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On Becoming a Firearms Instructor, Specifically, a Pistol Instructor… Part Two – NRA Pistol Instructor

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A student shooting a revolver at a shooting range

This is the second of three articles, describing my experiences in taking people through the process of becoming a Nationally-Certified Pistol Instructor. My primary focus in writing these is to encourage people to consider becoming Instructors themselves. 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. In this one, I’d like to focus on what is possibly the most widely-held civilian firearms instructor certification in the world, NRA Pistol Instructor.

It’s a sad fact but true that people who achieve something in a relatively straightforward way, end up thinking that it’s likely too easy and should be more demanding for those following them. This is certainly true of the student NRA Basic Pistol class, in part for the reasons I described in Part One, and it is also true of the NRA Pistol Instructor certification, and of the NRA Training Counselor certification also. However, it is what it is, as they say. The process is more rigorous now, and that is most likely a Good Thing [1].

OK – deep breath – here we go.

Becoming an NRA Pistol Instructor is formally a three-step process, but the informal precursor first step is motivation. Why exactly do you want to become an NRA Pistol Instructor?

My motivation was born out of being asked to teach my family members to shoot. With a background in higher education, I knew that there would be a recognized ‘way’. Also, this was reinforced by my falling into the classic trap of failing to communicate essential skills to someone, leading to their demotivation. And it was thus that I ended up crammed into a makeshift classroom above the Yardsville Inn, walking through the learning of various elements of the student Basic Pistol Class with half a dozen or so others, by reading the lesson plan and working with the slides to “teach the class back” to my fellow proto-instructors. The shooting elements were conducted at Range 14. There were two instructors. One of the Training Counselors was a former US Army counter sniper and military police officer, and the other was a newly-minted Training Counselor with a background in hunting and high-school maths teaching. Both were excellent, and there was a very strong emphasis on safety and safe gun handling. One of the most important differences between then and now is that then, NRA did not require Instructors to have taken and passed the student version of the class. I had taken the ‘baby’ version, “FIRST Steps Pistol”, but not the actual Basic Pistol, and I was not alone in this.

Back then, I didn’t envision firearms instruction being a key part of my life as it is now, my motivation was to have a structure that I could use to teach my family. Every one of you reading this who are instructors already, and those who are considering it, will have your own. Whatever it is, it’s fine – it’s your path after all.

With NRA Instructor certifications, once you have them, maintaining it is a simple matter of paying a small fee to renew your certification every two years – you don’t have to teach any NRA classes at all, as those of you who teach at ranges where NRA Certification is an insurance requirement will know. On the other extreme, is the instructor who gains his or her NRA certification in order to be able to certify NJ individuals for their PTC, and that’s an important role. In the middle are those of us who teach the student classes and award the certificates. I don’t see one motivation greater or lesser than any other when I take people as Instructor Candidates, but I do expect them to teach the various NRA curricula with integrity and fidelity, when they award a certificate (and I don’t take kindly to discovering this isn’t the case with an Instructor I put my name on – ask me how I know this [2]).

So, the three formal steps are:

  1. Take and pass the Student class “NRA Basics of Pistol Shooting”;
  2. Take and pass NRA “Basic Instructor Training”;
  3. Take and pass NRA “Certified Pistol Instructor”.

So, what’s actually involved in each element?

1) NRA Basics of Pistol Shooting – Student class
As NRA Pistol Instructors, we can teach this class in no fewer than six different ways:

  • “Full Instructor Led” (8+ hours in the classroom and range), and
  • “Blended” (8+ hours of online eLearning and 4+ hours in the classroom and range).

With each of these able to be taught in three ways, as “all handguns”, “semi-automatic only”, or “revolver only” (note that these need to be entered when we define the class, and appear on the certificate), that’s six variations. So there’s some flexibility in how we can teach the class. However, we need to be able to teach them all, which means that Candidates for NRA Basic Pistol Instructor must be familiar with three action types: modern (double action/single action) revolver; single-action (‘cowboy’) revolver and semi-automatic pistol. In this context, ‘familiar’ means a strong functional familiarity of the workings, safe-handling, grip, loading and unloading of all of these – this generally means the three common semi-auto types too – striker, DA/SA and SA-only. You’ll be required to satisfy your Training Counselor that this is the case, all the while maintaining NRA standards of safe gun handling.

Which version of Basic Pistol then should you take? I generally advise that people take the full-instructor led version, which is 8+ hours in the classroom starting with “Parts of a Pistol” and ending with an exam, via a shooting qualification. I do this because this is the most demanding version to teach and potential instructors benefit from experiencing it. However, If someone comes with “Blended”, that’s ok. Some candidates will take the 8-hour class and also pay the NRA the $60 to also take the eLearning. The eLearning is very good. It covers all the material in the course handbook in considerably more depth than the 8-hour class can provide [3]. If you’re already an NRA Pistol Instructor and haven’t taken it, invest in yourself and do it – you won’t regret it.

