Practical Pistol Coach Course review –my thought, observations, suggestions, and random ideas.

Just recently, I participated in the NRA’s Practical Pistol Coach training course. It was held at the NRA’s national headquarters (NRA HQ) in Fairfax, VA on December 4-6th. I found out about this through colleagues on the NRA Training Counselor Facebook page I co-administer, and on my NRA Instructor’s admin portal. After reading the short description about the course, I was curious and reached out to Dan Subia, who was the instructor. Dan told me that the course was geared toward helping Certified NRA Pistol Instructors become better at working with students in a 1 to 1 setting and also to assist the instructor with better evaluation skills and skill development ideas for their students – in a defensive handgun genre as opposed to sports. Hmm. OK. Now I am a bit more interested.

After talking to Dan, I looked up the current NRA Pistol Coach program and read though it. I imagined taking what was in the current program and I applied the defensive firearms instructor thought process to the material and started to see more about what the possibilities were.

So I registered. I actually think I was one of the first five people to commit to the new program.

Afterwards, I kept my ear to the ground and kept looking for references to the new program to see what, if any chatter, was going on regarding this new idea. I found that only one other workshop had been done back in October of 2015. Only one? Why? Why the 2 year gap? Recognizing that this could be a new advantage for instructors, why was there such a long timeframe between courses? Turn out that the first one was a test run/invitation/shake the bugs out format. It took some time to collect what they learned in the first one, more convincing to the NRA higher ups of the merits, and waiting until they got the go ahead to run another one.

Let me try to work though the story and timeline and have it make sense.

The lead up and prep time:
Prior to the workshop, I found out that the minimum criteria to attend were that I had to have taught 5 successful Basics of Pistol Shooting (BOPS) courses or a total of 25 students. Check that one off. I’m good. Then, as information rolled out, it was apparent that we would have to shoot the NRA Pistol Instructor Qualification –at a minimum – to prove that we had the basic skillset and fundamentals. OK, I can do that too. If you’re wondering what that is, you have to shoot an 8” diameter target on an 8.5×11 piece of paper at 15yds. 16 out of 20 hits must be inside the 8” diameter ring and your group size must not exceed more than 6” total. Essentially, you have to be able to produce a 6” group at 15yds. We were also told that there were going to be two other qualifications that we would have to pass in order to complete the course.

OK, so there was a basic expectation of competency. That made me feel better. There’s nothing like going to a class, expecting to work for results, only to find out that someone got a seat because they were able to string together a few words on an application or find a way to hit the backstop a few times in a row. In general, if I’m going to a class that is advertised as an intermediate or advanced level course, I expect that everyone sitting in the room had to step up and pass a test to get the privilege to be in their chair.

So, off to the range I went. I wanted to be absolutely sure I was dialed in, my equipment was working and I was working as expected. I made my practice a bit harder. Some days, I’d shoot an 8” target at 25yds, some days I would use a 6” plate at 15. A few sessions were just finite trigger control and 3 to 5yd shooting where I would work to achieve a one-hole group. I mixed all of that in with my regular range practice. A good estimate is that I spent anywhere from 4 to 12 hrs a week on the range with a lot of dry work in the office. That included drawing from my new Safariland Level 3 holster (for another project) and my normal IWB carry gear. If you had called me any time leading up to the course, there would have been a good chance of hearing a lot of clicking and clanking in the background!

As the course got closer, we got more information. Our loadout, or required equipment list arrived! We were to bring 250rds of ammo (Yay for shooting!) 3 magazines, our EDC (every day carry) gun and holster, a magazine holder, eye and ear protection, and note taking materials. Of course I brought 500 rounds. Why not? Can’t a guy be excited about shooting? What the list told me was that this was definitely oriented towards defensive skill training and that we would be doing quite a bit of shooting. I was excited! Let’s learn some good stuff AND shoot!!!!

Travel time!
I thought about flying but that was going to be too much of a hassle with the range gear, ammo, and my regular stuff, so I chose to drive. 6 hrs is not a bad drive and it was a straight shot out of NY State, right across Pennsylvania, Maryland (be careful), and then into Virginia. After loading up, I headed out. It was a pretty uneventful drive.

