This is a topic that comes up fairly often in the online forums and social media, and a recent “version” of this discussion spurred a chat between John and I. Given how often it comes up, I thought it worthy of a blog post.
In my mind and experience, the pedigrees of firearms instructors tend to fall into just a few categories. Please note that the real-life examples I give in each category are placed for where they are best-known. Many have varied histories:
- Ex-Military—for our purposes I will include all former service members, whether combat veterans or those who served in peacetime, ex-Tier One operators or truck drivers. I will also place private military contractors into this category. Examples: Paul Howe, Kyle Defoor, Jeff Gonzales.
- Law Enforcement/Former Law Enforcement—This category should be self-explanatory. Current or former LE, be they local, state, or Federal. Examples: Greg Ellifritz, Chuck Haggard, Craig Douglas.
- Competition-Based Shooters—Again, this should be self-explanatory. Master or equivalent level shooters from IDPA, USPSA, etc. Examples: Rob Leatham, Dave Sevigny.
- Hobbyists-Turned-Instructors—In here I would lump people who are firearms and shooting enthusiasts who lack any sort of professional-level training in this area (meaning they do not/did not shoot for a living), but have worked their way into the instructor circuit. Examples—Grant Cunningham, John Johnston.
- Combinations—There are many instructors with combination backgrounds, such as ex-military members who then entered law enforcement, or members of law enforcement who are also accomplished competition shooters. Examples: John Murphy, Bob Vogel, Claude Werner.
Which type of instructor pedigree is most important to you, as a student, is really a matter of your personal goals as well as personal tastes. So it stands to reason that if you want to improve from a Marksman to Master in IDPA, you should probably attend a school run by and geared towards competition shooters. If you work for a tactical team as a member of a police department, then you would probably be best served by the ex-military or LE instructors. If you are just setting out on your shooting journey, you might fit in best with the Hobbyists-Turned-Instructors.
Nothing can be posted on the web without controversy, and here I am pontificating on this same topic. The controversy seems to appear when someone says that he does not think it is possible to learn about “gunfighting” from someone who has never actually done any “gunfighting”. The other side—sometimes partly made up of instructors who have never been shot at/shot someone—then chime in with their own arguments that are, in my opinion, not without merit. Then, what follows is the typical internet argument with both sides talking past each other and no one’s opinion being changed.
Prior Experience a Must?
As an educator by trade, the arguments from both sides can be interesting territory. Let us take those instructors with no prior “shooting bad guys” experience. They might argue that students can learn a lot from teachers who have never actually “done” what they are teaching. For example, in college I minored in Economics. Not one of the professors who taught me had prior experience running a Fortune 500 company. Yet they did a great job of teaching me all about supply and demand, opportunity cost and diminishing marginal utility, goods and services, etc. The same would hold true for other subjects (I did not have a professional mathematician teach me calculus, or a professional race car driver teach me how to drive).
Having said that, as it relates to gunfighting, I would equate all of the above with “the basics”. Yes, I can learn economics from someone who has done nothing but teach economics. But, if I wanted to truly master it and perhaps run a company, become head of the Federal Reserve, etc., then learning from a member of the “been-there, done-that” (BTDT) crowd would probably be a good idea. Similarly, while a combination of my father and a drivers’ education teacher taught me how to drive, if I wanted to be a race car driver, it would probably be a good idea to learn from a former race car driver. Continuing with that line of thought, perhaps we can learn the fundamentals from anyone who has mastered them AND has the ability to teach them to others. Until a truly universal set of standards for “gunfighting” is developed (and I’m not sure that it has been), then we might be limited to those with first-hand experience to teach us this “Master’s level” material.
Keep in mind, however, that being a great “gunfighter” and having first-hand experience does not equate to being a great teacher. Looking at an athletic comparison, in the fifty years of the existence of the Super Bowl, only one Hall of Fame player ever won the Super Bowl as a head coach (Mike Ditka), while the vast majority of Super Bowl winning head coaches either never played professional football, or were backups and role players when they did play (Vince Lombardi, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Hank Stram, Joe Gibbs, Tony Dungy, Gary Kubiak, Bill Walsh, Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, etc.). Food for thought.
The fact is there are very few “civilian” gunfight winners who are now firearms/self-defense instructors. Which leaves those civilians who, like us, like/want to train, with few options if we want to learn from the BTDT crowd (I would rather not take a class from George Zimmerman, thank you very much). Thus, we tend to turn to the LE and ex-military categories if we want this “Master’s level of instruction”.
Also keep in mind that “cross-pollination” happens all the time. There have been many members of the U.S. Special Operations community who trained at highly-regarded “civilian” schools (the Rogers Shooting School comes to mind). Indeed, during one of his podcasts, when John “Shrek” McPhee (former U.S. Army Special Forces) was asked who he learned the most from when it came to handgun shooting, without hesitation he answered: Rob Leatham.
I am not going to sit here and say that I have done everything “right” in terms of which classes I took and with whom I took them. In hindsight, I probably took a few classes that were more advanced than my skillset at that point in time would have suggested were best for me. Sometimes I was spurred on by my ego and sometimes by the desire to train with certain specific individuals before they retire. Having said that, I have never been the worst performer in any of the classes I have taken.
Overall, however, I have tried to follow my own advice. I started my training journey with “local talent”, learning the basics. As time went on and my skills improved, I started to seek out more instructors from the BTDT crowd. A recent chat between John and I revealed that we both agree that there is a certain gravitas to comments made by the BTDT crowd. When an instructor says, “This is how we did it when I was with/in ____________, and this is why we did it that way,” it carries more weight with me than when an instructor says, “This is what I learned at the XYZ Institute of Tactical Greatness, and I am sharing it with you because it sounds cool.”
In the end, for “regular” people like John and me, I feel that there is room for instructors from a variety of backgrounds, and I am on record here on the blog advocating taking classes with a variety of instructors. As long as they are addressing holes in your game and can teach well, you will be better served than trying to figure things out on your own or learning from YouTube videos of questionable origin.
What are your thoughts on instructor pedigrees and their importance? What value do you place on past accomplishments? Where do past accomplishments rank compared with knowledge base or teaching ability? Does this article seem wishy-washy? That’s not an accident! We would truly love to hear your thoughts on these matters, so please comment below or on our Facebook page. As always, thanks for reading.