The Gunsite Story – 40 Years of Firearms Freedom

Offered in recognition of the 40th Anniversary of Gunsite Academy and the life’s work of Jeff Cooper.

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From 1958 until 2003 the pages of Guns & Ammo magazine were graced with the words and wisdom of COL Jeff Cooper. Readers worldwide subscribed to read his thoughts; primarily those associated with the use and application of the defensive handgun. Similarly, when Cooper opened the American Pistol Institute on the Gunsite Ranch near Pualden, AZ in 1976, like-minded folk traveled from far and wide to learn from The Guru. The story of Gunsite – now Gunsite Academyis the story of Jeff Cooper.

If you grew up reading Cooper you probably knew this, but for the latest generation of gun owners, the impact Gunsite has had on the world of firearms is, at best, unappreciated and, at worst, unknown. According to Robbie Barrkman, “Jeff Cooper and the Gunsite doctrine have single handedly been the genesis of a whole industry. Name anyone who is a somebody in the firearms business, relative to defensive firearm craft or equipment, and I’ll show you a connection either directly or indirectly to Jeff Cooper.”

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Jeff Cooper teaching. – Image courtesy of Gunsite Academy.

How could one man and one place be so instrumental in the genesis of defensive weapon craft? For starters that man would need to be a practitioner and teacher, a student and a philosopher; that man would have to be an evangelist of a useful doctrine. He would need a means for broadcasting his teachings and philosophies to the world. And finally, that man would need a practical pulpit from which to espouse his wisdom. Cooper was the first, the only and the last to have all three.

John Dean “Jeff” Cooper was born on May 10th, 1920. He graduated Stanford University with a BA in Political Science and received a commission in the United States Marine Corps in 1941. He served in WW II and the Korean War and in the mid 60’s received a Master’s Degree in History from the University of California, Riverside.

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Between 1957 and 1976, Cooper became affiliated with two endeavors that would lead to the codifying of the Modern Technique of the Pistol and Gunsite. He had established a relationship with Bob Petersen of Petersen’s Publishing and was writing various articles about sports cars, but mostly guns, for the Petersen’s magazines. He also started the Leatherslap Competitions in Big Bear Lake California. Ultimately, those shooting matches would evolve into the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) of which Cooper was the founder and first president.

Cooper’s writings in Guns & Ammo, shored up by his codified doctrine of the Modern Technique of the Pistol, which was supported by his emphasis on the combat mind-set, reached readers the world over. This led to invitations for Cooper to come and teach. And, teach he did. It started in Guatemala, for the bodyguards of the newly elected President and continued in Salvador, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, South Africa and Rhodesia.

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These experiences led to the book, The Principles of Personal Defense, which was the forerunner to the Cooper Color Code, a system that has become the standard for teaching mental conditioning as it relates to individual combat. This and Cooper’s continued study, documentation, codifying and reporting on the developing art of practical pistolcraft, interspersed with his philosophy on an individual’s right to defend himself, his loved ones, and his country, connected with gun owners.

Cooper became the professor of the art of weaponry or more precisely, the Modern Technique of the Pistol. Through his writings in Guns & Ammo and in various books, shooters relished the opportunity to learn from him, face to face. What Cooper needed was a basilica, a place to hold court and teach the value of the combat mindset and the importance of DVC – diligentia, vis, celeritas (accuracy, power and speed). It could be said that what he ultimately created with Gunsite was the church of pistol shooting but what it has become is a cathedral of defensive weapon craft or as Barrett Tillman called it, “…the Camelot of the Great Southwest.”

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Cooper and his wife Janelle decided his mission of spreading the word of the Modern Technique could be served best by setting up a school and letting students come to him. In August of 1973 they bought a cattle ranch near Paulden, AZ. There was no water, no electricity and mostly nothing but dirt and rattlesnakes. They named the property Gunsite and called the school the American Pistol Institute (API).

Gunsite started with a single, square range, 50 meters deep. They built roads, erected a windmill for water and purchased a generator for electricity. Soon, they added the Funhouse, an indoor reactionary shooting facility. In 1976 there were no cell phones or e-mail so if you wanted to contact COL Cooper at Gunsite you wrote a letter or called a radiophone rigged up in his Volkswagen bus. When the phone rang, the horn in the bus would blow.

Cooper focused on the curriculum and on acquiring quality instructors or coaches. Over the next 16 years some of the best-known firearms instructors to ever set foot on a range taught at Gunsite. Men like Chuck Taylor, Bruce Nelson, Clint Smith, Louis Awerbuck, Pat Rogers, Robbie Barrkman, and Ed Stock. They helped Cooper spread the word and they spread it often…but not just to anyone.

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Only upstanding folk could attend Gunsite. Prospective students had to meet certain criteria. This was not meant to exclude by class or wealth but by character. If you were an honorable person, Gunsite was waiting for you. If you were a goblin, Gunsite was bad news because those who graduated Gunsite were not to be trifled with.

