Our primary focus with Building Shooters is on professional training for organizational trainers. There are a couple of reasons for this. The primary is that we’ve been organizational trainers—where we had “impossible” jobs to do with little to no resources…and it sucks. 

Frankly, nobody should have to face those challenges professionally, yet almost all trainers outside of a few specialized units do. We want to help restructure that part of the industry to help the majority of trainers who face that same scenario on a daily basis deliver effective training programs and put high level performers on the street/in the field.

That said, there’s a huge civilian training component to the firearms market as well. We have been getting a number of questions (both public and private) about applying the learning science and training methodology that we outline in Building Shooters  to the world of civilian training. In response, we’re going to do a series of articles about the market space, at least from our perspective, and some ways to apply brain-based learning science to improve training results for the civilian market.

In this first article, we’re going to look at the motivators behind the civilian training market because understanding why your students are there is the first step to delivering training that meets not only their wants – but also their needs.

If you haven’t read Building Shooters, it goes through a lot of brain science about how people learn and then access information related to performing tactical skills in operational environments. It then applies this research to propose a new method of designing training and to discuss a series of principles behind efficiently and effectively delivering training – focused on producing operational results.

We, of course, would love it if you read the book. However, a Twitter summary of the learning concept is that when you learn new material, it all has to go through your short-term memory system. Once you get it into short-term memory, it needs to sit there for at least a day undisturbed before there’s a good chance that it will be transferred into long-term memory – or learned.

Applied to professional environments (such as military, law enforcement, and private security), this knowledge can be leveraged to take advantage of a capability unique to organizations.  

Specifically, trainers (with the proper administrative support) can exploit the fact that the people who need to be trained already have their daily schedule at least partially dictated by the organization itself. In other words, the organization already tells them when and where to be, as well as what to do when they get there, every day.  

People who need to be trained already show up for work and this fact can be used to effectively deliver small bits of information (conforming to the limitations of short-term memory). These can be structured into in short training sessions that are spread over relatively long periods of time. (20 minutes per day, for example).

Delivering training in the civilian market is different. Civilians may be (and usually are) more motivated and interested in actually attending the training than professionals are. (After all, nothing mandatory truly stays “fun” for very long.) However, civilians (systemically) are also a fickle market with very different motivators than professionals. And – while they may be there voluntarily – they can also leave at will and never come back.

If we focus on the self-defense market (the majority of gun owners list this as a primary reason for ownership), the accepted “standard” of training is the handgun safety or permit to carry class. As most readers of this article know, this is usually a State Government defined program that is required by law before getting a permit to carry a concealed weapon.  

Largely because of this government mandated requirement for a license to carry a weapon, there is a common assumption among the uneducated that completion of these programs adequately prepares students to actually do so. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.  

Permit to carry (or equivalent) classes, although mandatory by regulation, are largely without any practical value whatsoever related to developing functional self-defense or shooting skills.

Everybody in the industry knows this. Yet, these are still considered the “standard” of training in the civilian side of our industry – at least for self-defense type applications. (See the aforementioned “government mandated.”)  

Outside this mostly worthless, typically one day class – the sky’s the limit and a sea of instructors ply their trade and attempt to bring in enough students to make it worth their time or even make a living at it. Providing excellent training is great – but also irrelevant without students who take the courses and at least pay enough to cover the expense of it all. For full-time instructors, they have to pay a lot more than that.

Unlike the professional market, where the students don’t have much of a choice in attendance, in the civilian market, you must compete with other providers. This means that you are kind of limited to giving the students what they want (or think they want). If you don’t, you simply won’t have students and the whole discussion becomes purely philosophical. They will just go find somebody who does offer what they are looking for.

This presents a challenge at times. Especially for entry-level training programs (but also quite often beyond), students are attending civilian training because they really don’t know anything. They are a veritable blank slate. Therefore, an instructor can tell them virtually anything and they are likely to believe it. This is especially true when what is said coincides with them having fun (or feeling cool), with something they want to hear, or aligns with their preconceived (even if factually baseless) expectations.

Some years ago I had a discussion with a colleague in the security industry about the civilian training market. He also had significant experience as a trainer (both military and as a civilian), with a specialization in sniper instruction and long-range shooting. His analysis matched my experiences directly, so I borrowed it. I would love to claim the ideas, but must give credit where credit is due – thanks Dan H.

His spot-on description of the civilian market (viewed systemically—not necessarily always at the level of individual students) is that it primarily values three things. They are (in order) experience, entertainment, and education.

The first and foremost item is “experience.” We aren’t talking about practical experience here; we’re talking about the actual act of experiencing something unique, the “bucket list” phenomenon. Whatever a specific individual’s motivations may be, this is the single most important factor in the systemic civilian market. In a world overrun (and sometimes overcome) by an unhealthy fascination with celebrity, this shouldn’t be surprising.  

If you’re not familiar with Maslow’s theory of human motivations, often called the Hierarchy of Needs, it’s basically a pyramid sliced into layers. The base layers are for the basic components of life. The top layers are more esoteric, philosophical “meaning of life” stuff.  

