Originally Published: October 1, 2006 4 a.m.
The death of world-renowned handgun expert Jeff Cooper this week brought back vivid memories of the American Pistol Institute and his handgun training class at Gunsite in Paulden.
Shortly after I graduated high school in 1975, my mom told me about a gun course she had completed. I didn't realize at the time that regular folks like mom couldn't just walk into Gunsite. Cooper designed it to hone the skills of police officers, sniper squads, military personnel and competition shooters. Mom had met his wife, the very gracious Janelle Cooper, who had helped her get into one of the first courses. As a successful Gunsite alumnus, she could vouch for me.
In the early years, Cooper required all students to shoot with a Colt Government Model .45. So I showed up at class with my shiny new Colt Commander .45, 500 rounds of ammo, and my Gunsite-savvy mother.
The first clue it wouldn't be an ordinary week of target shooting was the warning on the Gunsite gate. It instructed those who would visit to call first, or risk meeting the barrel end of a firearm on arrival.
Then I met Jeff Cooper. He appeared larger than life, like a combination of big game hunter and John Wayne. He moved and spoke with supreme confidence. When he barked orders at the firing range, everyone instantly obeyed. The most insistently delivered orders were his safety rules, and pointing your gun at someone inadvertently was the one blunder that would get you summarily thrown out. Those safety rules are still part of me 30 years later. We stepped up to the firing line, and on command, we shot. We didn't move again until we had holstered our weapons. Aside from the firing line, the reloading area was the only place our guns were ever out of the holster.
This formidable but personable man could sit down after class, though, and tell story after story of his military and shooting experiences. Because of him, to this day I sit in restaurants facing the door so I can see what, or who, is coming in!
During one unforgettable incident on the firing line, half the students would shoot, while the rest watched. My mother's group had stepped up to the line for an exercise in which shooters drew, fired twice, and re-holstered. Cooper gave the order, and shooters drew and fired once. Before anyone could fire again, his voice literally snapped through the air, and shooters froze. He then told Mom she needed to holster and go check her gun, because a bullet had jammed in the barrel. Sure enough, if she had fired again, she would have damaged her gun, and most likely herself.
Cooper said a lot of people can learn to hit a target, but how you respond under pressure is crucial. In a life-and-death situation, if you can't focus on the job at hand, you won't be alive to shoot any more paper targets.
Gunsite's "fun house," complete with Cooper an inch behind my right ear, barking, "You're dead!" honed certain brain paths forever. The fun house quickly exposed just how inept we were at keeping all the elements of effective self-defense together.
At random, painted figures rolled, leaped or dropped in front of the shooter, who instantly had to:
a) Figure out if it was friend or foe.
b) Shoot before it shot you first.
c) Sigh in frustration because you had used up seven rounds and found yourself with a handful of useless, locked-open gun.
Imagine the foremost authority on handguns in the world chiding you because you didn't keep track of how many rounds you had left in your gun, or you shot an innocent person because you reacted without comprehending. We learned that we'd better really see. Cooper drilled into us that if we ever pointed our gun at someone, we had committed ourselves to kill. It was sobering instruction.
For hours each evening after class, we wore blisters in our hands practicing reloading until, in seconds, we could drop a magazine, reload another, and find that front sight again in one fluid motion.
If we followed the safety rules and could find our target with reasonable efficiency, we could earn a "Marksman" rating.
But a select few, by virtue of their performance in class, would gain the coveted "Expert" rating. By the end of the week I well understood Jeff Cooper's status and expertise, and I wanted that Expert designation. I wasn't a star in class, but I was holding my own.
The final day of shooting culminated with a "mano-a-mano" shootoff, in which two shooters stand side by side, each with a leg inside a tire at the shooting line. At Cooper's order, the two shooters drew, fired two shots into a side target at about 10 meters, reloaded, and fired one shot into the middle target. The shooter who did this first in two of three tries advanced. Now, I'll admit a bit of extraordinary beginner's luck here, but I outshot the Sheriff of Allen County, Indiana. I won rounds against the sniper shooter and the competition shooter, because both of their guns misfired or jammed. They won their final rounds against me, but I focused on that front sight long enough to get third place. And, believe me, the sweetest words of that day came from a smiling Jeff Cooper's lips "Well, young lady, I believe that just earned you an expert rating!"
If an experience you have in life can conjure up such vivid memories 30 years later, and leave you with lifelong skills to boot, it is definitely worthwhile.
Thanks, Colonel Cooper, for the memories, and the skills.
(Heidi Dahms-Foster is the former editor of the Prescott Valley Tribune, and is now a writer/photographer for Western Newspapers, Inc. the Daily Courier's parent company).