I'm a Hunter Education Instructor, and have been for years: but I was surprised a few months ago when we got a new Regional Training Coordinator to find out how long I'd been doing it, and what my standing was. Apparently I've been at it since 1998. All unknown to me, and entirely without intent, I qualified long ago for Senior Instructor status.  The Training Coordinator is supposed to keep track of these things but the previous one didn't bother, so I never knew.

When the new man came on board he updated all the active Instructor records; he mailed me my Senior Instructor patch along with a note that really surprised me: I needed only the Range Operations course and a few more hours in the classroom to qualify for Master Instructor status! When DGIF subsequently announced that they were holding another Advanced Training workshop at Holiday Lake 4-H Center in Appomattox, I immediately signed up for Range Ops. This is a difficult course to get into, as there's a large demand and limited training time and space. I literally had the FAXed registration form on the way within ten minutes of receiving the e-mail announcement, nailing down a spot. Most of the required Advanced courses are 4-hour sessions, but Range Ops is 12 hours, held all day on Saturday and 4 more on Sunday morning.  I arrived at Holiday Lake on Friday evening, signed in, and started bright and early (and I do mean EARLY) on Saturday.

The 4-H Center is an old 1930's Civilian Conservation Corps camp, built for the workers who constructed the dam that created the lake during the Roosevelt Administration.  When I went up in 1998 for the initial training I spent my nights in one of these unheated cabins with 6-8 other attendees, but the first time was the last time:  camaraderie and male bonding are all very well and good, but it was entirely too much like my old and very unhappy memories of summer camp 52 years ago for me to want to do it again.  Bunks with solid boards covered by 1/2" worn-out foam rubber mattresses are not my thing; nor is listening to a wide variety of odd noises made by sleeping strangers, let alone communal showers and toilets.  After that first trip I spent my nights at the Super 8 12 miles away.  The Super 8 is, to be charitable, a grubby dump, but it beats a 75-year-old CCC camp any day.

One thing the 4-H Center doesn't stint you on is food: the meals are always the same, but they're pretty good, and there is enough to feed a brigade of firefighters to the groaning point.  Steak on Friday night; barbecue chicken on Saturday afternoon, roast pork on Saturday night.  Better food than I ever ate in the military, too.

Several hundred people attend one of these Advanced Training sessions: about 10% are DGIF officials and staff, the rest the volunteer Instructors, and the Instructors who instruct Instructors.  The overwhelming majority are men in the age range of 35-70, with I guess an average of about 55-60 or so: all in all, a graphic visual proof of the greying of the hunter population in the USA.  A few 20-somethings, and over the years an increasing proportion of women, though my rough estimate is that women make up less than one-tenth of the total number of volunteers.  Nevertheless DGIF has an active and ongoing campaign to recruit women into the ranks and it seems to be working, although more slowly than one could wish.  A lot of retirees, people who have the time and resources to volunteer.  In terms of occupation, I'd hazard the guess that well over half are from law enforcement and/or firefighters, with many independent business people; not a few state employees, like me, though the presence of a university professor seems to be a bit unusual, if there were any others in attendance, they, like me, don't make a point of announcing the fact.  Even though this is The South, the vast majority of attendees are white, though by no means all.  I don't know what the statewide ratio of blacks and whites is in Virginia but my impression is that in the Hunter Education classes it's well under 10% black.  Most of the blacks are very senior people from Tidewater counties.

The Range Ops class starts with 4 hours in the classroom, where we were taught the basic principles behind running a safe and functional range, and had discussions with the Instructors on how the various things that can (and do) happen should be handled.  The second half of Saturday was taken up with the class visiting a mock "range" set up with many things wrong, to see how many we could spot.  Stuff like live ammunition being left out, mixed shotgun gauges on the line, unattended firearms, etc. The Instructors made a big point of how to greet people and control them without being obvious or obnoxious about it, and further discussions ensued on what they did or didn't do right.  We did a mock "live fire" drill to walk us through the various standardized commands, and then we were required to produce two things: a "flyer" advertising the live fire course we would conduct the next day; and a plan for that course.

Sunday morning (again, way too bright and early) we arrived at our respect real ranges to set up.  There were 9 people in the class: my group of 5 did a black-powder instruction session, the other group did pistol instruction.  The BP group got to the range at 7:15 (to prepare for an 8:15 arrival of "students," of whom more below), set up targets, put out equipment, and so forth.

