May 2010 Journal

Return to Gunsite

I started attending Gunsite in the early 80s. Jeff Cooper was well established and was revolutionizing combat with a handgun through the "Modern Technique of the Pistol." His contributions to military, police, and civilian self-defense have yet to be fully appreciated. I had read him a little before going to war, and I give him some credit* for surviving enough handgun fights to convince me that a rifle was a lot better, but the rifle out of reach isn't nearly as useful as a .45 in your hand.

*The rest goes to the marksmanship instructor staff sergeant at Fort Knox who furtively looked both ways and said, quietly, "Lieutenant, use both hands." He demonstrated a Weaver Stance. I didn't quite get it right that day, but, in my first attempt at shooting a pistol, I out shot 40+ other second lieutenants with a score that would get me on a battalion shooting team, then brigade, and give me the opportunity to study pistol shooting a bit before going to the big jungle.

I stopped going to Gunsite when Jeff, in what he said was the biggest mistake of his life, sold the school to one of his students. The student destroyed the school and bankrupted it. Fortunately Owen "Buzz" Mills, an Arizona businessman, bought the place and injected large amounts of money and slowly got the good instructors back that the previous owner had run off. (He's running for Governor of Arizona. Vote early and often.)

But Gunsite was still in Arizona, and I was still in Texas. Clint Smith, who had been operations manager when I went to 250 (basic pistol), had opened Thunder Ranch, and I went there 4 times. When I got started in Cowboy Action Shooting I stopped going to gunfighting schools.

Then Michael Bane invited me to the second "Ruger Single-Action Self-Defense" course, a 3 day school that had been tried experimentally the year before. It's still new, so most of the students were in the gun industry or the gun rag/TV show business.

Michael Bane (Wolf Bane) was a major factor in the school's birth. He brought Indiana Jackson (Denise Jackson). Ken Jorgensen, Ruger's Director of Media Relations, Shooting Sports Coordinator, was a key man, of course. Marshal Halloway was there taking pictures for Downrange TV. Sheriff Jim Wilson, Dick Williams of Surefire, Dave Biggers of XS Sights, and Mark Lang (Lefty Gunz-Alles) of Ruger were students. So was Long Hunter, Calamity Rae, and HP Kid, all SASS members. Yamaha sent Steve Nessi and Van Holmes. Verlin Rector takes a lot of Gunsite courses. His fifth wheel was decorated with Gunsite decals.

We started with classroom. We were given a long list of "Combat Vs. CAS" items.

Combat vs. CAS

Cowboy Action Shooting is a great way to increase your skill with a single action revolver. CAS, just like most forms of competition, often encourage shooters to do things in a manner which would not be recommended in a combat scenario. Here are some differences between Combat shooting and CAS.

Fully loading a new model Ruger single action revolver (with a transfer bar) is just as safe as fully loading a double action revolver of modern design. SASS and CAS require loading all single action revolvers with an empty chamber under the hammer. If you are using a new model Ruger S/A revolver for self defense you should load all six chambers. Loading only 5 chambers deprives you of 17 percent of your ammunition capacity and is no safer to carry.

Looking at your holstered revolver while waiting for the start signal is common in CAS. In a combat scenario your attention should be down range evaluating the threat and the need to use force.

Holstering an empty gun after completing a stage of fire is required in CAS. A good rule to remember in combat is "never holster an empty gun." Always return your gun to the holster fully loaded.

In CAS shooters are told ahead of time how many rounds they are to fire at each target. Once you have fired at a designated target you will leave that target and continue whether or not you have hit that target. In combat you will fire at a target until you have stopped the threat.

It is a common practice in CAS to use very light loads. In combat you should carry the most powerful loads that you can shoot well and which are safe in your firearm.

Looking at your holster when holstering your revolver may be acceptable in CAS but not in combat. You should keep your head up and eyes downrange scanning for other dangers.

Presenting the revolver in a sweeping arc from the holster to eye level is common in CAS. In combat shooting the muzzle is rocked onto the target as soon as the gun clears the holster allowing the shooter to fire from a weapon retention shooting position if required.

Speed reloading is rarely required in CAS due to time constraints. Speed reloading drills should be practiced often by defensive shooters in order to be combat ready.

In CAS the shooters will often holster their revolvers as quickly as possible in order to transition to the next weapon or follow other match procedures such as moving to another firing location. In combat shooting we should not be in a hurry to holster our guns. After completing a shooting drill the shooter should assume the low ready position and check his targets. Break tunnel vision and scan for additional threats. Reload the revolver and make certain that it is in the proper condition (not cocked, loading gate closed and finger off the trigger) prior to holstering.

In CAS the shooter will show empty to a safety officer. In combat shooting there will be no safety officer to check your weapon. Get in the habit of thoroughly checking the revolver yourself every time you handle it.

In CAS we run cold ranges and loading the revolver is done under the watch of a range safety officer at the loading table. You and you alone are responsible for knowing the condition of your weapon. We run a hot range, meaning guns will be loaded on and off of the firing line. "All guns are always loaded."

CAS shooters are generally satisfied if they hit anywhere on the target. In CAS an edger counts the same as a center hit. Not so in combat where a heart shot or brain shot will incapacitate your opponent faster than most non vital hits.

