In GC-141, I spoke with Ken Campbell the COO of Gunsite Academy about the many influential trainers that have come through Gunsite and left a positive impact on the programs and trainers there. We also talked about how to become a Gunsite Academy instructor.
Host: Daniel Shaw
Guest: Ken Cambell
Introduction/Timeline: Stephanie Kimmell
1:35 What does it take to be an instructor at Gunsite Academy?
Gunsite brings in some of the best instructors in the world.
Bruce Nelson was one of the first instructors for Gunsite’s first class. That name will mean something to the shooting aficionados and historians listening to the podcast.
Bruce was a peace officer in California, but he also had a company called Bruce Nelson Combat Leather. He was a holster designer and maker and, according to Ken, made some of the best leather in the business and to this day. Galco, Milt Sparks, Rafter L Customs, and many of the others still copy or using clones of his designs. In fact, the Summer Special hoster, and all its variants, was originally a Bruce Nelson design.
So, Bruce was an instructor in class #1, and Gunsite hasn’t slowed down since.
Gunsite instructors are predominantly law enforcement or military, active duty or retired, though there are a few other subject matter experts in the hunting field that teach the Safari, North American game, and Four-Legged Predator classes. Some of the instructor cadre have led Safari and North American game hunts.
The medical cadre is comprised of physicians, but they’ve been SWAT doctors. One of them in particular did five tours as a Navy doc and worked for J-SOC in his last three tours.
3:55 How do you become an instructor at Gunsite Academy?
Every week, Ken says Gunsite receives a lot of resumes from people who are getting ready to retire from law enforcement or military who would like to be an instructor. He says his first response to them is to ask,
Have you ever been to Gunsite?
If they haven’t, he asks how they know they would be a good fit for what Gunsite teaches?
So, when Gunsite brings someone on staff, they aren’t taught how to be an instructor. The academy isn’t an instructor development school. Nor are they taught how to shoot. You’ve got to be very experienced in both of those fields for us to even begin to look at you.
The way the program is set up, you’ve got to have a minimum of three classes at Gunsite: two pistol and one of the other disciplines (shotgun, carbine, battle rifle, things like that).
Gunsite courses are graded. Gradings are Certificate of Completion, Marksman, Marksman I, or Expert (called the Golden E because there aren’t many Expert ratings earned).
You have to have been graded as a Marksman I or Expert in all three of your classes. You also have to sufficiently impress a Rangemaster with your abilities.
Not all of the staff at Gunsite are Rangemasters. Initially, they come in as coaches who support the Rangemasters and then they work their way up to becoming Rangemasters over the course of additional years of experience.
The Rangemaster has to be willing to put their name on a letter saying they approve of you, and send the letter to Ken and the Gunsite Training Director who review it. If they’re interested, they’ll contact you to request a resume or CV so they can read through and see what’s in your background. If they still like what they see, they’ll let you know they’re interested and get started with the minimum of three and maximum of four apprenticeships with Gunsite.
6:19 What’s a Gunsite Apprenticeship like?
It’s like an apprenticeship in the plumbing or carpentry industry. In Gunsite’s case, they give you a place to stay and clothes to wear.
So you come out and meet with the Rangemaster and you’ve got a book that resembles a field officer training type book. It has your background in it and all of the skill sets that Gunsite is looking for.
The Rangemaster goes over that with you and you can talk with the Rangemaster to try and determine what he/she is going to have you teach over the course of that week. You’re graded during the process. At any point, they can tell you that it isn’t going to be a good fit and you should go home. That’s happened as early as noon on a Monday of the first week. Ken says that’s not a proud moment, but…
They’re Gunsite instructors. They’ve got to be the very best.
So they go through their weeklong class with the Rangemaster, and at the end of the week, the Rangemaster goes back over the book with the grades. Everybody signs off on it (apprentice instructor, Rangemaster, Training Director, and Ken), and they’re scheduled for their next round.
The apprentice has to get signed off on a minimum of three, and if necessary they’ll extend it to four, classes. After that, they’re brought on as a part time instructor. As an instructor they will teach at least two weeks a year, depending on their availability and Gunsite’s needs.
It’s a lengthy process. Ken says Gunsite doesn’t have a lot of youngster instructors. They want that seasoned instructors with life experiences. As Colonel Cooper said,
We want the ones who’ve seen the elephant, who’ve been there when the flag would fly so that they can bring that life experience to the table when we’re working with the great clients that we’ve got.
