What are appropriate credentials for instructors?

Read this excellent post today (referred to me by by Greg Ellifritz, talking about a point from Tom Givins’  instructor development course).  It addresses the question of what credednials a proper instructor should have, other than being certified by some organization and/or having been behind a gun for X years.  Hard to disagree with anything in it.  But it raises the question: What constitutes “experience” in a civilian context?  I posed the question to both Tom and Greg.  Here’s our exchange:


Tom: Perhaps actually having worn a gun, day in and day out, continuously, for a few years. This gives experience in actually living the life-style and shows it’s not that hard to be routinely armed.

High pressure FoF training, like Southnarc’s ECQC and AMIS, where the student has to interact with live, moving, thinking targets, much like in a real encounter. These courses are much more stressful and realistic than other FoF training I have seen. Pretty much “synthetic experience”.
I do not think body count is important, but it certainly helps if the trainer has at least drawn a gun for real against another person in a criminal  confrontation.

Ralph:  Makes sense.

A related thought: we all certainly know instructors – some probably pretty well known – with education, training and experience (some of that experience reasonably impressive) who do nothing but parrot whatever they have been taught by God knows who God knows when.  So even meeting your (Tom’s) criteria is no guarantee.

Which touches on the notion that the line between (good) experience and luck can be thin.

I’ve written before that all experience is limited to the conditions.  For example, if all my gun-on-people experience comes from a warrant service environment, then that experience is limited to team environments and further to environments where we took the initial initiative.  While this is legit and real experience, it doesn’t relate too well to a civilian surprised at a gas stop, for example.   If all my experience is from a war zone with a highly trained team with me…you get the idea.

No one has had enough statically valid experience, accounting for all the variables, in lots of different kinds of environments.  Therefore, no one’s experience is universally extrapolateable.  It can offer hints (sometimes strong ones) to others in other environments, and it’s valid to teach others going into the same environment, but it is not valid for anyone – ex-Delta, whatever – to say “I know the answer for you”.

And I haven’t even touched on the issue of how much time a student is willing to give to the subject, which considerably varies what is appropriate to teach him/her.  I recall Ken Hackathorn once telling me that he was contracted to teach a very high-income couple armed self defense.  They said they could give him 4 hours on a Saturday.  Period.  He didn’t turn down the impossible-sounding session; he brought a .22 pistol and taught them to hit a silhouette at fairly close distance.  That seemed to me to be a brilliant and valid use of both their times.

Tom:  Agreed. One of my pet peeves is instructors who have not had any training themselves in 10-20 years. I have been teaching professionally since the late 1970’s, and I still try to take at least one or two courses each year from someone outside my own organization.  I don’t teach today what I taught 20 years ago, and neither does any other competent trainer.

6 thoughts on “What are appropriate credentials for instructors?

  1. Morning Ralph and Mr. Givens:

    A few random thoughts on a drive-by posting on this excellent topic:

    My observation is that the vast majority of gun enthusiasts who constitute the potential market for the “tactical training Industry” have zero comprehension of what “good training” means nor what a provider of “good training” should be doing for them, the client.

    The perception of training that most of the enthusiasts bring to the decision point about seeking out training is developed first through popular media (TV and movies), then by Internet forums, You Tube, blogs, online zines and occasionally the gun-rags on the newsstand. As well as by the gun shop guys and the old timers on the range.

    In the United States, when you separate out the military veterans, law enforcement, and professional gun-toters, the remaining percentage (don’t know what, but my intuition based on observation is that it’s significant) consumes the media I reference above and creates a narrative/perception about what they want (as consumers) in a training product which tends to be validated at the points they intersect with the gun industry (gun stores and gun ranges).

    My points re: above —

    *They don’t know what they don’t know.
    *They don’t know what they need.
    *They don’t know the difference between shooting, recreational/target/bullseye shooting, hunting shooting, defensive/combative shooting, and self-protection in the full spectrum which includes firearms usage (in addition to all those other skills like perception, people management, awareness, empty hand, whatever)
    *They want what they want, irregardless of whether, in an experienced evaluation of their needs, it’s what they NEED.

    So I would suggest that before addressing the question of what credentials an instructor needs, it might help to carefully and precisely define what the instructor is expected to teach. A NRA Bullseye Coach can certainly teach one definition of “shooting” in the way a high school driving instructor can teach one definition of driving; however that high school driving instructor may not be the person you want to train you to be behind the wheel during a car-jacking in Bogota or on the street during a Tour Car race.

    A “civilian” instructor teaching “civilians” still begs the questions: instructing what?

    Even “defensive shooting” doesn’t really define it. As you mention in your post, and both of you in previous writing, and Ralph and I in extensive conversations over almond milk chai tea lattes (;) the needs that experienced instructors see in the civilian market/audience are not what the vast majority are buying. It’s more fun to take a “tacti-cool vacation” and dress up in the cool kit and shoot a lot of rounds than it is to get dirty wrestling for your gun against a much bigger opponent, or dealing with the psychological stress a skilled role player will elicit if testing your pre-interview/interview skills.

    I’d invite the two of you to come up with a definition of what the ideal “civilian defensive” training that includes shooting would encompass — and then from that, move to define the ideal instructor or instructor package to deliver that.

    That would serve to educate the huge market of “gun enthusiasts” who own guns, may have taken some basic mandated “training” but are mostly unaware or unconvinced that any other training is actually needed outside of the context of entertainment-recreation training.

    Just some random thoughts.

    Oh, and in the pet peeve department, I agree with Mr. Givens that any instructor of life-saving skills should be continuing his/her education. I think that any instructor should not only be taking classes within his/her field but also in fields completely different and find ways to purpose that. Back a long time ago when I was still actively training firearms, I found huge benefit in taking classes in mindfulness, acting, medical hypnosis, empty hand Combatives/martial arts, podium instructor skills, cognitive neuroscience, anatomy, etc. Only way to grow as an instructor is to keep learning.

