This is the third in a series of four articles about the civilian training market. In the first article, we discussed the systemic motivations of the students. Specifically, they are regulation, experience, entertainment and education—in order. Then, in the second article, we discussed some of the financial and business considerations that affect civilian training, such as recurring revenue, overhead, and scalability—and how these factors interact with student motivations. In this third article, we are going to look at a variety of different training structures that can be applied to the civilian market.
We’re going to examine these various structures from the perspective of not only business viability within the market, but also, based around the concept of what we will refer to as learning value.
Our usage of the term (learning value) is similar to the generally accepted intent of a commonly used industry term— that is training value.
Do you hate it when so-called “instructors” or “consultants” come in, redefine some words, do little else, and then walk away claiming that they have saved the day? If so, you’re not alone. We do too, so please allow us to assure you that this is not our intent here.
It’s not the terminology that’s important. What’s important is the concept. The one that we are trying to emphasize here is that providing training information and skills that are of value to students is NOT the same thing as the students learning.
Let’s put that another way.
As an instructor, you can put out amazing information in your training program, thereby providing excellent training. Yet, at the same time, you can fail to provide a system or environment where the students actually learn the information you’re presenting.
In other words, it is perfectly possible to train students (with what the industry would currently consider superb training) without them actually learning—and it happens all the time.
Unfortunately, as trainers of arms, if our students don’t learn effectively, it could actually, literally, result in their death. As professional instructors in life-and-death subject matter, this isn’t acceptable, and we all know it. For most of us, that’s why we’re in the profession to begin with—because we actually, genuinely care. We should strive to do better—much better. Most of us, again, want to. Fortunately, if we become more educated about how people learn and about how our teaching methods and delivery structures affect this learning, we can do better.
As we discuss a variety of training structures throughout the remainder of this article, keep this concept—that you can train students without them learning—in mind. When you design and deliver a program of instruction, it’s not just what you teach that’s important. Often how you teach, or, maybe even more importantly, how you structure the teaching, can be the factors that really make a difference.
One Day Classes
In the civilian world, one-day classes are the basis of the existing training infrastructure for localized training. Many of these are the mandated “permit” courses. Certainly that’s the primary model these courses are based on—at least in today’s market. However, this type of program’s acceptance as an appropriate training structure has produced a variety of spin-offs. Many instructors offer one-day courses in a variety of different skills and disciplines to their local marketplace—with significant success.
Why are these successful, on the business side?
First and foremost, these courses are what people expect to see. This makes it easier to fill these types of classes. The structure is accepted. People know what it is, and they are comfortable with it. In many cases, the structure is even mandatory—when the course is conforming to a regulatory government requirement.
These programs are also a limited, finite, investment on the part of the student. This is true financially, but perhaps even more importantly it’s true with respect to their time commitment. Put another way, one day classes limit the students’ risk.
People who can afford to pay for training are often more respectful of their time than they are their money, especially money in the realm of a one-day class fee. Relatively speaking, it’s easy to schedule a day.
If you need to spend a few hours in the car to make it to and from the range (often true) it’s certainly easier to only do that pain once. You can use a vacation day, you can get a friend, neighbor, relative to watch the kids etc. Single day (8-10 hr.) absences are fairly common in our social structure. The bottom line is that it’s pretty easy to make it happen and, it’s just a single day. There’s no long-term commitment involved.
This relative ease of putting bodies into the class provides potential benefits to instructors—in terms of overhead, scalability, and recurring revenue. Since finding people willing to come to the range for a day is easier than for longer time periods—class sizes are likely to be larger. For example, you may be able to get 10 students into a one-day class, where you could maybe only get 4-5 students into a two-day class, simply based on scheduling conflicts.
Assuming that you’re charging the same daily rate for these two programs, you’d make the same amount of money in 8 hours of effort on the one-day course that you would otherwise make in 16 hours of effort during a two-day program. If you need to pay for facilities—you’d also be cutting your overhead in half with the one-day class. Understanding that this is just an example pulled from thin air—and market experience—you could essentially double your money while cutting both your overhead and your effort in half at the same time—simply by doing a one-day class instead of a two-day class.
If you can do two, one-day classes back-to-back, (instead of teaching a single class over those two days) you could bring in up to potentially 20 students over those two days—quadrupling your expected revenue potential for the same overhead and the same effort expended as running a single two-day class.
