Initial Impressions: NRA’s new blended learning Basic Pistol course

In late February 2016, the NRA will convert its Basic Pistol course to a blended learning format, where most of the course (7+ hours) will be taken online, and the course is completed (and a certificate issued) after the student attends a range session run by an NRA Certified Pistol Instructor.  The Basic Pistol course is used in many states as the official training standard for issuing of carry permits, and switching to this format ensures that every student that takes the course is actually learning all the required material and spending the required amount of time on it.  It brings the Basic Pistol course closer to being a true, consistently delivered national standard.

When the Texas Concealed Handgun License (CHL) program was being created in 1995, the NRA basic course was not used, because it did not cover all the topics someone carrying in public needs to know, such as use of force, conflict resolution, or specifics of state laws.   Historically, NRA has had a problem enforcing quality control both at the instructor-certification level and at the basic delivery of certified courses level. The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) solved these problems by requiring that all Texas CHL instructors be trained by the DPS academy, and by sending the occasional undercover officer to CHL classes to monitor that the classes were being run properly. Texas CHL instructors caught failing to teach the required material or the required number of hours faced criminal charges, and their students would have permits suspended or revoked until they could re-take the course from an instructor conducting it properly. This approach worked because DPS, as a law enforcement agency, had legal authority to investigate instructors.

NRA, as a national private sector organization, has never had the same ability to enforce policies on its instructors, but had a course (Basic Pistol) being used for state licensing. This change to blended learning is undoubtedly one that is necessary (from a legal perspective) for NRA, as it ensures that much of the course is conducted consistently and documents student training hours. Many active, ethical NRA instructors are unhappy about this change, and are seeking other certifications, such as with the new Second Amendment Foundation training program, or with the US Concealed Carry Association, that will allow them to continue running in-person training that meets their state’s standards without switching to the blended course.

When KR Training started operation back in 1991, the NRA’s Basic Pistol was a 10 hour course that included detailed instruction on every variation of action type of both revolvers and semiautomatic pistols, 2 hours of one-handed bullseye shooting and 2 hours of lecture on various NRA competition shooting programs.   That course was longer and more detailed than our typical student wanted. Most of them wanted a short course that improved their ability to use the specific gun they already owned, or they were new to guns and wanted a short course that would give them an opportunity to do a little shooting and maybe figure out what gun would be a good first purchase, primarily for self-defense.

Other instructors were having similar issues with the 10 hour course, and NRA responded by creating the First Steps program, which significantly cut the course content down, focusing on a single firearm action type in a 3 hour format. We used the First Steps Pistol format as the foundation of both our Basic Pistol 1 and Basic Pistol 2 courses, adding additional material on gun selection to Basic 1, and additional shooting drills practicing parts of the Texas CHL shooting test to Basic 2.  NRA did modify the Basic Pistol course down to an 8 hour course, but we continued using our own course designs.

Since 2008 I have worked for the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX). Our division (Law Enforcement and Security) has developed many e-learning and blended learning courses over the past 5 years, and I’ve been a beta tester for most of them.   As part of the change to the blended learning program, NRA provided instructors a link to preview the course, along with an updated lesson plan covering the material that still has to be taught in person to complete the course. I went through the entire course to see it from the student perspective, evaluate it from the perspective of someone familiar with other blended learning courses, and assess how it might fit into our existing courses. NRA has not yet told instructors what the final official price for the online course will be. One piece of information I saw about the course indicated that students would also be mailed a print copy of the student manual in hardback format, which may affect final cost.

