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Accuracy, Power & Speed: Defensive Handgun Training At Its Best

Accuracy, Power & Speed: Defensive Handgun Training At Its Best

Even an experienced law enforcement veteran like the Sheriff can benefit from good defensive firearms training. Here's what he learned at a recent visit to Gunsite.

The best pistol training courses provide classroom instruction, plenty of range time, and personal coaching.

Let's suppose for just a moment that you have recently completed your concealed-carry licensing class. You spent a few hours in a classroom, mainly going over your state's pertinent laws, and you spent a few more hours on the shooting range, banging away at a rather large target--primarily demonstrating that you could do that without shooting yourself.

Now let's fast-forward a couple of weeks to a dark, restaurant parking lot, where three armed thugs are intent on taking your money, your car, your lady friend, and your life. Wouldn't that be a terrible time to realize that you really needed more training in order to adequately protect you and yours? When you think about it, only a fool would try to fly an airplane without first taking lessons. Trying to play the piano without lessons could also be life threatening, depending upon the temperament of your family and neighbors. Fortunately, there is good defensive training available, if the individual will only take advantage of it. And it could save your life--literally.

I have sung the praises of the Gunsite Academy from time to time in the pages of Shooting Times. Located in northern Arizona near the town of Paulden, Gunsite was founded in the mid-1970s by Col. Jeff Cooper, the father of the "Modern Technique of the Pistol." Owen "Buz" Mills, the current owner, is dedicated to continuing the tradition begun by Col. Cooper and to providing realistic, practical defensive training for military, law enforcement, and honest citizens.

Now, while I have recommended Gunsite to a number of my shooting friends and attended several seminars there, the fact is that I had never taken one of its classes. We have an old Southernism down this way that goes, "You'd better put your money where your mouth is." With that in mind, a few months ago I attended the week-long Gunsite No. 250 Defensive Pistol class, and I thought I might tell you a little about it. Trying to avoid sounding like "My Week At Camp" by Little Jimmy Wilson, I figured you would benefit by taking a look at some of the philosophies of this great class and give you an idea of what you can expect from it and similar training courses.

Diligentia, Vis, Celeritas

Gunsite is founded on the philosophy of "Diligentia, Vis, Celeritas" (accuracy, power, and speed). It is the combination of these three skills, in equal parts, that allows the individual to survive a deadly attack. In October of 1999, Col. Cooper wrote, "The mission of Gunsite Academy is to provide good people with the skills by which they may conduct themselves as responsible citizens of a free republic." To attain this goal, the Gunsite instructors teach the Combat Triad--a three-part plan that balances gunhandling, practical marksmanship, and mind-set.

Attention should be paid to tactical reloads, speed reloads, and malfunction drills.

Gunhandling begins with learning basic gun safety. And this is covered by four easy-to-understand rules: 1.) All guns are always loaded. 2.) Never let your gun's muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. 3.) Keep your finger off the trigger until the gun's sights are on the target. 4.) Be sure of your target and what is behind it.


From that beginning, Gunsite students learn the effective presentation of their handgun from the holster. They learn tactical reloads, speed reloads, and various malfunction drills. Due attention to these drills allows a person to become one with his handgun and a far more effective fighter.

Practical marksmanship involves delivering a bullet to the target in a very quick and accurate manner. The real key to this shooting skill is the ability to master the flash sight picture and the smooth trigger press. Students quickly learn that when they focus on the front sight, they hit the target. Over and over again, you hear, "Front sight. Press. Front sight. Press." Gunsite Rangemaster Charlie McNeese occasionally pointed out to me that it was not "Front sight. Jerk! Front sight. Jerk!" I don't know why he kept bringing that up.

Mind-set is the mental conditioning that allows one to quickly identify a threat and to develop a plan for dealing with it. It teaches one to be aware of the surroundings so that a potential threat is identified as soon as possible (Cooper's Color Code). Gunsite's mind-set lecture also gives students ways to deal with their fears and ways to develop a successful plan to deal with a criminal attack. Mind-set is what teaches you that when you have to fight, you fight smart.

Putting The Skills To Work

After some of the basic skills have been learned, students of the Defensive Pistol class are given several opportunities to put them to work on practical problems. This involves running through the outdoor and indoor simulators, also known as the Donga Run and the Fun House.

The Donga Run involves engaging steel knockdown targets at various distances and with varying degrees of concealment down a dry gully. Donga is Swahili for a dry wash or gully.

The Fun House challenges the student to move through a building, clearing rooms and checking hiding places while searching for good-guy and bad-guy targets. Having dealt with real bad guys in rough desert terrain and dark houses, I have to say that these simulators are extremely realistic and challenging.

I found the equipment used on the Gunsite range to be very interesting. Half of our class shot a 1911-style pistol. The other half shot polymer-framed pistols; 9mm, .40 S&W, 10mm, and .45 ACP were well represented. With all the rounds that went downrange that week--some 1500 rounds per student--I know of only two pistol problems that surfaced. One student was having problems because his pistol was not properly lubricated; the other kept getting tied up with his extra-long slide stop.

