On Becoming a Firearms Instructor, Specifically, a Pistol Instructor… Part One – a Personal Journey

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This is the first of a series of three articles, where I’ll discuss the need for people to enter the role of a Firearms Instructor, and how every Instructor can attract a unique subset of the firearms-owning community and bring them into the training community. I’ll also comment on the process from my perspective as an NRA and USCCA Training Counselor in the hope that others will chime in with their thoughts and experiences, and perhaps be motivated to take their own steps into the Instructing world.

With an explosion of interest in the Second Amendment and shooting community over the last few years, we have a tremendous need for instructors. It might be time for YOU to step up and become one.

Where will you find your niche as an Instructor?

Well, that’s largely up to you! Every one of us does truly have the ability to reach a part of the firearms-owning community that isn’t yet in the training world, and bring them in. I think it is important that the Instructor community reflects the gun-owning community. Notwithstanding the enormous number of new female and minority gun owners since covid, Instructors in these groups are still pretty thin on the ground. This article is being written with me coming off of three USCCA CCHFD Instructor workshops, containing 16 people. There were only three women, one of whom was a minority. Generally, women make up only around a quarter of my Instructor classes.

So, here is my request. If you are confident that you can shoot a handgun fairly well, and feel you’d like to contribute to new shooter skills in a structured, methodical way, then please reach out to one of the many NRA and USCCA Training counselors in the State and nearby and find out what they are offering. I’ve outlined my ‘personal journey’ into instructing below and I’m looking forward to hearing how yours develops.

My Journey

As those who know me know, I did not handle a pistol until we moved from Scotland to these United States in 2001. In the early 90s following the Dunblane atrocity, the UK government passed legislation banning all civilian possession of handguns and followed up with a mandatory buy-back – no-one was exempt. There’s also the possibly apocryphal story that even the British Olympic Shooting team has to go outside of the UK to train on handguns, but it makes the point that personal ownership of handguns in the UK is essentially completely forbidden (ownership of air pistols is permitted). So, coming to the USA provided a completely new opportunity for me, which I embraced.

Understanding that I was teaching myself (badly!), I took random NRA classes – FIRST Steps Pistol, Personal Protection Inside the Home, and Range Safety Officer, and began to learn about shooting and safety fundamentals, and the “NRA Way”, which I firmly believe is a very strong way of introducing new gun owners to the sport. This in turn led me to want to understand better the process of teaching firearms skills, and I took the well-traveled road of becoming an NRA Pistol Instructor, certifying in 2010.

I was fortunate to be invited to become a roster instructor with a popular NJ training company, and by 2013 they had helped me become certified as an Instructor in Rifle, Shotgun, Personal Protection Inside the Home, Personal Protection Outside the Home and as a Chief Range Safety Officer (much more recently, I also certified in the new NRA CCW curriculum and as an NRA Practical Pistol Coach). Over the course of this time I was also teaching for this company. I was very fortunate to meet Instructors and Training Counselors with long-term teaching experience, and many who had used firearms as part of their professional lives in military and law enforcement. I am immensely grateful to all of them for freely sharing their expertise and wisdom. This made me a much better Instructor.

2013 was a key year, not just because this was when ScotShot LLC was formed, but also because I applied for, and was accepted to, an NRA Training Counselor workshop. That was an experience (but nothing like the current experience) not to be forgotten; three days very much focused on teaching and using the lesson plans. This allowed me to teach Instructor-level classes in each of my student-level Instructor certifications; that is, I was now able to certify my own cadre of Instructors. I will also say that of the dozen or so TC candidates, three didn’t pass – the exit interview was tough, I remember.

I began running Instructor classes at the time when NRA had made a decision that NRA Basic Pistol could only be taught in a hybrid format – part online eLearning and part in-person [1]. This was also when it became mandatory for Instructor Candidates to have taken the student version of the class. You now had to eat the sausage before getting to see how it was made! This mandatory eLearning is no longer the case, but I always recommend that NRA Pistol Instructors do seriously consider taking the pistol eLearning, because there is a lot of depth there that generally can’t be conveyed in an in-person Instructor Workshop.

The decimation of the NRA training department has meant that eLearning has never been rolled out for anything other than Pistol, which is a great shame. It also means that NRA Instructor support isn’t as strong as it might be. To help counter this, NRA has a system of Regional Training Counselors and beneath them, State Training Counselors (STCs), whose responsibility is to field questions from Instructors or Training Counselors, and pass them up the line if necessary. I’m honored to be one of the STCs for New Jersey.

Regardless of anything, the key strength of NRA training was, and remains, that it provides a thorough grounding to the fundamentals. This will serve the student well, no matter where they go with their subsequent training. Thus, an NRA ‘basic’ course will ground the student for all recreational uses of firearms (and there are many) as well as give the foundation for the older “Personal Protection” classes and to a lesser extent, the newer CCW class. If you are interested in passing your skills to new handgun owners, NRA Pistol Instructor is a great place to start. We’ll talk about the skills you’ll need in the next article.