Technology Implementation

I viewed the course on a typical urban home configuration: a laptop wirelessly connected to our home WiFi router, connected to a DSL line.   I used version 44.02 of the Firefox browser running on Windows 7. One of the first modules of the course went over all the platforms the course was supported on. They used HTML5 video so they claim the course could be viewed on an iPhone or Android. I did not test that claim. I did test some basic functions, like resizing the browser window while videos within the course were running, deliberately missing review questions, trying to skip over material, trying to exit videos before they had finished playing, and other tricks to try to get through the course faster, all of which failed. I did manage to induce one browser crash trying to do a second task (print a browser window to a PDF) in parallel with taking the course. After I re-launched the browser the course did not remember that I had completed several parts of the module I was in, and I had go back through about 10 minutes of material to get back to where I was when the crash occurred. I was unable to do screen captures or print screens. It appears that functionality is blocked, and trying to right-click and print to PDF from the curriculum window in the browser causes Flash to crash. So my original plan to include many screenshots of the course was abandoned in favor of taking a few pictures of my laptop screen with my phone.

The class uses a mix of static graphics, video, animated 3D models, and interactive quizzes that have to be answered correctly before you can proceed. The general format is the same for every module.

Global Complaint #1

It’s clear this course was designed to force users to spend the required amount of time on it, which makes perfect sense for users in the states where there are mandatory training hours. How they accomplished that is by making the course like an audio book. There will be text on the screen, and the audio file will read it to you. For someone who can read faster than the spoken word, this is incredibly irritating. Over and over again I would have already read the material on the screen and have to wait for the slow talking narrator to amble through all the words before I could hit “next”. At least an hour of the course time was spent in this annoying “sit and let me read to you” mode.

Global Complaint #2

The modules are broken up into tiny pieces, which is good when you want to go back and review a specific part. After you’ve been through a module, and you want to go back, if you click on the wrong topic, you are stuck going back through it, complete with “read it to me slowly” audio. It needs some way to recognize that you’ve already been through a topic so you can exit out of it promptly. There are an excessive number of content-free “transition” pieces where you have to wait on the narrator to tell you to hit “submit” or “next” to get to the next thing. Again, a lot of wasted time, bandwidth and animation. I expect a lot of users will encounter the same short-attention-span problem that I did, and will end up taking the course in parallel with one or more other tasks, since there is so much dead time & waiting built into the course flow. On the plus side, there was no apparent delays associated with waiting for videos to play or content to load. Perhaps that’s all hidden by the slow presentation speed of the content.

I don’t think anyone will actually be able to get through the entire course in one session. It ended up taking me multiple sessions over 5 days to get through all the content, and was as much fun as taking an online defensive driving class. Like those online courses, it’s full of frequent requirements for user interaction, which does keep the user from just hitting “play” on a video and dozing off.

Global Complaint #3

Left handed shooters are basically ignored by the course. There are no demonstrations of any skills performed by a left handed shooter, and there’s no discussion of the differences in techniques left handed shooters may have to use to operate controls on various handguns. Similarly, in the gun fit section, handed-ness is not addressed as a factor in gun selection other than the vague “make sure you can operate all the controls”. They also recommend that cross-dominant shooters learn to shoot left-handed. That’s not a realistic option for most right handed adults that are left eye dominant, as they have significantly less dexterity, hand strength and capability with their left hand, most gun models are significantly harder to operate left handed, and left-handed holsters are much harder to find as retail “in stock” items.   As a right-handed, left-eye-dominant shooter that made IPSC Grand Master shooting that way, and as someone with 25 years’ experience teaching adult handgun classes, I strongly disagree with NRA’s position that the best way to teach right-handed, left-eye-dominant adult shooters to shoot handguns is to require them to shoot left handed.

Course Content

The content is not just an online version of the existing Basic Pistol class. A lot of little things have been updated or improved, and all but one of the specific complaints I have about the content are minor.   The best thing about the course is its completeness. For someone that takes the time to go through all the material, it offers a decent foundation in all the things a beginning pistol shooter should know.

My understanding is that the e-course also has a scored online exam, but the preview link given to instructors did not include access to that part.

I had no complaints with Modules 1 (Introduction) and 2 (Pistol Characteristics).

