I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of training and competition. I’ve done a fair bit of both, though not as much as I’d like. Over time, I’ve thought about the advice I would give myself if I were able to go back to my very first time. If you’ve hung around many training-oriented message boards or popular instructors, some of this probably won’t be news to you. But I wanted to capture it from my perspective.
And while I was at it, I also asked members of the community to chime in as well to see if I was missing anything. To my surprise, we all pretty much had the same perspectives. I think this stems from the kind of introspective and thoughtful person that tends to read the blog and listen to the podcast.
Like many firearms enthusiasts, I followed a general progression. It wasn’t always seriousness, personal capability, and developing an edge. In the beginning, it was “Oh, that’s cool…I want it because it’s fun”
Then it was, “I want to impress the internet.” I spent days and weeks obsessively researching just the right part to assemble something that was worthy of kudos from total strangers.
Eventually, it became, “I should learn to use this well.”
Today, it’s, “This is but a powerful tool backing a broad skillset.”
For this episode, I want to focus on that period as I transitioned from trying to impress strangers on the internet to instead focusing on building skills. This is where I started seeking out training and competition, even if informal. I read a lot of after-action reports, tips, tricks, and books. When I finally got out to start my training, it turned out that I still had to learn (and re-learn) of a lot of what others had already said to me.
The Three Keys
There’s a lot to unpack in this topic, so I want to focus on three key areas:
- The instructor
- Your equipment
- Learning mindset
These are intentionally broad because there’s a lot to each one. Each of these areas has several little lessons learned over time, and I simply can’t get to them all. But I will share a few of the most important. As I said before, this isn’t just coming from me, either. The lessons here come from members of our community over in The Everyday Marksman Discord server as well.
So let’s get into it.
If you’re like me, and training isn’t paid for by your employer, then you don’t have unlimited funds to spend on just anyone who calls themselves an instructor. So, first off, you have to know what you’re signing up for and what you plan to take away from it.
Is this a marksmanship-focused training course, like an Appleseed event? Are you signing up for something a bit more “tactical?”
It might sound obvious, but you are going to learn things in one that you probably won’t in the other. Of all of the tactical classes that I’ve been to, marksmanship was little more than a footnote in the curriculum. It was encouraged, maybe talked about or even expected, but ultimately wasn’t the point.
Likewise, the marksmanship classes tended to focus on the raw fundamentals of position building, sight picture, breathing, and the other elements of good shooting. However, they would not be something you go to in order to learn to shoot, reload, or manipulate your weapon quickly.
I’m not saying one is better than the other. In fact, you should probably learn and practice all of them as tools in your toolbox. But what I am saying is that you should make sure you know what you plan to learn. Once you know that, then you should find an instructor that is a good fit for the topic at hand.
If I’m there to learn marksmanship, I don’t necessarily care if the instructor has been in a gunfight. I am, however, interested if they compete and have a record they can point to that shows they have experience with what they are teaching.
If it’s a tactical class, then what is their experience teaching and practicing the tactics of a gunfight? Did they learn from the school of Call of Duty or from the military? Were they a highly-trained ground pounder with infantry team tactics or a high-speed door kicker for CQB? Maybe they were law enforcement and have a great perspective on spotting threats and de-escalating from them first.
Equally important to the background of the instructor is whether or not they’re actually good teachers. I’ve got a lot of experience here, both on the military and civilian side, and I can tell you that just because someone is really good at doing something doesn’t mean they’re going to be a good instructor on the topic.
Being a good teacher requires great communication skills, patience, the ability to plan, and be humble. Teaching others is not the time to flash your ego. It’s not about you.
So this brings it back to the question at hand: what do I wish I had known about getting training? I wish I had spent more time planning a progression of what I wanted to learn, from the fundamentals of marksmanship all the way through team-based fieldcraft. Then, knowing the plan, also understand who was going to teach these things in a credible way.
- Zero your weapon, and know that zero. In many courses there isn’t going to be time to zero before starting- they expect that you’ve already done that before showing up
- Bring as many loaded magazines as you can. If you can avoid loading mags during the day, then all the better.
- Take more ammo than the class says it needs, at least 25% to 50% more
- Carry weapons lube on you and keep it handy. I had a rifle die on me during one class because I forgot to lube it, and I had also forgotten to bring the lube to the range. Oops. Luckily, I had another rifle.
- Bring an extra rifle. In fact, bring extra everything if you can. Maybe your gear works out perfectly, but having a spare for someone else to use if their stuff dies will make you the hero of the day and it helps keep things moving
I’m sure you’ve heard of “growth mindsets” and “fixed mindsets.” They’re squishy psychological topics that come up all of the time in corporate leadership training or motivational talks. It’s not useless, though, and I think there’s something to take away.
The piece of advice I would give to myself here is to be open to criticism and feedback, even if you don’t agree with it. I’m the kind of person who always keeps an idea tucked in the back of my mind: I might always be wrong about something, so I never get too attached to any particular idea or position. Over time, given evidence and experimentation, this allows me to refine my position on just about anything.
This is a growth mindset, one that says there is always something more to learn.
With a training class, it’s easy to go in thinking that you already know the right way to do something. Then you’ll be faced with an instructor who has a different take, and this can quickly cause hurt feelings, defensiveness, or worse.
You need to realize that for any problem, there are often multiple ways to solve it. I’ve seen many instructors, depending on their background, take different approaches to everything from the proper kneeling position to clearing particular malfunctions and even how to communicate during a firefight. A lot of the time, this goes back to how that particular person was trained to do it, and it works. They are teaching A WAY, which might be different than YOUR WAY, and it’s not likely they’re going to stop and adopt your way in the middle of a course.
Accept that there are multiple tools in the toolbox, and you’re free to test and evaluate them to see what works best for you.
This is a learning mindset, and you should try to adopt it for all things.
Now that you’ve stuck with me this far, I figured I share a few more bits of practical advice when attending training (or even a match).
- Plan to be outside all day. Whether that means sun, rain, snow, asteroid strikes, or whatever. You’re going to be exposed to the elements, so bring along a hat, sunblock, bug spray, and appropriate clothing.
- Bring A LOT of water. I plan for at least a gallon of water per day to keep myself topped off. Don’t forget to actually drink it. I missed my rifleman patch at an Appleseed event one time because even though I had brought the water, I didn’t drink it. By the time we got around to shooting the AQT in the afternoon desert sun, my vision was blurring up from dehydration.
- Bring a chair so you can sit down
- Take notes. I like to bring along a Rite in the Rain pad so I can write in any condition. Also take photos where you can (not of other people or their stuff)
- Don’t be complacent. Ever. Nothing will ruin a training class quicker than “that guy” who gets careless with a weapon.