I have been involved in adult education for most of my professional life. I have taught national workshops at conferences, served as a university professor mainly teaching graduate courses for two decades, and I routinely provide corporate training in my current role. As a firearms instructor, I have had or currently have over 20 teaching instructor certifications including multiples from the NRA and USCCA. I also serve as the director of training at Indy Arms Company and routinely teach 2-3 advanced firearms classes every month.
As a student, I have completed my Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. I have multiple additional professional certifications, and I continue to accumulate additional learning credits yearly.
Finally, as a student of self-defense, I have completed hundreds of hours of training across the country from over 20 different instructors and academies. This laundry list of teaching and learning is presented simply to provide context that I have spent a lot of time learning, teaching, and more importantly for this article, thinking about teaching.
The Explosion of Carrying and Training
In the past two decades, there has been an explosion of handgun ownership and carrying. Looking at the year 2000 there were 3 million handguns sold, compared to 10 million in 2022 (and nearly 13 million in 2020). Additionally, in 2000 there was only one State with permitless carry compared to 26 today (2023). This explosion in gun ownership and carrying has also resulted in a corresponding explosion in training options compared to the past. This availability in available training drives the need for the consumer to be more aware of what their own goals are and how to match those goals to a course and an instructor.
Instruction is a Commodity: The Psychology of Sales
Matching your goals with courses may be harder than one would first assume. As in all things, the marketing truism of “let the buyer beware” is just as true in firearms training. We live in a capitalistic society, and firearms training is at its heart a commodity that needs to be marketed, consumed, and hopefully recommended to other consumers. This means that every instructor should be driven to promote and advertise themselves and their training, and hopefully also make sure they are providing a quality product. As with all products, some people excel at both (marketing and quality), some are good at quality but not so much marketing (making their classes harder to find), and some are great at marketing, but maybe not so great at providing quality instruction.
Although sales is a separate field of study, there are multiple sales techniques that go hand in hand with the study of psychology. It is human nature to want to think services and products are either good or bad. We are drawn to products, including training, that promise the most success for the least investment. Additionally, we tend to further invest ourselves into something once we are already committed. In psychology, this is referred to as ‘sunk costs.’ Sunk costs are when we continue to invest time and money into a service that is not a good fit for our needs, once we’ve already committed to it. This is why we tend to become more defensive about services once we have started them. Everyone falls prey to this, from the individual attending an event they already paid for even though they’d rather not, all the way to several European countries that continued to pour money into the Concord supersonic jet even as it lost money year after year.
When the goal is sales, communicating how your training is better, faster, and easier than other classes appeals to basic human nature. Once a student has taken a class, it is easy to get them to continue to commit to more training — especially if that training is branded as special, faster, or more legitimate. These tendencies are the cornerstones of sales and in themselves are not an issue. But a possible result is that people can choose the wrong training for their goals and then over-commit to that training, even if it is not the best fit.
Long before psychology existed, salesmen understood that people want easy answers and are less interested in truthful ‘it depends’ solutions. This results in many instructors and experts committing to one way in their training as it is easier to understand and easier to sell. The reality is that outside of safety almost all tactics are choices.
Matching Goals With Training
There are two tricks to master to make sure you are getting the training you need.
- Identify your broad training goals, and match those to the type of training you spend your hard-earned money on.
- Be on guard for sunk costs once you have made your choice.
The best way to avoid sunk costs is to ask yourself periodically, “Knowing what I now know, would I invest in this service if I had it to do all over again?” If the answer is yes, by all means, continue. If the answer is no, it is time to walk away and try something else.
The first trick can be hard no matter where you are in your training journey, from beginner to experienced shooter. I will propose in the next paragraph two questions to ask to aid in this process. It should be noted that these two questions will not address the skills, fit, and quality of the instruction you are taking. Those determinations can be predicted through research and testimonials, but you never know until you take the class. I have taken classes where I was sure I would not ‘groove’ with the instructor only to find their style was an excellent match for how I learn. Likewise, I have taken classes where I was sure the instructor and I came at instruction from a very similar viewpoint only to be
disappointed. Overall, researching the classes and instructors can help in these predictions, but everyone has a preferred style of learning and finding an instructor that matches that style is part of the process.
