Study Groups: Are they valuable and how to start one.
“What's the deal with this study group thing? Do you guys sit around and read the bible or something?”
I get this question often. Usually phrased exactly like this. Always brings a smile to my face. You see, it’s always a gun-guy asking this question, and if that dude thinks it's an innocuous activity, then I feel confident that Joe Average drops it in the same category, thereby drawing less attention to a group of like-minded guys getting some reps in. Not that anything nefarious is going on, but plenty of folks, likely already in your network, try not to have a high profile outside their gun-guy pals. Here in central PA, going to the range is a common activity for anybody, but that might not always be the case where you, the reader, is at.
The idea for a study group had been brewing for a long time. I had been attending training for years here in PA, and I would meet a lot of students in class, and I thought there was a large potential pool of people to continuously get together and refine the skills we had been taught. But putting it together had not been simple for me. Eventually, I started teaching, and I would tell the students, “look at this network right here at the range today; you all should swap numbers and get a training group together.” I really wanted it to be student-led; I felt that was the key to longevity and would share the logistical burden among a few different people.
When I left for Tennesee, I picked up this tidbit from the world's greatest firearms instructor, Jay Gibson. He often says, “ Whenever you think to yourself: someone should do something; change that mindset to: I should do something.” Usually, that conversation has something to do with doing hero-work, but it applies everywhere, even down to picking up a piece of litter. During my year and a half there, we had half a dozen instructors, and we essentially had our own study group whenever we wanted. 5 of us lived in the same house, and most evenings revolved around training. When we would teach in PA, I would see all these familiar faces, and I would still preach the idea of them putting together a training group. I came home to PA after roughly a year and a half and started working for another company. I would still see these familiar faces, and I had more opportunities to convince them to put together a group. But it just didn’t take hold. One day while I was feeling frustrated with the lack of training groups, I heard Jay's voice tell me that I would be starting it.
So I put together a quick plan, made a video, and had our first study group. I put the word out online, and folks were asking me if it was an event put on by the company I was teaching for. That was exactly what I was trying to avoid all this time. It wasn't a class, it wasn't designed to be a business transaction, and no profits were intended to be made. All of those are counter to what I was trying to do. There’s no “Instructor” it’s totally student-led, with them passing on what they learned in a class. In the beginning, I had to work extra hard to make sure there was no confusion that this wasn't a class and my employer had no input whatsoever, but eventually, the message got out. Pretty soon, we had dozens of people coming to the study groups.
I get asked often about the roadmap to put together a study group somewhere else. And here’s what I have. It’s not the only way; it might not even be the best way. But it’s the way we went, and as I write this, we just concluded our 55th Study Group last weekend.
When we started, we used a range that was semi-central to the folks I was going to initially invite. They had a good system in place at the range where a member could bring a guest, and memberships were priced right. So when I put the word out, I told folks that we had a few members and they could come as a guest, but if they were going to keep coming back to be cool to the range and become a member. Put a few dollars in their coffers, and then we have the chance for someone else to come as a guest. It was a very symbiotic membership in the beginning. People had a place to go train, and the range got a few dozen new members. Here’s your warning, though. Politics happens at all levels of an organization. Always have a backup plan, or get one as soon as you can find one.
What we found out was that the range saw 10-15 people coming frequently, and they were not getting the same range fees that they would charge an instructor to host a class. Even though at that point it was 90% members with 1 or 2 guests, they couldn’t just let the members use the range at will; so they told us we needed to not only pay yearly dues, we would also need to reserve the range just like a business did. However, a business was not required to have students be members too. I never asked the range if the intent was to double-dip on fees or to just prevent members from using the range. Since they chose to tell us a week after membership renewals were paid, I assume it was the former. The choices were simple at that point, start charging people for daily range fees or find a new location. For our particular situation, the mandated government lockdowns were going on and affecting ammunition availability as well as cost, so our backup plan was fortuitous. We started doing study groups without a live-fire component to make it easier to afford, and it also kept us out of the drama of range politics. We used various locations that were free to use, either private or public. Not needing a place where live-fire was safe to do opened up a plethora of choices.
As we started adding more live-fire study groups back into the mix, we found a better location that charges fewer range fees as well as not even having memberships. We should have been exploring alternate locations before we were exploited by the original range. While we still have that second location as our primary, we are always shopping around for the best deal for the attendees of the study groups.
