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Gunsite 250

by Wayne van Zwoll   |  September 24th, 2010 0

A pistol primer for mind and body


At 25 yards the line goes prone. This is long shooting in the 250 course, and it’s harder than it looks.

The raven, wings spread, still guards the gate. Passing under its silhouette, you’re reminded that Gunsite Academy is not just a school, it’s a culture. If you bring the pressures and priorities of your other life with you, the raven gets less of you.

“It’s a life-changing experience. You’ll be different when you leave.”

I’d heard that before, during my first class at this renowned shooting facility. The 270 Rifle class taught me a few things that should have come much earlier. This 250 Pistol course would surely teach me more. Indoctrinated in my youth to view handguns as a good choice when there was no rifle around, I’d gradually come to think more charitably of them. But an accomplished handgunner I was not.

“The 250 is our beginner’s class,” continued Charlie McNeese. At least I was in the right place. “You may have fired handguns a little or a lot. Maybe not at all. You’ll do just fine if you practice what we teach. It may not be what you were taught elsewhere. It may not be what you’ll practice for a hunt or a bullseye match. But what we teach is, by consensus, the best way to defend yourself in armed combat.”


Eric Olds shows that all good shooting starts with proper grip–high and firm–in the holster.

Whose consensus? I almost asked aloud. Later, in an interview with Gunsite operations manager Ed Head, I did. “When Jeff Cooper founded Gunsite Academy,” Ed replied, “he taught what we call the modern technique of the pistol. It’s a culmination of his experiences and those of some truly extraordinary handgunners–Thell Reed, Eldon Carl, Jack Weaver, Ray Chapman. What Jeff preached–and we still do–also borrowed from FBI training dating to 1928. Gunsite 250 shows you combat-proven techniques.

“Most of our pistol instructors have worked in law enforcement,” Ed continued. “Charlie did. In fact, he taught policemen to shoot. He and Eric Olds and Ron Fielder–your instructors–are masters of defensive handgun shooting.

They can also tell you why their methods work.”

A retired Border Patrol officer who began teaching at Gunsite during the 1990s, Ed got his first taste of the Academy when he attended as a student in 1988. “Five years ago I moved from San Diego to Chino Valley–partly to teach full time here,” he said. In February 2005 Buz Mills asked me to oversee operations when Bob Young left. I miss the teaching, but coordinating all the programs is a rewarding job. Honestly, I get misty-eyed thinking of the lives our training has saved–not just policemen but civilians firing in self-defense and, of course, soldiers.

“Gunsite teaches what even the armed forces can’t teach well. Small classes and expert instructors, plus our modern ranges and life-like courses of fire, are unique to the Academy. We accommodate special requests. When a Marine unit wanted training in foreign weapons for a covert operation, the Services had nothing to offer. We procured the guns and ammunition to give 250 Marines the hands-on experience they needed. We even wrote them a training manual. It all happened in just six weeks. Gunsite got no money for this effort until months later, but those Marines captured a Russian machine gun that was killing Americans and specifically credited Gunsite for their success. Wow!”


Gunsite instructors recommend a shooting grip like this–on a 1911 in .45 ACP, of course.

That sense of mission comes across from other instructors at Gunsite, too. Like the Academy’s owner, Buz Mills, they’re not here just to sell their services. They believe.

Discipleship is part of what you pay for in a week of classes. When you fire 1,000 rounds into targets, then practice your draw and magazine changes after full days on the range, you might as well commit your mind, too.

You’re also wise to use recommended gear. It’s no secret that Cooper’s pet pistol was a 1911 in .45 ACP. Talking with Gunsite’s marketing director, Jane Anne Hulen, before signing up, I got the impression that shooting the 250 course with any other pistol would be like riding a Kawasaki to the chopper rally at Sturgis. So I looked hard for a 1911 that would make me look good. My pick: A five-inch Smith & Wesson with belly rail and white-dot sights. It would prove an excellent decision.


Charlie McNeese runs the targets as shooters draw. They have just 1 1/2 seconds to fire.

But I’d erred in getting a holster. A traditionalist, I like leather, and you’ll find no better 1911 cowhide than the selection offered by Galco. Every model is beautifully formed and stitched. Choose from pancake, Yaqui slide and traditional versions. Alas, I’d ordered a holster for a standard 1911, not one with a rail. Eric Olds came to the rescue with a hard-composite loaner by Blade-Tech. He also tossed me a pair of magazine pouches. Everyone else had the foresight to break in their gear–and bring four magazines.

