Training Classes – Choosing Your Instructor

It seems since the rise of terrorism there has been an explosion of people hanging out their shingles, or website, as firearms instructors. The sheer number of choices can make choosing the right one a daunting task for the novice shooter who is looking to gain confidence with a new purchase or even an experienced shooter who has reached a plateau on their quest for better performance.

Ground Rules

You need to be looking for a “Gun Guy” or “Gal” as the case may be. You are not looking for just anyone that has a little experience, a certification, was a veteran, or was in law enforcement, you want a dedicated Gun Person. There are many people out there that are teaching firearms; your hard earned dollars and time deserve the right person for your requirements.

The more advanced the training, the more experienced an instructor needs to be, but never start at the bottom.

Not only does this person have to be passionate about firearms, they also must be a teacher, a mentor- a person who desires and has the capacity to pass knowledge on to you. There are some gun people that can shoot really well, but they can’t diagnose a student’s issue or articulate how to do all the facets of this complex hand-eye coordination challenge.

The Instructor needs to be knowledgeable in the area you want to learn,; basic pistol instruction is a far cry from shotgun or long range precision rifle. There are instructors who can teach almost anything, thanks to the breadth of their knowledge, but there are far fewer of these than you might expect. A great instructor will be able to provide references and testimonials that can easily be verified don’t hesitate to do this.

You are also looking for a low student to instructor ratio or a one on one class. This may cost more, but the attention you get will be worth the expense if you have the right instructor. Don’t buy in for a class with dozens of students; those typically end up being more of a lecture than a solid hands on training experience, unless they have additional instructors.

Bottom Line Up Front

Get the best instructor you can afford in the discipline you want to learn. Notice, I did not say get the most expensive instructor you could afford—get the best. This will take a little research but there are great instructors all over the country and many that travel all over the country teaching.

Bennie Cooley, in my opinion, is one of the Gold Standard Instructors – a multi-time world champion shooter with a ton of experience training LE, swat, and military. His broad experience allows him to instruct a wide variety of shooting topics.

How do you determine the best? Typically we utilize a rating system or have them compete for that title. The person you are looking for is the Gold Standard or Best of Breed at what you want to learn, the best that can be found.  These instructors are going to be well known in the shooting community; you’re looking for the best to teach you.

If you are a brand new shooter it may not be possible to jump directly to a top tier instructor; some training requires a level of prerequisite experience or at least strong familiarity. Though in many shooting disciplines like skeet, sporting clays or long range rifle, I would say go for it straight to the top. This approach will let you bypass developing bad habits and start your journey with a rock solid foundation.

Why Start at the Top

It’s understandable some people don’t want to go to the best for instruction since they are just learning & possibly starting out below that level of shooting, but you will learn more and learn it faster following this approach. These Gold Standard Instructors are not there to judge you, they thrive on lifting people up and encouraging them and they take pride in the achievement of their students.

It takes some courage to show up and admit you know little about what you want to learn, but a good instructor would rather teach a fresh willing student than one that thinks they already know everything- be the sponge and soak it all in.

The military sometimes reaches out of its ranks for firearms instruction. New ideas and methods can help push the norms of established programs.

By starting with a great instructor you will learn the proper fundamentals, techniques and benefit from the years of the instructor’s experience. You will end up with fewer issues to correct, faster performance gains, and more confidence. They may cost more than the local pro or they may be the local pro. They all live somewhere, but a few hours with the right instructor is worth it.

First Steps

If you are just starting out and you can’t go straight to a top tier instructor you still want to make sure you are learning from the right person. Screen your possibilities to see who fits your needs; ask question. Good instructors will be happy to share and you will get a chance to hear their enthusiasm. If you don’t, move on. What other training have they done? What certifications do they have? Who have they trained with? Do they participate in competitions?  What are their classifications in associated shooting sports?

The sooner you can get a great instructor involved in the learning process, the better.


The minimum certification you are looking for is an NRA Instructor certification. This show that an individual was interested enough to spend their time and money to seek additional training, get a documented training plan, and a certification. These certifications can be obtained for pistol, rifle, shotgun and a number of other basic topics. The NRA certs and classes are a starting point that hopefully, an instructor builds beyond. An NRA certification and being active in competition would be the minimum standard I would recommend for your beginning pistol instructor.

