I had wanted to go to Gunsite for a long time. I got all the paperwork completed and was confirmed for API 250 - General Pistol - at Gunsite in late March 1992.
A friend of mine who used to live in Phoenix signed up for the class at the same time and we drove out to Arizona together. He had been a very competitive shooter in the Western USPSA/IPSC clubs for some time and we arrived in Phoenix in time for one of the Cactus League's Saturday matches. I had not spent much time in Arizona before and it was somewhat unusual for me to be in a state where open carry was not only allowed but actively practiced. That weekend the Cactus League was running their "un-match" - basically a match that was much more oriented to the "practical" side of shooting rather than the "gamesmanship" competition focus. At this point I had been shooting pistols for over 20 years, ever since my graduation from the USMC - class of '71, and shooting USPSA practical pistol competitively for a year or two. This sounded like fun!
At this "un-match" you would shoot what you carried to the range, in the condition you carried it. That means that if you showed up with cocked and locked 1911 on your belt, that's what you shot. If you came to the range with your race gun cased in the range bag with empty magazines - well, that's the way you started. With a little prior warning that this might happen I wore my Colt Delta that I would be using at Gunsite (in 10mm) and a couple of extra magazines: this takes some getting used to. I felt real self-conscious wearing an unconcealed pistol even amongst a crowd of people doing the same. This particular match was real low key, just the Glendale Police Department's qualification course of fire. It was pretty straight forward, 60 rounds (300 possible points) at a standard silhouette target at ranges from 5 to 25 meters and fairly generous time limits (things like 6 rounds, reload, 6 rounds in 18 seconds.) The PD needs to score 270 to qualify: I scored 294 and felt pretty pleased with myself. I was feeling pretty confident about the coming week at Gunsite. I didn't know how wrong or surprised I would be.
The drive up through Prescott and into the Chino Valley was very pretty - high desert and rolling hills. Late March is very early spring in the high desert. There was a lot of green and a few patches of snow here or there a storm had been through the day before. The weather was diamond clear and brisk, one of the most beautiful hard blue skies that I have ever seen. There is a fork in the road just past Prescott. One fork goes to Sedona and everything "new age," the other goes into the Chino Valley and Gunsite. I think there might be something very significant about that particular fork in the road.
We were booked into the Vall Vista motel in Chino Valley. The price was right but it quickly gained the nickname of the "Bates Motel." Lets just say that the rooms were clean and the roof didn't leak. Seven rooms in a row orthogonal to the main road through town. Heavy cinder block construction, that would become very comforting later on. The beds were soft but they did have cable television and a small refrigerator in the room. I would later discover that it was wise to be one of the first people in the motel into the shower in the morning. Otherwise it was cold shower time. Everyone in the motel was registered for a Gunsite course. Everyone was carrying. I think the desk clerk/owner(?) would have been surprised if you weren't. We went into the Safeway in downtown Chino Valley to pick up some supplies for breakfast etc. Nobody at that Safeway seemed at all surprised by a couple of guys doing their shopping while cocked and locked. That must be the safest Safeway in the world!
We drove up to the ranch to check it out and make sure that we could find it in the morning. It's just a very nondescript and unassuming dirt road off the main highway between Chino Valley and Paulden. We missed it the first time and had to turn around when we got to Paulden. Hell for that matter we even nearly missed Paulden. If you blink at highway speeds you'll be right by it. We backtracked and found the dirt road by paying very close attention to the odometer. Right turn into the road, then a very low key orange and black Gunsite sign pointing up the road. We go past a rural type subdivision, past a house built like a bunker on the reverse slope of the hill overlooking the road and then three miles through rolling hills to the Gunsite main gate. We didn't go in, just kinda stood in awe in front of that gate. We would be back in the morning.
Monday morning. Class starts at 08:00 - that's oh eight hundred. I felt the same faint quiver that I felt at Paris Island half a lifetime ago. I damn sure wasn't going to be late, so we got there about 30 minutes early. There were a few people milling around the coffee dispenser. Almost everybody is carrying. Lots of people wander in over the next half hour. A few people look like active duty military or hard core cops. A couple of people look real scuzzy, must be undercover types I think. One guy looks like an old country doctor, turns out he is. There are a few women and one "couple." The women seem to fade into the background and the "couple" look like they feel real out of place.
They have named the major buildings that make up the Gunsite facility after books in the bible. The classroom is called Revelation, the maintenance building Luke and so on. The restroom is of course called John. Revelation is full of pictures and insignia from the various organizations that have been through the program. Lots of law enforcement, lots of SWAT teams, lots of special forces: makes me wonder what I've gotten myself into here.
