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5:35 AM Fri, Sept. 21st

Gunsite has trained many a trigger finger

Courtesy photo/Sam Lifshutz

Courtesy photo/Sam Lifshutz

PAULDEN -- Gunsite Academy Inc., 20 miles north of Prescott, is an internationally recognized firearms training center that many consider the finest weapons academy in the world.

"Gunsite was started almost 31 years ago by Jeff Cooper, a retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel," notes operations manager Ed Head.

Cooper wanted a forum to teach the "modern technique of the pistol" that he developed from his military experience and from organizing and competing in shooting competitions. He eventually chose Arizona for its location.

"He was very clever," says Head. "He looked all around the country for some place he could get property in a reasonably remote location that wouldn't be encroached upon, that also had suitable weather, and also suitable political climate - favorable to guns.

"And he settled on Prescott, it was a great choice. The climate, the politics, the attitude about firearms here in Arizona is just fantastic, its a great place to be," Head explains.

Today, Cooper's Modern Technique is the core doctrine at Gunsite and informs all of its training, emphasizing safety, mental conditioning, and marksmanship.

A trailblazer in many respects, Gunsite was "the first school of this type that would teach civilian shooters. We train anyone from housewives to Navy Seals and Special Forces and anyone in between," said Head, before adding, "and practically everybody in the firearms training industry in the United States has either been here or has been trained by someone who's been here. I think we have the finest shooting program in the world".

Like all other Gunsite employees, Head began as a student there in 1988. Four years later, he was teaching in his free time, and by the time he retired from his job with San Diego Border Patrol, he was teaching full time.

Marketing Director Jane Ann Shimizu also began as a student. About 15 years ago, she made a deal with her then-boyfriend, now-husband: if she would take a Gunsite course, he would take her to Hawaii. The only problem?

"After my first class at Gunsite," she says, "all I could think about was my next class at Gunsite. I didn't care about Hawaii anymore."

The academy boasts an impressive course catalog with 95 classes. The courses are incredibly diverse and specialized, including such disciplines as edged weapons, carbines, shotguns, armed vehicle operations, indoor simulations - even a class that helps paratroopers practice shooting while their adrenaline is high.

But, as Head explains, the 95 classes are just a starting point.

"We start every year with about 95 classes and then we add additional classes throughout the year as requested by specialty groups - police groups, military groups," he says. "Last year we finished up with 278 classes. This year we're on pace for 300".

Gunsite prides itself on its world-class instructors, nearly all of whom have some background in military or law enforcement. Many of the instructors still remain on active duty in the military or police force.

"They come here on their vacation and teach," Shimizu states.

Glendale resident Ken Siverts, has been coming to Gunsite for 15 years. This year, he brings his son, Joseph, along for his first Gunsite training.

"I had a friend murdered in October of '91 and it made me realize that bad things do happen to good people," he says. "I thought that with a wife and two small children, I needed to learn how to take care of myself and teach my wife and kids to take care of themselves, too."

His 18-year-old son, Joseph, is having a ball.

"The instructors are amazing, these guys are the best! I'm learning a whole bunch. It's a great experience," he says.

The training complex itself also is a large part of what the Siverts enjoy.

"They've got over 800 acres with reactive target systems and steel plate systems," Ken says. "They have turning targets and [mock] houses, to train you to deal with any potential threat there might be, whether it's outdoors or indoors.

"I thought it'd be a good transition for my 18-year-son to bring him into the real world," he continues.

Although Gunsite is open to the public, participants need to show credentials.

"You have to pass a background check to come here. You have to have a statement of good character and if we don't have this stuff from you, you don't get into the class," states Shimizu. But once you're in, chances are you'll be hooked. "Almost all our clients come back year after year after year."

Most classes last a week, and the academy's students frequent area restaurants and hotels. In addition, the academy offers free training to veterans, and Embry-Riddle students receive academic credits for completing Gunsite classes.

For more information, visit the academy's Web site at www.gunsite.com.