Founded in 1976, Gunsite Academy remains a rite of passage for all serious firearms owners, writers and enthusiasts. Founded by Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper, this modernized training facility quickly became the benchmark for firearms instruction on all platforms. I am perpetually late to nearly everything in life, and embarrassingly enough, it took me more than 25 years to get to this legendary site located just outside of Paulden, Arizona. However, that came to an end just a few short weeks ago, and my perspective on shooting will remain forever changed.
As I entered the gates, I was welcomed with a sign that read, “Excuse our noise; it’s the sound of liberty.” This set the tone of the instruction style that graces this establishment—fun but genuine. It wasn’t too much further down the road that we started seeing signs reminding us of Cooper’s basic four safety rules:
1. All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. (For those who insist that this particular gun is unloaded, see Rule 1.)
3. Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target. This is the Golden Rule.
4. Identify your target, and what is behind it. Never shoot at anything that you have not positively identified.
After making our way to the main classroom, we started filling out our paperwork as well as our lunch orders for the next few days (nutrition and hydration are emphasized during these courses). This was just moments before Gunsite CEO Sheriff Ken Campbell (Ret.) gave us the lay of the land and explained a little more of the site’s history and what to expect over the next few days. After his presentation, he introduced Rangemaster Lew Gosnell, the first Gunsite Instructor to whom I would be exposed.
Lew hails from a law enforcement background with a career serving some of the most crime-ridden areas in the country. As he listed these locales, I prepared myself for a week of dealing with a “work-hardened cop” who had no sense of humor. To my delight, Lew was quite the contrary, remaining utterly engaging and humorous when appropriate. I got to experience this as he demonstrated a new method of firing a Mossberg Shockwave, making it far more controllable and safe to use at eye level. After this demonstration, each participant had the opportunity to try it with live ammunition as we patterned these guns in preparation for our next course of fire, affectionally known as “The Wash.”
Sometimes, Mother Nature makes the best ranges, and all that is required is a little cleaning up. The Wash is an area on the Gunsite grounds that water flows through during heavy rainfall (yes, this part of Arizona gets rain). As a result, it cuts a deep canyon with unpredictable twists and turns, perfect for placing surprise targets. Instructor Aimee Grant took us through individually and stressed the importance of taking our time and moving side to side to better pie each turn. Running shotguns, she also introduced us to the Gunsite mantra “Load what you shoot,” a routine that helps you to keep your scattergun topped off. After my first run, I was hooked and proud to say that I aced the exercise, even showing restraint from engaging the no-shoot targets.
After finishing what was effectively an “outdoor shoot house,” we met with Rangemaster John Hall to take us through the indoor variety in one of the many fully enclosed structures on the property. Prior to this, Mr. Hall covered the best ways to open doors and enter rooms, but when we approached the house, he offered zero insight.
This is all part of the realism that Gunsite tries to maintain. Hall could have easily given me the layout of the house, how many bad guys were there, and other details that might have made it easier. However, to do so would destroy the experience, as you seldom have this information in real life. After working my way into the front door, I had to make a decision to go left or right. Remembering what the outside of the building looked like, the left seemed to make the most sense, as there couldn’t be too many subsequent rooms on that side of the house.
After neutralizing a target there, I proceeded to the right and walked through a series of rooms and hallways, identifying and neutralizing targets in realistic scenarios. Everything was going well until I shot a friendly target because I didn’t move to a point where I could get a positive ID of who I was seeing. This was a sobering experience as there is a high likelihood that I would respond like this in real life.
The trip ended with a walk through the “Urban Scrambler,” a straight-line course of fire that challenges you to overcome various obstacles and fire from unorthodox positions. By the end of the day, we were all trying to top each other in speed and technique while introducing moderate handicaps. This variation was not only accepted by our instructors, but encouraged, as it forced participants outside our comfort zone and better represented real-life shooting. This cornerstone of Gunsite training makes the experience well worth the price of admission and, in my opinion, encapsulates everything that they do.
After three full days of shooting, it was sadly time to leave. Before dismissal, we were given each instructor’s information should we need to follow up with them with specific questions. Overall, I found their lessons concise, consolidated and enjoyable. Over the course of the week, I felt pushed and engaged but never uncomfortable, which is a tough balance to strike. Feeling like I had struck gold, I started looking at the other courses that Gunsite offers, reveling in the variety on the table. Needless to say, I’ll be back!
Editor's Note: You may have noticed that Gunsite's "Four Rules" of gun safety aren't exactly the same as the NRA's "Three Rules." Which set should you follow? Whichever one is easiest for you to remember! Whether you go by three rules or four, the most important thing is safety.