Welcome To Gunfighter School

TO THE DECK: The author (center) begins his transition from standing to prone at Gunsite Academy.

“This is a fighting school, not a shooting school.”


Rangemaster John Hall set the tone as he welcomed us to the 250 Pistol class is that is the core of the “Gunsite experience.” The 19 students in the class paid close attention as Hall introduced us to the concepts that Jeff Cooper introduced in the Arizona desert for the first time 38 years before. Nineteen of us were taking part in a five-day class to learn how to fight with a pistol, using methods that have become the standard by which all other forms of handgun fighting are judged.

Our four instructors averaged roughly 25 years of experience. Hall, who was performing rangemaster duties, has an Army and police background, including time as a SWAT team leader and department rangemaster. Bob Whaley has retired from nearly three decades of police work, including 15 years in St. Louis SWAT. Sergeant Major Walt Wilkinson spent 30 years in the U.S. Army, include 26 years in Special Forces. Provost Chris Currie is a retired Gunnery Sergeant who  spent 21 years in the Marines, the majority of his service in Force Reconnaissance.

Norm and "Top" duel on steel during the final day of class.
NECK AND NECK: Norm (center left) and “Top” (center right) speed load during a duel on steel during the final day of class as other students look on.

The students themselves were an interesting mix.

Norm, a retired Navy veteran and grandfather, chose a week at Gunsite over a week at the  CIA… the Culinary Institute of America.


Ollie, on break from dental school, ran one of the first 9mm 1911 pistols I’ve seen in person.

Walt is an attorney from Kentucky and took the class with his wife, Lisa.

Chris is from Texas. His wife Stephanie was born and raised in Korea. They met and live in the San Francisco area.

Noah is a young Army reservist and college student.

“Top” is a career Marine who drove all the way from Maryland to Arizona to take the class.

Eric, a Bearing Arms reader, somehow recognized me before I even made it across the parking lot.

Bob B. lives in Arizona and runs a nearby stone business. He was one of the Gunsite veterans in the class who return time and again to hone his skills. Many people return to take 250 Pistol every year to keep their skills sharp. I didn’t get a chance to spend much time with everyone in class, but it seemed that several of the other students might have been on return trips to Gunsite as well.

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The class spent the vast majority of its time on the South Range.
The class spent the vast majority of its time on the South Range. Here they run a timed drill on turning targets from the 5 yard line.


Originally founded as the American Pistol Institute (API) in 1976, the school that became Gunsite Academy was the first dedicated private shooting school in the country.


Previously, trainers traveled the country to teach at various ranges, police academies and military bases, but Col. Jeff Cooper’s school amid the junipers in the high desert was the first destination school. Cooper established API to teach the Modern Technique of the Pistol.

The Modern Technique—an efficient presentation, two-handed Weaver grip, flash slight picture, and the compressed surprise break of the trigger on a heavy-duty pistol—was the result of Cooper’s intense study of the winning techniques of the free-for-all quick-draw target shooting competitions that began in 1956 at Big Bear, California.

Jack Weaver had adopted a two-handed sighted technique when most shooters were still point shooting. Weaver noticed that many of the competitors were missing their first, second, and sometimes third shots at a target seven yards away. Figuring that a reasonably fast hit was better than a lightning fast miss, Weaver began drawing the gun to eye level in a two-handed grip and used the sights… something that seems self-evident to many of us now, but which was uncommon at a time when one-handed point shooting was king. Weaver’s technique began dominating the matches, and the top competitors and instructors dropped point shooting to begin adopting and refining Weaver’s basic method.


Col. Cooper took Weaver’s technique to the high desert near Paulden, Arizona, and added the other elements to create the Modern Technique. The school later began incorporating shotgun and rifle classes—Cooper was a rifleman at heart—and was renamed Gunsite Training Center to reflect the more diverse offerings. The expanding course offerings  attracted thousands of students and influenced top instructors, including Louis Awerbuck, Michael Harries, Jim Higginbotham, Pat Rogers, Clint Smith, Ed Stock,  and Dennis Tueller, just to name a few of Gunsite’s graduates. This time period (1976-1992) was later recognized as the “Gunsite Orange” era, thanks to Cooper’s preferred color scheme.

Cooper sold Gunsite in 1992, and the new owner veered away from the Modern Technique. The school’s reputation suffered greatly as a result, and Cooper disassociated himself from the school. “Gunsite Gray” quickly ran into financial difficulties, and was sold to Gunsite Orange graduate Buz Mills in late 1999.

Under Mills’s direction, “Gunsite Black” returned to the methods devised by Cooper, and continues the tradition. Cooper once again associated with the school, and periodically taught classes until his retirement in 2003.

Jeff Cooper passed away on September, 25, 2006 at his home, “the Sconce,” on the grounds of Gunsite Academy where his lovely wife Janelle still lives today, inviting 250 class graduates into her home for lemonade and brownies to tell her side of the Jeff Cooper story and allow students to see the unique home they built with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.


What the heck have I gotten myself into?

August is monsoon season in Arizona, and it’s an odd thing… sort of a “dry wet,” instead of a dry heat.

The temperature climbs quickly as the sun comes over the junipers, and you learn to quickly grab and drain a water bottle every time you get done reloading magazines, which is often. After our orientation session in the Gunsite classroom we drove just a few hundred yards to South range,a 35-yard pistol range that would be our classroom for the next five days…

[Part Two of the series will be posted tomorrow]

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