask, “What do you think about women in training and women’s programs?” They say, “I don’t teach women how to fight using ‘woman style’ or how to use a gun ‘woman style’. We teach humans how to fight other humans. There’s not a certain gun made for women. You don’t have a car that’s made for women. You are completely capable, 100%, of all these things.”
Daniel says that though he’s not a big fan of women’s-only classes, he likes how they give women an opportunity to get their foot in the door to get comfortable. But beyond that, he wants to quickly get them into open-enrollment classes because they’re not unique snowflakes or delicate flowers. He says they can throw down better than the rest of anybody else and he doesn’t want to coddle anybody.
5:20 What does Tatianna think about womens-only classes?
Womens-only programs are like pink guns. Anybody who’s been training for any amount of time tends to outgrow the color, fast, but it’s a necessary evil because it’s a big-selling color. With the growing women’s market, catering specifically to women is a facet of the industry that can’t be denied. So, those classes bring people in.
Tatiana asserts that there is a place for womens-only programs because they’re a safe place for an entry-level person to get started. Those individuals may have a lot of hesitation. They’re nervous, have a lot of anxiety, and they have big emotions surrounding interfacing with a firearm. The reason that a womens-only experience is a safe place to get started because even though the gun is super unfamiliar, a womens-only environment is familiar and not threatening.
In fact, Tatiana’s first firearms class was womens-only. She signed up for an NRA Women On Target clinic. To attend the class, she didn’t have to have a gun, ear or eye protection, or ammo — they provided everything. The class helped her quickly realize that a gun is a gender-neutral object and that the range isn’t a good-ole-boys club, it’s just a big chunk of trees and berms and grass and stuff. She learned that the range isn’t scary or weird. Really, it’s friendly and nice and surprisingly welcoming.
For her, the Women On Target class was the one that facilitated the experience of learning to shoot guns. So there is a place for women’s-only classes. They tend to focus on beginner level people but once you get to intermediate and advanced level programs, there are fewer and fewer women’s-only training opportunities. At that point, it’s just not relevant anymore because those women have outgrown the need for that kind of experience.
7:22 At the Women On Target program, a lot of ladies attend and they get their “Distinguished Expert” badge. Then they ask, “What do I do next?”
Often, when they hear about upcoming open-enrollment classes, they ask to do it in womens-only. Daniel tells them he’ll do the next level classes with them that way, but after that, he won’t do it anymore because after the class they just finished, they’re already ready to be out there with everyone else.
They respond by saying, “I don’t want to be the worst person, to hold the class up.” But Daniel tells them, “You absolutely won’t be the worst person. By the end of the class, you’ll be out-shooting many people. Bring your significant other with you, you’ll be outshooting him at the end of the class.”
Usually, it’s a confidence issue. Women come to the class with low confidence because they have no idea what they’re doing. They’re scared, they’re nervous, and they’ve never shot before. But when the class is over, they leave with significantly higher abilities. Still, their confidence stays lower than their improved abilities.
Men are the absolute opposite. They come with higher self-worth and higher expectations of their ability than their ability actually is, in most cases, and then they leave in the exact same form. Daniel says, “I always find it refreshing, with women who mimic everything I demonstrate. They don’t bring any ego into anything and I enjoy the classes.”
9:00 Is there a down-side to womens-only classes?
Although Tatiana isn’t a member, she has been welcomed into the women’s league franchise groups. She participates in their national conferences as a teacher and speaker. She sees that those groups tend to create a bubble that the participants tend to live very comfortably within. Essentially they expand the safety zone of the beginner level experience and make it a little bit bigger. They fill the new space with things that have structure, a prescribed routine or choreography, things that are known, things that are easy to embrace. Competition sports is one example of where these women’s groups really thrive. There, the challenge can be identified, and once it’s understood it’s not intimidating anymore.
