grant-cunninghamWhen I talk with other instructors, I don’t spend a lot of time – any, really – on calibers, stopping power, or any of the other trite topics which are the staple of gun magazines and online forums. I’m not all that excited about shooting per se, but am very intrigued with the ideas that underlie the teaching of  others: how to communicate more effectively, how to bring concepts and ideas to life for my students.

Some months ago an interesting email conversation started between some people in this business of self defense education, a conversation to which I was privileged to be a party. Rob Pincus and some other notable folks were interested in what constitutes a professional in this field, and were looking at  statements, descriptions, and measurements of what a professional instructor believes and how he/she puts those beliefs into practice.


It wasn’t long before there appeared a list of seven items – seven tenets – which described the ideals of a professional defensive shooting instructor. That list became the Code of the Professional Defensive Shooting Instructor, the document which is at the core of the ADSI. You’ve no doubt seen it, and perhaps you were even drawn by it to this organization. These tenets will mean different things to different people, but if you’ll permit me I’ll share with you my interpretation, my thoughts on each of the seven – and the Code as a whole.


“I am committed to the safety of my students, and hold that the expected benefit of any training activity must significantly outweigh any known or perceived risk of that activity.”

Safety, for both our students and ourselves, is always our first priority. Why, then, don’t we start with actual safety rules? Because without the instructor having the proper frame of mind, even the best safety rules can and will fail.

We all know that shooting guns in a training environment involves some level of danger. We minimize our exposure to that danger – our risk level – by taking precautions. There is, for instance, always the danger of hearing damage whenever guns are fired. We reduce that risk by wearing hearing protection, allowing us to engage in shooting practice without having to worry about our ears.

If we didn’t do that, the damage to our ears would outweigh the benefit of the training. By using ear protection, the benefit of the training is greater than the risk of hearing damage. We require our students to wear hearing protection so that the benefit of their training greatly outweighs that particular risk.

All of our safety rules should serve to reduce the risk of the activity, and we should require that our students follow them. Sometimes that’s not enough; sometimes there is no rule or procedure that can make a particular activity safe in the way we’ve defined it. If that happens, then the activity needs to be modified or eliminated so that the risk/benefit ratio is maintained.

This isn’t a cookie cutter or paint-by-numbers approach to safety because as instructors, it’s our job to understand safety at a higher level than that; it’s our job to understand it as a concept. We need to know how to apply the concept in ways that keep our students safe, and one way we can do that is by having rules and procedures that are relevant to the student’s needs and abilities.

We need to look at all of our activities and drills and ask hard questions: what is the real benefit, is that benefit relevant to our student’s lives, and does that benefit really outweigh all of the risks we’re taking?

The student only needs to focus on what to do, while the teacher needs to focus on why they’re doing it. That understanding is the difference between the teacher – the professional teacher – and the student.


“I believe that it is my responsibility to understand not just what I’m teaching, but WHY I’m teaching any technique or concept, or offering specific advice.”

This tenet is deceptively simple, yet difficult to put into practice without some work and introspection on the part of the instructor. It’s also important to the rest of the Tenets, because unless this one is dealt with properly those which follow cannot be adopted with integrity.

It’s been my experience that few instructors really know why they’re teaching or recommending something; they haven’t spent a lot of time asking (and answering) probing questions about their material: is this relevant to my student’s actual needs; does it make sense; is it supported by objective evidence; is it consistent with everything else I teach; can it be understood; am I capable of explaining it in a way that can be understood?

For instance, if the answer to “why do I teach/recommend this” is “because that’s the way I learned it in the Army/Navy/Marines/the NRA/my instructor development class”, or “my guru/famous shooter does it that way”, or “I read it in a book by a renowned author”, then that person doesn’t really understand why.

The right answer to the “why” question is “because it’s the best thing for the students, and here are the rational reasons which support it.” Every technique, every concept, every recommendation has to be considered by that measure.

Whether the technique or concept happens to be correct for any random student is irrelevant. That’s teaching by chance, and the occasional success isn’t meaningful if the instructor doesn’t understand why it is. The whole point of this tenet is a deep understanding of what’s being taught before it’s ever presented to the student, so that each one gets what they need and can apply directly to their own situation. It’s always about the students.

Is it any wonder why I think this is the most difficult – and, next to safety, the most important – of all the Tenets?


“I recognize that defensive shooting skills, along with the drills and gear used, are inherently specialized and usually distinct from those of target shooting, competition and hunting endeavors.”

