September 23, 2010
By Wayne van Zwoll
Humbling though it may be, Gunsite's hands-on approach to The Art Of The Rifle can mold any hunter into a better shooter.
By Wayne van Zwoll
Gunsite instructor Il Ling demonstrates the proper use of the kneeling position with a Scout rifle.
The rifle is a noble weapon. It brings us pleasures that no scattergunner can ever know. A shotgun takes us into cultivated fields or into those narrow wastes within sight and sound of civilization. But the rifle entices its bearer into primeval forests, into mountains and deserts untenanted by man. To him in whom the primitive virtues of courage, energy and love of adventure have not been sapped, there is scarce a joy comparable to that of roaming at will through wild regions, viewing the glories of the unspoiled earth and feeling the inexpressible thrill of manliness sore tested by privation and hazard but armed and undismayed."
Horace Kephart wrote these words early in the 20th century. Eric Olds presented them again last summer to introduce his class in marksmanship at Gunsite Academy near Paulden, Arizona. I was there to learn what I should already know about shooting. As it turns out, I'd come to the right place.
"We don't get a lot of beginners here," said Il Ling, a slim young lady who shared teaching duties with the tall, big-boned Olds. The diminutive Asian and the imposing Norse were an unlikely coaching team but, I'd soon learn, an extraordinarily competent pair of shooters. They have a gift for sharing their passion with the unschooled, like me.
Sure, I'd fired a truckload of rifles. My competitive smallbore career had earned a few stars. And I managed to kill game animals now and then. But was I shooting to my potential?
"Not many people do," said Ling tactfully with a smile. "Our 270 Rifle Course helps you assess your ability and raise it a notch. If you want to polish up for big-game season, we have a shorter version called Hunter Prep."
This past fall I attended both courses (minus some time in each, courtesy of schedule conflicts). While the focus differed slightly, the classes shared a two-pronged approach: adherence to proper shooting form and enough ammunition to show progress on targets.
Slither in, poke your rifle out front, shoot, back out and run on. And be quick about it! The author found the "Scrambler" course aptly named.
"We ask that you bring 600 rounds for the 270 Course," said Olds, "and 400 for the Hunter Prep. You can't learn to shoot well if you don't shoot often."
True to his word, we spent only a couple of hours in the classroom. Mainly, that was to learn Gunsite's safety rules:
- All guns are always loaded.
- Never let the muzzle cover anything you wouldn't destroy.
- Keep your finger off the trigger unless your sights are on the target.
- Be sure of your target and of what's beyond.
"Good shooting is mostly proper mindset," Olds declared, "plus a mastery of fundamental skills. If you learn what to practice then practice what you've learned, shooting well is easy."
He concluded by saying what every marksman should know: "Accuracy is a form of consistency. Anyone can hit the middle once in awhile. Only accomplished shooters hit the middle regularly."
Shooters carry their loaded rifles everywhere they go at Gunsite, where there are no black bullseye targets used in the 270 Course.
So, briefed and armed with our own rifles, the class of nine caravanned off the hill, leaving Gunsite's office and classroom complex for the range. Actually, Gunsite has enough rifle and pistol ranges to accommodate several student groups at once, Bob Young told me later. Young administers all programs at the facility and is looking to expand the agenda.
"We retain about 80 adjunct instructors," he said. "They're uncommonly talented shooters and have a knack for explaining things clearly. Their enthusiasm is infectious and one of the main reasons we get repeat business. Many students come back to take different classes."
Founded by G&A's Jeff Cooper in 1976, Gunsite is best known as a training facility for pistol shooters. Young admits that the shotgun, rifle and carbine courses retain a martial flavor.
"They're mainly geared to defensive and combat shooting," he says. A retired Marine, Young considers military structure to be "good for students. The Armed Forces are pretty efficient at teaching the basics of marksmanship, and military range practices ensure safety."
Gunsite has a "hot range" policy. Rifles are never considered empty, and they're kept with bolts closed, safety on, unless they're racked. They are seldom racked. We slung them on our shoulders as we checked targets or listened to Olds explain the next stage or point out deficiencies in our shooting. They stayed slung when we watched classmates shoot.
Better to achieve pie-plate accuracy quickly than very precise shooting after the deer is gone, according to Gunsite instructor Bob Young.
"Before you become proficient with a rifle, you have to be familiar with it," Olds told us, "so we encourage you to handle it all day. Dry-fire at targets when we give you time. Practice shouldering the rifle, from both high and low ready. Think of the barrel as an extension of your arm."
High ready is muzzle-up, rifle angled across your front as you might hold a shotgun when your pointer locks onto a covey. Low ready is a combat position, butt high on your shoulder, muzzle down, as if you were about to clear a room SWAT-style.
"Consistent shooting follows consistent carry," said Olds. "Start each shot the same way, with a solid stance, hands positioned to control the rifle. Look at the target. Bring the sights to your eye."
Unlike some shooting courses that move students from steady positions into the more difficult offhand, Gunsite's 270 and Hunter Prep classes stress offhand shooting from the start.
"We sift in the other positions," said Ling, "and also moving targets, our long-range shooting, a timed scramble and the vlei exercise, which is a walk through hunting terrain that presents camouflaged targets at undetermined distances."
