I had the pleasure of working with one of my fellow Rangemaster disciples this weekend, Jim Darnell. He led a small group of his church members in an informal handgun class that just covered the basics of marksmanship and safety. Most of the participants were females, and I think most were probably novice- to intermediate-level shooters. There was one woman who characterized herself as a beginner and ended up blasting a big ragged hole in the middle of her target. She called it “beginner’s luck” (I love modest shooters), but in reality she listened well, learned well, and performed well. She was grinning all the way to her car, and we had a good laugh at how surprisingly fun she found shooting to be. But not everyone thought it was fun.
For a few, it was quite stressful. Some found the handgun manipulation to be physically difficult — due to arthritis, nerve damage, waning hand strength, or other medical conditions; or just because it was a new motor skill that would take some acclimation and conditioning.
We had one student who was just uncomfortable and opted not to continue shooting. And you know what? In my opinion, that’s perfectly fine. I tried to tell her — and I really hope she believed me — that there was absolutely nothing wrong with her decision. I think Jim did a great job of reassuring her that we weren’t there to pressure her into doing anything she didn’t want to do. Since we’re in the personal defense world and not in Iraq or Afghanistan, the last thing I’d want is for an anxious or hesitant student to have those emotions even further rattled by this:
I’ve had experiences with trainers who are overly pushy, and luckily for me I was able to shake it off. But I know of others who were permanently turned off from guns altogether because of a bad experience with a condescending trainer who made them feel inadequate for fretting over what can be for some a very intimidating experience. I truly hope that’s not the case for the nice lady from Jim’s class this weekend.
It can sometimes be a delicate balance to strike: encouraging students to step beyond their comfort zone while not pushing them to the point of panic or mental shut-down. If Jim and I are lucky, all the students at least left the class with a heightened appreciation for firearms: what they are, what they’re not, what they can and can’t do, and what our responsibilities are as possessors of these awesome tools. And when a “newbie” blasts a ragged hole in her target, well that’s just icing on the cake.
When I was a newbie, I was completely overwhelmed with all the different things I was tasked to remember all at once. The very first shot I ever fired is as crystal clear in my mind right now as it was that day back in 2001. It went a little something like this…
Phew, okay, you got this. No worries. Think, think, think. Centered and even. Right hand, check. Left hand, check. Are my thumbs right? Not sure… Okay feet, shoulders, finger straight, oh okay now finger on trigger. Find the front sight, there it is. Wait, the target is blurry… I think he said that was okay… Front sight, move it over a little, okay, wait, which eye is closed? Lean forward, dang it. Don’t slap the trigger, smooth press, smooth preeeeeeessss, HOLY SH*T that was loud… Okay breathe, breathe, quit trembling you damn wuss, suck it up, I didn’t die, I’m okay, it’s all good. Reset. Wait what does reset mean again? Oh yeah, I remember, wait, dang it, I screwed that up… These damn glasses are foggy. Can’t see sh*t…
And that was without the added pressure of having to grapple with physical challenges (arthritis, bad back, etc.). I’ve heard a bunch of speeches and strategies from trainers endeavoring to cure extreme cases of nerves. One of my favorites is the driving analogy. Someone said to me, “How many different simultaneous tasks do you have to perform in order to drive a car?” And of course I have no problem doing that. Like everything, it just took a little practice. That helped to settle my shakiness and put things in perspective.
What techniques have you guys used? Do you have a magic anecdote or analogy that helps put nervous shooters at ease? Are you the nerves-whisperer? If so, please, do tell.
Special thanks to Jim for inviting me along this weekend, and to the lovely ladies of his class who made me feel right at home.
13 comments on “Anxiety and Guns”
For an anxious newbie, I put them on a .22. Less bang, less recoil, much less scary…and the fundamentals are all the same. Coach ’em up a little on the .22 until they’re comfortable enough to switch to a centerfire. Or not. They can stick with the .22 as long as they want. It’s still shooting, and they’re still learning. But usually, it doesn’t take long on the .22 for them to figure out, “hey, I can do this!” Then they usually want to try something else.
