About a week ago, I took a direct approach to providing new armed self defenders with advice which is different from my general approach in which I provide all the different options and let the reader decide for themselves. In that post, I briefly touched on the abundance of both good and bad information regarding self defense being the primary reason for the need to discern between the two which isn’t an easy task for the beginner. As such, leveling up skills and knowledge with good training quickly is very valuable as it limits the amount of bad information a novice absorbs and assimilates. In this post, I will share what I would do to find a good instructor if I was a novice again given the benefit of hindsight from my personal experience.
I don’t intend for this post to claim to provide the best method to find and select an instructor. It’s merely my opinion on how I would go about it.
In terms of finding an instructor, there are plenty of sources to gather a list of instructors to pick from. Oftentimes, a local gun store or shooting range will provide recommendations or have a bulletin board for instructors to leave a flyer or business card. A quick internet search like “firearms instruction” or “armed defense training” will likely yield some results. My preferred source is word of mouth from folks who impressed me with their shooting ability at the shooting range, a local match, or a class I attended. I consider word of mouth recommendations from instructors I’ve trained with to generally be the most valuable source.
Regardless of how one compiles the list of potential instructors, one still has to select one from the list. Actually, that’s not quite right. Opting not to select one from the list is a viable option and might be the best decision. The exact process isn’t as important as the decision of when to discard a candidate instructor or how to compare them. Let’s get into it.
The first thing I do when I’m considering a candidate is do a quick internet search for student reviews. At the end of the day, I don’t care about how many stars the reviewers have given the instructor. What I do care about are safety complaints. I might look over a single “I didn’t feel safe” complaint without any additional information, however, repeated complaints of this type are a red flag. A single well articulated safety complaint like “the instructor swept one or more students with the muzzle” or “the instructor had an accidental/negligent discharge” are also a red flag. Safety concerns are not something to give a firearms instructor a pass on and should immediately go in the discard pile.
While on the subject of reviews, a lack of reviews from a candidate instructor who did not come highly recommended from a highly reputable source via word of mouth is another reason to place the candidate instructor in the discard pile. Frankly, I don’t think being a guinea pig for a new instructor is a risk worth taking.
Another thing to look for while reading reviews is the presence of reviews discussing the instructors ability and willingness to demonstrate with a high level of skill the shooting drills the students will be asked to perform during classes. Granted these types of comments in reviews are highly subjective. A brand new student is easy to impress. An advanced student is not as likely to be easily impressed. However, a lack of these types of reviews or the modest presence of reviews indicating the instructor lacks the ability or willingness to demonstrate drills is a red flag for me.
Next up is reviewing the instructors qualifications and looking for evidence that they actually know how to shoot well. After all, skill development is what folks seeking instruction are primary seeking. This information can usually be found on the internet via their own website or a social media profile. If one can’t find it on the internet, the instructor should be able to provide this information over a brief phone call. If one can’t get any of this information then the candidate instructor should be discarded regardless of the source that placed the instructor on the candidate list.
In terms of qualifications, I start by looking for currently held high level classifications in one or more competitive shooting organizations. My logic behind this is that the candidate instructor has to demonstrate a high level of skills to obtain this type of classification by shooting extremely well on a qualification course which in my opinion is an objective measurement of ability. Also, any member of these competitive shooting organizations can verify the claimed classification. Here is a list of what I look for:
- Distinguished Master or Master classification in IDPA,
- Grand Master or Master classification in USPSA, or
- Master classification in GSSF.
I might give a pass to an instructor that doesn’t hold a current classification if they either held one of these in the past or if they made it on the candidate list via a word of mouth recommendation from a trusted reputable source. Otherwise, the candidate instructor goes into the discard pile.
In terms of certifications and experience, the only thing that holds any meaning to me is the successful completion of a Rangemaster Advanced Instructor or Master Instructor course. Why? I hold Tom Givens in high regard as a result of my experience as a student in his Combative Pistol course. It also turns out that Sean Hoffman, one of the other two trainers that have really helped me grow, is also a Rangemaster Certified Instructor. As a result, this is the only certification that currently carries any weight from my point of view. Just like with a high level classification, a candidate instructor who doesn’t hold this certification and was not recommended via word of mouth from a reputable source gets discarded.
What about law enforcement or military experience? My experience with learning from folks with that type of background has been hit and miss. Sometimes they are terrible shooters. Sometimes they demonstrate questionable safety practices. Other times they are excellent and safe shooters, but terrible instructors. The wide array of inconsistency has led me to disregard that experience as a good indicator to the instructors ability to teach well.
What about other certifications? Every single trainer I’ve trained under holds an NRA Instructor certification. However, my experiences with some instructors haven’t all been stellar. Some of those instructors only shot better than I did at the time I trained with them because my skill level was at its infancy. In hindsight, some of those instructors weren’t very good shooters or instructors – I just didn’t have the competence required to recognize it. Today I would discard those instructors based on the criteria that I listed in this post.
If one has gone through this process and is left with a few candidates to pick from, I suggest ranking them by combined criteria and source. For example, I would rank candidates who were referred via word of mouth by a reputable source, currently hold the highest level classifications in IDPA, USPSA, and GSSF, and is a Rangemaster Certified Master Instructor higher than the other candidates. Want a methodical way of scoring them?
- Give a candidate who was referred via word of mouth 1 point,
- 2 points for an IDPA Distinguished Master classification or 1 point for a Master classification,
- 2 points for an USPSA Grand Master classification or 1 point for a Master classification,
- 1 point for a GSSF Master classification, and
- 3 points for a Rangemaster Master Instructor certification, 2 points for an Advanced Instructor certification, or 1 point for an Instructor certification.
Add up the points and go with the one with the highest score. Still have more than one to choose from? This is a good problem to have and maybe it’s time to draw a winner from a hat.