Module 3

In Module 3 (Using a Pistol), there is a 3D animated model of a single action revolver that students have to load, fire and unload by clicking on parts of the gun and on rounds of ammunition shown onscreen. My complaint with this part is that the single action revolver shown is chambered in .45 ACP – not .45 Colt (the traditional caliber) or .38 special (most popular caliber used in cowboy action shooting), and the loading/unloading process shown is only correct and safe for a modern single action gun with a transfer bar. The hammer is not pulled back to half cock to load and unload, and the gun is loaded with 6. When I teach that topic I err on the side of safety, teaching proper technique for older, non-transfer bar, only-load-5 models, because that’s safe for all owners of SA revolvers.   Unless the in-person instructors go over the differences and explain the risks of carrying an old style sixgun with a round under the hammer, students could end up learning potentially dangerous information in this section.

I was pleased to see the overhand grip technique for racking the slide shown in the Module 3 section on using a semi-automatic pistol. Finally, the NRA has caught up to what the private sector schools have been teaching for the past 20 years. That technique is not used for the malfunction clearing demonstration in Module 8, though.

I had no significant complaints about Module 4 (Ammunition) or Module 5 (Intro to Shooting a Pistol).

Module 6 – Shooting Positions

The section on benchrest shooting seems to last forever, and the technique they show has the wrists, but not the frame of the pistol itself, supported by the sandbag. The method they show does not prevent the shooter from dipping the muzzle during the shot. Using something like a Pistol Perch, that supports the front of the gun, as shown in the picture, is actually the best way to check the zero on a pistol and teach good trigger control isolated from other fundamentals.

 perch  benchrest


They are still including the Weaver stance in the course, but at least in this version of the material, both Isoceles and Weaver are demonstrated with technique that looks more like what the private sector schools that teach those skills actually recommend. That wasn’t true in the Personal Protection Inside/Outside the Home books. The graphics associated with the explanation of differences between Isoceles and Weaver do a nice job of showing the differences in arm tension.

Lesson 7 (Pistol Shooting Errors)

This module offers some well-intentioned material that goes into a lot of details. The first topic, Zeroing Your Pistol, again is clearly focused on the target .22 audience, with its direction to make sight adjustments to target sights to dial the gun in exactly. The problem of fixed sights is primarily explained by graphics showing a .38 snub revolver with fixed front and rear sights, instead of a typical semi-auto with a fixed front and windage-adjustable rear sight. I think this was a major mistake, since the vast majority of adult gun owners that will be taking this course to meet state concealed carry license requirements are going to have a modern semiauto. The most important point new shooters need to hear on that topic, which is “if the gun is shooting low left, and you are right handed, the problem is not the sights, it’s the user!” is not emphasized at all. The course does do a good job of discussing point of impact differences related to different bullet weights and types of ammo.

A section on how to score a target is included, going into detail explaining how an NRA competition target is scored. Is that really essential for a new pistol shooter? Probably not, but for someone that has to qualify on a state-mandated shooting test, the material is good to know.

The inclusion of material on many different types of aiming, trigger control, hold, grip and breath control errors was excellent. This section would have been significantly better if they had recorded high speed video of shooters actually committing the errors being discussed.   Perhaps in an update to the course that material could be included.

Module 8 (Pistol Stoppages)

The worst error in the course is in Module 8. In the video for Topic 2, Clearing Pistol Stoppages, the person handling the pistol starts out with their trigger finger properly indexed on the frame, but right before racking the slide, places it on the trigger guard right in line with the trigger, pressing on the trigger guard in such a way that if the finger slipped off, it would go right to the trigger and cause the gun to fire.

malf 1malf 2

This is a terrible example to set for students, and if a student copied that behavior on the firing line in one of my classes, I would correct them on it, with an explanation of why that trigger finger position is not safe. This video needs to be updated immediately to correct this significant flaw.

Another serious problem in this video is that the gun is tilted the wrong way, with the ejection port pointing up. In this position anything that needs to be ejected from the pistol is going to fall back down into the port when the slide is cycled, making the malfunction worse. Had this video been produced showing the shooter clearing an actual malfunction, instead of simply racking the slide, that flaw in technique would have been exposed when it failed to solve the problem.

