The Most Important Lesson I Learned as an FBI Firearms Instructor
Safety is always the paramount tenet for every firearms instructor. But I have found another critical tenet many instructors neglect.
During my 16 years as an FBI Firearms Instructor for both SWAT Operators and all-Agent training, I was instructing on the range during five different accidental discharges or “ADs”, involving three different weapons systems (handgun, shotgun and MP-5). A few years prior to my appointment at the FBI Academy, there had been three separate ADs where trainees were shot, almost closing the academy. While at the police academy in Colorado Springs, an officer from another agency was accidentally shot in the leg while reholstering. And when I was in the Marine Corps, one Marine accidentally shot and killed another when he mistakenly loaded a live round while conducting force-on-force SIMMS tactical training.
Is safety the primary lesson every firearms instructor should have ingrained in their soul? Absolutely. Knowledge of the First Aid Plan and trauma training are close behind. Many firearms instructors will tell you, as will I, that despite our best efforts teaching and enforcing safety rules, reminding participants of the “Rules of Weapon Safety”, and having an instructor just feet away from a trainee, the human you are training still does something inexplicable and has an AD.
We must always remain vigilant at the range to eliminate or at least minimize accidents to the greatest degree possible and be prepared if something does go “sideways”. Not to diminish the importance of safety, there is a follow-on tenet which I have found to be vital, one which I have seen many firearms instructors neglect or even abandon – caring. Some call it motivation, enthusiasm, or professionalism. Whatever term you use, most of us have experienced it, when a lead instructor just doesn’t seem to really care about the training. Brand new Firearms Instructors and new recruits see this lethargy the clearest, and it can quickly infect everyone.
It’s unclear when this transition happens, from the motivated new instructor who loves to shoot and can’t wait to train others, to the salty old-timer who just wants folks to qualify, not shoot themselves or each other, and get off the range as quickly as possible. “Shoot your qualification course and go home” becomes the mantra. This is quickly reinforced by the officers/agents/trainees who get used to this quick and easy day and complain if any training is added. Blame is often placed on “reduced training time”, “lack of ammo”, or “folks complain to management”. New or still motivated instructors don’t want to say anything for fear of making the senior instructors and fellow officers mad at them or not be invited back to the range to help with training. Getting rid of dead-weight firearms instructors is often next to impossible, as they don’t want to give up the “sweet gig” they have going and being reassigned somewhere where they might actually have to do some work and be held accountable.
For each training session that goes by where we simply qualify and go home with little to no instruction, our skills decline. Our proficiency, confidence and decision-making with our firearms diminish. This leads to poor decisions on the street and even more embarrassing or deadly ADs away from the firing range. The consequences can be costly, both in lawsuits and lives.
The most important lesson I learned as an FBI Instructor – after range safety – was to continue to care. If anyone I trained was ever injured or killed in the line of duty, I knew I would immediately ask myself if I had given them the best training I could. If I had created a better training plan or taught it better, would that Agent be able to go home to his or her family? And when Agents had to use deadly force or were shot, I went to them and asked if I could have done something better or if there was something we needed to add to our training.
Care enough to maximize the training time you are provided as an instructor. Detail your training goals and ensure the other instructors have and follow the training plan. Block-out the anticipated complaints from the old-timers – both fellow instructors and officers, who would complain regardless. If you are in the military or law enforcement long enough, you will encounter the instructor that simply wants to get the required qualifications done and go home. You can encourage those instructors who have lost that desire by giving them assignments to help them push past their complacency or set them aside while you and the other motivated instructors maximize the increasingly rare training opportunities.
For those of you who are assistant instructors unable to immediately affect a poor training program, do your small part to make folks better. If you are working the firing line, provide feedback and instruction to your bay even if other instructors don’t for their folks. Others will see your leadership and your positive reputation will grow. Problem shooters and those wanting to improve will start to seek you out because they know you are willing to help. Other instructors will notice as well and either step-up their instruction or begin to defer to you to run training events or even take over a program.
Despite the resistance I often surprisingly received, both from other instructors and a handful of Agents, I was proud at the end of each training day that I did my best to make each participant better and safer. Like a child who complains about the discipline a parent enforces, it makes the child better and secretly they want that discipline. Provide the leadership the other officers and trainees need to push them to be more proficient and safer. We owe it to those we are privileged to train.