Firearms Training Range at Austin
courtesy The Range at Austin
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The subject of formal firearms training tends to be a rather controversial one at times. After all, isn’t a gun just a point and shoot tool? What do you really need to know other than that? Why pursue formal firearms training? Here’s my perspective as a gun owner who carries daily and has chosen to pursue formal training to improve my skills.

If you just buy a gun for home defense and put it into a kitchen drawer or nightstand, maybe you can make a good argument that you don’t need training. Personally, I still think it’s a good idea to have some lessons and get in a range session at least once a month with that firearm. Here’s why:

—You need to make sure your gun works. That’s the simplest reason but also the most essential. If you never load it, fire it or clean it, there’s no guarantee it’s going to work the moment that you need it most.

—You need to make sure you can handle the gun. If you own more gun with different manuals of arms, that could work against you in a defensive situation. If you have limited strength or dexterity, there are all kinds of guns available now for small to large and weak to strong hands. It’s important to be sure the gun you’re relying on is one you can actually use.

—Training and practice accustom you to the mindset you need in order to hold a gun and defend yourself.

That said, I don’t know that a person who owns a gun solely for home defense has to do these things. I just happen to think they’re a good idea, based on range sessions where a friend has shown up with a gun he “hasn’t shot in a while” that was sitting in a kitchen drawer and it malfunctioned, he couldn’t load or fire it reliably, or something similar. A gun is a tool and just like any other tool, it needs to be run, cleaned, lubed and inspected once in a while.

When you decide to carry concealed, it’s a whole other ball game in some respects. Some of this depends on where you live. If you’re in a rural environment where there are very few people and you’re mostly driving around on back roads in your truck, maybe you don’t need formal training other than knowing how to operate the gun and making sure it works. I would say the need for formal training goes up another level every time you add another layer of potential “non-targets” to the environment in which you carry the gun.

I live in a dense urban area. What that means is that even stepping out my door in the morning takes me right into a busy environment crawling with dogs, scooters, people walking, baby carriers, cars, motorcycles, and kids running around. It’s always that way, so that’s the environment I’m always going to be carrying in. Since I live in a dense urban neighborhood the houses are close together, not spread apart. People are out, going to work, shopping, eating, doing life.

As a conceal carrier in such an environment, something I have to think about is the density of that environment everywhere outside of my home. SIMS training really showed me how easy it is to make mistakes with a firearm that can be lethal to people who are not the bad guy.

It’s much more important in a dense urban area to be accurate and effective should you ever have to deploy a firearm for self defense. In an urban setting you also deal with things like panhandlers, clusters of people high on drugs, and ill-intentioned folk who pair up to mug you or rob your house. In short, you have to prepare to deal with potentially more than one assailant and do it in an environment surrounded by other people.

All of these factors are what made me decide to choose formal firearms training – that and being introduced to the shooting world by friends who are instructors and insisted on it. In general, in choosing a training course, I select courses that involve no fewer than 350 rounds fired during the course, and preferably 500 rounds per course day. I’ve found that round count tends to be more the standard in the courses that have really improved my skills for marksmanship and response time.

I choose courses where there’s a good instructor-student ratio, maybe one instructor to 5-8 students. Too many students and not enough teachers create a potentially dangerous environment where you may be working on new skills with a loaded firearm and there aren’t enough instructors to keep an eye on everyone and maintain a safe setting. Having more teachers also allows you to get help if you’re having a special struggle with your gun or the drill. They can have someone step aside and help you without impeding the rest of the class.

I also tend to avoid courses that are overly “tacticool” and that rent guns to participants. Do you really want to be in a low light class with someone renting a gun who’s probably never held that (or possibly any) firearm before? I don’t. I’m just saying.

There are a lot of great firearms courses out there today and I hope this helps you find the one that’s right for you if you choose to pursue formal firearms training. What courses have you taken and what do you look for in a firearms instructor?