Bill Jeans, who is the operations manager at Gunsite, comes in and proceeds to get things moving. Class registration and payment starts to take place then everybody sits down to walk through a series of legal forms, lunch orders and Gunsite ground rules. Bill then introduces the Colonel. That's Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Cooper, United States Marine Corps, retired - The Guru - Teacher and scholar on the subjects of individual combat and personal independence. The inventor, along with Jack Weaver and Colonel Howland G. Taft, of the modern technique of the pistol - the founder of Gunsite, IPSC and a whole lot of other things.
Colonel Cooper welcomes us to Gunsite and proceeds to talk about the philosophy of personal weapons for a few minutes. He moves carefully, slowly, like an old man. At seventy plus years of age he is an old man. He speaks softly, but with great conviction. He has spent a lifetime learning and understanding what works and what does not - it is impossible to surprise this man with an opinion that he has not considered at length before. Here is a person who has indeed seen the elephant and over the years has brought many others along to see it too. After watching him closely for a few minutes you realize that he moves such that the whole class is under his observation at all times. He is very aware of everything that is happening around him. He is something like that big old tom cat that has been top of the heap for a long time and has no intention of stepping aside for anything or anyone. Even as an old man he moves like the very dangerous predator that he is.
There are actually three separate classes in the classroom that Monday morning. I later learn that this is the first time that Gunsite has attempted to run three classes at the same time. Two of the classes are the API 250 class that I signed up for, The third is API 260 (shotgun.) After the paperwork and general introduction the shotgun class goes off to their series of ranges and the pistol class starts in earnest.
The API 250 general pistol course is Gunsite's introductory course. About half the people who come to Gunsite take just this course. It has a much larger portion of law enforcement and military types than the advanced courses do because that's the course that their agency will pay for. Gunsite also offers introductory courses to rifle, shotgun and sub-machine gun as well as advanced courses in a variety of subjects. In our class we had people with all levels of experience, everything from people in their sixties, a couple of special forces types in their twenties, senior local and federal law enforcement trainers and the aforementioned "couple" who had no previous shooting experience and were picking up their first pair of pistols at the gunsmithy.
Gunsite classes are organized around a lead instructor, a couple of assistants and one or two provosts (instructor candidates.) The total number of assistants and provosts will depend on the size of the class normal classes run from a minimum of 8 people up to a maximum of 24 students and the student/instructor ratio is around 5/1. Our lead instructor was Dennis Tueller who has a real job as the Lieutenant in charge of training for the Salt Lake City Police Department. The assistants included people from the Department of Energy and the Glendale AZ PD. Our provost was a Lieutenant on loan from the USMC. There were 22 students in our 250 class and 12 in the other 250 class. The disparity in class loading was because Dennis is one of the most experienced Gunsite instructors and this was the first time that the other instructor was leading a class. The 260 class on the other side of the ranch had about 16 people in it.
We spent most of the first morning going over terminology, safety, pistol function, safety, sight picture, safety, trigger control, safety, stance and safety. Did I mention that we also covered safety a lot? Gunsite is a hot range. That means pistols are most likely loaded and you had better act like they are. To my knowledge no one has accidentally or negligently shot somebody else at Gunsite. I believe that one or two people have managed to accidentally or negligently shoot themselves. The distinction between an accident and negligence is important. Accidents can and do happen but they are frequently a cascade effect involving both a mechanical failure of the weapon and the simultaneous violation of several important safety rules these events are fortunately rare. Most "accidental" shootings are caused by pure negligence on the part of the operator. Accidents are to be avoided, negligence with deadly weapons is flat unacceptable.
We go down to the range for the first time late in the morning. We start out slow, clearing the pistols to work the Weaver Ready to Weaver Active with dry fire. Then we go hot and fire a dozen or two rounds before lunch. There is no time pressure yet and we're going from Weaver Ready, not even out of the holster yet. Most people are pretty tight with their groups forming a ragged hole in the center of the target. The "couple" are both all over the target, but I have seen far worse at various ranges. After lunch we start to pick up the speed a bit, still from the Weaver Ready position. We are starting to push for two good hits as fast as you can get them.
Why two hits? As Bill Jeans said during lecture, anything worth shooting once is worth shooting twice. What's good? What's fast? We learn that accuracy is a function of speed and distance. If your hits are centered and close to touching then you aren't going fast enough. If your hits are outside the 20 cm circle that forms the X-ring then you need to slow down a little. This is a balance between many factors and we are learning to strike that balance. The instructors are omnipresent, up and down the line. They work on grip, sight alignment, stance and trigger control. The time starts to get tighter. From the Weaver Ready you should be able to get two X hits from seven meters in one second. How to do that? It is clear that both shots need to be sighted, especially as the range starts to get longer. It goes something like: Weaver Ready, pick up the sight alignment, front sight focus, press, pick up the sight alignment after recoil, press, break to Weaver Ready and look for something else to shoot at. It takes much longer to describe it than to do it.