After arriving in Fairfax, I got my room at the Courtyard Fairfax Fair Oaks location. The NRA had arranged a group rate that was better than I could have found, so I went with it. Besides, the hotel was less than a half mile from NRA HQ. At the hotel I met up with a couple of the attendees, Gordon and Dan. We hung out in the lounge for a while and just as we were thinking about grabbing dinner, Grant showed up. We all headed off to a local eatery and had food, traded stories, bragged about feats of strength and courage, and decided what songs needed to be sung by future generations about our glorious endeavors. Actually, we just ate and got to know one another. It just sounded better the other way. Afterwards, I hit my room, got caught up on business while doing more dry fire and draw practice, and relaxed.

NRA HQ!!!!

Day one:
A few of us met in the lobby for a quick breakfast and headed out to NRAHQ to get settled in. Upon arrival to what some people call HQ and others call “The Mothership” we checked in at security and got to the classroom. We were placed in one of the many board/meeting rooms in Tower B. There were a few others there already and we all got to shaking hands with new people, bro-hugging those we knew and have not seen in a while, and just got to chatting. One of my colleagues, Klint Macro was there to assist Dan in the course. No, he did not tell me he was coming, but it was good to see him there. He brought what I think is the largest collection of SIRT (Shot Indicating Resetting Trigger) pistols outside of Next Level training as well. I think I have as many Glock pistols as he has SIRT pistols!

Just before things kicked off, we had a couple visitors pop in: Mark Richardson and Andy Lander. These two guys pretty much keep the wheel churning for the Education and Training end of the NRA, along with John Howard and a few others. Although I have spoken with these guys fairly regularly by email or phone, it was nice to see them in person. The last time I saw them was in my Training Counselor workshop in late 2008.


In attendance were 13 other people. We had a mix of Training Counselors and instructors present. People traveled from California, Connecticut, Georgia, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia. Out of the 14, we had one woman present. She came all the way from California too! One notable attendee was Larry Quandahl. He was responsible for creating and writing the NRA’s Personal Protection Inside the Home and Outside the Home courses. Not a bad feather to have in your cap! Our backgrounds ranged from civilian and military, to law enforcement. We had a lot of experience in the room.

Larry Quandahl and I. Great guy!

First, we started off with the standard NRA icebreaker: Introduce a speaker. We are all assigned someone next to us, and I got Gordon. He and I moderate the NRA TC (Vetted) FB group and have trained together, so this was easy. Once that was out of the way, Dan and Klint got into the course. We started off with discussing the differences between coaching and instructing. One is where you provide information, or knowledge, and the other is where you refine that knowledge for more efficient use.

Then, we took the first of our tests: The NRA Basics of Pistol Shooting exam. My initial thought was: “Why not the PPOTH or PPITH?” but I figured that this was just to start aligning our thoughts with the program so I just went with it and buzzed though it. I actually re-read some of them to make sure that Dan wasn’t tricking up by changing some of the questions. Turns out, we all did fine. Actually, he said that we all SHOULD be able to nail this exam at 100%. I never saw anyone’s results but my own so I have no idea how the others did.

We talked about being a good shooter and having to break down skills to a new shooter and also knowing how to decipher skills at the microscopic level to better refine performance and efficiency. We did a directional exercise that showed just how much detail goes into teaching a skill and how difficult it may be.

Moving into more of the Coach theory, we discussed working in a one to one capacity with someone. Essentially, this focused on the mindset and theory of how to transfer the larger format class or range experience to one solitary individual. Other topics delved into subjects like: The Taxonomy of Firearms Use. Dan came up with this list of 10 different ways firearms are used. I felt that this was a good way to break the ice with a client in order to help them understand their place in the gun culture as they developed. One idea was brought forth that does indeed ring true: You cannot be a defender of the Second Amendment if you only believe in one specific use. It’s all or nothing. Meaning, just because you only use a rifle to shoot at competitions, it does not mean you shouldn’t be supportive of all the other uses in the firearms world as well.

We were given the chance to explore the SIRT pistols and a couple other alternative training tools such as the LASR Software and the Mantis-x. The LASR, or Laser Activated Shot Reporter, is a system that you can set up to use with a SIRT pistol. It’s an easy way to train skills from the fundamental level to the intermediate level without needing a range.

