Now that you’ve registered for your first firearms class, you have some preparing to do. The following guidelines are just that: guidelines to help you. This list is in no way exhaustive, and you should always defer to any lists your instructors may provide. As you take more classes (because you probably won’t stop at one!), you can further adjust this list to your own personal needs.
What to do ahead of time?
Though the website or other place where you signed up for your class may have a list of needed gear, you may want to contact the instructor for other recommendations/suggested items. This is really the best place to start.
If the class is some distance from home, you may need hotel/motel accommodations. Be sure to find out from your instructor if there are any “deals” available. Many classes are held at private ranges/clubs that have relationships with area lodging, and you may be able to secure a discount. Also, keep in mind that if the venue for the class is a good distance from home, you may need to secure lodging for the night before. I try to use a “two-hour” rule. If a class is within two hours of where I live, I will just go the morning of the class. If it’s further away, I like to get there the night before and be well-rested before class.
I also like to do some searching online for things nearby. Classes tend to exhaust me, so I don’t look for other fun things to do. But the location of restaurants, gas stations, and other amenities can keep you from wasting time at the end of each training day.
Beyond that, during the months, weeks, and days that lead up to the class, you should be buying or beg/borrow/stealing from your friends the items that you will need.
Things to Bring: Gear
Since we are talking about firearms classes, let’s start with the firearms. If the class is a pistol class, you’ll need a pistol. Personally, I like to bring two (ideally they should be “twins”, or at least very similar, like a Glock 19 and 17). Why? During the second day of my first class, I noticed the front sight of my Glock 19 coming loose. I ran back to my bag, switched out for my Glock 17, and didn’t miss a thing. It’s a lot easier to switch out a gun then it is to try to effect repairs on the line.
For carbine classes, I follow the same rule. The “two is one, one is none” mantra can really save you a lot of grief. Also, for any long-gun classes, find out if you’ll also need a pistol (for transition drills). For dedicated carbine classes I might bring two carbines and only one pistol, since you probably won’t be shooting your pistol that much. However, a second pistol will not cost you much in terms of space and weight, so if possible, bring two carbines and two pistols.
If a pistol is involved in your training, you’ll need a holster—a good holster. Find out ahead of time what type of holster is appropriate for your class. If you are taking a concealed-carry class, a drop-leg holster is inappropriate. Likewise, if you are taking a carbine class and using a plate carrier/chest rig for spare carbine magazines, an inside the waistband holster worn appendix-style is inappropriate and could be downright dangerous. Also, some instructors have issues with certain holsters, be it generic, “one-size-fits-all” nylon holsters, Blackhawk Serpa holsters, etc. Find out ahead of time what will work best in your class.
Unless you are taking a dedicated revolver class, you will need magazines for your firearms. The number required is usually listed in the course literature, but as a general rule I like 6 for each firearm. Loading them up ahead of time will save you a little bit of time at the start of class, but I would keep 2 empty at the beginning, as instructors may have you practicing malfunction drills or reduced magazine loadings for some drills, and the only thing more annoying than loading magazines is unloading them by hand! If you know the course will have a fairly high round-count, investment in a magazine loader, such as a Lula, can be well worth it. On a final note, mark your magazines! You can easily find yourself in a class of 20, where 18 of the students have ARs and Glocks, just like you. When those magazines end up in the gravel, they all look the same. I tend to use enamel modeler’s paint to mark my initials and a number on each one (the number is so that, if you have a malfunction, especially a recurring one, you may be able to isolate it to a particular magazine). I’ve seen other students utilize strips of brightly colored tape, Sharpie markings, etc. These are training magazines and there’s no need to keep them pretty.
Since you have magazines, you will need a way to carry them. For a pistol class, a one or two-cell magazine pouch worn on your “weak side” is usually fine, and then you can put additional magazines in your pockets and top off the pouches as needed from there. For a carbine class, you might use dedicated pouches on your regular belt, a battle belt, a chest rig, a vest, a plate carrier, or even a shoulder bag of some sort. Again, read any literature (most likely online) about the class to make sure you have what you need.
