DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE WRITTEN TEST!  My lowest score in the course was on the written exam.  Although still an, “A,” by normal academic standards, it gives me something to work towards for the next time.  The two, “100’s,” I have refer to the both the FBI Pistol Qualification Course (Jan 2013) shot on the Rangemaster Q target, and the Rangemaster Firearms Instructor Qualification Course (Rev 3/15).  The shooting courses were quite challenging, but the written test was HARD.  And I have years (undergrad X3, DAT, professional school, residency, board tests) of formal, “testing,” behind me!  Don’t underestimate it!

If you’ve spent any length of time reading essays here at REVOLVERSCIENCE.COM you’ll notice that I hold the teachings of Tom Givens in particularly high esteem.  This isn’t arbitrary, or simply out of convenience.  Tom has made a career and a volume of life’s work geared specifically towards preparing the armed citizen for handling one of the worst days of their lives.  And Tom’s current record of success (in reported incidents…there may very well be other numbers that simply aren’t reported) is 63, “wins,” ZERO, “losses,” and three, “forfeits.”  Tom refers to the forfeits as such because on, “THE BIG DAY,” those unfortunate people were unarmed, and were murdered in street robberies for the contents of their pockets (the take-home lesson here being, “CARRY YOUR GUN EVERYDAY!”)  yet they had the skills to be able to provide an effective defense against an armed robbery, they simply lacked the tools.  The reason I continue to spend money every year on Rangemaster courses, is that Tom’s information and program works.  When I was in dental school, I had several volumes of textbooks devoted to anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, pathology, and other basic medical sciences.  I also had what were called, “High Yield,” study guides, and these were books that condensed down all of the relevant information into what a practitioner would be most likely to need in, “the real world,” outside of academia.  For example, while I was required to study and dissect the human body from the scalp to the toes, the crux of my career and the board exams I am certified and licensed by, specifically pertain to the anatomy of the head and neck.  Thus, my High Yield study guide, at the end of the year, was dog-eared, food and enbalming fluid stained and well used…my gross anatomy textbook was (and still is) in, “like new,” condition.  Tom Givens’ Rangemaster classes are the, “High Yield,” knowledge and skills compendium required for civilian self-defense.

Tom described the need for EFFECTIVE AND COMPETENT self-defense instructors because of a number of recent developments in the United States:

  • there were 8 million to 12 million FIRST TIME gun buyers during the Obama administration
  • there were 47 million NICS transfers between 2015 and 2017
  • the MAJORITY of guns were purchased for self-defense (not target shooting or hunting)
  • a NEW RECORD was set in August of 2017 for NICS checks

Thus, as a self-defense instructor, you hold an ENORMOUS RESPONSIBILITY in your grasp…you literally hold your student’s physical life, their freedom and their family’s financial future in your hands.  Thus it is of PARAMOUNT importance that you provide the best, most useful and practical program of instruction possible to your students, and avoid the ballistic masturbation and, “enter-trainment,” experiences that are so common in the training market these days.

Tom described the role of, “Subject Matter Experts,” in the world of firearms instruction specifically geared towards self-defense.  He again illustrated the importance of knowing the WHY behind all of the tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP’s) that are taught in a course of instruction.  Also, attribution is required because plagiarism and thievery sucks, but also because it helps explain the WHY of the specific TTP.  For example, many organizations routinely teach the, “tactical reload,” AKA the, “reload with retention,” with no earthly understanding as to why they teach it.  They know that it is used in IDPA, and that it is an old technique, therefore it’s important to know.  Right?  Sorta and not really!  The technique comes from Chuck Taylor, the 2IC at Gunsite in the 1970’s.  The ranges at Gunsite were covered in coarse, rough gravel, and since nearly everyone shooting there (with the exception of the weird revolver guy, or the 1/1000 Browning High Power shooter) was using 1911 pattern pistols with GI magazines, that were not high performance, rugged magazines, like the kind we have from Chip McCormick, Wilson Combat, or Tripp today.  They were soft metal, and dropping them on the ground repeatedly, over a five day course, meant that at the end of the week, your magazines were hashed.  Thus, the, “tactical reload,” was born.  It allowed the shooter to top off their pistol, pocket their partially loaded magazine, and go home without a duffle full of wrecked magazines!  Mission accomplished!  However, to the uninitiated instructor, and their involuntarily uninitiated students, they end up spending an inordinate amount of time trying to learn a skill that isn’t vital and difficult for most people to master, since doing the magazine transfer at the gun, takes large hands with nimble fingers.  Doing the magazine transfer at the pocket, instead of at the gun overcomes the physical agility and hand size issue, but it doesn’t do much, as you end up with an unloaded gun dangling in space for a longer time then required.  Thus, Tom teaches two reloads, the emergency reload (slide lock reload) and the speed reload (top off, slide forward reload).

