“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
— Matthew 26:41
My heart is a frisky 28 or thereabouts. My brain, as my wife would be the first to tell you, is an exceptionally immature 14. But my body… well, suffice it to say that very few bits of it work as they were intended to with the original parts, and I have now reached the age at which none of it is still under warranty.
Gunsite Academy has been around a long time by recognizing and adapting to the needs and wants of its clientele. There are pistol classes, carbine classes, bolt-action rifle classes, precision rifle classes, shotgun classes and more. Within each of those categories, there are specialized classes geared to almost every conceivable scenario: church defense, defensive vehicle classes, pistol team tactics for two, armorer’s classes, night-vision classes, house-clearing classes, tactical medicine classes, hunting rifle … . The list goes on—extensively.
Gunsite Academy has been around a long time by recognizing and adapting to the needs and wants of its clientele. There are pistol classes, carbine classes, bolt-action rifle classes, precision rifle classes, shotgun classes and more.
Gunsite also offers free classes to veterans of the current war—and, in response to recent events, free classes to school board members, school administrators and assistant administrators.
As of three years ago, recognizing a need, Gunsite added an array of what its employees diplomatically call “Seasoned Citizen” classes. I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to take a “Seasoned Citizen” 250 pistol class. I jumped at it.
What assembled at Gunsite’s Paulden, Arizona, 3,000-plus-acre flagship facility on a cold spring morning was a motley collection of artificial joints, broken and degenerating spines, gout, diabetes, chronic arthritis, rebuilt rotator cuffs, hypertension, artificial heart valves, stents, macular degeneration, titanium pins/screws/discs/rods (two of us held up by canes), a cancer survivor and a survivor of Hepatitis C, as well as enough prescription medicine to open a small pharmacy.
We might have been made weak by time and fate, but what we brought with us was a spirit willing and eager to learn, to improve and to have fun. And, oh, boy, did we ever!
Gunsite Academy is the first, foremost and oldest civilian shooting school in the world; but it’s not only civilian: it also teaches law enforcement, military and various governmental agencies (some of which are not discussed). However, as Gunsite COO Ken Campbell, himself a retired sheriff, pointed out, budget constraints limit the number of military units or law enforcement agencies that can afford to send personnel to train at Gunsite. Personally, I want the men and women who risk their lives in order to save mine to have the very best training possible. That not being the case, I will take the training myself.
Founded in 1976 (originally under the name The American Pistol Institute) by the father of modern pistol technique—the legendary Col. Jeff Cooper—Gunsite is now owned by businessman Owen “Buz” Mills. And it takes a good businessman to run such an operation, because the cost and sheer logistics of maintaining the many shooting ranges, roads and buildings (not to mention coordinating the schedules of the numerous instructors and even more students) must be almost overwhelming.
It is the instructors who make the school. Let me give you a taste of who you might meet
when you take a class at Gunsite.
Our chief instructor was Steve Hendricks, whose résumé includes working for an “alphabet soup” of governmental agencies; law enforcement in both California and Colorado; 30 years as a martial arts instructor; competitive shooting; and teaching firearms, special security and protection tactics to both law enforcement and various high-security personnel at the alphabet soup agencies. Reading between the lines of a private conversation with him, he has also served as a security specialist overseas, but because that’s not listed on his résumé, I won’t presume to detail it.
Chris Currie was a gunnery sergeant with 21 years in the Marine Corps, through which he worked with special reconnaissance units in parts of the world you don’t want to visit and served in more operations than I can list. He trained advisors at Twenty-Nine Palms for three years, taught mounted and dismounted patrols with the ATG advisor training group and was a security specialist with SOC, the company that provides security for the U.S. government and private companies. After leaving the Marine Corps, he served as an independent contractor—again in countries where it’s safer not to be.
It is the instructors who make the school.
Bobby Schneider is a retired Denver police officer who served 17 of his 21 years with that agency on its SWAT team. He, too, has taught a dizzying array of domestic and foreign law enforcement agencies and military units.
