GC-140 The History of Gunsite Academy

In Gunfighter Cast episode number GC-140, I spoke with Ken Campbell about the history and philosophy of Gunsite as well as what courses they offer armed citizens.

Also known as “The Sheriff”, now Chief Operating Officer at Gunsite Academy.  Gunsite Academy is sometimes referred to as the ‘Jedi Temple’ because so many greats have come from there. That’s the topic today, talking with the guy who could be considered the Gunsite historian.

Ken Campbell, Gunsite Academy Chief Operations Officer

Host: Daniel Shaw

Guest: Ken Cambell

Introduction/Timeline: Stephanie Kimmell

1:38 What is Gunsite Academy?

As Ken describes it, Gunsite is a living and breathing entity. It’s not just a school, it’s a way of life. It’s a place that helps keep good Americans alive.

Ken says as far as they know, Gunsite is the oldest continually owned and operated shooting school in the world — not in the republic — in the world. This is its 41st year of operation and he says they keep good people alive by providing what they think is excellent training and teaching people life-saving skills.

2:22 What kinds of classes are offered at Gunsite?

When Gunsite opened back in 1976, it was called The American Pistol Institute, started by the late Colonel Jeff Cooper and his wife Jenelle Cooper. He used the institute as a laboratory for his continued study of pistol craft and defensive shooting. 

Initially, the institute started out with just one level of pistol class. Things grew and then there were two levels of pistol classes. But Colonel Cooper was a rifleman as much as anything, so they added a general rifle course with bolt guns. As callings for more classes came, they added carbines — the 5.56 platforms and the AK variants. Then they added shotgun classes, and it’s grown on and on from there. 

Gunsite Academy Carbine Class

Now, Gunsite Academy offers a variety of classes:

• Three levels of pistol classes.

• Pistols with lasers.

• Two levels of carbine.

• Two levels of battle rifle (30 caliber semi-automatic platform).

• General rifle courses.

• North American game courses.

• Safari courses.

• Long-Range (up to about 1500 yards).

• Extreme Long Range (up to about 2400 yards).

• Two levels of shotgun classes.

• Specialty classes such as Citizen Response to Active Shooter, Vehicle Defense, BRAVE (Ballistic Response Against Violent Encounters) which covers home defense and street crimes.

• Close-quarters pistol classes and edged weapon classes.

• A trauma medicine class.

Back when the war was first starting, trauma med was based on a war-time platform. Now, it’s based on an active shooter platform. Bad thing happens at your workplace, you have your fight, you shelter in place. You’re waiting on the cavalry to come and you’ve got some hurt people, what can you do to keep them alive?

Even though they offer a variety of classes, they will tailor classes for their clients.  

We’ll build what you want and we’ll work with the industry on specialty things.

5:28 What is the training philosophy at Gunsite Academy?

Ken says they’ve been fortunate over the past 41 years. 

We’ve got some of, if not, the best instructors in the business.

Ken’s background is in law enforcement, and he’s attended and taught at the state academy where they yell and scream at the students and make them do pushups. He says, “That’s not adult education.” 

At Gunsite Academy, they offer adult education in lifesaving skills, and as he puts it, “I want the clients to have the show, with dinner.”

In other words, if you’re having fun even though serious topics are being covered, your learning curve is going to rocket and you’re going to retain more of it. That’s the critical point. You want to learn it and have it available in the toolbox so you can pull it back out when you need it later on. 

To Ken, it’s the ability to reach everybody from that little old lady who’s a door greeter at Walmart to the clients that work for different alphabet agencies or special military units.

We’ve got to be able to reach all of those folks and teach them as efficiently and effectively as we can.

6:53 How do you balance entertainment with training?

A lot of people come to class who just want to kit up and do something like fantasy band-camp, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just another person out there who’s going to be more well-regulated in case they’re needed.

Some people out there have the attitude that training isn’t for fun, but as Daniel says, “Why else would you drop $400 dollars for a weekend and go to a range and do some work? It has to be a little fun. If people aren’t having fun, they’re probably not going to come back and do it again.”

Ken agrees and says the staff at Gunsite wants it to be educational so people feel like they’re really taking something away from it. If students are having fun when they’re doing it, their retention rate is going to be higher and they’re more likely to come back. 

He makes reference to Colonel Cooper, who would say, “Too many folks own a piano and think they’re a musician.”

Lt. Col. Cooper Gunsite Academy

And that’s just not the case. Too many folks go to the gun store and buy what they think is the best blaster. They shoot it half a dozen times at soda cans on the backstop at Uncle Ned’s farm. Then they hide it in their underwear drawer, and they think that when the flag flies, they’re going to be ready.

