The History of Gunsite Academy
July 11th, 2023
6 minute read
Buz Mills is a Renaissance Man. That was obvious to me from our first phone call. An 80-year-old former Marine (which is, incidentally, a bit like being sort-of pregnant. As any Jarhead will tell you, once a Marine…always a Marine), Mills made his fortune and his reputation as an entrepreneur. Buz either built businesses up from scratch and spun them off or bought up broken businesses, fixed them, and then spun them off. He made most of his money in cell phones and telecom.
However, across a wildly successful career that saw him train to become an EMT, log 7,200 flight hours in everything from helicopters to jets, and amass a proper fortune, Buz was also always a shooter. That brought him into contact with the legendary Jeff Cooper. By the time the two men met, Buz had already accumulated some 40 years of compulsive and competitive shooting experience.
The Godfather of Modern Close Combat
For those of you who might have been living underneath a rock, Jeff Cooper is the reason you use both hands to shoot a pistol. Colonel Cooper was born in 1920. He attended Stanford and then entered the U.S. Marine Corps as an officer in 1941. He served throughout World War II. He killed his first Japanese soldier at close range on the island of Kwajalein with a Colt Peacemaker. At the time, he falsely believed the vintage wheelgun was more reliable than his issue 1911A1. Cooper went on to serve in Korea as well before leaving the Marines. Throughout it all, Jeff Cooper meticulously studied gunfighting.
Prior to Jeff Cooper, the way cops and soldiers trained to fire handguns was standing erect with the firing hand outstretched. Your superfluous hand went on your hip, behind your back, in your pocket, or anywhere else just to keep it out of the way. Cooper posited that God gave you two hands for a reason. We might as well use them both to run a handgun. What resulted was Jeff Cooper’s Modern Technique of the Pistol.
In 1976 Cooper bought some land in Arizona and birthed the American Pistol Institute (API). This was to eventually evolve into Gunsite Academy. Formalized firearms training is a fairly common thing nowadays. Back in 1976, however, Jeff Cooper’s API was the only show in town.
It’s hard to overstate the impact Jeff Cooper had on the world of practical gunfighting. In addition to studying the art and science of the craft, Cooper was also a consummate professional teacher. He infused his extensive real-world practical experience into his courses. That same gritty ethos drives the curriculum at Gunsite today.
Amidst the worldwide hierarchy of Special Operations teams, the U.S. Army’s Delta Force is the apex predator. The things those guys can do with a handgun border upon superhuman. Did you ever wonder where that all started?
Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin spent thirteen years in the Unit, serving all the way from operations officer up to unit commander. Lt. Gen. Boykin once related to Buz about how he had reached out to Colonel Cooper during the early days of the Unit, asking for his insights on practical handgun training. Big Army knew how to run a rifle, but the body of institutional knowledge on combat with a handgun was sadly lacking. At the time, in the world of autoloading handguns, there was basically the 1911 or nothing at all.
Lt. Gen. Boykin shipped his entire crew down to Arizona for a little quality time with Colonel Cooper. They came back accomplished gunfighters with a near-religious zeal for the 1911 pistol. The times I bumped up against Delta operators back in the 1990s when I wore the uniform, they all seemed to sport heavily customized 1911 .45s.
Evolution in Action
Buz first met Colonel Cooper back in the early days, but they were never really close. Buz described the man as a curmudgeon. In my experience, most geniuses earn that moniker. In 1991, Colonel Cooper was 71 years old and ready to pass the reins off to someone else. He sold the business and the facility to a man named Richard Jee and moved on to greener pastures.
Eight years later, Richard contacted Buz and offered to sell him the Gunsite Academy. The organization had fallen upon hard times and needed some new blood. As Buz had made his reputation on fixing things, this seemed right up his alley. On the day he inked the papers buying the place, he got a call from an instructor that a student had accidentally shot himself. That all turned out OK, but it was an inauspicious beginning. Things got better from there.
Nowadays, Gunsite is a truly world-class facility with a legendary compulsion for both safety and world-class training. The campus occupies some 3,200 acres. They train roughly 3,000 students per year both at Gunsite and in remote training events. Their cadre of more than 70 adjunct instructors spans the spectrum of law enforcement and military experience. There are police chiefs, sheriffs, retired senior military officers, Gunnery Sergeants, Master Sergeants, and Sergeants Major, all brought together for their rarefied gifts as teachers of modern close combat. Since Buz took the controls, he has posted a standing offer to every Gunsite graduate. If you are dissatisfied with any aspect of your training, he will happily refund your money.
Each year’s training calendar comes out on 1 September. A typical class begins on Monday at 0700 and wraps up on Friday at 1600. The Gunsite facility has a wide variety of range areas, camping space, a pro shop, and an on-site gunsmith. Classes are offered in handgun, shotgun, rifle and carbine for both tactical and hunting applications. Colonel Cooper was a compulsive hunter of dangerous game, and his spirit still drives that train at Gunsite.
Over the years, Gunsite instructors have trained countless armed professionals, defense-minded civilians, and various celebrities ranging from legit royalty to sundry movie stars. While the curricula are standardized, the instructors rotate regularly. As each block of instruction flows from the personal experiences of the instructors and coaches, each class has its own unique flavor. Many folks come back to repeat the same course multiple times just to absorb that disparate flavor.
The explosion of concealed carry in America has meant plenty of business at Gunsite. Their most popular course is Basic Pistol 250. In Buz’s words, with rights come responsibilities. Whether driving a car, raising a family or carrying a gun, exercising those rights responsibly and well demands a sober approach. As it concerns firearms, that means training.
Not unlike golf or playing the piano, tactical shooting skills are perishable over time. Without repetitive reinforcement of the basics, you get slow and sloppy. Slow and sloppy in your golf game means good-hearted ridicule from your buddies. The same thing in an armed confrontation carries a great deal more gravitas.
Armed combat is the ultimate human crucible. A cursory study of your typical newsfeed will verify the very real need. Most any time behind a gun is beneficial. However, focused, real-world, practical training in the art of the gunfight can potentially spell the difference between living and dying. You can get firearms training most anyplace these days, including back behind your brother-in-law Bubba’s barn. However, Gunsite is the good stuff. Professional, time-tested, and proven effective, this is where the newbies get started and the pros get better.
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