John Miller’s NRA Defensive Pistol class

[updated 22 Sept to add 3 new videos that Greg took during the course– they’re at the bottom of the post.]

If you’re going to carry a concealed weapon, you need to know how to do it responsibly and well.

Earlier this year, I got my Florida concealed-carry permit, and I’d been looking for a good training course to complement what I learned in the course I took in Pensacola. That course focused on legality: where are you legally allowed to carry, when and how much force are you legally allowed to use to stop a crime in progress, and so on. That’s critical knowledge, but it doesn’t cover the mechanics of concealed carry: how to carry, draw, and fire a weapon from concealment.

Because California has very few counties that will actually issue licenses to carry (LTCs), there have been very few classes on this topic in California, and most of them have been ad hoc. When I learned that the NRA’s new defensive pistol class was going to be offered by Total Commitment Firearms Training, I signed up. The course was scheduled for two days at Coyote Valley Sporting Clays, a beautiful facility (with excellent BBQ) where I’ve shot skeet and trap before. The course was to be held on their cowboy action range, which is elaborately decked out to resemble an Old West town, complete with hanging tree, saloon, and so on. This was festive but irrelevant, as all our shooting was done on three targets: the standard round target, the Transition II target used by federal law enforcement agencies, and the FBI “Q” target used by the FBI for handgun qualification.

IMG 1198

 the cowboy-action bank, which we didn’t use; our targets are visible through the right-hand window and door of the bank

I arrived about 10 minutes before class started and met John Miller, the instructor, and his wife Dottie. They had all the course materials organized and ready: the course manual, a few handouts, and the NRA “Personal Protection Outside the Home” course book. This book is used as the text both for the course of the same name (which focuses mostly on theoretical aspects of armed self-defense) and this course. I laid out all my gear and got ready to go (disclaimer: this picture is actually from day 2). John recommended bringing 300 rounds of ammo; I shot 195 rounds the first day alone, so I needed to buy more. The course also requires 3 magazines, 6 dummy rounds, eye and ear protection, a magazine pouch, and a strong-side belt holster (not shown because I was wearing them.) Oh, and a pistol. I brought my SIG Sauer 1911, although it is probably too big for everyday carry. I wanted to get really comfortable with shooting it (and I did), but something smaller might be better for everyday carry. (The picture’s also a little misleading because at the start of the course, you’re required to keep your live ammo in your car until the first course of fire– that’s why the dummy rounds were required.)

IMG 1203

not shown: BBQ, rattlesnakes, the swinging saloon-style doors in the bathroom

We were forewarned by the Coyote Valley folks that there was a good chance of seeing rattlesnakes– on average, about 1 per day shows up at the cowboy action range. Sadly, this was not to happen. Anyway, the first thing we did was talk for an hour or so about what we were going to be doing in the course, what was covered, what the range rules were, and so on. After that, we started practicing draws with and without cover– no shooting, just drawing and presenting the weapon. The NRA teaches that you draw the weapon, leaving it pointed down, then rotate it so your arm is parallel to the ground, then extend the arm and join with your weak-side hand. These are separate motions because you may only need to draw, but not point, your sidearm. John emphasized over and over that the way you practice and train will determine what you do in a real situation, so he was adamant that we practice drawing in the prescribed manner instead of just drawing and indexing, as I’d been taught in the Marines.

Side note: I suspect many of my hoplophobe friends (Martin, I’m looking at you, buddy) would be amazed at the emphasis the NRA’s curriculum puts on the defensive nature of this training. For example, the course guidebook advises you to avoid confrontations by not wearing clothing with offensive slogans or acting like a jerk (that’s my paraphrase, not their words.) This is a far cry from the guns-a-blazin’ stereotype that too many people have. OK, enough editorializing. On with the action.

For our first few courses of fire, we drew and fired, taking our time and concentrating on smooth execution of the mechanics. As the SEALs say, slow is smooth and smooth is fast– a very Zen way to express it, but nonetheless true. We then moved on to mixing dummy rounds into the magazine to simulate failures. Most of the people in the class (there were 8 total) had the same kind of rounds: the A-Zoom aluminum rounds. These proved to be devilishly hard to find on the ground; something with a brighter color probably would have worked better. Having the dummies mixed in with live ammo meant that we all quickly got proficient at clearing jams and misfires using the tap, rack, assess method: tap the magazine up to make sure it’s seated, rack the slide to clear the jam, and assess whether or not to continue firing.

During these drills, John would start us by yelling “THREAT!” or “GUN!” or “KNIFE!” from behind us, at which point we would draw from cover and fire at our targets. Then he got sneaky: he took a piece of tape with “THREAT” written on it, put it on his clipboard, and held it up behind us. This was a very effective way to teach us that you have to be aware of your surroundings, not just on what’s right in front of you. He followed this up by teaching us the “position of sul“, named after the Portuguese word for “south”. The purpose of this position is to get your pistol pointed down (thus “south”) but still in a position where you can very quickly pointed. (It’s also very useful for weapon retention, something we talked a good bit about.) The drills evolved so that we would draw, fire at a threat, go to sul, then reholster once we thought the threat was over with. We shot this way for a while, then it was time to wrap up day 1. (I didn’t mention the excellent BBQ lunch I had with fellow student Masood, but it was as good as ever. I recommend the pulled pork.)

