Cooper operated the school for fun and profit until 1992, when he sold it but continued to live in the home he and his wife had built on the property. After a few months under new ownership, key people at the “new” school and key people at the “old” school were hardly on speaking terms, and Jeff Cooper disowned the whole operation. In 1999, the school was sold again and earned the approval of Jeff and his people once more, more or less. In 2006, Jeff Cooper died, and Gunsite immediately began to change again.
The following is an interview with Bob Young, former Vice President of Operations (2000 – 2006). Young retired from the Marine Corps in 1992 as a Colonel. His last duty station was Camp Pendleton in California, where he was in charge of replacement training for Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He became full-time at Gunsite in 2000. With a staff of about 60 instructors, Gunsite trains about 1,000 people a year, 70 percent civilian, 30 percent military and law enforcement. Gunsite is the main source of training for US Air Force Para-Rescue personnel and US Geological Survey weapons instructors, and is used extensively by USMC, Navy SEAL and SOCOM units. Gunsite Academy, as it has been called for several years now, covers 1,600 acres, includes 25 ranges where students shoot from contact-distance to 1,000 yards, and is equipped with state-of-the-art shooting houses, simulators, target systems, classrooms and teaching aids.
Young says, “I’d heard of Gunsite back in the 80s. In 1986 –- I was a Lt. Colonel in the Marine Corps at the time -– they sent me out to Gunsite to evaluate the training methods that were used here. At the time, 6,500 Marines were assigned to the Navy in Security, guarding ammo dumps, special weapons and other things, and both the Navy and the Marine Corps were looking to upgrade training based on the high level of threats. We formed a committee and looked at a lot of different types of training. I came out to Gunsite and took a class in shotgun because that was one of the few weapons we could use in ammo dumps, and we sent some other people out to evaluate the pistol training. At the same time, we were evaluating other private training institutions. And we went to the FBI, the Secret Service, the Air Force, the Army, we went to New York and L.A., and we looked at all of those training systems.
“This wasn’t just my opinion -– I had, I think, eight very senior sergeants and three captains working with me -– we all decided that the doctrine that was taught at Gunsite was what we felt was the most efficient and the best way to train Marines.
“At the time, the target audience that we were going to be training consisted of 19-year-olds who had been in the Marine Corps six months. They’d been to Boot Camp, they’d been to the School of Infantry and they were going into Security Forces duty where they would be guarding ships, airbases, high-value headquarters like Norfolk and Naples, and special facilities such as Camp David. To show you how the world has changed, we went from 6,500 of those Security Force Marines in the mid-‘80s to less than 2,000 today. We adopted the Gunsite doctrinal system, established a set of courses to prepare the Marines for their duties, and did battle with the professional bureaucrats to get 22 days of training before the men were sent to their assigned stations.
“We used the 1911 pistol. With that, we could accelerate the pistol training to 4½ days and 500 rounds of ammunition instead of the usual 5½ days. At the end of those 4½ days that 19-year-old Marine could draw his 45-caliber 1911 from his tied-down GI flap holster and shoot you twice or more at seven yards in two seconds or less.
“One of the nicest report cards we ever got was from the CIA. They said the KGB had been surveilling our people in Italy where these newly trained young men were being assigned and the KGB’s comment was that these Marines were very different from the ones that were there before, especially in terms of confidence and the way they conducted themselves.
“So that’s kind of how I first got hooked into coming to Gunsite. I became friends with Jeff Cooper. He opened up the ranch and allowed us to come here in fairly large groups of Marines using his instructors and his facilities. He made some things happen. I sent several hundred Marines through here for seasoning, or a specific class to learn how to do something, or as a reward for a job well done.
“Jeff approached me in 1989 about coming on staff as an instructor. I bought property here and taught for Jeff during the transition when he was selling Gunsite the first time in 1992, and then I went off and did other things when I didn’t get along with the new owner. I came back to Gunsite about three years ago when Buz Mills bought it and he asked me to help him run the organization. In terms of doctrine, we teach 99.9 percent of the pistol, rifle, shotgun and submachine gun doctrine that was pioneered and codified by Jeff Cooper. I consider that part of my job here is to see that Cooper’s doctrine is correctly taught and explained, from the color code to the presentation of the pistol to the mental conditioning for combat. We’re in a customer service business and we do it very well.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘You’re a school with an attitude.’ Well, yes, we are. We have a system that is very efficient to train people. It lets them know this is serious business and these are things you are going to have to do.
