How Do You Find A Competent and Safe Instructor?

Posted: August 19, 2013 in Self Defense
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 12.07.49 AMLast week a story emerged of a firearms safety instructor shooting one of his students. I happened to see the story on The Blaze, but it was also on CNN, Yahoo! News, Fox News, and other sites. The local newspaper naturally had the best coverage. My first reaction to the story, similar to many others, was outright condemnation and scorn for the instructor. I mentally began making a checklist for ensuring any future instructors I work with won’t be the “type” to do such a thing. I did some research, talked with some people (including coworkers here at Autrey’s and instructors), and developed the following checklist…

Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 12.01.05 AM

A quick YouTube search will turn up numerous examples of bad instructors. Many times shooters fail because they were not taught proper stance or grip.

(Before we go any further, I would like to point out that uncles, husbands,boyfriendsfriends, etc... , who were in the _____(Army, Marines, Police, etc…) for ____ years do not make good firearms instructors. Just because a person is experienced in a skill does not mean they are able to teach that skill. And just because they were in the military does not necessarily mean they are experienced with handguns. Large majority of the military never carry handguns. As for Law Enforcement, many of them are not trained in the advanced skills and techniques of shooting. And, no matter what level of training a person has received, just because that person is experienced and proficient with firearms does not mean they will do well instructing you. The second problem [and probably the more common one I see at our range] with spouses and loved ones teaching others how to shoot is that spouses and significant others tend to have a hard time accepting correction from their loved one. It simply does not go over well when a husband tells his wife she is doing something wrong. Yet, I’ve seen an objective third-party say the exact same thing and the wife accepts their correction easily and immediately. So, I will repeat… Loved ones do not make for good firearms instructors.)

My Checklist…

1. ___ Do my fellow gun enthusiasts recommend him?130410-gun-show-hmed-11a.photoblog600

Word of mouth is often the best way to find a quality, local instructor. You may find a local gun store, range, shooting competition or gun show a good place to ask around. However, do your due diligence in selecting the gun enthusiasts to question. Attending a Tactical Course solely based on the opinion of one “expert” whom you happened to meet at the gun store is not likely to result in a great experience. Also, numerous instructors are excellent teachers of the basics of firearm safety and handling, yet are not qualified to teach more technical skills. For example, the number of instructors experienced in and qualified to train civilians in Close Quarters Combat is highly limited. Anyone who says the local Handgun Basics instructor can also teach such highly technical courses should be thoroughly questioned.

2. ___ Is he certified?gapatch

There are several nationally recognized organizations that train and certify instructors, the NRA being the most common. An instructor may also be certified through the State licensing board, Dept. of Defense, Dept. of Safety, and others. These certifications provide a type of quality control for the firearms instruction community. A certified instructor has documented experience in the material they teach. The certifications also frequently demonstrate the level of commitment the instructor has to instructing. Typically (but not always), the more certifications an instructor has the more time and money they have invested into their chosen career field and the higher quality of instruction you are likely to receive.


3. ___ Are our personalities compatible?

Though an instructor may meet all your qualifications, if he speaks in a manner that gets under your skin you will not learn well from him. There are instructors that are gruff and from whom some women are uncomfortable learning. And there are female instructors from whom men are uncomfortable learning. Call the instructor and have a conversation. The reviews and critiques of former students may also give you some insight into your instructor.

4. ___ Can he teach?

There are many skilled firearms owners and competitors that are not gifted with the ability to teach. When you talk with a potential instructor, ask for references and critiques from past students. These will likely give you great insight into their teaching ability, safety consciousness, and how personable they are. As you are talking with him, do your best to determine his purpose in teaching. Is he passionate about imparting knowledge that may save people’s lives? Does he enjoy teaching for the sake of seeing that “light-bulb” moment when a student “get’s it?” Or is he in it for the paycheck?

5. ___ Is he experienced in the area I want to be trained in?

At the Introduction to Handguns level this is not so concerning, but as you move up in your skill development you need to ensure the instructor knows the material physically as well as mentally. Just as people without children will often foolishly advise people with children how they should raise said children, there are many things that sound great in theory but breakdown in reality. So also is the world of self-defense and combat. There are many theories about how things “should” be done but unless the instructor has tested his theories in the battlefield of reality the value of his training is limited. Even for a Basic Handgun Course, question the instructor on the basic fundamentals. If he doesn’t mention things like: stance, grip, sight alignment, breath control, trigger control, etc… then you should probably find somebody else. He is not experienced in the proper techniques of shooting.

6. ___ Is the course material from an established organization?pistolguide

If you are unsure of the local, independent instructors you may be better off going to one that is using the course material of an established organization (such as the NRA). Established organizations are typically founded on the reality-tested experience of an individual(s) and focus on training other instructors in the lessons learned through that testing. To ensure students receive the benefit of that life experience, instructors are severely restricted from making any deviations from the course material. This provides for continuity across county and state lines.

7. ___ Does he have a good reputation?

Gun+Enthusiasts+Attend+Machine+Gun+Shoot+Military+dhKX-6Rcre0lOnce you have narrowed down the list of instructors and schools, begin looking into their reputations. Internet reviews may be very helpful in this, but take each review with a very large grain of salt. Negative reviews may be posted by competition and positive reviews may be posted by those associated with the organization. It is also possible for one unhappy, previous student to take to the internet for his/her revenge. Gun shows and stores may be other good resources for determining the reputation of an organization, course or instructor.