Looking at these structures from the aspect of training (not learning), there are some benefits as well. We’ve spent some time talking about student scheduling. We instructors have the same issues. I’m assuming that the reader is an instructor so you know—an 8-hour training day for the student is not an 8-hour day for you. It’s more like 12—and that’s not counting the half-day you put in (after work if you do it part-time) the day before making sure everything was set up, in stock, and functional.
Most instructors teach because they love doing it—and they really care about the subject matter and its broader impact on society. Still—time commitments required to teach good programs are not minimal. Options to reduce them are usually something an instructor is going to look at pretty seriously.
One-day classes also work pretty well from the perspective of just putting out information. It’s not too short—where by the time you learn everybody’s names they are out the door. You have enough time to get a good sense for where the students are at (especially important in open classes) and tailor the information and skills to match their needs. You’ve got time, so you can take your time explaining things, and pick up the stuff you miss when you’re teaching (usually you’ll remember it when you watch a student screw up the thing you forgot to mention). You’re also probably not going to get bumped off the facility you rented—because you’ve got it for the day.
Starting to make some sense? For locally sourced training—there’s a lot going for the one-day programs.
Unfortunately, looking at it purely from a learning perspective, one day programs are, scientifically speaking, miserable.
Note: This is especially true for entry-level shooters. Students who already possess the full battery of skills covered in the day-long training may receive more tangible benefits because they are no-longer working exclusively in the limited-size, short-term memory system.
We spend a significant amount of time in our book Building Shooters defining and analyzing the standard training paradigm. In the book we demonstrate why the standard approach to training doesn’t work very well with respect to how the students’ brains learn. You can also read our articles about progressive interference and about a common myth regarding training time to learn more about why this is. In the interests of time, we won’t repeat that information here.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll just say that one day programs are not an effective method of producing positive long-term results in students, especially beginners. Over the course of a full day, far more information than can actually fit in the students’ brains is presented. Information and skill tend to become corrupted—with poor technique and low retention being common byproducts of the structural deficiencies.
In summary, this structure can—and does—work effectively on the business side. It also has merits from a training (instructor side) perspective. Unfortunately, it would be difficult to design a worse way to actually learn, especially when applied to teaching new skills to beginners.
Half-day classes are something that have started becoming more and more common in the industry over the past ten years. In some places, carry permit classes are even starting to be offered in multiple sessions over two days rather than in a full training-day.
For whatever the actual reason that this has happened in each individual case, there are a number of distinct advantages to the half-day class.
Looking on the business side, half-day classes can theoretically increase both scalability and revenue while at the same time limiting overhead—although this is more applicable to businesses that are full-service range facilities than it is to the actual instructors themselves. In fact, this principal may work in reverse for a part-time instructor who rents facility space.
For instructors, half-day classes are certainly easier to teach than full-day. If you’ve never taught a group of students for eight hours or more straight…it’s exhausting—especially when you’re doing a live-fire open course. On the other hand, the set-up and logistics of a half-day program are no less stringent than for a full-day program. Depending on the effort and logistics required, half-day classes may be cost and level-of-effort prohibitive, especially for individual instructors.
With respect to meeting student expectations of quality, half-day courses offer similar advantages to the one-day class (they meet with expectations, are a limited time commitment, and are relatively easy to clear one’s schedule for).
With respect to training value (putting out information), half-day classes can be more difficult than full-day programs. Basically, by the time you get to know the students and where they are at—the course is ending. In a longer-term system or in a series with consistent students this may not be a problem. However, with open courses, this can really limit the instructor’s ability to direct focused instruction for the needs of each individual—or even fully cover the planned material.
However, on the learning side, half-day programs are better (or more accurately can be better) than one-day programs. The primary reason for this is that a half-day program provides less time for the instructor to teach, therefore they may teach less over the course of the day than in a full-day program. Therefore, the student receives less of an information overload when compared to a full-day course.
Note: See above paragraphs—then consider at least the possibility that a reduction in your perceived training value as an instructor may actually improve the learning value of the program for the student.
When multiple, half-day sessions are used to deliver training (such as in a split-class, or in a series), this increase in learning potential for half-day programs really applies. This format takes advantage of the capabilities of priming, (teaching information without expectation of retention) and facilitates the potential for the consolidation to long-term memory for at least some of the skills and information taught.
