Find a Qualified Instructor
If you’re looking for training, you’ll quickly discover that “instructors” are a dime a dozen. What you may not know is there’s no standard to measure one against the other.
You’ll find everything from your local NRA Stepford-Trainers teaching a very watered down, politically correct curriculum that’s been technically outdated for over a decade to social-media celebrities who will pitch just about anything to get you to subscribe to their channel or attend their course.
Just to be clear, I’m a card-carrying member of the NRA. I’m glad they’re out there lobbying for our rights. But they really need to up their training game or get out of that part of the business.
I’m also an active follower of many instructors with very successful YouTube channels. But neither an NRA certification nor a large following of subscribers is, in and of itself, any indication of quality or pertinent instruction. Many classes will leave you ankle-deep in brass but short on any real skills development.
That’s not to say there aren’t some truly exceptional instructors out there. They’re are.
But it can be hard, and expensive, to figure out who is and who isn’t qualified to give you the kind of Hand+Gun combatives training we’re talking about.
Equally important is finding an instructor who actually has the teaching skills to convey that knowledge to students who only have a limited amount of time and money to put into training.
Let’s be crystal clear. Bad instruction is dangerous!
This isn’t target shooting, sport shooting, competitive shooting or hunting. This is about the stark reality of how a single person uses their hands and a gun to protect themselves and others against the most common “street” attacks.
Not being trained is risky. But nothing is more risky than thinking you’ve been taught how to protect yourself against a deadly-force attack when you haven’t. It could cost you your health, your life or your freedom.
Over the years, I’ve had the chance to work with and pick the brains of some of the best instructors in the country and a few from other countries. I’ve come up with a list of “common denominators” that you’ll find in qualified instructors that teach sound Hand+Gun principles.
We’ve put together a list of questions you can use to interview prospective instructors. Hopefully this will help you find the kind of training that’ll keep you and your loved-ones out of harm’s way.
It’s yours for free. You don’t even need to give us an email address. All we ask is that you use it to your benefit. Share it with your friends if you’d like. Dig into it. Do your own research. And feel free to call us with any questions that come up.
Hopefully, we can raise the bar, by helping people (including well-intentioned instructors) better understand what Hand+Gun combatives training really is.
The following questions will help you identify some of the key principles of combatives training. Each question has an Expected Response and an Explanation. The expected responses will help you understand what you’re looking for in an instructor who teaches these principles, and the explanations help you understand why you’re looking for those things.
Hopefully, this questionnaire will not only help you find a quality instructor, it will serve as the first part of your training.
Where we thought it would be helpful, we included links to blog articles, videos and terms on our glossary page. The more conversational you become on the topic of armed combatives, the easier it’ll be for you to speak intelligently to others about it.
I’m not suggesting that someone has to get all 10 questions correct to be a qualified instructor. But in the process of talking through these questions you should get a good sense of a prospective instructor’s abilities.
What aiming method or methods do you teach in your handgun classes?
If the instructor starts talking exclusively about sights, or asks you what you mean, that’s not a good sign. Any competent instructor should immediately recognize you’re asking about the two main types of aiming: visual aiming and proprioceptive aiming (aka: point aiming, muscle-memory aiming, PEK aiming).
Relatively few instructors understand, much less teach, PEK aiming. The average person can be taught to use PEK aiming when shooting from 0 to 12 feet – where the vast majority of attacks come from. PEK aiming is faster, it improves weapon retention and it allows you to protect vital areas of your body while shooting.
What distances do you train your students at?
One of the main things you’re looking for the instructor to say is that he or she includes training at zero-distance or near contact ranges. They may not start you at zero distance but they need to get you there relatively quickly.
The best responses would be 0 to 20 feet, 0 to 7 yards or 0 to 7 meters because those distances show they understand the statistics of real attacks. (51% come from within 5 ft., 74% from within 10 ft., 87% from within 15 ft., and 93% from within 20 ft.) Training at further distances is fine but the bulk of your training needs to cover those critical ranges.
What do you think of night sights?
Night sights are very popular because of their cool-factor. But in fact, they only provide a limited benefit, because they only work in a few specific environments. There are other accessories you can add to your gun that will give you better performance over a broader range of Low-Or-No light (LON light) environments.
Three out of four attacks take place in LON light settings. There are nine different lighting environments. (Relatively few instructors know that.) Night sights only work in two of those environments – and they actually work worse in three of the other seven. While we’re not against having night sights to help in those situations, for the money they cost, you are much better off starting with a compact gun-mounted light, which is a better solution in more situations. (See our blog about Shooting in Low or No Light.)
What handgun caliber do you recommend? And Why?
Most healthy men and women can use a 9mm handgun effectively, regardless of their size. And there’s a reason why most of the law enforcement and military agencies around the world have gone to the 9mm. Given the right shooting technique, its terminal ballistics has made the modern 9mm an effective man-stopper.