The Mantis-X was interesting. It is, essentially, and inertia sensing device that you attach to your gun. The primary method is the accessory rail under the barrel, but they also have adapters for other locations as well. This device couples with an app that will help you develop very finite trigger control by giving you real time feedback and an image showing how you moved the gun prior to, during, and after the trigger break. I played with it and quickly discovered that not only is it addicting, It makes you highly competitive. The website says that 100% is the top score and only achievable if the gun is hard mounted in a vise, but on my 7th try, I got a 99.6. HAH! I did borrow Gordon’s unit on the eve of the second day and did three sets. I did get some decent scores and my averages were in the mid to high 90’s. I purchased one to play with and I’ll file a report on that item at some point!

We also discussed some theories regarding Situational Leadership and the different phases involved. Although I had been exposed to this before in a different setting, it was good to see it included here.

At the end of day one, we were given our homework for day 2, the range day. We were divided into groups and had to develop a lesson plan to teach 3 skills to a client. We then had to present this to the rest of the group and coach them through the skills. Our group, which consisted of Gordon, the two Scotts, Dan, and me, came up with: The Wall Drill, Drawing from concealment, and multiple targets. (the last one was my idea!)  Our directions were to develop a plan that would outline the goal, have a measurable test, and a pathway to determine the client’s progress.

Day Two: The classroom
Day two started off in the classroom next to the NRA’s indoor range. If you have been there, you know how professional it looks and how it is run. If you have not yet visited the NRA Range, it is worth the trip. Our classroom session started off with Dan revisiting some commentary and feedback from day one. We talked about the current minimum criteria for attending this training and if it should be more. The resounding vote was yes. Most said that the minimum should be an instructor rating for all three: Pistol and Personal Protection in and Outside the Home.  Since this is a Practical Pistol Coach course, geared towards defensive firearms use, then the attendees should already be certified to teach this subject. We also discussed that potential attendees must obtain a recommendation from a TC who has successfully completed and passed the entire course.

We ate up the first hour discussing criteria, differing levels of a defensive pistol coach, and started prepping for the range qualifications and presentations.

Day Two: The range!
Since we had the use of the range, it was easy. Only a few interruptions and changes prevented us from utilizing it for the whole day but, all in all, it was good to have the range all to ourselves. We started off by shooting the Red Target set from the Basics of Pistol Shooting and then the Pistol Instructor Qualification target. I ended up partnering with Mike Green of Green Ops for this drill. Gordon had told me quite a bit about his knack for solid fundamentals and I wanted to watch him to see what I could pick up. He and I both put up nearly one-hole groups on the red targets and we both got a sub 5.5 or even a 5” group on the instructor targets. Once done, we both kind of just did the quick nod and smiled. Job done, job completed.

Once done, we were visited by Sean Thornton, who works in the Instructor Program Dept. He gave us some feedback and a bit of a ‘get serious and get your minds locked in’ talk regarding the coach program. He reminded us that the defensive skills and concepts are more than target shooting and plinking. And he encouraged us to make our next drill much better than the last. (He used other phraseology but that was my takeaway!)

We got into our skills presentation series. The first group that went took one for the team. (As it always happens during teachbacks). They spent some time in their demo and then in the session where they were to coach others, they hit their stride. I think what happened is that no one was exactly sure as to what the goal was and how it needed to be executed (more on that later) so they just ran with it. After the first run, everyone breathed a sigh and we did our feedback loop and took lunch.

After lunch, it was group two’s turn on the hotplate. They were better than the first group because they learned and refined their presentation and approach. All in all, they achieved the objective and it all worked out.

Then it was our turn. Gordon took the first lead with the Wall Drill (or Trigger Drill as I call it). After that, we ran the targets down to the 50yd line, told our ‘students’ to grab some ammo, and we all headed downrange. We did our drawing from concealment and then our multiple target exercise and then we got stopped short because the range needed to switch gears and let the cowboy action people take over. Oh well…we were just getting going too. We all had to shoot the Advanced Pistol Instructor course standard as another qualification and then we were done. We reconvened in the classroom and finished up our discussions from earlier and then broke for the day.

