By Diane Walls,
As referenced in my article reviewing the Nighthawk Ladyhawk, 2016 is the year that my husband, Tom, and I made acquaintance with one of the most renowned firearms training facilities in the world. It also happened to be Gunsite’s 40th anniversary. Celebration was in the air and with good reason. Since Col. Jeff Cooper opened the school in 1976, a great many of the shooting community’s shining stars have trained there as well as thousands of military and law enforcement personnel and ordinary citizens interested in developing their skills with all types of small arms.
Our experience began with Gunsite 250, held April 25 through April 29. Our rangemaster was Charlie McNeese. He was ably assisted by Ted Ajax, Chris Edwards, and Allen Hall. Though we had started our plans to include friends to keep us company, health and scheduling problems left the two of us on our own. As is the case with training classes, we soon had friends to share the experience with.
The 250 is Gunsite’s introductory pistol class and a full five days of their introduction into gun handling and marksmanship skills. Gunsite philosophy is to teach students how to fight with a gun. Learning speed and accuracy is paramount. Work is done from the open holster without concealment garments. It is the student’s responsibility to keep their gun fully loaded and ready to go at all times. The tactical reload was taught as one of the first skills along with the mantra:
“How many rounds in your gun?” The answer to which should be an emphatic: “Not enough!”
After every string of fire, we were taught to top off the gun with a tactical reload and scan the target area completely before returning it to the holster. Everyone soon learned the advantage to having a pocket full of loose rounds to refill magazines while watching the other relay do the drill just completed or while listening to the briefing on what was coming up next.
Breaks were regular so we could get more ammo and drink water. Hydration is crucial in the desert climate and every student is issued a water bottle as they arrive with a name tag to put on it. Big water jugs were kept ready at the ranges for the students to fill their bottles as often as they needed. Electrolyte powder was also available to mix in every now and then to replace those lost to sweat. Nearby restroom facilities were available and everyone was advised to put their hat or earmuffs on the doorknob for privacy and close the door after themselves when leaving so none of the local wildlife, such as rattlesnakes or javalinas, would get in looking for water and be a nasty surprise for the next person to use the facility.
Once a skill was introduced and practiced and coaching was given, we were introduced to the hydraulic turning target system. This turns all or some of the targets edge-on for no shoot and fully facing for the signal to draw and fire. Time intervals for exposure were controlled by an instructor with a signaling device that activated the turning system. Quite ingenious! We all worked to get our shots onto the targets, into the hit boxes, in the time allotted for the distance and string of fire set out in the Gunsite qualification course known as “school drills.” Times get shorter and distances greater in more advanced classes and more movement and positional shooting is added as well.
Gunsite 250 introduces the students to the simulators, indoor shoot houses that are live fire with frangible ammunition shooting at human image targets that may or may not be threats or “dongas,” also with frangible, that involve sneaking through arroyos looking for steel targets that represent threats or no shoots while using natural geography for cover and concealment. Instructors would give each student a situation that they needed to address and coach them as they worked their way through the house or donga and solved problems as they arose. This was very educational and a whole lot of fun.
One evening was reserved for some low light work. 250’s task was to learn techniques to shoot with flashlights in one hand and your gun in the other in a safe way that allowed you to identify targets in the dark before addressing them. This is done with an eye toward more advanced training where searching with flashlights in low light while on the move is the goal.
Every part of the 250 curriculum is designed to encourage those training to continue to advance, at Gunsite with more advanced classes or elsewhere. They take their mission of teaching people how to defend themselves with a gun seriously. They also make the experience supportive and enjoyable so students want to do just that.
As Gunsite Chief Operating Officer Ken Campbell graduated us, he anointed our class part of the Gunsite family. We were invited to visit The Sconce, Col. Jeff Cooper’s and his wife Janelle’s home and meet Mrs. Cooper in person. We felt honored and eagerly accepted. Mrs. Cooper welcomed us graciously and gave us a guided tour of their home. She shared her late husband’s vision and inspiration around the school and the construction of his private fortress. We were treated to iced tea and lemonade and homemade brownies. What a treat to visit with the Countess Emeritus and hear some of the history of their remarkable family and school!