One of the most important similarities between CAS and combat shooting is the proper balance between speed and accuracy. In both CAS and combat shooting one should shoot as fast and only as fast as center hits may be obtained. If you shoot faster than you can hit, by definition you will miss. In CAS that will cost you 5 seconds. In combat you may well be killed while you are busy missing. If you shoot slower than necessary your match score will suffer. In combat you will be giving your opponent time to hit you first.

Then we went to the range. Ken was offering Rugers to shoot, so I grabbed a new Vaquero that felt good.

After being told by Ed Head, Operations Manager of Gunsite, and a friend of mine when we went to 499 together back in the dark ages, "your groups suck," I grabbed one of my new Vaqueros with Super Blackhawk hammers and action jobs by Gunslinger, and widened rear sight by J T Wild. Then the groups started shrinking.

Among the exercises we did was skip-loading. Starting with a full cylinder, we would shoot one round, then spin the cylinder. If we were on an empty, we would yell either "Good press," or "Bad press," and our coach, another student, would either confirm or deny that so we could see when we were getting bad presses.

The second day I had an epiphany. These aren't CAS targets which are usually black. These are camouflaged silhouette targets with scoring circles in them. We're in Arizona where a cloud is cause for a NOAA alert. We're at about 5000 ft. It's BRIGHT!. Even with my bad eyes the glare was a problem. Out came a Sharpie and the front, then the rear sight turned black. Groups shrank immediately.

If you go to this class in the future, TAKE KNEEPADS. They teach kneeling on one and both knees. Fortunately we didn't do prone.

Larry Mudgett has developed some exercises to determine why you're not hitting the target. He never did a one-on-one with me, so I'm describing them from observing, not doing.

In one you hold the gun on target, and Larry pulls the trigger. If the group is where it was when you shot it, then you're not jerking the trigger. If the group moves or gets mush smaller, you are.

After trigger pull/jerking is eliminated, you shoot a group on one target. Then Larry shoots a group with the gun on another target. If his is dead center and yours is off to one side, high, or low, then it's your sight picture.

The instructor shoots the gun, but you hold your trigger finger on the trigger, and he puts pressure on your finger. In every time the student, when asked, said they didn't know when the gun was going to fire. This is a surprise break.

We learned two kinds of reloading, tactical and speed. For tactical, you eject one fired round, insert one, eject one, insert one. If you have shot one round and then cocked the gun, when the hammer goes down, then the empty is in the loading gate. If you have fired 2, remember you have cocked the gun 3 times, so you need to rotate the cylinder 5 clicks to reach the second fired round. If you fired 3 rounds, rotate the cylinder 4 clicks to reach the second fired round. You're looking for a sum of 8. If you fired 4 rounds, you've cocked the gun 5 times, so you rotate 3 clicks.

It's easier done than said. If you have no idea how many rounds you've fired, then you've been in a real gunfight, not a range exercise. Deal with it.

Also demonstrated was speed loading 2 at a time. Hit the cylinder with the round on the leading edge and slide up until you reach the hole. You do it this way because it's fast, and because it'll work in the dark.

The last day was mostly simulators. We did the Donga then the pit. You walk in a tactical manner down the donga looking for pepper poppers to kill or rescue. They're hiding. One has on red pants and is your significant other, who has escaped the outlaw biker gang (Hell's Accountants?). Of course, I made all of my shots when part of the head became visible. Distance is your friend. Fortunately I also challenged each target, and one of them was my significant other. I didn't shoot her, but I did the others.

The Pit had bad light inside, a problem since one target in a window was not distinguishable. I saw a square, but I couldn't tell the edges of the target. Fortunately I could see the pistol. In this case talking to the targets did little good as the instructor didn't say anything. I put a good group on the revolver. Having shot 2 AKs in the receiver once upon a time I came to the conclusion that shooting the gun does keep the bad guy from shooting you with it. If the shooter is behind the gun, then all the better. In this case he was.

I missed a closet in the low light. Didn't see the doorknob at all.

We killed time with "The Duck of Death," one shot man-on-man drills at steel targets at 15 yards.

Then we had a shootoff, one 6" plate at 15 yards, one at 25, then a mandatory reload and shoot a split popper for a stop plate. I lost one match when i hit the other popper. Another I lost because of one of the things they insist we do in "real world gunfighting" rather than CAS. They had us cock the gun when we finished shooting, then assess. Well, I fired the second shot, hit the target, and reflexively recocked. So I had to decock to reload. The decocking became an AD into the berm, and I lost that one.

Of course Long Hunter won all of his matches and got the silver raven for winning the shootoff. They weren't giving those out in the '80s.

We got certificates, without the old Expert, Marksman First Class, Marksman, or Completed ratings. That removed one bone of contention/source of stress.

Larry Mudgett is a really fine marksmanship instructor, perhaps the best I've encountered. Il Ling New, a small Asian woman with the agility of a leopard, has a command voice that would turn John Basilone into a quivering mass of jelly. Larry Landers seems jolly until you do something wrong. All of them are excellent instructors and rangemasters.

It's a good course.

If you're going to carry your single action for self-defense, then you should take it. If you're going to carry something else, you should take one of Gunsite's regular courses, or Thunder Ranch's basic pistol.

Marshal Halloway has promised me pictures. When he gives them to me I'll add them to this.