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Instructor or Mentor? You Decide.

July 5, 2023
Chris Cerino

Being a good or great shooter doesn't come naturally to most of us. I've worked very hard to get to where my skills are today. My skills came the hard way. Time on task and many rounds down range.

Without skill or instructional ability, most “certified instructors” can almost always run a safe range. They can put you through high round count drills and are tactical in appearance. They can also pat you on the back, tell you to tighten it up and bring your strong foot back, just a little. Very safe, with lots of cautioning on what to do, when to do it, and the war stories of why it is so.

Training is best done under the watchful eye of a qualified instructor. Imagine going to a coaching school to become a football coach. Then you get a group of high school boys to train up for a game against the neighboring champion team. You can envision the results.

Someone who has played football at a highly functioning level is probably a better coach than someone who has dabbled in backyard games. The same generally goes for firearms trainers. However, just because you can play doesn't mean you'll be a great coach. It’s so much more than being trained and playing well.

A recent trip to Gunsite Academy in Paulden, AZ, caused me to revisit the idea of mentors vs. instructors. There is a difference, and my experience at Gunsite Academy reaffirmed my thinking.

At Gunsite, we were shooting some newly released Stoeger pistols. Pistols which none of the attendees were familiar with… including our Instructor/Mentors. There were three models to choose from, each requiring more effort to shoot well.

My saying to students struggling with a difficult gun is, "There are easier guns to shoot." With the choice of a full-sized Stoeger STR9 Combat Plus, the STR9 Compact, or the STR9 Micro Compact, I'll admit, I chose to start with the full-sized Combat Plus. A full-size pistol is almost always going to be easier to learn. A good trigger and interchangeable backstraps to customize it to your hand make it better.

Our Gunsite instructors took turns presenting different skills. Red dot use, precision shooting, and manipulation of pistols and gear were some of their topics. Not only did instructors tell us what and how, but they also demonstrated it. They demonstrated how it can look and the results each of us were capable of.

The next, more difficult pistol to shoot was the Stoeger STR9 Compact. I’ve shot compact guns before, and they hold little excitement for me. I can shoot them well enough, so I opted to go micro. The STR9 Micro Compact was my primary interest. Capacity is 13 +1, the same as the Compact model, so why not? Definitely, not the easiest to shoot.

I shot that gun as well as I was shooting the Combat Plus model. Did I have to work harder? Yes, a little bit, but the accuracy and feel were superb for such a small gun. Would I ever be as fast as the fellas shooting the full-size and compact models? No, but this wasn’t a competition. I was there to evaluate guns. The trigger is a carry trigger. Not custom but very manageable.

Our Gunsite instructors, Mentors also rose to the occasion by strapping on the Stoeger pistols. They led by example. Even going too far as to shoot the simulator, with shots out to 30 yards, with a gun they had never even pressed the trigger on.

Using the STR9 Compact, instructor Paul Garcia cautioned us that he would demonstrate the entire course of fire with a gun he had never fired. In proper Mentor form, he cleaned the outdoor simulator and pronounced, "Damn, that’s a good gun. I didn’t expect to hit them all!”

Much more than an instructor, Garcia exemplified being a mentor. He took a real risk of failure in front of each of his students. He wasn't the only one to do so. Instructors Mario Marchman and Erick Gelhaus strapped on STR9 pistols and showed us how each drill was done.

Gelhaus showed us how to effectively zero our Combat Plus models, outfitted with Burris FastFire red dots. With 30 to 40% of Gunsite’s students showing up with pistol-mounted red dots, Gelhaus needed to know the ins and outs. At 30 feet, with a gun he had never fired, he proceeded to fire a one-hole group just off the targeted area, which was the size of a nickel.

His advice for the best zero was at 40 feet and to use a sandbag or pistol rest. I agree that I can shoot a better group at 40 feet than I can at 25 yards, and 40 feet is sufficient. More power to you if you can go out to 25 yards. My eyes can't do it anymore.

Mario Marchman strapped on the STR9 Micro Compact and provided a lesson on "double taps." The double tap is one sight picture with two rapid trigger presses in the purest form. Marchman had us at 15 feet, and he demonstrated for us with the micro-sized gun. He was fast and accurate! His shots were two and three inches apart, and I thought I could never replicate his speed… but he inspired me by being a mentor.

I ran that drill time and time again, laying down the heat with my STR9 Micro Compact. My speed was fast, and the target proved that my management of the diminutive pistol was sufficient. A fist-sized hole appeared in the center of the high center chest of the target, with only a few stragglers not far out of that.

How do I close? You must do more than run a safe range for your students. Safety should be inherent in what we do on the range. Students want to do more than discharge guns safely. They want to gain performance, confidence, and greater skill in a safe environment.

Students learn in three ways. By hearing your words, seeing your demonstrations, and practicing your skills. Words have meanings, so be careful what you choose. Students will do what you do to demonstrate the best you can. If your performance lacks, fix it. You don't have to be the best shooter in the world to teach. However, you must be good enough to demonstrate what you expect students to do.  

Consider what you want to be. An instructor or a mentor? Me… I'm a mentor. I strive for perfection and only settle for excellence. I'm not fast, but I'm fast enough, and I'm good enough that students listen to me because I exemplify a standard they can achieve and even surpass.

Grip, Sights, and Trigger ~ Chris

Chris Cerino

Chris is a 28-year veteran of law enforcement. He has been a SWAT member, Federal Agent and more, but mostly he has always been a trainer. He trains internationally, competes regularly and works in the firearms industry in a wide variety of positions. Chris recently took the Producer of Training Content position at Gun Talk Media. His roles continue to grow each day at Gun Talk Media all while maintaining Double C Farms.

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