Practical marksmanship training ought to emphasize delivering the bullet to the target quickly and accurately. The keys are mastering the "flash" sight picture and accomplishing a smooth trigger press.

Actually, a week at Gunsite is an excellent way to test your chosen defensive gear. We all try to use common sense when selecting our defensive pistol, fighting ammo, and holsters, but the No. 250 Defensive Pistol class serves as the supreme test of just how common our sense really is.

My advice for the prospective student would be to attend the class with a virtually stock pistol. All you really need is a reliable gun that has high-visibility sights and a decent trigger. Shooting some 1500 rounds, under the supervision of the Gunsite training staff, will let you know what other accessories, if any, you actually need. My guess is you will find that you need very few. However, there is an on-site pistolsmith who can provide most needed parts in short order. Quite frankly, the average handgunner would be smart to avoid a bunch of custom work and accessorized gizmos, and put the money saved towards the tuition at Gunsite or the purchase of practice ammunition. Fancy gizmos on your fighting pistol will not make up for a lack of shooting skill.

Of course, it's your money and you can do with it what you want, but a smart person does his best to attend a shooting school, such as this one, with an open mind and a desire to learn. If you seek knowledge, any good defensive-handgun school can teach you valuable techniques that you didn't know anything about. But if you're not really there to learn, you need to know that Gunsite, and most other schools, do not do miracles.

Students need to practice what they learn by running through indoor simulators and outdoor courses, such as the Donga Run at Gunsite pictured here.

Someone might want to ask me what I'm doing going to a defensive handgun school after all of my years of handgunning and packing a badge around. Well, let me tell you that it was absolutely amazing how many bad habits we old geezers can pick up. McNeese and Senior Rangemaster Ed Stock kindly pointed out that I was slapping the trigger like I would a shotgun (I have a little-known affliction for upland bird shooting). And over the years, I had modified my shooting stance in ways that really weren't to my benefit. These and other petty problems were gently pointed out during the week. They were even so bold as to suggest that my efforts to correct these minor ailments were the reason that I began to hit the target better and quicker. I don't know, could be.

While a person ought to be in reasonably good physical condition, Gunsite's Defensive Pistol class is not boot camp, nor is it spring training for football. One of my fellow students was a gentleman from the fine state of Oklahoma (great quail hunting up that way). He was born with birth defects that left him with two fingers on his right hand and one finger on his left hand. However, he refused to consider himself handicapped; he had come there to learn, and God willing, that's just what he was going to do. A lot of shooting schools might have turned him away, but not Gunsite.

Stock assigned instructor Lamonte Kintsel to work one-on-one with this student, and they both took a "get 'er done" attitude. It was amazing to see the ways they worked out for this student to handle reloading, malfunction drills, and other shooting skills. Several of us wanted to whine about the heat or the little blisters on our hands, but we'd look over at our Oklahoma friend and just keep our mouths shut.

Even experienced professionals like Sheriff Wilson can learn new techniques, or refresh their defensive gunhandling skills, with proper instruction.

In addition, attending a defensive handgun school may seem like a "guy thing" to many women. Nothing could be further from the truth. Women should not allow such a false notion to keep them from seeking this valuable, life-saving training.

One of the Gunsite rangemasters is Ms. Il Ling New, and she had this to say, "I'm 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weigh 120 pounds, and I'm not particularly strong. If I can do it, you can. If you've ever cut through a watermelon or a turkey, you have the strength to operate a pistol."

Il Ling went on to say that some women fear they will hold the class back. She quickly pointed out that women are rarely last in the class. Instead, they tend to listen more intently and have far less ego involved in their performance. "Because most women don't pay attention to how their classmates are shooting--much less try to compete with them--they tend to focus on their own performance and, thus, improve faster," she said.

Do you suppose there could be a lesson there for us guys, too?

Because of Col. Cooper's well-founded reliance on the 1911 pistol in .45 ACP, there is a perception that a Gunsite student ought to use one to take the defensive pistol course. Gunsite's staff quickly points out that this is not the case. While the 1911 is certainly a great fighting pistol, the student ought to bring to class a quality-made handgun that fits him and that he shoots well. In my several visits to Gunsite, I have noticed the various rangemasters and instructors using the S&W M&P auto pistols, Browning Hi-Powers, SIG DA semiautomatics, and Glock pistols. In addition, Stock carried a revolver for many years and is quite adept at assisting the student in managing a wheelgun.

To my good knowledge, Gunsite was the first successful defensive handgun school to be founded in this country. And it continues to be one of the top schools that is available today. In our society, we have come to realize the importance of getting good training and planning for continuing education in our chosen field of work. Shouldn't we apply the same thinking to something as important as learning the skills that can save our lives?

I happen to think so, and that is why I'm already checking my schedule to find a week to book another shooting class at Gunsite. Why don't you do the same thing, and I'll see ya there.

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