With the NRA Carry Guard Expo right around the corner (Aug. 25-27 in Milwaukee), we took a chance to kill, as the saying goes, two birds with one stone: Round out our interview series with the principals (here, here and here), and take the Level I training ourselves.
We concede our assent was no dignified nod. More along the lines of … well, never mind; you get the idea. But however crass our tagging along, Level I Carry Guard proved just as promised—quite simply the gold standard. On top of showing us holes a-plenty in our own journey of technique development, we spent three solid days with Jeff Houston, lead instructor for the entire program. We have felt as fortunate few times in our lives: no-adjective-quite-suits training from great patriots and thoroughly decent people. Is this a great country, or what?
America’s 1stFreedom: Great to talk with you again so soon, Jeff. I know your story starts in the Denver area from other things you’ve said, but get us from the introduction to shooting in the Boy Scouts with your dad to where you are today.
Jeff Houston: That’s right. Born and raised in the Denver area, a .22 bolt action rifle was my introduction to firearms. Our family did a lot of camping, and I had an uncle who was a major enthusiast, so both of those were opportunities to shoot as well. But in terms of what I’d call instruction, that had to wait for the U.S. Army, in about 2004.
I was at Arizona State University when 9/11 happened, and it made me think pretty seriously about the course of my life. I spent six months devouring everything I could find on Special Forces in the various services, and decided I wanted to be a Green Beret. I enlisted and went through Infantry Basic, Airborne school and made it in (to Special Forces) straight away. I had learned to shoot a rifle in Basic, but the “Q(ualification) course” was where I learned to use a handgun well.
I guess you could say I was a natural with a pistol. As a function of that, I had the opportunity to attend several advanced internal (to the Army) and external schools or courses, including two with Rob Leatham of Team Springfield (Armory). “Cool,” to say the least, and it got rid of the idea that there was nothing competition really had to offer to our type of shooting: As guys in our business like to say, “The best do the basics better.” Rob does, and emphasizes, just that, and it has stuck with me.
You’ll know these dots well indeed by the time you shoot through Level I. Photo by A1F Staff
I left the Army in 2009 to go back to school, but also to start my own business, which included a substantial amount of firearms instruction. I met Eric Frohardt in 2011, and it’s one of those “the rest is history” things. We’ve worked together on and off ever since, but always with a lot of focus on training, especially for what I’d call “regular, American folks.”
A1F: That was certainly obvious in our recent opportunity to see the course from a student perspective. Instructors with military or law enforcement experience have often (and desirably) “seen the elephant” as Jeff Cooper said, and can be invaluable to civilian practitioners, but they sometimes overplay this, too. There wasn’t the slightest hint of this in the Level 1 course, and it’s a tremendous credit to George, Eric, James and you.
JH: It’s interesting to hear you say that, because it is both a benefit and a problem from an instructional point of view. Especially for guys in the SF community, it’s taken for granted that we know a lot about firearms and literal combat, but not necessarily that much about the realities of “carry.” This isn’t surprising, really, but it’s also incorrect: In what we call “non-permissive” environments—where carry, and especially carry by foreigners, would not be allowed—we still have to be armed and trained to use what arms we have at a very high level. So we actually work on concealment methods and shooting techniques a lot, and not just combat shooting in the conventional battlefield sense. It’s decades of experience in all kinds of gun handling.
“Quickly and accurately” may have a very different meaning then, depending on distance and other factors.If there’s some sort of “attitude” component of this, it doesn’t help anybody, and we stay away from it. We see shooters of extremely varied ability and levels of training, and we’ve designed the curriculum so that there’s something for everybody to take advantage of in just about every drill … as long as they come wanting to learn. I don’t think any of our instructors see themselves as finished products, either. We’re “regular folks” now, too, and want to keep learning.
A1F: The “something for everybody” aspect was a stand-out characteristic to us. The first classroom portion prepared everybody to work safely on a “hot range,” and that made a lot more shooting possible. With a high round count, new shooters rapidly nail down overlooked basics or new skills, and somewhat more experienced folks will have subtle problems exposed for redress. That’s the plan, we take it?