The problem with this, however, is that even though women’s groups really thrive n these competition-based arenas, leagues, or club-type spaces, not much of that translates over into actual concealed carry or real home defense. They might dabble in a self-defense type class, hitting a guy in a big, puffy red suit, giggling and laughing, but it doesn’t go much further than that.
Womens-only classes start to break down when they approach the rough, combative side of self-defense training. There’s no getting around the fact that if you’re going to face a life-or-death experience you’re probably going to get hurt. So it’s much more difficult to get women to participate in the classes that talk about the uncomfortable stuff, practice self-defense situations, and learn solutions. Tatiana tries to bridge that gap so more women will step out of the beginner’s level and dip their toes into the water of the little-bit-scary pond. Because, really, that’s what they’re supposedly preparing for.
11:34 How can men get their ladies to attend firearms training?
The reality is, if you force her, she’s going to hate you forever. Make it her idea. Too many times, a guy takes his significant other to the range, and eventually, she’s reduced to tears. She may be shooting the wrong gun, feeling pressured, or even embarrassed. It’s just a big ball of mess. There’s really no coming back from that, so a good first impression is really vital.
Getting her into a private lesson with a credible, trusted instructor that’s not you isn’t a bad place start. It’s one on one, there aren’t any stupid questions. She can’t get embarrassed. There’s no one to show off to, and there’s no one to be judged by. It’s just her and the person who is 100 percent focused on making sure she does it correctly and safely with 100%.
If she needs the camaraderie or experience of being around other people doing this at the same level, meaning “I don’t know the party end from the business end of the gun,” and, “I’d be more comfortable with a group of people at the same level as me,” there are tons of those programs. The Women On Target clinic is a great place to begin.
Don’t throw her into a Force on Force training program out of the gate because it’s totally inappropriate — especially if she has some anxiety about the firearms community.
14:15 What are some benefits of the Women on Target program?
For many, and there are millions, really, the Women On Target program is perfect. It won’t seem like a lot of fun to others who’ve been in this for a while. It can be too easy to look at these programs and not have proper empathy. Those people need to realize that they need to look through the eyes of a beginner.
Often, instructors use words that beginning students haven’t ever heard. It’s a language that they’ve never heard before and they have no idea what the instructor is talking about. They don’t know anything that you’re saying, much less things like knowing the difference between magazines and clips. This is true for any beginner, not just women. Unfortunately, instructors yell at their students for using the wrong words, but who cares?
15:32 How do you go about finding the right gear?
Men who want to get their ladies a gun need to remove their personal biases. Just get her whatever she’s interested in, and if she hangs out long enough she’ll find something better. It’s ok to point her to something reliable and good but some guns work better for smaller hands.
On the retail side, lots of pink guns are returned by the girl they were purchased for. The ladies say,
“Can you take this cotton candy thing back and give me something I can respect?”
Well-intentioned purchases and well-intentioned salespeople often put a woman into the wrong piece of equipment. How many 70-year-old ladies who are now alone and living by themselves come back with double or single-action revolvers? That gun doesn’t work for them, there’s no way they can work that piece of equipment.
Some folks show up to class with the tiniest little gun, like a Smith & Wesson Bodyguard and have an absolutely miserable time, right out of the gate.
The right gear is going to be a piece of equipment that is going to successfully offer a comfortable learning experience. The application should come next.
17:35 How is the attitude toward women changing in the firearm world?
Sometimes Tatiana goes into gun stores and isn’t recognized. And even though she can run shoot-hosue training and possess a great resume of classes, the guys in the store treat her like she’s a moron. She says, “It happens every day, but I get called out pretty quick. For the time that I can play dumb, it’s pretty awesome… you have to have fun with it!”
But she also says she notices a trend for the better.
Tatiana’s first gun-buying experience happened when she was asked by her ex-husband what she wanted for an anniversary gift. She said, “something shiny and metal” and they ended up at the gun counter at Cabela’s. She knew absolutely nothing about what she wanted or what she was going to ultimately be doing with this stuff.