When it comes to people, somebody is going to do the logistical heavy lifting. At the beginning of our group, that was me. I had stopped working for the training outfit up here in July of 2019 and was running Tremis Dynamics as a full-time gig, so I just added another task to the list of running a small business. As more and more study groups were going on, there were other folks willing to share the load. Nowadays, I’m just the central hub. Other guys will come up with what the focus of the study group is going to be and where and what we need as a group to make it happen. TremDyn will usually donate targets when we do live-fire, but many of the study group guys will drop a few bucks in a hat to offset those costs or bring some of their own targets. If there are other things we need, such as steel targets or markers for land nav control points, TremDyn will loan them out. If your group doesn't have access to that kind of thing, somebody will likely have to take the plunge and buy some without any expectation of being reimbursed.
My main responsibilities at this point are maintaining the email list for those that want email notifications about the when/where/what of study groups, as well as maintaining the bookface group and events. There are enough people involved that I am not doing all the logistical work any longer and everything runs smoothly.
Here’s the key, especially before the activities are established. Asking for money is going to make people skeptical. And be completely upfront with costs. If the range costs 100 bucks for the day and you used 12 targets, let the guys know that it costs 112 bucks in consumables for the day. Ask them if they want to kick in to cover it. If they don't, someone is going to pay the bulk of the cost. That’s the risk of what you are trying to put together. Once it gets rolling, getting folks to share the load of the consumable costs will be easier. When they see that it’s not a way for one guy to make some profit, it will take care of itself.
When it comes to people, that's always a tough route to navigate. Assholes don't belong. They will ruin the group. We have a few rules. Anybody who has come to the group can invite somebody new to come. But they are staking their reputation on the new guy. You bring an asshole; we’re not letting him back, and the guy that vouched cant come back either. Now in true pirate fashion, it’s more of a guideline than a code. We have told guys that they cant come back. But the guy that vouched for him had to let him know. He brought him in, and he sent him packing. And we simply let the original guy stay. Had he chosen to not handle the asshole, we’d have just banned them both from coming back.
When dudes are staking their own reputation/participation on who they invite, they become more careful with who they invite. It’s a self-correcting problem.
Some people are going to be very active and then become dormant. Some will only ever come sporadically. What we discovered is that we need to make the planned activities scalable for those with less or more practice. It helps to have someone who is a trainer or a very experienced student to help tailor what's going on in a study group. Something else we do is private study groups for those who have demonstrated capability. The idea isn't to teach new guys team bounding drills; that's what class is for. It’s to get reps in for those who already have quality instruction in whatever task at hand is. If you need to be a little more particular about who comes to those, go ahead. It doesn't need to be a secret; we’ve invited folks who weren't ready for some of the more advanced stuff to just come out for the day. They got to check out what was going on and it usually sets them about finding the right training so they can do those more advanced tasks in the future.
One of the things we found with these study groups is that we made a bunch of new friends that exist outside of the study groups. It was a totally unintended perk. We have families taking joint vacations together now; that started with guys meeting at Study Groups 2 years ago. Not only did guys get a new network of folks to train with, but their close circles also grew as well.
Like most things that are worthwhile, it will take a lot of work. Somebody will shoulder more than their share to make it happen. When I started teaching, even back when it was just a side gig to my job as a college instructor, the reasoning was that I thought it would afford more opportunities to train. When I went full time, even though my side gig took a back seat, the plan was still to get more training time. And while on the instructor side, my training time grew exponentially, my time getting reps in only marginally increased. Once I decided not to work for somebody else, I thought that might increase my trigger time, and it did simply because I chose not to run classes as often so I could spend more time working on my skill progression. When it really clicked though, was when the study groups took off. Now I had time away from my job, and I had the time and opportunity to be on the range getting better. I’ve created some cool shit in the last 7 years that I’ve been doing this full-time. I’ve made lasting changes to some strong legacy curricula at my former employers. I’ve written what I feel are the best pistol, carbine, and FoF classes available. But the jewel in my crown, without a doubt, is getting our study group off the ground. If I were forced to stop teaching or to stop the study groups, I wouldn’t hesitate to hang up my instructor hat. I feel terrible for all of the people so heavily invested in the training community that aren't involved in some type of study group. I’m hoping that maybe, just maybe, this little blurb might inspire a guy to get one up and running the way Jay’s words convinced me to do the same a few years ago.
As always, feel free to reach out, and I’ll try my best to give you any pointers or advice on your study group.
* No bibles have been read at any of our study groups.