Epiphanies, Thrills and Exhaustion

on Sunday, 14 April 2013. Posted in Getaways-Vacations-Outings

Gunsite Academy

The Adventure That (Unexpectedly) Changed My Life
By Kristen Williams

What defines an awesome adventure?  I always thought it was something that might be risky or dangerous; something undertaken purely for recreation, excitement or an adrenaline rush; something unusual, exotic or challenging; something that people say everyone should do at least once in their lives.  When I embarked on my trip to Gunsite Academy, I was expecting just such an adventure and a great learning experience.  I was not expecting to return home as a different person, but my life changed positively and irrevocably.  “Ultimate” is a stronger word than its overuse would indicate, but at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, my Gunsite experience was, indeed, the ultimate adventure.

About twenty miles North of Prescott, AZ, Gunsite Academy occupies about 2000 acres near a town called Paulden.  Founded in 1976 by Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Cooper, Gunsite was designed to promulgate the Modern Technique of the Pistol, a method of using a handgun for self-defense, which he created in the 1950s.  The Academy expanded its instruction to include firearms training for carbine, rifle, shotgun, and precision rifles.  Cooper’s legacy lives on at Gunsite, where dozens of highly skilled instructors continue to disseminate the valuable lessons to students of all skill levels.  Considered the premier firearms training facility in the United States by many, Gunsite’s attendees run the gamut from complete novice to well trained law enforcement and military personnel – many of whom return annually to keep their skills sharp.  

There are numerous structured courses available at Gunsite Academy, and the quintessential Gunsite Experience, known as the “250 – Defensive Pistol Class,” is the course I will be describing here.  This turned out to be one of the most unforgettable weeks of my life.

The range of students in my 250 class was a good example of the types of people typically found in Gunsite courses.  We had a young man who traveled across the world from a country that doesn’t allow its citizens to own – let alone shoot – firearms, and he had never touched a real weapon.  He wishes to remain anonymous, and I will refer to him later as “Mister D.”  We also had a female commercial airline pilot with minimal firearms experience, and a feisty police officer’s wife, who had some experience but no formal training.  (Learning from a spouse can be, shall we say, challenging.)  We had several firearms enthusiasts from across the country with various levels of skill, and a couple men with extensive military training.  There was an impressively experienced father and son who traveled from Costa Rica for the course – the father had actually been to the 250 class a quarter century earlier when Col. Cooper, himself, taught it.  The two “top shots” in the class were evident early on: a young, female city cop on disability retirement, and a focused, active SWAT cop, who is also a proud new father.  I fell somewhere in the middle of the group.

My own handgun background:

I grew up shooting recreationally – I even remember earning a few plaques when I was quite young.  Dad’s rule for both his daughters was that as soon as we could reach the trigger, we would learn basic safety and shooting techniques; and that we did.  However, what I remember more was cheering him on during competitive shooting events, and doing the grunt work of re-setting and spray-painting the steel chickens, pigs, turkeys and rams between rounds.  (Okay, so I may have done it once with a broken thumb from a Little League baseball incident.  We discovered it was broken after the shooting weekend, when the color and swelling made Mom sufficiently concerned to take me to the doctor.  I’m not bitter; I was a child, I barely remember it.)  

The point is, I was familiar and comfortable with handguns from an early age.  That comfort diminished as I went off to school, started leading my own life, and became an adult.  Dad always made sure I had a handgun in my home – if it was legal in the state where I lived, and if I wanted one…and I always wanted one.  I even made it to the local range on occasion, especially enjoying what I call the “boom-boom therapy” of shooting my Desert Eagle, but it was rather infrequent.  A couple years ago, Dad hooked me up with a more practical home-defense pistol, which was the Smith & Wesson M&P 9 mm – the one that I would use in my Gunsite course.  I can count on one hand – okay one finger – the number of times I fired it until that week.  

The Gunsite Experience:

No matter how you travel to Gunsite you will end up driving on Arizona State Route 89, and you will eventually see a familiar blue attraction road sign that will indicate your turn towards Gunsite.  Not long after that turn, the paved road will turn to dirt, and not long after that, you will see an iron arch with a raven atop it.  Although it may not seem to matter at this point, that raven is the Gunsite logo, an image you will become very familiar with as an iconic symbol for what you are about to experience, and which you will be proud to display after you graduate.  Yes, the “graduation ceremony” is the culmination of the week, but I’ll get to that later.  Now I will share the details of my story, to give you the true flavor and feeling of my Gunsite experience.

