The Stages of Shooter Development

A recent conversation on Facebook has gotten me thinking about “the journey” that shooters take in their (unending!) quest for mastery.

I see discrete stages of shooter development. The stages I define below are really oriented towards tactical/competition shooting with pistols and carbines, but I am sure extreme long-range and shotgun sports shooters will see some very similar patterns.

Stage One: The Non-Shooter.

This person doesn’t own a gun. Maybe they’ve shot one before at a one-off visit to the range with a rented handgun, perhaps not. They’re not scared of guns, but their lack of expertise makes them nervous using one in anything but a heavily-supervised environment. Most of their information comes from poor sources like the mass media, viral videos, and uninformed friends.

The best way to help a Non-Shooter make the transition to a New Gun Owner is to take them to the range and make gun ownership fun! Shoot with a 22 and do some bullseye shooting. Some evangelization might be helpful, but they’re either going to get it or they won’t.

This might not be a popular thing to say, but encouraging everyone to become a gun owner might not be a good plan. Creating new irresponsible gun owners is not doing anyone any favors, and if someone has serious mental health issues that induce suicidal tendencies, telling them to get a gun is extremely poor judgement. Most people are fully up to the challenge, but give it a little thought.

Stage Two: The New Gun Owner.

This person owns a gun! It’s probably a handgun, with 1-3 magazines, but it could be a pump-action shotgun, rimfire rifle, bolt action hunting rifle, or a cheaper AR-15. They bought it due to either Internet research, the gun store employee’s recommendation, or maybe a friend’s (possibly) informed advice. They take their gun to the range once every 3-6 months to make sure their skills don’t get completely lost, but it otherwise sits in a nightstand drawer, the top shelf of a closet, or (preferably) a safe. Hunters zero in and make sure their rifles will perform as necessary, but aren’t putting more than a couple boxes of ammo down range in a year – .30-06 hunting rounds are so expensive! They follow some entertaining YouTube channels and maybe they’re in a Facebook group or forum, but don’t really think of their core identity as being driven by their gun ownership. Sometimes they have a concealed carry license, but rarely carry regularly. If they’ve taken training, it was either enough to purchase a gun, hunt with it, or concealed carry it, but no more.

Not every New Gun Owner is going to become a Regular Shooter. You can encourage them to do so by inviting them to the range with you, and running them through simple drills. This is also the time to really push safety. If they’re doing holster draws, be SURE they are doing that safely.

Stage Three: The Regular Shooter.

This person not only owns a gun, but they shoot it regularly, which is a vast improvement over The New Gun Owner. This could be at the static range, but might also be the various shotgun sports or hunting. Chances are that they own more than one. They are somewhat better informed than The New Gun Owner, but their sources of information are still generally flawed. People who have stayed in The Regular Shooter stage of development for a long time tend to have a strong identity as a gun owner, but usually over-estimate their skills. They are more likely to have a concealed carry license, and perhaps pocket-carry something like a S&W Shield from time to time. They have not taken training in a long time, if ever.

Moving the Regular Shooter to the next stage is often difficult. The most reliable way of doing it is getting them into a competition, so they can see what really high-level shooting by “normal” people looks like. Friendly evangelism in conjunction with an invitation to a local training class is also a possibility, albeit Regular Shooters tend to not want to spend money on even cheaper classes.

Stage Four: The Competent Shooter.

Something has changed for The Regular Shooter, and they’ve realized they need to step it up a notch. Maybe it was an evangelistic friend. Maybe they got roped into a competition, and realized how far behind the curve they were. Maybe they were just bored and stepped out of their comfort zone. Hell, maybe they just accidentally ran across a link to Primary & Secondary. But they’ve started taking some training and shooting more competition, and they decide that they want to really master shooting. It doesn’t need to be all aspects – but they’ve made the choice that it’s going to be something. If daily concealed carry is possible for them, they’re making their best effort to do so. They’re looking at new guns from a real-world performance perspective, rather than just what looks cool. When they do live-fire practice, they’re shooting defined drills. That dry-fire thing starts happening, and they’re trying to get fast. Their identity as a gun owner shifts; it’s now not just about the gun ownership, it is about being a member of a brotherhood/sisterhood of fellow shooters who strive for genuine excellence.

The Competent Shooter needs consistent encouragement and friendly advice to move forward. The more you bring them into the circle, the more they’ll push themselves as becoming a better shooter becomes part of their core identity. If they are not shooting competition, you need to push them a little harder in that direction.

Stage Five: The Serious Shooter.

The Competent Shooter, if they keep working in a disciplined fashion, gets here soon enough. They can go to competitions and not embarrass themselves, even against tough competitors. Their gear box is over-flowing; they have a proper battle belt setup, and perhaps even a chest rig or plate carrier. Many shots that were difficult for them as a Regular Shooter now feel like point blank shooting. They are willing to push themselves to failure, and understand that pushing beyond boundaries is one of the steps to expanding them. Their information sources are solid, and they are frequently exasperated with the amount of nonsense they see being propounded on social media. Dry-fire drills are a way of life, and they’ve got a sub-second draw, even if it’s not sub-second draw-to-fire. They are trying to figure out how to get that 2s Bill Drill, but it seems very far away. They train multiple times a year. This is where the close friendships between skilled shooters really start taking place, and where the local circles become much tighter.

The Serious Shooter can still use that consistent encouragement and friendly advice, but their improvement is more about the work they’re willing to put in over longer periods of time. If you’re a Master Shooter, try not to intimidate; be someone to emulate. Serious Shooters tend to be more accepting of critique, so if you see a way for them to improve, politely point it out.

Stage Six: The Master Shooter.

Becoming the Master Shooter takes substantial time commitment. Not every Serious Shooter gets there, and that’s OK, so long as they’re at least trying to improve towards it. The Master Shooter can consistently succeed at difficult drills, frequently has that neat A or M next to their names in the USPSA rankings, and can often be found mentoring Serious and Competent Shooters. They are not uncommonly found as assistant instructors in class, and are frequently training junkies themselves, provided they’ve got the time between competitions and instructing. Despite their high-level of competency, they are almost always humble about it – they know there’s always better shooters, and probably a lot of them. They are always learning and striving for improvement.

Stage Zero: The Unsafe Shooter.

Through a dangerous mix of unconscious incompetence, delusions of skill, and/or sheer laziness, the New or Regular Shooter has devolved into the Unsafe Shooter. They muzzle themselves frequently on the range, display poor weapons handling habits, they store their weapons unsafely and insecurely, and they buy holsters that are flat-out risky to use. They have bad information, and are actively hostile to better information. Their guns tend to be low-reliability weapons that “work for them” (spoiler: they never seem to), and their appearance on the gun range makes better shooters wary.

These shooters are often the hardest to reach in terms of encouraging improvement. Competition is scorned as unrealistic; they are never willing to be put on a timer for a drill. Their choices are unassailable as they are simply not interested in evidence to the contrary. The best you can do is set a good example and gently nudge them in the right direction. If they refuse to buy good expensive gear, at least point them at cheaper gear that’s better than what they’re using. Fixing the Unsafe Shooter is a war of increments, and needs to be treated that way.

I’m interested in whether people see other stages, or if I’ve missed one. I think identifying where people are on the scale is useful in knowing how to talk to them.

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