Wanna know something funny? I don’t think I’ve ever fired a .22 caliber pistol. I started on a Sig P239, then went to 1911s, then to Glocks. But of all the guns I’ve ever fired, the smallest caliber was a .38, I think. And actually, when I signed up for my NRA instructor certification class, the coach offered to let me shoot his .22 because he said that would make it easier for me to pass the shooting test rather than using my own guns. I respectfully declined.
So you’re the one!
I heard rumors of a shooter that hasn’t fired one but thought it was just crazy talk…
At least nobody can blame you for the 22 ammo shortage.
This is true! For once in my life I’m innocent!
That’s damn funny! I’ve seen you shoot a ragged hole with a “man’s gun” LOL.
I’ve taught/coached more women than men in beginning shooting. We men are “manly men” and don’t really need to be coached in doing “manly” things. After all, we go out and kill something and drag it home to the cave and beat our chests in self-congratulatory displays. I’ve found that women are eager to learn and generally come with few preconceived ideas about what shooting is all about. They want to learn something and have fun doing it and that’s what we need to pass on to the next generation. Women generally make for a more receptive audience.
I always try to seek out ways to improve my skills. When I find something that works; I stick with it. I don’t change just because it’s the newest fade or has the prettiest picture on the front of a magazine. What works for me may not work for someone else. You know what they say about assuming. Some of the best shooters in the world have “Mrs., Miss, or Ms.” in front of their names. Take this for what its worth, but if push comes to shove, I wouldn’t mind a women saving my life.
Ha! Men to that. Don’t forget to raise one eyebrow and deepen your voice every time you say “manly” LOL.
I’ve shown a few (maybe a dozen?) women how to shoot. All ended up wanting their own gun.
Like Shrimp’s post, we always started with the rules, then empty gun, then 22 revo.
On up the ladder to 38s, 9mms, 45s and 357s/44s if they wanted to and at their pace. Keeping the range to 5yds or so at first makes for easy success.
I explain recoil in larger bore handguns by asking if they’ve ever been high-fived by an enthusiastic 10 yr old. It’s kinda like that, but even easier on the shooter.
Yes, the bigger guns BOOM! but by just firing a round casually one handed into the berm with a 44mag and letting them see that it didn’t hurt me, let alone fly out of my hand and kill me or them, they could see it wasn’t anything to really stress over.
Most wanted to try it just to say they did. 🙂
I **LOVE** having spare electronic ears for newbies. Being able to talk softly without yelling and be heard clearly is one way to lower the perceived stress level.
High-fived by a 10-year-old … brilliant!
As a parent, you are your child’s first teacher, in everything. So, you learn how to teach. I’m not an instructor. I’ve not taken the NRA course to be an instructor.
That said, I’ve taught roughly a dozen or so people to shoot–my wife, my kids, my neighbors, and a few people that have come shooting with me or my friends when we have gone to the range.
The only one I’ve ever encountered that didn’t want to shoot–I should say “that wasn’t enthusiastically nodding ‘yes’ in response to “Do you want to give it a try?”–was my neighbor.
She was and remains extremely cautious, perhaps to a fault. She was the only one with whom I had to take a completely different approach. Her apprehension about even touching the gun was hard for her to overcome, but we did so in steps, and with the knowledge that she did not have to go forward from here. All she had to do was say, “No, I’m not ready for that.” And I told her that from the get-go. If she wasn’t ready, there was shame in saying so, and I wasn’t going to bully her into or make fun of her or even try to persuade her. She was going to move forward in this if, and only if, she was ready to. Even if we had made it to the range, and she changed her mind, she wasn’t going to be coerced in any way.
I started by having a toy gun (a cap gun, actually) that functioned similarly to a real gun, and we practiced all of the basic gun handling skills. We learned the four rules, and how they worked together to prevent tragedy if ever a rule was broken by accident. We used the toy gun to practice trigger discipline and dry firing, to check to see if the gun was unloaded and even drawing.
