A gun newbie gets tactical training with Yamaha at Gunsite Academy
I did not grow up in around firearms. Though my family fished, camped and generally enjoyed the great outdoors that was so abundant near our home in Ontario, Canada, guns just weren’t part of the picture.
After high school I moved to the big city, away from the wide open spaces of my youth and even further from anything to do with firearms.
Things began to change a few years ago. A couple of ATV.com trips brought me to Texas and as soon as the locals learned that I’d never really shot a gun, people started handing them to me and inviting me to start. It started out with rifles and shotguns and just a few months ago I held a pistol for the first time in my 41 years.
All of this was fun, but my gun experience got kicked into a much higher gear when Yamaha invited me out to Prescott, Arizona to spend three days at Gunsite Academy in the first week of August. It was an experience I couldn’t pass up.
As excited as I was for the opportunity, I was worried I’d be out of place. A quick look at the Gunsite Academy website didn’t ease my mind when I read “Gunsite Academy offers firearms training to elite military personnel, law enforcement officers and free citizens of the US.” I am exactly none of those things.
Fortunately, nobody seemed to mind (or even notice) that a Canadian with almost zero firearm experience was taking part. Also, the connection between ATVs, UTVs and firearms makes a lot of sense. These machines get used for everything from hunting to patrol duties for law enforcement and private security.
Upon arriving at Gunsite Academy for the first time, we all gathered in a classroom and met up with some partners for the event, including representatives from Ruger Firearms, Galco Gunleather and Garmin.
A booming voice from one of the Gunsite instructors grabbed everybody’s attention and we received the first of many talks about firearm safety, as well as a bit of background on Gunsite’s impressive 40-year history. Fortunately, we didn’t have to spend too much time in the classroom before it was time to go to the range.
While Gunsite Academy offers more than 30 different multi-day courses, I was part of group of media people invited by Yamaha and we received a unique experience. Rather than an intensely focussed lesson plan, we received a taste test that covered bits and pieces from several courses.
Yamaha also brought along a fleet of Grizzly ATVs and Wolverine UTVs for the media folks to ride. With the right accessories, these machines make great hunting companions and useful tools for working around your property. Beyond their utility, each is also just plain fun to ride. And (please pardon the pun), they feature virtually bulletproof transmissions.
After the classroom session, our first stop was a pistol range, where we would get familiar with the Ruger American Piston (9mm Luger). Before heading out, I put on a 1 ½-inch Instructors Belt from Galco, which I loaded up with a Galco holster, double magazine case and rifle cartridge wallet.
At the pistol range we were taken three at a time to a table to open our pistol cases and take the Ruger American pistols out of the plastic for their first breath of dusty air. Every move we made was monitored by the instructors, who then led us to an area where we could load up our three magazines with Prime Ammunition 9mm Luger rounds. This was the first time I’d ever loaded a magazine (I swear I only called it a “clip” once), and I fumbled around clumsily before more experienced shooters were kind enough to show me how to do it properly.
Dave Starin and Chris Weare were our pistol instructors and both offered very clear instructions and guidance. In short order I was taught how to properly remove the pistol from its holster (one hand on the pistol, one hand on my mid-section), how to hold it and how to aim. We shot at three, five, seven and 10 yards throughout the morning. My groups were certainly not as tight as some others, but it didn’t take too long before I started to feel less awkward.
Our second pistol experience took us from paper to steel. Gunsite instructors set up a series of blue and red silhouettes. Our job was to shoot all the blue ones (the bad guys) and leave the red ones (good guys) standing. I was able to knock down all the bad guys, but one of the good guys definitely required medical attention.
We followed up that with a head-to-head competition. This required us shoot at smaller targets, but this time against one of the other media members. I unwisely called out a friend who happens to be a very good shot. I shot well beyond my skill level, but his final target fell down less than a second before mine. Despite the loss, I loved this format and would have liked to have shot it again and again. I also take some pride in the fact that he went on to win the whole thing.
Our final pistol challenge was easily the coolest and most intimidating – the Funhouse. The Funhouse represents a situation where we come home to discover that somebody has broken into our house and a loved one is still inside. Our job is to get them out. Instructor Weare followed me through the Funhouse, explaining the best way to go around corners and open various doors. I managed to take out all the bad guys before Weare explained that I’d only get one shot in the final room. This bad guy was holding an innocent victim. My one shot took out the top of his cap. He lived, but he will need to visit a tailor to get that hat repaired. Thank goodness for small victories.
After working my way through the Funhouse, I was able to see how my much heart rate spiked on the fēnix 3 HR watch Garmin loaned me for a few days. This spike came despite Weare’s amazingly calm manner. In talking to Weare, I discovered that the Vietnam veteran spent some of his formative years in Canada, before moving south, joining the Marines and later the Orange County California Sheriff’s Department. I certainly didn’t think I’d find a Canadian connection at Gunsite.
When I wasn’t learning about pistols with Weare and Starin, I was at the rifle range under the tutelage of Walt Wilkinson. Wilkinson served 30 years in the US Army, 26 of those with Special Operations Forces. When he talks, you can’t help but listen…even when he tells to you lie down prone in the mud. In two sessions, Wilkinson somehow was able to get me nearly competent with a Ruger American Predator rifle. We started off getting sighted in at 100 yards, before going to the long distance range.
Long distance shooting is Wilkinson’s bread and butter. He’s a world champion at 1000 yards with a .50 caliber rifle. Once we arrived at the long distance range, we started to take aim at targets progressively farther away. It all culminated at 1000 yards. It’s tough to describe how I felt when I heard the Prime 6.5 Creedmoor round ping against the steel at 1000 yards for the first time, but I can tell you I wasn’t any less excited about it the second time.
I went into my Gunsite experience feeling excited but unsure. I certainly didn’t leave a great shooter, but I ended up a lot better than I expected. It’s a remarkably safe environment with incredibly skilled and talented instructors who want you to get better. One of the first things we were told at Gunsite was that this wouldn’t be our last visit. I’m hoping that proves true.