Ammo & Gear Reviews

Which Shooting School Is For You? How to Choose the Right Training Class

Mike Piccione Editor, Guns & Gear
Font Size:

By James Yeager, appearing in American Handgunner Fall/Winter 2011 Personal Defense Special Edition 

I frequently get calls and e-mails vaguely asking, “What will I learn in this course?” Some prospective students really don’t know what questions to ask or what the right answers would be if they heard it. I have often sent people to other training schools after realizing they want to learn something my school, Tactical Response, doesn’t specialize in. I am writing this to help students make a more educated decision about which course to purchase from which school.

To make my point a bit more apparent, I must explain my overall philosophy on all things tactical. We use a “Hierarchy of Survival Principles” to illustrate where we place the most emphasis, they are: mindset, tactics, skill and gear — in that order. At the top is Mindset, and with it all of the things that Jeff Cooper explained so well in The Principles of Personal Defense, a great book that should be on your bookshelf. Some high points are your alertness, aggressiveness, coolness, ruthlessness and decisiveness. To quote author John Steinbeck “The final weapon is the brain, all else is supplemental.”

Buying low quality aftermarket parts for your guns and then having your handguards melt and fall off inhibits the learning environment.

Number two on the list is Tactics and there are any numbers of “cool-guy” definitions but, basically, it means doing things so you have more turns to shoot than the bad guy. Third, is Skill, and by that we mean getting better with the machine, which in this case is a firearm. This is important, I see too many people stress over draw times and split times that should be more focused on mindset related issues.

At the very bottom of the list is Gear. A gear training class could be an Armorer’s school, for instance. Gear is the tool part of the equation. It’s funny because we spend the more time and money worrying about gear (what gun, bullet, sling, holster, cleaning products … blah blah blah!). Far too much energy is wasted on this aspect. It’s easier to buy better gear hoping it makes us better than to put in the time it takes to actually make us better. Ordering cool gear on the Internet is so much easier than training. Either you are the weapon and your gun is a tool, or your gun is a weapon and you are a tool.

Types Of Classes

Shooting and other defensive courses (edged weapons, combatives, etc.), can teach you in three distinct areas. They are mindset, tactics and skill. Many schools primarily teach skill-based courses. What I mean is they teach how to run the gun faster/better. It’s popular with their military and police customers because they don’t want to hear the other aspects of mindset and tactics because they have that part under control. If you are a competition shooter this is a good place for you to train because you can spend the entire time learning how to shoot better and faster. Schools that do this well are typically noted for the Special-Ops types who frequent the establishment.

Tactically oriented courses typically don’t have a tremendous amount of live fire. They are more interested in teaching you proper tactics; i.e. movement, use of cover, communication, team tactics and other strategic elements of winning a lethal force encounter. You can expect to see “force on force” scenarios using Simunition FX rounds or Airsoft training weapons where you actually learn to shoot at other human beings. This is cutting edge stuff. It’s far more valuable than standing in front of your paper target and shooting it. However, you must understand proper marksmanship before tactics training is of much value, other than scaring you into taking a skills-only-based class.

Gimmicky products, like these sights, are best left off of guns meant for serious use.

Mindset covers your mental self, and more importantly your spirit as it relates to fighting. This is typically lecture that stimulates thought and motivates the student to do more than the average gun owner. Jeff Cooper pioneered this area of teaching and his information is the foundation of every school’s philosophy. This is a tough sell because it is not glamorous and you don’t get to show off your “Blastmaster 5,000” to the other students.

A fighting mindset is the most difficult thing to get students to understand and implement. It takes a gifted teacher to awaken and motivate student’s drive and commitment. We have many students who can carry guns legally but choose not to do so. Off-duty cops and civilian carry permit holders are, as a whole, a lazy bunch of folks. They will come and shoot in the course but not carry a gun everyday. When I discover the secret of how to unlock people’s minds and make them realize not carrying a gun could be detrimental to their safety, I’ll be a millionaire. The news is just not something that happens to other people. Find a school that cares about you and whether or not you live after you leave.

What Do I Want?

The question you need to ask yourself before choosing a class is “What do I want to accomplish?” Do you want to defend yourself, your family and home? Would you just like to get a higher score at the next IDPA match? Knowing what you want to be able to do, or be on the road to being able to execute it should be the basis for making your decision.

At my school, Tactical Response, every class emphasizes a “fighting mindset” and the methods taught lend themselves to being a part of your defensive toolbox. None of our courses are purely shooting oriented, although, there is nothing wrong with those classes. It’s just not our specialty and there are other schools that do a better job. We teach the good guys: police, military and honest citizens, how to kill bad guys.

Talk to a prospective instructor and ask him what his courses offer and compare the information to what you want to learn. We are in a renaissance period, so as far as tactical training is concerned, history will look back on this time period as the Golden Age of fighting.

Now What?

You’ve chosen a school; I would like to pass along some information that might make your tuition dollars go further. This is directed towards firearms and tactical training, but will most likely apply to other areas of instruction as well. The motivation for this article is watching students go through the same evolution as I did and wishing they didn’t have to climb the same costly, time-consuming, frustrating ladder.