After she attended her first clinic, she joined the gun club that week and was at the Cabela’s gun counter 48-hours thereafter. She ended up with a cute little Beretta U22 Neos, which she outgrew in about a day. According to the guy at the counter, it was the perfect gun because it looked pretty space-age and kinda cool. Even though she liked the way it looked, it just didn’t work out over the long haul.
But now, what she sees now is positive.
It’s a known fact that the market of women shooters is growing. Folks behind the counters are getting educated and are starting to do a much better job. Tatiana says she’s happy when new shooters come in and say, “I worked with a great person and they fit me with the right stuff. It wasn’t the hand-cannon my boyfriend/husband told me I needed to get.” When she hears comments like this she knows they received some education and were treated with respect.
Daniel says that he and his wife have had also had bad experiences shopping at gun stores all over the country. While browsing like ordinary customers, a sales guy notices his wife looking at something. The big ego thing happens, with something like, “Here, let me help you out pretty little lady.”
Tatiana says that when that happens to her, “The schooling happens quickly.”
You can hide and you can pretend not to know any better, but that only lasts so long. As soon as she is handed the firearm and handles it, she can’t hide it any more.
She says you can tell everything about a person by how they’re handling a firearm. That goes especially for the folks behind the counter.
“The way they pick it up and hand it to you? That’s pretty much everything I needed to know.”
21:45 How do instructors identify which students are going to be the scary ones that day?
Tatiana says she does the psych profile before her students even touch their equipment, during the pre-brief in the classroom when they introduce themselves.
They either tell you that they’re there to burn down zombies, or they have a personal protection order, or even just the attitudes they have about the firearm and their motivation for being there tells you quite a bit.
When couples attend her classes she has one rule: they don’t shoot on the line next to each other and if there’s any word of critique, they’re out, because that’s not what it’s about.
25:34 What classes does Whitlock recommend that people take with their spouses?
She recommends a Basic Handgun for Self-Defense class. It is a melding of basic handgun review: how to run the gun, how to feed it, and how to fix it in the context of keeping the mind engaged outside of the gun.That’s important because the gun is not the area of focus in self defense. It’s the solution to a problem and the extension of a decision.
When Tatiana teaches that two-day class, she starts taking many of the familiar training protocols out, like calling the line and all of the things that facilitate the drill or the exercise. Why? Because then students have to learn to respond to what they see. Removing those protocols forces them to respond to different stimuli, make decisions, and engage with the targets in a fairly different way.
We work with partners, line 1 and 2. Those individuals play different roles, both in the learning experience and in engaging in the exercises. So it’s not just about you. It’s about how can you put this piece of equipment into context and start building some of that experiential knowledge within the confines of a square range.
28:06 Does confidence matter?
Daniel’s opinion is that although that word is used a lot, confidence isn’t necessarily the goal. His goal is to increase ability and capability and for students to attain realistic perception of themselves. He says that a hundred percent of the time, confidence goes right along with that. There is a lot of coddling struggling egos out there, making people feel like they did amazing when they didn’t.
Tatiana disagrees slightly, saying that she’ll take the word confidence any day over the words ’empowerment’ or ’empowered’.
That one needs to go down in flames.
How is that not offensive to women everywhere? What if there was a ‘men’s empowerment’ class? That’s a word that is quickly outgrown within the first three minutes of realizing that…
You’re already powerful. We’re just reminding you of what you’ve got.
The firearm is going to be there for you when you need to use it and that has absolutely nothing to do with being weak. The ability to utilize that firearm has everything to do with being strong.
You need to build the skills and the confidence in yourself and your abilities in order to be able to put that tool to use — or it’s just a useless chunk of metal.
31:08 What’s with all the colors?
Tatiana says that’s another irritation she has about the Women’s market in the firearm industry.