JH: Part of it, anyway. Look at how we teach and partition aiming, for instance. There’s nothing wrong with the traditional notion of precise fire: notch and post aligned correctly both horizontally and vertically, and a deliberate, precise trigger press. If you’re 20 yards away from a threat who is trying to hurt someone else, this is good technique. But if someone is already inside your “bubble,” and maybe well inside, there isn’t time for this kind of shooting. That’s where the notion of an acceptable sight picture comes in to play. “Quickly and accurately” may have a very different meaning then, depending on distance and other factors.
A1F: It’s a detail, but an important one in our minds: the Carry Guard targets. What’s the rationale there? You only have two, but they were more than adequate for all the drills, and the qualification courses of fire, too.
JH: The dot targets have a military origin, but we mix the dot sizes to work on multiple skills. Small dots up close are very good for ensuring basic things are in place or working as they should—grip, eye dominance, sight picture and trigger control. As we move students back, we emphasize using the whole (6-inch) dot, and pressing for more speed. A miss here and there is actually a good sign, as it shows us that a student is pressing, trying to push themselves to discover their own boundaries and limitations.
More than any other single thing, the curriculum is trying to move students from the point where basics are still being “thought” to where they are more reflexive, more like muscle memory. This leaves more time for decision making and seeing a dangerous situation for what it really is, or as we say, “save time to make time.” This applies to both physical skills and to the situational awareness that may keep a concealed carrier from having to shoot at all, and out of legal trouble if they have to defend themselves or others.
We may introduce a third target before long, too, but that’s mainly to put something less geometric, less uniform, in front of students for part of the training. But like the others, we want it to add more than just “variety”; it needs to help students progress skill-wise, and in a way the others can’t.
A1F: The silhouette target is a good deal less forgiving than most others of the type in terms of scoring. Is the goal there to reel people back in on the importance of “acceptable accuracy” as the result of “acceptable sight picture,” especially since it’s the Level I qualification target, too?
<<Cue chirping crickets>>.
No visual cues to “cheat” on here. Only sight picture and trigger press will get you through to 75 percent or better. Photo by A1F Staff
A1F: <<Laughing>> Moving on then. The range training ends with force-on-force scenarios where the instructors put students “in the soup,” so to speak. It’s surprisingly stressful, but in a useful way. At the least, it makes students recognize that there are a lot more variables than simply their shooting mechanics, however good those may be.
JH: That’s the point exactly. We put a lot of effort into planning these, and each one has variations. I think we did two in your class that were based on actual incidents instructors had experienced or witnessed overseas, but not too farfetched to happen in the United States. We choose them for students on an individual basis, too.
We saw at least one in your class that was quite probably life-changing in terms of the student’s reaction. That makes us feel like we’ve done a particularly good job. When an individual can reach a “That’s not going to work!” conclusion for themselves, all based on learning that occurs in about five minutes of real time, that is good news. They don’t just know a change is necessary, they know what sort of change is necessary. Plus, they get to see other students problem-solve scenarios different from their own. Just about as close to real as we can get, short of a “two-way” range. <<Laughing>>
A1F: It sure made us itch for the promised Level II. Anything you can say there?
JH: Both Level II and III are in development. In both, we’ll be adding more (and more dynamic) movement, as well as more primary/support hand shooting. The performance demands for qualification will be higher, too. Not everybody passes, as you know, even at Level I. As we tell prospective students, “It’s not very difficult, but it’s not very easy.”
A1F: Maybe that’s where we wind up: How would you suggest someone prepare for Level I NRA Carry Guard?
JH: NRA Basic Pistol, taken to heart and practiced, is a great place to start. Knowledge of the fundamentals is all we really need, but execution of those fundamentals must be more established than an idea in your head. Basic Pistol and regular practice—two or three times per month—will almost certainly see you through. If you show up to the course already comfortable and confident with your handgun, you will get more out of the training.
A1F: Thanks, Jeff, though it seems thoroughly inadequate—for your instruction, for your service, and for your time.
Now Carry on. And consider an NRA Carry Guard course near you soon. You won’t be sorry.
Frank Winn has been studying arms and their relationship to tyranny, meaningful liberty and personal security all his adult life. He has been a firearms safety/shooting instructor for more than 20 years, and earned state, regional and national titles in several competitive disciplines.