Day three:
We kicked off the day talking about risk management. Now, that’s a great topic to kick off a day, isn’t it? I’m just kidding. It is a very important topic for ANY firearms trainer. I was pleased to see this being discussed. RM is basically planning for the uncertainties of potential loss and how it relates to health and safety, protection of your clients, and facilities by taking prudent action. We got into discussing how to identify risk, approach a selection of risk level, and the implementation of a decision on minimizing that risk. As a coach, or instructor, we all have a duty to ensure that ONE SPECIFIC criteria exists in every single training session: SAFETY. It is our duty. Failure to take every reasonable precaution possible is negligence on your part. We’ve all seen the wonderful videos online that show some odd or horrendous things. We need to ensure that we aren’t part of that process and we need to work on correcting those that don’t imagine that injuries or damage will happen due to negligence.

We shifted into coaching tips after lunch. These included having a training outline or plan, instructing or coaching effectively, evaluations, and more. This generated a lot of discussion on technique, doctrine, and curriculum topics. After that we worked on training plans themselves. Having one is good. It keeps you on track, your student goal oriented, and provides you an accounting of where you’ve been and where you need to go. More varied discussion resulted but a lot of good ideas came out of this as well!

Another guest from the NRA E&T dept popped in! Nathan Judd, the NRA National Youth Programs Coordinator and BSA Liaison came in to tell us about his program and what they’re working on in the new year and further. He chatted about the coaching programs there and answered some questions from the gang as well.

Near the end of the day, those that needed to reshoot any of the qualifications were allowed to hit the range to do so. Since the rest of us were not really occupied, we joined them on the range and observed, coached, and even ran a couple of them through their qualification series. It was good to watch them shoot and get some good work in while picking up tips from the rest of us.

Once everyone was done, we wrapped up at the end and then broke off into a variety of groups to exchange more info, contacts and offers of training. All in all, this was a fun group to meet and I know I picked up a few good ideas and not just from the workshop material.

It’s feedback time. As all courses need constructive feedback in order to realize their true potential, here is mine:

The good:
I feel that the idea of a coaching program modeled after the current NRA Coach 1 and 2 programs has merit. This will give instructors, who are properly certified, the ability to further develop their clients and will give them the tools needed to work one on one for better development. I can also see this being used as a self development process for the instructor as well.

Discussion regarding risk management, coaching styles, behavior modeling, and more were all very valuable. See my suggestions section later for other topics that would be beneficial.

The sharing of ideas during the workshop was good. Listening and watching others gave me a chance to learn, borrow, and infuse tips and information for my own program and I know others felt the same way.

Standards of performance. This is a great idea. As an instructor, if you cannot exceed the standards required to teach a course, then you need to go back to being a student until you can master that skill, then, you can teach it. We need more of this in the NRA Program.

Live coaching on the range: It was good to get some range time to work on our own observational and evaluation skills with a shooter. In some ways, it was good that we had a wide range of skill levels as that gave us all something to watch and work on.

Having some theory of “what it is to be a coach” is important. Since I do quite a lot of private, personal, one on one training, I take my role as a ‘Coach’ more like a personal instructor. That gives me a goal of always giving them enough reinforcement as well as new skills.

The bad: (In a blunt but constructive way. Bear with me till the end)
In my opinion, this course is still not ready for distribution. Between tuition of $375, hotel of over $550.00, food, fuel, and two days of travel, I invested over $1100 in this workshop. Recently, I was asked if I would pay that amount again, knowing what I know now. My answer is no. As of right now, this was not a good investment. Yet.

There is too much uncertainty in the course curriculum right now for this to be a deliverable product or process for prospective coaches. On day one, most of us were unsure as to where we were going and how we were getting there. My thought was: “When are we getting to the meat of the course?” At times, this seemed as if it was just a scattering of ideas to make this fill time to create a workshop. I know this is only the second time the course has been run, but I would have liked to see more refinement and material. In nearly every course that I have participated in, I always knew what was expected of me, what the course would give me, and where it was going. This one did not have that clear objective.

Better communication with the attendees: It seemed like it was nearly impossible to get any questions answered regarding equipment, basic construct, and other simple informational notes about the workshop. At the outset, before I registered, I had emailed and called to find out more about the workshop. I wanted to know where this might fit in to my curriculum. Did I NEED to do the course? Would it help me? Is it a course that is aligned with what I teach now? What exactly will this course cover and do for me? I had lots of questions and it took a while to obtain answers.