“When you look at the women’s market, there’s a lot of teal and pink and purple and lavender — all of these pastel-ey type colors. Lipstick and (it’s ridiculous) things that refer to gun girls…the term ‘girl’… it just brings it back to a very adolescent state. It’s pretty frustrating to see grown women associate firearms with a pre-teen mentality and yet still claim to be badasses.”
31:58 What kind of clientele does Whitlock have?
She gets the whole spectrum of skill levels. She has folks who are very experienced who come to a basic handgun classes (she still goes to basic handgun classes herself!)
“If I can get into a basic program with a different instructor a year for each of the disciplines, there’s some good knowledge to be had at that level. There’s always some fine-grit sandpaper you can take to your skill sets and hone in. To have the variety of students with advanced skills in a beginners class gives the brand new folks an opportunity to see what it can look like, from a peer. That is so valuable.”
Daniel agrees and says he does his best to capitalize on that in his own classes. At the beginning of classes, during the introductions, he lets the advanced students know that he’s glad they’re in the class and that they’ve invested so much in their training. They make the class better. He uses them for demonstration purposes and they often add in something to the class.
33:50 Is it good to train with .22 handguns?
A .22 has a time and a place. If you’re going to do rimfire challenges, or if you want to find the happy Zen place for bullseye shooting and live in that world, then the .22 is a beautiful piece of equipment for that.
Everyone has their own strong opinions about the legitimacy of the .22 at any level for home self-defense and there are cases of individuals who have done good work and saved themselves and their families with the tools that they had at their disposal.
However, when it comes to introducing new people to shooting, Tatiana tends to skip the .22 unless the student is a youth shooter or someone who has a severe emotional expression when it comes to being around firearms. In those cases, the .22 is a gentle entry into the experience.
Once, Tatiana had a womens-only class, a private group of ladies from a club who wanted to do something totally different for their outing night. Fifty percent of those ladies had never touched a gun before. The guys at the range graciously set up the range in advance with a different gun in each lane.
She saw that and threw them all back in a bucket and came back in with all 9mm’s.
Nobody there said ‘Boo’ about the fact that they were using 9mm. The ladies had no idea that they were working with a 9mm because they had nothing to compare it to. They’d never shot anything before.
They did fantastic!
Those women got to try out seven different guns, and experience different grips and sights. They tried revolvers and got to experience lasers — it was about the experience.
Tatiana says when they got back into the classroom, she showed them the difference between what they shot and a .22 and…
Wouldn’t you know they thought they were the worlds biggest badasses ever because, wow, that’s what they shot!
It was huge for them. It proved the point that it’s not necessary to use the smaller caliber unless it truly is necessary for the individual where that really is the best option or if the application is correct for it.
In one beginner handgun fundamentals class, Daniel observed that they went out and shot some .22’s. Later, he handed the instructors a rewritten class. It was much more streamlined, 3 to 3 1/2 hour class depending on the class size. He told the instructors that if the students needed to use the gun the night after they took the class, they should have the skills and knowledge available to do it. In that context of the very beginning of basic handgun training, he told the instructors, “We’re not doing .22’s.
The instructors argued, “We have to because they’re all so nervous and so scared.”
Daniel responded with “How can you say that? They have absolutely nothing to compare it to. They’re nervous and scared because you’re like, ‘Well that’s a 9mm right there. We’re going to pull that out a little bit later once you’ve gotten a little bit more comfortable and you’re used to this .22.’ ”
If you’re talking about pure-form marksmanship, awesome, .22’s are amazing.
But if you’re talking about self-defense, you need to be using defensive calibers. Why? Because people miss their targets when they don’t know how to press triggers properly. They jerk the trigger or they over-press the trigger, and the anticipation of recoil is a symptom of their poor trigger press. They have these problems repeatedly, and it has everything to do with the perception of the recoil of the gun and their lack of ability to press the trigger.