On its face, this course, “seems,” like it is simply a course to prepare the student teacher to be able to effectively formulate, implement and maintain their own course of instruction in effective self defense with a handgun, but it is really much more than this. If you are a fan of Tom Givens at all, you’ll know that he is quite the prolific author and that he has written many articles as a staff writer for SWAT Magazine, written for many of the other gun publications, and authored several textbooks on the subject as well.  Tom’s latest book is called, “Fighting Smarter,” and it contains a huge tome of amassed knowledge on the subject of fighting with a handgun for personal defense.  Like I wrote earlier in this essay, you could characterize this course as simply an instructor course, but, for the avid student of self-defense, I think it is more accurately described as, “FIGHTING SMARTER:  THE 3 DAY COURSE.”

Tom’s training differs from much of the available training (and I’ve had a fair bit of it…about 2500 plus hours in the past 27 years) in that it provides instant feedback into what the user needs to, “work on,” to improve their skills, but Tom also gives you the understanding and ability to put improved skills to work, immediately.    Unlike many of the classes available, Tom gives his students exactly what adult brains need to learn complex networks of skills involving immediate cognitive recognition, and utilization of physical skills and eye-hand coordination.  He does this through an adult teaching model consisting of:

  1. EXPLAIN-the student must understand what it is you are trying to convey to the them.  To understand fully, and to fulfill the mature brain inquisitiveness, you learn the, “why,” behind every skill and technique that is taught.  Verbal instruction provides an auditory roadmap of what is expected of them.
  2. DEMONSTRATE-any competent instructor should be able to demonstrate EVERY skill or technique they expect their students to learn.  Without demonstration, a student only receives, “half,” of the information they need.  The mirror neurons in the human brain allow the student to essentially, “mirror,” or copy what the eyes see, and thus a properly demonstrated set of skills or drill (a drill is a specific set of skills) allows the student to get a full picture of what is expected of them.  This segment illustrates the, “visual,” portion of the roadmap that was verbally explained in the first step.
  3. PRACTICE-despite the best verbal description through presentations, and the most skillful demonstration of skill, some students still won’t be able to do what you are asking them to do.  This is where practice comes in.  Practice under the tutelage of a trained coach’s eye is essential in reinforcing the CORRECT way to execute a particular skill.  Thus, correct repetition of the required skills in necessary to ingrain the correct mental and physical heuristic in the student’s mind.
  4. TESTING-adults learn, “best,” (meaning they retain the information learned) when they are tested to ensure retention of the learned information.  This is doubly important for students of the defensive arts, as it provides an additional layer of stress that will better replicate the stress of self-defense events that they may encounter some day.  Without testing, learning hasn’t really been effectively accomplished.

This course could literally be taken as an annual, “tune-up,” for one’s defensive skills and I don’t think you could ever walk away without learning something new.  I have taken several Rangemaster courses from Tom over the years, and without fail, I learn something completely new that I either overlooked the first time, or simply didn’t, “click,” on the first pass!  Tom issues each student a 200 page, spiral bound manual on the first day of class, that will serve as the student’s textbook and study guide for the written test on the final day of class.  Nervous about tests?  Don’t worry…in addition to the three tests on the last day of class (FBI Firearms Instructor Qualification Course, Rangemaster Instructor Course and Rangemaster Written Test) there are a number of impromptu tests that occur during the class on the range!  However, Tom does a superb job of indoctrinating you to the packet of skills that are required to pass the tests, and he introduces them in useful ways that aren’t overwhelming or discouraging.

