Many of today’s younger hunters probably don’t realize it, but their hunter education course had its origins with the National Rifle Association (NRA). In 1949, the State of New York decided to mandate a hunter education and safety course for new hunters. A good idea, but no such course existed. So New York officials solicited help from the organization that knew the most about firearms, firearms safety and hunting: the NRA.
“The NRA created the basic hunter’s education curriculum for New York State, and soon other states began adopting it,” said Peter Churchbourne, Director of NRA Hunter Services. “The actual hunter’s ed booklet they created, ‘The NRA Hunter Safety Handbook,’ was used well into the early 1970s by game agency classes all over the country. In fact, your hunter’s education card used to read, ‘NRA Hunter safety.’”
The genesis for NRA Hunter Education began in 2015, when Churchbourne and his colleagues began looking at ways the NRA and Hunter Services could encourage more people to try hunting.
“One of the barriers we found was the cost of some of the hunter education courses,” said Churchbourne. “Plus, some states had very limited in-classroom scheduling for these courses. So, we thought, what if we offered hunter education online, made it free, and had it approved for use with every state’s specific requirements?”
Churchbourne and Matt Fleming, Hunter Services manager, started with a thorough review of the hunter education landscape, from state-run programs to those being offered by for-profit businesses. The big thing that stood out?
“Those courses were not fun at all,” said Churchbourne. “The information was good, no question about that. But most of the courses were just boring and dry: very basic graphics and little to no video content. You pretty much had to just sit there and read page after page.”
Cost was another factor. If you missed your state-run hunter ed scheduling, you could take an online version. But the companies running these, Churchbourne discovered, were charging anywhere from $13.99 to $29.99 per person.
“If you have two or three children you want to take hunting at $30 dollars per child? That’s nearly $100, on top of the new gear and guns you’ll probably be buying, too. By offering our course at no charge, we help with the costs of introducing your family to hunting,” Churchbourne said.
Using the curriculum guidelines established by the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA), Churchbourne and Fleming began creating a fresh approach to hunter education. They drew up story boards and scripts for videos and then recorded attention-grabbing videos. They had eye-catching graphics created, and located dozens of action photos. They even used the relatively new science of Instructional Design to present the curriculum in appealing, easy-to-access components.
The result is a 15-chapter, online sequence. Each chapter ends with a 10- to 20-question assessment to help reinforce the materials in a student’s mind. Once the whole sequence is completed, students take a 60-question test, with a score of 80 percent or better required to pass. The entire online course takes most people between five and eight-and-a-half hours to complete—from the comfort of their homes and at times that are most convenient for them.
Once the online coursework is done, many state game agencies then require a “field day” to test firearm and other competencies. Upon successful completion of the field day, the student receives his or her hunter education certification.
“This has all taken a huge amount of work, and we still have more to do,” said Churchbourne. “Each state has a little different take on hunter ed, and we tailor the class specifically for each state’s requirements. Right now, we are contacting each state game agency and asking them to review our program.”
He continued, “I think we’ll have most of the states covered in a couple years. Our long-term goal is to make NRA Hunter Education approved in all 50 states within five years.”
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Editor's Note: Founded in 1871, the National Rifle Association remains a 24/7 protector of our hunting and shooting sports traditions. Launched in August 2017, the NRA’s free online hunter education course is one of numerous safety, education and training opportunities the NRA provides to the hunting community. While the course currently is offered only in Florida, in partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NRA Hunter Services is working to make it available to hunters in all 50 states. For information on getting this free course offered in your state, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.