“A lot of money has been spent modernizing our ranges and shooting houses. We have state-of-the-art facilities. If I set the target systems and the computer up for our school drills and it says you have a second and a half to draw your pistol and make a certain kind of a hit, the computer system gives you a second and a half. I don’t have somebody standing behind you with a whistle or a stopwatch. The signal for you to prepare to use your pistol should be in front of you and associated with a motion or a threat in the hand, not just a sound coming from behind you. Those kinds of things have made our training more efficient.
“Our Range Masters -– and some of them have taught here for 20 years -– know how to define students, they know how to get the message across. On the third day, instead of the camo targets –- which we use because when you don’t have a well-marked aiming spot it helps you concentrate on your front sight -– we start using threat targets with the threat in the hand. We’re of the opinion that in a lot of cases when people have to use a handgun, they have to make up time. They’ve identified the threat, now they’ve got to get their pistol out and go to work. They’ve got to be fast, they’ve got to be smooth. Smooth is fast. We still use the five-step presentation as a way to get you to where you are smooth and don’t have to think about it. We want you to say it to yourself – grip, clear, click, smack, look. After you’ve done that enough, you’re not thinking about it and it’s being done correctly.
“One of the things people don’t understand or do not know about Jeff Cooper is that he was a college professor for 20 years. When he set up his doctrine, it was organized very systematically to enhance learning. What we teach in pistol class moves right into the shotgun, right into the carbine, right into the hunting rifle. I had some scientists here from the Army lab and they said, You know, this really makes sense.
“To become a Gunsite instructor is one of the hardest things anyone would ever have to do. It’s management’s job to make sure it stays that way. A Gunsite instructor has to be superb with any weapons system, they have to understand our doctrine, and they have to be good communicators. In any given pistol class, I like to have a military communicator, a police communicator and a civilian communicator. One of them is going to get to you and get the message across.
“Any class you take at Gunsite includes use of the simulators. Jeff Cooper pioneered the use of simulators and built some of the first shooting houses in the United States. We use very realistic targets and have the simulators set for the level of class you’re in. In those simulators, you have people that you’re not supposed to shoot. And if you do, the instructor’s going to stop you and you’re going to have a talk about that. You just did something very wrong, and the police are coming, and the district attorney is coming -– it’s better to learn it here, because if you don’t you could get in real trouble.”
“These things really do generate stress. I have people come out of there with wet armpits, elevated pulse rates. If you take our 5-day pistol class, you get two indoor simulators, two outdoor simulators and a night shoot. And we do man-on-man shoot-offs, another high-intensity stress generator.
“More than 50 percent of Gunsite students are repeat students. We have three levels of carbine, two levels of shotgun, one level of hunting plus private lessons, two levels of precision long-range marksmanship. In pistol training, the 5-day 250 class is the starting point, then you go to the 350, than to the 499 and then to advanced tactical problems. Everything builds on past training. I’ve got enough people now that have done it all that I have to change the level of difficulty. I also get people who come back every two or three years and take the 250 pistol class again -– they’re already superb pistol shots but they want to come back and work on their basics. That’s good.
“We get three or four feedbacks from actual shootings every year. They say, Yeah, what you taught me really works, this is what happened, this is what I saw, this is what I did, this is how it turned out. That kind of feedback is always nice to get. It validates what we do here.
“We consider what we do as very sophisticated adult education. The demographics of the students have changed a little bit over the years, but they’re usually quite well educated, concerned about their country, concerned about their personal security and right of self-defense. They’re willing to spend the time and money to get the proper training.
“We’re always evaluating our classes. We provide four classes, two pistol and two carbine classes, to veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq at no charge. Gunsite is volunteering staff, ranges and supplies. The instructors are volunteering their time at no pay. We’ve looked at our advanced tactical training for pistol, and this year we’re doing half of it in the dark. We’ve added field training exercises to our long-range rifle classes. We do special request classes all the time, for government agencies and private citizens, tailored specifically to the weapons and training desired.
“Two former clients of mine -– they were high school students in Guatemala when I first worked with them in 1995 –- recently came in and spent two weeks here because the threat of kidnapping for them and their families now is so bad. They live in a family compound in Guatemala with three houses and they may have to go help get grandma back from kidnappers at any time. They have security guards, they have their own personal bodyguards and everything. But they’re smart enough that they took charge of their own security. When I was first teaching them in Guatemala, they were in high school and they went to school every day with guns in their holsters. Their father was head of the federal judicial police. We tailored their training to meet their security weaknesses and threats.
