Several years ago, the very smart Kathy Jackson published an article on her Cornered Cat website called “How to Become a Firearms Instructor.” Hers is a practical guide rather than an analysis, but is still quite useful for my purposes in trying to understand the private citizen firearms training industry because she distinguishes between “two basic paths” to becoming an instructor.
As Jackson describes it, apprentices at a particular shooting school “first complete that school’s curriculum to show they are good students, and then begin working as assistant instructors where qualified lead instructors can help them become good teachers.”
David Williams has also suggested the benefit of apprenticeship in forming firearms instructors. In a post last month (June 2017) on the Facebook page of the American Professional Firearms Instructors Association, Williams describes how he became a firearms instructor in the 1980s as akin to “the old guild system.” He continues:
“Senior experienced people watch the new kids. Offer help while the newbies chomp at the bit. It’s not a perfect system but it’s got its good points. I cringe when I see someone who has gone to a single NRA instructors course for less than 20 hours in a weekend and goes back home to assume the mantle of lead instructor. You don’t know what you don’t know. It would be nice if instructors could form local guilds and help each other. I tried that locally. It didn’t last. So if you want to be an instructor, I ask you what would you do if you wanted to learn any craft? I find someone good at it. Sit at their feet. Watch. Learn.”
As Williams suggests, the master-apprentice relationship is ancient, hearkening back to medieval guilds as more formal systems. As an informal (though still systematic) way of passing on knowledge and skill from one generation to the next, it is timeless.
It also has modern incarnations like in the trades (electricians, plumbers), medicine (doctors-residents), law firms (partners-associates), and college faculty (tenured-untenured).
Of course, a big part of traditional apprenticeships is the one-on-one relationship between the master and apprentice. This is challenging to accomplish in firearms training on a large scale, and Jackson in her essay notes some of the downsides of doing an apprenticeship even at one school (much less with just one person).
I don’t know how many gun schools have apprenticeship programs for developing instructors, but as with so many things in the private citizen gun training industry, we can look to Gunsite Academy as an example.
At the 250 Defensive Pistol course I observed in June 2017, three of the six instructors had been personally chosen by the original Lead Instructor at Gunsite, Col. Jeff Cooper himself. This included both Range Masters, Bill Halvorsen and Steve Hendricks, the latter having the distinction of being the last Gunsite instructor personally chosen by Cooper.
Cooper called his apprentice instructors “provosts” and taught a course for them as part of their apprenticeship. (More on the term “provost” in my next post.) Current Chief Operating Officer Ken Campbell attended the last Provost class taught by Cooper.
The personal selection and instruction of Provosts by Cooper has since evolved into a “Provost Program.”
After Cooper sold the American Pistol Institute in 1992, a rift emerged between the old “Orange Gunsite” (API) and new “Grey Gunsite” (Gunsite Training Center). Soon Cooper washed his hands of the operation until it was bought again by new owners in 1999. But with Cooper out of the picture, a method for identifying and developing new instructors had to be formalized.
Enter the “Provost Program,” developed under the Gunsite Training Center regime (1992-1999). When Buzz Mills bought Gunsite in 1999, he kept and expanded the Provost Program.
Currently, it entails identifying potential instructor candidates first by their performance in classes taught at Gunsite Academy. Individuals must receive scores of Marksman 1 or Expert in three different classes in two disciplines (e.g., pistol and rifle) and catch the eye of a current Range Master who brings the individual to the attention of the permanent staff.
A premium is also placed on those who have what Ken Campbell calls “real world experience.” Those with experience in the military, law enforcement, hunting, or even the medical field. Those that Cooper described as having the experience of “seeing the elephant.”
Individuals so identified are invited to serve an apprenticeship: teaching three courses (without pay) as a “Provost” and being evaluated by the Range Masters. Provosts can be dismissed at any time and, according to Campbell, this has happened as early as the first day.
An apprentice instructor who successfully completes the Provost Program is invited to join the Gunsite Academy instructor cadre, currently 45 men and 1 woman strong.
The week I observed, there were actually seven instructors working the course, 3 with one group and 4 with the other. One of them was not a full-fledged instructor but a provost teaching the second of his three class apprenticeship. The students were never told this and the Provost taught like all of the other instructors, leading some sections and supporting in most.
This time-honored and formal system for identifying and training new instructors is a major reason why Gunsite Academy is the only gun training school that has outlived its founder. And may always be so.