A Nurse with a Gun

Monday, September 08, 2008

A Recipe for Marksmanship and Maturation

When a person asks me to teach a them how to shoot, the first step is that I require them to memorize the Four Rules. This request performs two functions. First, it gives them the minimum knowledge needed to be safe with a firearm. Second, it demonstrates that they are serious about learning. It is a simple test of willingness and open mindedness. If they balk at learning the Four Rules prior to going to the range, then I will not instruct them.

Once they can recite the Four Rules, we get together with an unloaded Ruger MKII, usually at the new shooter's home to provide them with a comfortable environment. I do not bring ammunition, only the first gun they will shoot. I demonstrate how to hold and operate the firearm, how to check the chamber, and how to make a safe weapon. I focus on safety and responsibility as well as the basics of handling the gun. I assess the student's anxiety level, which at times may be quite high. I want them at ease handling a firearm. We talk about eye dominance, and I check them to see which eye is strongest. I draw a diagram to illustrate the basics of sight alignment, and I allow them to dry fire the pistol, with the expectation that the gun will be handled safely. When it is not, we back up and start again.

I ask them why they want to learn to shoot. Almost always, the reason is self protection. I explain that a person must be willing to take a life to save their own if they are to successfully employ a firearm in self defense. I make it clear that the time to come to that epiphany is well prior to an attack. Realizing the need once an attack commences is often futile. If the person has a pressing specific need, I try to help them towards a more immediate solution, explaining that gun skills develop into a means of effective self defense over time, and that a firearm is not a magic wand to make bad guys go away.

I explain that to realize the benefit of a handgun in saving ones life, the shooter must be able to hit what they intend. I explain that that a shooter who is unable to hit their target may as well be tossing lit firecrackers at their attacker. They have a noisemaker, not an effective tool to stop an attack. Marksmanship matters. Only then do we go to a range and load a weapon.

I prefer to use my four inch stainless Ruger MKII as an initial training tool. The low noise and recoil of the pistol allows the new shooter to concentrate on marksmanship. I recommend double hearing protection and safety glasses to prevent bad habits such as flinching from the beginning. The cheap 22 caliber ammunition allows the new shooter to learn on the cheap.

I like my stainless Ruger because I do not have to worry too much about it getting knocked around. The single action trigger allows the new shooter to achieve success faster. The pistol is well balanced, very "pointable," and reliable. I do not want my burgeoning shooter to have to fight equipment. I take only the Ruger MKII with us to the range. I shoot with it just as my student does. I do not want to give the impression that they are shooting a firearm that I would not. I emphasize that I return to basics with the Ruger anytime I feel myself slipping. I also emphasize that good marksmen are not highly skilled in tricks. Superior marksmen simply perform the basics better and more consistently than other shooters.

I have the shooter shoot at paper plates from a distance of about 15 feet, building confidence as we go. I keep a close watch on muzzle and trigger discipline, and am firm and clear with my corrections if need be. I teach sight alignment, and then flash sight pictures. Rather than focus on precision, I concentrate on the new shooter's ability to hold the sights on target while squeezing the trigger. This ability is fundamental to marksmanship. I place the paper plate targets on a cardboard backing. The goal of the first range lesson is two fold. I look forward to the new shooter conquering their fear of the handgun, and I expect them to be able to get all ten rounds consistently on the paper plate. I have a printout of the "Wheel of Corrections" handy so self motivators can refer to it themselves. Sometimes we shoot at the wheel of corrections itself.

If the new shooter tires before they reach their goals, we stop. I want to keep it fun. I am as much interested in building confidence, a joy of shooting and competence as I am in building marksmanship at this point. I never want the training to become drudgery. If I find the new shooter to be a prodigy or a hard charger wanting to just shoot and shoot, I will set up multiple targets or I will increase the distance to keep them challenged.

Only when the new shooter is hitting their target consistently with a MKII will I discuss another firearm, and never on the first range session. I make the point over and over again if necessary that it is not the gun that matters, but what the shooter can accomplish with it. I refrain from shooting very much myself. I am there because my student wants me to instruct them, not to demonstrate what an accomplished pistolero I am. The instruction is about them, not me.

To determine which direction the training will take, I again talk with and listen to my student after the initial range trip. I have found that many new shooters, influenced by Hollywood, shun revolvers. I present the revolver as a viable option for self defense, one with it's own advantages over a pistol. We discuss the merits of various platforms. I talk about the role of the handgun's weight in absorbing recoil. We discuss the need to stop an attack immediately through incapacitation. I explain the role of a significant caliber in performing this task. The next choice will be an slight increase in caliber, a double action trigger, or perhaps both. If the student feels ready for a change, I allow the shooter to hold, manipulate and learn to operate their next choice of handgun away from the range, without ammunition, the same as before.

If the student decides on a revolver, I move them to a Smith & Wesson Model 17 and we continue to work on trigger control. Eventually they will move towards a four inch .38 special, and then to a .357 magnum or a snubbie revolver, depending on their needs.

If the student chooses a pistol, a full sized 9mm double action gun is the next step, possibly with a .40S&W or a .45ACP in the future. At this point, I want the shooter to learn to control the double action trigger. Again, I focus less on sight alignment, and more on smooth trigger control. By now, the student should have sight alignment down. We continue as before, with double hearing protection and paper plates at 15 feet, increasing the difficulty through distance if necessary. I usually see the marksmanship evaporate, and I must remind the student to concentrate on the basics they acquired with the Ruger MKII. If their confidence starts to slip, we return to the Ruger to regain it.