The contact after registration was rough. The course confirmation was basic and no other information save for the location and date. My students get an Email full of details as soon as they register. Then, either by request, or well in advance of the course, they get another Email with a detailed list of materials required, the location, start and end times, and more. This was not the case.

Regarding standards of performance, we had quite a range of experience. Some struggled with their fundamentals on the NRA Pistol Qualification target. Bear in mind that we all were told ahead of time about this qualification and yet, some just did not seem ready, or even aware of the criteria of the qualification. For a workshop such as this, we ALL should have been able to pass this easily as this was the minimum level of proficiency needed to even attend the workshop. Personally, if I am made aware of specific standards or requirements that I will have to meet ahead of time, I owe it to myself and the program to be able to exceed those standards by practicing and being ready. As it was, only 4 out of 14 initially passed all of the qualifications for the course. 4 out of 14. The ratio should have been the opposite, or even better, we ALL should have been able to pass based on our skills. (No participation awards should ever be given out)

Equipment selection. This is big for me. An instructor should not be utilizing cheap gear. There were a few that were using good, solid holsters and magazine holders. Some were not. If an instructor is going to teach defensive firearms use, then cheap, ineffective holsters and gear are not acceptable.

For the most part, a lack of a clear list of objectives, an agenda, and even handouts prepared in advance created to a lot of off topic discussion and topics. When you have a group such as this in the same room, the discussion will inevitably drift into a lot of personal instruction tips and ‘preaching to the choir’ type commentary. This could have been curtailed easily and we could have spent that time more efficiently.

Although the introduction segment was an icebreaker, it killed a good deal of time. I think that as professionals, we should have been just asked to share some basic details and information in a short introduction. This gives the workshop a more streamlined feel and can refine the timeline as well.

The range day needed more guidelines. At the beginning, we were all not sure of our role while observing our fellow shooter. Only after Sean Thornton came in, got into our spaces to observe, and then told us that the initial qualification and how we performed as coaches basically sucked, did the point and the objective become a lot clearer. Although brusque, Sean’s point was valid and clear.

Not enough time on the range coaching others. In all, I was able to coach 4 people, closely, one on one. That amounted to a total time of about 30-40 minutes at best. In my mind, a newer coach would not have gotten enough practice in observation during that session.

Most of the skill presentations were from the basic pistol or basic level of instruction. This was a Practical Pistol Coach certification course, not a Pistol Coach 1. This was supposed to be DEFENSIVE skills by nature, yet a majority of the skills shown were not defensive in nature.

There was not enough information about being an effective coach. Yes, some topics and suggestions were given but there could have been more.

Although it was mentioned a couple times, we weren’t given the PowerPoint that was shown. This presentation had some great information but was not readily available, even though we were told that we’d get a thumb drive at the end of the course. That would have helped with the written essay question exam at the end. There was no real format, and it felt like it was an afterthought or at least a  last minute addition. Prior to that, we were told to relax and not write down some critical information, yet it was on the exam.

No clear wrap-up, final thoughts, thank you, or official dismissal of the group. It just kind of petered out.

My overall thoughts on improvements:
As I said before, this course has a great deal of potential. It needs a lot of polish before the next session. I would like to refer people to this program in the future, but not right now. It is just not ready to be put out to a professional defensive firearms instructor. I am more than willing to assist in the refinement and rollout of any changes, just make sure that this course is something that will definitely help instructors become better coaches.

This Practical Pistol Coach course needs a clear set of firm objectives. Create a framework to build the course around. Then, build the information blocks from there.

In addition to the communications, risk management, range work, and training outline sections, I would suggest including topics such as: skill breakdown (sub skills), economy of motion and energy, visualization and mental coaching, variables of the same concepts, effective coaching tips and resources, fundamental defensive shooting skills, evaluation skills (I call mine ‘Diagnostics’), equipment tuning and criteria, lingo/terminology use, interpersonal flags and triggers, more demonstrations, and then utilize the qualifications as more opportunities for coaching.