When you come to me as an Instructor Candidate, I will ask for a PDF copy of your Basic Pistol student certificate, which I will keep as part of my records. Going into 2024, I’m also going to start asking for people to bring their checklist to class also because every student should have theirs, and pictures of their targets if possible.

It is highly preferable that Instructor Candidates have taken the “all handguns” version of the class. This isn’t essential however, and I will work with people who need to review revolver, or SA revolver, for example to bring them up to speed.

2) NRA Basic Instructor Training (B.I.T.)
This is a one-day, 8-hour class where Instructor Candidates learn the philosophy and preferred teaching methodology of the NRA. It is the foundation for all the NRA firearms disciplines, not just Pistol. This has not changed much since I became an Instructor back in 2010. There are always rumors that NRA will reincarnate it as an eLearning module (which would be a great idea), but the horrible short-staffing at NRA Training means that will likely remain somewhat of a unicorn, sadly. Once you’ve taken it, you do not need to retake it for a new discipline (eg, rifle), provided you add that new discipline within two years of the first.

The class is primarily didactic, but there are a number of spots where students make presentations to one another. There is some gun handling, too. One of the important elements of this class is understanding how Instructors may, and may not, represent their relationship with the NRA. Another is that there is a difference between learning and being taught, and that learning is an active process that we Instructors facilitate through involving the students in all elements of the class (so-called “Total Participant Involvement”). There’s also an exercise in how to plan and cost a class, as well as a variety of student motivational exercises. This class is also where Instructor Candidates learn how to navigate their NRA Instructor Portal, which is absolutely required to offer classes and result them out, create certificates and order materials. Embrace it, there’s nothing on paper now. There’s also an open-book exam at the end, which needs to be passed before progressing to the final Certified Instructor stage.

One aspect that has been introduced to B.I.T. since I took it is reference to ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) [4]. NRA considers that its classes fall under ITAR and consequently, NRA classes may only be taught to “US Persons”; that is, US Citizens (natural or naturalized) or Green-Card holders. This means specifically that as NRA Instructors we categorically may not award an NRA certificate to: overseas students, temporary workers or foreign tourists (covered by US type B, F, H or O visas for example, or here on a short term visa waiver). NRA is serious about this. Note that many of these visa holders, if not all, will hold a US Drivers License, so don’t take that as proof of ITAR status.

3) NRA Pistol, Certified Instructor
PHEW!! You made it this far! Congratulations. Provided you’re successful (and it isn’t a ‘given’) you can teach the following classes:

  • NRA Basics of Pistol Shooting, Full Instructor Led;
  • NRA Basics of Pistol Shooting, Blended;
  • NRA FIRST Steps Pistol;
  • NRA New Shooter Seminar;
  • NRA Pistol Marksmanship Simulator (with SIRT pistols);

So there’s quite a variety of material available to you. The latter two classes do not involve live fire, so they can be used as a more gentle introduction that may suit some students. The caveat of two classes not requiring live fire is that the other three do require it. We can’t offer NRA Basic or FIRST Steps pistol without using live firearms and live ammunition – no air pistols or airsoft, please.

The materials for all of these, and any updates, will be in your instructor portal, and I generally provide them to my successful Instructor Candidates, along with some useful compilations, via Dropbox.

Entry into a Pistol Instructor class requires familiarity and safe handling of the three firearms types discussed above, and this will be tested. It’s also worth emphasizing here that we cannot teach Basic Pistol without having students go through grip, stance and presentation of these three firearms types, which means we must have at least one example of each type to teach with; as an example, we can’t teach single-action revolver simply by reference to the book and the slides, we must have an actual, functioning gun. Note that students do not have to fire them all on the range however; they likely brought their own gun for that anyway.

There is also a shooting qualification which uses an official target. This corresponds to “Level 4” of the student qualification. However, it will need to be shot “on the day.” I generally shoot it first thing, with two allowed attempts. The standard is 16/20 shots in a 6-inch span on an 8-inch target, at 15 yards. It is specifically not 16/20 shots in an 8-inch circle. I generally send targets to my Instructor Candidates to practice. It is very important to be able to shoot to the center of this official target, since the edge is defined by a relatively thin line. You can use any sights you prefer and should always shoot the gun you shoot best [5].