The "students" were in fact other Hunter Education Instructors, all of whom had been through the Range Ops course and were role-playing.  Their duty was to present us with common problems of instruction, e.g., being "naive" and "inexperienced" and acting, in general, like 12 year old newbies; though they didn't do anything unsafe.

We had heard some horror stories about the tricks the role players would pull: "stealing" equipment (including guns) and pocketing ammunition, stuff like that; but our team anticipated most of this, arranging everything so that the line was totally controlled by us, not the "students."   We had a 1:2 ratio: one Instructor Trainee for two role players, with one role player acting as the "shooter" and one as the "shooter's coach." One thing we anticipated was for a role player to "dry ball" a rifle (load a ball with no powder).  To obviate this possibility we elected to use a shooter/coach system, with the "coach" (not the "shooter") loading the rifle under direct supervision: the Instructor Trainee was telling him what to do at each step.  (And we made damned sure to have a CO2 ball discharger handy.) Later, during the critique, one role player admitted it had been his plan to "dry ball" a rifle, but " guys never gave me the chance!"

Things went very smoothly, and we were complimented by the Instructors on how well the team worked together.  I had been assigned the "technical" part, describing the nature of a muzzle loader and how it works, powder types, etc., and only flubbed one thing. I referred to a "worm" instead of a "ball puller" when discussing how to handle a misfire. We had elected to do the bulk of the instruction indoors in a very cramped room, for two reasons: 1) it was raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock; and 2) it gave us far better control of equipment and supplies.


On the line (which was mercifully equipped with a tin roof) I was temporarily taken aback when one of my "shooter" role layers  turned out to be left handed, requiring me to re-position myself from the normal position behind his right shoulder.  It also told me to be sure I had at least one left-handed rifle in the pile if I ever do this again.  But in the end it worked out OK, and we got through the firing exercise with no mishaps.

So now I've completed all the requirements for advanced training courses and in one or two more seasons can expect to receive, in due course, my Master Instructor patch for the fancy blaze-orange vest that serves as an identification badge and "brag board" in Hunter Education classes. 

I enjoy doing Hunter Education but I wish that here in Montgomery County we had more opportunity to do live fire exercises and/or to work with smaller groups.  Our normal class size is 50: 3/4 of them are bored kids 9-12 years old, and the rest are either parents (half of them single mothers) or guys who want hunt western states and need the card to get a license there. 

In the course of gathering stuff together I found my own Hunter Education card, which I had earned at age 14 in 1963!  I don't remember too much about that training course, beyond it being taught in a fiendishly hot and stuffy upper room over a gun shop in Yonkers, NY; and that I was as excited as hell to be there. 

It's been argued that Hunter Education is one of the obstacles to recruiting new hunters from the ranks of youth. Twelve hours in a class run by well-meaning but all-too-often unskilled volunteer Instructors tends to put them off. The Instructors usually know a great deal and have much experience of hunting, but have little skill in the art (and yes, it is an art) of delivering information about complicated subjects to an unsophisticated and often clueless audience of fidgety youngsters. Hunter Education is something the students endure rather than enjoy. I hope the kids I'm teaching today aren't really as bored as they look, but I have my doubts. With all due modesty I can claim some professional competence in instructional delivery, but the plain fact is that 46 years ago I had fewer things to divert my attention than kids do today; they've been raised in front of The Tube and playing video games: a Maundering Old Fart standing on his hind feet and droning inaudibly at the front of the room isn't likely to raise much excitement in the latest generation.

Virginia is trying to get around this obstacle while still keeping a Hunter Education requirement, with some good ideas on the subject. DGIF recently introduced an "Apprentice Hunter" option, a good thing in that it's a try-before-you-buy experiential concept; people hunt under supervision so they can decide if it's for them, but even the Apprentice Hunter program still mandates that any new hunter take the course eventually.

Virginia is also forging ahead with "alternate delivery" programs whereby new hunters can take the course on line: these are based on IHEA standards. I think they're a good idea, with the proviso that someone who knows about Web design (not just hunting) get involved in creating the course. There should be some sort of hands-on testing as well, if at all possible.

So the question is then, do we in fact need Hunter Education? However onerous it may be, statistics collected over years show indisputably that it does save lives. Fatalities have demonstrably declined wherever it's been required, which is of course its goal.