A word of advice, come to this class knowing how to shoot.  I would estimate that an IDPA classification of sharpshooter/USPSA C+/B class or slightly better would be good to perform well in this class.  You should know how to hit a bullseye size target (8″) out to 25 yards, on demand, as well as draw from concealment, shoot with either hand, load and unload your pistol, and clear malfunctions.  If you can do all of these things, Tom can teach you what he wants you to know…and what he wants you to know are the skills and techniques that will be most useful in an actual fight for your life.  Tom’s curriculum isn’t static; the curriculum changes to reflect what is working with his students, in real life self-defense situations.  Nothing is theoretical or simply arbitrary.  This is gold in my opinion, as there exists a market segment that is aimed at preoccupation with inconsequential increments, and DOES NOT translate well into real world application.  Sure, it looks sweet on Instagram, but in the streets and parking lots of America, it is easily fouled.

Any good firearms class should start near the beginning with a thorough review of the, “Firearms Safety Rules.”  Anyone not familiar, here is a refresher:

  1. ALL GUNS are always loaded
  2. NEVER let your muzzle point at anything you are not willing to destroy
  3. Keep your FINGER off of the TRIGGER until your sights are on target and you intend to fire
  4. Be sure of your target and what lies beyond it, and around it

Many classes cover the rules, but don’t go into tremendous detail on WHY the rules are important, why they occur in the order that they do, and what they mean to people who willingly choose to go about in the world with the, “armed lifestyle.”  Because honestly, this is a lifestyle.  Just like you weird crossfitters with your cultish WOD’s, and you, “eat every two hours,” fitness nuts, this is something that eventually becomes habit, but takes devotion and concentration to achieve.  If you pay close attention to Tom’s lecture on the 4 safety rules, you’ll notice he is talking about far more than just what happens out on the firing range.  For example, a defensive handgun has three places it should be.  The defensive handgun should either be:

  1. in the holster
  2. at the ready (Tom uses a variation of the low ready where the handgun is indexed with the arms outstretched, gun in hand, and pointed at an area near the ground in front of the target, in a position where you can plainly see the target’s hands and waistline, as that is where weapons are carried, and the hands are what they’ll bring those weapons to bear on you with)
  3. indexed on the target

Since you treat (1) all guns (as if they) are always loaded, and you (2) never point the muzzle at anything you are not willing to destroy and you (3) keep your finger off the trigger until the sights are on target and you intend to shoot then you will understand the WHY of the three places your defensive handgun should be!  Makes sense!  We all carry a pistol because there exists a time when we may have to shoot somebody.  Thus, having a gun is important, and whether that gun is in the holster, at the ready, or on the target, the world around is in constant motion, and strict adherence to the Firearms Safety Rules are what allows us to operate it safely for everyone involved EXCEPT for the bad guy.

There is so much to cover in this class, I could go on for pages and pages, but I doubt most would read it.  I HIGHLY recommend this class to anyone who wants to be better at defensive shooting, and ESPECIALLY to those that want to teach the craft to others responsibly.  There are TONS of instructors on the training scene currently, both good, bad, and excellent (and recommended).  Knowing which is which is important, and thus building a good foundation of education and essential skills is crucial in being able to evaluate programs objectively.  Seek out and train with Tom Givens at every available opportunity.  You won’t be disappointed.

Here are some other salient points that I noted in the class, that don’t fit into my previous narrative that you may find utility in.

