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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…)

Relevant reviews:

Use of Force Academy Level 1 Pistol (West Virginia)

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.

Relevant reviews:

G4S ITI Competition Pistol II (Virginia)

KR Training – Defensive Pistol Skills (Texas)

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.

Relevant reviews:

Gunwerks Long Range University

SIG SAUER Academy Active Shooter

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.

[Email your firearms-related questions to “Ask Foghorn” via [email protected]. Click here to browse previous posts]

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  1. Nice article.

    You will find LOTS of great info in my DVD series. We have programs for novice shooters and wells as those interested in self-defense.

    Visit with this link:

    David Kenik

  2. Good, informative post.

    I agree that the initial training should be face-to-face. As a certified NRA instructor in several disciplines, I recommend finding a suitable course and instructor convenient to your location: . As a rule, the courses are affordable and the instructors are flexible, at least in my experience.

    In addition to participating in many professional training courses, I have also surveyed hundreds of hours of DVD training videos. I find the Magpul series to be very good but possibly too intense for entry level shooters. For my money, the best overall (as measured by how many times I watch them again) is the Thunder Ranch video series by Clint & Heidi Smith. When I am reading or watching anything else (such as Handguns Magazine or Personal Defense TV, for example), I pay particular attention to Clint Smith, Ed Head (of Gunsite Academy), and Mas Ayoob. Those fellows know their stuff with a minimum of fluff!

    Last, I’d also advise a new shooter to shoot any gun before you buy it. This will help ensure that you have a positive first gun experience rather than buying a gun you won’t enjoy or shoot often enough. An additional benefit of using a local NRA instructor (and a local gun shop, I suppose) is that many will likely be able to provide a sample of your chosen first gun for you to try out.

  3. “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,”

    Wait — hold the phone.

    You have three permits (PA, VA, TX) and you’ve said through a course for each them — is that exactly what you meant, or am I misunderstanding it here?

    If that’s the case, someone has seriously ripped you off. Pennsylvania has *** NO *** mandatory training requirement for a License to Carry Firearms. It is literally fill out the app, take a photo, wait for the background check to get done, then show up, pay the fee, and collect your license. Even in Philadelphia. In some sleepy counties, it can even all be done in the same day.

    On the subject, I have taken courses from Randy Cain and Giles Stock through the auspices of the FIRE Institute here in Pittsburgh (which, if you’re in the area, is a great outfit,) and thoroughly recommend both of them.

  4. I have found that it’s very difficult to find out information on the Category I courses because most people only take that category of class once, whether it be for a license to buy, or a license to carry. (My class was for my carry permit, so my comments below relate to that purpose.) Since they have nothing else to compare to, unless the course was so incredibly bad that even a newbie gunner would notice the fail, they can’t offer useful feedback.

    I went into my Cat I class with a little bit of existing knowledge, and it was enough to know my class was thoroughly useless. Quite literally the only value I got out of my four hours and $50 was the passport photo and the signature on the certificate. The videos taught me exactly nothing; they had much more of a “This is why you should own/carry a gun” vibe than a “This is how to do it right (or at least not wrong)” vibe. My thought was that I was in a concealed permit class, so I clearly already had the desire. Watching a two hour video on “why guns are good” was a colossal waste of time.

    So, if asked, the only thing I can tell people is “pick someone else,” but I can’t tell them who, because I’ve never experienced any other Cat I classes.

    I have a friend who expressed interest in getting a permit, and it seemed like the local Gander Mountain concealed course was pretty good, and I was going to ask them if I could sit in and audit for free (no shooting, no certificate at the end), but she lost interest in it before we got to that point. So I still have no experience with other, possibly better classes.

    Local gun stores are little help at this level, because after the fact, I hit several other local gun stores, gave them my standard “That crappy class left me with more questions than answers” spiel (without telling them where I took the initial class), and asked if they had any suggestions for better/further information. The responses I got were one or a combination of only two things: either “Our class is great, take it” or “You’re just trying to get the certificate at the end. Don’t overthink it.” Not one shop gave me any sort of solid recommendation, other than self-referrals.

  5. I sent one my office staff to a Suarez Ladies pistol course and she had an incredibly good and educational experience.

  6. My Defensive Pistol Skills 1 course is NOT a Category I course. It’s a Category 2 course.

    “Asking people at gun shops” is not a good way to find a school. We have the internet now. Any reputable school will have a website that supplies the basic information about the instructor and their program, and it’s not that hard to use Google to find most, if not all, of the schools in any area.

    Criteria that are easy to research online include: years of experience (as a shooter and as an instructor), verifiable credentials (as an instructor, competitor, cop or military vet), and course reviews by students.

    • By adding the search terms “IPSC IDPA” to the Google search, I found the folks at Oceanside Practical Pistol Training, who meet my basic criteria for years of experience and verifiable credentials. Those active in IPSC and IDPA competition typically have a higher-than-average level of safe gunhandling and shooting skill, and those that are trained as range officers have additional skill/experience in working with less skilled shooters on a regular basis. If nothing else, those active in practical shooting competition usually know more about shooters in the community than those at gun shops would, because on the weekends they are on the range shooting, not behind the counter selling.

  7. I am in San Diego and there is not a lot here. Academi (formerly XE, formerly Blackwater) has courses at their Otay location. They are priced on the somewhat high side.

    Beyond that, there is “Practical Defense Systems” out at Project 2000 range in El Cajon.

    There is plenty of good training in the Corona area. It’s at the old Olympics shooting center. It’s a HUGE range and can accommodate the classes. That’s the problem in SD, there are not many outdoor ranges that can support a class.

    If anyone is in the socal area, please check out the training section on the website.


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