The first lecture sessions for classes at Gunsite were held on the Veranda of the Cooper’s home but as time passed more land was purchased, more ranges were built, a classroom was added and so was a gunsmithy shop with live-in quarters. Cooper soon found he and his team were able to produce a very capable practitioner of the defensive handgun in five and a half days.

The certificates awarded upon course completion came in four varieties. Those who attended but did not perform well received a Certificate of Completion. The certificate for those who did okay was marked “Marksman” and a Marksman First Class or M1 certificate was presented to those who were especially good shots. The Expert certificate or “E-Ticket” was bestowed only to those who demonstrated the highest level of proficiency with a defensive handgun. Then and now, no one questions the validity of a Gunsite certificate.

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In 1981 Cooper began writing a newsletter called Gunsite Gossip. It was a collection of observations, quotes and pointed remarks from Cooper, pertaining to guns, training, hunting and even politics. Tom Siatos at Guns & Ammo proposed excerpts from this newsletter form a regular column in the magazine. This became Cooper’s Corner and through it readers continued to become enthralled with Cooper’s philosophy and teachings and, they desperately wanted to go to Gunsite.

Gunsite was thriving and at age 72 both Jeff and Janelle wanted to slow down and enjoy the golden years. In 1992 Gunsite was sold. Even though the new owner insisted on his intent to maintain Cooper’s vision and allowed for Jeff and Janelle to reside in their home known as “The Sconce” on the Gunsite property, the amicable relationship turned intolerable. In 1993 Cooper was banned from the ranges and from anything to do with operations.

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Jeff and Janelle Cooper. – Image courtesy of Gunsite Academy.

Over the next six years Gunsite declined. Lacking the commitment to the doctrine and message that resonated so well with gun owners all over the world, attendance dropped. The facilities were in disrepair and no one wanted to come to the school founded by the father of the Modern Technique if they were not going to be taught by or even have a chance meeting with him. It looked like the end of Gunsite was near.

Enter Buz (Owen) Mills and his wife Sonja. Buz had met Cooper in 1980 and had always been impressed with him. He was equally impressed by the Gunsite doctrine, the professionalism of the Gunsite staff and their ability to teach at all levels. Buz and Sonja purchased Gunsite in 1999 and the revitalization began. Not only did Buz begin to rebuild and repair, he added ranges, offices and classrooms and expanded the pro-shop. More importantly, Buz welcomed Cooper back in a consultant capacity. Buz realized Cooper was Gunsite and that they were inseparable; he knew Gunsite without Cooper would be like Christmas without Santa Clause.

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Buz Mills

On September 25, 2006 the four term NRA Board of Director, Lifetime Executive Council Member, founding president of IPSC, father of the Modern Technique, Guns & Ammo Editor at Large, and what some have called the “Gunner’s Guru” passed. But, a visit to Gunsite today will leave no question that Cooper’s vision and standards are driving the train. Cooper’s widow, Janelle, still lives in the Sconce. She’ll often welcomes graduates of the 250 Pistol Class into her home where she’ll serve them cookies, brownies and tea mixed with lemonade. They’ll hear her stories and visit Cooper’s armory, which is very much the same as it was when he was alive.

Today Gunsite encompasses more than 2000 acres of prime shooting real estate. The curriculum has been expanded extensively to encompass all forms of defensive shooting, hunting, and even recreational endeavors. Courses are taught to beginners and operators at every level. From tutorials, women-only courses, to diversified classes filled with shooters from all walks of life, Gunsite is training more shooters than ever before. And, Gunsite is staying in step with technology; courses are now being taught on the use of lasers, night vision, and extreme long range shooting. Gunsite has also become a manufacturer’s proving ground for new guns, ammunition, and accessories.

It was with deep emotion these words, my first to appear in what once might have been called Cooper’s magazine, were written. I grew up reading Cooper and Guns & Ammo and dreaming of Gunsite. My wife, my son, and I, have all graduated courses at Gunsite. Gun gods willing, both our daughters will too. Gunsite is our alma mater and has become my home away from home. We’re members of one of the greatest families – the Gunsite family.

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For me, Gunsite is the center of all things gun. For shooters, it is the equivalent of the Spartan Agoge. As some have said, it’s the Harvard of Handguns. It is not a clandestine training facility or a boot camp, and Gunsite is not selling memberships; it’s not a social shooting club. Gunsite is the pinnacle of firearms education for the free man and exists today only because of COL Jeff Cooper, his wife Janelle, the excellent staff and instructors who work there, Buz Mills, and the countless members of the extended Gunsite family. There’s no other place like it on earth. There never will be.

I asked Buz Mills if Gunsite should / will last forever and his response might best illustrate what Gunsite really is: “Gunsite must last forever. Gunsite is Freedom’s backbone.”

Author’s note: Many members of the Gunsite Family helped with the preparation of this article, which was originally published in Guns & Ammo magazine. Much of the chronological correctness is indebted to the book, Jeff Cooper, The Soul and the Spirit, by Lindy Cooper Wisdom.

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Jeff Cooper and his “Lion Scout.” – Image courtesy of Gunsite Academy