8:36 Do you have to have been an instructor in some discipline for a certain amount of time before you can be a Gunsite instructor?
Not necessarily. A person may have been an instructor for twelve years or they may have been instructing for one year, twelve times. Ken says they look at the overall package of the person and what they’re bringing to the table.
But one thing is certain, they must have attended Gunsite, personally.
Ken says, “Go train at other places. There are other great places to get training, we want you to get other training but part of the review process, for us, is if we’ve seen you in class.”
That’s how the Rangemaster can decide if you’re going to fit and if you’ve got some abilities that they like.
11:25 Who are some of the great Gunsite instructors that influenced Ken, and how?
Ken says he has been very blessed in his life and career to be able to work with some of the best instructors in the world.
He mentions reading the work of Gunsite’s early operations manager, Chuck Taylor. Unfortunately he never had the opportunity to take a class with him. But he recounts that he has had great classes with Ray Chapman and Massad Ayoob.
He’s also had classes and instructor certification with the late Pat Rogers and the late Louis Awerbuck, two guys that Jeff Cooper considered to be among the top five instructors that he’d ever worked with.
Ken also had the fortune of working directly with Jeff Cooper in his first several classes at Gunsite.
Jack Furr, Jeff Gonzales, ….there are too many to name.
We’ve had great, great instructors, whether they worked here or were students here. It was wonderful listening to them, learning from them, trying to absorb as much knowledge as I could so that I could hopefully pass it on to others.
12:58 Why was Louis Awerbuck so influential to Ken?
Ken Says Louis Awerbuck was one of those people that just had a gift. He was a Renaissance Man.
Originally from Rhodesia, Louis came to Gunsite to take a class, and Jeff Cooper was very impressed with him. Cooper eventually sponsored him for citizenship and hired him. Louis was the COO (ops officer) at Gunsite for some time.
Louis had the gift of diagnosing shooter problems like nobody Ken had ever seen. He also had the fortitude to stay on the range with a student until 2 am to fix the problem if it was needed, even though the class had ended 5 pm.
He would also bring in local law enforcement to classes and Ken says he hosted Louis many times at the Sheriff’s Office. If there was a police department that didn’t have a training budget but had a guy that really needed training, Louis would put him in the class. It was important to Louis that the guy would be able to save his life or the lives of those he was sworn to protect.
Ken says that Louis was just one of those guys that was a good man. He was a very deep thinker, a great reader, and a great philosopher of fighting. The collections of his work for SWAT magazine are out there in book form.
14:43 What about Pat Rogers?
Sitting about ten steps from the Pat Rogers Memorial classroom at Alliance, Daniel comments how everywhere he goes, everything he does in the training industry, every single day he has a conversation about Pat Rogers. Increasingly, he regrets that he never got the chance to train with him or talk to him because, easily, there’s nobody out there living or passed away that has influenced Daniel more than Pat Rogers. Pat was a guy who changed lives and made them better. And it wasn’t just the shooting — he made them better people. Pat Rogers set an example for everybody, especially trainers.
Ken says that he met Pat at Gunsite. Between rooming together as instructors at the academy, and hosting Pat at the Sheriff’s Office, they became friends.
He was a great man, without fail.
Ken says there are a lot of things about Pat that we will never know, from his work as a New York City police officer, as a hostage negotiator, as a police sergeant on NYPD, or his time as a Chief Warrant Officer in the Marine Corps. He was even involved with the CIA in foreign weapons acquisition.
The other thing about Pat, like Louis, is that he was one of those guys who was all about the training. He was a great student, especially of the carbine. If you wanted a two-hour lecture on the different followers for the M-16 rifle, he could talk about that with authority.
Pat Rogers was also exceptionally well-read. He pored over books. After Pat passed away, Ken helped Mrs. Rogers with a storage unit he still had out in Arizona. There were over two pickup loads full of Pat’s books and Mrs. Rogers said she had even more and wanted to know what could be done with them. Ken suggested she donate the books to Gunsite’s scholarship fund, the Jeff Cooper Legacy Foundation.
Well, she did, and at an Alumni Shoot, they stamped the inside of the books with “From the Library of Pat Rogers.” People put money in a box and picked a book. The proceeds from Pat’s books raised several thousand dollars for the Cooper Legacy Foundation.