Normally the tilt, tap, rack technique is taught by tilting the gun the opposite direction, so that the magazine base is facing centerline, and the ejection port is facing down (for a right handed shooter). That places the magazine at the best angle to be “tapped” by the support hand, and puts the ejection port at the best angle to actually eject the offending fired brass or failed round. That technique, when performed by a left handed shooter puts the ejection port facing upward – which should have been addressed and demonstrated as part of presentation of this material. (The challenges of left handed shooters trying to operate magazine release, slide lock/release, and disassembly levers on guns that are lefty-unfriendly was also not addressed, but is a problem that instructors teaching the range part of this course will also have to address.)

If/when I teach the range part of this course, I will have to spend time explaining to students that what they saw in the online course was wrong, and why.

Module 9 – Pistol Cleaning and Maintenance

I made a note to myself during this section that nowhere in the course was there any discussion of the potential hazards of lead exposure, particularly when shooting at an indoor range, and the specific risk to pregnant women and nursing mothers. They do discuss the hazards of lead exposure as they relate to gun cleaning in this section.  In the instructor lesson plan for the in-person part of the course, there is direction given to instructors to advise pregnant women/nursing mothers to consult with their physicians prior to attending. The problem with this advice is that most physicians I’ve talked to about this issue know less about it than many shooting instructors. At a minimum, the online course should include that direction to ‘consult with your physician’, to ensure that students that need that advise get it *before* they register and pay for a course and show up at the range.

One of the best places to clean a gun is at the range, so you can test fire it after you reassemble it, which is particularly useful for peace of mind if that gun is used for self-defense. That suggestion is not in included in this section but it’s one that I make in classes where gun cleaning is covered.

The course briefly explains how to clean a magazine, without actually showing how to disassemble and re-assemble a magazine. A video showing that would have been very useful.

Module 10 – Selecting Pistols and Ammunition

No mention of pistol capacity, or trigger pull weight as selection factors. Single action revolvers are referred to as “single action revolvers” but double action revolvers are simply referred to as “revolvers”, which I think would confuse a beginner.

The list of accessories someone might put in their shooting bag was very good, and I was pleased to see a shooting timer and tools on the list. I would have liked to have seen “additional spare magazines, each marked with a unique indicator such as a number or a letter”, with explanation as to the benefits of owning more than 1-2 mags for your pistol, and the reason for marking them (to tell them apart, particularly if one is damaged or has a worn spring and begins causing malfunctions).

Module 11 – Maintaining Your Skills

It included the material on the Winchester Marksmanship booklet, which is under-used and under-appreciated, as well as all the expected propaganda for all the associated NRA courses and programs. They actually under-sell the follow on NRA courses in this section, failing to explain what topics are covered in Personal Protection Inside the Home and Personal Protection Outside the Home. A short video showing shooters running some of the live fire drills in those courses would have been very appropriate and useful in motivating students to return for follow on training.

In the section on “plinking”, they do not explain how to identify a safe backstop or safe shooting direction for this type of informal shooting. Failing to understand how far rounds can travel, and that rounds can bounce off hard ground, particularly when fired at shallow angles, as well as basic concepts like not using trees or cacti as target stands, and basic safety measures related to use of steel targets, can cause beginning shooters trying to “plink” on rural property with no supervision from more experienced shooters to make tragic mistakes.

Of course, they fail to mention any non-NRA types of competition, even though the popularity of non-NRA matches, such as IPSC, IDPA, Steel Challenge, and Falling Steel eclipses the NRA sanctioned shooting sports everywhere.

They also use the term “civilian” to refer to shooters who are not in the military or in law enforcement.   Those not in the military are “civilian”, which means those in law enforcement are also ‘civilians’. I prefer the term “citizen” or “armed citizen” to “civilian” and know that many in the gun culture take offense at the misuse of the term “civilian” when the meaning is “not in law enforcement”.