My “250” Story:

Day one began not unlike any other “first-day” in an adult learning environment. I entered, found my assigned seat, and made introductory small talk with those seated near me.  That’s where the similarities ended, starting with my tablemate and his military stories.  Then class began.  The leader of the class is called a “Range Master.”  Ours was Larry Landers.  He introduced us to our other two instructors/coaches, Cory Trapp and Dave Starin.  I had no idea how much each of them would mean to me throughout the week, let alone at week’s end.  Then we introduced ourselves as students, each relating what we thought we were getting into, and what we hoped to get out of the week.  It was enlightening to hear the different stories and why I would be in the same class as a SWAT cop.  Later I would realize how important it is for even the most seasoned shooters to keep their skills sharp, review fundamentals, and practice such perishable skills.

For a couple hours, we were introduced to Gunsite Academy, the legend of Colonel Cooper, basic range rules, our curriculum, and, most importantly, safety procedures and warnings.  I knew there was a lot I didn’t know, but even in that brief review of the curriculum, I was startled to discover how much.  I had never been exposed to combat ideas or real defense.  The 250 class is not a shooting class; it is a defensive combat class.  I was psyched and intimidated all at once.  The elemental basics of the classroom combat theory had me reaching for familiar references to relate to.  For me that was golf, which is also, primarily, mental.  I was already feeling a little mentally overwhelmed when we broke to head to the range.  It may have been for different reasons, but I suspect all of us were thinking, “What a relief; let’s shoot!”

There are several ranges at the facility, and on that first day, we all caravanned behind our instructors to the location where we would be spending most of the week.  We unloaded our gear, there were some who opted to rent gear from Gunsite due to travel restrictions or other reasons, but most of us brought the weapons we wanted to use.  (FYI: there is a well-appointed pro-shop on site where you can get anything you need for class or want as a souvenir or toy.  Be sure to plan for it in your budget, because you will very likely shop for fun, if not necessity.  If you’re flying to the area, you may opt to purchase the ammo package rather than transporting the weight of the 1000 rounds you’ll need for the week.)  Along with my pistol and a backup, I brought my own ammo since I made the trip by car.  It turned out to be a good choice.  I fired CORBON 9mm Luger 147 grain factory ammunition, which worked flawlessly all week.

Guns unloaded, we were introduced to – or reminded of – the basics in grip, stance, presentation from the holster, trigger press, and reset.  Then we loaded our weapons and the real fun began.  As we worked on our techniques firing at the targets in organized drills, our three coaches monitored and instructed us individually as needed.  All too soon, we broke for lunch.

When day one ended, I was pumped up and ready for more.  I looked at the curriculum again, and was excited for each day, which promised to be better and better.  Our class began on February 14th, and turned out to be my best Valentine’s Day to date.  This may make more sense by the end of this story, but read into it what you will.

Class Bonding and Progression of the Week:

Lunch breaks were a great opportunity to get to know our fellow students on a more personal level.  The unique combination of personalities among the students allowed for a superb class dynamic, and the different styles of each instructor blended nicely with us.  If one style didn’t “speak” to me, I always found clarity from another.

As the week progressed, the drills became more involved and challenging. They remained all about defensive combat, and became increasingly more realistic, involving movement and decision making, all while using the fundamental gun handling and marksmanship skills.  We even did a night shoot where we learned the proper way to utilize our lights (and lasers if we had them).  I had a Surefire x400 mounted on my gun, and a hand-held syringe-style light, which made this portion extremely fun.  Targets went from vague silhouettes to obvious, threatening human figures with weapons, ultimately leading us to being individually challenged, tactically moving through a dried up desert wash – or gully – filled with steel “bad guys” that had to be stopped, and a house filled with unknown subjects including hostiles and potential hostages.  It was intimidating – and exhilarating.  Most of all, it was empowering.