It should be self-evident that the tools used in defensive shooting are different than, say, skeet shooting. It may be less obvious that there are equipment differences between self defense and IPSC or IDPA shooting. What many don’t recognize at all is that there are significant differences in the skills required, differences which lead to variations in the drills required to develop them.

It’s not simply about being pro-competition or anti-competition. The professional instructor needs to understand what, where and why the differences occur, and be able to articulate them clearly if he/she is to give the students what they need. This goes beyond the obvious stuff; it’s necessary to understand the nuances, the seemingly little things that actually require big adjustments in curriculum. This only happens if the instructor isn’t wedded to one point of view and if he/she really understands what defensive shooting is about.

The key with this tenet, I believe, is realizing that context drives what is used and taught. What makes sense in the context of a hunting trip or a shooting match or a self defense incident will at some level be different, and the instructor needs to be cognizant of that if the student is to be well served.


“I will encourage my students to ask questions about course material, and I will answer them with thorough and objective explanations.” 

I’ve experienced first hand what happens when an instructor doesn’t follow this, and can tell stories about many more that I’ve observed. I’m sure you know folks like this, too.

It’s actually very easy to discourage students from asking questions! Think back to when you were in college: how eager were you to ask, in front of people you barely knew, what might be seen as a ‘stupid’ question? Anything that the student perceives as being dismissive of their questions, or worse belittling of their state of knowledge, will put a damper not just on their desire for clarification – but the rest of the class as well.

In order to encourage students to ask questions it’s imperative to make sure that the environment is conducive to inquiry. Every student needs to feel comfortable asking any pertinent question, and moreover it’s important to always prompt for those questions. The students need to know that they can ask even the most probing questions about the material without being made to feel that they’re unworthy.

To maintaing that atmosphere some care must be given to the answers which the student receives. Answers need to be complete and based on fact, logic, and reason. Too often I’ve seen instructors give the flimsiest answers to even simple questions, using flawed logic (all too often Appeal To Authority), unsupported conjecture, and incomplete or out of date evidence.  There should be a good reason – preferably several – for every answer that’s given, and they should all be factually based.

The very worst situation is when questions are answered with dogmatic sound bites: pithy statements that contain no fact at all, but designed to be memorable and boost the instructor’s ego. In one of the first classes I took, many years ago, the instructor had a particular stance he wanted the students to use. When asked (not by me – I was too intimidated!) why he didn’t use another specific stance, he barked “because it’s not a FIGHTING stance.” That was the end of the discussion as far as he was concerned! There was no reason behind the statement, no definition of just what “fighting” meant or how it was determined or who determined it, just a sneer delivered with the kind of body language that signaled no further inquiry would be allowed.

That is the polar opposite of what this tenet is talking about.

Student questions, to be sure, are dangerous because they can quickly expose an instructor’s weaknesses. If he doesn’t really know the material, why he’s teaching it, and how it fits into his student’s lives, any but the most superficial questions will reveal his lack of knowledge to the class. Remember when I said Tenet #2 was critical to adopting the tenets which follow? This is a perfect example of why! Discouraging questions isn’t just a sign of poor communication skills; it may be an indication that the instructor really doesn’t know himself why his material is important.

The professional gives the students plenty of opportunity to ask questions. He maintains an atmosphere in which discourse about the topics is not only allowed, but encouraged on a continual basis (once at the beginning of class isn’t enough!) The answers to all questions are respectful of both the material and the student, and are based on provable and supportable facts – never mere opinions or sound bites.


“I understand that Integrity and Professionalism are subjective traits and I strive to maintain high levels of both. I am capable of, and willing to, articulate the reasons for the way I conduct my courses and how I interact with students & peers.” 

If you knew that you were going to answer to someone, do you think you’d run your classes a bit differently? Yes, I know that ultimately we’re all accountable to our students (in a financial sense, if nothing else), but actually having to answer questions – from them or someone else – about how we behave and how we conduct ourselves definitely serves as a moderating influence.

Professionals in other fields have boards of inquiry or standards that ask those questions and censor those who come up short. We don’t have that in the defensive shooting world, and I’m not sure we’d want it, but each of us should behave as though we do. We should commit to being above board with how we run our businesses, how we treat suppliers, students, and colleagues. We should do it voluntarily, not because someone is waiting in the wings to take away our license to practice if we don’t.

This tenet asks us to be self-motivated rather than having someone in authority push us into doing the right thing. We need to be willing not just to be accountable to our students and our colleagues for everything we do, but to ourselves as well. Each of us should judge our own conduct against high standards and be open to constructive criticism when we come up short.


“I believe that it is valuable to engage my peers in constructive conversation about differences in technique and concept, with the goal of mutual education and evolution.” 

