Sunday, September 21, 2014

Training - Qualifying . . .


As a general rule . . . people hate to be “judged”. It’s not difficult to do a quick tour through the Internet and locate article after article about the “wrongness” of being judgmental. Yet . . . if we are honest . . . we make judgments, particularly about people, virtually every day. How people dress (honest to goodness, the bill of a ball cap is to SHADE YOUR FRICKIN’ EYES!!! and not to protect your neck from sunburn), how folks interact (well he could have been a bit more polite) and sometimes . . . how a person is acting towards you (I feel just more than a little uncomfortable – I’m going to go someplace safer . . . NOW).

Judgments can also get very personal . . . especially when they are directed an YOU.

In the shooting community, there is always a bit of “measuring” going on . . . best target, fastest reload, fastest draw and engagement, best round for the day . . . it’s an ongoing process. And there’s a lot of good that comes from this regarding us as shooters – it pushes us to be better, faster, more accurate. It feeds our passion to be the best shooter we can be.

There are distinct points in time though when we – as a shooter – are evaluated in a very specific manner . . . and we must “qualify”. My first experience with this was during basic training in ’68. Classroom work, written tests and finally range work - a black silhouette at 100 yards. 100 rounds total, 25 rounds each from standing, sitting, kneeling and prone. A round on the target was a hit. If memory serves 80% was passing with anything over 95% qualifying as “expert”. I did, indeed, shoot expert . . . but still had a long way to go to be – in my opinion – “qualified”. And yet . . . between the exams and the range work, a judgment could be made about my skills. I understood how a M-16 worked, I could maintain it and I could shoot it accurately - at least on a range, in good weather, with no one shooting back. It was a minimal benchmark - one that was established for everyone in my training flight.

For those of you taking firearms training in today’s shooting community, there are any number of types of “qualification” courses you can shoot. And that’s what I’d like to chat a bit about today. What’s their purpose, what should they cover, do they actually have value and – on an individual level – when you go to the range, what do you expect of yourself when it comes to a “qualifying score” for the day.



  • to give (someone) the necessary skill or knowledge to do a particular job or activity
  • to have the necessary skill or knowledge to do a particular job or activity : to have the qualifications to do something
  • to pass an exam or complete a course of study that is required in order to do something

Examinations given at the end of classroom time fulfill the same purpose they have for hundreds of years . . . have you retained the information shared with you by your teacher? Bringing to mind the NRA training courses, your written exam judges two specific individuals – you, the student . . . and the course instructor as well. Do you know the parts of a revolver, SA Semi-Automatic pistol, pump shotgun . . . the fundamentals of aiming, how to find eye dominance . . . there is, indeed, much to learn. Especially for the new or inexperienced shooter. And for the instructor – did he do his job and teach you what you are expected to know?

Once you take to the range – a whole new skillset is being evaluated. At the very root of all range work . . . are you safe? Your instructor is continually evaluating you for obedience to the safety rules you were given whether they be the Big 3 from the NRA, Cooper’s four or some other set of rules designed to keep you safe on the range.

At the end of the coursework, after the instructor has taught you their shooting method, their drills, shared their ideas on their particular approach to shooting, there is typically a “qualification” course of fire at the end . . . a shooting test . . . to evaluate whether you have learned the skillsets and can demonstrate them back to the instructor and – typically – to the whole class.

It is here that another purpose of “qualifying” is shown, it introduces a higher level of stress into the exercise. We all want to do our best, no one wants to “fail” or look stupid in front of a group of our peers. It forces you to focus on the task at hand and to step-up to the challenge . . . or not.

In some cases, qualifying is also part of the “entry pass” to specific coursework. For most of the NRA instructor coursework there are pre-course qualifications that need to be met, including a shooting qualification. Here the purpose is simple . . . you need to be able to shoot in order to be able to teach someone else to shoot. The pre-course qualification covers this as well as basic knowledge of the particular course you wish to teach.

What does a “qual test” cover?

For the shooting community, let’s break it down between classroom and range. In a classroom setting we are typically trying to confirm our knowledge of specific pieces of information. Safety rules, parts of a firearm, awareness of our surroundings, mindset, pieces of equipment, broader skill sets such as first aid. Much of this is covered by both a written exam – whether a pre-qualification test to determine if you should even be in the class – or a final exam to determine if you learned and retained what was taught. Most instructors are also doing a running evaluation of students in their coursework. A poor attitude is one of the quickest ways to have a door hit you in the butt on the way out.

On the range – for a prospective instructor – a qualification course of fire is used to determine if the person has the necessary shooting skills to teach the coursework. No pressure . . . but if you can’t shoot the course of fire, you can’t take the course to become an instructor. That said, isn’t that what we all want really? If I’m taking a shooting course . . . shouldn’t I be certain the instructor actually knows how to shoot?? Yep, no brainer there.

So what about the person who trains the trainer . . . what check is there on them?? Honestly, it’s the same – they’ve all been in the position of having to have proved themselves through coursework. But, most of them . . . the good ones anyway . . . will actually shoot the qualification course of fire first – in front of the prospective instructors. Why? First, to demonstrate that passing the shooting qualification is possible. Next, to keep pressure on themselves to maintain their skills. Finally, to prove to the students that they can actually shoot . . . why would any student take advice from an instructor if they can pass a simple qualification course?