While only available for law enforcement, the FBI Firearms Instructor Courses are a step above an NRA Instructor certification; however, this still needs to be teamed with someone who is active in the shooting community to continually hone their skills.

Any certification alone without the instructor being actively involved in the shooting sports is a red flag in my book. Great instructors are always working to become better shooters and instructors; it doesn’t stop at one certification. I’m not saying they can’t be good shooters or a decent instructor, but we are looking for the most benefit for your time and money, not the minimum.

Learning from a variety of sources allows a more diverse approach and puts many more tools at your disposal for shooting or instructing. Look for an instructor who is always learning.

It just makes sense that the more training and experience your instructor has the better your chances of getting what you are looking for. They will have examined the discipline from many angles and had many instructors themselves and opportunities to learn from their own mistakes, and those of others.

It takes time for instructors to develop just as it does for students to learn, so you’re looking for someone who has been in the process for some time.

Who They Are

I’m sure it will stir some debate but I believe you will find most of these Gold Standard Instructors participating or having participated in the competition world, so that’s a good place to go looking. They all started somewhere- some hunting, some military, some law enforcement, some just interested in personal defense or guns- but the best seem to gravitate to the competition arena. This venue allowed them to test their skills, talk with others, learn from each other, and hone their trade—this is where you find –“Gun Guys/ Gals”. Competing is how you determine who the best shooters are and some of them also turn out to be tremendous instructors.

So if you are looking for handgun instruction, look and see who your State Pistol Champion is? Who is the National Pistol Champion, do they live near you? These people have literally spent years learning to do these tasks better than anyone else, and if they can teach it to you, you will save countless hours of your time by spending a few hours with them.

Wendell Cherry instructing the author at a sporting clays class in southern Kentucky.

The same is true in other disciplines. After I found out Wendell Cherry taught classes only 3 hours away, I booked several shotgun lessons from the world-class sporting clays shooter. I wish I had done it years sooner and the cost was only slightly higher than what several other less decorated instructors quoted me. We changed so many things I had been doing for years and I am a much better shooter for it. Wendell is a remarkable instructor, has tremendous patience, incredible insight, and has taught an amazing variety of people through the years.

Great instructors such as Bennie Cooley, Kyle Lamb, and Bruce Piatt have come from law enforcement and military backgrounds but all found their way to competition as well; all are serious “Gun Guys” with impressive backgrounds and winnings. They are also down to earth, nice guys and each has an amazing, individualized style and talent for teaching. They have worked for years building the skills that they teach to hundreds each year.

Lisa Munson, World, and National Pistol Champion, instructing at a Babes with Bullets training event.

Men are certainly not the only Gold Standard instructors though, Babes with Bullets (BwB) is one of several organizations operated by women for the purpose of teaching firearms safety and skills to women. BwB utilizes a select group of national and world champion lady shooters for instructors at their training camps around the country. They have taught over 5000 ladies since they began in 2004.

Quality of instructor and low student to instructor ratio makes BwBs training camps highly effective.

…And Are Not

This is not meant to offend or ruffle feathers but just because someone has law enforcement or a military background does not make them a firearms instructor. The requirement for many states is that their officers requalify once a year. Many departments increase those requirements to quarterly qualifications, or 12 hours semi-annual in-service training, which is better, but only the instructors running these sessions typically receive training at being an instructor.

That’s not to say there aren’t great instructors from the law enforcement and military community, there are many, I’ve known plenty, but in choosing one don’t just accept that carrying a gun every day is an indication of a gun guy or a great instructor.

Obviously, the same can be said for military circles, not everyone is a gun guy, there are a lot of jobs in the military but very few are teaching firearms skills. You are still looking for that person going far above the minimum requirements to be your instructor. A similar parallel applies to the general term—Contractor. Lots of folks went overseas to work in recent years, some developed and used firearms skills, a far smaller subset of those provided training.

As I said before the more of these experiences, skills and certs that can be put together typically makes a better instructor and learning experience for you. Look for the folks that never stopped learning and moving forward like Mike Pannone.

Last Word

You should be looking for the exceptional individual, the one that took personal initiative to be better, that keeps striving to win, to learn more, and to find ways to teach and pass that knowledge to you. Don’t Settle—it only takes a little more effort to find the really great instructors and they are worth it.