(Right now would be a good time to point out that the ability to do something and the ability to teach that skill to others are two very different animals. All these men have the teaching skill at least as much as the doing skill.)
The 250-pistol class is numerically designated, because it used to be taught as an adjunct course for a local college. It is a five-day class, making it the most intensive and comprehensive introductory shooting class offered to civilians anywhere in the world.
It begins with the basics, which are broken down into step-by-step functions: proper grip; the five stages of drawing the gun properly; getting on target; trigger press; follow-through; staying on target until there is no more threat; and so on. Then, students are guided through more-advanced steps as speed and stress are both gradually increased. And in the last two days, indoor and outdoor simulators, along with night shooting, are also introduced.
The instructors worked us all like rented mules, but, to be fair, we were told multiple times that we could take a break whenever needed. None of us did.
Throughout it all, from the first morning in the classroom to the last afternoon, the four basic safety rules are repeated … over and over and over. They are posted on signs everywhere—in the classrooms, the lunch area, the ranges, the simulators, the various offices, even the bathrooms. Safety comes first.
It might be a function of having trained and taught martial arts for 30 years, or it might be a function of his having to think each step through to improve his competitive shooting, or it might just be how his mind works, but Steve Hendricks broke down movements more thoroughly than any other instructor I have met.
He also utilized what he called “Jedi tricks” to fool students into doing the right thing, because he had them concentrating on something else entirely. I won’t give his tricks away, but it is one of the most effective training tools I have ever experienced.
In theory, the “Seasoned Citizen” class is supposed to be a stately, gentle event geared to those of us who are giving Methuselah a run for his money. I thought it might be a civilized 9-to-9 affair and perhaps even include siesta time. Ha! The only concession to age I could detect was that certain tactical positions, such as prone and kneeling, were scratched (I suspect that was only because the instructors didn’t want to throw their backs out repeatedly picking up overweight senior citizens).
After the first morning, bottles of pain-killers were added to the pharmacy, but not even groaning joints and whining muscles could diminish the enthusiasm of the ancient. There were 13 of us—11 men and two ladies—and the only one who couldn’t go the full distance was an unfortunate lady who came down with the flu. The instructors worked us all like rented mules, but, to be fair, we were told multiple times that we could take a break whenever needed. None of us did.
Handouts and Firearms
One other thing Gunsite does that I found very helpful is to hand out booklets outlining each step of instruction. Because each night results in a 50 percent loss of what one has learned during the day and a 75 percent loss by the end of the week, the booklets help those of us who go home and practice and try to retain what we’ve learned.
Gunsite also hands out copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States—items most college graduates and half the scoundrels on Capitol Hill are unfamiliar with.
Striker-fired pistols predominated, but there were two 1911s and two Berettas, one of which was my PX4 Storm Compact Carry 9mm. I put approximately 1,000 rounds of Black Hills 115-grain FMJ through it, and the only malfunction I had was the very predictable result of sand in one of my magazines during an emergency reloading drill. Because ammunition is the most likely cause of malfunctions, I owe a tip of the hat and a thank-you to Black Hills for zero failures.
At the end of the last class, after certificates had been handed out—with the usual good-natured razzing mingled with sincere applause—a bonus was given in the form of tea and brownies and a tour of the late Col. Cooper’s home there on the ranch. We were greeted with courtly elegance and grace by Mrs. Cooper, who is 97 years old. If I were as fit and sharp now as she is, I’d be a happy man.
The house was fascinating, but what really struck me was the image of 15 dirty, sweaty, tired people, each one with a loaded pistol on their hip, talking to the slim and elegant Mrs. Cooper and her daughter, Lindy Cooper Wisdom. The conversations ranged from guns to travel in foreign lands; from museums visited to books read (the late colonel’s library is extensive and extraordinary); and from anecdotes about famous men to the recipe for the brownies Mrs. Cooper served us.
It all made me wish some of the current anti-gun politicians could be present to witness firsthand the bloody violence and mayhem that inevitably ensues when armed and deplorable NRA members gather.
Editor’s note: The full version of this article is available in the September 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.