So really, a student can practice on a .22 caliber handgun, and never actually be introduced to the recoil or the jump angle or all of the things that they’ll experience when they go to a defensive caliber. In that scenario, as an instructor, Daniel doesn’t get the opportunity to engage the fundamental error that he expects the student to make. So instead, he goes straight to a 9mm. That makes it possible for him to fix the fundamental error from the very beginning. In most cases, there’s just no need to have a .22 in that process.
In agreement, Tatiana goes on to say that in her mixed or women-only classes, everything is done dry before they go live, especially with beginners. That way the students have no question about basic things like what to do with their hands or how to stand.
It’s comparable to a 13-year-old holding a cigarette — they don’t know how to hold the thing. Then, the fact that they don’t know what to do with or interface with a piece of equipment that could hurt themselves or someone else if they do it wrong. That kind of situation is how you start to get the emotional spiral of doom. All that anxiety and anticipation is only magnified.
So, regardless of the caliber, it’s the instructor’s responsibility to teach handling skill so that students know what to do and what to expect. Students need to experience manipulating the firearm in a safe and clear environment, learning muzzle control and trigger finger discipline. By the time they go hot, the only thing that’s different is that now there is experienced recoil, some sound, and they get to punch a hole in paper.
If the instructor has taken them through the experience guided-meditation style, their first shots on target are pretty successful. There’s really no room for error because they haven’t built in the bad habits yet. And that’s an instructor’s job, to take students through that journey in a way they can repeat consistently on their own.
Classes that rely on the gun to dictate the experience are lacking in instructorship because trainers should be able to take their students through the program, regardless. It’s important for instructors to reevaluate their methods, do self-assessments, and make improvements when they’re needed.
42:36 Are there differences in techniques between various instructors?
Yes. For instance, Daniel teaches people to stare at the target and use their sights as a secondary focus, lining up a blurry front sight instead of a blurry rear sight to be able to get hits on target. He says this is especially the ones who use transition lenses and bifocals and have a hard time figuring out what lane to look through. He says that Chesty Puller and the fathers of the Marine Corps marksmanship would roll over in their grave if they knew what he was teaching sometimes to get people to hit targets. But, it doesn’t have to be what’s always been taught, there are other things that work.
43:04 How do firearms instructors meet the needs of their classes?
Having worked in different places around the country, Tatiana says the audience changes regionally. What appeals to them changes too, as do the motivations for the people in the class. Speaking to them in a way that’s meaningful can make or break that experience.
There is no one size fits all. There’s no script to doing it right. Instructors have to be able to diagnose and work with different personalities. In the pre-brief session when everybody introduces themselves, the instructor has the chance to figure out who the problem person is. It might not be the person that’s the most nervous. It’s most likely the person with the biggest ego or the person that’s there to prove that they have nothing to learn.
Who is your biggest challenge? The sniper? If you can get through to them… if you can break through and earn their respect and trust by the end of class to the point that they’re engaged and asking questions — that’s a win. The rest of the folks in the class benefit too and learn from that ‘largest personality’.
On the flip side, though, if the instructor fails that person it’s an unfortunately contagious condition. The other students in the program lose their trust in the instructor.
All of these things combined can make for a successful class environment or a more challenging one.
45:06 What’s Tatiana’s elevator pitch?
Tatiana tells people, “I teach people how to shoot guns.” If she finds out the person is a mother, she talks about how she teaches families firearm safety. That’s the pitch to the parents, because…
…it’s not just about you, it’s about your family.
That’s the most important thing to parents: the gun in context to the people that they love the most.
When her children are asked, “What does your mommy do?” they say their mommy teaches mommies and daddies how to keep their families safe.
From there, the conversation opens up, and she doesn’t use a bunch of crazy terminologies. She just says what it is and speaks in a normal language without a bunch of encyclopedic references about guns. That way the scary factor is taken away.
You don’t have to use industry lingo with somebody that’s new. You just have to be a real person and have an engaging conversation.