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You just took your first basic pistol class. Now what?

NRA Basic Pistol Level 2 (blue) qualification target

For those of us who entered the world of shooting as adults, as opposed to those of us who learned to shoot at a young age, our first basic pistol class is a huge milestone. In this post, I will assume you took that class from a competent, certified instructor who used a proven curriculum from a credible training organization like NRA, Rangemaster, or USCCA.

If you took a generic four-hour bare bones class that was offered by your local firing range, it's possible the class was decent and the instructor was certified. (There's also a good chance the instructor was not certified in any way but knew just enough about guns and shooting to teach you the basics, while giving you really bad advice about real world defensive situations. That is a subject for another post, however.)

Regardless of where you took the class, you did something that unfortunately few Americans will ever do: you sought out formal firearms training in hopes of better understanding and operating your gun. Congratulations! Maybe it wasn't easy but you did it. Gun ownership is an emotional and hotly debated topic in our country right now. The subject of our right to keep and bear arms can be a contentious one, and it takes courage to sign up for a class knowing full well that there are people out there who will assume you're some kind of cold-blooded killer simply because you choose to own guns. But you did it anyway. You plunked your money down, you signed the waivers, you paid close attention to the lectures and slideshows, you took the little quiz at the end, and you passed your first shooting qual with flying colors...or flying lead, if you will. It's exhilarating. You did it!

So what's next?

Many people will stop after their one and only basic pistol class and begin to carry concealed right away. In states where a pistol class is required to get a carry permit, students may feel they've done all that is necessary to be a safe and responsible gun owner, and the states rarely do much to encourage further instruction. In states where no such training is required, most people don't even bother with formal training. You, however, are smarter than that. You know enough now to know that you don't really know a whole lot.

Further, you now understand that while standing and shooting at a piece of paper under low stress conditions on a firing range may mean you can operate a pistol with your basic fundamentals intact, in a real life defensive situation, you wouldn't have the slightest idea how you'd react or even where to shoot the bad guy to stop the threat. Head shots look cool in zombie movies, but is that the right thing to do if someone is coming at you with a knife in a dimly lit hallway? Assuming you can even hit the guy while he's moving and you're more terrified than you've ever been in your life, what do you do after the threat is stopped? What do you say to the police, or to 911 dispatch?

Do you know what to do in this scenario? What about afterwards?

Endless questions now arise, and while some of them may be credibly answered in a basic pistol class taught by a certified USCCA or Rangemaster instructor, most basic classes focus almost entirely on gun anatomy and nomenclature, basic shooting fundamentals, and how to select the right ammunition for your pistol. Legal, financial, moral, and other complex topics related to defensive shooting are simply beyond the scope of most basic gun classes. And that's a shame, because the majority of people who take these classes are doing so with the intention of carrying concealed in hopes of stopping a violent threat if necessary.

Whether you've taken a four-hour generic class at the local firing range, or completed the more exhaustive eight-hour NRA or USCCA beginning pistol classes, it's crucial to seek further training with qualified instructors. And don't stick with just one instructor; branch out and take classes and lessons from a wide variety of people and schools. All will have something of value to teach you, and in their own unique way. You can find classes through the NRA and USCCA websites, as well as through sites like, where instructors with vetted credentials can connect with students who are looking for training in their area. (Full disclosure: I use as a registered instructor but am not otherwise affiliated with the company.)

The self-defense industry is booming and Americans are buying more guns than ever before. They're also looking for classes that not only teach them the basics, but allow them to develop defensive skills and the mindset to use them when it counts. Once you have that first pistol class under your belt, the real work begins. I suggest spending regular time at the range and doing dry-fire practice at home, as well as taking private lessons from a good instructor if you can afford it. Then, sign up for a class that's one step above basic; an example would be NRA Personal Protection in the Home or a USCCA defensive pistol class. At this point you should be carrying every day, everywhere, and should also be comfortable with your choice of carry guns and holsters.

Once you feel you've reached the limit in terms of what you can achieve on the range by yourself, consider joining a competitive shooting organization like International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) or United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA). Competitive shooting might sound intimidating, but in reality most leagues are extremely friendly and welcoming to newcomers and it's a great way to hone your skills under the (admittedly slight) pressure of being timed and shooting for points. And you will meet other people who also love guns--always a plus!

There are countless ways to get better at shooting, learn effective tactics for solving realistic scenarios, and perfect your fundamentals. You've already taken the biggest step towards getting better: your first formal class. Now that you have a general idea of what a shooting class might be like, why not find another? And then another, and another, ad infinitum. After all, you can never be too skilled, too knowledgeable, or too accurate with a gun.

Keep working, keep learning, and stay safe out there!