New Shooters: Tips and Traps

handgun-selection-1 As a professional firearms instructor, one of my greatest personal rewards is knowing that I have helped someone become more comfortable or confident in the use of their defensive firearm. But before that can happen, the student must at some point venture into the world of guns, shooting, and firearms training. I teach at a fixed location that caters to all types of shooters at all levels. Because of this, much of my non-teaching time is devoted to working with new shooters (and prospective students) to identify their needs and interests and help their early experiences be positive ones. In other words, I’ve had a great opportunity to see these initial outings from behind the gun sales counter as well as from the classroom and the range. Whether you’re just getting into it yourself or are a veteran shooter looking to help someone else, there are some definite “dos” (and “don’ts”) related to introducing someone to the gun, shooting, and self-defense communities.

Let’s start with one of the biggest but least understood “don’ts” for experienced shooters who want to help a new shooter:

Don’t Choose a Gun for Someone Else

It may sound simple, but this is a real and continuous problem. And while I certainly don’t like to throw around stereotypes, it is usually a husband or boyfriend who walks in and declares that they’re looking for a self-defense piece for their wife or girlfriend. About 99% of the time, that special person doesn’t come to the shop with them, and so there are a couple of reasons why their purchasing a gun for their loved one isn’t a great idea.

First, there are the obvious problems, such as an imperfect appreciation for the physics of pistol shooting. The would-be recipient of such a gift is usually a relatively inexperienced shooter. The buyer will frequently describe the desired sidearm as “small,” “light” and “easy to carry.” These are undoubtedly good characteristics in a concealed self-defense gun, but they exact a certain price in terms of recoil and muzzle blast.

Light or heavy? While nobody wants to lug around excess weight, the sharp recoil of the lighter gun can do much more damage to a shooter's confidence and desire to train regularly.

Light or heavy? While nobody wants to lug around excess weight, the sharp recoil of the lighter gun can do much more damage to a shooter’s confidence and desire to train regularly.

Any instructor can tell you that the experience of recoil is highly subjective and no two people interpret it in exactly the same way. It really isn’t possible to claim that you know how much recoil another person, particularly someone who doesn’t shoot, will find comfortable and be able to master. The likely end result will be that they don’t like their gun, or they hate it. In such cases, they will rarely seek training or even have any interest in practicing with their weapon. And then is our loved one really any better off than before we bought them a gun?

Second, there are the less apparent issues. I often tell students (and customers, for that matter) that shopping for a carry pistol is much like shopping for a pair of shoes. If you were to walk into my classroom and I announced that I was going to run out and buy you some shoes, you would think I’d lost my marbles.

Why? Simple! I don’t know what your size is, I don’t know what color or brand you prefer, or what kind of clothes you’ll wear with them. I don’t know if you like hiking boots or sneakers; laces, buckles, or Velcro; sandals or sod kickers.

If it seems unlikely that I could randomly select your shoes for you, let alone find a pair that fits your tastes, needs and feet, then it should follow (all else being equal) that you would be a better judge of the right pistol for you than I would. The shoe analogy is useful in demonstrating that, in addition to knowing guns, I would also need to know a few things about you in order to really help you find the right gun. This is also a prime reason to seek out professional instruction, whether for yourself or for someone who has come to you for guidance.

The reason that this is such a prevalent problem is simple human nature. If you know little or nothing about a topic of interest, you will try to find a more knowledgeable friend, family member, or co-worker to help you. After all, none of us likes the feeling that we don’t know what we’re talking about, particularly if we are talking to somebody who is there to sell us something. So we get some hints or suggestions from a more experienced person.

The problem goes right back to those individual needs, tastes and preferences. The reality is that aesthetics do matter. It is a good idea to “like” your gun. To continue our wardrobe analogy, have you ever received an ugly sweater as a gift? Does the person who gave it to you find it as unattractive as you do? And finally, how often do you wear it?

Here is another way that someone else “chooses” our gun:

An inexperienced shooter walks into a gun shop and announces that s/he’s come to buy a self-defense pistol, for example a Glock model G-20. The customer has made this decision for what appears to be a perfectly logical reason: the Glock model G-20 is the issue sidearm of the local Police Department or Sheriff’s Office. If the cops carry it, so the line of thought goes, it must be one of the best available pistols. Note that I am not suggesting the Glock is not an excellent weapon. Rather, I am suggesting that the cops adopted it based on a specific set of criteria and that those criteria may not be applicable to armed civilians.

Large or small? While the smaller gun is inobtrusive and convenient to carry, its reduced size makes it a difficult pistol to use. This problem is particularly acute for new shooters trying to master the basics.

Large or small? While the smaller gun is inobtrusive and convenient to carry, its reduced size makes it a difficult pistol to use. This problem is particularly acute for new shooters trying to master the basics.

In either event, the ideal course of action is for a shooter to compose and prioritize their own set of criteria, as free from emotional bias and others’ preferences as possible. The best way for this to happen is for the new shooter to be guided toward professional training. An experienced instructor can provide the knowledge and confidence needed to make the appropriate choices. At the risk of giving away a trade secret, there are two things to keep in mind on the subject of choosing someone else’s gun:

1. People who buy a self-defense handgun for an inexperienced person are the single most reliable source of good (nearly pristine) used handguns for the retail market. I apologize to all of those, like myself, who are grateful for a ready supply of good (nearly pristine) used handguns on the retail market.

2. Maybe you and I had to learn our stuff through trial and error, and maybe we persevered due to our love of guns and shooting and our interest in self-defense. But today, given the availability of professional instruction and the resources many classrooms and ranges offer, isn’t that really a better option for our friends or family members who want to learn to shoot and protect themselves?