Before warming up the hardware, though, we 15 students got lectured. “Shooting is 90 percent mental, 10 percent physical,” Charlie emphasized. “Practice intelligently. Dry fire when you can’t shoot. Practice loading and magazine changes with the dummy rounds we gave you. Get familiar with your pistol. Establishing routines makes you faster and more accurate, provided they’re the right routines.”


Despite small hands, Jade Goodhue is quick and sure during tactical reloads with her Les Baer .45.

Safety? I was pleased that Guns
ite keeps the rules simple: Never allow a pistol to point at anything you’d regret shooting; keep your finger off the trigger except to fire; know your target and what’s behind it. Unlike the many firearms courses that require guns to be empty off-line, with actions open, Gunsite’s 250 instructors let each student choose the carry condition of his pistol.

“A 1911 is pretty useless without a full magazine,” they pointed out. “We suggest you carry yours loaded, cocked and locked.” Every firearm at Gunsite is assumed to be loaded; every pistol must be holstered until the command to fire at targets on the ranges. You can’t turn around or leave the line after a volley until you slide that .45 into its holster. Loading off-line, you extract the magazine but not the pistol.

“You need three sets of skills to become a shooter,” continued Charlie. “Mindset, marksmanship and gun handling. You need the will to develop effective technique, plus the presence of mind to shoot deliberately but fast in tense situations. That’s the mental part. Then there’s the physical aspect, what we call marksmanship.


Ron Fielder shows how to clear a difficult jam. “Practice this in the dark,” he advises.

Gun handling matters because the sure, efficient movement of your hand can win a fight. You must be able to clear a jam, accomplish a tactical load (replace a half-empty magazine) and speedload while keeping your eyes on target. No fumbling allowed, no wasted seconds.”

He told us there’s no long-range shooting in 250 Pistol “because 90 percent of gunfights occur at distances of nine feet or less.” He let that sink in. “And 80 percent of that 90 percent happen within three feet.” He paused again.

“At those ranges, only one shot in 10 hits the adversary.” He concluded that few people who must shoot defensively would be satisfied with 10 percent hits. “Neither are we. Here’s what we expect of you on man-size silhouette targets.”

He laid it out plainly:

  • At three yards, one shot to the head, from the holster, in 1 1/2 seconds.

  • At seven yards, two shots to the body, from the holster, in 1 1/2 seconds.

  • At 10 yards, two shots to the body, from the holster, in two seconds.

  • At 15 yards, two shots to the body, from the holster, in 3 1/2 seconds, kneeling.

  • At 25 yards, two shots to the body, from the holster, in seven seconds, prone.

    “You must align the sights to shoot accurately,” said Ron Fielder, when I questioned aiming in what little was left of a second and a half after dragging my S&W from its holster. “But at three yards you can shoot well enough with the front sight alone. At seven yards you must shoot twice as fast, but the target is a torso, not a head. Watch that front sight. Young shooters focus much quicker than you or I, so sometimes we have to ignore the rear sight when they don’t.”


    Charlie McNeese demonstrates his kneeling position while a relay of students watches.

    At the line, I waited apprehensively for the targets. Charlie pushed the button, and they spun. As quickly as they appeared, though, they flipped back sideways. I had not fired. “Faster!” barked Charlie. Again the frames spun. I drew and fired as they slammed back. To my amazement, a hole had appeared in the forehead of my target face.

    “See?”grinned Ron.

    “You’ll be faster if you bring the gun up straight, then poke it forward in front of you, instead of sweeping it up,” advised Eric.


    WHO GOES THERE?

    Many of Gunsite’s instructors hail from law enforcement backgrounds. But do all Gunsite students pack heat in the real world? Are they all sponsored by LE agencies or the Army?

    No. While more than half of Gunsite’s attendees do carry guns on the job, many are ordinary folks who simply want to shoot better. I got to know several students during my 250 class.

    Marquita Fortner, 24, is a graduate student at George Mason University. Now in Fairfax, Virginia, she hails from Prescott, Arizona. She owns a 1911 in .45 ACP, a “Gunsite Special.” Marquita took the 250 course “to learn how to use a pistol in real-life situations, to defend myself.”

    Peter Wilhelm, from Columbia, Tennessee, works as a mechanical engineer. A young-looking 34, Peter has a polite, easy manner that belies his skill with a handgun. “Some friends and I shoot weekly,” he shrugs. “Nothing formal.” But he humbled most of us with his short-barreled Kahr autoloader in .40 S&W.