At some point during the afternoon we get our first experience with the tricycle. They use these small three and four wheel ATVs to get around on the ranch. Cooper himself prefers the three wheel version. You can hear it coming, at full throttle, up the access road to the range. The people not on line turn to watch as the tricycle slides to a stop in a cloud of dust and Cooper jumps off and strides to the line. You can feel the tension go up. The boss, the master, is on the scene. He is not moving like a old man at all now. He moves up and down the line. A suggestion here, a correction to stance there, then a correction to trigger control somewhere else. Everybody is trying to do their best, to prove they are worthy in the guru's eyes. After a while he jumps back on the tricycle and roars off to work with another group of students at another range on the ranch. Everybody relaxes a little: you can feel the tension go down, for both the students and the instructors. The instructors call this Tricyclephobia and we will have a lot of experience with it over the next several days.
We go back to the classroom late in the afternoon. We get homework assigned, dry-fire practice. We are told that 5 to 10 minutes done twice a day will make you a much better shooter. We are also instructed in great detail about safety during dry-fire. A screw-up, a negligent discharge during dry fire practice, now means that you will be asked to pack up your bags and go home. As we go to dinner later in the evening we can hear a series of dry-fire clicks coming from the rooms at our motel. That's where those big heavy cinder block walls start to become very comforting.
On Tuesday we start learning about the holster. What works, what doesn't, what features to look for. We start learning the correct technique for drawing the pistol from the holster. Gunsite has it broken down into five separate steps. You need to coordinate the actions of both hands. We go down to the range and start practicing the techniques. We start slow and dry, just like we did with the Weaver Ready the day before. By lunch time we are drawing and firing, but with no real time pressure yet. After lunch we start picking up the time. From the holster, the goal is two X hits in 1.5 seconds from 7 meters. From 10 meters they give you 2 seconds. From 3 meters you still get 1.5 seconds, but the target is much smaller: something like a 7 cm circle. That night we get more homework, dry-fire from the holster this time.
By Wednesday everybody is getting pretty used to wearing their pistol every day and all day. The standard of gun handling and everybodys' familiarity and handling techniques are noticeably better. We start working on reloading techniques and alternate shooting positions. Gunsite teaches both the tactical and speed reload, but emphasizes the tactical reload as much more useful. With the tactical reload you hang on to the discarded magazine on the theory that it, and the leftover ammunition that it contains, might be useful at some point in the future. We work on kneeling and prone positions and the range goes out to 25 meters.
A significant amount of Wednesday's time is also spent in the classroom. We talk about the principles of personal protection and the combat triad. We spend some time on awareness and mindset. We cover tactical movement, both inside and outside. The class members are like dry sponges at this point, greedily absorbing these new philosophies. Cooper holds court at the front of the classroom teaching about what it takes to not only survive, but win, a gunfight. This is what the school is about. Yes, they teach shooting there, but that is secondary to what they really teach - how to fight and win - how to prevail - in a gunfight.
More homework Wednesday night, additional dry-fire from the holster and reloading practice.
On Thursday, we start with the simulators. This is were we start to bring all the techniques that we have learned over the last few days into the tactical environment. There will be both a indoor and outdoor simulator, both simple in concept and fiendish in execution. Move through the simulator, identify the targets, segregate the hostile and non-hostile targets. Take out the hostile targets and keep moving. The tension goes way up. This is as real as they can make it. All of the physiological effects start to come into play. The movement will get your pulse rate up, that starts to make the front sight bounce. You develop tunnel vision and forget to scan for other targets - you forget that "rats travel in packs." I lose track of how many rounds I have left in my pistol: better tac-reload. That magazine was empty! I put in a new magazine and press check - everything's OK but that was much too close. Having one round left in the pistol when you come around a corner and have two hostile targets is a very bad situation.
While people are starting their advanced education in the simulators the other members of the class are starting to work with more advanced drills. El Presidente: three targets at 10 meters. Two rounds in each, speed reload and then another two rounds in each. Par time is 10 seconds and only X hits count. If you're lucky you might be able to get Jeff to tell you the story behind this drill. The other advanced drill is called the "Dozier" drill after United States Lt. General James Dozier who was kidnapped by the Red Brigade in Italy. You start with your back to 5 reactive targets. Turn, draw and drop the targets - par time is 5 seconds. The tactical basis behind this drill is that the General, if he had been armed, should have been able to draw and engage his 5 kidnappers before they could have removed their weapons from the plumbers bags that they were carrying them in.