  • DON’T FIGHT YOUR GEAR.  There were many students in class that had inadequate holsters, holsters of poor design, or crap magazine carriers that they were hindered by it.  You can be the Cool Hand Luke of the class, but if you get hemmed up with a bad magazine change or a botched draw, your performance will suffer.  Also, only use a holster that allows you to get a, “FULL FIRING GRIP,” on your pistol.  If you can’t get a FFG, get a new rig.  Sell the old one on Ebay or better yet, throw it in the garbage or use it as a visual aid for, “what NOT to buy.”
  • PHYSICAL FITNESS HELPS.  I’m not nearly as fit as I would like to be, but I work on it everyday.  Classes like this are long, it’s hot out, and hydration is important.  I recommend that people start hydrating (if you don’t regularly) for these kinds of classes two weeks out.  If you aren’t adequately hydrated, and your cardio sucks, you won’t have a great experience because you’ll be sucking wind after some induced stress and minimal movement.
  • Bring a gun that is:  LARGE ENOUGH (to shoot well) DISCREET ENOUGH (to conceal well) and POWERFUL ENOUGH (to stop the attacker).  Many folks brought guns that were maybe a bit too large for them, and they had to crane unnaturally to reach the magazine release and/or trigger, or they ended up riding the slide stop because of a hand-size mismatch.  These are all things that can be addressed BEFORE coming to class.
  • BRING QUALITY AMMUNITION.  Tom warns people about this in the informational emails leading up to the class, but I’ll mention it again because people don’t listen or don’t heed his advice.  BUY QUALITY AMMO.  I brought 2000 rounds of 9mm 115 grain American Eagle brass cased ammunition.  I had ZERO stoppages in the class (that weren’t from dummy rounds, or from illustrative malfunction clearance drills) with that ammunition.  Others weren’t so lucky.  Remanufactured ammunition, isn’t terribly less expensive than premium quality ammunition, but people buy it anyway.  There was one student with remanufactured ammo that had FOUR rounds (the class called for 1000 rounds) that had primers loaded backwards into the primer pocket.  Many of these, “functionally inert,” rounds were discovered during the qualification phase of the course, and thus time was lost clearing malfunctions instead of delivering precise fire on the target.  Let alone the, “OH CRAP!” factor that an unexpected malfunction throws into your plan.  Save yourself the heartache, spend the extra $30 bucks and get quality ammo.
  • REVOLVERS ARE DIFFICULT TO SHOOT.  As Tom likes to say, “Revolvers are an expert’s weapon.”  They require a LONG time to master with specialized skills needed for trigger manipulation, malfunction clearance and reloading.  Instructors that recommend revolvers to beginners (outside of niche applications) are ill-informed, and may not be giving their students the best information.  Most people will find the softer recoiling, easily manipulated and easily reloaded semi-automatic pistol better suited to defensive use.  With a modicum of training (THAT’S WHAT THEY ARE THERE TO GET FROM YOU) NEARLY EVERYONE will be better suited with a semi-automatic pistol for self-defense.  Revolvers are still useful as a backup or secondary gun, but as a primary, you’re better off with a semi-auto pistol.  (I’m even questioning my 4 legged wilderness defense handgun choice…and thinking of changing from an N frame .44 to a USP .45 (my old duty gun) with Underwood ammo…but that’s another essay)
  • YOU MUST hit the target with every shot you fire!  “On the street there are no misses; there are only unintended hits.”  -Jeff Hall (Alaska State Trooper)
  • “DRIVE THE GUN.  DO NOT RIDE THE GUN.”  Just like in a car, if you are the driver, your job is to DRIVE.  The passenger (the root word of passenger is, “passive”) doesn’t have anything to do with the driving operation.  Thus, it is incumbent on you, the driver of the gun, to DRIVE it.  You tell it what to do, and it will do it.  Don’t let the gun beat you up and take you for a ride; you direct it to work for you and do the work.
  • Flagged thumb grip.  Over the past 10 or so Rangemaster courses and seminars I have taken with Tom, I’ve always admired his recoil control skills with the .40 Glock 35 he carries.  I’ve tried to change my grip to copy his, albeit unsuccessfully.  I always end up defaulting to a semi-thumbs forward grip that I have used for the past couple decades.  I intentionally made an effort to shoot with the, “thumbs up,” grip that Tom advocates, and it served me well.  So much so, that I ended up shooting the class best on the, “Casino Drill,” which earned me the, “Challenge Knife.” (pictured later in the essay).