After working with a few thousand shooters, I can count the number of people who physically could not handle a 9mm on my fingers. All those cases involved people with diseases such as advanced arthritis or injuries that involved muscle, bone or nerve damage in their hands or wrists. There are many more people who are psychologically averse to the recoil and sound of a 9mm, but many of them would be averse to firing any handgun other than a 22LR.
As for the caliber’s effectiveness, best practices in armed combatives always promotes shooting multiple, rapid-fire, medium-energy rounds in groups, rather than single, slow-fire, high-energy rounds. (Checkout our blog: “Terminal Ballistics: the Nickel Tour“.)
While some instructors may feel the S&W 40 Cal or the .380 Auto are valid calibers and some may argue a 45 ACP is a good choice for In-Home Defense, these are commonly considered as special exceptions to the 9mm rule.
Do you incorporate hand-to-hand combative techniques into your handgun training?
If he or she says no, our advice is to politely find a way to end the conversation and move on. If they say yes, ask more about what kind of hand-to-hand training they use.
Keep two things in mind.
One – This isn’t about whether or not you want to take a course that combines hand-to-hand techniques with gun skills. If you are ready for a combatives course (meaning you’re beyond learning the basics of shooting a handgun and your focus is on protecting yourself with a handgun.) there is no valid combatives training that does not combine both handwork and gun skills. That’s just the nature of dealing with deadly-force situations.
Two – In deadly force situations, you don’t rely on sophisticated martial arts systems, such as Krav Maga, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or MMA. While these are all excellent for fitness, recreation and general self-defense purposes, they take much too long to learn how to use effectively with a handgun. That said, if you have the time, money and interest, the study of any of those disciplines will only make you all the better.
However, for the purposes of choosing a course, we are looking for instruction that focuses on more primal, limited-decision, counter-offensive techniques. The training should also have an emphasis on handling the most common deadly force attacks by integrating both hand-to-hand and handgun techniques into one curriculum.
What kind of weapon retention methods do you teach?
If your prospective instructor’s response alludes to any kind of “Slap and Shoot” or “High-Elbow/Low-Shot” techniques, that could be a red flag. Those are flawed theories. You’re looking for an instructor who talks about shooting from retention with two hands on the gun, and where your support hand holds and guards the slide portion of the gun.
Current best practices for weapon retention promote counter-offensive, rather than defensive, movement. It’s also critical that your training prioritizes getting to your gun with both hands quickly, to block any attempt form an attacker to do the same.
Two-hand retention grips are key to guarding and controlling the front half of your gun. There are dozens of variations of two-hand retention grips. Some include the C-Clamp, G-Wrap or Palm-Wrap grips. These grips can be used with guns that do or do not have a Combat Shroud. However, a Combat Shroud will prevent your gun from jamming. It eliminates the need to clear and rechamber additional rounds after firing. It allows you to shoot faster and more accurately, and with less felt recoil.
What kind of targets do you use?
This is kind of a fishing expedition. There are lots of answers a qualified instructor might give. What you want to hear is some indication that they use a variety of different targets for a variety of specific purposes and that they will start training you to shoot on multiple targets relatively soon.
The targets you use will determine what kind of sight pictures you will become proficient at shooting. For the most part, bullseye or dot targets are only useful for analyzing a relatively new shooter’s abilities and diagnosing problems.
Most combatives training should be done on silhouettes. This teaches shooters to aim inside boundaries, rather than at pinpoints. Silhouettes with clothing on them make shot-placement feedback much more realistic and photograph targets train students how to look at an attacker differently from how they normally look at people. Moving targets and 3D targets are excellent! But they’re also extremely expensive, so don’t be surprised if an instructor doesn’t have them available.
One of the most important skills a student must learn is how to shoot on multiple targets quickly. Two-thirds of all attacks come from multiple attackers. Most instructors wait far too long before introducing students to multiple targets or never do it at all.
This is where everything starts to come together. The two-hand retention grip and PEK aiming, when used with the Combat Shroud is the only combination that allows a relatively inexperienced shooter to fire multiple times on three different targets at speeds previously only achieved by champion-class competitors. That is not an exaggeration. It’s what makes these techniques so powerful.
What accuracy objectives do you set for your students? How do to help them reach those objectives?
Most instructors can come up with a satisfactory answer to the first question for a couple of reasons. First, they don’t set standards too high out of fear they won’t be able to get their students to that level. Second, if they use IDPA, USPSA or other similar targets, the “A-Zones” are clearly defined.
More than anything, it’s the second question that should give you some insight about the instructors teaching methods. Responses like “Lot’s of practice, along with good feedback” should be considered hyperbole rather than an answer.