The reality is that most first world people –certainly the vast majority of those who can afford to pay you for training—don’t usually have to worry too much about any of the base layers of the pyramid. They all get “three hots and a cot” and live in relatively secure environments, because they can afford to.  

Somewhere farther up the layers is a need to be recognized – termed “esteem” in Maslow’s model. What better way to accomplish this than through spending a few days with the latest celebrity trainer or Tier 1 Ninja, and getting on a first name basis for a couple of days? (Recognition – this famous and/or bad-ass guy knows who I am!) Or perhaps doing a training program that sounds really cool such as “Advanced Close Quarters Gunfighting” or similar.

This experience then extends out of the training environment – and to the “water cooler” or “locker room” of the individual’s social circle. A unique experience (shooting all weekend “with the Navy SEALs,” for example) has the ability to make somebody an immediate standout in their (civilian) peer group, whether it’s comprised of shooters or not.

We could go on with the psychobabble, but you get the point. In terms of real, actual, daily needs, most people don’t actually require the use of a gun or, for that matter, self-defense skills. Those needs are infrequent. (Please don’t interpret this to mean that we don’t think they are important.) 

When talking about the gun itself, maybe the need, from a self-defense perspective, comes once in a lifetime, if that. In reality, for most civilians this need probably shouldn’t happen ever if they have half a wit about them and develop a modicum of situational awareness and avoidance skills. While it is true that “stuff happens,” situational awareness and avoidance are the key to success with personal safety – not winning gun battles in suburbia.

However, what virtually ALL of your students do actually need on a daily basis, according to Maslow’s Theory, is to be recognized and esteemed. For most people (at least in first world countries) this is the primary unrealized need in their daily lives. Therefore, gaining experiences that can contribute to meeting this need often becomes the primary motivator for seeking out firearms training – whether they consciously know it or not.

The second (and second in importance) item is “entertainment.” Again, this should surprise no-one.  

We are an entertainment driven society, always requiring some form of stimulation. We could go on here (as probably could you); however, psychological treatise aside, people generally like to have fun in their free time.  

What sounds like it’s more fun? Learning to load and unload a weapon safely in any environment with dummy rounds, practicing over and over, for several hours—or blasting away several hundred rounds of ammo in the same timeframe at zombie targets? Obviously, at least for most folks, it’s the latter.  

As most of the readers here know already, with the civilian market it’s only partly about what happens during the class. First, you have to get people there. If you’re not offering a “lifetime experience,” loads of fun, or a one-size-fits-all instant solution and your class sounds, well, boring, then why on earth would somebody take it? They can find all of the above in 10 minutes with a search engine – even using dial-up.

This brings us to the (distant) third motivator for civilians, which is education.

Most people will probably state (and may even truly believe) that this is their top priority – even though it’s usually actually not. Sure, there are exceptions where this is legitimately the case such as a person with a real (or perceived) security threat, a recent attack victim, a competitor seeking to improve performance, a future law enforcement or military member looking for a jump on the skillset, working armed professionals seeking to tune up or improve etc., but it’s actually pretty rare—looking across the volume that makes up the civilian market.

And, even where education may be the primary motivator, the construct of the civilian market—especially with the accepted “standard” of the one day class in play—really makes it difficult to get students to commit to an effective learning program of any substance.  

Especially at the entry level, why would somebody who wants to learn rather than gain a cool experience or simply have fun spend four days (or multiple sessions) training when they can get the same course description of skills delivered to them in a far more convenient package of a single day? Sure doesn’t seem efficient…does it? “I’m not one of those wannabe commandos, I just want to learn to protect myself.”

And here’s the rub—once these people figure out that the standard one day program won’t do it for them, it’s often “too late.” This is especially true in one day classes where the instructor “swings for the fence” and tries to teach it all at once (with the best of intentions I might add). When this happens the student often receives significant damage (as in actual neurological damage) to their performance potential during that single day of training. This isn’t because the instructor is necessarily teaching anything bad. It’s because of the training methods used.

For most people, it’s damage they will never recover from. (See our earlier articles about progressive interference and training myths for more details.)

In concealed carry classes, most students will leave the program, recognize that they have no idea what they are doing related to the responsibility of having a loaded weapon in public, and never actually carry their weapon. The ones who do without getting additional training—in all honesty many of them probably shouldn’t, purely because by doing so they are demonstrating a serious lack of both self-awareness and judgment.

This brings us back full circle to ourselves – the instructors. If we accept the general premise laid out in this article, that government regulations have mandated a useless standard – corrupting civilian expectations in the market, and that the civilian market (systemically) conforms to Maslow’s theories of human motivations, what does this all mean to us?

How can we use this information to improve our training programs and avoid damaging the long-term performance potential of our students, even within the confines of the civilian marketplace?

In the next article we’ll begin discussing how to address this question by looking at the market influences that impact training structures.

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"Easily one of the more important books of our time when it comes to preparing police, military and armed civilians for armed lethal combat."
-Kenneth Murray
Author, Training at the Speed of Life
Co-Founder of Simunition