Note: On the flip side, a half-day class can also be more detrimental to learning than a full-day class when the full scope of training is simply compressed into a shorter time-frame. Additionally, a single, half-day class provides no additional benefits with respect to priming or development of long-term retention.
In summary, half-day (or sometimes evening) programs are a structure that is becoming more popular in recent years across the local training industry. This is especially true at local indoor facilities that are located close to (or within) suburban residential areas. There are numerous advantages and disadvantages to these types of programs; however, if designed with care they do have the potential to improve the student learning experience in locally offered training programs as compared to the one-day class model.
Multi-day classes (2 – 5 days normally) are some of the most common “advanced” programs in the firearms industry. How exactly this started was long before my time, but probably resulted from some combination of replicating the traditional military and law enforcement entry-level “range week” structure along with the business need to deliver training in this manner for dedicated shooting schools such as Jeff Cooper’s Gunsite.
When students are traveling to a location – the experience needs to be worth the time and expense. (They, like instructors, work based on the general concept of return on investment.)
In terms of the market, multi-day classes are the ones that really tend to cater to the systemic motivations of those students who look beyond the regulatory requirement. Recall, the first of these motivations is “experience.” A multi-day shooting or tactics class is an experience. Maybe it’s taught by a “celebrity” instructor (not used as an insult, just a statement), or maybe it’s got a cool name. Either way, the systemic motivation of the student is often focused more around garnering the experience and having fun while doing it than it is on actually improving the skillset.
This motivation factor also impacts the expectations and judgments of the student with respect to what “quality” actually means. For example, many students will complain if they aren’t firing at least the advertised round count in a course. It doesn’t matter what they are learning—or if firing less rounds will produce a better impact on their personal skill level. They are on the range to have fun and it’s time to shoot!
Again, there’s no judgment here that this is “wrong.” It’s just a different measure of quality than we personally (and likely you as well) use to judge the quality and value of a training program.
Looking at it from the business angle, when an instructor is traveling to a non-local training venue, the return on the investment must be there. Shelling out the overhead of travel expenses, lodging, food, effort, and opportunity-cost to travel to a destination for a single day (or half-day) of training is unlikely to produce enough revenue to make it worth an instructor’s time financially. When more than one instructor is required to deliver training, these overhead costs increase quickly.
These “traveling road show” training programs are usually scheduled and advertised relatively far in advance—and bring in as many (if not more) traveling students than local students. These courses are not typically specifically aimed at the local market of the venue where they are held; they are often more of a regional offering in practice. Therefore, the local business benefits of the single-day structure are less likely to apply—and usually don’t. People won’t fly or drive more than a few hours for a single day of training (or at least are less likely to). The revenue issue is especially important with the price-point of most daily training being in the $200 or less range per student. Usually less.
There are a lot of instructors out there. Quality varies greatly but there is no shortage of volume—many with impressive resumes and accomplishments (both competitive and operational—or both). Of course, this isn’t that surprising after almost 15 years of multi-theatre warfare and with virtually every police force now having its own SWAT team. (A point of clarity – we don’t believe that SWAT experience is “better” than other law enforcement operational experience – for instructors or any other purpose, though, it does seem to improve the marketing value.)
Unfortunately (or fortunately—depending on your viewpoint), this market competition keeps the training prices down. When well-known, national-level instructors with “walk-on-water” operational resumes and/or skillsets like Larry Vickers, Paul Howe, Mike Seeklander etc. are only charging about $200 per day for most of their civilian courses, you’ll certainly be hard-pressed to justify charging more, no matter who you are or what you’re teaching. Therefore, if you’re not doing multi-day classes when you’re on the road and incurring travel expenses, lodging expenses etc., you’re probably just barely breaking even, if even that.
From a training perspective, multi-day programs are great. You have time to get to know the students. They get to know you. There’s ample opportunity to put out a great volume of knowledge and information. You can usually even tailor specific information to individual students. Great training value comes from those programs.
In terms of learning however, multi-day programs are really tough environments in which to produce long-term results, especially for beginning students. They are better than one day programs. The overnight period between training days provides the brain an opportunity to consolidate some of the information presented. And, for experienced students with a pre-existing skillset, they can be excellent enhancement tools. However, for beginners, they still historically fail to produce viable long-term results.
