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On Becoming a Firearms Instructor; Specifically, a Pistol Instructor… Part Three – USCCA Defensive Pistol Instructor

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Firearm student and teacher

This is the last of three articles, describing my experiences in taking people through the process of becoming a Nationally-Certified Pistol Instructor. In the first article, I gave a little background to my own pathway in firearms instructing, and finding my niche as someone who primarily teaches fundamental skills to relative beginners and in the second one, I discussed becoming an NRA Pistol Instructor. In this one, I will present the lesser-known route to handgun instruction, the core Concealed Carry and Home Defense Fundamentals curriculum offered by the United States Concealed Carry Association (USCCA).

There’s no question that when it comes to firearms training, NRA is the big dog in the room. They are the international standard for firearms safe-use training. Over the years, their programs have brought the experience of safe gun handling to countless people. In addition, their coverage is very broad – three main gun types, national competitions, basic training and marksmanship coaching, specific training for law enforcement officers; that breadth is the true strength of the NRA’s training program. However, every strength is its own weakness. In the case of NRA, they left an opening in the defensive use of firearms space, and that space was filled by training offered by USCCA.

Unlike NRA, whose strength is their coverage of essentially every use of firearms conceivable outside of the military, USCCA’s strength is their focus on defensive firearms use for the ordinary person, and that is basically the use of defensive handguns, inside, but mainly outside, the home. This of course is now a reality in New Jersey, the legislature’s best efforts notwithstanding. USCCA’s training focuses hard on concealed carry of handguns in public and they expect their instructors to be highly-motivated towards the creation of safe, responsible armed Americans. One key aspect of this (and a key contrast with NRA) is that they require their instructors to be active and will ‘lapse’ instructors who fail to meet that criterion, of which more later.

I first met people who were cross-trained as USCCA and NRA Instructors while participating in a training event at NRA Headquarters for a newly-introduced rating in the NRA Coaching program, “Practical Pistol Coach”, which I was happy to achieve. Discussions with these individuals resulted in my decision to attempt the USCCA basic Instructor certification, which is termed “Concealed Carry and Home Defense Fundamentals, (‘CCHDF’).”

I signed up with a USCCA TC who had a long and passioned commitment to firearms training – he teaches NRA, Appleseed, the Rob Pincus “ICE” program for example, as well as USCCA, and is an inspiration for anyone who wants to teach firearms as well as a beacon standard of instructor skill and integrity [1]. So, in 2018, I found myself in a recording studio that had been converted to a classroom for two days, not a million miles from Pittsburgh, with a bunch of people who had the kind of “real world” experience in firearms use and training that reminds me of my place in the chain.

Flashback a couple of weeks to being in that classroom. One of the key elements of USCCA Instructor certification is that every program requires the successful completion of an eLearning module. This must be completed before attending the in-person workshop. The eLearning for CCHDF takes the Instructor Candidate through the entire seven-lesson CCHDF curriculum, using exactly the same material that becomes available to Certified Instructors to use in their teaching. This is an excellent preparation for the in-person workshop and subsequent teaching, and there is an absolute expectation that Instructor Candidates will be very familiar with the material before coming to their workshop. I was very impressed by the highly-visual nature of the material – every slide has a large illustration and many have slow-motion movies as well. I was also impressed by the curriculum’s ethos and focus on the defensive use aspect of firearms ownership, and I was hooked.

A couple of years later, maybe 18 months, I was certified as a Training Counselor for this material and now certify CCHDF Instructors. I’ve also taken all of the CCHDF ‘daughter curricula’ of which more later, and their AR-15 Instructor and Defensive Shooting Fundamentals (DSF) Level 1 certifications, too.

So, how does one get going in this process and what do you individually need to be aware of to approach it successfully? Let’s go!

Finding a class:
You can find a class as you might expect on places such as Facebook – I advertise my classes there as do many others. You can also find a class on the USCCA website [2], by simply entering your zip code. When you do, you’ll find a list of classes that instructors based within 50 miles of your location are offering, along with the rating that previous students have given those instructors, whose reviews you can also read for yourselves [3]. Once you find a class, you’ll see that there is a formal two-step process but as before, the informal first step is to understand one’s own motivation for becoming a USCCA Instructor. This is a little more important than with NRA, because becoming an Instructor implies a commitment to actually teach, because Instructors lose certification if they do not. There’s also the minor consideration that you will be teaching people how to carry a concealed handgun in public at some point.

