Competition Guides Self Defense

Getting the Most Out of a Firearms Training Course

Attending a firearms training course requires a monetary and time investment. The return on that investment comes in the form of marksmanship skill improvement. How much improvement depends on the steps we take to capitalize on the investment.

I shared my dry fire session post with my good friend, the instructor at Outrider Training Group, who inspired it. Or who I stole the idea from if we want to split hairs. He shared the post on Twitter and we exchanged a few comments where I admitted one thing, that I will get to in a moment, and in the exchange he mentioned that he needs to do a thread on getting the most out of a training course. It’s a fantastic topic. So I did what any other person with questionable self respect would do… I borrowed it and here we are again.

Let’s talk about my admission. It’s important and I think it adds a lot of context. I admitted that I really didn’t do much dry fire practice up until a year ago or so. Frankly, I didn’t see a reason to. It was a time investment that I didn’t see as necessary since my pistol marksmanship was improving simply by hitting the range here and there, participating in matches sporadically, and attending a few classes a year. Heck, the tracked IDPA match scores were proof of improvement. I disregarded the advice I was paying for from high-quality competent firearms instructors and didn’t dry fire on my own. At least not regularly. I knew dry fire was important. I knew it was good for me, but I didn’t make it a habit.

I can’t quite pinpoint what the turning point was for me last year when I made dry fire practice part of my routine. I’m certain it was a combination of things including, but not limited to, earning entry level classifications in IDPA and USPSA, wanting to make sure I was tuned up for the Rangemaster instructor certifications I decided to go after, and the desire to earn one of Gabe White’s pins. Honestly, the straw that broke the camel’s back isn’t important. What is important is the notable increased pistolcraft skill development rate I experienced once I subscribed to regular dry fire practice. The truth is I wasted a lot of time. I am completely convinced that I would be a much more accomplished pistolero had I started regular dry fire practice earlier in my journey. It is the not-so-secret secret sauce to skill development. I see it day in and day out in my own development as well as the development of my match buddies and other folks I’ve coached. Those who dry fire get “more better, more faster”. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

My friend pointed out that students who don’t dry fire simply can’t get the maximum value from the classes they take. This is absolutely true. Dry fire is a critical component. I’ve often said, as I’ve heard, but can’t recall exactly from who or where, “training courses show us what and how to practice.” That is in addition to having the instructor, or an assistant, making a student aware of a bad habit that they may not be aware of along with the why we should be doing, or at least trying, certain things. However, the point in this post lies in the “what and how to practice” with a touch of the “why” which includes both dry and live fire drills and squeezing every ounce of value possible out of the class. There is a bit more than simply subscribing to regular dry fire practice to do that.

How does one exactly get the most out of a firearms training course? The answer to this is a little tricky and depends a bit on the course itself. That said, there are some strategies that one can employ. Let’s look at them.

Before taking the course, take note of the learning objectives. These are generally found in the course description that assisted or influenced the decision to book a class. The objectives will vary from class to class. It’s not entirely uncommon for the objectives to be out of date or misunderstood. Course plans often evolve and the corresponding course descriptions are eventually updated to reflect that evolution, but the update is rarely, if ever, instant. This isn’t a big deal however as the spirit or essence of the course remains constant. Individual classes are often adapted to the students. This means that more time may be spent on one learning objective than another in one instance of the class when compared to another because an audible was called by the lead instructor based on what the students’ needs are. Again, not a big deal. The main reason for taking note of the learning objectives is so that one is able to map a drill used in the class to what it’s supposed to accomplish. In turn, this allows us to categorize the drills so that we can use them in practice in order to improve a specific aspect of our skills. Otherwise, we end up with a collection of drills without necessarily knowing what each drill is intended to develop or improve. This should also help prompt good questions about a specific drill worked in class when the objective of the drill isn’t immediately apparent or understood.

During class, our biggest enemy is retention. We can only absorb so much. Retention also diminishes with fatigue which may be accelerated with environmental conditions. The solution to this is notes. Notes that can be referred to at a later time. In some cases, a class may provide a supplemental handout that summarizes the key points from class lectures and the drills run in class. Ideally, that handout clearly states the learning objectives of the drills. However, this type of handout, in my class taking experience, is not the norm. As such, it behooves us to take our own notes. Whether that’s done with pen and paper or on an electronic device (like a smartphone) doesn’t really matter, so long as the note taking medium works for the student. The key elements I aim to capture with my personal note taking are the main points of the lecture and drill procedures along the goal of each drill. The latter is easier when I have a good understanding of the course’s learning objectives.

While I firmly believe retention is the biggest enemy, it won’t be an enemy that can be faced if one is unable to pay attention in class. Just like retention, our ability to pay attention in class diminishes with fatigue which may be accelerated by environmental conditions. Unlike retention however, there isn’t a simple singular solution to combat attention deficiency. Nevertheless, there are several things we can do to maximize and maintain our ability to pay attention. This begins with getting plenty of rest and fueling up with good nutrition before and during each day of class. Being physically fit doesn’t hurt either. Making sure we have the correct equipment and ensuring it is in working order before class is essential. Having the gun (or another piece of equipment) fail in the middle of class or experience multiple malfunctions will divert our attention from the instruction to getting the equipment running again. In my opinion, the two most critical components in terms of equipment are: performing routine maintenance (which is akin to doing an oil change, checking the tires and tire pressures on a vehicle prior to a long road trip) and opting to use high quality practice and training ammunition (a class one paid good money for is not the place to test out Bubba’s Reloads that were picked up at the last local gun show because one couldn’t believe how low the price was on them). Last but not least, staying properly hydrated and protecting oneself from the elements during class is non negotiable. As my friend Joel Gaines, trainer and co-founder of Warlizard Tactical, says, “Drink water and do push ups.”

I’ve got a few more tips before we wrap up this post. Admittedly, I am projecting a fair bit, but it’s not hard to get distracted by the equipment choices other students and instructors made for the class. There is a good chance somebody is going to show up with that brand new blaster that just hit the market, a rare gem that is no longer in production, or some other thing that is currently pure unobtainium. One may also find themselves wanting to converse with folks they just met. All of this is normal. Check out gear. Make friends. Crack jokes. But do so before class, after class, or during breaks. Avoid these distractions when class is in session. Especially, conversing with other students while instruction is happening as this not only distracts us, but it also distracts those we are conversing with. Like you, the other students all made a monetary and time investment to attend the class and everyone deserves the best chance to get the most out of the class.

Assuming one paid attention and good notes were taken to combat retention, or rather lack thereof, then one should be in a good position to practice what was taught in class at the range or wherever one does their own dry fire practice. This is the “homework” that most everyone hated while attending school. Doing the drills learned in class is the work that many instructors and enthusiastic practitioners encourage others to do. In many cases, but not always, the live fire drills can also be adapted to dry fire practice. Doing the homework while understanding the objectives is how one goes about starting to get the most out of a class. Incorporating the drills that align to one’s individual skill development objectives and making those a part of frequent dry and live fire practice is how one can squeeze a more value out of a particular class. Being able to evolve one’s practice using a catalog of drills with well defined objective goals from the notes taken in the class, in my opinion, is the key to milking every ounce of possible value of each class.

The theme here should be painstakingly apparent. Attending a class in itself is fun. If one isn’t doing the homework and evolving how they practice, then the class was likely more entertainment than anything else. Frankly, I don’t see anything wrong with that. There is value in that. That alone, as was my experience, is probably sufficient to improve skills. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There is a treasure trove of value under the surface that remains untapped and is there for taking if one is willing to put in the work to capitalize on it.

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