Training An Old Dog With New Tricks At Gunsite
By Jason Baird
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a common saying, and many of us at retirement age have come to believe it. At our senior ages, we think we are too slow mentally and physically, and have too much life experience to make the effort to learn new stuff necessary or worthwhile. We also tend to be infirm compared with younger folks; our arthritis, unused muscles, and usual lack of flexibility (both physical and mental) puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to tasks requiring movement and mental acuity.
We have to admit, too, that our ages make for good excuses as to why we don’t try new things, or try to improve ourselves in areas where we already have some skill. That’s why it’s important to have a partner (in my case, my lovely wife) who convinces you to “push the envelope” at least a little bit. For my 61st birthday gift, she enrolled me as a student in the 250 Pistol Class at the Gunsite Academy, located in the Arizona high desert outside the town of Paulden. This posed an interesting dilemma to me – if I was still in my 30s or even 40s, no problem. Suffering at my age, however, with self-inflicted arthritis from a life of physical abuse and surgical repairs in the name of contact sports, downhill skiing, parachute training, and other military activities gave me pause. Could I hack the Gunsite pistol class? Would my “old dog’s old tricks” be bad habits, making it difficult for me to keep up with the class? My damaged left knee, awaiting surgical replacement sometime in the future, would also be a liability for any of the kneeling or quick turning moves required in the class. As it turned-out, I had to suck it up in the turning moves, but a pair of Advanced Tactical Knee Pads V.2 from Blackhawk came to the rescue for all of the kneeling moves.
The Gunsite website presents the syllabus for the 250 Pistol Class, calling it “The Gunsite Experience” and telling that the late Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper first presented the class in 1976. Cooper is a minor hero of mine – I first became aware of him and his writings through articles he wrote as the back page works for a famous gun magazine. Over the years, I found I agreed with many of his opinions and valued his point of view. Reading the books he authored put me even more firmly in the Colonel’s court. He was a Marine, an educator, and the co-creator of many of the defensive pistol techniques we take for granted nowadays. Cooper established Gunsite as the home of his Modern Technique of the Pistol, with what is now the 250 Pistol Class. He said, “The mission of Gunsite Academy is to provide good people with the skills by which they may conduct themselves as responsible citizens of a free Republic.” As such, the Modern Technique combines expertise in gun handling with marksmanship, and building mental conditioning is the basis for the technique. They call this the Combat Triad – Marksmanship, Gun Handling, and Mindset – and claim mastering the Triad is essential to the Modern Technique.
Gunsite promises several enviable outcomes of the class on their website, “Through our systematic methodology you will achieve confidence, competence, new skills and best of all, peace of mind. Students emerge stronger, more alert, and conditioned to respond appropriately to any threat.” Gunsite also promises a “… life changing week.”
I promised my wife (who was also in the class) that I would keep my mouth shut and learn instead of stubbornly resisting new ideas and offering my “insights” and “experience” to the class; as you might guess, this was tough for an old man. I did my best to keep my promise, going against years of shooting experience. I started my competitive shooting experience as a member of the Air Force Academy NCAA pistol team, and finished as the commander of the RAF Cranwell (UK) combined arms shooting team in the early 1990s. Of course, neither of these teams employed the pistol in the manner taught at Gunsite, so I found that I had a lot to learn.
I decided to complete the class with a .45 ACP semi-auto pistol, in order to train with the type of gun I carry when using a semi-auto. In addition, the .45 was Cooper’s favorite pistol caliber, so I thought it would be nice to honor his memory that way. The only problem, surgical repairs for carpal tunnel syndrome and a broken wrist in my shooting hand has left me with a limited range of motion in my wrist and no tactile feeling in my index (trigger) and middle fingers. I trained myself to accommodate those difficulties for my normal handgun experiences, but would my hand stand up to firing 1200 rounds of .45 ammunition in 4 ½ days? To minimize the chances that my shooting hand would fail me, I chose to use a Walther PPQ M2 .45 for the class, acquired it late last year (again, thanks to a gift from my lovely wife), and practiced with it prior to heading to Gunsite. The Walther is known as a “soft shooting” gun when compared to other .45 ACP handguns, and its trigger was acceptable to me (I prefer crisp, smooth triggers whose take-up is the same from shot-to-shot, and the Walther trigger met my requirement). Hindsight showed me that my choice of caliber was a competitive mistake, as all the other students in my class section save one chose smaller caliber guns with less recoil for the class.