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  1. $300 invested purely into ammo and range time is way better than $300 invested purely into “formal” training. Just my .02

    • Sound like you have a good foundation on your skills. A few of us don’t have that, yet. I had an oppertunity to train on a FBI simulator and that was an eye opener for me. Training on the range, my instructor watched me move around and provided improvement suggetions. I learned a lot from training and the instructors. Practice properly helped me fine tune and retain that.

      • I learned my fundamentals from lots of Youtube videos and lots of practice. Shoot, the content of some Youtube videos is pretty much the same as or even better than paid classes and Youtube is free.

        • @L

          That’s true – there is a LOT of good YouTube content out there these days. I think that for a total beginner it’s good to get some instruction from a live person if you can, at least an experienced friend if possible, just because there are so many YouTube videos that I’m not sure that a new person would be able to tell which ones are the really good ones.

        • Completely agree L…YouTube is a godsend especially with a big screen smart tv. I’m ok with formal training but I am confident of my skills in a self-defense situation. I had very little experience around guns a scant 8 years ago save shooting 22’s and a 410 shotgun as a kid. Cleaning,good instructions and disassembling was absent…

        • @Elaine
          True, you do have to sift through the garbage when researching on your own. It comes down to a time vs money preference I guess. I have plenty of spare time but not much money, and that’s why my preference is the DIY route. For people who have money but not as much time, it makes total sense to take a class and get the basics down in one afternoon.

        • The value of training varies with the person. There are folks who are very good at objectively assessing themselves and maintaining awareness of their actions (physically and mentally) while improving their performance, and there are others who are very, very bad at it. The former can usually benefit form self guided training, the latter much less so.

        • If I may offer a suggestion. While some Youtube vids can be helpful, I’d recommend you video yourself during your practice sessions with closeups on the basics (stance, trigger control, etc. ). Then replay them and critique your performance. You are your best critic.

        • @raz-0 got it I think, the biggest benefit of training is having someone there besides yourself (or your dad, or your buddies, etc.) who can coldly and objectively call you on and help correct your mistakes every time. It’s a faster and (usually) ultimately cheaper way to add skills.

    • @Tim

      Eh, as a woman, concealment works so differently anyway. I usually don’t even wear pants that have belt loops. I spend most of my days in leggings and dancewear type stuff. My system is a modified M7 style that I rigged myself, which I’ll probably write a blurb about at some point. Not a fan of off body carry.

  2. I wouldn’t consider a low-light class “tacticool”, but I would consider it an “advanced” class requiring a demonstrated track record of safety and proficiency. I frequently train with an instructor that aggressively screens new students who want to jump into an advanced class without taking the pre-requisites and even requires references from other reputable trainers (I think he once said he has a 90% rejection rate for those cases).

    I don’t think there’s any case to be made about not getting training of some sort if you plan on using your gun for self defense. Owning a gun for plinking or clearing varmints is one thing (and I would argue that regardless of your purpose, all gun owners should have safety burned into their subconscious), but owning a gun for defensive purposes brings with it a whole package of considerations from medical to legal to your own personal ethics that you simply cannot ‘figure out’ in the moment.

    • @Foobar

      Agreed. I had to pass prerequisites for the SIMS courses I took and the Pistol 2 class I’ve failed twice and will likely finally pass in the spring of 2019. The Paul Howe course I hope to take next year actually required personal references from graduates of his course for a civilian, since most of his courses are for LE/military. Training is hard work but I’ve found it to be so worth the investment, not only for the skills but also for the proper mindset.

  3. I’ve taken pistol,rifle and shotgun courses from The Firearms Academy of Seattle (located in Onalaska Washington) and a introduction pistol class from Rob Pincus. I believe not getting training, while possible, is not optimum. Anything that I can do to increase the odds of my family’s survival I’m going to do. I highly recommend training with Rob Pincus.

  4. appleseed.
    just can’t get enough .22 training.