The field of defensive shooting has for too long been dominated by warring factions. I’ve even heard stories from some of the senior people in this business about certain high profile trainers refusing to talk to other high profile trainers when in the same room! It seems to have calmed down a bit in the last decade, but we still have a few rock-throwers (and their attendant partisans) here and there.

Being able to talk to another professional about what we do, and finding out why they might do something different, is the basis of professional interaction. People in other fields do it, and it’s about time we made that a normal part of our activities as well. Thats why this tenet is a vital part of the Code.

Of course (as I’ve mentioned more than once) understanding what we’re teaching and why we’re teaching it is a prerequisite; it’s very difficult to tell someone why we teach something if we don’t know ourselves!

Every professional interaction I’ve had with other instructors has been an opportunity to learn, even when our approaches were quite different. In each of these I’ve come away with something that made me a better instructor – if only because it gave me an opportunity to advance my ability to articulate what I do.

Professionals talk to each other – they don’t throw rocks. This tenet is all about not throwing rocks!


“I believe that the best instructor is an avid student, and I will strive to continually upgrade my own skills and knowledge. As part of this belief, I understand that my own teachings need to be subject to critique and open to evolution.” 

I think every instructor I’ve ever met espouses this belief. I can count on one hand that number that I know to really live it. How do I know this? Because they’re the only ones who ever change!

Being an avid student doesn’t mean just signing up for another class from one’s favorite guru, nor does it mean taking a class from someone whose curriculum is largely consistent with one’s current worldview. It means seeking out new information and different approaches;  being open and receptive to new ideas and giving them full (and honest) consideration.

It’s hard to admit that we don’t have all the answers, or that our chosen school/guru might be demonstrably wrong about something. This is why Tenet #2 is so important, because clinging to something out of pride, emotion, or misplaced loyalty instead of logic and reason serves as an impediment to being a student. It keeps one stuck in the same place with the same people doing the same things for the same misplaced reasons.

If an instructor is truly interested in broadening his knowledge and skills, he needs to get beyond that rut. He needs to be able to compare what he knows now with what he’ll be learning, and come to a decision that’s based on fact, not emotion. Sometimes he’ll find that what he’s doing is in fact the best thing for his students. However, if he finds that not to be true he owes it to himself (and his students) to change.

There is a caution here: this doesn’t mean that an instructor should put himself into this new environment if all he wants is to get validation for his already strongly held opinions. I observed just that kind of person a couple of years ago in someone else’s class, and the results were very ugly.

You have to be open to change. You have to be willing to evolve. You have to look at your curriculum honestly and be willing to admit that maybe, just maybe, you don’t have all the answers. Someone else may have one that you’ll need for next week’s class, and if you don’t seek it out it’s your students who suffer.

Being an avid student is intellectually risky. This tenet begs you to take those risks.

More than anything, I think, this tenet serves as a sort of litmus test for the professional instructor. Professionals in other fields, like medicine, engineering, law, architecture – heck, even electricians and plumbers – are required by their associations or professional licenses to have a certain number of continuing education hours every year. The idea is that they’ll be exposed to the latest knowledge that their fields offer, so that they can put that new knowledge to work immediately. In the training world we don’t have that – yet – and it’s up to the individual to do it him or herself.



It’s easy to think of the Code as a condition, a state of existence at some point in time, of the professional defensive shooting instructor. Other members may disagree with me on this, but I don’t believe it is.

A code, like the Code Of The Professional Defensive Shooting Instructor, is by its nature aspirational. It’s a description of an ideal, a list of traits that other Professionals agree are desirable and laudable. It’s not necessarily always achievable.

I don’t know any instructor who is 100% on all of these, all the time. I’m not sure such a person exists. The difference between the Professional and everyone else is that he can go down the list and admit where his weaknesses are: “I wish I followed that one all the time; I need more work on that one; this one I’m pretty good on, but could always be a little better; D’OH! “, and so on. There is always room for improvement, for progress, for evolution, and the Professional understands that. He doesn’t stand still.

The Professional will look at these Seven Tenets and agree with all (or at least the majority) of them, while at the same time admitting to himself that he doesn’t always live up to them.

Being a Professional isn’t a destination at which one arrives, it’s a journey one makes. It never ends. A Code, like this one, is a guidebook for that journey.

If you’re a student of defensive shooting, it is what you should expect of your instructor. If you’re an instructor, it comprises the things that you should want to do — to better yourself, better serve your students, and move the industry as a whole forward.

As I said, it’s a journey. Are you ready to go?


-=[ Grant Cunningham ]=-