During this range trip, I again keep the number of firearms available to a minimum, requiring the student to work with their new choice or revert back to the Ruger. I want the new shooter to be able to clear the hurdle of a different trigger or a larger caliber, but I want them to be able to take the basics they learned and apply them to achieve competence and confidence. I reiterate that it is their skill with the basics that makes for effective marksmanship, not a magic weapon. After this session, I encourage the new shooter to grade their progress and reassess their goals. This independent introspection is fundamental in maturing as a shooter. We talk about the best tool for the job. If they want a firearm strictly for home defense, I propose a shotgun for consideration. If they want to swap from a pistol to a revolver or vice versa, we plan on doing so for the next session.

After this point, the instruction becomes much too individualized to provide a guide. The student has taken control of their own learning, and I allow them to set the direction and progress. I encourage the student to begin thinking about obtaining their own handgun. I will bring multiple firearms to the range for them to try out. I am open at this time to allow the student to try out a 1911 or a Glock. I will allow them to go up again in caliber if they want to see what a specific round feels like. By this time, the student is no longer a new shooter. They have become a person in control of their own destiny and they only need guidance as to how to fulfill their individual needs. They are now one more advocate for the right to keep and bear arms.

Todd G's thoughts

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Blogger Carteach said...


I like your approach. Sensible, guided, and applies pressure only in areas that need it.

A technique I like to use with new shooters, especially young ones: During initial handling instruction, going over safety rules and mechanicals, I like to insert a wooden dowel in the barrel. Twelve, eighteen inches, thats long enough. Paint it orange, and use a bit of tape to hold it in place. The thin ones that break easy are fine.

This helps them learn awareness of the muzzle direction in a short time.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Xavier said...

GREAT idea Carteach0!

I'm doing that from now on!

7:35 PM  
Blogger DJK said...

YEah, what he said. Now, my part....she's hot.

8:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Done X.

I have two suggestions:

I often have new shooters double up with muffs and plugs. This reduces the noise and seems to psychologoy reduce the effect of recoil as well. Granted, it's not really as necessary with a .22, but comes into it's own when they go to a larger caliber.

I agree that shooting at paper plates at about 15 feet is a good way to start. I add a "garage sale price tag" dot near the middle of the plate.

I tell the shooter that what we are looking for is how close the bullet holes are to each other and that the dot is just there to give them an exact and consistent point to aim the front sight for each shot. I tell them NOT to change their aim point, even if the bullet strikes are low or left or whatever, but that they should shoot all their rounds aiming at the dot and then check the whole group when they are done.

I used to use bare plates, but have found having the dot to use as a consistent aim point works well for most shooters.

11:39 PM  
Blogger JAFO said...

I notice you have the analysis circle mentioned.

While shooting today, I noticed I'm thumbing. I don't seem to have any idea how to fix this. It occured with all my weapons I took today- PT145, PT111, P11, P40 (two SA/DA and two DAO autos), so it's me, not the hardware.

I usually adopt a high hold on the weapon, any idea where I can find a guide to address the issues indicated on the chart?

11:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If the new shooter tires before they reach their goals, we stop. I want to keep it fun." Kinda paraphrases that one part in Jeff Cooper's "The Art of the Rifle" where he states that shooting, like any endeavor, must be fundamentally enjoyable and attracting or it cannot be appreciated and its art cannot be attained. Thank you for sharing.

12:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I asked you, would you teach me to shoot?

5:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have done security for many years and for many companies. The only one that taught one should fight during a robbery was Rich's, who went as far as hireing former FBI or State Troopers to train all personal to take a gun away from a robber.

Sadly, Marriott looks down on this and tells the associates, me, an unarmed security officer will protect them.

I have pushed for training, but either with no results or negitive push back from management on training.

8:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been privileged to take a few of my son's teenaged friends to the range for their first lessons in shooting.

Like you, I first teach the four rules. When they have them memorized, I show them how to unload and confirm unloaded status on a Ruger MkII and a revolver. Then I rememphasize the rule about NOT POINTING the barrel at anything one would like to avoid shooting.

At this point, I always tell them that if they point the handguns at anything other than "downrange" while at the range, I will speak very harshly to them, perhaps even in a loud voice, perhaps using rude language. I tell them this is not personal, but a useful training aid to emphasize that the rule is ALWAYS in effect with firearms, especially when loaded and most especially when they are supposedly unloaded.

So far I have not had to perform this "extra" retraining at the range. I don't think I would be less impolite with a female trainee. I also think that putting them on notice, that they may be yelled at if they mess up or goof around, actually helps reinforce the rule.

That said, next time I will use the dowel in the barrel during initial orientation. That is a good idea.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Xavier said...

If you live close enough, and if you contact me by email to make arrangements Beth, I'd be happy to.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Great post. As a child of law enforcement officers, I grew up with guns. You approach to hand guns is the same my father used with me 25 years ago. It's refreshing to see someone write with such confidence and clarity.

6:58 PM  
Anonymous tim said...

where can I find the 4 rules.I would like to learn all I can, to be safe on and off the range. I'm a new person to shooting in and old body, and as a newbie I find that trhe guns I own [2 xds' in a 9mm and 40mm and a hi point 9mm and a 45 cowboy 6 shooter,a 22 6 shooter,and 2 22 rifles,1 bolt the other a semiautomatic, a 12 gauge pump and 1 45 black powder pistol.whew! that said I feel most comfortable using the revolvers. I took the ccw course with my xd 40mm.I just lost my job,maybe I could find a job at 1 of the gun stores, always do something you love,work is a 4 letter word,but doing something you love, is an adventure. I would love to build my own gun maybe a howdah,that would be awesome.I learned alot tonight just reading this blog,I stuck this in my favorites.Guns are my passion,so I will close now,see what happens with passion,can't stop talking.

2:18 AM  

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