The reasons that these programs aren’t that effective on beginners, especially for the long-term, is because they don’t give information to the brain in the same way that the brain learns. There’s no structured consolidation time built in—because there’s no time for it. The effects of the opportunity for consolidation at night is difficult to model or predict—because the effects are likely to be very different from student to student. Most of the work ends up being done in the short-term memory system and significant effects of progressive interference are often blatantly present as the training progresses.
Well-run programs usually rely on a series of standards to demonstrate and evaluate the learning effectiveness. Unfortunately, standards aren’t necessarily always helpful and the “skillset” developed during these programs will drop off very quickly once the program is completed. Bad habits, ones that are very difficult to unlearn, can also be learned easily in these types of environments, especially when stress is induced before the students are ready for it.
Furthermore, as explained in Joan Vickers’ superb book The Quiet Eye in Action, end-of-training-period performance standards are not necessarily predictive of operational performance. In fact, quite often higher performers on these types of standard tests will actually exhibit lesser performance once that student is out in the field.
This isn’t because performance standards are themselves bad—something that a number of people in the industry appear to misunderstand at the moment. Rather it’s because of the training method used to produce performance of the standard within the blocked training structure. If you want to learn more about this and see some of the science, we recommend Vickers’ book, Chapter 9 (link above). And, of course, we also recommend our own book, Building Shooters. (Shameless book plugs in this article now complete—we promise.)
Martial Arts Model
If you stop and think about it, treating firearms training like a martial art makes a lot of sense. In fact, it’s been said that gunfighting, especially with handguns, is the true American martial art. Personally, we find that sentiment hard to argue with.
Either way, whether it is or isn’t an actual martial art, using a martial arts model for firearms training makes a lot of sense – from a learning perspective.
If you want to teach students effectively, you need to give them information in the same way that their brain learns. One of the things this means is that you can’t give them more information than fits into their short-term memory system within a 24-hour period. Since it’s easy to overload this memory system inside of an hour for a new student, longer training periods are, at best inefficient. At worst, they can even harm the student’s long-term potential.
Using a martial arts model fixes this. Classes can be short (an hour or so). The information can be tiered to exactly fit the student’s level of skill and knowledge. And, students only progress to the next level of training once they have actually learned the material from their current level. This is how the brain learns; therefore, a training system delivered this way works. Martial artists effectively learn everything from flowery, artistic forms to knife-fighting this way. Why not the martial art of the gun?
The business model works too—at least in theory.
Look around at the myriad of successful martial arts studios across the country. All the factors are there for success: established business structure with recurring revenue, highly effective training, ability to match student expectations for entertainment without sacrificing training quality or “injuring” students’ long-term potential.
If we were to work full-time in the civilian market place again, this is how we would do it. In fact, this was the way that Larry Yatch and I decided to take Sealed Mindset when our initial attempt at offering private and “PADI model” (see below) programs failed to generate a sustainable level of revenue.
However, this “martial arts” training structure is not without its challenges. There are valid reasons why it has not “caught on”—even aside from the government set expectations of a one day class, student acceptance of one-day courses, and competing market forces for entry level programs.
One of the biggest functional challenges to a martial arts model for firearms training is logistics and overhead. A traditional martial arts instructor really doesn’t need anything other than students to teach effectively, especially at the entry level. As far as facilities, you basically don’t need much more than a big room. In fact, you could literally do it outside in a park. An instructor without their own facility can “borrow” or rent somebody else’s – and it doesn’t need to be purpose built.
When you add firearms into the mix, the entire equation changes, significantly. You cannot very well fire live rounds in the park or parking lot, nor can you do so in the local gymnastics studio. In fact, the stigma of firearms, combined with a legitimate concern about negligent discharges, will probably prevent you from conducting even dry-fire training anywhere within public view, and even within many privately-owned facilities.
Even if these logistical challenges are worked out, it is more difficult to scale training like a traditional martial arts instructor when you consider the space requirements necessary for effective muzzle awareness in a dry environment, and the range space required for a live-fire training session.
Too, a single instructor can only teach so many students, especially in a live-fire environment. Specifics about range management are outside the scope of this article, but if you’re running a live-fire class for more people than you can step back and watch all at once—with the capability to rapidly intervene if necessary—it’s unlikely you’re doing it safely unless you have other instructors with you.
Due to logistics constraints, in most cases this type of training program will require a preponderance of dry-fire training methods. In our opinion, this is a positive, not a negative. However, teaching in a predominantly dry-fire environment is, in some respects, more difficult than teaching on a range. The primary reason for this is that the instructor is the feedback mechanism during dry-fire training.
