Self-Taught or Trained?

We Can All Benefit from Training
Regardless of Our Experience Level

One of the chief concerns we trainers have is: People don’t know what they don’t know. When it comes to guns, for many, they have been so ingrained in our culture folks just assume they know what to do and how to do it. Often what they’ve seen on TV or in the movies is not a good example of safe and proficient gun handling.

In most states, the training required for carrying a handgun on your person, concealed or open is minimal. While in my heart I’m a firm believer that a right shouldn’t be legislated, my experience as a License to Carry Instructor has taught me people need training, and if they won’t get it on their own, maybe it should be required, like Driver’s Ed. Almost daily I watch people handle guns like they were a set of keys or a monkey wrench, with no regard for where they are pointed and with their finger on the bang lever. Scary.


The title of this article promises training can help you at any level, so let’s start with the basics. Your initial training should cover the well-established safety rules. They may be worded differently and the order may be changed slightly, but these rules start with 1) always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction, 2) keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot, and 3) always treat every gun as if it were loaded. There are additional rules such as knowing your target and what’s in front of and beyond it; knowing your gun and ammunition; being healthy, alert and sober when shooting and others that may be related to where you shoot.

Self-Taught Gun Handling
Trained Gun Handling

Telling someone the safety rules usually doesn’t sink in for a while. For the first hour or two of instruction we’re constantly having to remind people to keep their gun pointed in a safe direction and to keep their finger off the trigger. When they finally get it, I often wonder if they really got it or they just want the instructor to stop bugging them about it. Seriously, it takes concentration until the habit is learned and ingrained in your muscle memory. This rarely happens without some instruction. The safety rules associated with handling firearms are listed, usually in red letters, in every firearm instruction manual on the planet, but, who reads instructions?


Any gun has parts that move during shooting. Especially on semi-automatic handguns these parts have pinch and scrape zones that can do considerable damage to your hands if you don’t know how to properly hold the gun and execute the required movements.  There are parts that must be loaded and parts that must be put in the proper starting position before firing. There are parts that move rapidly during shooting.

A basic course is where you should learn how to load and operate your gun, how to stand comfortably, how to grip the gun for maximum control and to mitigate recoil, how to align the sights, how to smoothly operate the trigger, how to breathe and follow through to get the next shot on target. Many people assume they know these things, but in class or at the range we see a wide variety of positions and grips that are not very effective and some which can get you hurt.  

One Way Many Put a Semi-Automatic into Battery
A Better Way to Put a Semi-Automatic into Battery


Accuracy doesn’t come about by instinct or luck. It’s a process of learning to align the front sight properly with the rear sight, point the aligned sights at the target and smoothly move the trigger straight back until the shot is fired. If we all did that correctly on every shot, we’d all be world champion shooters with very tight groups around the aiming point. That’s not what we usually see, is it? Mastering the sight alignment and smooth trigger pull is facilitated by learning to stand comfortably, holding the gun correctly, positioning your finger on the trigger correctly and moving it smoothly straight back instead of pushing or pulling it to one side or the other or jerking the gun so that the shots go wide. Good technique also involves follow through that helps get you back on target and ready for the next shot.

Without training people develop a variety of ways to hold a gun, but rarely do they discover on their own what a little time with a qualified and experienced instructor can teach them.

Self-Taught Gun Handling
Trained Gun Handling

If you took the step to get some basic training, good for you. Let’s say you passed the proficiency test, if one was required in your state, and got your permit. If your training stops there, you should probably make an honest assessment about whether or not you’re really ready to defend yourself with your handgun under the pressure of a surprise attack. How can you tell?  Find an instructor who can teach you to draw from a holster or purse, move to cover while having to defend yourself and reload when you’re under fire. You should learn to clear a jam quickly and under pressure.  The same goes for engaging multiple targets, targets converging on you or moving laterally to you. For most of us, initial exposure to this type of training is a real eye-opener. I know it was for me, and I not only played army when I was a kid, I was in the Army, in a war with a job that got me shot at, but oh how much I’ve forgotten.



The first thing you learn during intermediate training is often, “I was not ready to defend myself!” Okay, buckle down and learn. You’ll sweat, you’ll get frustrated, then you’ll get better. You’ll learn, you’ll become more confident and hopefully you will realize the skills you develop here must be practiced and practiced often enough they become automatic.

I’m not talking about training for SWAT, Personal Protection Details or SEAL Teams. I’m talking about training for ordinary people like you and me. I’m a Granddad who gets around on a mobility scooter, but I intend to be ready and competent should the need arise. My family also expects this of me.

Even though I’d grown up owning and shooting guns, when I got serious about being armed in a daily basis, I did some training and I was confident. I practiced my newly learned skills concerning stance, grip, aiming, breathing and trigger control until I could consistently put all my shots within a small group. But this was shooting at paper targets at relatively close range at my own pace.

Recently I had the opportunity to try another type of training at a live fire indoor shooting cinema. This is not Simunition training; all shooting is done with live ammo. The targets are projected onto a large white screen. Cameras and microphones triangulate and capture your shots electronically. You see your hits and misses and the simulator produces responses based on where your shots land. The response may be a visible hole or the target may fall, disappear or spin, depending on the programming.

I started my session shooting at fixed silhouette targets to insure I was aiming and grouping correctly and the computer was picking up my shots. Then I moved to a projected version of steel plates that I knocked over easily. Next came moving silhouette targets at various ranges coming in from the left and right. I nailed them. Then onto targets mounted on spinning wheels–one going clockwise, the other counter-clockwise. Missed a few. Then timed targets, pop-up targets, shoot-don’t shoot scenarios, and I was missing all over the place. The instructor knew I was an experienced shooter, so he gave me some latitude to figure it out myself. I didn’t. When he told me to look at my grip, I couldn’t believe it. I know the basics of how to grip a gun. I teach the basics of how to grip a gun. When the pressure was on, I had loosened my grip, opening it up and therefore allowing my shots to go wide.

I determined to practice every week until I got it right. The next week I started off doing better, so the instructor cranked up the speed and sure enough I started forgetting the basics again.

The basics do matter. This I learned through advanced training. That’s not all I learned. I have several “favorite” handguns. My first choice for a carry gun is typically a Commander-sized 1911. I have several and usually shoot them all well. One of them is 9mm, but I’m really a .45 ACP guy. Let me rephrase that. I was a .45 ACP guy but sometimes the arthritis in my thumbs, wrist and shoulders whispers 9mm to me, and on those days I carry a Ruger LW Commander 9mm or one of my other favorites–a Sig 229 or an M&P, both 9mm. Guess what I learned as the shooting challenges got faster and faster? The width of the grip does matter. One of the instructors running the Cinema range held my hand up and said, “short, stubby fingers.”  I said, “Yes, that’s what I’ve always been told and why I don’t play the piano.” To which he responded, “I’m not talking about music, I’m talking about shooting a gun that fits your hand, so you can keep your grip closed and your wrist behind the gun.

I’m an experienced instructor, but every time I train under another instructor, I learn, I get better. Practicing with an experienced eye to provide insight and instruction is even more beneficial. Try it and you’ll be amazed.

Author: David Freeman

Professional dedicated to training and equipping people to live safely in a dangerous world.

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