If it's nothing else, Hunter Education is also a good "public relations" tool to show the general mass of the population, who don't hunt, that hunting is a normal, mainstream activity; and that the hunting community is safety-minded and doing its best to prevent accidents. I agree that in fact HE is a hurdle, and that it could be improved even more, but I think it should still be required in some form. At the same time it's easy to overdo it. I would hate to see us reach the state of, say, Germany or the Netherlands, in which it takes a year and what amounts to a master's degree in Wildlife Management to get a hunting license.

Something also should be done to improve the quality of instruction, and to train Instructors as Instructors, not as content specialists. This reform would have to come at the state level, and have enforced at the local/regional level; for a variety of reasons it might be difficult to accomplish the goal of raising the quality of Hunter Education, not the least of which is the varied background and experience of the backbone of the program: the Instructors, all of whom are volunteers who do it as a service, and some of whom would not take kindly to being told (however gently) that the way they've been doing it has to be changed. To say that I think Hunter Education should be retained doen't mean I approve of the way it's currently done, at least in Virginia; nor that I approve of some of the seamier commercial aspects of it.

Over the years I've come to recognize a few truths. The first is that not all Instructors are created equal; the second is that some of them are hopeless. We had a local Instructor when I started who invariably went off onto tangents and wandered far from the point he was supposed to drive home: he always, and I mean always, ended up being cut off by the Lead Instructor 15-20 minutes over time, as he was telling stories from his days in the Korean War. No one could deal properly with this man: he volunteered for every session, always showed up, and it was "socially impossible" to offend him by asking him to stay home or not asking to participate. We put up with his blathering out of politeness, to the detriment of our course's quality. He is now gone, and not much missed.

Another unfortunate truth is that most instructors (including me, I'm sorry to say) can be baited into giving more information than is needed, desirable, or even comprehensible to the mass of students in the class. Kids aren't the worst offenders in this respect, even allowing for the overly-bright smart-aleck 12-year old who just wants to twist the Instructor's tail on general principle. Fathers attending with their sons, or older men needing to punch a ticket for a western-state hunt are far worse. There's always some guy—it's always a guy, never a woman or girl—who feels compelled to debate. You will inevitably be asked a newbie question like, "What's the best rifle for deer?" and at that point it's off to the races. It will bring into play the eternal and un-settleable arguments over .270 vs .30-06, in-line vs sidelock, etc.

Shooters and hunters tend to have very strong opinions on some subjects (usually with no actual basis in hard fact) and/or to believe in myths and lore. Nonsense about "hydostatic shock" or "brush busting bullets," no matter how well-refuted, are accepted as Gospel by some, and there is nothing whatever that can change the mind of a True Believer. Any allusion to such things (no matter pro or con) will provoke comments and challenges from older members of the audience, even as the "discussion" sails over the heads of the 9-year-olds for whom the class is nominally intended.

Another truth is that much of what we teach, at least here in Virginia, is not necessary. I almost used the word "useless," but that's not quite true. All of it is useful information, but much of the included curriculum isn't applicable to Virginia. Take, for example, "Map & Compass," which gets 10-15 minutes' worth of time in a typical Hunter Education class. This is something that is unquestionably useful out west, or in Alaska, where you can easily get lost. But in Virginia? you can't really get lost in this state: if you don't know where you are, head downhill, and you will always find a road there. However far you may have wandered from your starting point, you'll always get back, though I admit you might be late for dinner. Quite aside from that, you can really expect to teach a 9-year-old how to use a compass and a survey map in 15 minutes.

"Survival" is a subject that could and should be included because even in Virginia it's possible (if not likely) that you may need to spend an unexpected night in the woods, but even so, much of it (e.g., how to build a snow cave!) is meaningless here.

The emphasis has to be on safety and ethical hunting, and proper care of game from the field to the table. There should be minimal technical information on firearms and ammunition (to DGIF's credit, the curriculum in this respect is good, it's the Instructors who tend to go overboard on details) just enough so that a kid doesn't use a .410 for geese or a .30-30 for squirrels.

I believe that if we want to get kids into the game early in their lives, we should be giving them live fire exercises if at all possible, and urge them to start with small game. I actually had a kid once ask me, "Why do you want to hunt squirrels?" because at about age 10, he (with his Daddy's "assistance") had already killed a few deer and turkeys. In times past the squirrel was the traditional first game and it should still be: it's an animal that will allow a responsible kid to hunt alone, and that will be a major factor in developing his self confidence, woodcraft, and ethical behavior.