On the range the results are there for all to see. You hit or you miss. Dry, the instructor must provide the feedback necessary to assure the student performs technique properly (to include sight alignment and sight picture) without having this advantage. Instructor requirements include recognizing issues, diagnosing them, and troubleshooting student performance.
Plus, on a range, many students are having fun just launching rounds. It’s why they are there. In a dry environment—the instructor must also be able to compensate for the “experience” and “enjoyment” deficits in addition to compensating for the lack of target-based feedback.
In summary, the martial arts model is a great option. Again, if we were to go back into the civilian training side of the industry, it is what we would do. In terms of learning value, it has no equal aside from perhaps private instruction (though this is arguable). However, it is not without its challenges in delivery and it currently does not meet the market’s expectations for firearms training structure.
Personal Trainer and PADI Models
This article is already excessively long, so we won’t do full a full analysis of these structures. However, we do want to talk about them as they are both possibilities and good options in terms of learning value.
The concept of personal training needs no real explanation. It’s a common structure for plenty of other industries, especially related to exercise and fitness. In reality, this type of structure should be what serious students are looking for. Training for a fight (including a gunfight) isn’t exactly something you want to do for one to five days straight, then call it all good. Even once the skills have been learned at a high level—continuous practice, tactical application, etc. are necessary if you want to optimize the chances of success.
Unfortunately, it’s currently a really difficult way to make a living. Logistics are an issue; however, delivering the training and producing great results isn’t the problem. It’s making enough revenue to do it full-time that’s the real challenge. The market just isn’t currently accepting of the concept of training 2-3x per week. It is entirely centered on blocked training structures.
The other problem here—from the market perspective—is that the huge volume of instructors in the market with no real industry certification of value makes it difficult for prospective students to sort out instructors with the capability to delivery this type of training program. We aren’t knocking the NRA or other similar instructor programs, but they are focused on teaching specific, blocked, training curriculum in the one to two day formats. There isn’t anything comparable to a personal trainer certification for firearms instructors – and the sheer breadth of knowledge (and liability) necessary to actually fill that role for something like deadly force application present a host of challenges for creating such a thing.
Finally, we’ll talk quickly about the PADI Model. PADI, as readers probably know already, is the professional association of dive instructors—SCUBA diving. Other types of programs (like EMT training) use this structure, but PADI is the most comparable to firearms in terms of the market. There are a number of different PADI course formats, but one of them is a series of evening or weekend classes that extends over a period of weeks to comprise a complete course. For example, a course could consist of classes two nights per week for six weeks.
This is a good way to learn if the course is designed with brain function in mind. In fact, this models closely how we structure developmental training programs on the professional side. We’ve delivered training this way for a long time, and it’s quite effective. Theoretically, the business model should work as well. After all, it works for diving—and it works quite well. It’s time-effective for the instructor, profitable, and relatively cost-effective for the students. However, there is one fundamental difference.
PADI controls—with (more or less) a monopoly—the students’ ability to scuba dive. It’s the commercial equivalent of a carry permit. Because of this, PADI is able to create their own structures. If people want to dive, they need to make the time to attend the training. There isn’t an option. The firearms market does not have this advantage—except for the one-day permit class which, unfortunately, isn’t very good at producing learning.
In summary, the PADI model is an excellent way to train and it’s a great way for students to learn. As an instructor, you may find it useful to accomplish a specific training task for a motivated group with an objective. For example, this could be a great way to train members of a church congregation in firearms and security skills. Unfortunately, barring the addition of a regulatory requirement or a major change in the market structure, it’s unlikely that this structure will become commonplace in the firearms industry.
This is already too long, so we’ll make this short. The bottom line is that there are a lot of different ways to deliver training. In context of the article, we’re obviously not talking about teaching techniques. We’re talking about fundamental structure. Technique and skills performance are important. Tactics are important. Individual teaching skills (communications skills) are important. But these aren’t the only things that matter and, in some ways, they may even be less important than the structure that houses them.
A great instructor with great content who delivers training through a structure that cannot, fundamentally, produce effective learning severely hampers their own impact on their students. Perhaps, in the future, a better-educated or differently regulated market will demand different training products. In the free-market of firearms training that exists today though, this cannot always be helped. However, the learning impacts of the different types of structures are something that instructors should be aware of—and seek to mitigate as they design and deliver their own training programs.