Gun Digest

Jeff Cooper — The Founding Father of Firearms Martial Arts

Cooper speaking at the 1979 World Practical Pistol Shooting Championships (IPSC) in South Africa.
Cooper speaking at the 1979 World Practical Pistol Shooting Championships (IPSC) in South Africa.

Although you may have never considered it, the use of the defensive handgun is a martial art. Martial arts are the codified systems and traditions of combat practices. The term is derived from Latin and means “arts of Mars,” the Roman god of war. The handgun evolved into a true fighting tool about the time of the American Civil War, but it would be another hundred years before anyone truly elevated its application to true martial art status. That man was Jeff Cooper.

Jeff Cooper was a Stanford graduate and a Marine Corps officer who served in WWII and in the Korean War. Between 1957 and 1976, Cooper began writing for Guns & Ammo magazine and started handgun competitions at Big Bear Lake in California. An intellectual and studious man, Cooper began to study the methods of shooting a handgun. He eventually codified its combat application in what is known as the Modern Technique of the Pistol.

Cooper’s observations were very pragmatic and at the time revolutionary. He was soon invited to teach his techniques all over the world. It started in Guatemala for the bodyguards of the newly elected president and continued in El Salvador, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, South Africa and Rhodesia. Cooper became the professor of the art of weaponry, and his contributions are many.

Jeff Cooper passing out graduation certificates at Gunsite Academy, the firearms training center he founded.

His book, “The Principles of Personal Defense,” was the forerunner to the Cooper Color Code, a system that has become the standard for teaching mental conditioning as it relates to individual combat. He established the four basic rules of firearm safety, which are taught worldwide. And, he coined the acronym DVC. In Latin, this stands for diligentia, vis, celeritas. Translated it means, accuracy, power and speed—a triangular relationship that must be balanced by every pistol shooter.

This triangular concept was the foundation of the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC), which was established in 1976. Cooper was the first president of IPSC, and it became the governing body of practical pistol competition all over the world. IPSC was also the forerunner and guiding light for all of the modern, dynamic combat-type shooting competitions like IDPA and 3 Gun. Without Cooper, it’s questionable if any of these would exist.

But Cooper did not stop there. In 1976, he also established the American Pistol Institute (API) at what he called his Gunsite Ranch in Paulden Arizona. Instituted to allow students to travel to Cooper as opposed to him traveling to them, API was created on the principle of another Cooper triangle: the Combat Triad. The Combat Triad is the equilibrium of mindset, gun handling and marksmanship needed to employ a handgun effectively in a defensive situation.

You might say that Cooper was the prophet of shooting, a sensei of the martial art of firearm combatives, the guru of guns. A very important element of all Cooper’s work related to firearms training was that his school was intended to educate the citizen. Sure, soldiers, sailors and police officers were welcome to attend, but Cooper strongly believed that, as Robert Heinlein put it, “An armed society is a polite society.”

Cooper continued to live on the ranch at API, which became Gunsite, until his death in 2006. His contributions to the application of the firearm are legion and were brought about by observing, learning, experimenting and then codifying what worked. Every year, Gunsite Academy continues to expose thousands of students of good character to the Cooper doctrine. Those interested in perfecting the martial art of the pistol should attend what many consider to be the preeminent introductory course to the defensive handgun: the Gunsite Academy 250 Pistol Class.

The 250 Pistol Class is designed to take a student who’s never fired a handgun and prepare them to defend themselves with it while engaged in a violent encounter. Students are grounded in Cooper’s Modern Technique of the Pistol, which is based on the Weaver stance, proper handgun presentation, the flash sight picture and the compressed surprised break, all with a heavy-duty pistol. They will also be conditioned to the elements of the Combat Triad and DVC.

This is a five-day course during which you will fire in excess of 1,000 rounds from your handgun. You will learn how to shoot a pistol. You will learn if your pistol works. You will learn to perform under stress, how to manipulate your pistol, how to move with a pistol, how to utilize cover and concealment, how to shoot in low light and how to use a flashlight. And, how you think about defensive handguns and street survival will change.

When you walk through the Gunsite gate, leaving as a graduate of the 250 Pistol class, you will have a renewed peace of mind. You will be stronger, more alert and conditioned to respond instantly to any threat. You will believe you can prevail in any encounter, and you will have the skills to do so.

Ladies-only courses are becoming popular at Jeff Cooper’s Gunsite Academy. As more women become interested in personal protection, they are wisely seeking training.

You can read all of the books you like, watch all the DVDs and YouTube videos you want and even attend other handgun training courses. You’ll learn something, but will it be the something that saves your life?

I’ve often said, “The farther you get from Gunsite, the less faith you can have in your training.” This is not meant to defame or degrade other schools; there are lots of talented instructors out there, and many worked under Cooper or trained at Gunsite. What I mean by this statement is that if you want to get the message, the unpolluted sermon, the time proven truth, go to the source. Cooper’s Gunsite Academy is the oldest civilian firearms training school in the world. They’ve been at it for 40 years. You don’t do that by doing something wrong.

Now you know who Cooper was, but to really appreciate his contributions and to understand their importance, you must make the trek to Gunsite Academy. The staff there still teaches as though Cooper is watching over their shoulders, and the message is clearly Cooper.

Jeff Cooper was the founding father of the martial art of the firearm.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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