Shoot-out at Gunsite

Where is Paulden, Arizona? It's where marksmen are made.

Field & Stream Online Editors

_A marksman is someone who can make
A rifle do what it was designed to
Do..most of the time.

An expert marksman is someone who
Can hit anything he can see within the
effective range of his rifle

A master marksman is someone who can shoot up to his gun._
-Gunsite Doctine

"Come to Gunsite," the letter said, "and we'll show you something about rifle shooting. Bring a friend."

It was signed Eric Olds, adjunct instructor. For me, a letter like that is like raw meat waved at a pit bull, so I told the folks at Gunsite I would be down in mid-March and would bring along Field & Stream design director Amy Vischio. They had challenged me; I would challenge them back. I got my first formal rifle instruction in 1958 and have been shooting ever since at game and in competition. Amy had never had any instruction and had only fired a .22 rifle a few times. So Gunsite would be presented with both ends of the experience spectrum, and we would see what Mr. Olds could teach us.

Gunsite is a privately owned school founded 24 years ago by Jeff Cooper, who is profoundly influential among handgun shooters and also passionately interested in the art of the rifle. Cooper started Gunsite because he knew of no place where handgunners could get competent instruction, and as he says, "I realized that no one taught practical rifle shooting either, so we added that."

Today, Gunsite occupies 1,538 acres near Paulden, Arizona. It has 30 ranges, a full-time staff, a pro shop, and a gunsmithy (their term). Cooper sold the school some years ago, but he lives there and his spirit pervades. The Gunsite logo is a raven, and that raven is everywhere.

Most of Gunsite's instruction is devoted to police, military, and self-defense training and most of its instructors have military backgrounds. Eric Olds turned out to be a rangy former Marine, hunter, and competitive rifle shooter who has taught at Gunsite for 10 years.

Gunsite has set courses of instruction, but they are willing to create custom "tutorials" for shooters who have specific problems or skills they want to improve. Eric once designed a tutorial for an individual who had missed his only shot at a once-in-a-lifetime trophy sheep. They figured out why he had missed and corrected the problem. The week before we came, Gunsite had conducted a training session for a group of Alaskan game wardens and biologists on how to protect themselves from grizzlies, including the shooting part if that became necessary.

Normally, the hunting rifle course is five days, but because Amy and I had only two days to spend, they gave us a highly compressed version. I didn't think we could learn much in two days. I was wrong. Very wrong. Oh, so wrong.

School starts at 8 a.m., and our course began with a half-hour orientation on the mechanics of sighting in a rifle, bullet trajectory, and safety, which is the local religion. Eric told us: "I can't make you do anything except be safe," and he was not kidding, as I was to find out.

Gunsite's method is like nothing I have ever seen. Instructors are selected not only for their ability with their respective arms but for their skill as teachers. The teaching itself is very far from military. No one yells. No one makes you do push-ups on your knuckles in the gravel. No one calls you a maggot or insults your old Mom.

The Need for Speed
While Gunsite borrows from the military and from formal target shooting, it teaches that hunting marksmanship is something entirely different and emphasizes both precision and speed. A student is expected to get off an aimed shot in 1.5 seconds or less from the ready position. As Eric put it, "A good fast shot is much better than a perfect slow shot, because you probably won't get a chance to get off the perfect shot." Tiny, benchrest-size groups are not required, although tight groupsre encouraged because they are the result of consistent, and correct, technique. Everything is based on an 8-inch circle, which is the diameter of the "bull's-eye" on most big-game animals. If you can hit that 8-inch circle at ranges from 25 to 300 yards on demand (which means anytime, under any circumstances, no excuses), then you are a good hunting marksman.

You do a lot of shooting. We each fired just under 200 rounds a day, and that is typical. I was surprised to see that Amy was not started off with the customary .22 rimfire. She was offered the choice of that, a .223 semiauto, or a .308 Steyr Scout rifle, and elected to go with the .308 because it fit her best. She had no problems with recoil because she was shooting correctly. I used a Kenny Jarrett¿¿¿modified Remington Model 700 .30/06.

Then it was off to the ranges to sight in. This is the last time you will see a standard bull's-eye or a benchrest at Gunsite. Thereafter, you fire at iron silhouettes that clank when you hit them, or at paper silhouettes with scoring rings that are too fine to see at more than a few feet. This is because animals don't have scoring rings.

Instruction by Increments
Instead of teaching you a shooting position and insisting that you use it as taught, Gunsite's instructors will show you the position, explain its merits, and then give you a chance to use it or not. Eric showed us offhand, kneeling, three variations on sitting, a position known as the military squat, and two variations on prone, including a position known as Olympic prone.

When I explained to Eric that I had found the kneeling position highly effective, and that my arthritic back would not let me sit properly, he said fine, forget about sitting and kneel.

