Gunsite 250

I was originally going to make this a series of blog posts, but after careful consideration I think it would be more useful to devote a page to this experience. Although I went to Gunsite later in life than I had imagined (or desired), the simple fact that I went was incredibly meaningful to me. Besides being a pilgrimage I had always wanted to make, it made me realize what I didn’t know, gave me a sound foundation on which to build, and made me hungry to learn more. I would gladly do it again. As a matter of fact I am doing it again (Gunsite 350 this time).

Here are my tips for success in no particular order:

  • Stay at Little Thumb Butte Bed and Breakfast. Reserve early, it’s a well known fact among the Gunsite cognoscenti. It amplifies the experience immensely. Ann is wonderful and the food is fantastic.
  • Park your ego. I had to remind myself of this over and over. Ego is the enemy of learning. Don’t get down on yourself because you’re afraid of what other people (or the instructors)  might think of you, or you’re not performing to some self-imposed standard. My notebook is peppered with me reminding myself of this. Which reminds me…
  • Bring a notebook and take notes. There will be many little jewels of knowledge which you will forget if you don’t write them down.
  • Execute the fundamentals. If you find yourself screwing up because you forgot to execute the fundamentals, fix it and forget it and do it right the next time. Don’t dwell on your errors.
  • Wear a long sleeve shirt on days when you will go prone. Trust me on this. Wear sun block and stay hydrated (you will be reminded to drink, I assure you).
  • The goal is smooth. Smooth is never a byproduct of fast.
  • The mindset lecture is worth the price of admission.
  • The riddle of steel: If you look at the steel and not the front sight you will miss. Don’t watch them fall.
  • Bring a camera.
  • Enjoy every minute. Seriously. Talk to your classmates, talk to your instructors at lunch. Absorb all you can. Drink it in.
  • Susan in the gift shop is very knowledgeable and is a great resource. She’s also fun to talk to. You will spend money there.
  • And most importantly, be a good student.


So why not go? One of the obstacles that people cite is the cost issue. Is it expensive? That’s a relative term. I could point out that it’s cheap when compared to ignorance but that’s condescending. The real question is one of value. Will the money you spend attending Gunsite be of lasting value? Do you feel that investing your time and treasure will be rewarded? It’s not a giant investment but it’s an outlay of money and time that’s noticeable for anyone who didn’t win the lottery.

I could tell you that I thought it was worth it, but that’s not going to sway you. Instead, let me point out a few things that I think are really important to relay and left a lasting impression.

  • Our rangemaster, and the person whose image appears when I think of both ‘finest firearms instructor’  and ‘person I most want not to be mad at me’ Walt Wilkinson told us that he knows how much a person spends per day to attend Gunsite and thinks about it every day he teaches. This attitude is the rule, not the exception at Gunsite.
  • When you’re there, you realize not only that you’re at a world class firearms training facility, you’re at the wellspring from which flowed modern pistol technique and the teaching of it to the huddled masses. There are other schools and I can’t comment on what I’ve never experienced, but there was a first and it’s Gunsite.  It’s always in the conversation and it’s the benchmark to which others are compared.
  • Which brings me to the point I most often use when talking to people about Gunsite. The instructors are what make Gunsite, and the instructors are fantastic teachers. I come from a long line of teachers. My parents and all my siblings are (or were) teachers. I married a teacher. I have a doctorate and I’ve been subjected to a LOT of teachers. These guys and gals are extraordinarily skilled teachers.  They all have the credentials and skills and experiences, but teaching is a skill that is too often overlooked at the expense of curriculum vitae.
  • There’s a payment plan. Pick a class a year from now and pay a little every month instead of trying to come up with all the tuition in a lump sum. And you can reschedule if necessary.

Another obstacle tends to be a perception that Gunsite is a time capsule of the modern technique. What gets lost in this background clutter is the purpose of Gunsite in general and the instructors in particular. They are not the high priests who are there to grant you admittance to a cult, nor are they there to punish you for heresy (no one expects the Gunsite Inquisition!). They are there to teach you to fight with a gun.

The truth is that they have a method they prefer and they will be glad to tell you why they prefer it. The methods they teach have been proven and tested by many, and they know what they teach works because they’ve received plenty of feedback. As I was told, they are slow to change but not because of a dogmatic approach, but because they are not ones to follow a fad.

If your excuse (for lack of a better term) for not going to Gunsite is technique driven, then let me relay an experience I had after I attended Gunsite. I was at a 2 day class held by a big name (don’t worry, I’ll review this class soon) and some of his techniques were different from what I was taught at Gunsite. By having a sound foundation I was able to examine his techniques critically and decide for myself if it was better or worse for me. I slowed down and tried them and stored them away for later examination. The point is that by going to Gunsite I had my mind opened to new ideas, not closed. I was able to more deeply appreciate what he was teaching.


There are a few things you should know about Gunsite. First of all, they are very safety conscious. This is not a bad thing. It is not because they think you are not safe. They minimize the risks which frees you up to concentrate on learning. But they are extraordinarily safe and I found myself appreciating it more and more as speed picked up.