On day 2, we started with the NRA-mandated discussion of different holster styles and types. John and Dan, a fellow instructor, brought in a few different “pocket pistols,” including the one shown below– a 5-shot .22 revolver. That’s too small for me; a Glock 26 is about the right size. In fact, after seeing John’s Kimber compact 1911 I am thinking that a compact 1911 might make a perfect everyday carry gun for me given the size of my hands and my overall build.

5 rounds of .22

On day 1, we’d shot the NRA-mandated course of fire, so on day 2 we shot mostly drills provided by John. We had a lively discussion about the range at which an attacker armed with a knife would begin to be dangerous. For example, suppose someone accosts you with a knife from 30′. That seems like a distance at which a close-in weapon like a knife wouldn’t be too threatening. We ran a drill known as the Tueller drill to test that. If you watch the video below, you’ll see Anne on the firing line with her weapon holstered. Greg is 21′ away from her, offset to the side so that he isn’t in her line of fire. When John shouts “go”, Greg’s supposed to run to Anne and attack her with a cardboard knife. Anne is supposed to draw and fire on her target. Who wins?


Not Anne, I’m afraid. She fired 3 rounds, 1 of which was a solid hit. Meanwhile, Greg was all over her. She would likely have been badly wounded or killed. So would Greg, of course. Thus we learn two things: firing accurately under stress is hard (Anne shot very well overall, so it wasn’t that she’s bad at it) and if someone is waving a knife at me from 21′ away I am going to consider him a serious threat and react accordingly.

Next up: the shoot/no-shoot drill. The idea here is simple: John set up an array of targets, some representing bad guys and some representing bystanders. On command, we’d turn, face the targets, and engage the bad guys. Then after each shooter, the next person would turn their back to the firing line and we’d rearrange the targets so that no one knew where everyone would be. This offered a number of great discussion topics. For example, suppose there are two bad guys: one nearby with a knife and one further away with a gun– what do you do? If you fire at a target that you can’t see behind, how do you know there isn’t an innocent bystander behind it? (Hint: you don’t, so you’d better not shoot unless absolutely necessary.) These drills require a great deal of concentration, as you might expect. In fact, the whole class was much more mentally demanding than I thought it would be; I left each day absolutely worn out.

For our next activity, we practiced shooting with our weak hand. I make a habit of always shooting a few mags worth of ammo with my left hand any time I’m at the range. It’s good practice, so I did well on this stage. That segued into drills to work on instinctive shooting, or shooting from the hip. From a distance of 1 yard, we had to draw and fire aimed shots into a target. This is much, much more challenging than it sounds like because you don’t really have room to extend your arm… nor would you have time to do so if you had to do it for real.

After another excellent lunch (more BBQ, of course), it was time to start shooting on the move. At first we moved either left or right only, then we advanced to moving left, right, and back in combination, then we did it all while using cover and concealment. Oh, and I forgot to mention: all along we had to be reloading as we shot: run out of ammo and you have to quickly drop your empty magazine on the ground, replace it with a fresh one, and let the slide go back into battery. John told us about a shooting in which four California Highway Patrol officers were killed at Newhall back in the 70s. At the time, the SOP for CHP was to pick up their brass on the range or after a shooting. All four officers were found with empty brass in their pockets– while they were gathering their brass after reloading their revolvers, their killers closed range and shot them. This was yet another opportunity for John to point out that the way you train will be the way you react under stress, so he had us dropping our mags and ignoring them until after the course of fire was over. I was well pleased with the Wilson Combat magazines I bought; they were smooth and functioned perfectly even with the cheap range ammo I bought from the Coyote Creek pro shop.

The last stage of the day was shooting for the qualification course. I don’t have the full course of fire handy, but it was seven or eight stages at various distances. For example, from 10 yards we had to fire five rounds, change magazines, and fire five more… in 12 seconds. This is plenty of time but it sure doesn’t seem that way when you’re shooting. To qualify, all 34 fired shots had to be in the “bottle” of the target. I qualified first try, but just barely.

I should note that one of the best aspects of the course was the interplay between the students. John emphasized within the first 10 minutes of the class that ego has no place in the study of pistol skills, and I appreciated the forthright and non-defensive way in which everyone gave, and accepted, constructive criticism. At the same time, we all recognized that this stuff is hard to master, so there was a good mix of encouragement and constructive criticism. I learned something from each and every one of my classmates: Anne had a superb smooth draw, Ross was probably the best at the rack, tap, assess drill, Greg’s accuracy was excellent, Masood was great at timing his shots, Alex was probably the fastest at reloading, Erik shot very well on the move, and Dan was probably the best all-around shooter. Their feedback helped me identify, and fix, many of my own weaknesses– so thanks for that, guys!

Overall, this was a superb course. John was an extremely effective instructor: personable, experienced, and direct. When he corrected my (many) mistakes, he did so calmly and clearly, without being discouraging or belittling. The drills he added to the basic course really added a lot of value. I feel much more comfortable with my skill level after taking the course; in fact I am thinking about taking it again with a different holster and my G26, just for the additional practice. I recommend it very highly.

After I originally posted this, Greg sent me 3 videos that he had taken. The first shows Alex running through the engage-3-bad-guys drill.

Next is Masood doing the move-and-fire drill.

Finally we have Erik doing the move-and-shoot drill.


Filed under General Stuff, Reviews

2 responses to “John Miller’s NRA Defensive Pistol class

  1. Tim Robichaux

    I’m really interested in taking a course like that! It sounds like it was a blast (no pun intended)!

  2. robichaux

    Next one is in October– c’mon down!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.