Learning to Shoot: Information for New Shooters

by Braxton Taylor

If you would have told me we would see millions of new gun owners over the last few years, I probably would have rolled my eyes at you. Yet, here we are, welcoming so many new friends and family members to the world of shooting. The sport of shooting has been around for a long time, and there are many different paths within the shooting world; self-defense is only one of them. It just so happens to be the fastest growing in popularity, according to recent interactions with many of these new gun owners. Most are content with the mere ownership of a firearm, which is great if safety and responsibility are understood. However, there is a growing number of new gun owners who want to do more and learn more to be better prepared. This entails learning to truly shoot well.

Learning to shoot can be intimidating for some, but I would encourage all to enjoy the process. Learning a new skill—any new skill—can be tough on the ego at first. Just remember at some point we were all new to something. Here are three strategies to help ease the pains of learning to shoot.

In our morning brief on the first day of training, I ask our students to think of the next couple of days from this perspective: Have an open mind. Even if you know the answers, listen and ask questions. I know, it seems silly how easy these strategies are, but they work, so it is hard to argue with their success.

Another challenge many new firearm owners face is sourcing quality information. There is so much of information available at your fingertips, it can be overwhelming.

If you have an open mind, you are more inclined to find that hidden nugget of knowledge. With so much information, how do you know if it is quality? The honest answer is you don’t. If you are new to the shooting world, you can’t be expected to know everything—that’s part of learning. Keeping an open mind means you can take on a lot of information and compartmentalize it for later retrieval. Of course, there needs to be some common sense applied as well. If it seems dangerous or risky, then go with your gut and ask questions.

The instructor must not only be knowledgeable on the subject, he/she must also be able to relate that knowledge to students despite the likelihood of different learning styles as well as different capabilities.

No matter the skill, there are basics. What I have learned over time is those who teach well, teach the basics at a whole new level. While you might be entertained by flashy and fancy techniques, don’t mistake them for education—the hardest part in today’s world is knowing the difference. There are some great instructors who balance education with a little bit of entertainment, but if all you have is an entertainer when you need an educator, you may not move the needle much. Being open to different perspectives and ideas will help build your experience bank that will eventually be your guide. I bring this up because sometimes as a new shooter learning the ropes, we can be put off by the basics. Don’t make that mistake. 

One of the greatest challenges I face as an instructor is knowing if my message was received and understood by the student, or if it went in one ear and out the other. Actively listening is a skill that must be developed no matter the subject. If you only listen to the first half of the message, you might miss out on the most important part toward the end. I find teaching in smaller chunks (what I call “chunking”) works great: Instead of doing a major data dump on the entire history of the subject, we break it down into bite-size pieces that are easier for the student to digest. The instructor has to realize that once the students stop listening, learning has pretty much stopped as well.

It is easy to turn off your listening skills, and this tends to happen more and more when we lack the open mind referenced earlier. Take a moment to think about any subject where you thought you knew better, didn’t bother to listen to the rest of the message and discovered you missed a critical component. It was that critical component you missed that creates the mistakes in your technique that keep you from truly learning. Learning is nothing more than behavioral change, so if you have a hard time listening, you will probably have a hard time changing your behavior. Even if you think you know the answer, avoid the temptation to shut off your listening skills. If that doesn’t work, think of it this way: Those who actively listen, learn faster. So, if you want to be at the top of your class, listen better.

It has been said that marksmanship reigns supreme on the battlefield, a statement with which I heartily agree. In a self-defense scenario, your ability to hit the target under stress is of paramount importance. Spend your practice honing your marksmanship skills. It starts by understanding marksmanship theory.

What does it take to hit the target? While there are several different ways to convey this message, it generally begins with a familiarity of your sight system and how to use them. When this relationship is understood and applied, it provides you the best chance to hit the target. But, what if this concept is fuzzy? What if you really don’t know how to use your sights correctly, but you only think you do? The simple answer is to ask questions.

Your job as a student is to learn. My job as an instructor is to teach. I will test for comprehension in several different ways. One way is through the questions the student asks—or doesn’t ask. I expect there to be a lot of questions for the simple fact there are a lot of different types of learners. I’m explaining a subject in a manner that reaches 70 percent of the class. The rest of the class may not hear my message because it doesn’t connect with their learning style. No problem.

A student who asks a thought-provoking question is always a good thing, but even if the question is not thought-provoking, it can tell me a lot. If the student didn’t understand a portion of the instructions, I might need to rethink how I word that part. Or, if many didn’t understand, I may need to rethink the whole message.

holding a pistol

(l.) Consistently achieving rapid, accurate hits with a carry gun takes much study and practice. Maximized, though perhaps not perfect, results will follow. (ctr.) While it may seem “basic,” trigger control is critical to accuracy and something you’ll eternally have to practice with your particular pistol. (r.) A solid, two-hand “crush” grip is crucial to controlling a handgun during a rapid string of fire, and establishing such must become second nature.

As a new marksman, you want to develop the requisite skills to precisely deliver a shot on target. When I diagnose shooter errors, I try to eliminate the easy ones. From there, I start to dissect the technique, and part of this dissection is asking questions, which is a two-way street. How questions are answered is quite telling—I’m not looking for a “gotcha” moment, rather, I’m looking to see what was retained, then I work from there at filling in the gaps.

I ask questions of students all the time, and one of my favorite questions to ask is “why?” “Why did the shot go there?” is a very common question I will ask. I’m interested to hear what the student genuinely thinks was the reason for the shot’s impact location. It is not always centered around a missed shot; I ask the same question for shots that hit the target. I’m gauging their level of understanding to see if it was skill or luck. 

Every firearm owner has at least a moral obligation to have a minimum level of marksmanship skill. I cannot define what that is exactly for you, but what I can do is help you along the way by encouraging you to have an open mind. If you are learning, it is assumed your level of knowledge is low. Don’t shut out information; be a sponge. Time and experience will tell you what is most valuable.

Listening is an art as well as a skill—if you are only getting part of the message, then ask yourself why. If you recognize you are already tuning out for whatever reason, rein yourself back in and listen. At times I will ask tough questions of the student body because I’m expecting them to listen, but I also need to make sure my message is properly tuned for the various learning styles.

Is there a stupid question? Probably, but I don’t think I’ve really heard one in our classes. If I get a question, I give the student the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t understand my message as opposed to not listening to my message. It allows me to fine tune the message to a broader audience. On the flip side, if you are constantly asking questions, then ask yourself a hard question: Am I really listening? These are but a few strategies to help new shooters learn the science and art of shooting, but in truth they transcend any skill.

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