SIGHTING IN ON: Gunsite Academy


SIGHTING IN ON: Gunsite Academy

By Steve Tracy

A top-notch training facility for law enforcement

A trip to Gunsite Academy in Paulden, Ariz. provided several enlightening facts. First, Gunsite’s facility is beyond compare. Jeff Cooper’s legacy looms large after his passing in 2006 and continues under Buz Mills’ ownership and Ed Head’s operational management of the 2,000-acre training facility. Numerous ranges handle any type of firearm, from pocket pistols to sniper rifles and shotguns. Shoot houses, vehicles, and even an airliner fuselage are among the challenges found in the mountainous backdrop. Paper targets, reactive steel, and a remote-controlled robot that can charge, run away, or appear from around a corner keep training fresh and exciting.

Top-notch classrooms, pro shop, gunsmith assistance, washrooms, and covered dining area make training comfortable. Storage areas at each range are organized, uncluttered, well-maintained, and cold drinking water and powdered Gatorade is constantly available to avoid dehydration.

A fantastic facility is only as good as its instructors. Gunsite’s range officers are some of the best around. The list of instructors shows impressive resumes consisting of extensive military and law enforcement backgrounds. They’re also all on the same page when it comes to following the original training cadre that originated with Cooper.

Cooper was big-game hunter, a Marine in World War II, held a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in history, wrote numerous books, and for decades contributed articles and columns for various firearms magazines. His firearms safety rules are universally accepted and are probably posted on your range’s wall. Cooper also offered his concept of the color code of mindset, from white (unaware) to yellow (relaxed alert) to orange (specific alert) to red (fighting).

The two-hand hold, coupled with a focus on your handgun’s front sight, was part of the modern pistol technique that Cooper taught and Ed Head stated that it “has been widely accepted by all the law enforcement agencies” and that “the man’s probably responsible for keeping more soldiers and law enforcement officers alive than anyone in the world.”

The Facility

The welcome sign at Disney World in Florida causes children of all ages to become giddy when they see Mickey waving them in to the happiest place on earth. At the end of a long, mostly dirt road is the entrance to Gunsite. A firearms enthusiast with knowledge of Jeff Cooper’s contributions to modern pistol craft will become giddy when passing under Gunsite’s entrance with its iconic raven overhead.

The raven was adopted as a totem symbol when Cooper founded the facility in 1976 as the American Pistol Institute. It represents knowledge and wisdom and was seen as the method for relaying these important concepts from the gods to mankind in Norse mythology. Cooper saw the raven as the proper symbol for spreading the word of modern pistol technique. His wife is of Scandinavian decent and ravens fly over the area often, so the icon fit right in.

It’s approximately a 45-minute drive from historical Prescott, Ariz. to Gunsite’s property in the Sonoran Desert. Their website ( provides a list of places to stay in the area. Upon arrival, you will notice the entire facility is spic and span. Raven emblems adorn buildings, vehicles, and flag staffs as a constant reminder that the instruction presented comes from Cooper’s teachings. The classrooms are roomy with the history of both Gunsite and Cooper on display, including his 1995 Outstanding American

Handgunner award.

Their Pro Shop has anything you forgot to bring and plenty of items a shooter would like to buy. Lunch is usually included with the cost of a day’s training and your order will be ready and waiting for you. The dining area’s picnic tables offer shade or sun. A gunsmith is on duty during the day to handle repairs if needed.

Ranges For Any Needs

Air-conditioned classroom instruction precedes training at the various ranges. Simply driving the roads that weave among the desert landscape around the property is enthralling. The standard pistol ranges feature electronically controlled bases that hold targets stapled to wooded frames. Instructors have the ability via remote control to face and edge the targets for specific periods of time.

Markers are imbedded in the ground to denote distances to the target. Students can start out at 3 yards and back up to 25 yards and beyond. Garage-type buildings store materials at each range and it’s impressive how organized and well maintained everything is.

There are also long-distance rifle ranges and shotgun ranges. Some firing ranges have vehicles to shoot from and around. During a tour, I asked one of the instructors, “Did I just see a jet liner fuselage?” He replied that indeed I had and that the military uses that range on occasion. Horseshoe-shaped berms allow firing on steel reactive targets set at realistic angles. Tables and other obstacles can be placed to create more realistic scenarios.

These horseshoe-shaped berms also provide a perfect training area for the use of Gunsite’s remote-controlled robots. These battery-powered bases move on knobby rubber tires and can carry targets of various shapes and sizes. Color paper targets work well, but three-dimensional human targets can also be utilized. 3D animal targets are even used for realistic hunting situations. The instructors use a handheld remote control to move the robotic targets in a realistic manner.

Shoot houses allow live-fire inside buildings that contain the fired bullets. Rooms have doors that open inward and outward and furniture, appliances, and other items create a realistic environment. Shoot houses were utilized during hours of both daylight and darkness and were found to present excellent training in either condition. Night shoots with a tactical flashlight and a weapon-mounted laser are excellent training opportunities at an outstanding facility like Gunsite.

Another range area is called The Wash. Created by water run off in the mountainous region, this “walk and shoot” range allows the use of natural cover as reactive targets are engaged. Targets present themselves as the shooter moves forward. Gunsite wisely makes use of their natural terrain for several of their ranges.

Classes are offered for pistol, carbine, rifle, and shotgun and in levels ranging from introductory to advanced dynamics. If the travel expense or distance to Arizona is cost-prohibitive, Gunsite offers a mobile training team that can bring their world-class instructors to you.

However, shooting your firearm at Jeff Cooper’s Gunsite has a special meaning. The Arizona weather is milder up in the mountains without the extreme heat the state is famous for. On Fridays, Cooper’s wife lets students visit the home she and her husband built on the property. She still lives there and it is a special moment when students get to enter Cooper’s home and view his game trophies and memorabilia from his amazing life.

The instructors impart not only gun handling and shooting skills, but mindset as well. At one point during training, instructor Charlie McNeese reiterated a point to emphasize its importance and a swirling dervish of a dust cloud came through. It encompassed him and then the rest of the class. McNeese raised his hands to the heavens and said, “I’m trying to teach ‘em Jeff, I’m trying!” While Cooper may be gone, his spirit lives on through the excellent instructors who carry on his teaching style. PM

Steve Tracy is a 25-year police veteran with 23 years of experience as a firearms instructor. He is also an instructor for tactical rifles, use of force, less-than-lethal force and scenario-based training. He can be reached at


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