I believe it is the responsibility of every person who handles firearms to get as much training as they can. Private sector firearms training is a growing industry. I can remember when if you wanted firearms training as a private citizen your choices were pretty much limited to the schools of Jeff Cooper, Ray Chapman, Mas Ayoob and Paul Abel. Now there are more schools than one can keep track off. Today, choosing a school or instructor can be a bit bewildering. Let's see if I can make some suggestions to make it easier.
Since the 9-11 attacks, the interest in defensive shooting and defense training in general has expanded by leaps and bounds. Shooting schools that previously, even rarely reached maximum capacity for their classes are now filling up 8 to 10 months in advance. Schools like John Shaw's Mid-South no longer take private citizens because all their time is occupied training law enforcement and the military. So make your plans as far in advance as you possibly can.
Unfortunately--or should I say inevitably--the training industry has gone the way of everything else and has been invaded by a few charlatans who misrepresent their credentials. So beware, and ask for references. Any school or instructor who can't provide references is either brand new in the industry or hasn't had any satisfied customers. Longevity is an good indicator of quality. Reputations spread quickly and instructors that aren't squared away won't stay in business very long.
Call or send an email to schools you are considering. Ask them questions. Any reputable school should be willing to answer a few serious inquires. Define your goals. What is it you want to get out of a class? Beware of instructors and schools that make talk as if their way is the right way or even the only way. There are many doctrines, methods, tactics and techniques out there. Instructors that claim their way is the right way are just showing their lack of understand of the subject matter.
There is a lot more to defending yourself with a firearm than sight picture and trigger press so ask the schools you are considering if they cover subjects such as the legal aspects and ramifications of self-defense, concealed carry methods, and weapon retention. It might be fun to learn to clear a building the way the US Navy SEALs do it, but it is far more necessary to learn when you can and we you can't use deadly force.
Don't get hung up on technique. What this means is don't exclude a school just because they don't teach things the way you may already do them. The more philosophies and ideas you are exposed to, the better you can judge for yourself what works for you. Techniques are like tools. You keep your tools in a tool box (your brain). As you gather new tools (learn new things) you discard tools you don't need or which don't work as well as the new tool.
What to bring and what to expect
Every school publishes a list of required and recommended equipment. Bring everything on the list! You would be amazed at the number of students that show up without required items. Most schools try to move at a fairly rapid pace, trying to impart as much information as time allows. If you let your lack of equipment, or poor quality equipment, slow you down, you will not get the most out of a class you're spending a lot of money to take. In some cases your equipment failures may slow down the entire class. Be considerate of others.
Ammunition, Holsters and Magazines
These are the big three trouble makers. At every class I've been to, invariably someone shows up with poor quality handloads that won't function reliably. The only thing that student will get out of the class is the ability to clear malfunctions. (editor's note: if you are going to spend the money to attend this school, spend the money to buy a case of quality, factory-made ammunition.)
If a school asks students to bring four magazines, at least one person will show up with only two. A few more will bring poor quality or already damaged magazines and then get frustrated when they cause functioning problems and prevent those students from keeping up with the class. If the class calls for three magazines, bring five. And don't bring your old beater range mags, either. Bring good quality serviceable magazines that will see you through the course.
At every class someone shows up with a shiny, new, very expensive pistol and a cheap bargain basement holster. You would not believe the number of people that think nothing of spending a thousand plus dollars on a pistol and show up with a cheap piece of junk holster that impedes their draw stroke, doesn't hold the pistol properly or just plain can't take the abuse of a couple thousand draw strokes. And bring a holster consistent with the class curriculum. Don't show up with a tactical thigh holster for a concealed carry class.
This goes for optics on rifles as well. People will bring an expensive carbine with all the tactical doo-dads hanging off it, wearing a $20 Chinese optic and then blame the instructor when they can't hit anything.
If possible, bring extra guns. You never know when you might break a part, even quality equipment breaks down. Several years ago, I attended a class at the Chapman Academy. Half way through a five-day class the extractor broke on my Browning Hi-Power. That could have ruined the week for me but luckily I brought a spare pistol.
Bring an open mind
Put yourself in a learning frame of mind. Come prepared to accept knew ideas and try new things. Just because something doesn't seem to work for you or feel right to you the moment it's taught to you don't instantly dismiss it. For example, if you have been shooting pistols with a thumbs down grip, the high thumb grip will seem awkward at first. Don't discard it instantly, try it for a while and give yourself a chance to get used to it. Then if you feel that a tool doesn't work for you, you can stop using it. As a general rule, practice the method in question several times over a three month period. Then if you feel the method isn't for you, at least you've given it a real chance. Training and learning isn't just about finding what works for you, it's also about figuring out what doesn't work for you. If you find something doesn't work for your situation, you've still learned something.
The other side of that coin is that if a certain method or technique absolutely doesn't work for you, your instructor should be able to recognize that and provide you with an appropriate alternative. (editor's note: this may be due to your physical build, for example.)
Many people take a course, are pleased with the instruction, and then train exclusively with that organization. As I've said, there are many different techniques and doctrines out there. You will give yourself a more rounded and diverse education by training at different schools. Every instructor has his own perspective. This will allow you to see different perspectives and better judge for yourself, what is right for you.