    “…training really showed me how easy it is to make mistakes with a firearm that can be lethal to people…”
    12ga and a pumpkin. it becomes fairly obvious.
    i guess i’m self taught.

  5. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get good practice. I would look into local “gun” club activities in the NRA magazine “events” section. Some clubs have NRA Action Pistol or other type activities that you can participate in for a nominal fee. They are usually run by club members who are NRA certified instructors. NRA citified instructors are all over the place. You don’t have to shell out for “name brand” training unless you really want to. Supporting local clubs supports your local gun community and can help you build local connections you aren’t going to get at a private business. I’ve had great luck with this but your experience may vary.

    • @Owen

      Yep. I support (and have insurance with) USCCA because some of that money goes to free firearms training for people who can’t otherwise afford it. Experience level in local gun clubs can vary a lot, I’ve found, but it seems like a good place to get fundamentals if the group meets in a place close enough to practice and learn.

  6. I believe training for any activity is good as a good instructor will help you up the learning curve faster. That said, you do have to be selective in finding good instruction (if the instructor can’t show you how to do it, they really can’t teach it well most of the time) and you have to practice what you have learned. Further, you have to be able to accept correction.

    I watched just an awful video of some gun barbie girl trying to do some basic shooting around objects. She was clearly in over her head. I immediately wrote that school off as the instructors failed to stop her when it was clear she didn’t have the skills to complete the course of fire. Everyone will take your money, the good instructors will give it back and point you to the training you need to get to the next level.

    • @Michael

      Totally agreed. Instructors who fail to intervene quickly and appropriately when someone is being unsafe are out of my book, too. I don’t want to ever get shot for any reason, but getting shot in a training course would be the ultimate bad joke.

      For me as a beginner, something else that was invaluable in having instructors was learning that I didn’t have the right firearm, which happened a few times with different pistols before I settled on the two I have now. I would have kept on struggling and struggling with those guns if I hadn’t had someone there to tell me it just wasn’t the right firearm for me, the reasons why, and suggest what I needed to look for in something that would be a better fit. Selling those off and getting ones that worked for me saved me hours of fruitless struggle that would have only frustrated me as a new shooter.

  7. I mentioned it before, the Practical Shooters Association is a good way to hone shooting safety and aiming skills. I just don’t spend any time on memorizing the targets. I don’t care what my score is.

    The cost is minimal.

  8. More than anything else this is what motivated me be begin regular training and to take formal classes.

    From 2014:

    “According to the study, 40% of the criminal attackers received formal firearms training, over 80% regularly practiced with firearms (averaging 23 practice sessions a year), more than 40% had at least one gunfight experience, and 25% had been involved in more than 5 gunfights.”

    “The cops involved in these incidents all had some type of formal training at their departments, but on average, only fired their guns 2.5 times per year. ”

    I like Paul Markel. He at Student Of The Gun, has a one box of ammo, 50 rounds, training session for anyone to do at their local range by themselves.

    • “Training is great. But are you having fun?” I’m 100% with Ralph. Can you ask any of your instructors of they do a “fun” type class, or can recommend someone that does one? An outdoor range where you can shoot at Ritz crackers, plastic water bottles full of water, playing cards, Oreos, NECO candy wafers, bowling pins, metallic silhouettes, metal knock down plates? I don’t know if Bowling Pin matches are a “thing” anymore, but they used to be a lot of fun while still requiring marksmanship.

      • @Ralph and @bontai

        Well, I didn’t come into guns that way. My first shooting friends were, in order: a former SF AFCC guy; a former NCIS guy; two IDPA captains. First instructor was a Vietnam Vet who made me handload every mag in my horrible Ruger SR9C and yelled every time I made a mistake. Subsequent instructors have been current or former LEO or military, mostly SF types.

        I can safely say that I have never been taught that a gun had anything to do with fun. The approach has been very serious. As an urban person I guess I don’t know anyone who has a cool “fun” setup either. There’s one range in my area where you can rent a bay and set stuff up on your own, but it’s a long way away, highly in demand and since they rent by the hour, it can get expensive when you have to use a lot of time doing setup…

  9. Ex-Marine Infantry Officer (just short of 8 years) I’ve had all the training I could ever need.

    That stuff is hard to forget.