Some of the things they teach may seem odd at the moment. For instance, there’s a kneeling position that is just awkward to me but may work for you. They introduce you to it, but they don’t force you to use it.

They are very 45ACP centric. I shot a Glock 19 and although no one ever said it to me or anyone else specifically, 9mm is considered marginal. I know, I know… 9mm is a great self defense round with modern ammunition. If you take a 9mm and shoot it well, that’s what matters.

You will see ‘DVC’ a lot. It’s an abbreviation for the latin ‘Diligentia, Vis, Celeritis’ which roughly translated means ‘Do What Walt Says.’ OK, maybe not.

It is a 5 day class, and this pays off in a big way. The round count in those 5 days is less than what some other instructors have you send downrange in 2 days, but the repetitions are quality reps and I never felt that I was turning money into noise. The big reason I advocate the 5 day course is that it covers what I consider to be the big 3… gun-handling, tactics, and mindset, and it does so thoroughly.

My Experience

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My journey actually began 30 years ago with a patch. As a young serviceman, I entered a gun store in my home town while home on leave, and started talking to the owner. Being a budding gun nut, I had read about Gunsite and Jeff Cooper and it turned out that the owner was a Gunsite alumni. He spoke at length about the 1911 and Gunsite and I loved every minute. I came back the next day and brought him a gift. It was my unit patch and I thought it could go up on the wall with the other patches that were already there. He excused himself and came back with a gift for me, the very patch you see here. 30 years later, the patch and I drove to Paulden, Arizona. This was my first time to Gunsite but the patch was finally coming home.

Little Thumb Butte B&B
Little Thumb Butte B&B

I arrived at the Little Thumb Butte Bed and Breakfast and was welcomed by Ann, our host. After getting settled in, I joined my compatriots for the week. The group consisted of:

  • Mark, another first-timer who worked with construction equipment.
  • Bunny and Richard, retired bankers.
  • Kent (the Dad) and Gunnar (the son) from Alaska. Kent worked in education and had been to Gunsite multiple times with Pat. Gunnar was the captain of a supply ship and was making his first trip.
  • Pat, also from Alaska and who came with Kent and Gunnar. Pat was in education but was another Gunsite junkie, having taken just about every class offered at Gunsite (some more than once). He and Kent teach shooting classes in Alaska and they were valuable resources.

As the week progressed, we would all reconvene back at the B&B after class and talk about what had happened, and discuss what we had learned. It really enhanced the experience and it was a real pleasure talking with everyone.

In the morning I had a wonderful breakfast with our group and we holstered up and headed to Gunsite.

After a short drive up the dirt road and under the raven, I found myself sitting in the classroom with 29 classmates. Along one wall is a glass display case and, sitting prominently on the top shelf, was another one of the patches I had sitting in my range bag. I would see one more but not until the last day of class.

After introductions and administrative check in, we were split into two groups of 15, each group with 3 instructors. Our instructors were Walt Wilkinson, Chris Weare, and Nick Adams, and after introductions we were told to drive down to the first range on the left, Hanneken range. Once there, we were split into two relays. Our relays would either be shooting, or loading mags and rehydrating.

Range house at Hanneken range.
Range house at Hanneken range.

My personality is such that I tend to be quiet and more observational, and it takes me a little while to get a feel for everyone. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had engaged more people conversationally sooner rather than later, and gotten to know them better. They were all very interesting, from varying backgrounds and different capabilities. A great example is Mark,  who works for Ruger. I spoke with him about the northeast (I was stationed there) and he told me a fascinating cautionary tale about flying with guns and what states you don’t want to fly over. Imagine my surprise when, after getting home, I recognized Mark on TV on the Sportsman’s Channel.

Tom Gresham and Mark Gurney
Tom Gresham and Mark Gurney

My wife is actually tired of me reminding her that I know someone on television. Later in the week, Mark and his Ruger compatriot and classmate from Prescott let us shoot the Ruger 1911 and even provided ammo. I know that everyone I spoke to was very appreciative of the opportunity to try something new.

We covered a lot of ground on the first day and my notebook is filled with little notes to myself. There’s a lot of emphasis on the fundamentals, and bringing home not only the techniques but the reasoning behind them. There’s plenty of shooting and plenty of opportunities to examine what you’re doing. The trick is to take it slow and execute the fundamentals to the best of your ability. Smooth is the goal, and smooth is never a byproduct of fast. At the end of the day we had a lecture on dry fire and I drove back to Little Thumb Butte ready for dinner and some introspection on what I had learned.

By the second day I found myself getting frustrated. The source of my frustration seemed to be a re-examination (and over-analysis) of what I had been doing and my ego getting in the way. Simple things seemed more complicated and my self-expectation was far beyond my progress. This day seemed to be a turning point, and I think I’ll share a couple of my notes verbatim to help illustrate where I was.

