"You'll be back."
Before we even stepped foot on the range, those were three of the first words Ken Campbell said to us. Campbell is the chief operating officer at Gunsite Academy in Paulden, Arizona, and in March 2017, I was among the 34 students attending a five-day 250 Pistol course. There are few places in this country more renowned for civilian firearms training.
In 1976, Col. Jeff Cooper established Gunsite as a means for teaching the Modern Technique of the pistol. The facility has grown - both in physical size and instructional offerings - over the last 41 years.
The 250 Pistol class, dubbed "The Gunsite Experience," is a prerequisite for many of the facility's other training courses, so it makes sense that there were a lot of first timers among the ranks.
THE MODERN TECHNIQUE
I showed up on the first day of class with a Taurus Millennium G2; a High Threat Concealment belt, holster and magazine holder; 2,000 rounds of Magtech 9mm ball ammunition; and 200 rounds of PolyCase Inceptor frangible ammo. Eager and ready for the training that lay ahead, I grabbed my Safariland range bag and studiously took notes during the initial classroom preparation.
Day One was a primer on the Modern Technique, including the establishment of the fighting stance and the five-step presentation of a pistol. Comparatively few rounds were expended (about 150), but that would be rectified in the coming days. The class was split into two groups, each with their own rangemaster and set of instructors. My group's rangemaster was Bob Whaley; he was assisted by instructors Pete Feeney, Eric Ingersoll and Paul Garcia.
"I'm here to teach you how to win a gunfight against another human being who is dead set on harming you or a loved one," Whaley said, setting the stage for the week's instruction.
The 250 Pistol course isn't about learning to manipulate a pistol; it's learning to manipulate a pistol in a defensive situation. Whaley and the instructors regularly reminded the students that training is the only way to improve your skill with a firearm; there isn't a "gun instinct" that kicks in when you're in a threatening situation.
When asked to expound upon that topic after the class ended, Whaley said:
"Everything you do with a weapon system except 'natural point of aim' is learned behavior. There's nothing natural, instinctive, intuitive or any other word that implies something other than learned behavior. A lot of instructors will argue for the opposite position. My response to that is they need to find a different line of work because if this activity is natural, there's no need to spend a lot of money on training because the skills, according to their description, are already hardwired in."
At the end of day, we were sent back to our lodging accommodations with dry-fire homework and dummy rounds.
Day Two built on the fundamentals of the Modern Technique. The class practiced tactical reloads and clearing malfunctions. The tactical reload requires the shooter to drop a partial magazine into their hand before seating a fresh mag. This type of reload is conducted when there is a lull in the action, regardless of the number of shots fired. Maintaining control and possession of the partial magazine may be useful later in the gunfight. By contrast, when employing a speed reload, the shooter simply allows the magazine to drop to the ground. This is faster and should be utilized when time is critical.
The malfunction-clearing drills were the only malfunctions my Millennium G2 encountered during the five-day, 1,000-round course. However, using the tap-rollrack (TRR) method, students learned to get quickly back into the game when they encountered a performance problem. The three induced malfunctions were failure to feed, failure to eject and double feed.
Day Three was a turning point in the class - literally. We took some of the basic principles we had been practicing over the first two days and added movement, to include positional shooting, pivots, turns and barricades. These were some of my favorite lessons.
The pivots and turns are similar to what we're taught in other athletics: plant your feet, turn your body with your feet, lead with your eyes as your body follows, don't draw your firearm until you're fully facing your threat. This eventually led to the El Presidente drill, which was developed by Cooper in the 1970s. The shooter stands 10 yards from three targets that are placed roughly 1-yard apart, facing away; on the buzzer, the shooter turns, draws, engages each target twice, speed reloads and engages each target two more times. In 10 seconds. Suffice it to say that few, if any, students made time.
