The Rise of the Private Citizen Gun Training (Cottage) Industry

This summer I began collecting data for the chapter of my book that will cover the civilian or private citizen gun training industry. My first stop was a Rangemaster Firearms Training Services instructor development and certification course conducted by Tom Givens.

When Givens became a professional defensive firearms instructor in the mid-1970s, he could count his peers on one hand: Col. Jeff Cooper, John Farnam, Chuck Taylor, Masaad Ayoob.

A decade later, a curious little book by “James L. Winter” (a pseudonym) called Shooting Schools: A Second Look (Personal Defense Foundation, 1985) opened by declaring:

…today shooters cannot thumb through the pages of almost any hunting or gun publication without coming across an ad for one of the new public schools (academies or institutes) which offer weapons training [to the general public] – and which have become the fastest growing phenomenon in 1980s gun circles. (p. 1)

The author analyzed 21 shooting schools with open enrollment policies (i.e., not restricted to law enforcement and military personnel), that either had a national constituency or were regional/local but had strong reputations for quality.

Of those 21, the “big four” were judged to be: Jeff Cooper’s American Pistol Institute, Ray Chapman’s Chapman Academy, Massad Ayoob’s Lethal Force Institute, and John Farnam’s Defense Training Institute. In the second edition of the book, the author added two additional schools: Chuck Taylor’s American Small Arms Academy and Clint Smith’s International Training Consultants.

Of the “big six” of 1985, four still exist thirty-plus years later (2017): Cooper’s API (now Gunsite Academy), Ayoob’s LFI (now Massad Ayoob Group), John Farnam’s DTI, and Clint Smith’s ITC (now Thunder Ranch).

Significantly, only Gunsite Academy has outlived its founder. Most shooting schools, like Chapman’s and Taylor’s, pass on once their founders move on. (In 2012, Massad Ayoob announced the re-birth of Chapman Academy under one of Chapman’s proteges, but the link to the Academy’s website is dead and its Facebook page seems dormant, suggesting the difficulty of institutionalization after the passing of the charismatic founding figure.)

Gate to Gunsite Ranch, home of Gunsite Academy, Paulden, Arizona (June 2017). Photo by David Yamane


The dramatic growth of private citizen gun training observed in the mid-1980s in Shooting Schools has continued. A major driver of this growth, as in the 1970s and 80s, is the increasing importance of self-defense in gun culture – the shift from Gun Culture 1.0 to Gun Culture 2.0.

Consider that in 1985, the author of Shooting Schools maintained: “Dependable self-protection . . . usually requires carrying a weapon at all times” (emphasis in original, p. 16). Observing that open carrying a weapon, even where legal, is problematic, he adds, “you will usually end up carrying concealed – rarely ‘legal’ under most state and local laws – despite the fact that the legal risk is high and the punishment often severe” (emphasis in original, p. 16).

As Biggie put it, “Things Done Changed.” Today, shall-issue concealed carry predominates in state laws, followed by permitless carry laws, with may-issue laws remaining in just a few (albeit highly populous) states.

With the rise of Gun Culture 2.0 has come a massive influx of civilian firearms trainers who teach concealed carry courses or National Rifle Association basic pistol courses or both. Being an NRA-certified instructor is so often a prerequisite for teaching state-required concealed carry courses, and NRA basic pistol courses are so often accepted as fulfilling state-mandated concealed carry training requirements, that Jennifer Carlson has characterized the NRA as a “quasi-regulatory agency.”

So, forty years after Tom Givens got into the gun training business with a handful of his peers, gun training is an industry. Or, as Givens suggested when I mentioned the training industry to him, “maybe a cottage industry.”

Fair enough. A leading contemporary firearms trainer himself, Karl Rehn has observed that almost no civilian trainers make a living solely as trainers.

But lots of people are making some money as part of the private citizen firearms training (cottage) industry. Unfortunately, there is no overarching professional association covering this occupation, so it is impossible to know how many.

According to the NRA, their firearms training division certifies “a network of more than 125,000 instructors, 8,000 coaches and 2,200 training counselors.”

Other groups are more limited. A closed group on the professional networking site “LinkedIn” called “Instructors & Trainers – Firearms & Tactics Training” has 1,067 members, and an open group called “Firearms Instructors” has 10,286 (up from 6,000 in 2014). A Facebook group called “American Professional Firearms Instructors Association” has 2,448 members, while the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors Facebook page has 1,839 likes.

Not only do we not know how many firearms instructors there are, we don’t know who they are, what they teach, or what qualifies them to teach – especially in the area of defensive firearms for private citizens.

Trying to answer these questions, if only in part, is a big part of what I will be doing this year and next. The comprehensive answer will be a chapter in my book, but partial answers and ongoing thinking will appear on this blog as I go along.

I began my field observations by attending Tom Given’s course (about which I will have more to say shortly), followed by my week at Gunsite Academy in June.

Screen cap of

Either confirmed for this year or on my wish list are the following:

  • Rob Pincus/ICE Training Combat Focus Shooting Instructor Conference
  • John Farnam/DTI defensive pistol course
  • Gabe Suarez/Suarez International Pistol Gunfighting School
  • Mike Seeklander/Shooting Performance Firearms Instructor Development Course
  • Massad Ayoob/Massad Ayoob Group Use of Deadly Force Instructor course
  • USCCA training counselor course
  • NRA Personal Protection Inside/Outside the Home instructor course
  • NRA Carry Guard!

