Originally published in 2012 in GunNews Magazine.

We’re re-posting it as it’s especially germane with the new Illinois CCW law’s training requirement.


(Guns Save Life) – Carrying a gun lawfully for self-defense can make the difference between life and death in a critical incident, yet at the same time it can be fraught with risk to the carrier thanks to a long list of laws and regulations.

In the perfect world, you wouldn’t need a permit to carry, nor training in the use of a firearm effectively for self-defense.  Unfortunately, the world isn’t perfect and neither are people.

All it takes is a single incident of oversight, sloppy gun handling, or lousy gear and you can find yourself without a permit at best and in jail at worst.  And heaven help you if you have a negligent discharge or pull your gun without proper legal justification.  Make those mistakes and you may end up in prison!

By seeking quality, comprehensive training, the risks of carrying are greatly diminished and more importantly, the odds of prevailing in a deadly force encounter are significantly enhanced.

Increasingly, with the proliferation of everyone and their dog offering “concealed carry classes”, training courses aren’t all high-quality affairs.

In fact, they run the gamut from inadequate and incompetent to thorough, well-presented programs designed for those who wish to learn how to avoid confrontation and have every advantage should they ever find themselves a reluctant participant in a deadly force encounter.

Of course, the best way to win any gun battle is to avoid it altogether.  Where this is not possible, training will make the difference between whether it was luck or skill that allowed you to prevail.

Most forward-thinking folks would rather not rely on dumb luck to win a life-and-death struggle.   This is where proper course selection could someday pay huge dividends to you and your loved ones.

The skill sets needed to use a firearm decisively to defend yourself can be broken down into three subsets.  The best training will incorporate all three areas for their students.

The Mindset.  
Mindset is the knowledge and psychological attitudes needed to lawfully utilize deadly force for self-defense.  This includes the legal parameters of when deadly force is appropriate (regardless of the weapons system) and mental preparation for dealing with all aspects of a violent encounter at home or in public.

This particular aspect of training emphasizes avoiding conflict, layering your defenses and teaching you the standard by which you will be judged.  A well-taught class will keep you out of jail for inappropriately introducing a weapon – firearm or otherwise – into a confrontation.

Functional ability/training.
The functional ability training consists of knowing how to make your gun work, and the ability to use it safely and effectively, and the associated aspects of its proper care and feeding.

Any reputable course will inculcate you with basic firearm safety.  Exercising proper muzzle discipline and keeping your finger off the trigger until you have decided to shoot should be as natural as breathing.  Sadly, for those who haven’t had good training, poor muzzle control and trigger finger discipline are the norm.

Gun selection plays an important role as well.  Some folks may have compatibility issues with the gun they like, making it a bad choice for them as they are unable to operate it effectively.  Arthritis, hand strength or other physical limitations are a common cause for these issues, as well as a lack of familiarity with a firearm’s controls.

Tactical training.
Tactical is not “tacticool” where people dress up in “cool guy” gear to pretend they are something they aren’t.

Instead, it is the practical, hands-on study of the tactics needed to fight with your personal defense tools.  This includes learning proper use of cover and concealment, proper presentation of the gun, situational awareness, proper force “application” strategies, malfunction clearing procedures, proper reloading and so much more.

Reading a book or watching a video can serve to introduce these concepts, but there’s no substitute for doing it for yourself under the tutelage of a skilled instructor who will ensure you’re using proper technique and minimizing wasted movement.  This allows you to act decisively, without “thinking” about the mechanics of what you are going to do once you’ve decided to act.

The old saw of how you won’t rise to the occasion but instead  default to your level of training is pretty much true.  Indecisiveness, wasted movement and/or poor skills will get you killed unless you’re a very lucky soul.

There are a multitude of firearms-related classes.  Price, quality and comprehensiveness of these courses varies wildly.  Here are some commonly found courses.

Utah CCW Classes
“Utah classes” are often held in hotel meeting rooms, but can even be held on buses during long trips.  Tuition often runs $100-150 and sometimes includes fingerprinting.  They satisfy the training requirement to receive a Utah-issued license-to-carry, and teach mindset issues.  If you’re lucky, your class will also cover interactions with bad guys, police and investigators relating to a deadly force encounter and strategies for avoiding confrontations in the first place.

These increasingly common “Utah CCW” classes don’t offer functional or tactical training other than an oral explanation of some of the fundamentals.  Obviously, it’s difficult to conduct live fire exercises at the Holiday Inn’s conference center as management can get a little surly about that.

Utah and Florida CCW classes
Another recent twist in firearms training is the hybrid Utah and Florida concealed carry classes – basically the Utah class with a brief, minimal live-fire component which may occur at a nearby range.  Tuition ranges from $150-350 and again, sometimes includes fingerprinting.

The live fire component may be as little as one single round.

NRA classes
NRA offers a series of classes that meet or exceed the NRA’s national standards.