That’s not the way it works. He references the well known Barret Tillman quote, “You don’t rise to the occasion, you default to the level of your training.” 

So if they’re having fun, their retention rate is greater, so that they will default to a higher level of training. 

Ken explains that at Gunsite, they have a great mix of instructors. So whether a student is a visual, auditory, or hands-on learner, one of their methods of teaching, or the collaboration of three or four instructors will find a way to reach that person. As a result, they’ll retain it. 

Gunsite Academy pistol class

He says, “We can treat it like boot camp if that’s what they want and they think that’ll help them — we can do that. But we’ve found that that’s not as effective.” He says that even though that type of instruction may be effective for that 19-23-year-old at the law enforcement academy, for adults, there are better ways to present the information so that they retain it and use it later on.

He also points out the different motivations that people have for coming to train at Gunsite.

The folks that come for the entertainment…well, if they were going to be just entertained, they’d be headed to Disneyland or Universal or something like that. So in the back of their mind, they really do recognize there are some issues and they want to be able to face them.

Using the idea of entertainment can actually also serve as a way for them to explain to their non-gun friends why they went to a gun class. If it’s entertainment, it’s more acceptable to their liberal friends. They can say they’re not going there to shoot, they’re just going for fun. 

They just might not be willing to say publicly something like, “I want to learn to be better at defending myself and using deadly force if that should happen.”  

Ken says they get clients like that at Gunsite. Some of their celebrity clients, for instance, are in the music or film industry. They can’t publicly say that they support the Second Amendment or that they’re at Gunsite Academy. If they do, it’s possible that they could be black-listed by the higher-ups in that industry are very liberal and anti-gun. So, they come and take classes, and the staff at Gunsite is very discreet, and some of them even go out and write on a firearms blog under a pseudonym. He says, “It’s a shame that they have to do that, but … God bless them for running that risk in their livelihood because they do believe they have a right to, and want to be able to protect themselves and their families.”

Some of the other folks like that are just “Earth People” who come to train at Gunsite. He says that some of them are more private than others, but generally, the class dynamics are very strong at Gunsite. 

We call it the Gunsite Family. As the week goes on, people make lifelong friends. They realize that the people they’re with are good, like-minded people who are eager to learn. Then they start opening up and talk a little bit more freely.

12:30 Who is the number one client at Gunsite? 

The term that Ken uses is the Earth People. They’re the run of the mill, Joe the Plumber, the little old lady who works at Walmart. He says they’re blessed to have the people who work in law enforcement and military, the best in the world, but that’s not their bread and butter. 

Our bread and butter is folks. The folks who are listening right here, right now.

Some of them have been saving their nickel and dimes. If you’re old enough to remember the deposit on pop bottles, they’ve been saving the deposit on pop bottles so they can get out to Gunsite and take this class. That’s Gunsite’s primary clientele. That’s the way Jeff Cooper set it up. He wanted the average citizen to be able to attend and that’s who his focus was on so they could learn how to better defend themselves. 

Gunsite Academy classroom instruction

14:06 Why is the armed citizen the top priority at Gunsite?

Ken comes from a law enforcement background. He spent 35 years in the Sheriff’s Office, and he says, “The first responder is you. You are going to be the first responder whether it’s a critical incident at your home or a critical incident at the mall, or a concert or a public gathering. You’ve got to be able to defend yourself and your family until the cavalry can arrive.”

He says that they do want people to call law enforcement so they can get there and help resolve the problem, but depending where you are, it’s going to be five, six, seven or twenty minutes before that help can arrive. So, they don’t want people to be cowering in the corner covering their loved ones with their bodies while they wait for help to arrive. The staff at Gunsite wants to be able to train good people so they can start solving those problems before the professional first responders arrive. 

Jeff Cooper, Gunsite Academy founder. Skill at arms is everybody's business.

Daniel comments that he’s in one of the only places that he knows of in Alliance Ohio that invites the public to come train with the police department. They do that because the citizens are the ones who will be the first to respond. They’ll call the police, but they’re probably not going to get there in time, so citizens need to be able to protect themselves. 

Ken makes a point of personal pride. At the Sheriff’s office where he worked, before he was Sheriff, they had a Sheriff who let them do citizen pistol classes. Then they started hosting people like Gunsite, Louis Awerbuk, Pat Rogers, Bill Jeans with Morrigan Consulting, Colt, tactical treatment of gunshot wounds, and so on. Some of the Alliance folks came early on to some of Pat Roger’s classes and took the idea back with them and they’ve grown it exponentially. 