  • Ego, ego, ego – get on the line and do your best. Don’t write the story before it happens! Relax.
  • The most important lesson you learned today is that it’s not the person you’re shooting against that will beat you. You will beat yourself.
  • OK, ego check. This is day 2 of an intro/beginner shooting class. You will not be an expert by Friday. Don’t get down on yourself because you’re afraid of what people think. Do get down on yourself for not executing the fundamentals.
  • Forget the last round – execute the fundamentals.
  • Ego is the enemy of learning.

In hindsight, this day was perhaps the most important. I found myself with unrealized expectations and, despite the fact that those expectations were completely unrealistic, I was letting those expectations get in the way of learning. This was the day that I made a conscious effort to divest myself of who I thought I was, and concentrate on taking the steps necessary to make myself who I could be. This process paid dividends going forward.

Hanneken range
Hanneken range

As day 3 rolled around, I was gaining perspective and things were starting to click for me. This was also the day I learned that I should have worn long sleeves because we were shooting from prone in the morning.

I found myself getting smoother and my mindset had improved. If, for instance, I wasn’t getting the right grip on my draw, I would slow down just a little on the next rep and get it right. I was not concentrating on reaching some fantastic goal and was much more in the moment, making every rep count. It was very liberating in the sense that I was getting more out of my time and efforts. At one point I was speaking to Craig, a classmate, and we were discussing ego and its impact on our performance. By talking to him I was better able to codify what was happening but also realize that I was not the only one to whom it was happening.

And my timing couldn’t have been better, because one of the seminal moments of Gunsite 250 was upon us.

Jeff Cooper
Jeff Cooper

Wednesday afternoon we left the range and reconvened at the classroom for the mindset lecture. Up to this point we had been concentrating on the mechanics of fighting with a pistol. Some of the things we had covered were…

  • The basics of grip, stance, trigger control, etc.
  • Presentation
  • Follow through
  • Hammers and controlled pairs
  • Failure drills
  • Reloads
  • Malfunctions (3 types)
  • Kneeling and prone

The mindset lecture bridged the gap between the mechanics of what we were doing, and the purpose of the mechanics. The start of the lecture is a DVD of Jeff Cooper giving a lecture about mindset.  I took a lot of notes and repeating them here will not do them justice. I had been exposed to some elements of the lecture such as color code, but I had never seen mindset approached so holistically (the lecture is available on DVD if you’re so inclined). Following the DVD our instructor Walt Wilkinson brought his perspective and updates to the lecture. He ended by asking us to consider the 3 most dangerous places to which you must go. As I stated earlier, this was worth the price of admission.

Thursday morning found us in the wash and in the fun house. Having a foundation in technique and an exposure to mindset, we were now being taught tactics. Dave Starin joined us in the wash and I learned that tactics are what we use to put us in a position to succeed. After shooting the wash we went to the fun house and Chris Weare accompanied us as we cleared the house. Both Dave and Chris were very patient and informative, giving us tips and bringing home both the techniques and the mindset needed to prevail.

I should note that clearing houses and washes was a lot more tiring than you may think. I had to remind myself to not tense up and to breathe. It’s a slow, deliberate process and I could really feel it after both events.

We came back to Hanneken range and started shooting the El Presidente. We also shot the Dozier drill on steel. By this time we were shooting while moving, and later that night we shot using flashlights and learned the basics of fighting in low/no light. The concentration on the fundamentals was really paying off.

On reflection, the quantum leap we had all made between Monday and Thursday was considerable. Speaking for myself, I was amazed at how far I had come in a relatively short period of time. I was making accurate shots from the draw in 1.5 seconds and I wasn’t the exception. Observing my class, I found them all to be very competent, safe gun handlers who were making incredible strides.

Friday was the 250 school drill and the shoot off.

The shoot off was quite an affair, and a lot of fun. Our class was competitive but supportive of one another. In one case, they were too supportive.

Kent asked Mark if he could borrow one of his SR1911’s for the shoot off. Mark, being Mark, was only happy to oblige. Which was all well and good but I only lost one match… to Kent. Shooting an SR1911. Mark’s SR1911. And Kent ended up winning the shoot off.  Coincidence? Nope.

In all seriousness, Kent beat me fair and square and was a gentleman  and gracious winner. Our entire class acquitted themselves extraordinarily well, especially when considering where we all started.

We re-convened back at the classroom and received our graduation certificates and final words from Walt. As I came up on stage, Walt called me ‘I’m just here to shoot.’ Probably because I was pretty quiet all week which I’ll have to work on next time.

We were invited to ‘The Sconce’ for brownies with Mrs. Cooper, who still lives at Gunsite. She was very gracious and the Sconce is something to see. I went up to the cupola on top and down to the basement which contained the collection of weapons including the Bren Ten and other pistols and rifles with remarkable histories. It was here that I saw the second patch like my own, on Jeff Cooper’s hat.

I didn’t really want to leave. And I’m looking forward to coming back this September for 350 and the Gunsite Alumni Shoot the Saturday following. Want to know how early to make reservations at Thumb Butte? I called last year in October to make reservations and it was already booked. Apparently it’s a very popular week. No matter, I’ll be back again.

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