Shooting from kneeling and prone positions offers a slightly different perspective on utilizing cover. I went through the first round of kneeling drills sans knee pads, which is most likely how I'd face a real-world defensive situation. However, the point of this training is to prepare us for reacting to a threat and using cover. After strapping on my Safariland Hatch XTAK knee pads, I could focus on quickly (and safely) acquiring the necessary position, not on the abuse my knees were enduring.
Day Four was our class's initial run through the livefire simulators. We loaded magazines with frangible ammo. The shoot house was my first stop, and I was amazed by how the anticipation of seeing a bad guy made my trigger finger itch. This was most pronounced when I shot the first target inside the shoot house doors, which was a woman holding sunglasses. That was the only no-shoot target in the house. Lesson learned: I didn't repeat that mistake in the second shoot house.
Next was the outdoor simulator (the wash), which featured shoot/no-shoot steel targets. There was an added level of difficulty in navigating the rocky terrain, which created a more realistic environment; the immediate feedback of the steel also increased the realism. It was sometimes difficult to feel a sense of urgency when shooting at the paper targets on the square range, but the simulators did what they were supposed to do- upped the anticipation and adrenaline of potentially exposing yourself to a bad guy.
It's natural to think that shooting the appropriate target is the goal of the simulators; however, it's the action between the shots where the week's training is most pronounced. Did you choose the appropriate reload style at the appropriate time? Did you utilize cover and cleared spaces? Are you scanning for targets in the distance that might see you before you see them? Are you holding your pistol and moving your feet in such a way as to not flag yourself or innocent bystanders? There is much more to consider than sight alignment and trigger squeeze.
We left class early that day and returned in the evening for low-light/no-light shooting exercises and flashlight training. The flashlight techniques included the FBI hold (weak-side arm holding the light at a 45-degree angle above and in front of your head) and the Harries (weak-side arm/hand crossed under and bracing against firing arm/hand). The key to using a flashlight is to illuminate your target and not spotlight yourself.
While utilizing our flashlights and shooting onehanded was one aspect of the training, we also practiced with passing light. An instructor would walk behind the line of students with a flashlight, and as the light passed by your target, you were to engage until you could no longer identify the threat. This tested reaction time, follow-up shots and utilizing outside sources of light.
ON A HIGH NOTE
The long, winding and dusty road that leads through the iconic raven-clad iron gates of Gunsite is flanked by wide stretches of desert interspersed with modest homes and shrubbery, ridgelines edging the horizon. Portions of Cooper's fortified homestead, the Sconce, can be seen through the trees on the property's periphery, and that is where the Gunsite experience ends.
On the fifth day of class, we ran through our final drills, got one more opportunity in the simulators and participated in a friendly shoot-out. We were presented with our qualification certificates after lunch, and then the class walked to the home where Cooper's widow, Janelle, still resides. The 96-year-old Gunsite matriarch is the consummate host, allowing dozens of people to walk through the home she shared with her husband of 64 years. Pitchers of iced tea and lemonade sat on the counter beside plates of brownies. She spoke to our class about her husband and the facility before inviting everyone onto the back deck to admire the view.
We were then encouraged to explore the rest of the house, which was designed by Cooper to be immediately defensible. I ascended the spiral, wrought iron staircase that leads to Col. Cooper's office. There, I spotted manila envelopes emblazoned with the familiar Guns & Ammo logo, a publication for which he wrote for over 40 years. In the basement is Cooper's extensive library - walls filled to the ceiling with books - a sitting room and a work room displaying animal pelts, memorabilia, historical artifacts, guns and ammunition.
On the main level of the Sconce, an axe hangs on a plaque, a token of appreciation for "masterful handgun training" given to Cooper in 1977. This is but one physical representation of the impact and influence Cooper and Gunsite continue to wield, whether it's training a group of men 40 years ago or guiding the men, women and youth through the 250 Pistol course today. And while there are plenty of gifts of appreciation on display in Cooper's home, many students express their gratitude in a subtler way - they go back.