“Gunsite continues to grow and graduate more students. Since September 11, we’ve had more women students than we’ve ever had before. They’re looking around and taking charge of their own security. I like having a pistol class with a lot of different kinds of people. You have a deputy sheriff here, a big-city police officer, a computer guy, an airline pilot, secondary school teacher, retired banker -– you get them all together and it’s an interesting experience for everybody. There’s a lot of exchange. It’s good for police to see that there are a lot of good people out there carrying guns. And people find out that being a police officer is not easy either.
“When I was in the Marine Corps I carried a 1911 issued to me as an officer. In Vietnam, we always carried our pistols in Condition Three until we went outside the wire and started patrol. We also had a policy that if you had a negligent discharge you got a $600 fine. Even when the Berettas came in, the 1911s never left. When we upgraded the training and mission requirements for the Force Reconnaissance community to meet rising terrorist threats, we made it a requirement that we have a big-bore handgun set up a certain way to be used as a backup weapon. And that is still true today.
“I was a member of a special committee at Quantico that met with the FBI, SOCOM and others. Part of my duties as liaison was to go out to Weapons Training Battalion where they make the sniper rifles, the target M14s for the teams, and other special weapons. They asked for my recommendation on a 1911, so I brought this gun to Quantico. (Young shows me a five-inch Colt 1911 equipped with beavertail grip safety with bump, tactical thumb safety, bobbed hammer, arched mainspring housing with lanyard loop, Wilson 7-shot magazine, 4½ pound trigger pull.) They kept this gun for two weeks and used it as the pattern for the SOC 45. They’re building them at Quantico right now. There are three guns -– from Colt, Kimber and Springfield -– at Quantico right now being evaluated as a source, because Quantico cannot keep up with the demand to build 1911s. They can’t build them fast enough. I’ve heard that all three guns from private industry are doing very well.
“The first batch of 1911s Quantico built was unsatisfactory. We gave the guns back to them. They were still into the match stuff, using a match barrel, which we told them was a mistake. But what they ended up doing, they went with the short trigger, Commander hammer, ambidextrous safety, flat mainspring housing with a lanyard loop, and rubber Pachmayr grips. The guns will have rails on the underside of the dust cover for mounting accessories, and they’re using sights developed with Wayne Novak here at Gunsite. Marine Corps Force Recon will be the first to get the new guns.
“This is a gun Novak did for me years ago. (Young takes his personal carry gun out of its holster to show me.) It’s a carry gun, a lightweight Commander, and it’s been some places. It started as a standard out-of-the-box Colt Series 70 and then Novak did all his magic. I didn’t like the finish he put on it, which started rubbing off after a few months of holster wear, so I sent it to Robbie Barrkman at Robar and he put his NP3 finish on it. That was in ‘88 or ‘89 and it’s still a very nice gun. These sights are prototypes, a combination of the big-bead Ashley express front sight and our own rear sight which is based on a special-cut Novak.
“The thing I like about a 1911 is, I can make it smaller, I can make it thinner, I can change the way it feels in your hand. If you look at the Gunsite model Colt builds for us and feel it in your hand, it’ll feel smaller than this gun because we have a flat mainspring housing, thin grips, short trigger -– we did all that deliberately so it would fit more hands. The Gunsite 1911 is also dehorned, has a grip safety with a bump, a Commander hammer and Novak sights. It’s a shooter, and it feeds any kind of ammo. We’ve used them as rental guns for students six months straight and have had zero problems. We just clean them and shoot them.
“People think they need 15 or 20 rounds in a pistol, they forget that a pistol is something you wear for self defense, and if you’ve got to fire more than four or five shots you maybe shouldn’t have pulled the pistol in the first place. People ask me all the time, What’s your backup gun? This pistol is my backup gun. If you think I’m going in to solve a problem just with this you’re sadly mistaken. I’ll take an M-4 to a fight.
“We like 1911s because of what we teach at Gunsite and how we teach it. There are some things about this gun that make it easier for a student to learn. When the FBI buys 5,000 of these; when the guys at Ft. Bragg who can carry whatever they want carry these; when the Marine Corps Force Recon carries these; when more and more police departments show up here with these – that’s a clue. I think it gets back to the shootability when they’re properly set up and reliable. But mainly it’s the big hole. It’s hard to beat. I’ll continue to carry it. I’m too old to change now.
“I, along with others, was fortunate to be invited when the FBI started doing their first wound ballistics seminars. Big holes and deep holes is what it’s all about. That was the bottom line.