    This is the, “flagged thumb,” grip that Tom uses.  It does a few things…it allows the user to fire and manipulate the gun with a locked wrist, which provides both weapon retention properties, but also recoil management.  Also, the trigger finger is able to manipulate (i.e. flex) in a straight line, which is more ergonomic.  The popular (and my default grip) radically thumbs forward grip’s inception was in the competition world, and it provides far less resistance to disarms and retention in real-world scenarios.  If we are training for, “end of our world,” scenarios, shouldn’t we use the strongest, most sturdy grip that will allow us to resist disarm attempts from emboldened or persistent attackers?  Also, shouldn’t we use the grip that gives us the firmest hold on the gun in situations that may have us frightened, agitated, unsure, or generally uneasy where dropping the gun may occur?  You bet, on both accounts!
  • SEE WHAT YOU NEED TO SEE.  I’ve heard people say this in classes since I took my first class back in 1992.  I never really understood what it meant.  Sure…I can and do shoot with my sights, “out of the notch,” at certain ranges, and would get acceptable hits, but I never really paid much attention to it.  Now, with the sights I use (Heinie or Warren plain black sights with the front sight painted a day glow salmon color) I know that if I see even a sliver of salmon on my initial draw and presentation that my shot will go true.  Couple that with getting on the trigger between the #3 and #4 positions, letting the slack out of the trigger, and you get a fast working shooting solution that is really helpful.  Also, fast follow up shots are faster, and more accurate if you unwrap the premise from your mind that you must always have a, “perfect,” sight picture with no wobbling.  As Tom says, “The gun will ALWAYS be moving.  ACCEPT IT!”
  • THINK OF THE SIGHT PICTURE AS A SIGHT MOVIE…It isn’t static.  As a follow on of the above point, nothing we do exists in a vacuum.  Yes, you must position the front sight in the notch of the rear sight (SIGHT ALIGNMENT).  But instead think of the optical relationship of the sights to the target as the SIGHT MOVIE.  It’s moving, constantly, and what you see, “NOW,” isn’t the same  movie as you see .25 seconds later!  So change your idea towards that concept.
  • Pistol rounds are notoriously ineffective performance-wise.  Plan for this eventuality and deliver multiple rounds as required, until the bad guy either disappears off of your front sight (because he’s down or he has run away).
  • KNEELING POSITIONS are important for tall lanky people like me because it makes me a smaller target, and allows me to get behind cover (at best) or concealment (if no cover is available).  However, kneeling positions should be stable but also easily changeable and dynamic, so that you can move from point A to point B rapidly if required.  Some folks don’t have the health, flexibility or prowess to pull off every kneeling position, so figure out what works for each individual.
  • Active shooters (non-elevated) tend to scan at their own eye level for threats.  Thus, lowering one’s silhouette (with a kneeling position) can give you a temporary reprieve from their scanning, and allow you to deliver accurate return fire to eliminate them.  Thus, get smaller and rounder, and behind cover whenever possible.  Dirt filled planters in the mall are great cover, as are fire hydrants.
  • Resist the temptation to eye sprint.  I dropped one round out of the head circle, but LITERALLY 1/32″ on one of the qualification tests because I didn’t follow through properly and darted my eyes to the target without getting an additional sight picture.  I immediately recognized that, and changed my game up to NOT do that again.
  • I used my preferred handgun, a Smith and Wesson M&P 9mm full size (Gen 1 V1.0) for the entire course.  I brought an identical piece but didn’t need it.  The gun I used is stock, other than the barrel and the sights.  The barrel is a Storm Lake drop in that I used to replace the OEM barrel after it had 45K rounds through it.  I also had a factory M&P Armorer go through the gun and replace the RSA and all the internal springs, to factory specifications, since this gun is my dedicated training gun.  Like I mentioned earlier, it has the Warren/Sevigny sights, plain black with the front painted salmon red/pink.  It is identical to my carry gun in all other respects.  My weakness as a shooter is left (off handed) drills.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in essays on this site, I’m missing about half of the palmar surface of my left index finger, from a metal sliver/staph aureus infection I got while working on the armored trucks, back in about 1997.  