Finally, you will need ammunition. The course literature should include a recommended quantity of ammunition to bring. Unless I am flying (flying with guns may be a future article), I like to bring about 1/3 more than what is recommended. Why? For one thing, it’s nice to have the peace of mind that you will not run out of ammunition. For another, in some classes you may have opportunities to shoot through lunch, shoot after the class is officially over for the day, etc. So, it is always nice to have extra on hand.
Weapons Cleaning/Maintenance. Make sure you have at least some rudimentary gear to clean your weapons systems. Things like a bore brush/rod with jags, rags, lubricant, bore snake, replacement parts for those that are most likely to break, etc., can all be invaluable over the course of a class.
Hydration. You’ll need water or other drinks (Gatorade, etc.). I have taken classes in July and August where the temperature was in the low 90s and the humidity matched. For an 8-hour-a-day class, you’ll want at least a gallon of fluids. During one carbine class two years ago I drained an entire 100 oz Camelbak bladder, two 20oz bottles of Gatorade, and two other bottles of water (about 20 oz each), and still was not urinating enough. Also, keep in mind that, even on a cold day, you will still need to maintain your hydration. In addition to the direct dangers of dehydration, it can also lead to headaches, fatigue, reduced attention, and other symptoms that can become especially dangerous when one is handling firearms.
Food. Snacks are a good idea, and I will spare you any opinions on what is “healthy” or the like. I like some salty snacks like peanuts or similar, again, to help with hydration. There is usually a lunch-break, and this is where doing your homework will help you out. You will need to find out if there are any places nearby to eat, or if you will need to pack a lunch with you.
Blow-out Kit. The instructor will usually have one, but I like to pack one or more myself. You and others will be handling guns. Things happen. Be prepared.
Boo-Boo Kit. The only time I ever shot myself was with a staple gun at a range! Having band-aids and other items for smaller wounds can be a big help. Similarly, a friend of mine once caught some fragmentation off a steel target during a class, resulting in a small cut on his forearm; all the instructor and fellow students had on hand were tourniquets and pressure bandages, definitely overkill in his case!
Tool Kit. I like to bring a simple tool kit with a driver and a variety of standard, Phillips, Allen, Torx, etc., heads, along with some Loctite. I’ve lent it out more often than using it myself. Things get loose and not having the means to tighten them down is a problem. Likewise, bring any gear-specific tools you might need to make adjustments to your firearm, optic, lights, lasers, etc.
Batteries. Bring spare batteries for anything you will have with you that uses them: optics, lights, lasers, hearing protection, etc.
Hearing Protection. Get some sort of electronic ear protection that will protect your hearing while still allowing you to hear range commands.
Eye Protection. Whatever you prefer. Make sure they are appropriately rated. Having the ability to change out lenses (tinted to clear) is especially helpful if your class incorporates some night shooting.
Knee/elbow pads. These aren’t a necessity, but some ranges have worse gravel than others. If your knees or elbows are overly sensitive to such conditions, protect them.
Sunscreen. Bring it. Use it. Reapply it. No sense preparing for an unlikely scenario while being high-risk in the area of skin cancer.
Hat with a brim. Protect yourself from the sun and from flying brass.
Gloves. For carbine classes I prefer to use gloves. Mechanix is a brand I tend to prefer. For pistol classes, if you live in a region where temperatures get quite low, doing some of your training with gloves on would lend an element of realism to your training. However, this may be beyond the scope of your “first” class.
Note-Taking Material. I just use a “marble” notebook and pen, but a “Rite In The Rain” notebook is probably an even better choice. Just remember to take notes. You are there to learn.
Clothing. Finally, bring appropriate clothing. If rain is in the forecast, be prepared for it (and not with an umbrella!). I took one class where we were in rain and sleet for two days straight. Even well-prepared, I was still quite miserable. I cannot imagine taking that class in jeans and a sweatshirt!
As already noted, this list is not exhaustive (I feel like I could write another thousand words on the topic), and you should always defer to the recommendations of your instructor. My hope is that this article can ease your anxieties about being unprepared for your first classes and help you to gain the maximum amount from the instruction provided.