Find yourself a great instructor and then find the guns and gear they recommend here


About the author: Jeff Cramblit is a world-class competitive shooter having won medals at both the 2012 IPSC World Shotgun Championship in Hungary and more recently the 2017 IPSC World Rifle Championship in Russia. He is passionate about shooting sports and the outdoors. He has followed that passion for over 30 years, hunting and competing in practical pistol, 3gun, precision rifle and sporting clays matches. Jeff is intimately familiar with the shooting industry – competitor, instructor, RO, range master, match director. Among his training credits include NRA Instructor, AR-15 armorer, FBI Rifle Instructor, and Officer Low Light Survival Instructor. As a sponsored shooter, Jeff has represented notable industry names such as: Benelli, 5.11 Tactical, Bushnell, Blackhawk, DoubleStar, and Hornady. He has been featured on several of Outdoor Channel’s Shooting Gallery episodes and on a Downrange TV series. Jeff’s current endeavors cover a broad spectrum and he can be found anywhere from local matches helping and encouraging new shooters as they develop their own love of the sport, to the dove field with his friends, a charity sporting clays shoot, backpack hunting public land in Montana, or the winners podium of a major championship.

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • John Vaughn April 4, 2018, 11:07 am

    Sgt Pops- I too live in North Alabama (Oneonta). Would you provide me the name and contact information for your recommended Instructor?
    I shoot USPSA, IDPA and thrive on SCSA; but firmly believe we can never learn or train enough!
    Many thanks for your Input!

  • Sgt. Pop April 2, 2018, 3:10 pm

    All my sons and I train with an excellent instructor/teacher in North Alabama, annually 6 years now, and I add a MAG 20 class every couple years, which he also attends and or sponsors. I recommend the MAG 20 course/class to anybody, whether concealed carry and/or home defense. If you are not familiar with the MAG 20 class, search it….

  • LBear April 2, 2018, 12:15 pm

    Can’t find this type of instruction in Dallas, Texas. Any suggestions? I don’t want to drive to Houston.

    • jeff April 2, 2018, 2:19 pm

      For what type of shooting?

  • Inidaho April 2, 2018, 11:42 am

    Biased article as you forgot to mention the USCCA, who has many excellent instructors!

    • jeff April 2, 2018, 2:10 pm

      There are definitely top instructors in all disciplines, certainly not disagreeing with you, I wasn’t able to go into all organizations and sports, I just touched a few

  • Dit April 2, 2018, 10:13 am

    I disagree with some of what you say in the article. I have been an NRA instructor for 15 years and starting out, I charged $65 for the course put $15 towards the materials and donated $50 for each student to the gun club that let me teach. I was approached by a police officer who told me to raise my price because people thought the highest price must mean the best instructor. I raised it to $250 and was flooded with calls.

    Also, do not seek out champion competitors as instructors. It could be your worst nightmare. Do you know who Angelo Dundee was? Of course not. Do you know who Muhammad Ali was? While Ali boxed, it was his trainer, Dundee, who never competed, who told him what to do to become a champion.

    The best trainers know all of the approaches to learning and use the one best for you to succeed. Champions only know the one used on them by their trainer and force it on their students. It worked for them, so it should work for everyone else? right?

    I taught basic shotgun at a premier trap and skeet club in the northeast and I got a lot of heat for taking business away from the regional trap champion.I stood in absolute terror as this guy stood in front of a student with a mounted shotgun and looked down the barrel from the muzzle end.

  • Bob irwin April 2, 2018, 6:00 am

    In cases I have worked as an expert witness the common failures in firearms training are the when to shoot issues and what to do afterward. Criminal investigations, self doubt and civil lawsuits can easily destroy a defensive shooters life as well as his or her family if they are not prepared.

    • George April 2, 2018, 7:47 am

      Couldn’t agree more. Too many CCW classes focus on the how to shoot, rather than when to shoot. Too few focus on avoiding the need to shoot by observation and anticipating threats before they develop into a problem.

      • jeff April 2, 2018, 2:17 pm

        I agree with you both, in defensive scenarios -avoidance is the best solution. Shooting instruction is not tactics, mindset or legality, and many CCW classes do just focus on shooting and getting a permit, and we all know there is so much more to worry about in todays world… information is power, appreciate the comments I strongly recommend getting training from the legal perspective as well.

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