“What a great way to work with your public, and build bridges with your public. So many times the public thinks law enforcement are stand-offish and think they’re better than the citizens are, and so on. Well, if you can get them in classes with your cops, they build bridges. They build friendships. They have a better understanding.

“From a cop’s standpoint, I’d much rather have a trained citizen at home as opposed to that person who did just buy that gun, shot it a half dozen times, now they’re standing there thinking they’re going to be able to protect themselves. That’s more fearful to me than a trained person.

“The other side of it is… who do you want sitting on your jury? If you’re involved in a shooting, do you want a citizen that knows all they need to know about shooting? Because they’ve seen John Wayne and Mel Gibson and all these other blast-em-up TV shows and movies? Or do you want somebody that actually had some training? Real, honest-to-God training like what is offered at Alliance for the public?”

18:45 Are there benefits to mixing civilians and law enforcement in firearms training courses? 

Daniel says that he’s done a lot of law-enforcement only classes because a lot of the agencies don’t want to be in front of the general public. They feel like they can’t let their hair down, go 100 percent, and fail on the range if they’re in front of civilians.

He’s even seen at some ranges where they want to put up some sheets and blankets on the windows so people can’t see them training and messing up. They think civilians shouldn’t see those things, and they worry that the civilians might run a camera.

He says that’s the wrong mentality.

Since he started his new company in January, he contacts local law enforcement if there are open seats in the class to invite officers to come out for free and fill those seats. 

He says it enhances the class so much to have two law enforcement officers in that class when the cover issues like Force on Force, ethics, statutes, and case law. In the defensive handgun class and active shooter response classes they talk about how to respond to the responding officer in the immediate post-engagement.  

They add to the class so much and they reinforce the things that I’m talking about and they give their own perspectives, which make a lot of sense.

By attending the classes with civilians, the officers come to understand that not every concealed carry person is just some guy who bought a gun and put it in his sock. They realize that these people are competent and may even be better than a lot of the officers in the agency.

Their confidence in the armed citizen goes higher and the armed citizens gain an appreciation for the officers’ skills and the time they took to go train on their day off. The class is better, the learning is better. In every single de-brief, he hears officers say things like, “I have a newfound respect for you armed citizens now. I did not realize you were this good.” 

Ken mentions another benefit that comes from classes with a mix of civilians and law enforcement. If the topic of budget limitations comes up in class, some of the folks who are in attendance make donations to the department. They give the money to help the department do things like buy equipment, send someone to school, or buy more ammo for training.

Look at what that’s saying. A person who is a taxpayer….is wanting to give you more because of the experience they had in that course.

He also points out that screwing up in class isn’t a terrible thing. On the instructor level, if he screws up in class, it’s a teaching point. “If I make an error, I can say, ‘Look, this is what I did, and here’s why I think I did it, so I’ve got to work on this.'”

He says that’s the mark of a good instructor and it builds more credibility with the students.

Daniel agrees, “We want to be able to replicate it every single time but it just doesn’t always work out that way. When it doesn’t, that’s a teaching moment. 

23:30 How can people learn more about Gunsite, and figure out which class is best for them to start?

Check out the website, Gunsite.com. You’ll see a complete overview of all the classes and information about lodging. 

Once you’ve got some ideas about what’s available, you’ll probably have some questions. Send your questions to Ken by  emailing him at [email protected]

Or you can give him or Gunsite’s training director Dave Parkman a call. They’ll visit with you as long as needed to get you squared away so you can figure out what class best suits you and how they can support you getting out to the Academy. 

Gunsite Academy front gate

Gunsite also does off-site classes. They offer a five-day pistol class in Virginia at the Colonial Shooting Academy and a three-day course at Firearms Academy in Seatle. They do several three-day classes in the Nashville Tennessee area and some three-day classes courtesy of the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office in Green Castle, Indiana. They’re working on setting up some classes in the Cape Canaveral/Cape Kennedy area also. 

Gunmag Training's Chief Instructor Daniel Shaw is a retired US Marine Infantry Unit Leader with multiple combat tours and instructor titles.  Since retirement from the Marine Corps, Daniel teaches Armed Citizens and Law Enforcement Officers weapons, tactics and use of force. Daniel takes his life of training and combat experience and develops as well as presents curriculum to help Law Enforcement, US Military and Responsible Armed Citizens prepare for a deadly force encounter.  When he isn't directing marketing for Gunmag Warehouse, Daniel travels the US teaching and training under Gunmag Training, and discusses all things hoplological and self-defense related on The MagLife Podcast.


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