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Tactical Course Preparation

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Getting maximum value out of your tactical training dollar.

by John M. Buol Jr.

If you’re interested in learning or improving tactical shooting skills, there is no shortage of instructors and schools offering courses. Taking a good class from a reputable instructor will fast track your ability, but it is only an aid. You still have to do the work. Just as a book must be read and can’t convey knowledge via osmosis, the skills you learn at a course must be absorbed by you and this requires active participation before, during and after the class.

The value of a good instructor is to present concise, useful information in an organized manner and then observe your performance, giving assistance and unbiased assessments. A technique flaw that might plague an untrained novice for months or years and remain undetected by his equally novice shooting buddies can be identified and addressed by a knowledgeable instructor on the first day of class. However, no matter how good the instructor, the student must ultimately teach himself a given task. A teacher can only provide guidance and help reduce the learning curve. You still have to do the work.

Taking a good course at a reputable school can fast track your tactical shooting skills. You can learn good shooting on your own but an experienced eye critiquing might immediately spot and correct errors that could take you significant time to recognize on your own.

Preparations Before You Go

In preparing to go, review all course welcome materials, follow the instructions and pack everything on the list. Any experienced instructor will have worked with dozens or hundreds of others. Specific equipment and ammunition listings are there for a good reason.

Whether listed or not, prep yourself. Most shooting courses will have long range days, extending well into the evening for scheduled night shoots. You’ll likely be jumping into and out of shooting positions and contorting around cover. If you aren’t exercising regularly now, start doing so immediately and well before the class begins. Starting a month in advance might not be soon enough. Take at least as much time as you would to prepare for a scored physical fitness test. Course instructors won’t likely test how many pullups you can do or how much you can deadlift, but being under conditioned and sore every day isn’t conducive to learning physical skills.

T.J. Pilling of Tiger Valley ( works with a student during a A Girl and A Gun ( event. This group has found arranging all female classes encourages participation for women that might not attend otherwise. A good instructor will catch and work problems one-on-one.

Even though shooting fundamentals will likely be taught at the school, I recommend working ball and dummy drills as practice before you go. This is technique agnostic and curing (or reducing) a flinch will let you focus on the skills being taught instead of being scared of your own gun and fighting it.

Fundamentals apply everywhere and this can be worked on your own, unless you need to spend $2000 and travel 1500 miles for an instructor to stick a dummy round in your magazine and spoon feed observations like: “Yep, you’re flinching” to you. And if you do, the course will be lost on you as you aren’t willing to do the work necessary afterwards to retain lessons learned. Think of the course as an opportunity to work on skills and shoot in environments you wouldn’t normally be able to on your own. Every gun owner can easily work on group shooting and improve fundamental marksmanship and gun handling skills at home or the local range, but not many have a shoot tower, 360 degree range, shoot house, etc.

What To Focus On Before And After

While in class, you’re there to absorb what’s being taught. It’s their way or the highway regardless if you learned a different way to do something before. You paid to take this class, so take it! This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t question something and blindly follow everything put out forever after. Learn the instructor’s approach, ask questions and for demonstrations until you feel you fully understand their approach and rationale. Perform the technique exactly as dictated. If still not convinced, consider discarding the technique after the class, but use it while there. If you can’t trust the teacher’s methods for the duration of the class, don’t take that course.

The real learning will take place after the course is complete. Educational psychologist Kendra Cherry notes in How to Become a More Effective Learner that: “It is important to keep practicing in order to maintain the gains you have achieved. This ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ phenomenon involves a brain process known as ‘pruning.’ Certain pathways in the brain are maintained, while other are eliminated. If you want the new information you just learned to stay put, keep practicing and rehearsing it.”

Classes must include demonstrations of what “right” looks like. An instructor that won’t (or can’t) demonstrate skills at a high level isn’t an instructor.

