When someone first decides to acquire a firearm, a natural question is, “How do I learn to use it and what do I learn to do?”
There are many options available to a new shooter. The least viable option is the lucky charm option, which consists of buying a gun, never firing it, never practicing or training, and hoping for the best. The majority of new shooters will elect to limit themselves to shooting alone on a very sporadic basis, perhaps annually. Others will seek some initial training (perhaps because training is legally mandated) and then afterwards shoot a little bit on an occasional basis. None of these options is likely to create competence, and therefore confidence, with a firearm.
As with any physical skill, there is a progression that we have to go through to achieve competence. This progression takes time, requires a commitment of personal resources, and necessitates considering what a person’s ultimate goals are. While many people have achieved a degree of competency just by shooting on their own, following a program that is based on intermediate performance objectives can speed the process and reduce the resources required.
There are many tasks associated with concealed carry of a firearm and it’s helpful to break them out into stages that are manageable for each individual. By identifying the tasks necessary and then grouping them, shooters can develop their skills at the pace that is right for them.
Stage 1 – Develop Basic Familiarity with a Handgun
Firearms, especially handguns, are daunting devices for the first time user. This is doubly true for those who are not inherently familiar with using hand power tools in general. The deadly potential that firearms possess creates a state of mind in many people that requires a fair amount of instruction to overcome. I have had more than one student tell me that their hands were shaking merely from loading the magazine with ammunition, and it wasn’t because of the physical effort involved.
At this stage, the emphasis is less on performance oriented training than it is on underlying education. Often, we in the training community take our subject matter familiarity and knowledge for granted. Projecting that familiarity and knowledge onto students can alienate them quite easily. When I co-taught NRA Basic Pistol classes, we had great success by using blue guns as the initial tool for teaching grip. There was a noticeable improvement in the students’ first live fire performance when we began using inert pistols for their initial handling exercises.
The learning objectives in this stage are:
- Gun safety principles
- Mechanical understanding of pistol and ammunition
- Principles of marksmanship
- How to grip and hold a handgun
- Shooting from a steady, perhaps resting position
- Cleaning and safe storage
The .22 caliber pistol reigns supreme as the training tool for beginning shooters. Many people start out on centerfire pistols, but doing so doesn’t always yield the best results. Experiencing an explosion two feet from one’s face instantly followed by a sharp strike to the hands is about as unnatural situation as can be imagined for most people. Minimizing the effects of concussion and recoil in the beginning helps acclimate new shooters in a more palatable way.
The NRA First Steps and Basic Pistol Courses, as well as the NSSF First Shots Program, provide a good foundation for new shooters. Many shooting ranges also offer some kind of basic firearms training program that teaches fundamentals. The terminal performance objective at the end of the first stages is for the student to be able to safely handle and shoot a firearm on a controlled range.
Stage 2 – Build Defensive Shooting Skills
Once a person has acquired some basic familiarity with a firearm, it’s time to apply those fundamentals in the context of personal protection. This stage is where we learn the proper way to handle and shoot firearms when we are not at the shooting range.
One of the most important aspects of defensive skill is not marksmanship, but rather practical gun handling, which is a highly overlooked aspect of gun ownership. We handle guns far more than we ever shoot them, so it’s appropriate to learn and practice safe gun handling in a non-range context. Our golden rule here is to never allow our muzzle to point at anything we are not prepared to have injured or killed. At times, it will be necessary to muzzle sweep property or inanimate objects, but we want to vigilantly keep our muzzle away from people and pets. That includes parts of our own bodies.
The shooting exercises at this stage will come from ready positions rather than from the holster. A significant part of training and practice here should involve making a good first hit on the target. Many people get into the habit of firing multiple shots too soon. This results in walking the rounds onto the target to get a decent hit, eventually. In your home or on the street, errant misses are a luxury we can ill afford. Also, as my colleague, Rob Pincus, has pointed out, “After the first shot, everyone starts moving.” That means that once the shooting starts the marksmanship problem gets much more difficult. It’s best to seize the initiative immediately by making the attacker “leak” at the get-go.
