I recently got the opportunity to attend a 250 Pistol class at the fabled Gunsite Academy near Prescott, Arizona.
The experience was amazing and the things I learned fell into a number of categories—all of which improved my life in small ways.
But class is not cheap, check their website for details, but it is an incredible value for a week’s worth of instruction.
My experience level gives me a somewhat different perspective with which to judge the training I received.
I’ve been in law enforcement for twenty years.
I was a SWAT commander for a very small rural agency and also have been a firearms instructor for five years.
I’ve been writing in the gun industry for about five years so I’ve been exposed to some interesting ideas about techniques, training, and how to approach tactical situations. I’m no Tier 1 operator and I am also no mall ninja, I dwell in the grey areas in-between.
Regardless, I have been completely enamored with the idea of attending training at Gunsite for many years.
Anyone who has been around a few decades or is possessed with an inordinate amount of wisdom and understands knows that you cannot know it all—especially when perishable skills like shooting are involved.
No matter how much I learn during a career, during a lifetime, there will always be more out there. So given my experience, but also my attitude, I traveled to Gunsite to learn all I could.
The southwest is amazing.
Making the drive from Colorado to Arizona is in my mind, exposure to some of the most beautiful geography this country has to offer. Crossing areas where Billy the Kid once historically roamed, I then found myself near the Grand Canyon and one of the greatest impact craters the U.S. has ever seen.
Finally, I entered the mountains (yes real mountains) of Arizona before reaching the high desert surrounding Prescott, and Gunsite itself.
Quick History Lesson
You have to understand, I am a bit of a history nerd.
People have been studying, understanding, and advancing shooting and combat since these topics were invented. Legendary among these visionaries stands Col. Jeff Cooper, founder of Gunsite.
Before Cooper came along we shot pistols with one hand.
Before the age of Cooper, we did not always teach the combative mindset as well as the physical skills necessary for defensive shooting. We also did not have a proper codified system to describe the mental status of folks who were either unaware, prepared, or engaging threats.
Col. Cooper gave us so many things to ponder in our martial way, then he gave us a school to attend in order to begin our education—Gunsite. He also wrote prolifically about these things in books and magazines.
For many reasons, Gunsite is a Mecca for me.
Observation: During the first day of class a tumbleweed rolled and bounced across the range, causing me to chuckle. Some students had come from back east, California, and major metropolitan areas. This must have seemed like the cliched Old West to many.
Upon arrival at the school, I met up with my 15 classmates and three instructors. The sprawling compound of Gunsite spreads out over the desert and includes classrooms, administration buildings, a pro shop, on-site gunsmith, and of course multiple ranges including pistol, rifle, long distance, and specialty areas such as shoot house and Arroyo.
There is also The Sconce, which I’ll touch on later. In the briefing, we learned the totem/symbol for Gunsite is the Raven, representing Huginn and Munnin, Odin’s passers on of wisdom.
From my experience the instructors at Gunsite are top-notch.
Gary, Randy, and Joe all came from diverse backgrounds but their shooting skills were impressive. More important than that, their teaching skills were well above par. When you pay for training you never truly know what you’re going to get until you get there and experience it.
From my few years of training police officers, cadets in the academy, and brand new students, these guys had quality in spades.
Observation: One day while loading magazines I peered out the window of the shed and noticed a prehistoric grasshopper the size of a house cat, walking through the desert. It screeched terrifyingly and I ducked down so it could not see me. It was clearly an apex predator in its environment.
One of the biggest challenges you may not even realize when you sign up for a class is your safety. When you have 16 people in a school, there are bound to be a few shooters who really have their poop in a group.
There will be a vast majority that is somewhere in the middle, and a few who are just downright scary when it comes to gun handling. My instructors taught everyone with aplomb, making sure no one mishandled their firearms or endangered other students. I’ve seen safety violations at other training events that were not noticed by other students—not at Gunsite.
Observation: One afternoon a raven floated languidly overhead on thermals, burbling its approval. Col. Cooper was watching and was pleased.
By the end of the week, through repetition and personal coaching, the students were vastly improved. I’m not passing off some lip service here. The standards at Gunsite are high. Consider that one of the first drills in the qualification is shooting a triangle around the eyes of a human-sized target at three yards, from the holster, in 1.5 seconds.
Gunsite is not a SWAT school, it’s not basic training.
We didn’t run around everywhere carrying ridiculous amounts of gear. We also weren’t doing pushups when we screwed up. But we did focus on critical firearms fundamentals, like the four safety rules.
We were drilled regularly on these. We also spent a majority of time on the range. While there were important lessons taught in the classroom (lookup the Combat Triad), the lion’s share of the lessons was taught on the range. The bulk of the firearms training is police academy level or better.
Observation: The night shoot happened on Thursday. As dusk fell, a coyote howled and the stars began to light the night sky. The students from more civilized settings (like Chicago!) were stunned to see endless sky filled with the Milky Way above.
The entire week built up to and then culminated in several qualification drills. There were a couple on the range, one was a shoot house, and another was shooting steel targets while navigating a challenging arroyo with an instructor.
By the end of the week, the students enjoyed a camaraderie from a shared experience. When we all graduated, we received our diplomas to the applause of our fellow students who knew what we had been through, what we had achieved.
Every single shooter had improved. I do not say this lightly. Some people had made amazing leaps in skills, others were simply more honed. There is no crap, no fluff, taught at Gunsite. Everything has a purpose and has often been tested in one form of combat or another.
While some schools may teach you marksmanship, Gunsite does not quibble about this. They are a fighting school.
At the end, we were all invited to join Mrs. Cooper in her home called The Sconce, for lemonade and brownies, a Gunsite tradition.
I would not have missed it for the world!
What Col. Cooper has done for us, for me and people of a similar mindset, in particular, has been nothing short of revolutionary.
To train in the school that Cooper built was a dream come true for me. To stand in his observatory where he wrote, to see his armory… the whole situation was nothing short of a religious experience for this cop/firearms instructor/writer. A part of my mind will now ever be dedicated to machinations which will place me back in that hallowed desert.
If you ever get the chance, go to Gunsite. You’ll thank me later.
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