So, the two formal steps are:

  • Take and pass the eLearning;
  • Take and pass the 16-hour in-person Instructor Development Workshop.

You’ll notice that there is no requirement to take a Student level class with USCCA. So, what’s actually involved in each element?

1) CCHDF Instructor eLearning
As CCHDF Instructors, we are vested with a huge degree of flexibility and responsibility from USCCA. Essentially, we can construct our own classes from the material provided and they will be recognized as an official USCCA class. This means that in return, we have the responsibility of being thoroughly familiar with the material.

The eLearning is structured to provide all the key teaching points for each slide, and each lesson. There’s an emphasis on understanding that when presenting you must simultaneously be in the ‘past, present and future’. This technique allows you to avoid teaching material on one slide that is actually going to be taught later, for example. There are multiple built in exams and quizzes and it’s impossible to move through without passing each lesson in order [4].

Instructor candidates need to allow 8 hours to complete the eLearning – yes, you can buzz through it faster, but I’d contend that you won’t really understand the material if you do. You’ll be a better Instructor if you take time with this. You’ll also be expected to be familiar at the in-person sessions, and this is formally assessed. You are required to download the completion certificate (which is part of your formal record) at least 48 hours before the in-person workshop. This last element is a new requirement and USCCA are going to enforce it to the point that if there are two people signed up for a Workshop and only one completes the eLearning on time, the workshop will be cancelled.

The eLearning is always freely available, which means that if we are going to teach a new part of CCHDF we can go back and review how we’re expected to teach it, or just generally refresh [5].

2) CCHDF In-Person Instructor Development Workshop
This is a 16-hour workshop taking place over 2 days. The first day will generally run from 08.00 to 18.00, but it can run over (please plan your evening accordingly). The second day also begins at 08.00 and ends when it ends, usually around 17.00. Some Training Counselors always perform exit interviews, some perform them if the class is small, some perform them for selected individuals only. My practice varies, but since 2023, I have been providing an individualized follow-up email for all my Instructors (USCCA and NRA).

The first half of Day One is taken up with a session on the USCCA’s methods and philosophies of teaching. It’s important to understand that this material is on the exam, but not in the eLearning. Instructor Candidates can drop valuable points by not being diligent on their note-taking. A work-sheet is provided, but many fewer than 50% of the Instructor Candidates make proper use of it, despite being poked and prodded to do so.

The second part that must be covered in Day One is the safe gun handling exercise. This is performed in the classroom using SIRT pistols. Instructor Candidates first work in pairs to coach their “new students” through grip, stance and presentation according to USCCA methods (which they will bring with them from the eLearning). USCCA teaches the Isosceles position only, using a thumbs-forward grip. Regardless of how Instructors themselves prefer to shoot, they must teach this grip and stance. This can be challenging for some Instructor Candidates to accept, but “Accept It Ye Must” [6]. It is also the foundation for the techniques used in the more advanced Defensive Shooting Fundamentals, class (and NRA PPOH and CCW, for that matter).

Regarding the thumbs forward grip, it is worth noting that if the correct grip is established and maintained, then thumbs forward will naturally follow. We teach this because it is a fundamental of successful defensive shooting when the defenders attention will likely be fully-occupied with their assailant (which of course means they’ll have both eyes open and be threat-focused when shooting).

USCCA teaches that effective aiming encompasses a continuum of “unsighted fire” (where the shoulders, arms and thumbs are doing the aiming, but the threat focuses all the defender’s attention to the point where they most likely do not see their defensive firearm), through “flash-sight picture” where the gun is visible over the target, but the target is the visual focus, to “sighted fire”, where the target is at sufficient distance that traditional front-sight, one-eye aiming is appropriate. This is taught in the context of “Balancing Speed and Precision”, which a possible topic for an article of its own.

The next part of the SIRT pistol exercise is for Instructor Candidates to work as pairs, running a line made up of the other Instructor Candidates. Together, these exercises assess the ability to spot and correct errors in grip stance and presentation, maintenance of safe direction and general ability to work with individuals as if they are shooter students (including how to safely take control of a student’s firearm), something that is picked up on in the range live-fire exercise.

