Photo by Max Efrein.
Originally Published: September 18, 2016 6 a.m.
Eberhard Wensauer composed himself: taking a deep breath, focusing his mind, and steadying his dominant hand, which was sore and covered in blisters from two days of consistent pistol firing.
In the coming moments he was to traverse an indoor gun range playfully named Funhouse, one of 20 ranges at Gunsite Academy, a weapons training facility in Paulden.
“When you go in, you must be quick,” Eberhard said. “Quick and safe. You must be sure of the target.”
This wasn’t Eberhard’s first time through the legendary pistol simulator, but it was for his daughter, Jil.
“I’ve heard all about Funhouse,” Jil said with a clear coat of anxiety in her voice.
The father and daughter were in the final few hours of a private three-day defensive pistol course offered by Gunsite.
Eberhard, who traveled from his home in Germany just to experience the class with his daughter, who lives in Los Angeles, first trained at Gunsite 35 years ago. He has since been back several times.
“I think it’s the best for tactical shooting,” Eberhard said of the academy. “Not normal shooting. It’s not about being the fastest, but being technical. That is the best way to stay alive.”
Gunsite’s chief operating officer Ken Campbell said that’s exactly what Gunsite is all about.
“We’re doing God’s work,” Campbell said. “We keep good people alive.”
Gunsite was founded in 1976 by Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper, author, columnist, professor, WWII and Korean War combat veteran.
Cooper intended Gunsite to be the vehicle for spreading the Modern Technique of the Pistol, a method of using a handgun for self-defense that he created during his years in Big Bear Lake, Calif.
Cooper built the facility, which was known then as the American Pistol Institute (API), about 20 miles north of Prescott, in the high Sonoran desert on 210 acres.
The complex has since grown substantially, now boasting about 2,800 acres.
In a given year, the academy offers more than 50 types of classes ranging from contact-distance combat to firing at targets positioned more than 2,000 yards away. This includes 15 specialty classes such as active shooter/terrorist response for civilians and a predator defense class for federal agencies whose employees work in environments that include dangerous animals.
Sometime in 2017 Campbell anticipates they’ll begin offering an additional specialty course for active shooter response in a church.
“Bad things happen in churches,” Campbell said. “It’s one of those that we think is necessary to teach.”
By far the most sought after class, Campbell said, is the 250 Defensive Pistol Course, which Cooper first presented the year he founded Gunsite.
Some of the academy’s more notable clients over the years have been actor Tom Selleck, actor Larry Hagman, musician Maynard Keenan and the king of Jordan, Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein. It has also hosted numerous military and law enforcement agencies.
“A lot of people think we’re solely based on military and law enforcement, but that’s far from the case,” Campbell said. “The vast majority of our students are earth people (regular folks).”
The prestige of the facility shows clearly in the price tag. The 5-day 250 Defensive Pistol Course, for instance, will set someone back $1,650 — not including the cost of the ammunition required for the course (1,200 rounds of ball and 100 rounds of frangible).
“We’re not inexpensive, but we’re the best and you get what you pay for,” Campbell said.
All of the instructors, of which there are about 60, come from highly qualified backgrounds, Campbell said.
“The vast majority are law-enforcement and military, active duty or retired,” he said.
One of the regular instructors is Gary Smith. He guided the Wensauers through their three-day pistol course.
While most of the instructors are based outside of the area, Smith is one of about six instructors who live locally.
Though he never served as a police officer or in the military, he’s been shooting since he was 3 years old and had been teaching archery at local high schools before funding fell through.
“After that I came out here and said ‘that’s what I want to do,’” Smith said.
Once he completed the necessary coursework and received a recommendation from a Gunsite range master, he got the job about 13 years ago.
“There ain’t a day that I wake up that I say ‘I don’t want to go to work,’” Smith said.
On Oct. 1, Gunsite will be celebrating its 40th anniversary.
“As far as we know, we are the oldest shooting school in the world,” Campbell said. “We are proud of the program that Jeff and Janelle Cooper started on the front porch of their small home in the fall of 1976.”
Cooper passed away Sept. 25, 2006, at the age of 86. Janelle continues to live on the Gunsite ranch and oversees Jeff’s library and museum in their home.