The online class information indicates it is for everyone, regardless of age, gender, or experience, and a quick look around at the other students on the first morning of the class bore this out. We were young and old, male and female, meeting together for the classroom work and split into two groups for the range (outdoor) work. No matter our proficiency at the start, we were expected to display proficiency in the following requirements by weeks’ end (times include drawing the properly holstered handgun, head shot is into a small outlined area that defined the target’s eyes and nose, body shot is into an 8-inch center-mass circle on the target):
- Single head shot from the standing position, 3 yard distance, 1.5 seconds, done twice
- Two body shots from the standing position, 5 yard distance, 1.5 seconds
- Two body shots from the standing position, 7 yard distance, 1.5 seconds
- Two body shots from the standing position, 10 yard distance, 2 seconds
- Starting from the standing position, drawing the handgun and going to the kneeling position before shooting, two body shots from the kneeling position, 15 yard distance, 3.5 seconds
- Starting from the standing position, drawing the handgun, moving one step right or left and going to the kneeling position before shooting, two body shots from the kneeling position, 25 yard distance, 3.5 seconds
- El Presidente drill vs three targets spaced one yard apart, 10 yards from the shooter. The shooter starts with handgun holstered and his back to the targets. At the start signal, the shooter turns to the target, draws his handgun, fires two body shots at each target, reloads, and fires two additional body shots at each target. The par time is 10 seconds to complete the drill.
- Evaluation of tactical performance vs targets in the indoor (the so-called shoot house) clearance live-fire drill and outdoor live-fire simulator.
In addition to the Walther, I utilized 230-grain Ball (full metal jacket) ammunition from Aguila and Remington for the range portions of the class. For the indoor and outdoor simulator portions requiring frangible ammunition, I chose 130-grain copper-polymer high-velocity frangible RNP Inceptor ammunition from Polycase. See the sidebar for additional information.
I used an injection-molded double magazine case to carry my double stack Walther pistol magazines, and a Crossbreed Snapslide/combat cut/sweat guard holster to carry the Walther while I was on the range. The magazine cases gave me absolutely no problems while inserting or withdrawing magazines under pressure and by “feel” only; other students, unfortunately, had problems with their magazine cases. The holster kept the pistol away from my waist and ribs, which was a godsend through the several thousand draw/reholster cycles we performed during the class. Because of this equipment combination, toward the end of the class I was able to draw the pistol, reholster it, and withdraw magazines for speed reloads of the pistol without taking my eyes off the target.
A downside of the holster/pistol combination was that I managed to abrade and deform the Walther’s plastic front and rear sights to the point that, part of the way through the 250 Class, I had to do “surgery” on them with a small file to square them up and get rid of the plastic streamers hanging off the sights into my field of view. I’ve checked since then to see if one can get metal sights as replacements, but other than expensive night sights I’ve been unable to find any for the Walther.
Did the Gunsite class meet the objective of having students master the Combat Triad? I admit it is a pretty tall order, and I don’t think it is possible to meet that objective given the limitations of the training offered. I’m looking at this from the standpoint of someone who has taught public school, taught and trained cadets in the US and the UK, and taught at the university level for a total of 18 years. If one considers the 250 Class an introduction to the Triad, rather than the whole enchilada from the pistol-training standpoint, then it is understandable that we weren’t evaluated on how well we achieved mastery of the Triad. Nevertheless, even though we were lectured on Mindset (the foundation of the Triad), we were only drilled and tested on the other two legs – Marksmanship and Gun Handling. In fact, the training emphasis was more on Gun Handling, and I for one saw my Marksmanship suffer due to training and time pressure and focus on Gun Handling. The instructors assured us that our Marksmanship skills would improve as we gained Gun Handling skills, but pressure to speed up as the class progressed invalidated that. At the end of the class on Friday, we faced the above-listed test – you can see that Marksmanship was now elevated to the primary factor in our evaluation, as any Gun Handling we had to do merely hurt our Marksmanship by taking time away from the essentials for accurate shooting.
