The Combat Triad: How Gunsite Has Changed Its Mind(set)

I’ve been taking a pretty nitty-gritty look at the Modern Technique of the Pistol in my last few posts (“blessing and curse,” “simply and briefly,” and “updating”). In this post I want to continue with my thoughts on the Gunsite 250 Defensive Pistol Course and the Modern Technique, but take a step back to look at the big picture as concerns the Combat Triad.

Of the three parts of the Combat Triad, the Gunsite 250 course I observed emphasized gunhandling and marksmanship far more than mindset. For the most part, the combat mindset part of the triad was restricted to a 45 minute lecture on Wednesday afternoon by Rangemaster Bill Halvorsen. I understand that this is the traditional day and time for “the mindset lecture”; my point more concerns the confinement of the combat mindset to that classroom session.

In the original codification, at least in the book by Gregory Boyce Morrison, mind-set was called “the key component of the combat triad.” He continues:

“It transcends all other factors involved in the learning, practice and application of the Modern Technique. In short, one must develop a proper mental disposition toward safety, weapon management, and marksmanship concerns as well as the willingness to use deadly force against violent aggression.”

Suggesting again its importance, the first chapter of the first part of The Modern Technique of the Pistol is a reprint of an article on “The Combat Mind-Set” by Jeff Cooper originally published in American Handgunner. Here, Cooper simply and clearly defines mindset as:

“that state of mind which insures victory in a gunfight.”

Which explains why Cooper’s longer formulation of mindset is “mental conditioning for combat.”

So, although the combat triad is often rendered in such a way as to suggest each of the three parts are equivalent (as in the diagram above from the 250 Pistol course book), I rather think the way the triad is portrayed on the Jeff Cooper Foundation Coin is more in line with the original intent: Mindset is the foundation which makes gunhandling and marksmanship necessary and possible.

After all, what are gunhandling and marksmanship for? To win gunfights.

When sociologist James William Gibson attended the American Pistol Institute at Gunsite Ranch in 1988, he described Col. Jeff Cooper as “preaching what he called a ‘philosophy of violence.’” Mastering the “martial art” of the pistol in conjunction with acceptance of the philosophy would transform the students into armed men (Warrior Dreams, p. 174).

That was the explicit curriculum at the time. But Gibson also described what can be called the implicit curriculum – the “unspoken subtext,” in Gibson’s terms – as: “I want to become more powerful through learning to kill.” Following Cooper, Gibson’s Rangemaster Ed Stock referred to the presentation and firing of the pistol as the “killing stroke.” The instructors teaching with Stock said their job was to “mold your bodies to fit the theory,” which Gibson translated into: “transform their students into well-honed weapons by correcting and perfecting each individual movement involved in drawing, aiming, and firing” (Warrior Dreams, pp. 176-77).

What I observed at Gunsite almost 30 years after Gibson was a much less martial ethos. Indeed, I noticed this during my observation because only Rangemaster Steve Hendricks made a point of emphasizing that Gunsite “is a fighting school not a shooting school,” as he put it.

Another time Hendricks reminded the students, “This is a fighting school. If you are shooting tiny groups you are not fighting.” And in emphasizing assessment after shooting, Hendricks again reminded them, “You need to search after like you’re fighting. More and more bad guys are coming in groups of 2 and 3. Tactical mindset folks. This is a gunfight.”

In one of the mini-lectures during water and reloading breaks, Hendricks told his students, expressing a bit of exasperation at having to repeat himself:

“I have discovered through my life the world is a dangerous place. I know for a fact it is. I don’t mean to yell at you, but that is what we’re here for. The mechanics of shooting are easy. The difficult part is fighting. Please enjoy yourself while you’re here. Have fun. But we’re here to learn how to fight with a handgun.”

It is possible that other instructors also used this kind of language and I just missed it, but I spent about 15 hours on each of the two ranges and have no notes on or recollection of it.

Gunsite COO Ken Campbell brings Otter Pops to students on a 100+ degree day on the range. Photo by David Yamane

Of course, this begs the question as to why the combat is fading from the Combat Triad. Gabe Suarez suggested one possibility to me: “The challenge that Gunsite faces is that it is so tied to its own legacy, which creates expectations on the part of the people who go train there. Some of the martial elements of Cooper’s teaching about mindset are lost in the translation.”

So, what kinds of people take the Gunsite 250 course today? By my count, 24 of 29 attendees the week of my observation were on their “own dime and time.” Gunsite, being Gunsite, can charge $1,695 tuition (plus $450 for a 9mm ammo package) and still get a husband and wife, and a mother, father, and daughter, and an uncle and nephew to attend together – as was the case when I was there.

It can also get guys who are on a “brocation” or “mancation,” and retirees crossing off items from their “bucket list,” which I also saw when I was there.

It can get people looking to become better shooters, and shooting instructors looking to become better teachers.

Certainly some of these people I observed were looking to become civilian warriors. But I don’t think most wanted to be what Suarez told me Cooper wanted: “people with blood on their boots.”

Today, COO Ken Campbell refers to attendees as “clients.” Using language reminiscent of those in the competitive airline industry, he tells his clients, “We know you have choices and we appreciate your spending your training time and dollars with us.” Campbell expresses his appreciation, in part, by making daily appearances at the range with Otter Pops for the students.

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