I remember my very first training class. It was very exciting and a little scary. Who were the other pistoleros? Would they laugh at me? Would I hold the class up? There were many thoughts going through my mind as the class began. One thing many folks wonder about is “how safe is that person next to me?” From my studies, I found the vast majority of gunshot wounds occurring in training are self-inflicted (mostly offhand and strong-side hip injuries).

I asked myself several times, “Am I good enough to even take this course?” I know now, many first time students think the same thing prior to signing up. Many have even confided in me that they had to work up the courage up to even ask about taking the class. In some cases, I have also found the opposite to be true. I know many people who think that professional training has nothing to offer them.

My first class, like many other students, held the greatest amount of information I ever took from one lesson. Why? Because shooting isn’t that complex, and after you get the fundamentals: sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control and follow-though and technique (Weaver and isosceles stances, etc.), there isn’t a lot left. No matter how high speed a class is advertised, it’s still applying all of the basic knowledge you learned in the first course.

Always Training

Though I have been instructing for quite some time, I still take multiple classes each year to keep up with the current high-speed techniques (I also enjoy the time I get being a student, and not a teacher.) Being an instructor has made me a better student. I have learned from the other side what makes a class flow smoothly. What will make you learn more from a training environment and get the most for your money? — An open mind.

The golden Rule is to have an open mind. Think of every class as a clean slate. Push all of your previous training to the side and do the class exactly like the instructor tells you. Even if the instructor tells you to do something that is alien or never worked for you in the past. Looking back, I realize all of the money I wasted on training before I learned this concept. If you can’t honestly receive instruction with an open mind, staying home would save you money and keep the instructor and you from pulling your hair out.

Another problem with changing techniques in a class is the fact that your groups might open up as you perfect a new method. This is natural, but 99.9 percent of us won’t do it because we don’t want to look bad in front of the other ninjas. So we keep on pluggin’ away with our inferior methods. If you change the way you shoot you, will most likely have a short period of feeling awkward about the new technique. Classes are not competitions. Stay with it a while before you give up on it; it just might pay off.

Having your magazine marked for visibility and identification makes it easier to get them returned.

Nobody wants to take a basic level class. Everyone wants an advanced class. I hate to be the one who breaks it to you, but they are all pretty much the same. There’s really no difference between basic and advanced classes. Basic classes contain a lot of very helpful information. I have taken about 17 or 18 basic classes and learned a lot from every single one of them. I have found that less than 1 percent of shooters have a firm grasp on shooting fundamentals. Don’t turn your nose up at lower-level classes.

If you think you know more than the Instructor it is best to stay quiet. It’s his class; you’re the student. If you want to teach you can open your own school. What you shouldn’t do is interrupt or attempt to correct him. It is disruptive to the entire class and nobody will like it. If you have a valid point to make, wait for a break in the lecture, he will want to hear it.

Don’t tutor other students, especially on the firing line. We see this commonly with husband and wife teams. Typically we have them stand a few spaces apart and the wives really appreciate it! It’s kind of funny when the wife leaves a better shooter and tactician than the husband! I bet that is a long ride home!

Training and practice are two different things. Training is what you do under the watchful eye of an instructor. Practice is what you do after training to ingrain those skills. After you take a class, you must practice the things you learned. Getting new skills at a class and practicing is kind of like buying a new car and making payments. After you make enough payments the car is yours. If you go to the range and make payments the new skills will be yours too. Skip a few payments and it gets repossessed.

No matter how good your favorite school may be, you have to train at different places. If your school tells you to never do “this,” go find a school that says to always do it. If you favorite school teaches Weaver stance, go find an isosceles program and vice versa. Go to as many different types of learning environments as possible. Go to schools run by ex-military, police, champion shooters and learn something from all the diverse outlooks, to be well rounded. My philosophy is, we are assembling our very own tactical puzzle. Each instructor has at least one piece to give you and some even have numerous. You must train at various locations to get YOUR pieces assembled. (Not too many people who own a school will tell you to go somewhere else!)

Show up for class on time and be prepared to stay. I have been to schools where you trained five hours out of the eight, and others where you were begging for a break. Besides your standard range gear, take water (CamelBak is best), bug repellant, sunscreen and weather appropriate clothing, if training outside. Bring snacks and lunch, too. Even if you have time to leave for lunch, you may just appreciate resting and having lunch under a tree instead. Pack any needed medications in your bag; it’s perfectly acceptable to call the school ahead of time and get advice on the needed gear for the class. Many times this can save you from buying too much gear or the wrong gear. Get plenty of sleep, don’t get drunk the night before class, and come to learn with an open mind and you will get the most for your training dollars! 


Thanks to the team at American Handgunner for allowing us to publish this article. Visit

James Yeager is a former SWAT officer and security contractor, who has worked in Central and South America and the Middle East. He is currently the CEO of and and has trained more than 12,000 people over the last 15 years.