At most firearms schools, the most popular courses are the level 1 classes for those with no prior training.
As an instructor, these courses are the most rewarding to teach, but they can also be frustrating, as the students struggle with equipment problems. Students used to short target shooting sessions at commercial ranges with associated retail stores, where they can buy anything they forgot or get someone to help them fix a broken gun, often leave longer classes (often taught at club-owned or private ranges) with a list of items they wish they had brought, because they had to borrow those items to get through the day.
Our school solution has been to build up an inventory of loaner holsters, magazines, magazine pouches, speedloaders, belts, loaner guns, ear and eye protection, and even concealment garments and foul weather gear, because we hate seeing students struggle to get through class working with equipment that simply isn’t up to the task. Here are some tips on how to prepare your gear (and yourself) to attend your first training course or your hundredth. If you do these things, you’ll make your instructor happy, and more important, you’ll have an easier, better time on class day.
Which Gun Should I Bring?
The simplest answer to this is: whatever gun you own that you shoot the best. What if the gun you carry isn’t the gun you shoot the best? Aside from the obvious (you should figure out how to carry the gun you shoot the best, because if you are shooting to save your life, you’d like every possible advantage), the reason is that any technique learned in class on one gun can be practiced after class with other guns. It’s more important to learn the technique as correctly as you can during class. Anything that makes operation of the gun more difficult will only slow you down.
What features make a gun more difficult to operate and shoot? A grip you can’t get all your fingers on; controls that are stiff, small, or that you can’t reach without changing your firing grip; magazines that don’t come out when you press the magazine release; a long, heavy trigger pull; complex operation (DA/SA style pistols), and sharp edges that bite your hand during recoil—just to name a few. (Actually, any of those issues are reasons not to have bought that gun in the first place, or reasons to have the gun modified to resolve those problems.)
Another good answer is: whatever gun you own that’s most similar to what the instructor carries or the school recommends. At most schools that usually means a 4- or 5-inch barreled polymer-framed, striker-fired pistol or a 4- or 5-inch steel-framed 1911, although there are exceptions. The instructor probably has a list of reasons for choosing a specific carry gun. Typically, the instructor will know more about the fine points of the preferred make and model than about a gun on the school’s “don’t buy” list.
Most instructors can teach you to run whatever you bring to class, but if you bring something out of sync with the school preference and you have trouble with your gun, you may hear “… and that’s why I don’t carry that kind of gun.”
Two Is One, One Is None
Shooters who get very serious about training, self-defense, or competition often choose to invest in a backup gun that’s an exact copy of the primary gun. If you are involved in a self-defense shooting, your gun may be held as evidence. If you travel to a match or a class and your gun breaks, having that second gun can mean the difference between getting right back on the line or sitting out.
If you shoot your gun enough, eventually something will wear out or break or you’ll lose some essential small part in the carpet when it goes flying across the room as you are cleaning your gun at the hotel. If you don’t yet have a spare primary gun, a bag of spare parts (particularly the small ones) should be in your range bag.
What Holster Should I Bring?
This is another area where you may want to find out what your instructor prefers: leather versus Kydex, inside versus outside the waistband, appendix versus strong side carry, retention versus non-retention. The SERPA holster, in particular, is controversial; some schools have banned its use in classes. If the instructor you are going to be training with prefers a holster type completely different from what you normally use, the upcoming class might be an opportunity to evaluate that alternative by using it for an entire class.
Mark Your Magazines
Numbering your magazines has many benefits. You can identify which magazine you were using if you have a malfunction, log when you replace springs, and most important, tell yours apart from other student’s. This is particularly useful in situations where almost everyone in class is shooting the same brand and caliber of pistol.
Check Your Zero
Before showing up for class you should go to the range and shoot some groups with your gun from a benchrest position, to assess where your gun hits with the ammunition you plan to use for class. Benchrest group shooting, when done properly with the frame supported by a sandbag or other rest, can teach you a lot about accurate shooting and the mechanical capabilities of your gun and chosen load. Trying to check zero from two handed standing dramatically increases the likelihood that shooter error (jerking the trigger) will occur.
I usually check my zero at 15 and 25 yards. The primary task is to evaluate where the center of the group is. The sample group in the picture shows that my group center is about an inch high at 15 yards.
