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Learning to shoot with John Lovell, Warrior Poet Society founder and special forces instructor

I will start by admitting I had no idea who he was when I was introduced to "John" in my NRA Personal Defense Inside the Home Instructor course at Hirt's Defensive Solutions in White, GA. Having taken several classes there, I knew from experience that the other students come from all walks of life and possess a wealth of experience, both on and off the range. But regardless of their previous firearms experience, most students I'd taken courses with were essentially like me: gun and shooting enthusiasts looking for more formal, standardized training.

The friendly man seated next to me had an easy smile and pleasant demeanor. We chitchatted briefly before class began, and he took the course material as seriously as I did, asking questions and offering polite commentary as the day went on. "Don't use the kind with plastic rims," he told me mildly as the class discussed what kind of dummy rounds are best for cycling through a semiautomatic pistol during demonstrations and training. "The plastic will crack and wear down eventually." I thanked him, wondering why he felt it necessary to give me advice in a class where we were both students.

It wasn't until we broke for lunch that our instructor, Carl Hirt, suggested I search online for more information about him. John, as it turned out, was not just any other student. He was a special operations soldier with the 75th Ranger Regiment, had done several combat tours overseas, and had a prolific YouTube channel on which he offered instructive videos about a huge variety of relevant and interesting gun-related topics. His site, Warrior Poet Society, included gear, an impressive tactical training schedule, and a well-written blog. He had also recently been signed as an official NRA spokesman and was taking the instructor class to check some administrative boxes. To say he was overqualified for the class would be hilariously inadequate. And yet I never would have known it from his humble, soft-spoken demeanor. (This is typical, in my experience. On the several occasions I've been honored to meet highly skilled combat veterans and defense industry professionals, an understated presence and extreme humility are the norm. Bluster and braggadocio have no place among this set and loudmouthed boasting about how tough or deadly someone is will always be a dead giveaway that they're a poseur. But I digress.)

As you might imagine, I was pretty flustered by the time we got to the private outdoor range Carl uses for his classes. The rainy, hot, humid weather didn't help matters, nor did the fact that I'd beaten up my hand pretty badly the weekend before by putting several hundred rounds downrange out of my Glock 19. The first knuckle on my right thumb was scraped raw, with a bloody wound that kept scabbing and reopening after shooting 20 rounds or so. (This was due to a faulty, loose grip that I have since corrected.) We were to shoot an instructor qualification for this NRA course and I was already feeling nervous about it. Why, oh why, had I chosen this class on this day?

I won't go into agonizing detail about my performance on the range that miserable afternoon, but let's just say it was an unmitigated disaster. I shot worse than I ever had in my life, my focus was gone, the weather alternated between pouring rain and blazing hot sunshine with 100% humidity, the biting bugs were out in full force, and worst of all, I was handling my firearm like a complete novice. Judging by my performance on the range, I had no right to be in that class whatsoever and most assuredly belonged back in NRA Basic Pistol--as a student.

It was tremendously frustrating, because I'd been carrying concealed and shooting regularly for years, and my skills had been improving steadily for weeks thanks to Carl's courses. Focusing on the fundamentals of shooting, working on safer gun handling (we can never be too safe about gun handling!), finding the rig that worked best for my body and wardrobe, getting more comfortable with pistols I'd never shot felt like everything was gelling. To have it all fall apart in front of someone with such a wealth of experience was humiliating, even more so because Carl placed me on the firing line right next to Super Army Ranger Guy, who kindly but sternly corrected and commented on my embarrassingly basic shooting errors pretty much nonstop throughout the day.

By the end of the class, as dusk settled in over the pastoral clearing where we were shooting and crickets started singing from the piney woods beyond the berm, I was just...done. I knew I wouldn't shoot the instructor qual that day and didn't even bother trying. The NRA portion of the course was over and people were plinking at steel targets and joking around while I stood there morosely, feeling like a total impostor. John had packed up his kit and was at his car, chatting privately with Carl. I began gathering my things and getting my range bag in order when suddenly Carl's voice boomed out. "Abigail! John wants to donate some of his time to the class. Would you please get on the line for a demo?" His tone informed me that it wasn't really a request, so I reluctantly put some already-charged mags into my back pockets and reholstered my gun.

John was waiting at the line, unsmiling and inscrutable behind his impact-rated sunglasses. "Assume a firing position!" he barked. I unholstered the Glock and held it in the low-ready position, waiting. At that point I was almost too tired and discouraged to care how I shot. The entire rest of the class, all men, were watching us carefully. Even Carl was peering closely at us, unashamedly fascinated and expectant.

I just wanted to go home.

"Aim for the center of the target and place a shot!" I raised the gun, got my sight picture, aligned my sights, focused on the front sight, took a breath and exhaled slowly, stopped breathing...and pressed the trigger. The shot landed way down and to the left, indicating that I had flinched and "slapped" the trigger out of anticipation. My arms were already shaking from fatigue after a long day of shooting and sweat was pouring out of my skin. I couldn't care less where the shot went but that didn't matter, because John was immediately in my face. "Prep the trigger!" I paused and looked at him questioningly. He stared at me for a beat and then yelled, "Let the trigger out until you hear a click, then hold!" Ahh, I'd always been taught it was called "resetting" the trigger. So I did that and waited. "Finger off the trigger!" I did. "Prep the trigger!" I did. "Finger off the trigger!" Finger off. "Prep the trigger!" Gentle press until I heard and felt that soft click. "Place your shot!" BANG. The shot was a little closer. Probably a coincidence, I thought wearily.