For the student on the range, it is proof – raw, physical proof – that they have actually learned the skillset being taught. It allows for everything to come together and gives them the opportunity to demonstrate to themselves, their peer group and their instructor that . . . Yep! I got it!! It may also be your “key” to show that you have learned the material well enough to be awarded a certification.

In a broader sense, they also provide a common baseline of knowledge and skill. Presented to the shooter in the same way . . . with the same round count . . . same time limits . . . same equipment requirement . . . same type of draw (concealed or OC) . . . they offer the ability to compare shooters on an “equal footing”.

There’s perhaps no more “quoted” qualification course of fire than the FBI’s. If you are looking for a baseline “standard” it is probably better than most. And, it is one that has changed with time as well with the current iteration being adapted in within the last 2 years to reflect what they have learned through their real world experience . . . over the previous 17 years, 75% of their shooting engagements were within 3 yards. The full article is here. The meat of the article . . .

“Until last January, the pistol-qualification course required agents to participate in quarterly exercises in which they fired 50 rounds, more than half of them from between 15 and 25 yards. The new course involves 60 rounds, with 40 of those fired from between 3 and 7 yards.

The new exercise also requires that agents draw their weapons from concealed positions, usually from holsters shielded by jackets or blazers, to mimic their traditional plainclothes dress in the field.”

And, a link to an excellent discussion of the new course of fire can be found here.

Notice that the qualification course of fire is shot quarterly . . . 4 times a year . . . frequently. Keep that in mind. If you aren’t going to the range, aren’t drawing your weapon, aren’t working on your skillset . . . it may well not be available should the need arise.

Specific coursework that is teaching a specific skillset will typically have their own final qualification course of fire. This past June I took the Combat Focus Shooting course from Rob Pincus. I wrote a full AAR of the course here. His final qualification course of fire was a “Figure 8 Drill” one student at a time. Specifics being evaluated were moving while drawing, target identification, strings of fire rather than 1 or 2 rounds per engagement, full scan and assess after each engagement, movement during reloads, ability to provide precise shots on command. This is what that looked like . . .

The qualification course of fire fit the purpose of the course. It allowed me to be evaluated to insure I had learned what he intended me to learn.

Bottom line, your “Qual course” should cover all the bits and pieces your instructor believes are important – from shooting skills to raw knowledge.


The primary value examinations and qualification courses of fire provide you, as a shooter, is a benchmark for that day of your knowledge and your ability to shoot your defensive weapon quickly and accurately. Over time, they provide you information of where you have improved, where you need to spend energy working on specific knowledge or skills and they build confidence. If you can go to the range and shoot a qualification target cold . . . or do a perfect draw from concealment and engagement . . . it provides you confidence in your ability to use your weapon.

There is also an ability to help you should you ever be involved in a defensive shooting – they can go a long way to help show you are a skilled and accurate shooter. Ongoing documentation of your range visits also can help provide proof that you practice your skillset on a frequent basis and that you have the ability to accurately hit your target. (And if you can’t do that today . . . perhaps it’s time for a little range work.)

Individual Rangework

You can – and should – shoot our own qualification course of fire every time you go to the range. Your requirement for accuracy is up to your own specifications. Your expectations are also up to you. For my range trips I expect a round to be within or touching the boundary of by target area be it head shot triangle, high center chest or pelvic girdle or unique target shape or number . . . the accuracy is on me and my expectation is 80% or better. This is a sample target from last year . . .

qual target

If you are a target shooter . . . expect to up your score and make your groups much tighter. Shoot a qual target before you leave. Date it, score it, take a picture of it . . . and document your range trip.

If you are a defensive shooter . . . use an appropriate target, develop a set of drills that can be used in a qualification course of fire and follow suit as above – shoot the qual course, date it, score it, take a picture of it and document your range trip.

And if you are wondering what a qualification course of fire might look/sound like – here is an example.   (If you want to save the file simply click  “Save the page as” and store the audio file where ever you wish.)

I have this in my cell phone and I listen to it via a Bluetooth earpiece I wear under my “ears”. It’s 5 minutes long, 10 commands 30 seconds apart. “UP!” means multi-round engagement center mass. Otherwise it is a single precise round fired at the box, number or head as it’s called out. Each engagement is from concealment with a full scan and assess prior to reholstering. This particular audio file is one I happen to have sitting on this notebook right now – there are others. But, I think it gives you a good example of how you can build your own.

So, there you have it.

Do you “qualify” as a solid shooter?? If not . . . why not? No excuses – get out there, hit the range, take some coursework, practice your skill set . . .

If you’re going to be a “shooter” . . . make sure you can live up to exactly what that means!


  1. Well said, and training WITH a plan is critical... Anything else is nothing more than burning powder...

  2. Morning Jim - yep, a training plan is simply a must . . . unless you've got more money than sense. I'd love to try that lifestyle some time!! :)