The resulting infection and serial wound debridements left me with a mutilated, and weakened left index finger.  I can flex it completely, but the distal end of the flexor tendon was so destroyed by the infection that I can’t often pull the trigger on the M&P under less than ideal conditions.  Being hydrated, outside in the heat and humidity, with tired hands, makes me default to using my left middle (AKA LONG) finger to fire the pistol, left handed.  It works great, but looks weird.  Most of my training partner/coaches, didn’t even notice until I told them.  But, I want to work on having a more solid grip in that position, for the days when my index finger isn’t cooperating.  Luckily, it doesn’t interfere with my surgery work, where my left hand is primarily tasked with holding a retractor, mirror or tissue forceps.  Small tasks, under low stress conditions, aren’t the issue.  A 6 pound trigger pull, under stress, while sweaty is!IMG_8856 (1)
  • “Your car is not a f****ng holster!”  -Pat Rogers.  This is particularly important here, in Nashville Tennessee, just two weeks from when the Antioch Church shooting occurred right down the road here.  Carry your gun, ALWAYS, and fully adopt the, “armed lifestyle.”  I’m not a psychic seer, and neither are you.  Neither were the three of Tom’s past students who were killed because they weren’t armed on their, “BIG DAY.”  Don’t be that guy/gal.  Commit to carrying, all the time.
  • REDUCE SKILL SETS to three or four steps.  “14 Step Drawstrokes,” or other ridiculously long heuristics or pneumonics aren’t helpful.  Keep it simple, Sherman.
  • Use anecdotes that have a direct connection to the material at hand.  Use examples from other people’s experiences.  My experience, although related to the topics I teach, is limited in that it isn’t all-inclusive.  By using the experiences of others, you can better illustrate your point without getting out into the weeds of war stories and tangents that waste time.
  • Use San Serif fonts, and black writing on a white background for PowerPoint presentations.  This will allow the best presentation for everyone in the room, even if they’re color blind.
  • A SCORED COURSE OF FIRE should be used!  You cannot tell if learning has occurred without them.  They build confidence and they allow you to inoculate the student with stress.  Scored evaluations also allow you to:
    • cycle through skills students don’t do well in
    • identify weak skill areas
    • verify progress
    • provide a historical standard to compare to past and future classes
    • induce stress
    • establish timing (i.e. how quickly can I hit THAT?)
    • demonstrate competence
  • DO NOT tell people what they shouldn’t do…tell them what you WANT THEM TO DO.  And choose your language carefully…say, “PRESS the trigger,” not, “SQUEEZE the trigger,” as this will induce a milking response in their grip, and cause them to send shots low on the target.
  • watch for blanching nail beds on the shooter’s hands.  If they aren’t blanched, they need to hold onto the gun more firmly.
  • If you forget ALL of the rest of the use of force lecture (how could you?), remember this:  “I will forget I have a gun unless it is needed to terminate an immediate deadly threat to my or to someone for whom I am responsible.”
This is the, “Challenge Knife,” I won for shooting the best score on Tom’s signature, “Casino Drill.”  I shot it in 14.75 seconds, clean (no misses).  According to John Hearne’s excellent lecture series on, “Human Performance Under Fire,” a sub-15 second Casino Drill is indicative of a high level of, “automaticity,” or the ability to perform skills without much thought.  Aside from the obvious (hitting the small targets in the correct order with the correct number of shots) the other skills that are required are drawing, reloading and transitioning from target to target in a non-linear fashion.  I don’t routinely practice, “just,” reloading, however I do shoot regularly, and thus I reload the gun regularly.  I do it the same way everytime, and that helps ingrain the skill.  Also, the last segment of the drill requires six, fast precise shots to a small target, in as short a time as possible.  I do not practice the Casino Drill in my regular shooting sessions, but I DO practice, “Bill Drills,” and I find that skill translates into success in the Casino Drill.  I shot a 15 second Casino Drill at Paulepalooza 4 (clean) last August, so I’m going to see how far I can push my time down while still shooting the drill cleanly.  I understand that Chief Lee Weems’ guys have this running clean in the 12 second range, and that sounds like a good goal for me to chase.




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