Teaching Marksmanship

Marksmanship is an odd practice in that it is theoretically quite simple, but difficult to master. The basics can be demonstrated in a few minutes but you can spend the rest of your life attempting to attain true mastery.

Most gun owners, even those with decades of experience, never progress beyond randomly stumbling through the fundamentals. The biggest culprit to this sad state of affairs is the lack of readily available organized shooting events and the erroneous belief that such activity isn’t necessary. One can’t define “good” without having a defined measure. Most gun owners accept low levels of skill as “good” because they have never seen or experienced anything better.

Gun owners will frequently make comments proclaiming their skill because “Uncle Fred taught me how to shoot.” The problem is; was Uncle Fred competent to teach in the first place? Imagine speaking with a new prospective employee and finding that their education consists of “Cousin Bubba show’d me how.” If you wouldn’t trust your business with a person having these “credentials”, why would you trust them to instruct in the use of a potentially deadly technology?

Good shooting can be taught and learned, provided the instructor and/or demonstrator is proficient. How do you know if your choice of mentor is up to the task? How do you know if you have what it takes to teach marksmanship to others? The following criterion will help you decide.

The first mark of a good shooting instructor is the level of their personal skill. A good instructor doesn’t have to be a national champion but they must be sufficiently talented and able to demonstrate proficiency.

People babble whether shooting skills are more physical or mental or what percentage is art or science. I think this type of discussion comes up because good shooting has to be experienced first hand before it can really be understood.

You can’t “know” how to shoot. “Knowing how” doesn’t hit any targets. With shooting, the knowing is the doing and that means demonstrating knowledge. Some folks seem to enjoy “demonstrating” prowess with a good story, but this accomplishes nothing. A person who isn’t able or willing to demonstrate under controlled, repeatable conditions time after time doesn’t really possess the skill they claim.

The length of experience is often a poor indicator and should only be considered if it is good experience. Some people will qualify expertise by saying something like, “I’ve been hunting since 1965”, or “I’ve been a gun owner for 42 years.”

It is more useful to look at accomplishments, rather than raw years of experience. Kim Rhode has medalled a number of times at the Olympics, including a Gold in Women’s Double Trap in 1996, not to mention numerous other shotgunning titles. Michelle Tompkins-Gallagher has won the Wimbledon cup three times, besting some of the top military and FBI snipers in the process. By comparison, the late, great Carlos Hathcock managed “only” two Wimbledon wins.

Both of these marksmen have accomplished more in the shooting world than most gun owners and hunters would in multiple lifetimes, all before they could legally buy beer. Time is important, but the experience is crucial. Twenty years of bad or inconsequential experience doesn’t lend the voice of wisdom.

Consider the source of experience as well. Frequently heard with “Uncle Fred taught me how to shoot” is something like “He was in the Army.” The majority of public sector marksmanship instruction is so bad it may actually be worse than nothing.

In several Army Research Institute studies, it has been shown that two-thirds of typical soldiers failed to meet the easy minimum marksmanship qualification standards on their first try when held to the published standard and verified by a knowledgeable, impartial third party. If the instructor has military or police experience, but wasn’t a member of a marksmanship training unit or shooting team, or specifically trained and assigned as a full-time instructor, their experience likely isn’t sufficient for them to teach.

In the context of shooting prowess, hunters share the same faults as rank-and-file military and police personnel. Unfortunately, statistics on the hunting community are harder to come by simply because hunters won’t admit to them. However, it has been estimated that close to three-quarters of shots attempted in field are poorly placed, either wounding or missing the animal completely. Even successful hunts fail to reveal the true competence of the hunter. A downed animal means the hunter had sufficient skill to bring it off but the required skill could have been at the novice level. And because the shot is taken with few, if any, witnesses, the account can be portrayed however the hunter sees fit.

Even a spot earned in the hunting record books has almost nothing to do with the marksmanship skills of the hunter. Consider that big game animals are never judged on how difficult the harvest was. Scoring systems for record animals, such as Boone and Crocket and Pope and Young points, are awarded by measuring the animal. That’s all. If Milo Hanson’s buck had been shot at 25 feet during fair chase he would score just as many B&C points.

While field effectiveness of hunters can only be hypothesized, the rate of gun-related injuries among hunters is well known. It has been found that a third of the injuries are self-inflicted (hunter shot himself) and half are inflicted by a member of the hunting party (hunter shot his buddy). In other words, over 8 out of 10 shooting “accidents” in the field are self-inflicted or caused by a member of the victim’s party.

Poor handling is the culprit. This shouldn’t be surprising. Hunter education doesn’t enforce any minimum marksmanship standard and the bulk of these courses are not shooting-skill related. Military and police may have lame standards, but hunters don’t even have that.

One of the few bastions of competent skill is competitive shooting experience. Compare shooting skill with any other sport. Say you wanted to discuss and learn more about basketball from a couple of your friends. Your first friend lettered in basketball during his high school years, was a member of his college team and seriously considered trying out for the NBA. Your second friend’s experience is limited to playing the occasional game of ‘horse’ with some neighborhood kids and he never played on any recognized team. Whose opinion on the game of basketball is more likely to be valuable?

Shooting is no different. The serious, active shooting competitor has more useful insights to the process of marksmanship than the person whose experience is limited to plinking tin cans, going on the annual deer hunt, or passing an easy military or police qualification. If the prospective shooting instructor isn’t willing to test and demonstrate skills in a recognized, open forum against all comers it is safe to say their skills are suspect.

Most gun owners and hunters avoid organized shooting because it can be very revealing. A score sheet is black and white, telling exactly where the participant succeeded and failed. A hunter returning from the field with birds in hand is viewed as completely successful. The same hunter returning from a Trap, Skeet, or Sporting Clays event would have a score card that pointed out all the misses as well. Hunters aren’t required to keep score and misses can readily be forgotten.

Hunters justify their lack of participation in such events by pointing out flaws or artificialities, as if the idea of learning how to better use a firearm is somehow detrimental to hunting skills. It is easy to find fault with someone else making an effort while cowering on the sidelines and never offering to find a way to do it better. This is how the currently meaningless title of “Good Game Shot” came about. I have yet to see a definition or test on becoming a “certified GGS”, so hunters are free to assign it to friends or themselves without having to produce anything to back it up.

Did any of the above statements make you upset? Are you wondering just who the hell I am for saying this? If so, you flunked the last criterion, the willingness to learn and the ability to accept criticism. The moment a person approaches a subject with the attitude “I know it all” they have closed their minds to any future improvement. Getting angry at critical comments is a sign of resistance and the tendency to defend current skill levels rather than admit there is something new to learn. Any instructor worthy of the title realizes there is always something they don’t know, there is always something new to learn and there are many ways improvement can be realized. Good shooting instructors must be willing to try new things and participate in a variety of events that could be beneficial.

There are many ways we can define what good shooting consists of and there are a number of different ways to instill that skill upon others or ourselves. However, if the prospective instructor – be it yourself or another person – isn’t a competent marksman, doesn’t have a solid shooting background, isn’t willing to demonstrate their skill, and isn’t willing to learn something new, the teacher isn’t fit to teach.

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