I have never taken a class at the Gunsite Academy and I don’t claim to know Jeff Cooper. I do know that he saved my life, and if you carry a gun for a living, at some point he is going to save yours too. In order to digest this sweeping statement you have to understand how things were before Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Cooper, USMC (retired/deceased), developed the “modern techniques” of small arms training and opened the Gunsite Training Academy in Paulden, Ariz.
THE FIRST FIREARM that I carried was a Marine Corpsissue .45-caliber pistol. The date: December 1983; the place: Beirut, Lebanon; and the mission: determine the source and nature of a serious food-borne illness that had started ashore. I was a navy corpsman, a medical laboratory technician, coming off the USS Guam to assist the environmental medical team in isolating an outbreak of salmonella paratyphoid. This disease is a mankiller and the mission was very important, but as far as pistols go, I was completely untrained. A fellow corpsman, who was assigned to the Marine helicopter squadron operating off the coast of Guam, had given me the pistol.
I have no idea where he got the firearm; he simply pulled it out of his tiny locker located in the shared overflow berthing compartment. He handed it to me with the warning, “Whatever happens, for god’s sake, don’t load it because the Marines ashore would go crazy if they caught you with a loaded weapon.”
On Oct. 23 of that year, a suicide bomber had driven a large truck filled with the equivalent of 21,000 pounds of TNT through the base perimeter and detonated the explosives on the side of the building that the Marines were using for their headquarters and barracks. One of the details from that tragedy that I have never forgotten was how the truck driver made it past the Marine sentries at the entrance gate. As the driver approached the gate without slowing down, the Marines recognized him as a threat, but did not fire their weapons because they were unloaded. They were unloaded because that was the default standard operating procedure of the day. Conventional wisdom at that time was that a loaded weapon equaled accidental discharges, which in turn injured Marines.
THE SENTRIES probably had a loaded magazine sitting right below an empty chamber. That is now called a “Condition 3” firearm, but back then, conditions were not taught to Marines or anyone else. They could have done a “type one” malfunction drill to put their rifles into action, but in those days, the importance of muscle memory or type-one malfunction drills were simply not taught. The mechanical skills and combat mindset required to react instinctively to an existential threat would not become ingrained in the Marine Corps or anywhere else until Cooper made these concepts fundamental to professional firearms training.
Without this knowledge, the sentries acted on instinct and in an attempt to save his fellow Marines, one of them threw himself in front of the truck. He became the first of 241 Marines to die that night.
FOUR YEARS LATER, I arrived at Camp Pendleton, Calif., as a second lieutenant who had just graduated from the Infantry Officer Course and was slated to take charge of a rifle platoon in the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. The assignment was pure luck. The battalion was scheduled to be the Ground Combat Element of the very first Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable. That meant we were slated to do a six-month deployment to the Western Pacific aboard the ships of an Amphibious Ready Group instead of doing a six-month rotation with the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa. That was a good deal and being the first SOC Battalion Landing Team meant that we were conducting all sorts of new and high-speed training with “fast” ropes and “rigid-raiding” craft. We were also alotted all the training ammunition a young lieutenant could ask for.
Unfortunately, we had no clear understanding of what to do with all of the extra small-arms ammunition. Every infantry battalion in the Marine Corps conducted an annual training rotation in Twentynine Palms, Calif. This was a month-long, Combined Arms training eXercise, or CAX, that included multiple sequences of live-fire assaults.
This is where infantry battalions burned up most of their annual training ammunition allocation; we had hundreds of thousands of rounds more than those guys. The extensive entry-level training required one to pass the qualification course with both the rifle and pistol. Anyone who has read Cooper’s doctrine knows, a rifle and pistol qualification isn’t combat training. It means that you are ready to start combat training. At the time, that concept was largely alien in both military and law enforcement circles. Tactical training was, doctrinally, the responsibility of the Fleet Marine Force, but up until 1988, they too had zero training to offer on the tactical employment of small arms.
IT ALL CHANGED when a bright 1st Marine Division staff officer developed a plan to address the evident training short fall. We received word of this when we returned from our first six-month shipboard deployment and our battalion was ordered to surrender our best sergeants to division schools. When an infantry battalion returns from a deployment it can anticipate losing hundreds of Marines in what was then known as the Fleet Assistance Program.
These Marines would augment the military police, base services, rifle range and many other facilities. The FAP was one of the many cost-saving programs used by the legendarily stingy Marine Corps to get the most bang out of its manpower buck. The standard operating procedure for units facing the FAP crunch was to hold back their talent in order to train the replacements who would be pouring in for the next deployment.
The courses we steered our sergeants towards were called the combat-rifle and combat-pistol instructor courses. Three of my acting squad leaders (all corporals) scored seats to these courses. We knew nothing about them except that the ammuntion requirement was 2,000 rounds per man per course; this hinted that they might be worth attending. The corporals were nervous about the pistol course because that was not a firearm they had ever qualified with.