The learning objectives for the second stage are:
- Presentation to a ready position from the holster
- Engaging a target from a ready position
- Stoppage reduction
- Shooting a qualification course from ready position
- Instruction on legal issues and how they are applied in the context of home defense
The performance objective at the end of the second stage is for the student to be able to shoot a simple state level qualification course to a 100 percent standard starting from a ready position. Shooting a qualification course provides a mild degree of stress for the student that is useful as a stress inoculation. I prefer the State of Arizona Qualification Course from Arizona’s late Firearms-Safety Program, but other simple tests can suffice. Using a state accepted course has value because, in the event of legal complications, jurors may not grasp the value of the XYZ training company qualification course, but a state recognized qualification may be more understandable.
Stage 3 – Develop Concealed Carry Skills Holster Work
Learning to work from a holster safely and effectively is a tremendous hurdle in the concealed carry education process. There is a reason why few states that require training to obtain a carry license require demonstration of proficiency from a holster—and some forbid it. The reason is that it is a complex skill with much liability attached. Drawing from a holster is a skill best learned from a seasoned instructor who is competent at performing and teaching the skill. Requisite skills for concealed carry include:
- Manipulation exercises: load, unload, random stoppage reduction
- Multiple shots
- Garment/purse techniques
- Intermediate Force Options
- Awareness and Positioning to avoid having to use Deadly Force at all
The use of Intermediate Force Options is often overlooked in concealed carry training. Lacking an Intermediate Force Option such as pepper spray implies that the only active response a person is prepared to make in self defense is to kill someone. That’s probably not a position that reasonable people would wish to be in, given a bit of reflection.
At the end of the third stage, the student should be able to successfully shoot a qualification course from a holster, beginning from a start signal. If the class is taken in a state that has a scored qualification course for a Concealed Weapons License, that is probably the best option. Otherwise, some other scored qualification course is desirable.
Stage 4 – Use of Deadly Force Live Fire Skills
Most people cease their concealed carry education once they have learned how to draw from a holster and shoot with two hands. However, there are a number of additional shooting skills that should be learned beyond how to draw from the holster. Studying the actual encounters summarized in CCM’s True Stories shows that skills such as shooting around others, one-handed shooting, and reduced light shooting are sometimes required in the context of personal protection.
At least one additional training task list has been compiled by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in its Use of Force live fire training guidelines for law enforcement agencies. Summarizing that list, it contains:
- Qualification at least semiannually
- Use of deadly force decision making
- Night or reduced light shooting
- Shooting at moving targets
- Strong-hand or weak-hand firing
- Combat simulation shooting
- Shooting where others may be present
Deadly force decision making is a significant weak spot in most concealed carriers’ educational repertoire. Obviously, most people do not have access to the sophisticated training devices used by large police agencies. However, there are command training targets available from target manufacturers such as Law Enforcement Targets, that can be used for decision making exercises. Even on an indoor range, these targets can be used by a pair of shooters to train decision making skills.
Stage 5 – Ongoing Practice and Skill Building Exercises
A huge mistake most people make is to take one training class and at the conclusion assume that they are “trained” and need do nothing else. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gun handling and marksmanship are perishable skills that require regular practice. No one would want to have an ambulance driver who only took basic driver’s education and then had never driven again.
Most initial training will provide only a limited amount of performance oriented training. It is up to the individual to continue their training and practice, even if it is on an informal basis. There are a number of different informal, yet systematic ways to approach ongoing practice. Among them are:
- The NRA Handgun Marksmanship Qualification Program
- Shooting indoor IDPA matches
- Shooting other state’s CCW Qualification Courses, especially states you visit
Carrying a concealed weapon gives a person more options for personal defense, but also carries with it a great responsibility. That responsibility can be best managed by approaching it in a measured and programmatic method. The famous time management consultant Alan Lakein coined the “Swiss Cheese Method.” Breaking a large task into smaller tasks that can be individually accomplished makes completing the larger task much easier.
[ Claude Werner is the Chief Instructor of Firearms Safety Training LLC (www.firearms-safety-llc.com) and an NRA Certified Instructor. He is a retired Special Forces officer and was formerly the Chief Instructor at the elite Rogers Shooting School. An IDPA Master class competitor, he won six IDPA championships in Stock Service Revolver using a snub nose revolver. ]