    Darrin Newlander retired at 40 from a military career and now applies his radio skills to support Intermountain Communications. He lives in Chino Valley, near Gunsite. Darrin packs a military-issue 1911 Colt, circa 1944. “The only thing I’ve changed is the sights. You don’t need a match barrel at three yards.”

    Henry Duhaylongsod, a native Hawaiian, now lives in North Pole, Alaska. This is his sixth class at Gunsite. “I learn something each time I visit. This time I brought my niece.” The 43-year-old civil engineer is an avid hunter, too. He carries a well-seasoned Les Baer 1911 in .45 ACP–and shoots it well.

    Farred “Jade” Goodhue is indeed Henry’s niece. She’s also an Annapolis graduate and a Marine Lieutenant headed for her second tour of Iraq. A logistics officer, Jade has an engineering background. Still only 24, she’s thinking of a law enforcement career. Her Les Baer .45 looks too big for her hands, but it isn’t.

    Derek Davis, 36, came all the way from England, where he works as a policeman. Though Derek does not now carry a sidearm, he will if assigned to a new job near Parliament. A former competitor (before England banned pistols), Derek used a borrowed Glock in 9mm to impress us all with his speed.

    Kim Wintle, also from a London suburb, accompanied Derek on her maiden trip to the U.S. She fired a pistol for the first time at Gunsite. “I have shot a bit,” she admits. “Rifles, of course.” The 33-year-old nurse “would like to shoot handguns more often.” There’s still crime, she says, in England.

    “Use the Weaver stance,” Charlie added. “You’re too square with the target. The Weaver stance gives you more flexibility to cover other threats.”

    I pointed out that several top-ranked steel-target shooters prefer the form I used. Charlie shrugged. “They shoot tens of thousands of rounds
    a year. You probably won’t. And remember, this is a course in defensive fire, not steel plate shooting.” I agreed to bend my left elbow.


    Eric Olds coaches in the “fun house.” Frangible ammo only, and no shots above that red line.

    I got other tips as well: checking the top round on a stack with my index finger while guiding the magazine into the well, yanking the slide back to chamber a first round to get all the spring’s energy behind the cartridge instead of punching the slide release, forgetting the white dots on my sights except in dim light, holding a flashlight in a way that also lets my left hand support the pistol.

    “The draw is where you’ll gain most in both speed and accuracy,” said Eric. “Start with the proper grip, web high and firmly engaged, wrist directly behind the gun. Snatch it smartly upward to clear the holster. Click the safety off as you hold the pistols tight to your side and rotate the muzzle horizontal. Bring your left hand into the right–smack!–as you push the pistol forward toward the target. Look at the sights and press the trigger. With practice, these five steps–grip, clear, click, smack and look–become one fluid motion. Properly done, a fast draw not only gives you more time to aim, it improves accuracy.”

    We advanced quickly. Evenings at the Teapot Inn Bed and Breakfast in Chino Valley, I practiced draws and magazine changes. Each day at the range we’d try something new, always against the clock. Turn and fire. Hit multiple targets. Shoot in the dark. As routines became more complex and more difficult, target times shrank. By midweek scores had plummeted. “That’s to be expected,” said Charlie. “We test your resolve. You’ll get better as you build back.”


    Peter Wilhelm clears a room; Ron Fielder assesses. The “hostile” at center has already been shot.

    By week’s end, most of us had gotten better, though I longed for younger eyes. Oddly enough, night shooting with a flashlight came easily. The sights stood boldly against the target face. Shooting in the dark helped me trust my grip and manipulate the slide, safety and magazines without a glance. Those skills count even when light isn’t an issue. Alas, middle-age vision continued to slow me in 10- to 25-yard daylight stages. At three and seven yards I had, as Ron predicted, become proficient with the front sight alone.

    The final days delivered more variety to the shooting venues. Firing on outside courses at steel targets hidden by terrain and in shooting houses with the images of crooks and innocents and lawmen intermixed, we had a chance to put our training into practical use. We also learned how demanding some threat situations can be, even if the targets, taken by themselves, are easy to hit. Protecting yourself by strategic movements while you search for an adversary is often much more difficult than the resulting shot.


    Safety matters. Students carry pistols cocked and locked. But they practice chamber checks.

    A tight travel schedule put me out of the last event in 250 Pistol, an elimination match that pitted students against each other on steel plates. I got a few photos before racing back to Phoenix for my flight. Actually, watching those .45s spit empties as plates toppled in quick succession, I felt a little relieved. These Gunsite graduates–some of whom had never handled a pistol five days earlier–would have been stiff competition indeed.

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