More time on the range is needed. In order to be a good diagnostician, you need lots of repetition. You need to see the cause and effect of the different variables that create different outcomes. Over the years, I have learned a lot about watching the gun, the body in recoil, the target, and the hands, to be able to tell what needs to be refined. The only way I learned all of that was by repetition. One way would be to keep the course size small. Maybe 10 at most. That way, a lot of reps at observing can be accomplished.

More feedback for the coach candidate. One-on-one work with their fellow candidates, with the idea of finding anything in their skillsets that can be made better. This would help them diagnose their own approach and effectiveness during the workshop. If the coach could learn to apply the cause and effect techniques to their own training, and get results, then they will be able to use that skill when working with their clients.

I have made some notes about how I’d run this workshop and, although it needs refinement, I can imagine this as a rough outline: (this is not a complete, nor a final list, just ideas)

  1. Welcome, introductions, course goals
  2. Role of a coach vs the Role of an instructor
  3. YOUR role as a Practical Pistol Coach (defensive)
  4. How to be a better communicator/listener –  client interaction
  5. Tips to better coaching (visual, physical, etc)
  6. Lesson plans/outlines for development
  7. Body mechanics and kinesiology
  8. Internal ballistics -firearm
  9. Terminology/lingo use
  10. Risk management (danger, opposite sex issues, etc)
  11. Range management – self or others
  12. Positioning by your client. Where to stand and when, where NOT to stand
  13. Shooting skills and development (live fire with coach and client setup)
  14. Equipment optimization – bad gear and bad placement=bad performance
  15. Skill breakdown and refinement (live fire with coach and client setup)
  16. Qualification (initial) (live fire with coach and client setup)
  17. Skill demo, specifics for defensive shooting. (draw, trigger management, grip, etc)
  18. Specific skill refinement (live fire with coach and client setup)
  19. More qualifications if needed

And I am not done with my ideas yet!

All of the above skills should be defensive in nature. The student should already know how to shoot. Basic fundamentals should only be corrected if needed. Most likely they should have an idea on how to draw, reload, etc. They need you to teach them how to do it better.

In summary, I did learn a lot based on the group. I did pick up a couple ideas that I will most likely ‘snatch and improve’ upon and integrate into my own methods. So, was the experience of driving 7hours to NRA HQ, to hang out for three days with like minded trainers, and experience a new format course from the NRA a good or bad one? Yes and no. If I were asked to come and participate in a developmental workshop for this new idea, and my lodging and travel would be compensated because I’d be offering my experience in helping to guide this new program, I’d say yes. Absolutely and without reservation. I have done that many times before with great results. But, I paid tuition for a course that I expected was a lot more ready for distribution. I didn’t think I was paying to help develop it.

If you are hoping this course will make you a better shooter, wait. You need to be crisp and cold with your skills. You’ll need to be able to stand and deliver on demand. You’re on as good as your skills will allow you without a practice session or warmup. (That’s sport shooting mentality) Practice the Pistol Instructor Qualification. Practice shooting a 6” target at 15 yards. Get your draw down to under 2 seconds from concealment, and then get it closer to 1.5 seconds. Practice your reloads, your scanning, your handgun management, and more. Essentially, get your butts into a true defensive firearms training course other than the PPITH or PPOTH courses. Train with InSights Training Center, Sig Academy, or if you want to, come see me at Rochester Personal Defense, LLC and LionsPride Training Group here in NY State. Get out of your own comfortable training grind and learn. If you only train with the skills you are good at, you’ll never be better. You’ll only be building your own ego.

Realistically, you’ll need to possess more than just the essential target shooting skills to attend and pass. Quit kidding yourself and go out and train. The best instructors are ones that are frequent students.

The bottom line is that if you are considering attending this new Practical Pistol Coach workshop, if you want somethign with some solid substance, and you are not just looking to attend to get another patch, certificate, or rating, then wait. Wait for the adjustments and re-writing of the curriculum to take place. If you are looking just to collect another rocker on your shirt, or to brag to others “Hey, look at me, I am a Practical Pistol Coach!” then do us a favor and don’t do it. If you’re not going to take it seriously, then don’t ruin it for the ones that do.

Sorry for the long read but there was a lot to deliver from this course. Feel free to message me with any questions.

At Rochester Personal Defense, LLC we believe in training you, the average person, who wants to be safe. Self defense is just that - defensive, not offensive in nature.


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