The What & the Why – Selecting an Instructor

It’s hard to find a competent self-defense firearms instructor. Many people want to teach others how to shoot and handle a gun, but finding someone who can actually teach the subject is difficult. And many so-called self-defense instructors do not know what happens in a gunfight and what the proper responses are. They think they do, but they don’t. So there are really two issues here: The first is finding someone who has the skill and ability to teach, and the second is finding someone who knows the subject matter.

Training on a square range is a common way to develop the skills necessary to operate a gun. But even square range training requires an instructor who knows the subject and how to teach it. (Doug Larson photo)

Just because someone calls himself or herself an instructor, or has a piece of paper that says he or she is an instructor, does not mean that person can teach or even knows the subject material. There are many ways a person can become qualified to teach firearm handling and shooting, but just having grown up shooting guns is not one of them. Or just because a person is an American male does not automatically mean he knows how to shoot.

But I don’t expect everyone to take my word for it. So I surveyed many experienced firearms instructors and asked for their opinion. Although the survey does not qualify as scientific research, the findings will be enlightening to many and may help to dispel some incorrect assumptions.

Massad Ayoob is a well-known author, instructor, competitor, and an expert witness. He is also a police officer. His company, Massad Ayoob Group, conducts classes all over the US and offers them to non-sworn civilians. (Doug Larson photo)

The instructors I questioned are not the ones you find behind the sales counter in the local gun store or the person running the local range who seems to know what he is doing. All the instructors I contacted were highly placed in the gun community and had been getting paid to train people for many years. Their opinions are not what the guy on the street thinks, but are what successful people in the business have found to be true. Guns are a profession for many of them and not just a recreational pursuit, although they all still take gun classes to learn more.


Many of the self-defense instructors surveyed for this article have been in a gunfight – for real – where someone tried to kill them. For those instructors, gun handling and shooting is reality, not something that is done only for fun or that is theory. But does the self-defense instructor need to have been in a gunfight in order to be a good instructor? The answer is NO! Not one of the instructors surveyed, whether they had been in a gunfight or not, said gunfight experience was necessary to be a good instructor.

Can having been in a gunfight and surviving it be helpful to a self-defense instructor? The answer was always yes. Dave Spaulding, an internationally recognized and well-respected firearms instructor said that when a person is in a real gunfight, fear is there, whether the person recognizes it at the time or not. And it causes a person’s hands and vision not to operate the same way they do in training.

There is a lot more to fighting with a gun than just hitting the target on the square range. Getting a chance to learn in an indoor setting with live fire at Gunsite is an important element of learning how to fight with a gun. (Doug Larson photo)

An instructor who teaches self-defense with a firearm and who has been in a gunfight has experienced that deterioration in skills and is better able to relate the effect of fear to the student. Spaulding says that fear causes people to default to their level of training instead of rising to the occasion. And a good self-defense instructor teaches what works in a real gunfight, not what looks cool. Again, gunfight experience is not required, although it can help.

Steve Tarani, author, executive protection expert, and Department of Defense and law enforcement defensive tactics instructor, as well as a Gunsite instructor, points out that the lesson plan should ultimately determine instructor qualifications. For example, if the class is how to operate “a carbine utilizing IR-based target acquisition under duress in nighttime battlefield conditions, then it makes sense to have that background which supports the lesson plan.”

A Gunsite instructor briefs a student before the student begins a run on an outside simulator. Moving and shooting in an area outdoors can be quite different than moving through a structure where bad guys want to kill you. (Doug Larson photo)


Many people believe that all persons who are or have been in the military or worn a law enforcement uniform, know what they are doing with a gun. And they believe that having been in the military or a law enforcement unit means the person can shoot well or handle a gun correctly. But that is not correct. The person may have handled and shot a gun, but that may have consisted of nothing more than receiving a quick familiarization course or qualifying a few times. Neither of which is sufficient to learn how to operate or shoot well in a gunfight.

I know a retired Army Special Forces soldier who observed another soldier clearing a Beretta M9 handgun. He related the story to me. Instead of removing the magazine and then racking the slide to remove a live round from the chamber, the soldier left the magazine in the gun and ran the slide back and forth cycling every live round through the chamber to eject it. That is not only inefficient, it could be dangerous.

An instructor should know how to operate and handle a number of different firearms because a student may show up with something that is a little different. The 1911 operates in a different way than the common striker fired pistol, and manipulating it correctly requires some training. (Doug Larson photo)


There is no question that some people who have served in law enforcement or the military have a great deal of knowledge about guns and can handle them very well. But not all can. It really depends on the person’s job when in uniform. I know a retired Special Forces combat veteran who is not very good at gun handling skills. But if a person with law enforcement or military experience had a service job where kicking in doors, clearing rooms, or gunfighting was an everyday part of the work, then that person has a greater likelihood of being good at gun handling and shooting.

On the other hand, there are some very good instructors who have had no military or law enforcement experience. They know the subject material very well and can teach even though they have never served.


There is no one good way to find a competent self-defense instructor, but here are some things you can do if you are looking. Regardless of how you go about your search, you have to decide for yourself if you trust the instructor to teach you life-saving techniques. Don’t just take a class from someone because a buddy said the instructor was good.

