Training with Military vs. Competition Shooters

This is a topic I have been thinking about for a long time, yet upon which I have not really spoken to anyone except for a few close friends.

I have heard (and read) back and forth discussions about whether it is better to pay for training from a former military or law enforcement shooter – say, someone who spent a long time in a special operations unit of some kind – or from a shooter who has won multiple national titles in something like NRA Action Pistol/Steel Challenge/USPSA/IDPA/IPSC etc. Of course, I can only offer my opinion, and the truth may lie elsewhere – but here goes.

When you pay to take a shooting course, you are primarily paying for someone to teach you how to shoot a pistol (rifle, shotgun, slingshot, whatever), and not much more than that. Some of the most important skills that relate to surviving armed confrontations are not sexy and most people would never actually pay to learn them. They’re gained through experience and are much harder to learn in a two day course…but I digress.

The best competition shooters – like Rob Leatham and Dave Sevigny - are highly sought after by military special operations units, the personnel of which want to learn how the best and fastest shooters in the world do what they do. They aren’t asking Dave Sevigny to teach them how to locate and close with the bad guys – they need to get better at the part where they destroy the enemy. And so the military values very highly the time of these men.

People attend shooting courses for different reasons - but what they are primarily there to learn is how to improve their shooting skills - and not much more than that.

Some folks have told me that they will only ever train with instructors that have been in combat or have “seen the elephant” – I’m pretty sure that Rob Leatham has been to the zoo at least once in his life. The problem with this “combat or nothing” mindset is that some people who have been in combat might not be a good enough instructor to teach you much of what they learned, or they might be interested in talking more about combat and gunfights than actually teaching you important things, or they might tangentially mention combat situations in order to impress you when they really haven’t been there and done that.

I was high pistol shooter in a class (In fact, I’m pretty sure that I outshot the instructor too) taught by a guy who spent a lot of time telling war stories and claimed to have been shot numerous times in multiple shootouts, including once in the face. My first thought was that if he kept getting shot in gunfights, like half a dozen times, he must not be very good at gunfighting, or maybe he was a slow learner. My second thought was that he hadn’t actually been shot in the face, as far as I could tell with my limited medical knowledge, which has involved looking at people who got shot in the face.

Although not in the same vein, I really don’t like what is said at 1:45ish of this video - I’m not going to a shooting class to hear about how to “step over my dead buddy’s body.” I’m there to learn how to be a better shooter, plain and simple. Whether that instructor has actually stepped over any dead buddies is almost irrelevant – it’s just not something a class full of civilians needs to hear about for any reason other than to impress them.

"Not sure about you, instructor dude, but I spent most of my time in Iraq sleeping or handing out candy to children."

Military units have turned out people – who have been in combat – capable of teaching other people how to shoot very well, and so has the pressure of competition shooting. You’re free to spend your money however you want, but don’t discard an instructor just because he or she hasn’t actually been in combat. Similarly, I wouldn’t ignore someone just because he spent his peak physical years jumping out of airplanes and strangling bad guys with their own intestines instead of winning trophies and sponsorships.

After writing this article, I asked Mike Pannone for his thoughts. Here is what he had to say:

As an instructor with some decent real world experience I am loath to talk about it in any detail because it usually does one of two things:

  • Makes you look like a braggart
  • Alienates those students with lesser experiences

The goal of an instructor is to either teach new skills or enhance existing ones. There is much to be learned from sport shooters about how to shoot fast and accurate but it stops there for them. The application of those skills in a combative environment is best taught by those instructors with the appropriate formal training, experience and temperament to articulate the application of the skills or the areas where they do not apply and why. Just because you’ve been in combat of one sort or another doesn’t mean you are a superhero and have all the answers and wisdom. Hell, it doesn’t even mean you were any good…it just means you were there.

Being a soldier or cop who was in bad or multiple shootouts and survived doesn’t make you a great soldier or cop. Conversely, just because you haven’t been in some sort of mortal combat doesn’t mean you are not prepared and capable more than most. I have seen many who have been in multiple engagements in Iraq who survived and were completely incompetent still. I have also seen and trained some that I would hate to be on the other side of a gun from yet they have never seen a shot fired in anger.

Guidance for SOF type instructors:

  • Stop trying to sell “who you were in another life” that’s for the bio page on your website and the bar at Chili’s, not the range.  
  • Experience doesn’t remove the requirement of being able to articulate and demonstrate shooting techniques at a high level of proficiency.  
  • Use your experience to show how it applies to a combative environment with minimal “no shit, there I was” stories

Guidance for sport type instructors:

  • Stop trying to wow students with circus trick show demonstrations…everybody came there because you are an accomplished shooter.
  • All the shooting competitions in the world are not the same as dedicated training for combat and combat experience so don’t talk it as though “you were there”
  • Don’t teach a class with a $3k sport gun to a bunch of people with Bushmaster or DPMS stock guns with stock triggers or box stock pistols. It gives the student an easy out and makes you look like you’re “cheating” i.e. “if I had a $2500 JP gun or custom Wilson 1911 I’d be able to do that too.” Shoot a weapon as comparable to theirs as you can. Emphasize what can be done with their gun not what you can do with yours.

Mike Pannone shooting a BCM 14.5" M4.

Final thought; the fortitude and personal courage necessary to face the dangers of life and combat are no different. They come from within and all the “pep-talks” in the world won’t be of use unless you have sat down and thought it through. Decisions of consequence are rarely made correctly on the spot. They are the culmination of training and decisions made long ago.

NO instructor can teach you that. You have to go to scary places in your mind’s eye and find it yourself. Everyone should stay away from the “touch the magic, I’m going to turn you into a killer-commando in 2 days” crap and just stick to shooting. 

My mantra: “Good luck is for novices, bad luck is for everyone. Bank on skill, at least you control it.”