Most new shooters are surprised to learn that accuracy has relatively little to do with aiming. The two biggest factors that impact accuracy are trigger control and gun stability. Most instructors know that. The question is, how do they help students do those things?
There are a few red flags to look for in answers to the first question, such as too much emphasis on precision. In combatives, your objective isn’t to shoot dime sized groups. That would mean you’re shooting too slow. Also, any suggestion that accuracy requirements change at different distances is just plain wrong. The areas on an attacker that will stop him don’t change at different distances, only your shooting speed does.
Any qualified instructor will have a method for teaching accuracy that goes beyond practice and feedback. For example, for visual aiming, we use the four-corners drill to teach shooters how much their sights can vary and still hit the A-Zone. We combine that with an exercise for feeling where your finger contacts the trigger. These are just two tools. Other instructors may have completely different tools, which is fine. As long as they can explain them in a way that makes sense to you.
Lots of instructors can shoot accurately. That doesn’t mean they know how to pass that skill on to a student.
What speed objectives do you set for your students? How do to help them reach those objectives?
It’s not that an instructor who says he trains students to shoot 0.17 second splits is better than one who claims he or she will get you to 0.25 splits. In fact, I’d be leery of an instructor who would make any claims before working with you. But you may be surprised how few instructors will give you any kind of metric at all.
Speed is a critical part of combative shooting. But any discussion about speed is meaningless unless it’s linked to accuracy. Most instructors “measure” accuracy because we all shoot at targets. But far fewer measure speed. You need at least three metrics to analyze your performance – accuracy, speed and distance.
So the first thing we want to establish is that they do time the different components of your draw and fire sequence. Secondly, we want to hear how they improve those times without compromising accuracy.
We use a series of mini-drills that breakdown the draw and fire sequence into parts. We teach you how to speed up those individual parts, then put them all together. In the end, you can shoot farther, faster, while maintaining an effective level of accuracy.
Most instructors are proud of their training methods. They should be more than happy to tell you a little bit about what makes them better than the next guy.
What gun safety rules do you abide by?
I saved this for last because it’s a bit longer than the others. So if you’re out of gas, you’ve got nine questions you can use. I considered using another question, but this information will give you an enormous insight as to the difference between a marksmanship instructor and a combatives instructor.
The Safety Rules for Combatives are very specific. The verbiage not only keeps you and others safe from mishandling a weapon, it also prepares you to effectively face a threat. Two types of safety to consider. Range only one.
That said, many instructors still subscribe to an outdated set of rules that are more appropriate for range shooting, competitive shooting or hunting.
The the original rules were codified by a legend in the firearms training world, Jeff Cooper. To many these rules are almost sacred and to challenge them is heresy. So I’m giving you a more detailed explanation, not only to give you the insight of the rules, but also, so as you talk to people, you will see how little most “instructors” understand the realities of carrying a gun on “the street”.
Cooper’s Rule #1 – All guns are loaded.
That may be a safe assumption to make if you’re going to shoot at the range, but it’s not the mindset you need when training for the street.
No soldier would head onto a battlefield and no cop would go on duty assuming their gun was loaded. The same applies to concealed carrying civilians.
I’m confident that wasn’t the Colonel’s intent. But decades after he codified his rules, no one is asserting the tactical safety risks of not knowing (versus assuming) the status of your gun at all times.
Our rule #1 – Confirm the status of your gun is appropriate for your intended use.
Cooper’s Rule #2 – Never point your gun at anything you don’t intend to destroy.
Again, great for a range rule, oversimplified for the street.
It is not unreasonable to imagine a situation where the lesser of two evils could be to sweep your muzzle past an innocent to stop a greater threat.
We don’t encourage it. We look for every opportunity to avoid it. We never take it lightly. But we don’t categorically reject it either.
Our rule #2 – Never point your gun at anything you can’t justify putting at risk.
Cooper’s Rule #3 – Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
I actually heard Col. Cooper contradict himself on this. He stood in front of a class and said “As I start to raise my gun, I move my finger to the trigger, so I can break the shot as soon as I get on target.”, which makes total sense.
Our rule #3 – Keep your finger off the trigger until your gun is deliberately oriented to where you should do so.
Cooper’s Rule #4 – Be sure of your target and beyond.
It is almost a foregone conclusion that if you are ever forced to shoot, you will, in all likelihood, have friendlies between, around or behind you and your attacker.
We need to not only be aware of where we’re shooting, but also of where we are drawing fire to. We try to ingrain this in our students by adding to Col. Cooper’s original verbiage.
Our rule #4 – Be aware of what’s at and around you and your target, beyond you and your target and between you and your target.
I hope you can see the significant differences in these two sets of rules.
It’s not about having the words memorized. But if you don’t hear those differences in your conversation, you’re probably talking to a marksmanship instructor not a combatives instructor.