I wasn’t in good shape either, having only qualified with the Colt 1911 in Quantico. Here, we were running 9mm Berettas, and I had never fired one. I remember walking into the classroom where we ended up spending very little time, and seeing posters with the four rules of weapons safety and color codes of mental awareness. I knew then that these two courses would be worth some investment of time and ammunition. I was wrong; the training we received there was worth its weight in gold!
THE SERGEANTS instructing these courses were beyond impressive – they were confident, knew the material and experts in weapons handling, tactical shooting and positive reinforcement. They taught us the syllabus that was doctrine for the famous Gunsite Academy founded by Cooper in 1976. Word for word, drill by drill, they taught us well. Cooper and his team had trained these Marines to perfection and then he had allowed his class outlines and drills to be used without any compensation for what was then and is now, extraordinarily valuable intellectual property.
The impact this training had on our Marines was impossible to quantify. We made it a priority to teach these techniques, tactics and procedures to the new Marines joining the company. The new lieutenants and staff sergeants we received for the next deployment cycle also attended the courses. Everyone who encountered Marines from our regiment noted straight trigger fingers and professional weapon handling skills. They sensed that they were observing men who considered the fundamentals of combat shooting to be the very foundation of the profession of arms.
OUR SECOND MEU (SOC) training cycle was markedly different from the first. We crammed as much live-fire training into our schedule as possible, using Gunsite-designed line drills and simulators. It was intense. The Marines loved it. Our rotation through Twentynine Palms was a smashing success; the squads, platoons and rifle companies ran through the live fire and movement range progressions with ease.
I remember one of the coyotes (officers assigned to supervise and run the CAX) telling me that there was a noticeable difference between battalions coming from Camp Pendleton and those that were based at Camp Lejune or Hawaii. He added that they knew it was due to “those shooting courses you guys are teaching” at the division schools. In time, Cooper’s modern technique of small arms training would spread to every corner of America. The military, police and federal law enforcement use it to this day, and there are hundreds of schools across America that teach it to students who want to be responsible for their own safety and need to learn how.
I’M A HISTORY BUFF with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the Vietnam War. I’ve studied thousands of photographs from that conflict; my father and two of my uncles fought there and have shared many stories about their time working the Leatherneck Square, Rockpile and the infamous Arizona territory. Look at photos of Marines or soldiers fighting in Vietnam and compare them with photographs from Afghanistan or Iraq today and you can see for yourself that the way grunts used to handle their weapons is completely different from how they handle them now.
Jeff Cooper single handedly did that, and without fanfare or self promotion. He did much more too; he taught us how to think. I spent eight years in Afghanistan, all of it outside the wire embedded in various Afghan communities. During that time I was given the opportunity to design reconstruction projects in the contested provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, Nimroz and the Hellmand. We did not take the normal approach used by traditional security contractors. We did not have armored SUVs or heavily reinforced compounds. We moved in local vehicles, wearing local clothes and were responsible for our own security, a position advocated by Cooper repeatedly in his insightful lessons.
We used what my good friend and former Gunsite instructor John “Mullah” Binns called the Jeff Cooper El Salvador option for securing our compounds. We had exterior guards, but they were only armed with sawed-off shotguns. Their job was to fire them and run if we were attacked. The high-end military-grade ordinance was inside the compound with trained expats. We didn’t want to leave AK-47s or RPK machineguns outside of our buildings where they could be used against us if our minimal exterior security failed, which was likely to happen.
We didn’t put our 30-foot RPG screens on top of the compound walls either, like every other Western-aid implementer in the country. Our exterior walls looked exactly like every other compounds’ exterior walls. If you jumped over them, you landed on top of concertina wire; if you got through the concertina, you then had to get past the dogs; if you got past the dogs, you had to deal with us – and we knew what we were doing with the multiple weapon systems stored in our compounds. Many international compounds in Afghanistan were attacked by the Taliban over the years, but they never attacked one of ours, and I think that was, in part, due to our unique security posture, developed by Cooper.
THE COMBAT MINDSET, color code of mental awareness and four rules of weapons safety were the foundation on which I based my security procedures in Afghanistan, and they served me well in some pretty tough situations. I survived eight years to return home relatively unscathed, and I am convinced that Jeff Cooper had much to do with that. If you carry a gun for living, you too are benefiting from the legacy of Lt. Col. Cooper. It is impossible to calculate the number of marines, soldiers, SEALs, police officers as well as trained civilians who are alive today thanks to the modernization of gun handling and combat marksmanship that was developed, refined and introduced to America by this lion of a man. He should never be forgotten as long as free men roam this world with the rights and ability to defend themselves against those who would victimize them through criminality or tyranny. ASJ
STORY BY TIM LYNCH • PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF GUNSITE ACADEMY