Welcome to Gunsite Academy
As if the opportunity to sample Yamaha’s all-new 2014 Viking 700 SE Tactical Black UTV and Grizzly 700 SE Tactical Black ATV weren’t enough of a draw, the prospect of training at one of the United States’ premier firearms training facilities had me chomping at the bit to get on airplane and wing away to the arid southwestern desert.
Well, I was stoked, but I can also see where some ATV.com readers might be wondering why. After all, what could possibly be the beneficial link between a Japanese powersports giant, a legendary firearms training academy and a historic and well-respected firearms manufacturer? Certainly the latter two make sense, but Yamaha? They make fine powersports products and musical instruments, not firearms. The quick answer is, more than you might think, according to Yamaha ATV/SxS Marketing Manager Steve Nessl.
“It is really outside the box for an ATV or Side-by-Side manufacturer to come out here and be involved in the shooting sport, hang out with these tactical gun writers and law enforcement shooting specialists, and to be an authentic, incredible part of it by taking Vikings and Grizzlies out to coordinates and shoot targets,” says Nessl. “I don’t think anyone [from the firearms community] is questioning why we are here, and that is good for us. It is good for us to be accepted as part of this community.”
Tactical shooting may seem a little outside of the box, but Yamaha’s ever-strengthening “Yamaha Outdoor” branding is all about seeking more broad-based appeal for its products by actively linking them with sportsman pursuits that might not be motorsports-centric – things like hunting and fishing and a host of other outdoor activities. The idea is to project a strong sense that Yamaha products can play as hard as they work.
“That factors into our marketing, and it factors into our product development,” says Nessl. “This [Gunsite event] is one way to get that point across.”
Gunsite, Ruger and Yamaha share numerous traits in common. First, they build quality products for their intended tasks. Second, they share a dedication to improving those products. Third, and most importantly, they are committed to educating users how to handle those products in a safe manner, so as not to recklessly or negligently cause harm to themselves or others. This three-way matchup represents a lot of common ground.
Yamaha wasn’t the first Japanese manufacturer to build Utility Terrain Vehicles (UTVs), but it could easily be argued that the “tuning fork company” shifted the paradigm in the UTV market by virtue of the explosive popularity of the Yamaha Rhino, which was first introduced in 2004 and was finally discontinued in 2013 after a tremendously successful production run. The Rhino’s stout engine performance and plush suspension represented quantum technological leaps back then, and the overall performance and ruggedness of the Rhino platform was embraced by legions of aftermarket high-performance firms.
It was both a blessing and a curse, as other OEMs jumped into the game and a burgeoning Sport UTV segment emerged. Unfortunately, the Rhino itself was never intended to be a pure sport UTV, and Yamaha suffered through a myriad of often bogus, but nevertheless well-documented, legal hassles because of it. However, take one look at Yamaha’s new Viking 700 SE Tactical Black and Grizzly 700 SE Tactical Black models, and there is no question that Yamaha is as strongly committed to the ATV and UTV markets as ever before.
In Gunsite’s case, the latter involves teaching the science of proper shooting technique – and it is a science – developed over nearly four decades since Gunsite was founded by Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Cooper in 1976. A WWII and Korean War combat veteran, author, columnist and professor, Colonel Cooper created Gunsite Academy with the intention of teaching modern defensive pistol shooting techniques to everyday citizens as well as military and law enforcement officials.
Colonel Cooper passed away in 2006 at the age of 86, but his legacy lives on in the Gunsite campus, located just west of Paulden, Arizona, about 20 miles north of Prescott. The sprawling 2000-acre facility boasts multiple target ranges, classroom buildings, a pro shop and a gunsmith shop. And as if Gunsite hasn’t cemented Colonel Cooper’s legacy well enough, his words of wisdom can still be found in a monthly column, “Gunsite Gossip,” in the back of Combat Handguns magazine.
Founded in 1949, Sturm, Ruger, Inc. is a major sponsor of the Yamaha Gunsite event, which has quickly turned into an annual must-attend by powersports and firearms industry journalists alike. Like its event partners, the American gun manufacturer has a rich and prolific history in its field, and is responsible for many legendary models in the gun world. Just a few of these include sporting rifles such as the 10/22 rifle, Model 77 rifle and Red Label shotguns. Ruger is also a big player in the world of handguns, producing a variety of revolvers and semi-automatic pistols in calibers as small as .22 and as large as the mighty .454 Casull.
At last year’s Yamaha Gunsite event (read about that here), journalists were treated to a week of training with Ruger’s SR556 .223-caliber carbine rifles and SR9c 9mm semi-automatic pistols. This year, however, the company seriously stepped up the firepower for the event by bringing out its recently released SR762 .308 caliber semi-automatic tactical rifle and SR45 .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol. These are serious pieces of equipment meant for serious training.
As I consider myself to be an avid shooter, I was excited to take part in the event, but before it was over I would come to have an even deeper respect for all three companies. And, where it pertains to my own firearm skills, I very quickly found out that what I have yet to learn to be fully proficient could fill the Grand Canyon.
After settling in and socializing over a fantastic barbecued rib dinner at the historic Palace Restaurant and Saloon in Prescott the night before, our first day at the Gunsite Academy came early. I didn’t think about it at the time, but once we were beyond the black raven symbol that guards Gunsite’s entrance, it was like we were in a different world.