That shows the character of the people Pat was with. It was all about the training, making it better, and keeping good people alive. They cared about helping people that couldn’t afford it get good gear and training so they could stay alive.
19:12 Tell us about Jeff Cooper.
Jeff Cooper was at Gunsite when Ken took his first class in November of 1990. Ken was a younger, darker-haired deputy who showed up for his 250 pistol class with his duty-issued Smith & Wesson 645. That first morning in the classroom, they were going around talking about their guns. When Ken told the class what gun he had, Jeff scowled over and said, “Right caliber, wrong gun.”
“Kind of intimidating when Jeff Cooper says that to you,” Ken says.
So, Jeff was kind of a curmudgeon, but he spoke with authority and from knowledge. He wasn’t much for small talk. He loved to talk guns, hunting, Africa hunting, the state of the republic, but just to sit and chit-chat, that wasn’t something he stood around much for.
He was an interesting fellow and another one who was exceptionally well-read. To get a really good idea of what he was like, there are some compilations of his work called The Gargantuan Gunsite Gossip. Those books contain the stories Jeff wrote for the back page of Guns & Ammo magazine all those years.
Ken notes that Guns & Ammo plucked out certain things because they weren’t politically correct. But Jeff was never politically correct. He wasn’t rude or foul, but he spoke his mind.
So, if you want to know about the history of the Baker flag on the range, the red range flag, or if you want to know the history of the Scout rifle, or different things about shotguns, or politics in Europe, that book is just full of those excerpts. It really delved into how his mind worked. He was a fascinating man that could speak on so many topics, but he didn’t suffer fools very well.
22:08 What’s the next step if you want to be a Gunsite instructor?
Come to Gunsite. Take classes. Do really well.
Impress the Rangemasters with your abilities as a human being, as an open-minded all-around good person — not somebody who can yell and scream at the troops, but somebody who can work with the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company or a little old lady who’s a door greeter at Walmart, and everybody in between.
Do well in those classes and go from there.
There are several myths floating around about Gunsite Academy. Things like, it’s a good place for a history lesson. They don’t care about your stance. It’s the southwest dinosaur league. They only teach what worked 30-40 years ago.
Let me be plain and simple. That’s wrong.
Ken says Gunsite teaches the modern technique that’s evolved over the past 41 years. He can say that factually, because last year for the 40th anniversary, he watched hours and hours of VHS tapes. While watching the tapes, he saw how the technique has evolved.
About the Weaver stance: he’s also seen it displayed at gunshops and gun shows and on the internet, of course. He’s seen the pictures of Jack Weaver. He learned the stance from Jeff Cooper, and what they displayed and what is displayed in some of the press is apples and oranges.
“We teach a fighting stance. You’ve got to get multiple hits on target, be able to move, be able to communicate, be able manage malfunctions, reload, and so on — from that fighting stance. If you want to do that from isosceles, modified isosceles, extended weaver, the laser-phonic 9000 method — whatever the method of the day is… as long as you can carry on in the fight and get good hits, that’s all that matters.
“It’s not like we’re going to take a piece of rebar and drive it down through your feet into a prescribed stance that you think you have heard that we want you to shoot from. If you can work with it, work with it.”
Ken attended Bill Rogers school a few times, and they’re known for isosceles. He’s always been a Weaver type shooter, but since he was at Bill Rogers’ school, he wanted to learn what he was offering. “So I had to get it through my head, I had to change my stance and so on. I kept reverting back to Weaver and the coaches would come up to me and make the adjustment.”
The Rangemaster said, “Leave him alone, leave him alone. He’s hit it!”
Ken appreciated that, but he wanted to learn from them what their methods were so he could have it in his toolbox.
Likewise, the staff at Gunsite is not going to make you shoot any particular way. They would like you to try the way they think works well but if you don’t want to they’re not going to make you. He says, “At the end of the week you can see what works best for you or have those other tools in your toolbox to reach for, grab ahold, and use well when the time comes.”
Daniel notes that every time he’s had a question about something presented in a Gunsite class, he’s gotten a good answer for or told that that specific issue is covered in another class. He doesn’t think the myths are accurate. He says,
I think Gunsite’s a great place to train…I can say 100% without a doubt, if you sign up for a class at Gunsite you are not going to be disappointed.