We went on like that for what felt like forever but was probably only about 15 minutes, prepping the trigger, placing shots, sometimes prepping it with no shots fired, and on and on. Everyone was watching us in total silence. The rain had stopped and the sun was beating down on us, hot and judgmental. My knuckle was bleeding again. There was no remnant of that nice, friendly man from the classroom. My shots were getting closer to the center but I didn't care. My neck and back hurt. My ego was as shot through with holes as the paper target I was firing at. What was I even doing here in this bizarre situation out in the middle of nowhere with all these men I barely knew, shooting guns I was clearly unqualified to handle, let alone own and instruct with?

And then it happened. The stress of him yelling at me coupled with being watched by everyone on the range, my mental and physical exhaustion, my shameful shooting and handling errors throughout the day, my feeling that I had no business teaching anything related to firearms despite the money and time I'd invested in learning how to do so--it all culminated in this welling up of outrage. I got mad. Damnit, if he wanted shots, he would get some shots. All at once, I stopped caring. The rest of the class went away. My discomfort went away. I stopped caring about me, about my ego and embarrassment, about my physical pain, about my failures--and I started learning.

John Lovell of Warrior Poet Society instructs Abigail Summar of Mountain Rose Defensive Training in Powder Springs, Georgia

"PREP THE TRIGGER!" he bellowed again. I did, my mind now curiously focused. "PLACE THE SHOT!" I did, and it was close to a bullseye. "Good, good. Tighten this up here," he said as he gently guided my hands into a better grip. "Good, good, you're doing great. NOW PREP THE TRIGGER!" The change from calmly helpful to loudly stern was jarring and added more stress. I prepped the trigger too hard and fired the gun unintentionally, the shot hitting the target outside the outer circle. It was a negligent discharge, but my gun was pointed in a safe direction and no one was harmed. John didn't bother to acknowledge the error. "PREP THE TRIGGER!" he said again, adjusting my elbows and arms so that they were turned up and inward, slightly bent. "Tilt the gun this way, not that way," he commanded smoothly. "STOP CLOSING YOUR NON-DOMINANT EYE, ABIGAIL! DO YOU WANT TO GET KILLED BY A PERIPHERAL THREAT?" he suddenly shouted in my face while I was trying to focus on the front sight. His constant transitions between helpfully professional and startlingly harsh, almost angry, kept me on edge, threatening to throw me off focus again. I did my best to hold it together.

My shots were getting better and my group was getting tighter, but I simply didn't care. I obeyed his orders robotically, wanting it to be over but also somewhat fascinated by the obvious fact that this over-the-top military-style instruction method was actually working. It was a strange experience, feeling my muscles and brain work in tandem to improve this fine motor skill while at the same time just wanting the lesson to be over and observing my own performance almost impartially. This, I decided inanely, was not how I would teach my students one day. But it was definitely effective.

As suddenly as it started, the lesson was over. John stepped back and abruptly said, "Great job, you did fine. The stress will make you a better shooter." Then he thanked Carl for letting him attend the class, walked quickly to his car, and drove away. Drained and defeated, I packed my kit and left almost as quickly.

Carl had scheduled me to be his assistant instructor for an NRA Basic Pistol class first thing the next morning, so I went home, got cleaned up, and then crawled immediately into bed without eating. I didn't sleep a wink that night, reliving the day's horrible range performance over and over in my mind; I spent several painful hours ruthlessly questioning everything I thought I knew about firearms, shooting, and my own (lack of) competence. When I arrived at the school the next day, I told Carl I wasn't sure I should be an instructor at all. He seemed surprised by this, and said that during his private conversation with John at the cars, they had mutually agreed that I should be the one to receive the private demonstration lesson because they felt I showed so much potential. And, he added, I wasn't assistant instructing that day. This would be my class, to run as I saw fit. I protested but he was adamant that I should teach it as my own. Too tired to argue, I stepped up to the podium and did.

To my great surprise, the class went smoothly. My students were friendly and personable, open-minded and ready to learn--exactly what any instructor hopes they'll be. We had an engaging classroom session and then a very productive few hours at the same range where I had struggled so mightily the day before. Every student easily passed their shooting qual and I was proud to sign their class reports at the end of the course. Best of all, I shot my own instructor qual with ease--on a smaller target than necessary, and from a greater distance than required--using the new methods John had taught me while retaining a few of my own.

Despite--or more likely, because of--how far it pushed me out of my comfort zone, his style of instruction worked. Training under stress will make you a better shooter. The key is finding someone who can inflict that stress on you while keeping everyone safe at the range. Stress makes us do stupid things; we revert to our lowest level of training. I can confidently say that I am nowhere near qualified to teach someone under stress at this point in my career as an instructor, and I caution you to vet your instructors carefully. Currently I teach basic pistol and situational awareness courses. As I gain more experience, I hope to teach more advanced and challenging classes--but all in due time. If my experience at the range with John Lovell taught me anything, it's that I now know how little I know. And that, in my opinion, is the most priceless lesson of all.

The author extends many thanks to John Lovell for donating his personal time, and to Carl Hirt for arranging it.