OK so with all of that out of the way, comes the class itself. It uses the “Teaching-Back” format where Instructor candidates hear the Training Counselor describe the key teaching points for each of the Basic Pistol student lessons, and then prepare assigned presentations to teach back to their fellow Instructor Candidates. There are multiple elements where teamwork and demonstrations are necessary and a keen attention to “Safe Direction” is required. This applies to SIRT pistols and blue guns, too.

Several elements have a distinct “NRA Way” that may be different from that with which Candidates may be familiar – how to pick up a gun, for example, or how to teach a shooting position. These aren’t suggestions. NRA requires we teach their way and their way only, even If this isn’t how we ourselves shoot. Often this is difficult for Instructor Candidates to grasp, but NRA compels us to teach their curriculum, not our version of their curriculum, and doesn’t offer much leeway on the curricula themselves, if any.

A good example of this is the three NRA rules for safe gun handling:

  • Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction;
  • Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot;
  • Always keep the gun unloaded until ready to shoot.

On the Instructor exam, these may not be paraphrased in the slightest. Please don’t follow this with “but of course, we all know that the most important rule is to treat all guns as if they are always loaded”. Remember that we are generally training beginners, not expert match shooters.

Another thing that many people find awkward is that NRA essentially forbids reference to a firearm as a “weapon”. Please don’t do it. NRA teaches that this word (the “W-word”) has strongly negative connotations, and when one considers that NRA teaches foundational skills for all recreational uses of firearms, this makes sense. In a defensive context too, we want the assailant to have the intent to do harm and have a weapon, whereas we want to present our firearm is a defensive tool, not an offensive weapon, if we are ever in court.

The class concludes with an open book exam and VOILA!! You’re now an NRA Basic Pistol Instructor! Congratulations!

Post-Certification Considerations
While it isn’t a formal part of becoming an NRA Pistol Instructor, there are some things I like to bring forward, in no particular order.

You need to get to know your portal, because you cannot function without it. It is key to posting classes and reporting their results. NRA requires a lot of information about your students, too, including working phone numbers and email addresses, and full mailing addresses. If you have co-instructors, remember to add them before you submit the report. To create the report you need to enter the students’ scores on their class exam (note, no exam in Blended) and the level to which they shot their shooting qualification. You must, must use the official targets for student qualifications. Once you’ve submitted the report you can download a PDF file of the certificate. It isn’t official without a signature. So, you need to either import into Keynote or Powerpoint and put your eSignature on it, export it as a PDF file and email it, or print it and put a wet-ink signature on it. Please don’t email it without your signature.

When shooting the qualification, students will often bring their own gun, and likely it will be new or newish to them. Have a 22 handy so that they can use it for the qualification if they are unable to manage the recoil from their own gun – then you can show them they have the fundamentals, unencumbered by the recoil from their newly-acquired G43 (“I bought it to carry”). Don’t present the student to the first qualification target until you’re as sure as you can be that they can shoot 5 rounds into a 4-inch circle at 10 feet. Don’t let them shoot Level 2 if it takes them 5 targets of 4 circles to achieve Level 1. Level 3 is possibly harder than Level 4. Be prepared to shoot each student for 45 minutes to an hour [6].

Get instructor insurance. Most ranges won’t let you teach without it but regardless, it’s just plain silly not to have it. If you’re going to do a lot of teaching, seriously consider forming an LLC [7].

Consider teaching mostly the Blended class. Students come to a Pistol class to learn to shoot, and particularly now, to shoot their own gun. With Blended they get to this much more quickly than with the all-day class. Furthermore, they will be less tired and more attentive when they are handling the guns in class and on the range, and it gives us as Instructors more time on the range if necessary. I believe too that they get a better grounding in the basics with the eLearning than in an all-day class. The caveat however, is that in the end we never actually know as Instructors that the person who comes to class is the person who took the eLearning, but we can figure that out pretty quickly.

Concluding Remarks
Teaching people to use their handguns is an extremely satisfying and fulfilling activity. Many find it transformationally empowering. For some, it is something they simply never conceived of doing. I truly hope that many of you will decide to share your skills with the wider firearms owning community because, as I said, we all reach a different part of that community and you – you individually – can reach people that other Instructors cannot. There’s also a much larger responsibility (and liability!) I believe since Bruen, since so many people will take the certificate we award and use it as part of their PTC packet, whereas previously it might have been used to gain membership at a shooting club.

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

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

Sincerely, Scott.

[1] Feel free to disagree and let us all know why, please.
[2] No, don’t because I won’t tell you, but trust me.
[3] Commonly known as a ‘hint’.
[5] Yes, people have tried it with their newest gun. Please don’t do that.
[6] Let them shoot, that is.
[7] You like having a house, right?

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Todd Ellis

Well done!

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