Equipment Races and the Defensive Shooting Instructor

Back in the 1990s I was an avid competitive shooter, sometimes attending as many as three matches a month. Back then the big talk was “The Equipment Race”: the increase in emphasis on hardware rather than pure shooting skill, an increase which was initiated by the use of compensators and red-dot sights in national competitions. Some saw it as a natural evolution of the sport while others thought it would be the downfall. Out of this debate came the International Defensive Pistol Association, or IDPA, which was founded in large part as a counter to the ever-escalating hardware wars (which didn’t really work out as well as some people expected, but that’s another story for another time!)

In the training world of today there is likewise an equipment race, but now it’s often encouraged by the instructors themselves — and it might be detrimental to your defensive shooting development!

There are lots of people in the shooting world who have designed guns, accessories, or personal gear. Lots of others receive endorsements from companies to allow their gear to be seen, while not a few actively “kit” themselves out to make their YouTube videos more exciting. I’ll be the first to admit that playing with exotic gear is a lot of fun if for no other reason than the novelty! I own a few pieces of leading-edge gear, though much less than I did in years past, and it’s fun to take that stuff to the range and use it.

When I’m teaching other people how to defend themselves with a firearm, however, that stuff stays home. It’s a matter of integrity. The reality of personal defense is that I’m not likely to be carrying a trickedout racegun or be wearing the latest in ballistic plate carriers when I need to use my gun to defend myself. The likelihood is that I’m going to have something relatively pedestrian in my relatively pedestrian holster and I’m going to be dressed pretty much like the people around me. I’ll need to solve whatever problem presents itself with (nearly) off-the-shelf equipment that no self-respecting competitive shooter or ex-Special Forces operator would ever be seen with — but that’s the way the world really works.

I want my students to be able to solve their problem with the gear they’ll have with them when the incident unfolds, not the cool stuff they see me (or someone else) wearing. That’s not a very common attitude in this business; lots of instructors show up in front of their defensive shooting classes decked out in and with decidedly uncommon gear.

Now the libertarian in me feels the need to declare that I have no problem with anyone wearing what they wish to wear; it is, after all, a semi-free country. At the same time I need to decry the practice at the instructional level because it tends to fuel equipment races in students, races which lead them to focus or depend on hardware when they should really be working on their software. It’s the latter which is important, because it’s what really matters when the situation turns ugly!

I fully understand that students want to be like their mentors and consequently tend to pick the same kind of gear their guru does. Once you know what to look for, it’s actually pretty easy to figure out who’s studied where simply by their gear: guns, holsters, accessories, clothing, even the ammunition in their gun are often dead giveaways to a person’s guru. The desire to emulate those they admire becomes a marker, an identifier.

The issue? If that gear isn’t particularly suitable to the realities of self defense in the private sector it simply makes the learning curve steeper; in some cases the gear may not even be terribly workable for the kinds of attacks people face in the real world.

Sometimes the equipment even changes the skills being taught. I’ve run into more than one instructor who invented techniques to teach simply because the gear they had either allowed or demanded it — instead of the use or need driving the technique being taught (what I refer to as “task-driven”curriculum), the gear drives the technique. Whether the results fit the context of use of their students was irrelevant; it was something new to teach, something to differentiate them from the other hundreds of instructors, and something that resulted in YouTube hits when people searched for that piece of gear.

You need to avoid that guy.

If you’re going to a concealed carry class and your instructor shows up wearing a drop-leg “tactical” holster, you’re probably in the presence of just such a character. (Think it doesn’t happen? Spend some time watching online videos. You’ll be surprised.) If his understanding of the needs of the private sector concealed carrier is that shallow, what about the more important stuff? Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into the equipment race; don’t bow to the pressure of your mentor, whether implied or overt. Make your hardware selections based on a hard-nosed assessment of your needs and the context in which they’ll be used. If after a bit of reflection you decide that you’re unlikely to take the time to don that chest rifle-magazine carrier (let alone really need those half-dozen 30-round rifle magazines), don’t use it in your defensive rifle class — no matter how “kitted out” your instructor or the other students are.

Instead of worrying about what new piece of gear you’re going to buy or obsessing over what Instructor Tactical Beard is wearing in his latest video, spend your time working on your skills. You’ll be better off in the long run.

– Grant Cunningham
Author, Teacher, Consultant
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