Another hard truth is that in many ways Hunter Education has become little more than an advertising venue for the makers of hunting gear. While it's nice to have the money that's provided by the big players in the industry, regrettably we have allowed Hunter Education to be a vehicle by which, along with safety, we teach "conspicuous consumption," sometimes to the detriment of the main mission. This is a very unpopular unpalatable thing to say, but it's clearly the case.

Take, for example, the subject of "Treestand Safety," one of the Advanced Training courses (in which I happen to have certification). Now, I can sum up the essence of treestand safety in a single sentence: "If you never go up into a treestand, you will never fall out of a treestand." The plain facts, borne out by the yearly summary statistics issued by the DGIF on "incidents" is that treestand are far, far more likely to be sources of accidents than firearms, and that treestands alone account for at least 30% of the reported injuries and/or fatalities every year. We should, in my opinion, be counselling students not to use treestands; we should tell them flat out that no deer is worth the inherent risk of sitting on a skinny metal platform 20 feet off the ground, that no trophy on the wall is worth a life in a wheelchair or death from a fractured skull. We don't do that: instead we talk about the "safest" treestands, we talk about the best "fall restraint systems," and we tell them how to get in and out of a stand "safely."

I have a colleague who has spent the past 25 years in a wheelchair paralyzed from his chest down as a result of a half-second's bad judgement in a climbing treestand, which we teach students is the "safest" type, based on accident statistics. This injury was completely, absolutely avoidable; but no one ever made him realize that treestands are, by their very nature, unsafe. And mind you, we only see statistics of falls serious enough to be reported: I have no way to prove it but I'm certain that there are 10-15 times more actual falls, in which the injuries are minor—dumb luck, really, any fall can be fatal if you land the wrong way—that go unreported.

Why don't we tell students not to use treestands? The answer is as near as your hunting gear catalog: treestand manufacturers are among the most prolific and generous contributors to the Hunter Education mission, and that support would be withdrawn instantly if we were honest about how dangerous they are. A Cabela's or Bass Pro "Fall Hunting" catalog will list hundreds of stands by dozens of makers, filling by far the highest number of pages. Treestands are big business, and without the manufacturers' dollars Hunter Education would be seriously impaired. So instead of taking the risk of offending them, we permit our students to take risks—wholly avoidable risks—of injury or death. This isn't right. This example of how we kowtow to equipment makers rather than point out a genuine and common hazard posed by a piece of gear can be repeated many times over: treestands are only the most egregious example of the Hunter Education program turning tricks for the boys with the big bucks who promise big bucks for the boys, if only the boys will buy their product.

At the Advanced Training workshop we were given copies of something called the Hunter's Handbook, a joint publication of 4-H and the International Hunter Education Association. "Great," I thought, "this looks like it would be useful."

It turned out to be nothing less than a 72-page wad of advertising. Every single subject was sponsored by a company that produced some product, and about 2/3 of the way through each essay you were advised to buy that company's specific items: Henry had sponsored the article on "Youth Rifles," assuring the reader that Henry rifles were perfect for young shooters. Remington did the same thing in a piece about .22 rifles, touting the virtues of their 597 series guns. Marlin did one on lever action rifles, Tasco did the piece on binoculars, leaving rifle scopes to Leupold; Brunton sponsored the one on campasses. "Hunting Handguns," it seems, include only Smith & Wesson products, and on and on. EVERY essay was an advertisement. Yes, there was certainly useful information in each piece, but product exposure was the main driving force behind this glossy brochure. I don't doubt for a second that manufacturers bid on the rights to produce specific articles and that Mossberg probably outbid Remington for shotguns, and Thompson/Center outbid CVA for muzzleloader bragging rights.

This prostitution of Hunter Education has to end if we're to carry out the mission of increasing safety honestly and effectively. We have a real mission of real importance, but shilling for equipment manufacturers and marketeers isn't—or shouldn't be—part of it. When we sell our services and name to the highest bidder, we denigrate the spirit and the ethos of hunting. Hunter Education becomes just one more way for the hucksters to sell stuff to kids.

Hunting is much more than gear and gadgets: it is Man's oldest activity, and there are spiritual and ethical aspects to it that must be instilled in youngsters if it's to survive in the modern age. In short, we need Hunter Education, not Hunter Indoctrination. Unfortunately we are sliding deeper into the muck of the latter every season.