Gunsite recommends that you use a sling when you can and shows you how to use it properly. Eric cautions that many slings and carrying straps are plain lousy-too fragile for good support. I used a Brownell's military sling, which is fine, as is the military sling made by Boyt.

You never spend a long time working at one thing because the instructors don't want you going stale. You can spend an hour shooting slow fire at 300 yards, and then go to another range and spend an hour shooting at speed targets offhand at 25 yards. The breaks are frequent, and they make you drink water at every one. It's hot and dry there in the desert, and a dehydrated shooter is a poor shooter. (So serious is Gunsite about hydration that they have placed "pee guides" above the toilets. Depending on the color, you are okay, or you had better start drinking water right now, or you should turn yourself in to the paramedics, or you should make your peace with God.)

A Painful Lesson
I mentioned earlier that the need for safety is all-consuming at Gunsite, and that it is enforced. On the first day, I verified something that I had suspected for a while-that I was guilty of "old shooter's syndrome." This is a tendency among those who have handled firearms for a very long time to become a little too casual with them. Not outright dangerous, but less than truly safe. When you finish shooting a five-shot string (everything at Gunsite is done in five-shot strings), you are required to check your chamber visually and manually (you stick a finger in it) and then sling your rifle, bolt open, on your shoulder. I was called down five times the first day for not following procedure, and it rankled. I swore that it would not happen again, and it didn't.

Walking the Vlei n On the afternoon of the second day, we got a chance to walk the Vlei range (vlei is Afrikaans for "valley"). You walk up a ravine and onto a flat, and along the way you detect and shoot at life-size targets of coyotes, elk, wild pigs, lions, deer, and other critters at ranges of 50 to 250 yards, all with iron vital areas that clank when you hit them. You are required to look, walk, shoot, and reload. We also got to shoot from Sniper Ridge. (If the term sniper upsets your civilian sensibilities, I apologize, but the fact is that Gunsite trains military and police snipers.) There you shoot at silhouettes at medium-long (250 yards) to truly long (500-plus) range. (If you're interested in long-range marksmanship, there is a range with targets out to 800 yards, and one for .50-caliber shooters that goes out to 1,300.) There is a certain simple joy in pulling the trigger, waiting for what seems forever, and seeing the bullet splash on the target long before you hear the clank.

The Report Card
Ah, you say, but what about Amy? Could Gunsite teach her much in two days? Friends, believe me when I tell you that she is now deadlier than the cholera. By the end of the second day she was scoring between 80 and 90 percent hits on targets from 25 to 300 yards, stationary and moving, of all sizes and shapes. She scored 10 hits in a row on a 12-inch-square steel plate, prone at 300 yards, using a 2.5X scope. Try that sometime. Eric said that she had gone further in two days than many shooters do in five, and that he found it hard to believe that she had no prior experience. I put it down to the fact that she is fiercely competitive, and to Eric Olds.

What did I learn? I learned to pay more attention to where my muzzle was pointing, and I became a better shot from the prone position. But mostly, I had my thinking changed about how to create a good rifle shot. I wouldn't have believed that Amy could have done what she did. Also, I had a hell of a good time. I'd go back and take the course again just for enjoyment. You get to do things with a rifle at Gunsite that you can do nowhere else., walk, shoot, and reload. We also got to shoot from Sniper Ridge. (If the term sniper upsets your civilian sensibilities, I apologize, but the fact is that Gunsite trains military and police snipers.) There you shoot at silhouettes at medium-long (250 yards) to truly long (500-plus) range. (If you're interested in long-range marksmanship, there is a range with targets out to 800 yards, and one for .50-caliber shooters that goes out to 1,300.) There is a certain simple joy in pulling the trigger, waiting for what seems forever, and seeing the bullet splash on the target long before you hear the clank.

The Report Card
Ah, you say, but what about Amy? Could Gunsite teach her much in two days? Friends, believe me when I tell you that she is now deadlier than the cholera. By the end of the second day she was scoring between 80 and 90 percent hits on targets from 25 to 300 yards, stationary and moving, of all sizes and shapes. She scored 10 hits in a row on a 12-inch-square steel plate, prone at 300 yards, using a 2.5X scope. Try that sometime. Eric said that she had gone further in two days than many shooters do in five, and that he found it hard to believe that she had no prior experience. I put it down to the fact that she is fiercely competitive, and to Eric Olds.

What did I learn? I learned to pay more attention to where my muzzle was pointing, and I became a better shot from the prone position. But mostly, I had my thinking changed about how to create a good rifle shot. I wouldn't have believed that Amy could have done what she did. Also, I had a hell of a good time. I'd go back and take the course again just for enjoyment. You get to do things with a rifle at Gunsite that you can do nowhere else.