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Characteristics of a great firearms instructor: how to tell if they're legit

A great instructor checks all the boxes.

Let me start by telling you what this post will not be: it will not be a list of the characteristics of instructors I would urge you to avoid hiring. It will not be based on negativity, or serve as a space for bashing other people's teaching methods. The majority of firearms instructors I've met have their heart in the right place and really do want to help you, and I heartily salute them for that. But as with any profession, some stand out above the rest as people who unequivocally know what they're doing. Today, let's talk about some of the commonalities shared by truly great instructors, whether they're legendary marquee names or relatively obscure people teaching quietly wonderful classes in a small town almost nobody has ever heard of.

A great firearms instructor is:

Always learning: The good ones are as much a student as they are an instructor. Even if they've reached the point where they no longer bother signing up for classes (because they're qualified to teach pretty much everything), they are constantly exploring and testing their own methods, gear, and beliefs about combat and marksmanship. They are constantly, constantly learning. Great instructors are wise enough to know that they will never know enough.

Humble: The great instructors don't have anything to prove because their work speaks for itself. They don't brag, they don't boast, and they don't try to one-up everyone around them. They treat you like their equal, because you are. You may not know as much about shooting as they do--that's why you're paying them and not the other way around--but they treat you like a fellow human being, with respect and humility. They support you and build you up, helping you grow the confidence needed to carry a defensive weapon without fear.

Honest: A great instructor won't hesitate to provide their entire training resume, describe their own training challenges, tell you what areas are "outside their lane" and that they aren't comfortable teaching you, and will always admit it when they don't know the answer to your question. Integrity is the mark of a teacher worth listening to, and "I don't know, but I'll find out and get back to you" should be a well-worn phrase in their instructing toolbox.

Certified: Great instructors put in the time and the work to get certified by reputable training organizations that have proven, standardized curricula and shooting qualifications--period. Whether it's NRA, Rangemaster, USCCA, or a law enforcement certification like POST, they will be certified--and usually multiple times, from several organizations. Great instructors understand that credibility matters, and that adult learning theory is crucial when it comes to conveying information to students that will keep them out of prison or the morgue. They are willing to show up, learn, and then shoot a qualification that proves their abilities.

Not cheap: As with any other client service, when it comes to firearms instruction, you will usually get what you pay for. Great instructors have spent countless hours and a substantial amount of money learning how to teach you, and then practicing what they've learned. Overhead is high and profit margins are slim in this business, so while there are often less expensive options to be found, quality instruction costs money--sometimes, a lot of money. But great instructors are worth every penny. After all, you are paying them to teach you how to save your own life in an emergency. It's hard to put a price on that.

Able to demonstrate: Great instructors can show their students exactly what they want them to do, every time, cold (i.e. with no practice beforehand). They understand that if they can't do what they're asking you to do, they have no business trying to teach you to do it. The best instructors will demonstrate, as many times as you need them to, without excuses. The best instructors shoot very well, and often.

Prepared for disaster: Every great instructor will provide a range safety briefing before you set foot on a hot firing range. Students will be given a thorough plan for what to do in case anyone gets hurt. There will be trauma supplies, including tourniquets, readily on hand, as well as a plan for getting someone to the emergency room as quickly as possible if waiting for an ambulance isn't a realistic option. Firing ranges are often located in rural, secluded areas and the great instructors all have a medical emergency plan, which they will share with you in detail. Your life and your health matter to them as much as their own--and it shows.

They love this stuff. It can be kind of annoying how much they love it, actually. Just ask their friends.

Passionate: The best instructors do this because it's their happy place; it's what they love. To the passionate firearms instructor, turning timid new shooters into confident gun handlers and marksmen is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. Empowering people to take charge of their own safety is a great instructor's life's work, and they take it very seriously. After a particularly rewarding class or lesson, the best instructors are in a noticeably great mood. They know they've done their job and that their students are safer and better trained for it. Teaching is their passion, not just a career, and they do it because they absolutely love it, even when it's frustrating or difficult. You are not just a number to them; your training challenges are their training challenges. The very best instructors sincerely care whether you succeed and will do everything within their power to get you there.

There are surely other important qualities of great firearms instructors that I've left out, but these are what I look for when deciding with whom to train and where. When you're new to the world of firearms and shooting, it can be overwhelming to find trustworthy instructors and training schools. I urge you to look for people who are interested in seeing you grow, and who have a solid, realistic plan to help you reach your goals. Look for passionate, honest, certified people who care about you and above all, trust your gut. There are thousands of great instructors and when you find one, you'll know.

Choose wisely, train smart, and stay safe out there!