What I find most often is that students’ evaluation of their zero consists of looking at the center of their hits during whatever drills they were practicing at the time and saying, “That’s good enough” if the hits are generally in the right place. That assessment is usually coupled with practice habits that use large, close targets. When confronted with a more difficult shot, such as a partial target obscured by a no-shoot or a target providing a sideways profile, even at close range an error in the gun’s zero can turn a correctly fired shot into an unacceptable miss.
Sometimes I find that students have adjusted their sights to compensate for shooter error (usually flinching), and after the errors are corrected, their sights have to be readjusted. Even if your gun has fixed sights and shot to point of aim on initial testing, sights can move as the gun is carried and shot.
Electronic hearing protectors are very useful on class day, particularly for those with hearing loss. Some instructors use a PA system, but many just yell out the range commands, which may not be audible to those on the ends of the firing line.
The major drawback to most electronic hearing protectors is that the inexpensive models offer lower Noise Reduction Ratings (NRRs) than much cheaper passive earmuffs. For $20 you can get passive muffs with 33 NRR, while $50 electronic hearing protectors typically offer 22 NRR or less. Noise is a major factor in flinching, so higher NRR will help you shoot better, but if you can’t understand the range commands, that can cause confusion and could cause safety problems. One quick fix to this problem is to wear earplugs under the electronic hearing protectors if the additional noise reduction is required.
With this combination, you can turn up the electronic hearing protectors to amplify the range commands to make them audible through ear plugs, and when the shooting begins, you get the benefit of both plugs and muffs. Some vendors, such as ProEars, offer models with enhanced high frequency response that compensates for hearing loss from noise exposure.
Oil Your Gun
Guns are like car engines; they need lubrication to run. The three tiny drops of oil that may be acceptable for a 100-round target shooting session probably aren’t going to do for an 8 hour range session where hundreds of rounds will be fired. During our pre-class check in we ask students when they oiled their gun last, and keep a bottle of lube at the check in table for those who need to use it. Shooters usually run their guns with plenty of oil because they are concerned about gun function. Gun sellers and gun collectors often use a minimum of oil because they are more concerned about the gun’s appearance. One good rule of thumb (literally) is that the gun has enough oil when you can press your thumb on the barrel hood, and see a thumbprint in the oil.
Cleaning and Maintenance Supplies
It’s wise to bring your own cleaning gear and other gun support equipment. I always keep the items shown in my range bag: oil, gun cleaning solvent, a bore snake, a brass squib rod, the Arrendondo does-everything plastic rod (many uses), and some D-Lead wipes, which are useful for cleaning up your hands after shooting, and for cleaning your gun and magazines too.
Many students new to training and serious shooting have never disassembled or cleaned their magazines, and have never considered that magazine springs may need to be replaced. I recommend having at least one new magazine spring in your range bag. Each time you clean your magazines, compare the length of the new spring to your existing springs. If the springs in use are more than two coils shorter than a new spring, it’s probably time to replace that spring.
Weather forecasts can be unreliable and weather can be unpredictable. It doesn’t take much to be prepared for harsh conditions. A few comfort items like sunscreen, bug spray, mechanic’s gloves, flashlight and/ or headlamp, umbrella, and waterproof shoes can ease the discomfort of heat, cold, rain, wind, and classes that run overtime into darkness.
Another useful item is waterproof tape, specifically the cushiony kind made by Nexcare. After firing a few hundred rounds, contact points between the gun and your hands may get irritated. If you tape them up before blisters or other injuries occur, you’ll be more comfortable through the rest of the course.
In the end, the real reason to do all the things I’ve suggested isn’t to make your instructor happy. If you take the time to get the right gear and do some prep work before class, you’ll be able to concentrate on learning the course material without struggling with gear that doesn’t work, or borrowing gear you need and didn’t think to bring. Then you can focus on the training, which will make you and your instructor happy.
[ Karl Rehn is the lead instructor for KR Training (www.krtraining.com) and has taught classes in the Central Texas area for the past 20 years. He is an NRA Training Counselor, Texas Concealed Handgun License Instructor, and a Master class competitor in IPSC, IDPA and Steel Challenge, who has trained with dozens of well known tactical and competition instructors. ]