She liked that, because there wasn’t any sense of danger from what she knew was a toy. And it allowed her to learn the basics without her overriding fear of “If I screw this up and accidentally point the gun at someone, I might kill them.” Honestly, that was her biggest fear. She understood that a gun was inherently dangerous if it was misused or mishandled, and she didn’t want to be the one who did it.
I, too, mentioned the car driving analogy, and I think it helps because most people remember their first time behind the wheel of a car and how difficult it seemed, but with practice it becomes routine. I reminded her that her car was a 2000 lb “bullet” that could easily be misused or mishandled and hurt people, but she learned how to safely control it and she doesn’t think of her car as inherently dangerous–yet it is. My biggest fear in that analogy is causing someone to be afraid of driving their car…
With patience and practice, several days later, we got her to the point of being able to load a real gun with dummy ammo. Just seeing the real gun and fake ammo going into was disconcerting, because it was a real gun! But she insisted on soldiering on, and we made it to the point of loading and firing a real gun (yes, it was a .22LR). She was amazingly accurate. I teased her husband that with groups like that, he needed to be on his best behavior from now on, and distance was his friend.
She moved all the way up to a .45 the first day, and liked it enough that when it came time to buy a gun, she insisted on the .45 because she felt like it was the recoil she could handle the best. The .40 seemed too “snappy” and the 9mm didn’t feel right. The .357/38 was never really an option once she fired the .45, mostly because she like the semi-autos more than the revolvers.
It was fun to watch her move along so quickly once she had reached the point of deciding, “Okay, I can do this.” But she had almost backed out. I remember helping her load the magazine, and making sure she had the pistol aimed down range. There was a moment of hesitation, and she handed the gun back to me, carefully keeping her finger off the trigger and the barrel aimed down range.
“I can’t do it.”
“Okay,” I said. “We can try it again some other time if you want.”
“I feel bad, because we came out all this way.”
“It’s okay. We can try again some other time, if you want.”
She stared at the gun in my hand for a long moment, and said, “I want to try it.”
“Then let’s try it.”
I don’t think she even had her eyes open on the initial shot, but she nailed it, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sorry for the long comment, but I just wanted to share that–it really does help to reassure the new shooter that it is entirely in their control. There is no pressure, no shame, no coercion, no bullying and no pleading. Only patience on the instructor’s part and their decision to go forward when they are ready. And if they never get there, at least they understand guns and how to safely handle them.
No apology necessary! Thanks so much for sharing that story, and for being so patient with your neighbor. I’m sure she is grateful, and so is the gun world! This is what I was getting at with my “Golden Opportunities” post. Here we have an extremely reluctant and fearful person who at least had the courage and open-mindedness to show up. Thanks to you, she stayed, and learned, and grew. And whether or not she ever picks up a gun again, at least now she knows they’re not “bad” or “evil.” Now she in turn can be a vehicle for others to gain solid information rather than settling for assumptions and sound bites. Two points for the good guys! Yay!!!
I would rather have 10 new shooters than 1 person who already thinks they know how (they’re the ones I carry Band-Aids for). The new shooters don’t have bad habits to unlearn. When they tell me they’re nervous or mention how many things there are to remember, I tell them it’s like learning to ride a bicycle, hard at first but the more you shoot the easier it is and the better you get. In my experience, between 40-50 rounds, you can almost see the light bulb come on over their heads as they “get it.”
At our last class a Grandma and Grandpa brought their twin 12 y/o granddaughters. Neither of them had ever shot a pistol. Because one was left handed I was tasked to work a lot with her. She was initially nervous but was very intelligent and very attentive to instruction. By the end of the second day she was loading, moving, drawing, and firing like a champ. A nice hug at the end and the comment, “Dad is going to have to get me a Glock” really made my weekend special. For me, instructing is all about the self satisfaction I get of knowing that what I teach, either safety or technique, may very well save someone’s life.
Absolutely. I managed to earn myself a bunch of hugs at the end of that class this weekend too! Great feeling.
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