We headed back home enthused and committed to training for our next class, Gunsite 350, to be held September 26 through 30, followed by the 40th Anniversary Gunsite Alumni Shoot (GAS) held October 1. This time, we did get together a cadre of friends from Firearms Academy of Seattle (FAS), including owner and Director Marty Hayes, his wife and business partner Gila Hayes, and longtime FAS instructor Rick Bressler. All of us were recent 250 graduates and, in the interval between Spring and Autumn, Gunsite COO Ken Campbell had come to FAS to offer a Gunsite 150 class and establish a new Washington State site to hold their off-campus classes. More Gunsite classes will be offered in 2017 at FAS for those in the West Coast region or wishing to visit the beautiful Pacific Northwest for a taste of Gunsite.
We walked into our classroom in September to find a 350 class that was half women. Our rangemaster this time was Bob Whaley. He was assisted by John Hall, Jay Tuttle, Ken Tuttle and Walter Wilkinson. These gentlemen were all highly skilled with impressive resumes. John Hall’s wife Robin and daughter Julia were among the women taking class with us. All the women in class were there to learn and did well. We ladies were all excited to be sharing our experience with each other.
Gunsite 350, intermediate pistol, consists of the basic skills introduced in 250 done more quickly and with the addition of movement out to 35 yards on the static range and further on the simulator exercises. We shot from kneeling, prone and seated positions, shot on the move laterally, forward and reverse. We were introduced to moving targets and shooting one handed with both dominant and non-dominant hands. We also got the Gunsite take on drawing from concealment.
Low light simulators used flashlights in outdoor and indoor scenarios to learn to identify threats and address them. Gunsite runs their night simulators in the evenings, making for a long day of work on your relay’s assigned night. They close the day class promptly to give the students and staff a good dinner break and some rest before getting down to work in the dark. This was my first introduction to navigating natural terrain with a flashlight and a gun, looking for threats. A challenging endeavor, it gave me an even deeper appreciation for those who choose to take on these tasks professionally and a resolve to stay ensconced in my house and let trouble come to me if I have any choice in the matter. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to have some experience in my store of knowledge to build upon and have just in case the time should come that I need it.
Daylight simulators encouraged searching and finding threats both indoors and outdoors out to the limits of terrain and vision.
Outdoor targets were camouflage painted to encourage us to develop our ability to search and see. We also had a taste of force on force training with live actors and Simunitions.
Photography was not allowed in the simulators but these scenarios are the most valuable segments of the program, in my opinion, for developing mindset, target identification skills, use of cover and concealment as well as searching skills that maximize personal safety in a high-risk situation. Having the insights of professionals that have done the things we did in the mock exercises for real is invaluable as the staff guides you through your individual experience.
We finished, as in 250, with timed school drills for score and a steel shoot-off against the others in our class for the top shot prize. This was the most fun, cheering on our friends and classmates and doing the best we could to knock our targets down first when our turn came around. One gentleman put us all to shame with his shooting and earned the top shot prize as well as the coveted gold raven and expert rating (the e-ticket). He was amazing!
After graduation, we were again invited to tour The Sconce with Mrs. Cooper and enjoy refreshments. The mood was celebratory for the 40th anniversary and Mrs. Cooper was in fine spirits. We had another lovely visit.
Following a brief interlude to return to our hotel and clean up, we returned to Gunsite for the pre-match barbecue dinner. Most of the parking lot had been turned into a covered al fresco dining area for the many alumni, staff and families that had gotten their reservations in to enjoy a delicious dinner and meet and mingle with those they would be partying with all day Saturday during the match. The celebration was just getting started.
We said goodnight to our friends at the campground and went back to our room to get some sleep and arrive bright and early for the match.
Parking was provided at the Gunsite campground so we parked at the Hayes’ trailer and hopped on the haywagon for a ride up to the pavilion for the pre-match briefing. Ken Campbell greeted everyone with a hearty “Welcome all you deplorables!” We all roared a response as we proudly claimed the title.