Around 2017, I became aware of the United States Concealed Carry Association (USCCA), through a now great friend and colleague close to Pittsburgh. He too was heavily-invested in NRA Instruction, but impressed me with his passion for the USCCA “Concealed Carry and Home Defense Fundamentals” (CCHDF) curriculum. I became an Instructor in 2018 and then a Training Counselor about eighteen months later. The CCHDF Instructor certification has an eight-hour eLearning component and a 16 hour in-person component. Now, just as NRA’s strength is that it lays the fundamentals for all forms of shooting, recreational and defensive, the core strength of the USCCA curricula is that their focus is strictly on the defensive uses of firearms, particularly handguns.

The slides that support the core CCHDF curriculum are very visually appealing and contain a wealth of material related to situational awareness and planning, and the psychology of defensive encounters, as well as essential practicalities of home and personal defense. There is also a series of ‘daughter curricula’ that support the core CCHDF one (there’s a great Emergency First Aid curriculum for example, and a wonderful one on teaching firearms safety and handling to children, and several others). Certified CCHDF Instructors can obtain these certifications via eLearning, with no in-person time with a Training Counselor.

There are two other key strengths of the USCCA Instructor philosophy. First, you must remain active as an Instructor to retain your certification [2]; they bend over backwards to make this possible, but there’s a non-negotiable 20 student minimum per year to retain certification. Second, Instructors are given the flexibility (and responsibility!) that they can construct their own courses to suit their clients’ needs. Provided it’s constructed from the official slide deck, a course has the status of an official USCCA course. This is an enormous contrast with the NRA, where the curricula are very strictly-defined and there is little flexibility in what can be taught [3].

In addition to the core and daughter CCHDF curricula, USCCA also has a “Defensive Shooting Fundamentals” curriculum. I took this Instructor certification at the same range in October 2021, in the snow. The first day is a run-through of the complete student class. The second day is a part class, part range work-through of key teaching points, and the final day is teaching the class back to one’s Instructor Candidate partners on the range, with actionable feedback. The class is built upon Rob Pincus’s “Counter Ambush” concepts. There is a lot of emphasis on lateral movement (getting “off the X”), and drawing from a concealed holster to shoot multiple shots to high center-chest. It’s a very effective way to teach defensive shooting and has some innovative methods, including the reload technique. All the methods taught in this class are designed for the average concealed firearm carrier to give them the best opportunity to defend against a surprise attack when out in public. USCCA is currently enhancing its defensive handgun class and I’ll be interested to see what this looks like relative to DSF when it comes out towards the fall.

Finally, USCCA also has an “AR-15 Fundamentals” Instructor certification, which is focused on this firearm as a home-defense tool. It follows the same three-day structure as the DSF class and addressed the use of two-point slings and red-dot sights, height over bore, multiple assailants and so on. I took this certification over three days in 2022 at an outdoor range also in the snow, in April. You’d think I could learn! Like DSF, the AR-15 class has its own 20-student per year requirement, and I can say that students love both of them.

And this is where I currently stand. I teach private lessons (with one or two students) and Instructor-level classes (NRA and USCCA) primarily. In the past I have taught a lot of NRA Basic Pistol and Basic Rifle classes, and USCCA personal and home defense classes, but the demand for these has evaporated in the face of people spending their training dollars on getting the New Jersey Permit to Carry. I also teach the USCCA AR-15 and DSF classes, and these are very successful.

I teach almost only new shooters, or people with little experience who are in need of fundamental skills. I like to use the phrase that instructors such as myself teach “things that work pretty well for most people, most of the time”, and I teach for consistency, not the finer skills. This means that there are things I won’t teach even though I may well use them in my own shooting – trigger reset, for example. I work on the basis that I want people to take something away that they can use, even if they never take another lesson with myself or anyone else.

So, that’s my story. Many thanks as always for your time – feel free to comment below or reach out. Best regards, Scott.

[1] My understanding is that the reason for this was that NRA Basic Pistol was being used as the gateway certification for Concealed Carry Permits in various parts of the country. In those days, unscrupulous Instructors could buy a “Pistol Packet” from NRA which contained a blank certificate that could be completed by hand, and they were selling these without running the class at all. The other three major changes made were that Pistol Packets no longer contain blank certificates and the Instructor needs to complete an on-line process to access the final certificate, additionally there is now a formal shooting qualification over four levels and the student must achieve at least “Level 1” on the official NRA-provided targets to get the Basic Pistol certificate. The final change is that there is a checklist of achievements that both student and Instructor must sign to acknowledge key learning points, and both student and Instructor must get a copy at the end of the class.

[2] This is an important distinction from NRA, where one can literally not teach a class for years and years, but retain certification by paying a fee every two years. We all know people who describe themselves as “NRA Instructors” and do teach firearms (often very well), but never issue a certificate. Is this really important? Well, I think it is, but that’s just me.

[3] The new CCW class is modular. Instructors can choose which modules to deliver, and this appears on the certificate. In addition, Instructors can teach Basic Pistol as semi-automatic only, or revolver only (but this must be both single-action and modern double-action revolvers, not one or other). As with the CCW, this will clearly be indicated on the certificate, eg “semi-automatic only”.

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