In Human Performance, Paul Fitts, a past president of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, defined a widely-used model of skill acquisition consisting of several stages. The Cognitive phase, where a new student comes to understand what an observed skill is composed of, an Associative phase, where individuals repeatedly practice the skill until the actions become learned while ineffective actions are dropped, and the Autonomous (or procedural) phase, where skill acquisition becomes more perfected and less conscious thought process is required because the skill has become automated.

The ideal learning approach would introduce a skill or idea (Cognitive phase) and the student practicing it frequently over time (Associative phase) until well learned (Autonomous phase) before learning something new. Music tutors often schedule short, weekly lessons with students practicing on their own between sessions. Unfortunately, most tactical classes are forced to “fire hose” ideas, rushing through Cognitive phase with a brief introduction in Associative phase of a given skill before moving on. This makes practice on your own after the course vital.

The best take away lesson you’ll get is an accurate measure of drills to perform with realistic standards. Good instructors will have some approach describing how you should practice what you learned. This should not be some nebulous platitude (“you should practice this stuff”) but an actual set of drills with targets and performance standards to train the skills on. If these aren’t handed to you (boo to any instructor that doesn’t!) spend some time while at the school measuring the targets and pacing distances shot from so you can recreate a useable standard to work on back home. Not having a numerical assessment means you aren’t measuring skill and simply do not understand what you’re learning or if you’re improving.

A good shooting course will have some stress shoots for time.

Plan to spend as much training time at home after the course as you did in the class. For example, upon returning home you put in a minimum three ten-to-twenty minute dry practice sessions each week and a two hour live fire session every other weekend to work through the Cognitive and Autonomous learning phases of the skills. Assuming a six to eight hour training day (that’s actual training, not how long the day went) it will take a month for each day the course lasted. Yes, I’m suggesting after spending five days at Tiger Valley, Gunsite, Thunder Ranch, or Front Sight, you should run through the exercises you learned there for five months after. If that sounds excessive, consider that tuition costs $200-$500 per day of training for a good course anywhere, not counting travel, lodging, food, ammo, and missed time from work.

You can’t learn what you won’t train. You have to do the work. A good class puts you down the right path. It’s up to you to follow it.

Training Checklist: What you need before you go

A critical checklist is from the class you’re attending. There is a good reason for any explicitly listed or forbidden equipment.

Be limber and fit enough to keep out of your own way. If a few vigorous circuits of calisthenics (pullups, pushups, air squats, burpees, etc.) followed by a light run leaves you sore the following day, fix it before you go.

Flinching while shooting means you’re scared of your own gun and shooting blind (eye blink in recoil anticipation), hampering learning. Dry practice a few times a week and work slow fire ball and dummy drills to reduce this, which also preps the regular practice you’ll need to retain lessons later.

Many schools will have range facilities and drills that can’t be readily done at your home range, such as this shoot tower at Tiger Valley.

Take notes with an emphasis on creating drills and skill assessments based on what you’re learning. The real training will occur after the class. The course is there to teach you how to teach yourself. Your real training happens after the course is complete. A good instructor will have practice drills prepared for your use to retain what you learned. Measure the targets and distances used so you have a standard to measure your improvement against.

Post-course practice plan: Three ten minute dry practice sessions per week and a two hour live fire sessions (50-100 rounds) every other weekend yields about six solid training hours monthly. Spend one month practicing what you learned in this fashion for every day the course lasted. Skills are rented and payments are made in regular practice.

John Buol

I joined SARG (Small Arms Readiness Group, formerly Small Arms Training Team) in 1999 and would spend the next decade, and most of that on active duty, as a full-time small arms instructor. During this time I picked up NRA Conventional Pistol (2700 bullseye) and High Power, but my primary discipline was the combat matches hosted by NATO. I managed a few overall wins at All Army (2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014) along with a host of trophies for individual and team matches there and at AFSAM (Armed Forces Skill at Arms Meeting.) After completing active duty, I was hired as the Editor of American Gunsmith ( and founded the Firearm User Network ( to promote organized shooting events.

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