Our first-day orientation involved classroom sessions that took up the entire morning, the first order of business being a thorough memorization of the explicit and non-negotiable safety rules that must be followed at all times while on campus. Permanently seared into my brain, they are as follows:
1) All guns are always loaded. 2) Never let the muzzle cover anything which you are not willing to destroy. 3) Keep your finger off the trigger until your sites are on the target. 4) Always be sure of your target.
That might seem like common sense, and yet to illustrate his point, Gunsite Range Master Gary Smith showed us a particularly gruesome photo of a hand that was “altered” as the result of a failure to abide by one or more of the safety rules. Additional mandates included keeping pistols holstered and rifles bagged unless otherwise instructed by one of the Gunsite coaches, and never picking up an unspent round of ammunition. Once the round was on the ground, it was to be treated like a spent round, so as to avoid accidentally mismatching the wrong-caliber round with the wrong gun.
Once we were clear on that, lunch was served, and we then reconvened in the classroom to be issued our rifles and pistols along with a copious amount of firearm-related swag generously donated by several associate partners selected by Yamaha. These included earmuffs, glasses, a holster and magazine clip, a tactical knapsack, and two really cool items from Garmin: the company’s new VIRB action camera and Tactix GPS watch. Yamaha’s Pat Biolsi then led us outside and took us through an orientation of the Viking and Grizzly Tactical Black models, which we would actually be spending more time with over the next two days, so more on them later.
You don’t just tell someone how to handle a firearm safely and then expect that they will be able to do it right off the bat, so the rest of our day was spent in small groups, alternating between the rifle range and the pistol range, to demonstrate our proficiency, or lack thereof, at handling a firearm. In my group’s case, the very first exercise of the day involved sighting in our loaner Ruger SR762 tactical rifles. These are the type of rifle that gun control proponents will point to when describing “military-style assault rifles,” but the honest truth is that their basic function is no different than the 40-year-old semi-automatic .30-‘06 hunting rifle that my grandfather bequeathed to me when I was in high school. In fact, if my own rifle were painted black, most people would probably think that it was a military firearm.
But while the color of the SR762 didn’t bother me, handling the gun itself made me a little apprehensive. It had been over 20 years since I last fired a rifle, and the recoil from that old ’06 was sufficient to give me a nice cut over the eyebrow when I got a little too close to the scope while squeezing off a round. However, one of the many fantastic Gunsite coaches, Mike Moore, built my confidence thanks to his authoritative instructions. A retired police officer from Lafayette, Louisiana, where he served as a Patrol Officer, Robbery/Homicide Detective, Department Armorer, SWAT Sniper and lead Firearms Instructor, Mike has over 27 years experience as a firearms instructor, and his calm, clear and authoritative instruction put my mind at ease immediately. We started by sighting in rifles at 100 yards in a prone position. Legs spread and feet flat to the ground on the inner arches with the toes pointed away. We were also taught how to peer through the scope properly, and that technique requires more concentration than you’d think, as it is tempting to botch things by looking past the scope’s reticle (center dot) to the target.
But pretty soon, our whole group was zeroing in on the 100-yard targets used to sight-in our rifle scopes. I even managed to put one shot pretty much dead center in the bullseye in my first five-shot group. Too bad I couldn’t do it consistently.
As the late afternoon approached, our group made the switch from rifles to pistols, and once again we had two great instructors in Range Master Gary Smith and former Orange County (California) Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Weare. Now, having fired a lot of pistols, from small-caliber to large-caliber, I was confident – and perhaps a little cocky – that I would be more adept at the pistol training.
I was quickly brought down to earth during the second exercise, when I marched up to the three-yard line while Gary called for the group to start on the five-yard line. While I stood there, wondering when the drill was going to begin, Smith tapped me on the shoulder and calmly said, “You can stand there, but you’re going to be really upset with everyone else in a second.” I turned to see everyone else standing well behind the idiot who doesn’t know the difference between a three and a five, waiting for him to get it together so the training could begin. Whoops.
At the five-yard distance we learned about sight pictures, what center mass on target means – center mass is not measured between the shoulders and the waistline but rather the head and the waistline of the target to ensure a more accurate shot where it needs to be placed for maximum effect. We were instructed to take two shots at the target when ready.
With everyone in the group finding center mass consistently, it was time to holster our SR45s and learn Gunsite’s five-step presentation process for defensive pistol shooting. Our group learned how to 1) grip the pistol, 2) clear the holster 3) rotate the pistol, 4) smack the pistol into firing position with our free hand, and 5) drive the pistol to the target and fire all while never taking eyes off target. Our coaches were emphatic that this is not some Hollywood quick-draw technique, and without accurate incorporation of all five steps, the shooter’s accuracy will suffer even if he or she is quick to clear the holster. However, when proficient at the presentation technique, a student should be able to go from holster to “fire” in about 1.5 seconds.
All in all, it was a heck of a first day at Gunsite, and while I was already marveling at the information I had gleaned, I was looking forward to Day Two, where we would have the opportunity to sample Yamaha’s 2014 Tactical Black models and also receive more firearm instruction.
Stay tuned for Part II of our three-part series later this week.