And surprisingly, in an online course, there is no active link taking students to the NRA Training Department webpage, and no link taking them to a list of courses where they can complete the live fire part of the course. I assume that those passing the online test (that the preview people were not given access to) will get that link, but I don’t know for sure.

The In-person training part of the course

The in person part of the course has to include gun safety rules, range rules, range commands, dominant eye, two handed grip, and pistol shooting fundamentals, which any beginning or even intermediate pistol course should cover. In order to meet NRA requirements, the in-person training also needs to include loading, cocking, de-cocking, and unloading a single action revolver, double-action revolver and semi-automatic pistol, and a review of safely cleaning a pistol. Students must do live fire from the benchrest and isosceles position and shoot the qualification course of fire. There is a nice skills checklist showing the student demonstrated proficiency with each of required skills.

The qualification course of fire is very simple and well designed. 4” circles are used, and students are required to put 5 shots in the 4” circle at 10 feet (level 1), 15 feet (level 2), and 20 feet (level 3). Level 1 is all that is required to pass. The instructor qualification target requires putting at least 16 out of 20 shots in a 6” group at 15 yards.

The NRA estimates that it will take 5 hours to teach the in-person part of the training, making the new “blended” course a longer class (at an estimated 12 hours) than the older 10- and 8- hour courses.

I’m not an expert on the training hour requirements in the states where NRA training is used for licensing, but to me it seems the course length may become a marketing problem in states where the minimum training requirement is 8 hours, and other in-person courses that are recognized by the state are available.

Integration with Existing Curriculum

In Texas, where the License to Carry (LTC) course has been cut down to 4-6 hours, and some of the material covered in the LTC course duplicates material in the in-person NRA course, offering the “Basic Pistol completion” course on the same day as an LTC course may work, as students wanting to do more than our state’s minimum could take the online course and complete it and the LTC class on the same day.

The requirements to cover single-action and double-action revolvers and shoot from the benchrest position will be the biggest problems.  To conduct that training in parallel with multiple shooters will require special facilities.  The typical outdoor “tactical” range used for a state carry permit course does not have a neat row of benches set up at 5 yards. Clearly the live fire part of the course was written with an indoor range in mind.   In a large carry permit course, the time required to run all students through the single-action and double-action revolver exercises, will be long, unless the instructor invests in many SA and DA revolvers to use as loaner guns.   If the course had been designed with the “run what you brung” approach of First Steps, with the arcane knowledge of how to load a Peacemaker moved to an optional exercise, the course would be shorter and just as relevant to the vast majority of students.

The other approach KR Training could take is to pair it with our existing Basic Pistol 1 class, which is essentially an NRA First Steps course, as the afternoon “follow on” class for those that wanted to get the full NRA Basic Pistol certificate. We may try both approaches over the next few months to see what type of student is most interested in taking the online class.

Final Thoughts

Many longtime NRA instructors are unhappy about the switch to blended learning. I think it’s an experiment that needs to be tried, because online learning has some advantages over in person training, and those that will actually get through the entire online course will be easier to teach when they actually show up at the range.   I look forward to training some of those students, to find out how much they retain from what they learned online.

People inside the gun culture sometimes forget that between negative stereotypes (“those people” won’t welcome me because I’m …) and the potential dangers associated with guns that many new to guns can be intimidated or afraid to just show up for a shooting class. There’s a lot of good instructional material available online, particularly on youtube, but finding it among the derp can be hard. Having a high quality online course available from NRA, even if students only take the online part and never complete the in-person training, still has net value to the gun culture.

Another potential benefit of the course is to provide formal training for the lifetime gun owner who maybe would benefit from a refresher course, or has never had a formal class, but doesn’t want to go take a class with a bunch of beginners. There may be a secondary audience of those people, who will never go take the in-person component, but will benefit from the online training by itself.

Final course grade for the 1.0 version: A-

Has great potential, very few major or minor flaws. Course length a potential problem for the intended audience.



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