Being a good student – and how instructors can help.

When I was listening to the Primary and Secondary podcast, there was a really good discussion of “how to be a good student” from the perspective of the trainers, along with an accompanying discussion on the forum. I’ve done a lot of training lately, and I thought I’d do my own take on it. To me, there’s two big categories here: prep before class, and what you do at class.

Prep before class has a few subcategories:

  • Mental
  • Supplies for physical needs
  • Clothing
  • “Gear”
  • Gun-related stuff

But what you do at class, and even after class, is important, too… and instructors, that’s you, too.

Before Class

Get Mentally Prepared

There’s two components to mental preparation: mindset and knowledge.

Mindset is being ready to learn, and work hard. It’s getting enough sleep the night before to function at peak condition, safely. It’s understanding that your job as a student is to learn, and nothing else (unless requested otherwise).

This is often a difficult thing. Gun guys often have very high opinions of their abilities, sometimes justified, usually not. Humility is the key here; you may indeed be awesome, but that doesn’t mean the instructors have nothing to teach you on any particular subject. The thought process needs to be “I want to learn everything that’s taught, and I will work hard to do it”. If you’re uncertain about the validity of something you’re taught, the time to validate is after the course. (This is not to say you shouldn’t ask why something is done in a particular way!)

Knowledge is also a key factor. Read up on the class before you come. For the more popular instructors, there are AARs and class reviews floating around. Reading these will give you insight into what you can expect, and maybe even give you ideas that will flow into other areas of preparation. For example, if you’re reading that a class has a lot of primary-to-secondary weapon transitions, you now know your gear should be set up to allow for that. If you have questions, contact the instructor before class to get that knowledge.

Knowledge can also be knowing yourself. Are you at the right skill level for this class? Do you really meet the pre-reqs? You want to be challenged, but being too far behind the curve is also a problem, as it holds back the rest of the class. I remember when I did a low-light class when I was simply not a good enough one-handed pistol shooter for it. I learned a lot, but I’m not sure it was the right choice in the end. If in doubt, again, contact the instructors.

Instructors: Make it very clear what skills you need your students to bring to the class. If possible, provide some very clear metrics in addition to just “previous class requirements”. For example, if you want people to be able to draw semi-proficiently, suggesting 1.8s from draw to shot as the minimum standard provides some genuine clarity to that requirement.

Also, consider what materials you want students to read before the class. AARs are good, but there’s all sorts of useful info on the Internet that you can help direct them to via emailed links. These also help build the relationship with your students, which I assume is good for follow-on business.

Get Prepared for What Your Body Needs

The most obvious thing you need to plan for in a training class is food and water. Your body is not going to run in peak condition if you’re dehydrated or your stomach is growling. You should also bring MORE than you think you need, because if you’re busy running-and-gunning, you’re going to be burning energy and sweating more than usual. Your requirements will also be different if it’s an indoor vs outdoor class, and how long the class is. I can live with a bottle of waters and some protein bars at a short indoors class, but I pack pretty heavily for all-day outdoors classes.

Depending on the season, you might also want to bring sunscreen and bug spray. Sunburn can be very painful, and bug bites aren’t much better (and can be downright dangerous depending on what the mosquitoes and ticks are carrying). You don’t need that much, but maybe having enough to share isn’t a bad idea.

You also want some medical gear, hopefully that you’ve got the skills to use. At a minimum, some band-aids and disinfectant, but also shooting guns, so maybe something to deal with GSWs isn’t such a bad idea. If you need to throw something together, I’d recommend spending the time to come up with a compact first aid kit for your EDC.

If you’re going to be outdoors, you might consider bringing a canopy and a chair with you. This isn’t always possible or necessary, but breaks under the sweltering sun when you’re sitting on muddy ground kinda suck.

Instructors: try to provide some insight into possible environmental conditions and how to mitigate them. I think most instructors do a good job of this, but it can’t hurt to review your syllabus and pre-class communications to see if there’s room for improvement. You should also have some medical supplies, but you were already doing that.

Get Prepared with the Right Clothes

There’s so much to talk about with how you dress, and I don’t mean which style of shirt is gonna get you the most Instagram followers.

First of all, if this is an outdoor class, you need to 1) check the weather forecast and 2) determine how rough the range is. Sneakers aren’t going to cut it on rough ground, and if you don’t plan for rain when it hits, you are going to be absolutely miserable. I would advise always having an emergency poncho in your kit, and making a habit of wearing solid boots at all outdoors classes.

You should also dress like you’re going to train. I remember at my first holster-draw class, I wore a button-down shirt that was WAY too baggy. It was super-comfy, but it was getting in the way of everything. Be comfortable, yes, but make sure your clothes won’t get in the way of your gear.

Finally… gloves. Gloves are a good thing, but you need to be willing to commit to them to have them not be a hindrance to you. They are a lifestyle choice, so to speak. If you’re not committing to that lifestyle, consider whether you really want them for class. Train like you fight, and all that.

Instructors: probably not much to do here, except communicate to students if there are any environmental factors that will require specific clothing choices, or if you have specific requirements due to safety concerns. Maybe think about this even if you’re at an indoor range – some of those can get COLD during the winter.

Prepare Your Gear

Closely following your choice of clothes – and probably dictating it to some extent – is your choice of gear.

You read all those AARs and class descriptions like you were supposed to, right? So now you should be leveraging that to decide what exactly you need to bring with you. There is a thin line between having too much and not enough in a lot of cases. I am often guilty of wearing an assault vest to a rifle class when a couple mag carriers on my belt would be just as good, if not better, due to weight and placement.