To make it easier to at least match the content of training with your goals I like to think of firearms training as being categorized into three broad groups: Fundamentals, Defensive Skills, and Tactical Skills. This makes it easier to ask the following two questions. “Which category do the majority of my goals fit into?” And once that question is asked, it can be easier to then ask, “Which categories do the training I am thinking about taking fit into?”
Fundamental goals and training are focused on the fundamentals and mechanics of shooting. Fundamentals include safety, grip, trigger press, sight alignment, stance, follow-through, and perhaps breathing. Fundamentals are the skills needed once the firearm is on target to get solid defensive hits. Mechanics are the manipulations before and after shooting including drawing, presenting the gun, reloading, and malfunction clearances. Fundamentals are generally learned before mechanics, but both are the key focus of this category.
Many people take a basic class and then continue out of this category before they have mastered these skills. You do not necessarily need to take fundamental classes over and over again, but you do need to practice these skills until they are solid. I would define solid fundamentals as being able to get a fist-sized group on a target at 21’ to 30’ feet with no more than two seconds between each round. I would personally define solid mechanics as being able to safely draw your firearm, present the firearm to the target with only minor adjustments to the sights, and being able to reload and clear a malfunction automatically while keeping your eyes on the target. Be honest with yourself. If your goals are still fundamentals and mechanics, make sure you are primarily taking fundamental classes. If you are struggling, find an instructor that you like (but who will be honest with you) to book some one-on-one instruction.
Defensive skills are likely the level most of us aspire to. These include the use of force, legal issues, situational awareness, likely scenarios, and the firearms skills to survive them. It should be noted that for most of us, these goals need to be adapted to what we are willing to do, our personal assessment of risk, and the amount of time and effort we are willing to devote to training.
At a basic level, defensive skills allow us to understand what we can and can’t do legally, as well as build skills to help us survive if we find ourselves in a defensive encounter. Though many classes and courses mix fundamentals and defensive skills, I honestly believe you will be better served by focusing and becoming solid with your fundamentals before practicing defensive skills. These skills also include multiple shots, shooting multiple targets, shooting different locations on the target, simple movements, scanning for additional threats, and issuing commands. Practicing such skills with the goal of becoming automatic, such as taking a single quick step left or right when drawing your firearm or always fully scanning your immediate area after engaging a target, will greatly increase your survivability if the unthinkable happens. Once you are happy with your fundamentals you are ready to focus your training on defensive skills. Make sure, as with fundamentals, that you are building a solid set of behaviors before considering moving to the final category.
Tactical skills are a broad bucket of skills beyond what a typical civilian would need for most defensive encounters. I will be honest, these skills are the easiest to promote from a marketing point of view and are, at least in my opinion, damn fun to learn. Tactical skills by my definition include skills that are unlikely to be needed in the vast majority of civilian self-defensive scenarios. These skills can include room clearing, working in teams, tactical reloads, movement towards targets, and often engaging targets aggressively.
The first time I was ever presented with a shoot house scenario, the instructor laid out the entire scenario. Once the signal to begin was given, I immediately retreated and informed the instructor that as there was no one I knew within the building, I would retreat, call the police, and be a good witness from a safe distance. He congratulated me on doing the exact right thing as a civilian, then sighed, and told me to do the exercise again from a military/ SWAT point of view (i.e., as if I was under orders to engage the targets in the building). My point is not to illustrate that I was a smart-ass, but to demonstrate that many skills learned in tactical-style classes are likely not a perfect match for the legal realities of civilian self-defense.
I enjoy these classes and the majority of the classes I take each year are in this category, but I also recognize that for example ‘anchor shots’ (placing a round into the head of downed combatants) may be the best strategy in an apocalypse, but would likely result in a murder conviction in a civilian use of force incident. For many of us mastering the first two categories is sufficient for any reasonable civilian self-defense training needs; however, tactical classes can provide many useful skills when placed into perspective. Just make sure you have solid
fundamentals and defensive skills before tactical skills become your goal.
Selecting the right training can be daunting, but if you first honestly categorize your goals, and then select training focused on those goals, you are much more likely to progress successfully. Be wary of courses promising to jump into tactical skills unless those fit your current goals. Be willing to take classes from more than one source as you master each level. Finally, be willing to audit your choices and if the material taught does not align with your goals, or if you are not enjoying the classes, be open to trying something new. A good firearms class should challenge you, but at the same time, it should be enjoyable and excite you to learn more. If you leave a class discouraged or unhappy consider why that has happened and perhaps look for other instruction.