Helping New Shooters Part 2: Teaching Beginners

1 Goals for beginners

When bringing beginners to the range, think about the goals that will be achieved during their first few range days. Many people want to get to the range and fire off a bunch of rounds. You may have guessed that I am not a believer in that goal. Here are my goals for a new shooter's first first few visits to the range.

  • They should know how to unload a gun and make it safe.
  • While unloading, keep the muzzle in a safe direction and keep their finger off the trigger.
  • They should get familiar with firing a gun.
  • They should have a good time.
  • I hope they also learn to hit a target, but that's gravy.

These goals tie directly to my earlier point about starting with only one round per magazine. Beginners should get comfortable with loading and unloading procedures. By starting with just one round in the magazine, they will get a lot of practice handling the firearm and changing magazines. After they are comfortable with one round, have them load two or three. By the time they have shot 30 rounds, they will have switched magazines more than ten times and they will start to know how the gun works.

Often, new shooters only have good focus for 30 or 40 rounds. I have seen people start a new shooter by loading a full magazine into the gun for them. These new shooters may shoot 40 rounds on their first day without ever loading the gun themselves. I don't think that makes their day easier; really it kind of cheats them. At the end of the day, that person has shot a gun, but they still can't use one.

2 Equipment for training beginners

To create a positive experience for new shooters, you need the right equipment. For both rifle and pistol, people should start with a .22 if possible. The low noise and minimal recoil of a .22 allows beginners to stay focused on fundamentals. If you don't have a .22, you should think about getting one. You'll enjoy shooting it too.

Semi-autos are not ideal for beginners, but they are fine if you handle them properly. As mentioned above, load only one round at a time until you know the person can maintain control of the firearm. Loading one round is easiest if you have several magazines and can load one round in each one. If you don't have many magazines, this may be the excuse to buy more.

You need dummy rounds or snap caps for training. People should learn basic firearm handling in a safe quiet area. The basic handling drills should include load, unload, make safe, and dry fire. I'll discuss this more below, but dummy rounds are a requirement.

Think carefully about what guns beginners will use when they are ready to move up from a .22. I am going to specifically discuss handguns here because I see the most issues with them. Several factors make guns harder to shoot. These factors include: firing a more powerful round, having a smaller grip size, lighter overall weight, heavier trigger pull, and shorter sight radius. In short, many popular handguns for carry and concealment are very difficult to shoot. These guns are not suitable for introducing beginners to centerfire. Many beginners will be ready to shoot these guns fairly soon, but often not on the first day.

Full sized pistols service pistols in .38 special and 9mm are the best choice for when people are ready to move up from a .22 to a centerfire. I personally love snub-nosed double-action-only revolvers, but they are hard to shoot, and people need to work up to them.

If you do not have a .22, it may be OK to start some beginners with a full sized pistol in .38 special or 9mm. This is a judgment call based on the confidence and competence of the individual. A full size pistol is really preferable here, and using a smaller or more powerful handgun will make training much more difficult.

3 Some general notes on teaching

When you bring new people to the range, you are actually coaching an athletic activity. You need to guide people through basic skills before moving to more complex skills which rely on those basics. This is not always exciting, but it is how people learn every physical skill.

Stay within peoples capabilities. If people have never shot before, their first shots should be with a .22 from a benchrest position. This position lets them really focus on sight picture and trigger pull. Some people will need a bit of practice before they can visualize the sights correctly. Other people may be ready to shoot centerfires from standing position within a few minutes. Watch each person and see that they are comfortable and have good control before moving to a harder skill. I see a lot of issues caused by people doing things they are not ready for just because other people are doing them.

If you are working with children, or with students who are nervous about firearms, it is important to start with a .22 rifle. Rimfire rifles are the easiest and quietest firearms to shoot, and it is important to make a positive first impression for young or nervous shooters.

Set realistic goals for the first few lessons. Good goals might be: learn safe gun handling, get comfortable loading and clearing the firearm, put many shots into a great big target, have a good time. Many times someone coaching a new shooter has told me that the person needs to fire a very powerful gun on the first day for some "important" reason. The reason might be "that's our house gun" or "everyone should experience big magnums". All people really learn from moving ahead too quickly is how to flinch. Flinching is a natural instinct, so it is easy to teach. Let's teach control instead.

You should be careful not to teach too much at once. People need an introduction to firearms safety, operation of firearms, and fundamentals of shooting before they can safely take their first shots. Do not include things at the beginning which could safely wait until later. For someone who is new to firearms, even the basics can be an overwhelming amount of information.

I also want to mention trying to be quick with firearms. Being quick is a very advanced skill and people should not do anything quickly until their basics are solid.

Now that I have discussed not pushing people ahead too quickly, I want to talk about one exception. Sometimes people are convinced that they can't do something which they really can. Part of being a good coach is helping people move through these barriers successfully, so in some cases you may need to push people a little.

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