And now some “dos,” both for new shooters and those who want to help them:

Get Out to the Gun Shop or Range

There are a lot of great and informative sites on the internet, such as the Personal Defense Network (and this article, hopefully!). There are many good, and several excellent, gun magazines from which you can learn about guns, gear and shooting.

But there is no substitute for going out and holding that gun in your hands. I have frequently told students that you don’t have to know anything about a gun to know that you don’t like it. There isn’t much that a salesman, instructor, Special Operations Commando, gun-counter ninja or fellow shooter can say about a gun that will override your thinking that “It feels like a two-by-four glued to a brick!”

Get Some Advice and Do Your Homework!

Now that we’ve discussed some of the pitfalls of letting others do your thinking for you, we have to take a step back and point out that there is value in listening to the thoughts and opinions of other shooters. The key is to ask the right questions. For example, instead of asking your brother-in-law what gun he likes (about as useful as asking his favorite color), ask what he likes about his favorite gun. You’ll get an answer that actually suggests something about the gun and not about your brother-in-law.

Take advantage of available information. End-user reviews of products published in gun magazines are usually worth reading. Most gun writers are well aware of the difference between facts and opinions and will make it clear that at best they can offer some experienced insight. If you have a good understanding of your own criteria to use as a backdrop, these reviews can paint a fairly accurate picture of the gun in question. This is how we should determine what we want to look at and handle when we do get to a gun shop.

The other key here is to remember the old adage that “free advice is worth every penny.”

It is absolutely critical that we have a solid grasp of our needs and wants–our criteria–against which we can weigh what we hear on the range or read in a review or on an internet discussion forum.

Good training, combined with a large selection of rental or demo guns, can help new shooters find a good fit for their needs.

Good training, combined with a large selection of rental or demo guns, can help new shooters find a good fit for their needs.

Get Good Training!

It’s pointless to keep recommending a good set of both objective and subjective criteria without mentioning that the best way to get them is through qualified instruction. There are many veteran shooters who can easily show the basics to a beginner, and indeed it happens every day. There are, however, several distinct advantages to having a professional instructor do the work. First, most full-time instructors have access to a selection of training guns. Where I teach, there are well over 100 handguns available. This can be invaluable to beginners and veterans alike when looking for that new (or next) pistol.

Second, and probably more important, is the training and experience that enable good instructors to work at the student’s level. An experienced instructor will tell you that he can teach almost anybody who is willing to learn. In reality, good instructors can do that because of their ability to recognize where each student currently is and where they want to go. Professional instructors can also anticipate and prevent some of the common problems and mistakes inherent in learning any new skill. These reasons alone make quality instruction a much better option than trying to do it yourself.

Buy a Loved One a Gun as a Gift

Does that sound like I’m contradicting what I said above? What I said was don’t choose a handgun for someone else. Buying it is a different story–just be sure to bring the new shooter with you to buy it, or at the very least, make them part of the decision-making process. And in no case should you expect the gun to be a perfect fit until after the recipient has had some good training with a qualified instructor.

As an instructor, I have had to repeatedly “fix” problems that I suspected weren’t coming from the gun or the shooter. As a gun salesman, I’ve seen where many of these problems start, which is often before the shooter first picks up a gun. Also, like many instructors, I’ve had classes where students showed up with their own guns, guns that they may have owned for years. Once the shooting started, they were sometimes startled to discover that they own something far different than they had thought. And very rarely is it a better kind of different. After you see it enough, you begin to wonder “why?”

The important thing for all of us to remember is that there are a lot of people out there who are thinking about their safety, the security of their homes, and their ability to defend themselves and their family in an increasingly dangerous world. By recommending qualified instruction, coupled with choices based on logical criteria, we can get them off to a solid start and add another “good guy” to the ranks. That just makes good sense.

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6 Responses to “New Shooters: Tips and Traps”

  1. Jon81

    Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Recently traded in three I thought she would Like for one that she really did like. Lesson Learned!

  2. andy

    Thanks, everyone! After a few years in the business you begin to notice these things and maybe we can pass this around and help some folks avoid the traps. @LarryA - I'm going to quote you on that! Great story! @Cecillio - Good comparison! I usually use the car example to ask why somebody would feed bottom-shelf ammo to a top-end custom gun and act surprised at the result. You wouldn't pour lawnmower gas into your Porsche, would ya?

  3. Cecilio

    Perfect. From one instructor to another, I know how difficult is to tell new shooters how wrong they may be on their first selection of a gun. But I tend to compare guns to cars, instead of clothing. It seems to work better(for me anyway). I use Cadillac and Jeep as comparison. You can transport livestock inside a Cadillac and you can make a 1K miles trip in a Jeep. The first one is going to hit you hard, very hard, in your wallet. The other will hit you hard, very hard, in your butt! That way they can immediately see if they are risking money or convenience. And it works, every time (well... except with the one-track minded hotheads. But that's another story). Then I get the "what-would-you-suggest" question. And that opens the road to a reality-based, educated, conversation.

  4. pioneer461

    Bravo! An excellent article for those who are new shooters or are buying a pistol for the "little lady."

  5. LarryA

    Yes! Bingo! Right on the money! Recently had a father ask what kind of gun he should get for his dainty daughter. I convinced him to give her a class instead. After several hours shooting different guns she lit up when she found the one that "Just feels RIGHT." Not what Dad would ever have selected. I think his eyes were bigger than her group as he watched dainty daughter drill her target with her new Colt 1911-A1.

  6. Mark

    Great article!!! These are some great tips, i will make good use of them.