Concerned about your ability to defend yourself? Your home? Your family? Maybe you’ve never shot or handled a gun before. Or maybe you’ve plinked a few cans but are now looking for a more reliable source of defensive advice. In either case, the NRA’s First Steps Pistol Orientation is an excellent place to start, and it’s taught all over the country. In Northern Virginia, where I live, Innovative Defensive Solutions offers the First Steps course several times a year for introductory-level students. The class takes about eight hours over one or two days, includes both classroom and range instruction, and even has a bonus unit on concealed-carry methods.

The NRA designed its First Steps classes to provide a positive, attentive atmosphere for beginners to learn safe gun-handling and the basics of shooting. The small class size ensures that each student gets individual attention and advice tailored to his or her level of experience. The class covers the basic types of handguns available and their parts and operation without going into excruciating detail. One topic I always found somewhat confusing was the difference between single- and double-action handguns. With the instructor’s clear, knowledgeable explanation, I now understand the difference without becoming swamped in technical jargon. In addition, each student receives a copy of the NRA’s booklet “The Basics of Pistol Shooting,” which is an excellent follow-up to what you’ve learned at the course.

Square One

The class I attended was comprised of 11 students and six instructors/assistants. There was plenty of one-on-one time while we were taught to handle the guns. We did this safely in the classroom, using plastic dummy rounds to practice loading and unloading. The training gun, which shot a laser pointer, served as an excellent tool for learning how to grip and fire a gun, and for learning how to use the sights while aiming. Each student got to practice this while an instructor provided individualized advice on the student’s stance and aim.

Instructor Evan Carson has trained every level of shooter, from beginner to instructor, in many different aspects of defense. He even has a class on using pepper spray effectively. His adjunct, Lynne Finch, is an expert on teaching home safety and concealed carry.

Safety and competence with guns aren’t things to cut corners on. Evan pointed out many bad habits, emphasizing ways to avoid them: Keep your finger on the gun’s frame rather than on the trigger-guard if you aren’t ready to shoot; never rely on the gun’s safety mechanism to stop the gun from going off accidentally; and don’t slam the magazine into the gun like they do on TV. Evan even taught us proper vocabulary (magazine, not clip; cartridge, not bullet) so we could competently discuss firearms.

We also learned rapid emergency procedures to clear a jam in a defensive situation. Evan emphasized the need for a strong safety mindset. Beyond simply learning the rules for safe gun-handling, he got us thinking about how to maintain safety and awareness in situations that are less anticipated. Where in your house do you store your gun so that it can’t be reached by any child yet is readily available in an emergency? Have you considered the locations of your family members and your neighbors around your house so that you can defend against an intruder without accidentally endangering them?

When teaching us how to clean a gun, Evan did not focus so much on the step-by-step details (which you can find in your owner’s manual) but rather on safety and preventing the type of gun-cleaning accidents that are always making the news. Likewise, the discussion of ammunition (another subject that is enormously confusing to beginners) focused on following the manual for your particular gun, rather than on learning all the different types and sizes of cartridges out there. Become familiar and proficient with your gun first, then expand your knowledge.

Concealed Carry Guide

Innovative Defensive Solutions’ First Steps class also includes a bonus section on concealed carry that is not part of the NRA’s usual curriculum. In Virginia, as well as in many other states, the First Steps class fulfills the training requirement for obtaining a concealed-carry permit. Although the First Steps course was not initially designed to prepare a new shooter to carry concealed, Evan added a couple of hours to the class to address this topic and properly prepare each of his students.

In this section, the curriculum emphasized avoiding having to use your gun at all by being aware of your surroundings. That said, Evan went through various defensive scenarios—at home, on the street, at the gas station, at a restaurant—offering personal anecdotes and experiences to get us thinking about how we would handle ourselves in such situations. He then led a serious discussion on the consequences of being involved in a defensive shooting (legal issues, civil lawsuits, Castle Doctrine, insurance policies).

Range Ready

For the range portion of the class I used a Glock 19, which is easy to shoot with a consistent trigger squeeze thanks to its striker mechanism. Each instructor had a lane with one or two students, so all the students received personal attention and advice on their shooting. We first went over the basics of loading and shooting the gun. With the targets set 8 feet out, we practiced aiming and acquiring a sight picture with the goal of shooting accurate groups. Then the targets were moved slightly further out to 12 feet, and we tried un-aimed, instinctive shooting to simulate how we might shoot in a defensive situation.

Evan then led a drill on raising, pointing and shooting as a way of introducing us to defensive methods. We even learned how to unload an empty magazine and reload with a fresh one without taking our eyes off our target.

As Evan advised, practice is the best way to get to know your gun and become proficient with it. It’s also the path to becoming a true enthusiast. For more on Innovative Defensive Solutions, visit or call 877-545-0492. For more information on the NRA’s many courses, please visit or call 800-672-3888

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