Why Gunsite Apprentice Instructors Are Called “Provosts”

As I noted in my last post on apprenticeship as a path into the private citizen firearms training community, Gunsite Academy calls its apprentice instructors “Provosts,” following the founder, Col. Jeff Cooper.

The term “provost” here is curious – but significant — because the most common use of the term, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “A person who is set or placed over others.” For example, a top academic administrator in a university (my boss’s boss’s boss here at Wake Forest) or head of certain religious communities.

Georgia Tech Provost in full academic regalia from http://www.news.gatech.edu/features/breaking-down-cap-and-gown

Even the more general use, “any person appointed to preside or superintend something,” does not seem to fit Cooper’s usage.

Only the 7th and final definition in the OED – “An assistant fencing-master” – suggests what Cooper was up to.

The contemporary reader will likely associate “fencing” with sword play – either the sport or perhaps the 3 Musketeers. The more criminally-minded readers among you might think of its use in slang. But an alternative definition is “The action of protecting, or of setting up a defence against (evil).”

Among those developing the art of fencing in Tudor England, a guild-like organization was formed called the Company of Maisters of the Science of Defense. “It served to prevent unlicensed instructors from operating, both as a form of quality assurance and as a monopoly to protect the livelihoods of its members. It also regulated the conduct of members to one another, both instructor and student,” according to Wikipedia.

PROVOST, Wikipedia continues, was one of four ranks in the Company of Masiters:

“Like the guilds it resembled, the company certified its members with varying ranks, depending on their level of skill and degree of permission to teach. Beginning students took the title Scholar and were required to hold the rank for no less than seven years before progressing to a higher rank. With proper determination and accumulation of skill, an individual moved to the second rank, Free Scholar. This rank marked noted advancement and skill, and like the previous position, had to be held for at least seven years before further progression. The next rank, Provost, provided the individual with apprenticeship to an instructor with whom they worked closely so as to improve their teaching skills and further their martial abilities. The Provost was not by any means a free teacher, remaining under the guidance and financial constraint, in the form of dues, of his superior. A truly gifted individual may have been raised to the title of Maister working as an independent instructor. The Company of Maisters of the Science of Defence was governed by four senior Maisters.”

Which sounds alot like the role of the Provost as apprentice at Gunsite, during and after Col. Jeff Cooper.

NOTE: References to more information on this, from personal experience or historical studies or especially Cooper’s writings, are most welcome!



  1. Excellent definition and history. And, in similar fashion, when Cooper structured the last series of classes he taught at Gunsite they were called the Master Series. While he supervised, the classes were taught by his personally selected and designated Master Instructors. I was fortunate to have been selected as one such and was privileged to teach many of these classes. Ed Head

    Liked by 2 people

    • And that’s why you advocate training that includes ‘body shots’ at 50yrds? I would not like to face a jury on a 50 yard ‘defensive’ shot as in your latest article in the NRA magazine. At 50 yards there are so many other options it boggles the mind.


  2. I’m way late to this conversation. I’m sorta plugged in with the HEMA (Historic European Martial Arts)/WMA (Western Martial Arts) community. The short version is that this is an attempt to study and revive martial arts of western civ., going back, but not limited to, Medieval fighting arts including two-handed swords, one-handed cruciform swords, clubs, flail, spears, archery, thrown weapons, empty handed, etc. It is very common for various HEMA organizations to use the same “ranking” structure (Scholar -> Provost -> Master) to mark various levels of skill or certification to teach even when not associated with the Company of Maisters. Oh, and Terry Brown is a heck of a nice guy.

    There is also a sub-set of HEMA which focuses more on historic fencing techniques and styles from the Renaissance on. Very often these organizations are strongly associated with the more modern three-weapon Olympic style fencing and will often use the certification and ranking structure from the “modern” sport fencing.

    While all of that stuff is interesting to me because I’m a nerd, what I find most interesting is the human desire to “rank” and organize every blasted skill, physical or mental. It spans cultures and ages. I find it also interesting how some cultures or sub-cultures decide to “rank” skill based on achievement, such as wins in the boxing rink, while others will base on knowledge which has been learned and can be demonstrated. Others still will sort of combine the two.

    Probably a sociology paper in there somewhere. 😉


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