8. ___ Is he insured?

Having insurance is another indication of the commitment level of the instructor as well as being extremely important if something unfortunate happens.

9. ___ Does he have an emergency plan if something goes wrong?ROTHCO-EMSTraumaBagBlue

A professional instructor should have an emergency plan in place if something unfortunate were to happen. Not having such a plan may be an indicator that the instructor is either inexperienced, naive, arrogant or unprofessional… none of which I want in a firearms instructor.

10. ___ Is he within budget?

Financial constraints are a concern for most U.S. citizens and many times our training decisions are limited by these constraints. There are many amazing nationally renowned courses we would love to attend but simply cannot afford it. With that in mind, a local course is very appealing. So long as the instructor is safe, we may be willing to compromise on skill or experience in order to advance in our firearm handling. Recently, Limatunes wrote an encouraging post on budgeting for firearms training that will likely help you budget for next year’s training.

What Is It I’m Really Looking For?th

Before you begin looking for an instructor, it is very important to first determine what your objectives are. If self-defense is your overall goal, several objectives may be to learn situational awareness, basic handgun handling, how to use pepper (OC) spray, hand to hand combat, and home defense strategies. If winning competitive shoots is your goal, you will need an entirely different set of firearms courses. For either situation, the optimal instructor will be qualified and competent in teaching all of the subjects you desire to master. By sticking with the same instructor throughout a series of courses you will have the advantage of maintaining continuity. A good instructor will learn your strengths, weaknesses, and how you learn. As he gives you direction and instruction he will tailor it to the method that best suits you. As a student, you will also learn his methods, style and format. Building that loyalty between instructor and student will yield many rewards. While the above scenario is the optimal situation, you may not find such an instructor in your area or you may desire to progress past the level of your current instructor. In whichever situation you find yourself, I believe the above information will help you avoid the worst of the instructors, protect you from the scam artists, and hopefully help you find an instructor that best suits you.


While digging into the best steps to take to ensure I train only with a highly qualified and safe instructor, I incidentally discovered the trainer in the headlines, Terry Dunlap, Sr., is actually a highly qualified and exceptionally experienced instructor and range master. He has successfully instructed both civilians and law enforcement for decades. See this Active Response Training post or this Examiner article for more details. As far as I can tell, this instructor would have passed all of my checkpoints. So where does that leave me? I must conclude that all efforts of self-preservation are limited and ultimately my trust must not be in my efforts but God’s love and protection. Thankfully, He’s a lot better at protecting me than I am anyways.

Other Resources…

An interesting read into what mindset a professional instructor should have?

Other negligent discharges…

  1. Tommy Harper says:

    Ruth, another great blog!! Good research! Tommy

  2. MamaLiberty says:

    “Does he enjoy teaching for the sake of seeing that “light-bulb” moment when a student “get’s it?” Or is he in it for the paycheck?”

    These are not mutually exclusive. Everyone at the grocery store, the hospital and every other business needs a paycheck, as well as basic satisfaction with the job they are doing and lots of happy customers. I can tell you from long experience that if I were in firearms instruction JUST for a paycheck, I’d have hung it up many years ago.

    Otherwise, lots of excellent points.

    The “instructor” who shot his student was a total fail, simply because he ignored ALL THREE of most basic safety rules. The gun is ALWAYS considered to be loaded, the finger stays OFF the trigger until one is ready to shoot, and the gun must always be pointed in a safe direction. He managed to screw up ALL THREE at the same time, which is the only reason someone was hurt. Anyone can make a mistake, but this man demonstrates utter carelessness, arrogance, or both.

    • MamaLiberty,

      You are absolutely correct. I did not mean to imply instructors should not be paid well. I was attempting to say exactly what you said. The ONLY motivation of an instructor should not be a paycheck. Quality instructors certainly deserve appropriate compensation.

      Simply due to the shear volume of criticism leveled at Mr. Dunlap, I would like to offer a small defense for him. It was a ricochet that hit the student. Mr. Dunlap was not actually pointing the revolver at the student when he discharged the firearm. However, I totally agree he neglected several critical safety rules. I can only imagine he did not realize one round stayed in the cylinder when he cleared the weapon. A tragic situation all around.

      • MamaLiberty says:

        The criticism of Mr. Dunlap is entirely appropriate. Anyone with his supposed experience and training must be held to a much higher standard. I feel quite certain that if anyone NOT affiliated with “law enforcement” had pulled this little trick, the consequences would be severe and immediate, not an “oopsie” to be excused. Police, military, government employees and their trainers must be held to the same level of responsibility as the rest of us.

        And failing to clear a gun to be used in a class demonstration is simply unthinkable for the most novice instructor, let alone having his finger on the trigger at any point in that demonstration. No, I’m sorry… but Mr. Dunlap gets a total fail from me. He would not be allowed in my classroom because he is careless and arrogant, not ignorant.

  3. Greg says:

    Very good article. Thanks for the link!


  4. […] How Do You Find A Competent and Safe Instructor? […]

  5. Agree with you! Fine point-of view

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