Shooting at Gunsite is fun and challenging. A deliberate rifleman, I had trouble when target frames flipped sideways after exposing paper for two seconds. Even at 35 yards it seemed a center hit was impossible. But to my astonishment, faster cadence didn't ruin my scores. Shoving the rifle toward the target, I learned to pressure the trigger before the reticle reached its center. Rather than letting the rifle go to sleep fitfully — as with target guns in bullseye competition — I had to take an active hand. Pushing the shot was part of the mounting motion. Because the rifle's mass never took control, because my muscles and position maintained pressure on the sight picture until the striker fell, there were no surprise hops and dips. While the trigger seldom broke when the sight picture looked perfect, most holes appeared near the middle.
Van Zwoll accelerated his shooting at Gunsite and cycled three bullets into this "charging buffalo" as it careened toward him on a tether behind an ATV.
"We want pie-plate accuracy," said Olds. "If you're shooting three-minute groups, you're shooting too slowly. Pick up the pace. In the field, as in combat, it's better to hit the fringe of the vitals right away than to lose your opportunity trying to drill the middle."
We shot no bullseye targets. The paper faces were likenesses of game animals, vitals unmarked. Steel plates were of various shapes. Oddly, there's no metallic silhouette range — no borregos or javelinas. On the vlei, some animal-shaped silhouettes appeared with metal poppers and plates of unpredictable form and color. The object there: Spot the targets, and hit each as quickly as possible. If you shoot too hastily or from an unsteady position and miss, you shoot again until you hit. Repeat shots are common. I required only a couple, but my times were slower than those of students bold enough to try midrange targets offhand.
The longest poke on the vlei is just shy of 400 yards, a cinch from prone after the 400-yard tower platform from a 15-foot platform. Most shooters used the tower to check zeroes using metal ammo boxes as rests. I chose to fire my borrowed .308 Ruger M77 from a sling and banged my final three targets soundly.
Imagination gets free rein at Gunsite. So we shot a leopard target at night by flashlight beam from a blind. Moving targets running smoothly on a track proved easy enough offhand from 50 and 100 yards. Sitting, from 200, they were maddeningly difficult.
"You'll need to be off the leading edge," coached Olds. "And don't stop your swing." It's tough to stop a swing you don't have, though. Sitting is a rigid position, and I managed only a jerky lead, a dismal performance.
Gunsite instructor Eric Olds shows proper "low ready" stance for quick offhand shooting.
But this was not as embarrassing as the shoot-out in a 270 Class I joined near its close. "You don't have to participate," said Ling. But boldly I waded in. The gig: Hit a steel silhouette offhand at 100 yards and another prone at 200. Each shooter started opposite another at the same command. You couldn't shoot the long target until you'd hit the short one. The first one finished won. Winners faced off. The pressure of time and an audience made the task difficult. I finished dead last.
Duly humiliated, I worked hard during the Hunter Prep Course to speed my shooting. On the last day I "saved" two rounds in timed fire, both from the sitting position. I grimaced when Olds raised an eyebrow.
"Better not to fire than to throw bullets wide," I said weakly. Olds nodded. "Best to shoot them all and hit." You don't often get the final word at Gunsite.
It was the last day for me, and the improvement in my shooting had been noticeable. "Want to try the Scrambler?" Ling volunteered to time me through this seven-target sprint past camouflaged steel plates barely visible through gaps in pinyon-juniper cover. You shoot from a rest to hit the first metal and start the timer. Other targets are catch-as-catch-can. At one station you must belly into a wooden box the size of a raccoon trap and poke your rifle out the front to engage the target, then back out. All the shots are short, and so is the sprint, but you're winded right away and, of course, must load on the run. I managed in 72 seconds — slow by local standards but without a miss.
"This is fun," I gasped.
Ling grinned. "You'll have to come back for another course. The more you shoot, the better you get."
That's the Gunsite philosophy. And it can help anyone become a better marksman.
|Gunsite At A Glance|
Gunsite Ranch was once a barren, 160-acre patch of high desert. "Perfect for a pistol school," Jeff Cooper told me at his home adjacent to the property. Cooper, whose combat handgunning techniques and extensive writings on the .45 ACP (most of it having appeared in G&A) are known throughout the shooting world, bought the property in 1974. A year later he and his wife, Janelle, moved here from Big Bear Lake, California, where they'd lived for 19 years.
Cooper established the American Pistol Institute on the place and ran it from 1976 until 1992 when a new owner rechristened it Gunsite Training School. It became Gunsite Academy in 1999. The raven totem stayed.
"I developed a section of land to act as a buffer," said Cooper. "We called it Raven Guard." Split into 40-acre tracts, this land sold to people sympathetic to shooting. Bob Young and Gunsite's current owner, Buzz Mills, have homes there, as does Cooper.
Shooting programs at Gunsite have proliferated. Though Cooper's vision was less to operate a business than to run a school, he supports any class that teaches practical shooting. "Hunter Prep is similar to what I'd planned for a Safari class," he said. "Many people on safari for the first time lack field training."
Cooper has as many rifles as pistols, including several of the Scout design he suggested and Steyr (most notably) produced. No monoculture here: The rack held products from Sako, Blaser, Winchester and Wild West, plus Krag a
nd 1917 Enfield battle rifles. There was a .25-35 Model 94. Most of Cooper's long guns were chambered to modern rounds like the .308, a recommended choice for students taking Gunsite classes.
This article first appeared in the April 2004 issue of Guns & Ammo magazine, a sister publication of RifleShooter.