Many, many months ago Tim asked:
I live in Escondido, CA, which is in San Diego county. Can you recommend a training course near me? I want to learn to shoot shotguns and pistols, and for my wife and stepson to take the training also. I know nothing about guns except to stay away from the business end.
Here’s the problem: there are so many training classes out there that there’s neither the time nor the disk space available to catalog and review them all. But the good news is that I think I can break these courses down into three or four broad categories and give you some tips on finding a good one in each, and give you some reviews of courses our writers have taken to give you an idea of what to expect…
Category 1: Basic Introduction / Requirement Fulfilling Course
This coming week I will be getting an envelope in the mail from the Texas Department of Public Safety which contains the third “resident” concealed carry permit I have been issued in the last three years (PA, VA, TX). And in order to get it I sat through the fourth 8-10 hour mandatory firearms class I’ve taken in recent memory, running out the battery on my smart phone in the back of the class while everyone else went through the standard “9mm or 45” discussion. And all I could think is “damn that Tyler Kee, if it wasn’t for that awesome weekend I’d still be in Virginia and wouldn’t have to do this BS.”
Basic introduction classes are, for the most part, the sole domain of the local gun shop and gun range. If there’s a range nearby there’s a good chance that either the owner runs a basic pistol course or they rent it out to local instructors to use. There are just so many new shooters looking to get started with firearms these days that these classes are springing up like dandelions. Every gun shop here in San Antonio has a beginner’s handgun course available — every single one — but there’s no real way to know which ones are good and which are bad without loitering around the shops and asking strangers.
The best thing to do when you’re looking for a beginner’s course is to first figure out what you want out of it. There are different curricula for a “first shots” course and a concealed handgun course, so get an idea in your head about what you’re looking to get out of the course and start Googling.
Trying to divine the quality of the course before you plunk your dollars down is a little harder, but I have noticed a strong correlation between the neatness and appearance of the shop or gun range and the quality of the instruction. The better the facilities, the better the instruction is going to be. So yes, DO judge that book by its cover.
The most important thing to remember is that you can leave any time, and you can refuse to participate in anything you think is unsafe. Some (very very bad) instructors play a little fast and loose with the rules, so just remember that you can and should leave if you feel unsafe. The good courses will be fine, but just keep an eye peeled.
(Skip to Category 4 for a cheaper option…)
Category 2: Intermediate Level / Regional Facility
Anyone can teach an introduction to firearms. Heck, I even wrote a book on the subject that people seem to like (which tells you just how low the bar is set). But once you have a set of competent shooters who want to improve their skills the options diminish quite rapidly.
Being able to teach intermediate level shooters means having an instructor that is better than them, and that’s not something everyone has on hand. For that reason these intermediate classes usually pop up as one or two per region, meaning some travel may be required. The good news is that due to the scarcity of these courses you can usually find one or two people in a gun shop that have been to them and ask them about their experience, or at the very least you can hit Google and see if any bad reviews turn up in the search results. Like this absolutely terrible experience with Suarez International that one Redditor had.
The better news is that the gun stores usually aren’t in direct competition with these guys so they will typically be happy to let you know all about the courses in the area. Or you could check the comments, where I’m sure our friendly readers have made some suggestions.
Intermediate courses are usually specific to a certain firearm and a specific situation, like defensive handgun or competition shooting or long range rifle, so when choosing a course make sure to pick one that is in line with your interests. A typical course will include a quick refresher on the basics, some warm-up time, and then straight into the more advanced stuff.
Category 3: Specialty Courses
There are classes that feel more like making a holy pilgrimage to the sacred masters rather than just another course. These courses are designed to take shooters and give them everything they need to be the best in the world at a given style or type of shooting. If you’re at the level where a course like this is in the cards then you don’t really need my advice — you already know what’s out there and who is the best. And if you don’t, a quick Google will work wonders.
Just because this is a top level class doesn’t mean you need to be an expert already at the topic, it just means that instead of working on the fundamentals and getting you to be a well rounded shooter the class will focus on one specific topic and assume you already know the basics. These courses might be a little bit of a stretch for someone who has never picked up a gun, but if you’re familiar with your weapon this would be a great way to rapidly improve your performance (if you’re a “drinking from a fire hose” kind of learner).
The good news about courses at this level is that there will be at least one review of the course, no matter what it is. So you’ll have an idea if its worth the time and money to go and see the gurus.
Category 4: Video Courses
There’s one category of firearms instruction that is both cheap and available on your schedule, and that’s video courses. Its not the same as classroom instruction and probably not an option for a brand new shooter, but for those who want to make themselves a little bit better and prefer learning on their own it can be a great investment.
The thing to be aware of though is that there are a TON of terrible videos out there — bad production values, cheesy 70s special effects, presenters who don’t know what they’re talking about… — so not every video is money well spent. For example:
Personally, I’ve found the Magpul series of videos to be extremely well done. I usually throw one on while I’m cleaning guns, and not only have they been great at teaching me some new tricks but they’re entertaining as well.
That’s my opinion, at least. But I’m sure our readers are already typing away with their own ideas. So check the comments.