    On the whole “body count” piece: I remain astonished that this continues to be a discussion point at all for any training that includes LE or civilian audiences. In today’s litigious society, any comments you make publicly, in private to someone who may repeat it, in writing on social media or in books can and will be used against you in the instance of you actually having to utilize your combative skills. This is a fundamental point in every single legitimate discussion of the legal aftermath in any self-defense scenarios. Ralph, you and I both know a veteran of the military and law enforcement with no criminal record whatsoever who because of a false allegation by a bitter ex-wife found himself in court being pilloried about his background, his history of violence, training and expertise — and came very close to losing his child, and suffered significant impoverishment — exacerbated by some corrupt cops close to the ex-wife. Next time you see him, ask him if he ever discusses his body count or any other history of violence. I know what he’ll say: “Will neither confirm nor deny. No comment. Don’t ask me again.”

    Any individual who brags about his/her body count and uses that as a criteria for his/her standing as an instructor is looking to end up in court someday wishing someone had sewn his/her mouth shut.

    Just my two cents worth!

    Thanks to you both for your stellar and continuing contributions to the necessary dialogue to advance training.

    Cheers, m


    • Marcus – started a much longer response to your comment just after you posted it but WordPress ate it. Short version, in response to this from you:

      “I’d invite the two of you to come up with a definition of what the ideal “civilian defensive” training that includes shooting would encompass — and then from that, move to define the ideal instructor or instructor package to deliver that.”

      I think the answer to your former is “Whatever Tom is teaching, however he’s teaching it”, since he has the success record. I haven’t been down to Rangemaster but from what Tom has told me it’s reasonably traditional material…with, I’m sure, a good bit of mindset material inserted, I say this last because I’ve met Tom. He has mindset. It may not be as complicated to teach effective civilian responses as you (Marcus) and I might have supposed. Tom going public with his success has changed a lot of how I train, in my dotage, with real encroaching limitations, and with less interest, frankly, in getting to the range than I used to have.


      • Morning, dude. Sorry I missed this: I don’t sign up for updates from posts ’cause I don’t need to add to my daily inbox load, LOL.

        I think your short answer oversimplifies (I know, Iknow) — no disputing the fact that Mr. Givens has turned out successful students in a documented after training survey. I’m not up to speed on the state of the civilian tacti-cool training industry anymore, but I’d wager that he’s at the top or one of the very top in longitudinal success stories with civilians. I’ve recommended attending his school to interested parties based solely on my review of his written material and track record.

        My point was without due consideration of the true NEEDS of the civilian audience, as in coming up with some consensus as to what’s truly necessary (the minimum critical path, since you like that engineer-speek) to meet the need of Joe Six-Pack and Sally Suburban, the mythical average civilian carrying for personal defense, it’s hard to truly define a checklist of instructor characteristics for the interested but uneducated potential student. I keep coming back to that point because from the perspective of a long time participant and observer of training, I see the people who want to sell training to civilians missing the point, over and over again, of educating the potential student as to WHAT they need and HOW the potential instructor provides that according to some reality based definition of how civilian needs differ from LE/.mil.

        In our conversations and several with Claude Werner, I think we’re all seeing a shift in training away from the focus on high-speed handling, distance marksmanship etc. and a return to close range basics/fundamentals with a much more rigorous emphasis on mindset: willingness, situational awareness, decision making, positioning — instead of speed reloads and shaving microseconds off multiple shot splits.

        But again, I think that all of us have presuppositions where we assume that potential students already know or take for granted in the same way we take for granted a common language/understanding about the dynamics of personal combat. And from a purely observational/anecdotal perspective, I do not see that understanding in a visceral way in the vast majority of new gun-owners interested in personal protection. I see that market significantly underestimated and not properly approached, as in educating them about all these factors as part of the sales/marketing process.

        And it would be of service to young instructors looking to tap that to do their own skills/personality inventory with themselves and compare them against some standard to give them a baseline to work improvement from.

        Mr. Givens is the product of his genetics, life experience and specific training. His expression as an instructor is unique to him. I think your discussion might be of more value to the novice defensive shooter and the potential civilian instructor if you parsed out what of his specific approach leads to his documented success and then translate that into a bullet point list of the skills a civilian defensive shooter MUST have (supported by consensus among high quality and current trainers) and then a questionnaire that a prospective student can work through to vet potential instructors. Educating the market and the customer is a good way to build business; my opinion is that many instructor do not because they don’t want to create competition for themselves, or think that withholding those results until people have trained may bolster their cred. I don’t think so.

        Mr. Givens gets big props for posting his results and the scenarios — and having his critical path parsed out may save a whole lot of lives down the road.

        Anyway my two cents worth on one cup of coffee and a long list of work in my inbox! Talk to you when I do, Ralph — have a good ‘un!

        Cheers, m

        Ps: (parting shot): things like personality traits, experience (see your posts about relevant experience) in combative applications, experience as an instructor with varied and diverse audiences (not just LE or .mil, civilian, women, children etc.), curriculum focus (shooting drills or application? Scenarios or not? Mindset, street awareness in lecture or practice, etc. etc. etc.), success rate of students, how measured, performance standards, blah blah blah…


  2. All excellent points, Marcus. The only one I have an issue with, as we’ve discussed several times, is the notion that there’s an under-served market for competent instruction just waiting to be tapped. I don’t believe so because 1) the Market (capital “M”) is efficient – needs get met at the economic value that the needer puts on them, and 2) there’s a lot of people that could use sound nutritional coaching, but that apparent need hasn’t translated into a large market for competent nutritionists…because people are cheap and lazy. (That’s an analogy.)


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