Gunsite: Where It All Began
America’s gun culture started before America itself was born. The Second Amendment exists because the framers of the Constitution realized that the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were in the hands of individual citizens, not in the government itself. Those rights need protection, and ultimately, it is the duty (and right) of each citizen to defend what they hold precious and dear to them. The founding fathers knew that a government could only do so much to protect its citizens. Ultimately, protection would come down to the citizens themselves.
That spirit of responsible armed self-defense is one of the reasons why Gunsite exists. Gunsite, founded by Marine Corps veteran and noted gun writer Colonel Jeff Cooper, is the world’s oldest firearms training school dedicated to teaching armed citizens. Located in Paulden, Arizona (about 2 hours northwest of Phoenix), Gunsite has been training armed citizens how to defend themselves since its founding in 1975.
That legacy of firearms training is what drove my interest in training at Gunsite. For almost any human endeavor, there are certain places where everything came together in one place. If you play the blues, Beale Street in Memphis is going to be on your radar at some point. If you want to cook French cuisine, you’ll probably need to make a trip to Paris. And if you’re interested in understanding where modern armed self defense began, you need to go to Gunsite.
Colonel Jeff Cooper was a noted gun writer for many years. He codified his opinions and experiences into a program he called The Modern Technique of the Pistol. Gunsite was founded to teach those techniques to citizens, law enforcement, and the military. They continue to teach the same techniques to this day.
The Gunsite 250
One of the concerns I had about training at Gunsite was the relevance of what they were teaching to the rest of the firearms training world. We can link pretty much everything we teach in our training classes today back in some way to Gunsite. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge. It’s great that I can go to the same school where so many excellent trainers got their start. However, any school that has been around for over forty years is going to have some hardening of its intellectual arteries. Most institutions don’t like change. So, I was worried that the techniques they’d teach would be out of date and not in touch with the latest thoughts on armed self-defense.
I’m pleased to say, though, that Gunsite has updated their curriculum to match the times. The knowledge gained from over forty years of teaching people how to shoot has allowed them to adapt their training as shooting techniques have evolved. The Gunsite 250 class (also known as “the 250”) is their foundational class. It is designed to teach people to effectively protect a life with a defensive pistol by teaching students the five parts of the Modern Technique of the Pistol.
The Weaver Stance
We’ll go into the Weaver Stance in more detail in a future article, but this is one area where Gunsite’s teaching has evolved. Gunsite now teaches the Weaver Stance as a a balanced fighting stance, with both the support arm and the arm holding the pistol slightly bent. This is very close to what Jack Weaver was doing when he created this technique. Take a look at the photo on the right. On the left is Charlie (the instructor for my 250 class) demonstrating the preferred stance. On the right is Jack Weaver demonstrating the stance that bears his name. What Gunsite teaches as the Weaver Stance is fully compatible with today’s pistol training techniques. This isn’t surprising, since pretty much all of those techniques can trace their roots back to Gunsite.
Or, how to draw your pistol and get into action as quickly as possible. Once again, the technique taught in my 250 class was very similar to what I had been taught in other classes. At Gunsite, I had a chance to refine my technique even further, which dropped my draw time by about half a second.
It’s worth mentioning that for safety reasons, the Gunsite 250 pistol class requires the use of outside the waistband (OWB) holsters. Learning to draw a pistol and hit your target on-demand in five days is tough enough without worrying about cover garments and having your pistol get caught in your clothing. Besides, everything Gunsite taught about how to draw pistols in the class was easily adaptable to concealed carry.
The Flash Sight Picture
This concept goes beyond the basics of sight alignment and sight picture into seeing what you need to see in order to make the shot. If you can smell the bad breath of your attacker, you probably don’t need to have a crisp, clear view of the front and rear sights of your gun. By that same token, if you’re facing a difficult shot at distance, a clear and distinct sight picture is an absolute necessity.
The Compressed Surprise Trigger Break
Otherwise known as trigger control. Learning to be patient with your sights and trigger is a big part of becoming a better pistol marksman. Gunsite teaches you how to get your trigger finger under control and avoid having your trigger press throw your sights off-target. One criticism I’ve heard from other firearms instructors is that Gunsite instructors have a tendency to offer up “Front sight, trigger press” as the key to poor marksmanship. The idea here is that those words are not enough, and more coaching is needed to get a student up to speed with their gun.
The funny thing is, though, that saying those four little words worked. I saw students struggling to get their hits suddenly place rounds on-target once staff reminded them of those two fundamentals. Is it the most in-depth analysis of what’s happening as a person fires a pistol? No. Does it work? Yes. A student has enough to worry about when they’re in a class. A complicated coaching lesson only adds to the confusion.
A Heavy Duty Pistol
I chose to shoot my Colt Competition 1911 in .45ACP in the class because I wanted to learn to shoot it better. If there’s one school that can make that happen, it’s Gunsite, which was founded on the 1911. I shot around 700 rounds of Fiocchi 230 grain FMJ in the class, and it ran like a top, with no issues at all.
However, preference for the 1911 is one area that has definitely changed over the years at Gunsite. Jeff Cooper is well-known for preferring the 1911 in .45 ACP over all other pistols. Times change, and Gunsite has changed with them. Glocks and other polymer-framed pistols were the weapons of choice for the majority of the 19 students in my class. Myself and three other students choose to return to Gunsite’s roots and shoot 1911s. There was one woman in my class shooting a S&W 686 revolver (the other woman shot a Glock). Only one student shot .40S&W, using a Glock 23.
Is Gunsite Still Relevant?
Even though they’ve been around for over forty years, Gunsite is still very much at the forefront of the firearms training world. They’ve successfully integrated new ideas and updated training techniques into their programs, which is a rare trick for any kind of instructional institution. Their curriculum can help experienced shooters like myself get better, but it also helps new gun owners get up to speed very quickly.
Best of all, because we can trace pretty much everything we know about teaching pistol marksmanship back to Gunsite, what you learn there can serve as the foundation for further training. Chances are, if you take another class, you won’t need to “unlearn” what you learned at Gunsite. Rather, the training you received in your 250 gives you a solid platform on which to build your journey towards becoming an expert pistol shot.
One Thing That Sets Gunsite Apart
There was a word that kept popping up throughout my five day 250 class, a word that I’ve never heard at any other firearms training class.
From the first moments of class time Monday to the graduation ceremony on Friday, staff repeated the word “family” over and over again. This sense of belonging, of understanding that there is more to taking a firearms class than just learning how to shoot, is something that is lacking in the firearms training community. Students trust instructors who see them as more than just a paying customer. We go to a defensive firearms class in order to learn how to protect what is near and dear to us. It’s nice if the instructor understands that and treats their students as being near and dear to him or her. Gunsite does that, and does it in spades.
Gunsite is where defensive pistol training for the armed citizen began. It once stood all alone in this endeavor. Today, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of ranges dedicated to teaching people how to defend their lives with a firearm. But if you want to know where the future of firearms training is headed, it’s a good idea to start where it all began and take a Gunsite 250 class for yourself.