The Life Changing Moment:

They say that most students experience a “Gunsite epiphany.”  I figured that could mean a lot of different things for different people, but on day one, when I discovered the nature of the class to be combat, not shooting, I expected for me it would have to be a state of mind.  I’ve never been combat oriented and, despite having experienced some ugly circumstances and human elements, never had the mindset to hurt anyone, as much as I might have thought about it after the fact.  I catch and release bugs if I think I can do it without touching them.

Throughout the week, I experienced some “a-ha” moments with technical skills, and maybe those are what some of the more combat-trained students perceive as their epiphany, like the feel of trigger reset or picking up the sights earlier in the presentation.  Yes, I got those, too.  However, my big epiphany was one that would change the person I am forever, and for the better.  It happened on the 4th day, after tormenting myself late into the night before.  I was trying to force myself into feeling mentally prepared for what I knew was coming – the “practice rounds” of the simulators – when we go through the outdoor and indoor scenarios to fight the bad guys for the first time.  I was actually nervous – no, scared – of facing pretend bad guys, and I hated that!   By Thursday morning, I was so mentally and physically exhausted that my shots were all over the target during drills.  I was disappointed and felt weak, which only added to my anxiety over what was to come.  When it was my turn to go into the wash, I was a complete mental disaster – more fragile than I ever thought I could feel, especially with a loaded weapon in my hands.  I managed to shoot well and knock down every steel bad guy I found in short order, but I needed to stop along the way several times and really make myself breathe.  My coach in that wash was Dave Starin.  Before I could completely hyperventilate (or even finish the scenario), Dave ended the simulation.  He spoke to me about stress management, breathing and, most importantly, about being aggressive.  “These people are here to hurt you,” he said.  “That should make you angry, not scared.”  He continued to counsel me as we reset the steel bad guys for the next student, and it all finally clicked for me.  I understood.  That was my moment.  When I thanked him later, he added this reinforcement: “One thing I can tell you for a certainty after 20 years in law enforcement is that the police will not be there in your critical moment.  You need to have the ability to handle it for yourself.”  Yes, yes I do.

I completed the practice run of the indoor simulator with more confidence – and decidedly better breathing – and when I was back in my room processing the day and jotting down notes for this article, I grew stronger. The next day was evaluation and graduation day.  I made an “aggressive” playlist on my iPod for the morning, and got some much-needed, restful sleep.

On Friday morning, I pumped myself up with some tunes as I got ready, had a good breakfast and just knew I was new.  It was incredible.  I knocked out the day like the day never saw it coming.  Dave commented on the difference in the wash, and Cory told me he’d never seen anyone clear a room as well as I had in all the 250 of those classes he’d coached through it.   After I stood up to receive my graduation certificate from Larry, one of my new friends commented that it was obvious I had changed – I was even standing taller than I was on day one.  And I could feel it.

Each student experiences his or her Gunsite class somewhat differently, based on their background and experience.  As I witnessed all my classmates throughout the week, it was evident that they all had experienced something great that changed them as well.  Remember Mister D?  He wore his emotions on his sleeve, and the whole class rallied behind him as he learned, worked harder than anyone else, and changed before our eyes.  He remarked to me what a roller coaster it was for him, struggling with the skills, feeling frustration, elation at his improvement, and those thrilling moments he couldn’t get anywhere else.  I rode with him on the back of the truck after the last day’s outdoor simulator on the way to the indoor one, and he said to me with the most amazing smile, “You can quote me on this: This is truly an AWESOME ADVENTURE.”

For me, it was more than that – it was the ultimate adventure – and I am incredibly proud of what I accomplished at Gunsite, and will forever be thankful to all my instructors, whose professional guidance just may end up saving my life.  I’m still me and have no wish to kill anything, but if a wild hog comes through my door or a crazed meth addict bold enough to come in after hearing my Great Dane’s enormous bark, he’ll find out he’s in the wrong house.  Although I’m sure Dad is still somewhat chagrined not to have a daughter to hunt with, I know I did him proud.

Getting there and where to stay:
  Nearest airports:  Prescott (PRC):  ½ hour drive
                             Phoenix (PHX):  2 hour drive

Lodging:
The Little Thumb Butte Bed & Breakfast: delightful with a warm, accommodating hostess, and the nearest lodging to Gunsite.  This location books up quickly so make your reservations early!

For more information on all things Gunsite, including other lodging options, visit the Gunsite Website