Safety and Training

Positive reinforcement

A happy shooter

The trick to introducing a new shooter is to make the experience fun. Nobody wants to be a failure and beginning marksmen are no exception. So we, the instructors, can play up the fun aspect of the sport and make sure that all new shooters have bragging rights. One way to do it is to start with the easiest targets possible. After safety rules and the manual of arms has been explained, it’s a good idea to make sure that the shooter can use sights properly and control the trigger well. A visible laser aimed below the line of sight for the shooter can be very helpful because it doesn’t distract the trainee while providing a point of aim indicator to the instructor.

A happy shooter
A happy shooter

Once try fire exercises have been completed, it is time to make holes in paper. For most new pistol shooters, a target at 21ft would present a formidable challenge. So set up a target at one foot from the muzzle. Have your trainee fire half-dozen shots with a .22. For noise reduction, I recommend subsonics, provided they cycle in your pistol. If the new shooter flinches badly, you will know it right away and be able to correct. Once your shooter has a tight cluster of hits, replace the target with a fresh one and move it back to two feet. Then three feet.

Time for larger targets. Still at three feet, let them shoot at a reduced silhouette. Watch for trigger control and sighting problems. If all is well, move the target back a couple of feet. Then a couple more. Now it is time for breaking things and not just punching paper. If your range allows reactive targets, set up sporting clays on the ground or place them on a clay target holder. The visual feedback provided by disintegrating clays is a good motivator for the new shooters. Clays are about five and a third of an inch in diameter and a hit on the edge usually breaks them as well as a hit in the center. Set up around ten feet from the muzzle, they are slightly challenging but still very reasonable targets for beginners.

Once your trainee has a solid track record of being good at everything he tried, offer a much more distant target. Set up a full-size silhouette at fifteen feet and tape a sheet of typing paper over the X and the 10 ring. The contrasting tone would make aiming easier and support “aim small, miss small”. Have your shooter take his time with this. Remove the white paper before showing the results to the marksman — the hits should be pretty tightly clustered and look very respectable. Have your shooter sign the paper and counter-sign it with a date. The keepsake from this range trip is now ready for hanging on a wall at home.

Obviously, the exact ranges can be changed and different targets would likewise be just fine. The main idea is that all challenges should be surmountable and at no time should your trainee be frustrated. Instant gratification combined with steady progress and individually appropriate pace are the key to making the first range trip work well.

PS: Have any hints or favorite techniques of your own for teaching newbies? Share them here!

About the Author:

Oleg Volk

Oleg Volk is a creative director working mainly in firearms advertising. A great fan of America and the right to bear arms, he uses his photography to support the right of every individual to self-determination and independence. To that end, he is also a big fan of firearms.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (4)

  1. As a professional instructor, I like to take first timers alone if possible. The above advice is very true. I also will always take a cell phone camera or digital camera, and ask to take a picture of the student in the gear, and safely holding whatever gun seems to impress them. This photo is always, always sent or emailed to the student that day, along with a brief email or note of thanks. I will usually buy lunch afterward as well, making it more than just a lesson, but an outing.

    At my classes, I ask every shooter who can to take a new shooter with them once a year, and expose them to the shooting sports. If we all brought in one new shooter per year, we could double our ranks in that time.

  2. Your advice here is very sound. Fairbairn and Sykes in “Shooting to Live” (1942) and John Ross in “Defensive Firearms Advice For Those With No Experience” (2003) recommend starting out at distances of a few feet.

    But (yes, there’s a “but”), how many of us are really competent enough to not just teach, but coach?

    While I can certainly explain sight alignment, grip, trigger pull, etc., I am simply not experienced enough to diagnose and correct the mistakes a new shooter makes. And given current circumstances, there is no way I will ever get enough time behind the trigger to become competent enough to coach another shooter. When you get to the range only once a year, it’s hard enough to maintain your own perishable skills.

    At this point, if you think it’s just me (and at least I can be honest with myself about my skills), consider the observation by Todd Green at

    “There is a small army of NRA certified instructors who teach CCW classes here and more than half of them are frighteningly incompetent.”

    leading one of his readers to echo a conclusion I reached 10 years ago, after taking several CCW classes

    “That’s why I don’t consider an ‘NRA Certified Anything’ as competent.”

  3. I like to use balloons, either air and/or water filled. A couple of packages of assorted colors (and maybe sizes) are pretty cheap. That, some packages of thumbtacks and some cardboard for backing is pretty easy to transport. If you are lazy (like me) you can bring a small 5-Gallon portable air tank with the blow-gun modified with a rubber hose over the nozzle to make it easier to blow up the balloons. If you want to bring water balloons, fill the bottom of a large ice cooler with three or four inches of water and then place a layer of filled water balloons into the cooler, if you need to add water to put in the next layer, do so until the cooler is full or you got as many balloons as you want to bring. Also bring some empty plastic milk jugs which can be filled with water from the cooler. The nice thing about the milk jugs is that if you line three or four of them up you can often recover the bullets which glued to a paper target make a neat keepsake.

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