My Journey: Taking a Gunsite 250 Defensive Pistol Course
October 15th, 2023
5 minute read
The line was silent but eager, the Arizona sun bathing the dirt range in just enough light to alleviate the November chill. I stood with my hands by my sides, fingers tingling, staring straight ahead. The moment my brain registered the swoosh of the targets downrange, I drew my pistol, fired three shots, followed the imaginary threat to the ground and scanned to the left and right before holstering.
Gunsite Academy teaches you how to fight, not just punch holes in paper. This was one of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around during Gunsite’s famed 250 Defensive Pistol Course. So much of my life, I’ve had the fundamentals of marksmanship hammered into me. These are important, but the techniques used to win static shooting matches are not the same as the ones to save your life. Gunsite Rangemaster Joe Avila explained that while accuracy wins all fights, there needs to be a balance between speed and accuracy.
It was Rangemaster Lew Gosnell who really put it into perspective for me. “The enemy of good is perfect,” he said. “You just need ‘good enough.’”
In the first hour of Gunsite’s 250 course, students understand they are preparing for the worst-case scenario. It’s not comfortable to think about and especially challenging for some, but you almost inevitably leave Gunsite with a refreshed, if not completely new, perspective.
Traditionally, the people who make the biggest promises are the worst at keeping them. I walk into nearly everything with very high expectations, and very rarely are those met or exceeded. Gunsite is an exception. They guarantee a life-changing experience, and they deliver.
With over 3,200 acres, 27 ranges, and multiple indoor/outdoor simulators spread over 162 acres, Gunsite has amazing facilities, but what really makes it great are the people. CEO Ken Campbell stressed that Gunsite is not a club or membership driven. It’s a family that keeps going because of great instructors with “decades and decades of real-life law enforcement and military experience.”
Surveying the room of strangers around me, I was initially skeptical of the “family” aspect. There were so many students the class was split in into two groups of 12 with four instructors per group. Sure enough, friendships blossomed and by the end of an intense five days on the range, it almost felt strange to go home.
Unique bonds form on the shooting range. You learn about one another while learning about yourself, your abilities, and your gear. Everyone had a different reason for attending the class. Some had been saving for years, meticulously planning every detail. Others came on scholarships through the Jeff Cooper Foundation. Someone else learned about Gunsite from the clippings she stole from her father’s gun magazines to use in her art projects. Each person celebrated classmates’ victories, and supported one another through their struggle points. Instead of a class, it was a team pulling together.
Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper founded the American Pistol Institute at Gunsite Ranch (aka Gunsite) in 1976 to teach the Modern Technique of the pistol, a five-element approach he created, as well as the four basic rules of firearm safety. The Modern Technique starts with a balanced fighting stance — feet shoulder-width apart with the toes of the strong foot between the heel and instep of the support foot, toes pointed forward, knees slightly bent, and weight forward on the balls of your feet. More weight falls on the support leg with your hips and shoulders square to the threat. For the arms, we had two choices, a Weaver or modified Isosceles stance. Nearly everyone was most comfortable with the latter.
Where It Counts
Range drills began from the balanced fighting stance with guns holstered. After ensuring everyone’s handguns were unloaded and clear, the instructors’ walked us through the five steps of proper pistol presentation: grip, clear, rotate, smack, and look. We were first introduced to this through demonstrations and dry-fire, then live-fire drills.
While accuracy is important, speed is my limiting factor. It will take me more than just several days of practice to perfect my presentation. Over the five days, the instructors noticed and pointed out small errors I was making that, while not unsafe, cost me time. This begs the question, how much time do you have in a gunfight? The answer: “The rest of your life.”
After I engaged the specified target, I learned to follow the target to the ground and scan and assess before holstering reluctantly. I struggled to remember this at first, still focusing on speed as I slid the Prodigy into the Safariland SLS Concealment holster mounted on my belt. There is no need to holster quickly. In fact, it’s counterintuitive. It’s important to neutralize the threat, ensure the threat is over, and make sure there are no other threats before holstering the gun.
By day three, drills were in full swing. Quickly turning targets made the importance of element three and four, a flash sight picture and compressed surprised break, incredibly clear.
Last but not least, Cooper defined a “heavy-duty pistol” as the final element of the Modern Technique. Heavy-duty means reliable, accurate, and powerful enough to hold up in a demanding environment. In other words, it must be able to quickly and reliably stop a fight. Though there are dozens of handguns that fulfill these requirements, the 1911 is the most iconic.
This made the Springfield Armory 1911 DS Prodigy a natural choice — a combination of proven features and double-stack capacity. I entered the class with my 5” test model equipped with a HEX Dragonfly red dot. CCI generously provided 1,000 rounds of Blazer 115-gr. 9mm FMJ ammunition for the course, and this is the ammunition I would recommend others bring as well.
Taking a course at Gunsite is more than an education, it’s an experience. Much of what you get out of it is up to you. I truly enjoyed the course, learned far more than I could fit into a single article, and met some wonderful people. Even with a few hiccups, I was very happy with the feel and performance of the Prodigy. It gave me an opportunity to see firsthand that the Gunsmithy will do anything to keep students going during their course and with 17-round mags, I was able to shoot my favorite style of pistol with fewer reloads.
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