  10. Elaine, your being someone that didn’t grow up with guns and living in the environment you describe, I whole heartedly agree with your pursuit of good training. My brother-in-law has had a zillion hours of training, so much that he is now a state certified trainer for his state’s mandatory concealed weapons classes, and certified to train police officers as well. He built his own “shoot house” on his property plus has ranges out to 500 yards. He is maybe a little too tactical for me, plus he is over 6 hours away. I got most of my shooting training from local gun clubs with NRA instructors back in the 1970’s-1980’s Most of my shooting was bull’s eye target, with an occasional bowling pin match (anyone remember those?) and metallic silhouette match which were basically using the same skills as bull’s eye shooting. I’ve read a lot of stuff like Massad Ayoob’s books, Bill Jordan’s book “No Second Place Winner” and many others, so I am “book smart”, but I’ve never run thru a shoot house. I’m disabled enough now that I can’t run thru anything at this point. Hobbling thru with a cane and having to repeatedly stop to catch my breath takes the fun out of it. Sitting on a platform and acting as the sniper is more fun for me. The bull’s eye shooter in me enjoys hitting the center of a target at any range with any weapon. I sent my BIL some old big dollar coins and he sent me photos back showing them with holes in them from 300 yards out. I’d like to try that.

  11. Muscle Memory, a task you’ve done so often, that your muscles “know” the sequence, and it can be performed then with very little conscious thought involved. That’s the goal we should strive for. Be familiar and competent with your firearm, and shoot often enough that it becomes second nature. $300 bucks worth of ammo is being wasted, if the fundamentals aren’t followed. That’s where formal training can help. Break the bad habits before they become ingrained and then more difficult to get rid of.

  12. I find it alarming how many people here feel that there is no need for formalized training. I have taken more training than most and not as much as others. I can tell you with absolute certainty, that as a person who is much more competent with a handgun than most people who have their CCW, I have learned a lot from instructors and the more training I take, the more I learn. I also know very good instructors who continue to train with other instructors AND THEY STILL LEARN. Firearms training is like a never ending rabbit hole, the deeper one goes, the more one learns and the more one realizes what they don’t know. I completely understand the financial constraints some may have when it comes to training and as a result going the DIY route with YouTube. That said, I have seen far more people on YouTube disseminating garbage advice than there are sharing solid information. The problem is, that if you have no formal training, it makes it almost impossible to differentiate between the two. I know because there was a time that I was one of those people with the DIY mindset. I love training classes! I enjoy shooting, so they are fun and I continue to learn a ton. I just spent a weekend at a police department training facility in Alliance, Ohio. Clearly not a class to take if it is your first. The student population consisted of police officers, former combat veterans and civilians. We spent 36 hours over the course of 3 days doing Shoot House training. It was awesome, it was a blast and I learned an incredible amount! It was also very humbling. In fact, I probably took in more information than I am capable of digesting, which is an excuse to repeat the course again in the future😉. This facility is unique, because it allows civilians to enroll for classes, so I feel very fortunate that I had access. The instructor was not only a great teacher, he was also a bonafide “GUNFIGHTER, who has worked with LEO, SWAT, Special Operators, etc., but at the same time I never once felt intimidated, even though I probably should have. Please realize that I am not trying to knock anyone here for their opinion. I wish I had unlimited funds to pay for those of you to just try taking a great course from any of the amazing instructors that I have had the honor of learning from during the last few years. If I could, I would virtually guarantee that you would be hooked. Be safe everyone.

  13. Regular training is always a good idea. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it has to be from a paid professional or a structured class, although it’s great if you can pay for that at least once.

    You can train/practice on your own or with gun owning friends. Setup targets and drills and spend a morning at the range following your training plan.

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