There are many others that I would love to observe – Karl Rehn’s KR Training, Clint Smith’s Thunder Ranch, and Paul Carlson’s Safety Solutions Academy come immediately to mind – but limited resources (time/money/energy) means I can only do so much.

That said, if you have other suggestions, I welcome them.


  1. In New Mexico, one has to be certified by the New Mexico Dept. of Public Safety in order to teach the CHL class that is required to get a CHL. At least someone, in this case, the state, is on record as certifying someone and as you say, on the basis of a lot of classroom curriculum borrowed from the NRA. My concern is pretty much yours, “…we don’t know who they are, what they teach, or what qualifies them to teach – especially in the area of defensive firearms for private citizens…”

    It seems like this is a bomb waiting to go off, i.e., can you imagine anyone deciding they are certified to teach CPR on the basis of their own opinion of themselves and then teaching others? Aside from the fact that the Red Cross would sue, I see a problem. In an age when the NRA and others are advocating that citizens carry for self defense and when some states are loosening CHL requirements, sooner or later some smartypants lawyer is going to start sueing these people when someone gets shot–either the “trained” citizen lawfully carrying when he/she turns out to be woefully unequipped for an actual gun battle, or someone wrongfully shot by a newly minted Bachelor of Concealed Carry. The gun community, at least Gun Culture 2.0, would be wise to figure out some standards and some certifying organization. Perhaps the NRA.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can say that I don’t know that the State of North Carolina does a great job with licensing instructors for CCW classes. The requirements are minimal and there is little auditing of what is actually taught. And I spoke to someone just a couple of weeks ago who basically bought a CCW class certificate without taking the class.

      ON THE OTHER HAND, I don’t know of any data that shows people who carry concealed in states with higher training requirements have fewer problems carrying than those in states with lower or no training requirements (including permitless carry states). So, I share your concern, but I don’t know if I should really be that concerned about it.

      OF COURSE, we can’t necessarily generalize from the past to the present. As more people carry, as carry becomes more normal, as permitless carry (perhaps) becomes the norm, as more people with little or know experience with firearms carry, we could well see more problems in the future than we have in the past.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. David,

    I think only Andrew Branca (“Law of Self-Defense”) and Massad are formally offering it, but non-shooting-based carry/self-defense instruction, the legal side of things, is also part of the picture and probably should be a bigger part of it. It also has more of the potential liability Khal mentions attached.

    It’s probably more important than the mechanics of “gunfighting.” After all, we thankfully seldom see defensive uses by the “mechanically untrained” go horribly wrong*, even with so many people carrying, resulting in themselves or innocents harmed due to missed shots, the defender being “disarmed and having their gun used against them,” or innocent people being targeted by mistake. The standard anti-gun “concerns” raised about expanded carry are thankfully statistically and realistically rare.

    What we do see is people shooting (usually objectively “guilty” of an immediate crime against the shooter in some way, which is better than truly morally innocent) people who weren’t, or no longer are, legitimate, justifiable targets under the law. “Good guys” shooting “bad guys” *illegally*. It’s really the same problem we see with police. Not so much “mechanically” incompetent use of force, but “legally” incompetent.

    Who to shoot, more than how. The best classes would, I assume, cover both or, as I know Branca and Ayoob do, make clear that instruction in the other is also a moral/legal requirement.

    * accidental shootings during handling, and bad storage leading to theft or misuse by the unauthorized are general gun ownership safety issues, not “carry-specific.” Important topic, and most classes aimed at new shooters cover them, but they aren’t really “carry” issues per se.

    My first formal “name” gun class was when Wayne Anthony Ross (Atty, NRA Director, license plate WAR) brought up his friend Massad Ayoob (who I knew from his books, VHS tapes, and gun mag articles) to teach LFI-1 “The Judicious Use of Deadly Force” after Alaska passed our shall-issue law in ’94. I could only get into the 20 hour classroom portion. Still have my notes though, alongside the new ones from the full MAG-40 he taught up here last year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good guys shooting bad guys who are not a lethal threat is one, i.e., shooting someone running away or stealing your bicycle from the front yard. Good guys shooting themselves in the ass or other sensitive parts while drawing from concealment. Good guys shooting innocents in the line of fire, since good guys are not covered by the legal protection cops enjoy. Good guys not learning how to use cover or how to shoot at a moving target or having the mental steel to know you can actually use that goddamn thing in your pocket.

      I guess as an old fart and card-carrying member of GC-1.0, I have a hard time buying into the idea that we should encourage anyone to be walking around armed, unless we are damned serious about not only the immense burden that puts on a person to not screw up, but to also be technically proficient. I think Massad Ayoob agrees, as David has written. Hope all these other cottage industry instructors agree as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I definitely hear alot about the RESPONSIBILITY of being armed in public from trainers and other advocates of GC2.0. And also aversion to government enforcement of responsibility. We want people to train but we don’t want the government to force people to train.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. As a gun culture 1.0 person and someone who has had training for a former armed contract security job (that qualified me for CWL in NC) I would feel comfortable with training a single person in safe firearms handling, shooting and marksmanship. However I would not, nor do not think or present myself, even try to teach the legal side other than what I learned in that class. I would point them to someone like Massad Ayoob’s writings.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Great point. The legal side is difficult. I took the State of North Carolina’s required (one day) course for concealed carry instructors, passed the written test with a perfect score, and would still be reluctant to teach the legal side to someone who might act on what I said.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.