Most people love the first instructor they take a class from. So although it is good to get recommendations from others about what instructor to choose, it is also a good idea to find out if the person making the recommendation has a base of reference outside of just one instructor. If the person has taken classes from only that one instructor, ask yourself if the person really has a way to compare one instructor against another. The more classes a person has taken from different instructors, usually the better advice the person can give because he has a way to compare instructors.

If an instructor works for a widely recognized school, like Gunsite or SIG SAUER Academy, then it is likely the instructor had to undergo some testing or scrutiny before the school would allow that person to teach under the school’s name. That affiliation can help weed out some instructors who are not quite good enough to teach life-saving skills.

Revolvers are still a viable self-defense handgun, but not many people know how to properly manipulate one. A good instructor should have expertise with many different handguns. (Doug Larson photo)

If the instructor is downrange while guns are being fired, or worse yet has students downrange when someone is shooting, get out of the class immediately, whether or not you can get your money back. No competent instructor I have ever heard of puts anyone’s life in danger during a class. Your life is more important.


The results of my unscientific survey of good instructors, many with law enforcement or military experience, or both, showed that overwhelmingly the idea that to be a good instructor one must have had law enforcement or military experience is not valid. It can help, but the experience must have been relevant to the course material. If you are looking for a good instructor, do not trust that just because the person is or was in law enforcement or the military that the person knows what he or she is doing.

Also keep in mind that gun fighting experience on the battle field may have little application to the types of gun conflicts a non-sworn citizen may encounter. For example, I have heard soldiers say that in a gun fight, the person who sends the most lead down range first wins. But that is not necessarily true in an encounter with a criminal on the streets of the U.S. In fact, that philosophy could result in a long prison term for the person who defends himself.

In the end, these are myths: All cops and military personnel know how to handle a gun. Gun fighting experience is necessary to be a good instructor. Law enforcement or military experience is required to teach gun handling and shooting.

Massad Ayoob, a well known and respected police officer, competitor, author, expert witness, and instructor points out that it is much more important for the instructor to have a broad knowledge of the characteristics and responses having to do with gunfights and be able to relate those to the student, than having been a cop, in the military, or been in a gunfight.

So be careful in selecting an instructor and do your homework before laying down your money.

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About the author: Doug Larson is a former Contributing and Field Editor for Guns & Ammo magazine, Doug Larson’s articles have appeared in many top firearm publications. He has completed hundreds of hours of firearm and self-defense training provided by some of the finest world class gun fighting instructors and schools. He has experience with handguns, rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, machine guns and other crew served weapons. He reports on the tactics, techniques and procedures developed by real life gunfighters and taught at the best martial arts schools. This information is passed on to the reader to stimulate thought and a desire to get the best training possible.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Brock September 21, 2020, 4:37 pm

    Big John I appreciate your service. Just because you are special forces does mean you are good at gun handling. So don’t get all mad at that statement. Just because you are efficient in shooting doesn’t mean you handle the gun well. Also, for privacy you don’t call people out. Think before you go off.

    • Big John September 21, 2020, 8:20 pm

      ” Just because you are special forces does mean you are good at gun handling.”

      First, not sure when you went through the Q Course or were on an ODA, but my experience was quite different. Peer pressure to be a consumate professional is extreme and that especially extends to weapons handling skills.

      “Also, for privacy you don’t call people out. Think before you go off.”

      Secondly, I didn’t expect the author to call someone out by name because I strongly suspect the incident in question is ficticious. I can assure you that I am very familiar with opsec…especially in the post 9/11 world.

      Perhaps you should “think before” you jump in and correct someone my friend.

  • Ken September 21, 2020, 1:23 pm

    Well said. Here is an excerpt from my website, which explains my philosophy as an instructor.

    “Our style of instruction is informal and personal. While we have seen other instructors charge “bargain-basement” prices, then crowd their students into classrooms, we prefer to limit the size of our classes so that every student is treated as an individual.

    As your instructors, we will not try to impress you by using military or law enforcement terms that you may not understand.

    As your instructors, we believe there are no dumb questions. We will answer your questions honestly and without making you feel embarrassed. If we do not know the answer, we will tell you so.

    As your instructors, we will give you our full attention, and we will expect you to give us yours.

    As your instructors, we will teach you the basic firearm safety rules and we will expect you to follow them, just as we do.

    As your instructors, we recognize that everyone’s physiques and abilities are different. While we are unbending about firearm safety, we will teach you the fundamentals and options about your equipment and techniques, then help you find what works best for you. In short, if it’s safe and it works, then it’s right for you.

    As your instructors, we will teach you new skills and, as your skills improve, we will challenge them, for that is how we grow. However, we will never challenge you beyond your ability to meet them.”

    I also explain the difference between training and practice, and I encourage my students to take classes from other instructors. “Drink knowledge from many cups. No one has all the answers.”

  • Big John September 21, 2020, 10:25 am

    “I know a retired Army Special Forces soldier who observed another soldier clearing a Beretta M9 handgun. He related the story to me.”

    “I know a retired Special Forces combat veteran who is not very good at gun handling skills.”

    I call B#LL$#!T, if you are going to make a defaming statement like this NAME THE MAN!

    As a SF Vet I am tired of reading garbage that tries to validate itself by a reference or two to Special Forces.

    A note to all Authors…if you weren’t in SF=don’t reference it to validate your BS!

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