Many young officers may not realize that organized fire-arms training is a fairly new phenomenon. The Smith & Wesson Academy, the first school dedicated to training police officers in combative firearms techniques (instead of competition-oriented "qualification"), opened its doors to cops in 1969. While Smith & Wesson should certainly be lauded for this achievement, it was a former Marine Corps officer that gave officers and citizens alike an actual methodology of how to fight with the handgun. By the time he opened the American Pistol Institute (API) in 1976, retired Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper had traveled the world for years researching, teaching and refining his Modern Technique of the Pistol. According to students who attended the first courses, the original facility consisted of nothing more than a mobile home for a classroom and a dirt berm with a shade shelter for a range in the high Arizona desert. API's meager beginnings didn't affect the quality of instruction or student achievement. Learning from "the master" of combat pistolcraft, many of America's better-known instructors emerged from the institute.
I recently had the opportunity to travel to what is now known as the Gunsite Academy (formerly API) to take the Col. Cooper-designed 250 Defensive Pistol course. The course has changed very little since Col. Cooper devised it, mostly because the tactics and techniques that make up the course have stood the test of time.
Modern Technique of the Pistol
Col. Cooper assembled the series of concepts that became the "Modern Technique of the Pistol" after studying a large number of armed confrontations over many years and combining this information with techniques refined via competition. Col. Cooper felt that the purpose of any skill-at-arms was for the control of one's immediate environment regardless of whether they were military, law enforcement or private citizen. In addition, he believed interpersonal armed conflicts are solved quickly when the successful combatant applies a careful balance of speed, power and accuracy. Thus, the Modern Technique combines proper mental conditioning with both gun handling and marksmanship skills to accomplish the balanced goal of speed, power and accuracy. This is best understood via the Combat Triad, which is an equal balance of practical marksmanship, proper and efficient gun handling and a combat mindset. Col. Cooper emphasized that all three elements are equally important and that one could not be emphasized over the other.
This being the case, it shouldn't be a surprise that much of the course dealt with the fundamentals of pistolcraft, including stance, grip, sight alignment, sight picture using the flash front sight, the ready position, the presentation (draw), trigger control, manipulation skills (reloading, malfunction drills, etc.), shooting prone and kneeling, the use of cover, pivots and turns, operating in a reduced light environment with and without the flashlight, room clearing and moving through open, but hostile, areas. This is a great deal of ground to cover in a short 40 hours, but the staff at Gunsite has been teaching this program for 30 years, so they have it down pat. There's a reason why the 250 course has changed very little since Col. Cooper devised it it has been proven in the street over and over again by thousands of students who have completed the course and then used the skills to defend their own lives.
For those who think they must adopt the Weaver Stance (a bent support arm) or use a 1911 .45 pistol to take the 250 course, nothing could be further from the truth. Although the staff teaches the Weaver Stance and believes it's the best method for fast and accurate shooting, they respect shooter preference provided the student at least tries their methodology. In my case, I had surgery on my left elbow several years ago, and I have difficulty bending my support arm when I shoot. Rangemaster Bill Halverson (a retired California police officer and long time Gunsite instructor) spoke to me about my stance, and I explained my problem. Bill was more than understanding and even told me that what I was currently doing worked well.
And what about the 1911 .45 pistol? I took the 250 course with the new Ruger SR-9 9mm pistol and no one said a thing. As a matter of fact, several of the instructors asked to shoot the new gun while one of the instructors (California cop John Hall) actually taught and demonstrated with a 9mm Glock as this is the gun that he carries on the job. The staff at Gunsite does prefer the 1911 .45 and for good reason (it's an excellent firearm!), but they also recognize it's not the only quality firearm available.
The staff at Gunsite is second to none because most of the instructors are military or law enforcement veterans. The entire staff has attended other schools, and combined have hundreds of years of real world experience. One of the highlights of the course was listening to Cooper's mindset lecture (taught by Bill Halverson), which emphasizes the Color Codes of Awareness. Bill told the class that Combat Mind Composition must include awareness ("put your head on a swivel"), anticipation ("don't live in an if world"), concentration ("solve the problem"), coolness ("keep your head, rely/trust on your training") and "above all confidence is the prerequisite for self-control!"
Bill ended his lecture by asking the class, "Can you fight on demand?" The truth of the matter is that one will not rise to the occasion, but will default to their level of training. The 250 Defensive Pistol course is directed at raising this level of training to ensure one's ability to prevail. Twelve hundred rounds of ammunition and multiple trips through indoor and outdoor simulators (shoot houses and washes in the desert) were utilized to make sure each student felt confident about their skills when they left the course at the end of the week. Although there are courses in which students will shoot almost 1,000 rounds a day, the objective of the 250 courses is to combine shooting and tactics into a cohesive unit, not just shoot everything that moves.
The Course at a Glance
The 250 Defensive Pistol course builds up to and ends with a series of timed drills that students must complete in order to successfully graduate from the course. These drills were shot on the official Gunsite target that uses a 2'' x 4'' rectangle in the head and an 8'' circle in the chest for scoring. The drills were as follows:
Draw and shoot 1 shot to the head in 1.5 seconds at 3 yards. Shoot twice for a total of 10 points.
Draw and shoot 2 rounds to the chest in 1.5 seconds at 5 yards. 10 points.
Draw and shoot 2 rounds to the chest in 1.5 seconds at 7 yards. 10 points.
Draw and shoot 2 rounds to the chest in 2.0 seconds at ten yards. 10 points.
Draw and shoot 2 rounds to the chest from a standing-to-kneeling position in 3.5 seconds at 15 yards. 10 points.
Draw and shoot 2 rounds to the chest from a standing-to-prone position in 6 seconds at 25 yards. 10 points.
A full El Presidente (at 10 yards, turn 180 degrees, draw and shoot 2 rounds to each of three targets, reload and repeat) in 10 seconds. 60 points possible.
Once students complete these drills, they compete in a class shoot-off that pits two students against one another. At 10 yards, each student places a foot inside a tire and must keep it there. On command, the students draw and shoot an 8" steel plate placed at 7 yards and another at 10 yards, reload and shoot a half Pepper Popper without hitting your opponent's half of the target. Naturally, this little competition created a bit of stress among the class because it was a single elimination you either won or lost, just like in a real gunfight.
In the end, I'm quite proud to report that I shot the course drills clean, won the class competition with my $400 9mm pistol against a number of expensive custom guns. (Remember: It's the shooter and not the weapon!) I also was awarded the coveted Gunsite Expert rating by Rangemaster Bill Halverson. The 250 Defensive Pistol course provides users not only a solid revisiting of the fundamentals of combative pistolcraft, it also provides a very interesting look at firearms training history. If anyone asks me what pistol course they should take, I tell them Defensive Pistol 250 at Gunsite Academy. Like many things in life, the first is usually the best.
2900 W. Gunsite Dr.
Paulden, AZ 86334