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Hunter Prep at Gunsite Academy

The famous firearm academy is perhaps best known as a training ground for pistol shooters. But beginners and experts can learn Jeff Cooper’s “Art of the Rifle.”


The land Gunsite Academy now sits on was 160 acres of desert when Jeff Cooper and his wife, Janelle, first saw it in 1974. Cooper was a retired Marine and an NRA Board member. But he was perhaps best known as the guru of the .45 ACP, no doubt because of his many writings on the subject for Guns & Ammo magazine for many years. He thought the land would do nicely as a pistol school, and he founded the American Pistol Institute there, in Paulden, Ariz., in 1976.

In 1992, a new owner renamed it Gunsite Training School. It 1999, it became Gunsite Academy, and today the complex encompasses 2,200 acres of pistol, rifle and shotgun ranges. Every year, civilians, and law enforcement and military personnel flock there for specialized training.

In 2009, I enrolled in the Academy’s Hunter Prep course, a five-day amalgam of riflecraft aimed at big-game hunters who want to assess their skills and perhaps tune-up before traveling abroad.

As a former Marine, lifelong shooter and hunter, and an NRA-certified rifle instructor, I didn’t need to verify what I already knew, but I wanted to learn what I didn’t know. Specifically, I wanted to ferret out the reason for a couple of disturbing missed shots on game in recent years. Was it physical? Was I doing something fundamentally wrong during the setup and shot? Or was it mental?

The Right Mindset
Gunsite doesn’t get a lot of beginners in any of its courses, but that’s not to say the level of experience doesn’t vary among students. In my course there was a retired chemist, a retired cardiologist, a former college basketball coach, a PR/marketing representative from the firearm industry and others. With that kind of lineup it’s safe to say our level of hunting experience varied greatly; all of us had hunted throughout our lifetimes, but some of us had done so extensively throughout the world.

Hunter Prep begins in the classroom (but it doesn’t stay there long). Our rangemaster and chief instructor, Il Ling New, introduced herself and our coaches, Mike Moore and Ron Fielder, then went over the range rules and the basics of firearm safety. Then she launched into the philosophic mindset espoused at Gunsite.

First she defined a practical rifle: it is compact, lightweight, powerful and accurate. Accuracy here is defined as something you can use effectively, which needn’t be as accurate as one might think. Most factory rifles are, after all, more accurate than the average rifleman. So the attention quickly shifts to the definition of a practical rifle shooter. He is able to hold still through the shot process, through the dwell time (when the bullet flies to its target), through recoil, and recover to engage the target again, if necessary. A practical rifleman’s most important goal, then, lies in his control over his mind and body.

Which leads to the combat triad first defined by Jeff Cooper, Gunsite’s founder (everything at the academy bears his stamp). The triad is the union of gun handling, marksmanship and mindset in the rifleman. A hunter must harness all three appropriately so succeed. Now, the word “combat” probably raises a few hackles with hunters. After all, we shouldn’t make war on the game we hunt. But combat can be defined as any conflict between groups or individuals. Therefore, a hunter who enters the field with the intention of shooting—indeed, killing—the game he seeks is in fact engaging in combat with that individual animal. In that light, it’s important to enter the field with the right mindset.

The classroom portion didn’t end there; we regularly met inside throughout our five-day course to discuss other academic subjects. But that first morning I was enthused when I learned about the triad of gun handling, marksmanship and mindset. I knew my mastery of the first two was well exceptional, notwithstanding some tweaks I expected Gunsite instructors to make with my technique. So I was most interested in the third property of the triad: mindset. Was the lack of a proper spirit the reason for my recent misses? Had I hunted so much that I’d become complacent about killing game? Was I taking things for granted?

The answer to such a question is personal; no one can make the determination for us. Me? I don’t think I’ll ever enter the field again without thinking about what a blessing I’ve been given. When I’m hunting I’m not sitting behind a desk or sitting in traffic, nor am I worried about day-to-day activities of my life. I’m blessed with the freedom to choose my activity for that day, that moment in time. So I go afield and have fun—that’s the point of a pastime. But now I take it more seriously than ever. I figure I owe it to the game I hunt.

On the range, New described each of the basic field-shooting positions in detail. There are nuances to each of them, too many to list here. Instead, I’ll list the finer points I learned, and perhaps the experienced riflemen among you also will learn a thing or two.

Prone is the steadiest, to be sure, but not always practical. Terrain and vegetation usually conspire to limit our choice of the lowest possible position we can take. So before we decide to plop down we’d better know whether it will work; the game won’t stand around while we decide to rise to a sitting or kneeling position. But when lying down, be sure to spread your legs far apart to create a “Y” with your body. Point your toes outward and keep you heels flat on the ground to limit their movement, either from muscle twitches or wind.

Dropping to the seated position shouldn’t be a drawn-out affair. Too many hunters plop to their butt first, then bend their legs inward, then raise their rifles to their shoulders. By then, too often the game has moved. Instead, cross your legs, then drop straight to your butt, using your right hand (if you’re a right-handed shooter) to brace your fall. Seat your support (left) elbow first, then position the rifle butt in your shoulder. Now sink into position as you acquire your sight picture. Crouched low, many hunters might be uncomfortable; their diaphragms will be compressed and it will be hard to breathe. Also, bending one’s knees into such a position will stretch ligaments that haven’t been exercised like this in years. Practice helps you find the sweet spot, and stretches ligaments, too.

The kneeling is my favorite, but in high wind it can be touch-and-go. This shooting “platform” will provide only one point of contact with your body—your support elbow on your knee. And your strong-side elbow dangles unsupported. But you’re able to adopt the position and rise from it quickly, which provides the ability to move quickly should the game shift position.

The best thing I learned at Gunsite about the kneeling is the use of the Safari Ching Sling. I’d heard of it, but until instructors talked me into using it I never thought it would be such an effective tool. It’s sold by Galco Gunleather and it improves accuracy without robbing speed from your setup. One piece of leather is split vertically in the middle of the run, and a loop runs between that split. It’s secured with Galco’s Keyhole Lock system, which makes fitting the loop to different shooters fast and tool-free. The key to the sling’s use is securing it before you adopt your position; done backwards, you’ll look like Sad Sack fumbling with arms, elbows and leather. Before dropping to your knee, pull the loop high up your support arm, close to your armpit. After dropping, place your support elbow on your knee, and feel the steadiness the sling provides. Jeff Cooper said it improved accuracy by as much as 30 percent. I don’t know how to measure that, but I do know I’ll never hunt without mine again.

The offhand, or standing, position is the least stable, and as such it should be used only as a last resort when the target is close and time is of the essence. Il Ling New taught us to square-up to the target rather than stand blade-like, with your right leg back. When you don’t have to drop one leg to the rear you can snap in more quickly, but moreover you’re prepared to soak up recoil, which is key here to accuracy. In the blade position, heavy recoil is likely to send your shots to the right. Squared-up, recoil is sent straight back and shots are more likely to stay on target.

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