Thursday night we get a break from homework, only because we are going to do low light and full dark exercises at the range. We learn that we can be accurate in much less light than we can reliably identify targets in. We learn flashlight and movement techniques that allow us to identify targets, engage them and move away from the area where our flashlight and muzzle flash has made a target. Several people find that they are more accurate in the dark, when they have to concentrate on the front sight rather than the target behind it.
We do two more simulators, one indoor and one outdoor, on Friday. We work with El Presidente and Dozier drills. Everybody, even our new to firearms "couple," is moving and shooting very well. People seem to be much more aware about everything that is happening around them, even the special forces types. There is energy in the air and the sky seems to be changing. There is a storm coming in. It will wash over a far different set of people than were present at Revelation on Monday morning. The class will end tomorrow with school exercises and the shoot-off, both of which go a long way to determining your overall grade in the class.
The storm started about 04:00. It came into Chino Valley like a freight train: wind thunder and hail that made the motel room sound like you were trapped inside of a garbage can being pounded on by a hoard of crazed refugees from a punk rock concert. Sleep was hopeless, I went out on the porch and watched the sun rise under the towering thunderheads. The road into the ranch was wall to wall mud. It didn't bother my truck at all, but the folks in rental cars must love this. We drove directly to the pistol shack which provided at least a little shelter from the hail, which by this time was nearly ankle deep across the range. Everybody was looking at everybody else. We weren't really going to do the shoot-off in this shit were we?
Cooper came flying up on that damn tricycle of his, wearing goggles and a hat that looked like he could have taken it from a Russian major and covered in mud. He speaks loudly at the class:
"Get out on the range! You can't call the weather for a gun fight! First relay on line!"
We take our places. The first part of the shoot-off consists of the standard Gunsite school drills, this time for score. The score will determine your seeding for the man on man shoot-off. My hands are cold and wet, they feel wooden. I fell slow in general for that matter. The whistle blows, draw, where is that damn front sight? The hail is bouncing off of the top of the pistol, there it is, in line with the X zone, press, front sight again, press: I'm not even really aware of the bark and kick of my 10. The second, 1.5 second whistle blows, I had lots of time - perhaps one or two tenths of a second to spare. Break to guard, scan, damn - two X hits, how did I do that in the middle of a hail storm? Re-holster, move to the next position, and the next, and finish in prone, in the mud and the hail. I pulled the last two shots low, equal distant from where the targets navel would have been. Oh well, I really wasn't expecting a perfect score anyway.
Then we come to the man on man competition. Two people, side by side. Three eight inch steel plates at ranges between 7 and 15 meters. Drop two plates, reload, drop the third plate. First person done wins that round. Double elimination torment. At the end there is only one. Sounds easy, it isn't. You can tell if you are ahead or behind. The pressure builds in each round. I won the first round. Second round, I miss the second plate but pick it up with a fast second shot. I'm behind. Reload, drop the mag, new mag, fast - fast - fast, pick up the target, frontsightpresss! My plate goes flying backwards with a center hit of 10mm a few hundredths of a second before the other plate tips over.
I check my weapon, the magazine is hanging half out of the butt of the pistol - I hadn't seated it fully. As I start to correct the situation Dennis quizzes me,
"Did you notice what happened?"
"Why didn't you seat your magazine fully?"
"I was behind Sir! Second and third rules of a gun fight Sir! Cheat and win Sir!"
I won that round, I guess I came up with the correct answer. I will never, ever, have a magazine safety on one of my tactical pistols.
I didn't win the shoot-off. It doesn't matter. There were some very good people in that class and I came to learn, not compete. We go back to the classroom for the awarding of certificates and class review/comments. The lead instructors hand out the certificates, except for those people judged to have completed the class with expert status. Cooper hands those out personally. After class there is a general invitation to Cooper's house. The sun comes out as we are walking over there. After a while Jeff goes down to his armory and several of us follow him down. He holds court as long as we are willing to listen. Hunting, combat, old friends alive and long gone, subjects of legend. Eventually it is time to leave. Another thunderhead is moving across the valley, we can watch the line of hail move towards us. Everything may not be right in the world but I feel immeasurably better prepared to deal with whatever now comes my way.
My Gunsite certificate, signed by Jeff Cooper, occupies a place of honor at my home. I think back to that fork in the road outside of Prescott. One fork leads toward the new age enlightenment of Sedona. The other leads toward Gunsite and an enlightenment of an entirely different kind. The place, the people and the philosophy really does get inside of you. It really will change the way you think. You will never be the same person again. I highly recommend the experience.