There would be 10 match stages to finish throughout the day and numerous side matches for an additional fee. All fees collected would benefit the Jeff Cooper Legacy Foundation which sponsors training scholarships for deserving people that couldn’t otherwise afford to go to Gunsite. Manufacturers and collectors offered their guns for the attendees to try in side matches with shotguns, distance rifles, closer range guns and even a WW1 vintage Browning water-cooled machine gun. There would be a midday lunch break with barbecue provided. Everyone would return to the ranges after lunch to finish up their stages and any side matches they wanted. After the match, there would be brisket dinner and an auction as well as the awarding of prizes and more opportunity to buy gear and goodies to take home for souvenirs. Some of the prizes offered in those side matches were very tempting. Tom and I determined, though, that the Browning water-cooled would be our top priority.
We formed a Pacific Northwestern squad with Marty, Gila, Rick and ourselves from FAS along with Tim Wegner and Brian Yip of Bladetech Holsters. We agreed on where to start and jumped on one of the shuttles to the many ranges. We all started with the Cooper Challenge, which was some of the basic school drills done at very short, expert time intervals. No one on our squad took home the commemorative 1911 pistol that was the prize for the winner, but we all did the best we could. Due to the long lines of eager competitors and side matches, our squad ended up going on different paths after a couple of stages. Tom and I went on together as Team Walls.
We found the Browning the first time and the gentleman in authentic WW1 uniform told us it needed some repair work and was closed so we would have to come back a little later. We did a few more stages and returned for our chance to contribute to the Jeff Cooper Foundation and send some rounds downrange in classic old school style on that Browning. We resolved to add it to our bucket list just so we could cross it off when we got home!
Match stages at GAS involve employing skills learned at Gunsite, sometimes with your own gun and often with firearms provided by manufacturers invited to showcase their products to the competitors. The stages are designed to be challenging but fun for everyone. It was clear that a lot of planning and preparation on the part of everyone on staff at Gunsite had taken place to provide 40th Anniversary GAS run efficiently and safely while showing all shooters and their families with a good time.
There is a junior division open to responsible youngsters accompanied by their parents. The young people we met there were very safe and well behaved, giving those of us in the older generation hope for the future of gun rights and firearm sports in the USA. The kids were all enjoying the day and the chance to walk around with guns on their hips in an environment where such was not going to generate panic and was, in fact, expected. A nice prize would be awarded to the top junior shooter but all the young competitors were out for a family fun day.
Later in the day, we showed up at the steel bay adjacent to the Haneken Range where we had spent much of the previous week in class. The stage here was run by several gentlemen from Nighthawk Custom Firearms and involved battlefield pick-up exercises using the Korth .357 magnum revolver they partnered with the German company to market in the USA as well as one of their 1911 pistols in .45ACP and finished by your own gun. I was greeted with enthusiasm for sporting their Ladyhawk, by now showing the first stages of holster wear due to its busy year as my working and training gun. I was happy to share with them that their gun had performed flawlessly for me throughout and I found my investment to be well worth the coin. They were happy that one of their guns was getting lots of range time, as it was meant to.
It was getting on in the afternoon by the time we finished all 10 stages, so we retired to the pavilion to rest, refresh and have a last look at the souvenir goodies for something that appealed to us before dinner. We reserved a table for our friends and enjoyed the people watching until we were joined by our buddies, first from Bladetech and then FAS.
We tucked into a wonderful dinner followed by speakers from among the staff, current and retired and even words from a student from Col. Cooper’s first pistol class given at the facility. An auction of Gunsite memorabilia followed with proceeds to benefit the Jeff Cooper Legacy Foundation. Bidding for things such as old range signs, décor pieces and even an ancient, battered flashlight that had seen a lot of range time drew generous bids and raised a lot of money for a worthy cause. Ken Campbell is quite an auctioneer! Mrs. Cooper attended with some of her family and mingled with many happy and appreciative students from the 40-year span of the school.
At last, it was time for the awarding of prizes. The match results were already out and circulating and we had a copy to find where we stood in the rankings. Though none of us won one of the big firearm prizes, we all took home something from the prize tables. All the competitors that finished the match were given a swag bag with anniversary commemorative DVDs and book, a nice T-shirt and other goodies. Gunsite had pulled out all the stops to throw a generous party for their Raven Family that was appreciated by everyone. We left for the night happily spent and wishing we didn’t have to go back to the real world. Gunsite is truly like Disneyland for firearms enthusiasts on the serious mission of learning vital defensive skills and passing these skills on to others. An entire week spent where everyone understands and appreciates you is truly a dream vacation.