“One thing the FBI did with all that ballistics research is to drastically improve the capabilities of handgun bullets in the United States. Just the last five years, the improvements we’ve seen in 45-caliber bullets and 9mm too have been substantial. We get feedback, we talk to people who are shooting people, and the improvement in ammunition is significant.
“I’m not enamored with some of the newer cartridges. The 357 Sig I think is a waste of time, I can do the same with a +P 9mm. If you shoot the two bullets into gelatin you will not be able to tell them apart. You’re not getting the .357 Magnum you got out of the Model 19 revolver. I’ve had enough of those guns here to see that they cause problems, they’re too high-pressure. We’re also seeing some problems with some of the 40s. I think the cartridges are just too high-pressure. We run a schoolhouse here, and I see all types of guns, I see all kinds of cartridges. I like .45s and 9mms. The 45-caliber cartridge in the US military has got a long history, beginning with the Smith and Wesson Schofields.
“What I’m hearing is that SOCOM is getting rid of all their 9mms, handguns and submachine guns, which are Berettas and Sigs and MP5s, and they want some form of 1911. The Army Rangers want 45-caliber 1911s. The people in Afghanistan where a lot of the combat was very close and inside buildings and caves did not have much good to say about their 9mm Berettas.
“A friend of mine was in Iraq. He said after a three-day ‘Mother of all Sandstorms’ he had to pound his Beretta apart. The 1911s that were there with the Force Recon Marines never had a problem, the guns functioned, the magazines functioned.
“I got the first 30 Berettas that were shipped to the Marine Corps, and I put them in a schoolhouse to train Marines because that’s what they were going to get. The issues I always had with the Berettas were that it was a poor caliber choice and the guns were too big. It quickly became evident that 25 percent of my Marines could not reach that trigger for the first double-action shot. So we went from 500 training rounds to almost 800 rounds working on the two different trigger pulls and two different grips that were required to move from double-action on the first shot to single-action on the follow-ups. We had to spend an enormous amount of time on that. And Beretta magazines were an issue even back then.
“Probably 65 percent of the guns I see come through Gunsite are some make of 45-caliber 1911 and about 30 percent are Glocks in various calibers. I don’t trust any one of them until you’ve got 500 rounds through it with different kinds of ammo and you’ve numbered the magazines and make sure they all work.
“I see a lot of money being spent on new custom guns. Some of them run just fine. Some of them we have to tweak. Some gunmakers just make them too tight. They leave the sharp edges on them and put sharp checkering on the grips. None of that works very long.
“I don’t like Kimber’s new firing pin disconnect system that’s based on the grip safety any more than I like Colt’s Series 80 system. I have one Series 80 pistol and the Series 80 stuff has been taken out. I’ve seen powder and lint get in the Series 80 mechanism and make it so it doesn’t work. The gun we had Colt build for us as part of the Colt/Gunsite project is a Series 70. People are afraid it won’t pass the drop test or the lawyer test. If you train properly and you shoot properly this is not an issue. I’ve seen World War II versions dropped off a roof, I’ve seen them fall and bounce, I’ve seen them stick in the mud. It’s not an issue. We use good heavy-duty recoil springs and firing pin springs and we change them out about every 3,000 rounds. No problems.
“At the time I was training guys in Guatemala the Clinton administration was not allowing any American weapons to be imported into Guatemala. So I was training a lot of guys with CZ75s and Glocks. And we were getting 1911s from Norinco in China and they were great -– we threw away most of the internal parts, put Wilson parts in them and tuned them up. The steel was outstanding, they were a good gun.
“You now have Smith & Wesson building 1911s. It’s going to be interesting to see how that S&W extractor holds up. My 1911s are pretty basic. No hotrod stuff. I have three that I rotate every couple of thousand rounds between thorough cleaning and inspection. My carry gun right now is a compact aluminum Kimber. No ambidextrous safety, regulation grips, Wilson 7-shot magazines.
“People ask me, What’s the magic bullet? And I say the magic bullet is the one right here, because it’s in the gun, it’s ready to go and I’ve practiced with it.
“A friend of mine who’s a cop in California -– he carries a 1911, sometimes two –- was attacked by six gangbangers. He shot three of them. One dead on the spot, one in a wheelchair and in prison for life, one has never been seen or heard from again. He shot them with Black Talon 45s. The doctor who operated on one of the gangbangers came out and said to my friend, ‘Where’d you get this? This stuff is amazing. Where can I get some of this?’