Day two begins with the Range live-fire qualification. This is done using the new “USCCA Universal Target”. It is a 50-round qualification run from near (4 yards) to far (15 yards) with an 80% pass. There are two attempts allowed on the day. Instructor Candidates work as pairs, with one instructing and one “new studenting”. It is basically understood that Instructor Candidates will meet the standard with relative ease [7]. The real assessment however, is how they work as an instructor of new students: reviewing the four safety rules; introduction of the student to the range environment; mounting the target and explaining the course of fire; only allowing one shot at first; not allowing the student to shoot too fast; being encouraging etc etc. This is the real assessment, not the actual shooting of the course of fire. Here, the trap is to let the experienced shooter who is “the student” to BRRRRRRRRRRRR through their shots as if their IDPA ranking depended on it [7]. The target becomes part of the Instructor Candidate’s formal record, and I keep an image of it.

Following a debrief on the live-fire exercise, the main part of day two begins – “Teach-Backs.” Teachbacks are the means through which Instructor Candidates are assessed on their ability to present the USCCA material (and occasionally, on their motivation towards instructor certification). There are three essential elements to navigating the teachbacks successfully:

  • Being familiar with the eLearning – did you review it after passing?
  • Being comfortable speaking to an audience and keeping their attention?
  • Taking the allowed time to prepare and not simply glancing it over and saying, “Yeah, I know this, got it.”

It is blindingly obvious when Instructor Candidates have not paid sufficient attention to the eLearning and when they have done a good and proper job of it. The difference in fluency is very pronounced and it is assessed. Similarly for those Instructor Candidates who take the full time allotted for preparation, or choose to spend it checking email [7].

Initially, Instructor Candidates are assigned only one or two slides to present, with an instruction to work in the “present” part of “past-present-future” mentioned above. It is challenging not to try to set context for their slides (ie what came before, “past”) and to not describe the slides’ place in the broader scheme (ie, what will be presented later, “future”), but the task is to present only the assigned slides. Instructor candidates will then be assigned to work in pairs with larger numbers of slides, and on into groups for even more complete elements of the course. Here assessments are made on additional elements, such as handing-off to another instructor, organizing and managing demonstrations, referring the “class” to the pages in the student book and so on. One key element of assessment is how questions from the student class are answered. Another is how the slides themselves are used. USCCA requires its instructors to use the slides as “Cliff-Notes” and not to simply read them. It’s useful to remember that Students can read a slide much faster than we Instructors can read it to them.

Teachbacks are assigned to Lessons one through five. Before each Teachback, the Training Counselor will present some of the highlights of each lesson for emphasis and discussion (yes, discussion and general participation is also assessed). However the material to be taught-back may well fall outwith that in the lesson highlights.

The final part of Day Two is the Instructor exam. This is part “True/False” and part multiple choice. Several of the multiple choice questions have more than one correct option and scores are awarded/deducted fractionally. One of the questions has six options, five of which are correct [7]. The pass mark is 90%.

When all of this is over there may or may not be an exit interview for some or all of the Instructor Candidates, and then it is up to the Training Counselor to notify USCCA of the results.

Post-Certification considerations.
The previous comments about Instructor Insurance and forming an LLC apply obviously, as does the one about knowing your Instructor Portal. Here are some that are specific for USCCA CCHDF Instructors.

Maintaining your USCCA CCHDF Instructor certification. As mentioned above, USCCA requires their instructors to actually instruct on a regular basis. You need to teach, or co-teach, 20 students in the calendar year after certification. So, if you teach 20 classes of one student, or one class of 20 students you get your 20 student credits. If you and a colleague teach these same classes together, you *each* get the full 20 student credits. You get full student credits for the mini-classes, too. Further, the five daughter curricula mentioned above all count to your overall CCHDF student total, so if you *only ever* teach or co-teach Emergency First Aid for example, then you get full credit to your CCHDF Instructor certification. In other words, USCCA makes it pretty much as easy as possible for us to maintain our certifications because they want people to get the benefit of the “USCCA Way”. Please note that if you are also an AR-15 or DSF Instructor, then these each have their own separate requirements to teach 20 students a year.