Even though the 250 Class did not lead me to mastery of the Combat Triad in the limited class time, I fully intend to continue practicing the skills I learned. The old dog learned new tricks, and I’m glad I took the class. Maybe I will be able to combine Gun Handling and improve my Marksmanship at the same time; I even purchased a shot timer so that I can see how I progress at a speed that works for me. I think I already have, and have had the Mindset needed, but that is a personal thing acquired over my long years.
Sidebar – Ammunition
The Gunsite 250 Class provided written and lecture material on the use and effects of handgun ammunition. A projectile from a hand- or shoulder-fired gun cannot knock down a person purely due to energy transfer upon impact; “knockdown power” as used in movies and television programs does not exist. Physics says it cannot, or the weapon would always knock down the person firing the weapon.
Worse, a person who is armed only with a handgun and not duty-bound to pursue a fight should avoid gunfights unless there is no choice (self-defense, etc.), because aside from legal considerations a handgun is only marginally capable of stopping a determined attacker. It’s been said that a handgun should only be used to fight your way to a rifle or a shotgun; of course, that is an over-simplification, but shotguns and rifles are better weapons for combat. Unfortunately, even the shortened versions of these guns are difficult to carry or to conceal in everyday life.
That said, the immediate ability to stop a determined attacker with a handgun improves with correct hit placement, and bigger/heavier bullets create larger wound channels. With enough hit velocity, these bigger projectiles will penetrate far enough to reach vital organs and central nervous system components in an attacker. Therefore, with all other things equal carry handguns stuffed with cartridges that have the best performing, largest diameter, and heaviest projectiles (bullets) you can shoot accurately.
After returning home from the class, I did some chronograph and accuracy testing of my ammunition. I used a Kurzzeit PVM 08 chronograph to measure the projectile velocities one meter from the pistol’s muzzle; below, I am reporting the average and standard deviation of the velocities of ten shots of each type, lot number, and brand of ammunition I used in the course. It is notable that I had absolutely no ammunition or gun malfunctions during the class or during my testing – outstanding in each case, as evidenced by the large amount of time spent in drills for clearing malfunctions in semi-auto pistols during training classes. Gunsite required frangible ammunition for use in the simulators, so that is why I used the Polycase training ammo in addition to the standard full metal jacket (FMJ) ammo.
I fired the accuracy shots from a sandbag at targets 25 meters from the pistol. I am reporting the average of five, five-shot groups for each type/brand of ammo. Note the Walther’s sights are better for close-in work, with a wide front sight and a lot of space either side of it when it is aligned with the rear sight, and not well suited for accurate work at 25 meters. That seems to be the standard distance in gun magazines, however, for accuracy evaluations of duty pistols. I’m sure the filing I had to do on the plastic sights (see the main article) didn’t make them more useful for longer distance shots. Overall, I learned that the Walther PPQ M2 .45 I used for the Gunsite class seems to prefer bigger, slower bullets.
|Aguila 230 grain FMJ .45 ACP||Remington UMC 230 grain FMJ .45 ACP||Polycase Inceptor RNP 130 grain frangible .45 ACP|
|Average velocity, 786.7 feet per second||Average velocity, 825.2 feet per second||Average velocity, 1216.4 feet per second|
|Standard deviation, 11.3 feet per second||Standard deviation, 15.2 feet per second||Standard deviation, 12.9 feet per second|
|Group size, 3 ½ inches||Group size, 4 3/8 inches||Group size, 4 3/8 inches|
Working on door approaches at Gunsite Academy
Portion of the 250 class online, Hanneken range
Outdoor simulator at Gunsite Academy
Jason testing ammo with the Walther 45, photo by Barbara Baird
Classroom at Gunsite Academy
Dr. Jason Baird is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and Air Force Institute of Technology. He has a Ph.D. with a field of study in Mining Engineering and Explosives Engineering. Dr. Baird is currently the president of Loki Incorporated, a firm specializing in engineering services to the explosives, propellant, and pyrotechnics industry.