But, the offsetting consideration here is that I’ve trained and practiced in that vest. The first time you use your gear should not at a class! Like, at least dry-fire with it at home Practice some reloads. Figure out how to get it set up.

You can make the call whether you want to bring a plate carrier or chest rig, versus just a belt setup. I’d advocate that you should train like you plan on fighting. Contact the instructor if you want their opinion, but once you’re beyond basic classes, I don’t think anyone’s going to look askance at heavier gear loads.

If you use a holster with active retention, you need to be proficient with it, or don’t bring it. Holster work is one of the more dangerous things you can do with a handgun, and unfamiliarity with a holster is a bad, bad thing in that context.

Do have some extras in case your gear fails. Bad gear will fail. Good gear shouldn’t, but bad things happen.  More mag pouches than you need, extra batteries for lights and optics, etc. Having some stuff to fix your gun in the case of common hard-stop malfunctions is also not a bad idea – an extra bolt for your AR comes to mind.

If you’re planning on taking notes, bring something for that. I’d argue that having a pen around is good practice anyways… there’s always forms or rosters to sign.

Instructors: focusing on capability is fine, but consider going into a bit of extra detail about what kind of setups you’re expecting to see. Do bring some tools with you to at least have a chance of bringing a dead rifle back to life, but I know that trying to do this in the middle of class is probably not a good bet. Definitely be clear if you don’t want people bringing certain items, like SERPA holsters. You may even consider asking for people to shoot you a quick email with what their setup is, just so you’re not surprised.

Also, consider sending out notes and drills after class, so your students don’t need to split focus between listening and writing. I know some of that is perceived as secret sauce, but be realistic about how much really is.

Prepare Your Guns, Mags, and Ammo

Finally, we get to guns. Guns are awesome! We all love them! Alas, this is where classes tend to go south. Here are the hard questions:

  1. Do your guns work reliably with the ammo you have chosen? The time to figure this out isn’t at class. If you haven’t run a couple hundred rounds through a gun, you haven’t verified reliability. If you know a gun has problems, don’t bring it.
  2. Do you have a known-reliable spare gun in case your gun goes down? Bringing another trash gun to replace what your primary gun isn’t going to be a good plan. If your spare can take the same mags, sling, and ammo as your primary, that’s even better.
  3. Have your guns been lubed and maintained? Part of the pre-class checkup should be lubing your guns and checking springs. If you replace a spring, you should recheck function in your gun… nothing like breaking a gun by “fixing” it.

The other two components to making a gun work are the magazines and ammo. Stuff to think about in this realm:

  1. As long as they’re reliable, bring as many loaded magazines as is practical. Don’t just bring the minimum, because magazines fail.
  2. Having a couple empty magazines for use in fixed round-count drills is a good thing.
  3. Label your mags! You don’t want to confuse them with other people’s mags.
  4. Make sure you bring the RIGHT magazines. If you’re like me and have both G17 and G19 magazines, they can be easily confused. Check twice.
  5. The ammo you bring – loose or in mags – needs to be alright to be reliable and allowed at the range. Review the rules for whether steel-core, steel-jacket, and/or steel-case are acceptable.
  6. Bring at least as much ammo as the class syllabus requests. My experience is that you generally need less, but unless you’re carrying it miles on foot… why not have extra?
  7. If you have time, doing a round by round visual inspection of factory ammo isn’t a bad idea, but this isn’t practical for many people.
  8. If you’re going to bring reloads, they need to be verified and tested in quantity before class. I’d stay away from reloads if it’s possible, but it may not be.
  9. If you are running shot, make sure you’ve verified how it patterns beforehand.
  10. You should consider recoil in your ammo selection. High round-count classes are going to be tough on your wrists and shoulders… don’t make it worse than it needs to be by running +P ammo unnecessarily. Reduced-recoil buckshot and heavier grain pistol ammo should be things you consider, if they’re cost-effective.

Instructors: spend more time talking about gun, ammo, and magazine expectations in your syllabus. If you can tell your students about specific-round count mags needed, that may save reloading time during class. If there is time before the range portion of class to at least inspect weapons, that may be something worth doing.

During Class

Stay Focused

This seems pretty obvious, but pay attention. Put the smartphone away. If you’re taking notes, be smart about what you’re writing down. Everyone knows the basics, what you should be writing down are the insights – not just clever repartees from your instructors, but the things that suddenly grant clarity to you as well. Writing down everything is just a distraction.

Socialize Appropriately

The time to talk is off the line, when the instructor isn’t talking. Again, seems simple, but easy to forget, because everyone likes meeting fellow enthusiasts and talking guns and gear.

The Competition is You

When you’re doing timed drills in class, it is going to be tempting to compare yourself against other students. You can do this, but don’t turn it into competition. Your performance is not a measure of you as a human being, and if you practice appropriately, it will improve. Training enables that better practice.

Instructors: give some par times so students are more focused on their own performance than other people’s times.

After Class

Review Review Review

You spent time taking notes… review them. If your instructor sent out materials, those are worth a look, too. I like to write AARs – I think that may be excessive for many people, but there is nothing better than writing it all down again.

Instructors: send out the drills! As I alluded to above, the secret sauce in most classes is less what drills you’re running and more how you teach them.

Do The Work

The only way you get better is by doing timed dry-fire and live-fire practice on a daily basis. You shouldn’t limit this to just handguns, either… there’s a lot to be said in doing that with rifles and shotguns. They’re easier to aim and shoot, but provide more interesting challenges in terms of weapons manipulation and reloading (especially in the case of tube-fed shotguns).


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