Get to know Instructor Support. USCCA has a large number of people whose job is to support Instructors. They love to talk to you, so call them and introduce yourself. They take it as a sign of an interested and motivated Instructor and they can, and do, suggest your classes to people making random enquiries (but they can only do this if they know you).

You must post your rosters with USCCA. Since you must teach or co-teach 20 students in any element of the CCHDF curriculum (or daughter curricula) to maintain certification, you must post your classes. It’s a pain to do this for just one student, but you’ll regret it if you don’t.

Explore the mini-lessons. The seven lessons of CCHDF are available to teach as “mini-lessons” that take around 90 minutes. Many of these do not require live-fire. You get full Instructor credit for teaching or co-teaching these.

Explore the daughter curricula. There are currently five daughter curricula where students count to your CCHDF total for the year: Children’s Firearm Safety, Countering the Mass Shooter Threat, Emergency First-Aid Fundamentals, Marksmanship Simplified and Women’s Defensive Handgun. You do not need to take any of these, but if you choose to, then they are all done by eLearning only – you do not need to take an in-person class with a Training Counselor to get the certifications. These daughter curricula are themselves divided into mini-lessons.

Consider allowing students to register for your class on the USCCA website. There are two advantages to this: first, students have to pay in full when they register and second, USCCA refunds the credit card fees to you, which means if you post a class at $100, you actually get $100, not $96.50. Trust me, it soon adds up.

If your Instructor Certification lapses, you need to take the entire two-day workshop again. If this is with me, I will also expect a new, appropriately-dated Certificate indicating that you have retaken the eLearning.

Concluding Remarks
I generally think of, and promote with my Instructor Candidates, the idea that USCCA and NRA Instructorships are complementary; each has its strengths and neither is ‘better’ than the other. That being said, like firearms themselves, each is a ‘tool for purpose’. This means that people will do one or other first, or perhaps do only one. This goes back to our individual motivation as firearms instructors.

When I first started as a Pistol Instructor, people came as students because they were largely looking for a hobby. Post-covid, people want handguns primarily for self-defense. The ability to get a PTC has also motivated a lot of people, women especially, to consider firearms ownership as another way to be in control of their lives. As I said before, many students find firearms ownership self-empowering. The fun aspects of shooting come later, if they ever do.

There are many excellent USCCA TCs in New Jersey and the surrounding area. You can find them on the USCCA website [8], or by reaching out to me.

I truly believe that, while never to be compelled, firearms training is a keystone of responsible gun ownership. This means that as a community of firearms instructors we need to reach as many parts of the gun owning community as we can, and this in turn means that we need a broad population of Instructors that can reach into sections of gun owners that other instructors cannot. I hope that this short series has given you some insight to what is involved in becoming a firearms instructor, and a little about my personal experience. If I can do it, so can you. Come join us – you’ll love it.

Feel free to offer your thoughts and comments below and thank you as always for reading.

Sincerely, Scott.

[1] I’m purposefully not naming those who have been my instructors because I don’t want to ‘put words in their mouths’, as it were, but I have been very fortunate to have interacted with skilled and committed individuals of very high standards. Hopefully I’ve learned something more than just the basics from them. Thank you – you know who you are.
[2] https://academy.usconcealedcarry.com/search/classes
[3] These are verbatim from the students – the Instructors can’t edit them once posted.
[4] The NRA eLearning is the same, both organizations have done this really well.
[5] Never a bad thing, really.
[6] “Must”, as in “must”. One of the underlying philosophies is that we want students to take way things that they can use successfully and consistently to be better defensive shooters, even if that is the only class they ever take. While advances shooters use “elbows bent for optimal recoil management”, it is much easier for new students to achieve almost the same recoil management in full Isosceles and do it more consistently, and consistency is key.
[7] Don’t say you weren’t warned.
[8] Use this link https://academy.usconcealedcarry.com/search/instructors and select “New Jersey” for Location and “CCHDF Training Counselor” under Certification

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Heidi BS

Thank you, Scott, for plainly laying out the path to becoming a firearms instructor in both organizations. While there are many TC’s out there, you are truly supportive of all of the students you’ve mentored and you remain so for the duration of their participation in firearms training. I urge anyone interested in becoming an instructor to seek Scott out!

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