For handguns, there is a NRA FIRST Steps pistol class.  FIRST stands for “Firearm Instruction, Responsibility, and Safety Training”, a program the NRA developed to orient new gun owners with their new firearm.  FIRST Steps can be completed in about three or four hours and offers only a quick introduction to how a student’s new gun works.

The NRA’s Basic Pistol class is a day-long class with intensive lessons in safety, gun handling, various action types of pistols, fundamentals of marksmanship, various pistol firing positions, cleaning, storage, and a summary of pistol sports and activities.

The NRA Basic Pistol class is an excellent and affordable entry-level course, offered for as little as $50 in Central Illinois.  And while the NRA Basic Pistol class teaches how to use a handgun, it isn’t geared towards the prospective concealed carrier as it doesn’t really cover much about the mindset and tactical issues of self-defense.

NRA’s Personal Protection in the Home course teaches enrollees a comprehensive overview of how to avoid becoming a victim of violent criminal attack and how to use a firearm for self-defense against an attack.

The NRA’s program helps “to develop in the students the basic knowledge, skills and attitude essential to the safe and efficient use of a handgun for protection of self and family.”

It also teaches students the fundamentals of the judicious use of deadly force, comprehensive strategies for layering defenses to reduce the risk of burglary or home invasion and how to react to a violent confrontation at home.  It teaches basic gun-fighting tactics and strategies for winning a deadly force encounter.

These are typically priced in the $125-350 price range over one- or two-day classes.

NRA Personal Protection Outside the Home picks up where the NRA Personal Protection in the Home course leaves off.  It’s a two-day class, effectively, and runs around $200.


Better, more enjoyable courses will share many common attributes.  Here are some:

Look for experienced instructors.  While everyone has to start somewhere, previous instructional experience measured in years, not months, will usually lead to a better end result for you, the consumer / student.  If they try to razzle-dazzle you with experience in the Boy Scouts, ROTC, or “personal interest”, or a long list of certifications without offering how much experience they have actually teaching real students, look out.

Look for instructors who have been to some of the nationally-known schools.  Instructors who have continued their education at top-tier national schools will bring lessons and teaching techniques they’ve learned from the nationally-respected masters to your local class.

“Team teaching” is always a good thing, as instructors can teach to their strengths and students enjoy hearing a more diverse set of perspectives.  Sure, the instructors make a lot less individually when utilizing “team teaching”, but end result is a better educational experience for the students.

A “team” of instructors also offers greater opportunities for the student to get more one-on-one help as needed, particularly on the firing line during live fire.

Previous law enforcement or military instructional experience is a bonus, especially if it is in the arena of training the elites of military or law-enforcement.  Again, it’s about bringing applicable aspects of the latest tactics to the local students.

High instructor to student ratios.  We can’t stress this one enough, especially for range exercises.  If you have one or two instructors trying to run a range with ten or twelve entry-level students on the firing line at once, you’re getting badly short-changed as a student and it’s not as safe as it could be.

Courses that offer more than the minimum.  Good instructors won’t cut corners, but in fact will supplement the required material with valuable and useful information they have learned from other schools or instructors.

Referrals, testimonials, and word of mouth are all things to look for in reputable, experienced instructors.  Ask your friends who have been to a class what they thought of it.  Visit your local gun club or gun rights organization and ask those present for recommendations on instructors and/or classes.


With the booming popularity of non-resident carry licenses, there are a lot of instructors, especially newly-minted ones, who vary significantly in skill, ability and ethics.

There are a number of red flags one should look for in entry level training to help you avoid a disappointing experience.

Airsoft:  Do instructors attempt to replace live-fire with airsoft guns for the class?

Internet classes:  Do instructors attempt to “teach” the classroom segments of the class on the internet?

Charging for permit application packets:  One firearms training group charges students $20 each for Florida and Arizona license application packets, even when those respective states promptly send them out for free.

Unsafe gun handling:  Do instructors demonstrate safe gun handling or do they routinely put their booger picker on the bang switch inappropriately?  Are they careless about muzzle control?

Cutting corners to do less than even the minimum requirements.  If it is supposed to be a four-hour class and the instructor finishes in three and a half hours?  That’s not good.

Instructors teaching flawed, out-of-date or just plain unsafe information that could get students killed or injured needlessly, either from tactics or a safety perspective.

Example you ask?  Recently:  “You should carry with an empty chamber” and “you should rack the slide of your empty-chambered handgun on your pants.”

Our recommendation

Do a little research.  There’s no need to settle to spend money for a course that will disappoint you.  Use the information contained here to help guide you in course selection.

Make sure the class you enroll in will provide training that meets and exceeds your needs instead of a marginal offering that falls short in one or more areas.

Remember, training is inexpensive compared to your life and it is not a place to cut corners.

Good training that allows you to come out on top is priceless in the long run.


Photos courtesy Oleg Volk and GSL Defense Training.

2 thoughts on “Finding the right (quality) firearm training program for you”
  1. Example you ask? Recently: “You should carry with an empty chamber” and “you should rack the slide of your empty-chambered handgun on your pants.”

    You can’t be serious!

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