Experiencing Gunsite


Through the iron gated portal with the “Raven” symbol lays the famed Gunsite Academy.

I’ve known about Gunsite for years, but have never been there before. After attending a media event there, I feel like I’ve missed the boat, big time! Reading Jeff Cooper’s words is a far second place to actually meeting the man. Several writers in attendance were spouting off dates from several decades ago — their “first” time at the institution — along with several follow-up trips, as they progressed up the academic chain of gun courses.

Here’s a no-good looking scoundrel. Do we shoot, or pass?

The Root Of The Matter

Gunsite’s history goes clear back to 1976 when Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper wanted a proving ground for the development of the “fighting craft” with firearms. Initially, it was all about research and technique, as Cooper would invite well-established men of noted authority pertaining to combat pistol tactics. This laboratory-like setting is where Cooper refined and defined his “pistol craft” still taught today.

Cooper liked large caliber handguns, something all men with experience seem to appreciate. The Colt 1911 in .45 ACP was a particular favorite. The Col.’s established, down-to-earth techniques are the groundwork still in use today for using the pistol as the primary form of personal protection.

Cooper emphasized the use of big-bore semi-autopistols, the Weaver stance, the draw stroke, the flash sight picture, and the compressed surprise trigger break. He was also the first to define the four cardinal rules of firearms safety. He was also the first to talk about the fighting mindset.

This guy’s hiding in the bushes. See him?

Fighting School

Gunsite is not a school where one learns to shoot, per say. It’s a school where one learns to fight for your life, if necessary and to be aware of your surroundings. The safest avenue to conflict is avoidance. Through proper mindset, you will become aware of any potential threats and how to deal with them, including escape. Being aware of your surroundings and picking up cues of potentially dangerous interactions are just as valuable as your skill with the gun, in some instances.

Cooper came up with the four levels of awareness. What “condition” should you be in? The Col. considered Gunsite as an institute for higher learning; it’s why the classes are numbered like college courses.

The firing line is hot, in more ways than one.


From what I’ve seen at Gunsite, their instructors are all top-shelf educators. All have been selected as they themselves went through most of the classes. Gunsite chooses from within, something that really impresses me. Sure, most have backgrounds in law enforcement or military, with teaching/instructing backgrounds, but all have taken in-house classes from the start.

The standouts are handpicked, for more training, and then must follow more rigorous training, classes and actual teaching of classes, where fellow instructors critique and grade them. It’s a long process, but the best rise to the top and are selected.

All techniques are demonstrated several times, as Ken Campbell does here.

Back To Basics

By no means was the media event a full-fledged course, but merely a peak, or slice of the pie, of what the basic courses consist of. “Front sight, Press” is the mantra repeated and as bare-bone basic as you can get, for combat shooting. And it’s exactly where we started, at the 3-yard line, from the low ready position.

Over time, distance and drawing from the holster were gradually added, along with “head” shots on the camouflaged target, roughly resembling the outline of a torso.

The beginning of the “Donga” trail. Who knows what evil lies beyond…


“Donga” is African for a narrow, steep-sided ravine by water erosion, but usually dry, except during the rainy season. The Col. loved his African experiences and named his dry gully walk after the African term. The twisting, rocky ravine has hidden steel poppers throughout he walk. If the lower half is painted red, it’s a “don’t shoot” target, unpainted is a fair game “bad guy” target. Some are positioned so different techniques must be employed to determine the status of good vs. bad on the targets. It’s a practical way to test shooting skill, along with decision-making, combined with the physical stress of walking in a rough, unsteady terrain. A wonderful course and great fun!

Gunsite Training

Fun House

Funny things happen in the “Fun House.” It’s best described as a “maze” full of hallways, doors and rooms. Numerous targets are scattered throughout the house. Some targets are threats and some are not. Your job is to make that determination, as you safely clear the house with the techniques you’ve learned. It makes you think, tests your pistol skills and is another great practical exercise.

Know-It-Alls … Don’t

So take it from this retired copper with 27 years of street time, you don’t know it all. You can’t. It’s always good to refresh, experience and actually do some practical exercises to keep your skill level honed to the best of your ability. While punching paper is great, it’s no replacement for a scoot and shoot, run and gun, think on your feet practical exercise.

Plenty of water and a good holster/gun combo are necessary for Gunsite.

Tradition Continues…

Gunsite Academy is a “fighting school” whose roots are based on continuing your education to survive armed encounters with bad guys, and well worth attending. Gunsite is strong in tradition and still emphasizes Col. Cooper’s techniques and theory.
For more info: www.gunsite.com.

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