Jeff Cooper's Commentaries

Previously Gunsite Gossip
Vol. 13, No. 1          January 2005

Practice Time

We opened the new administration (second term) on a fairly cheerful note. The assault rifle ban was allowed to die, and the courts decided (once and for all, we would like to think) that the Second Amendment protects the individual rather than the National Guard. Crime rates continue to drop, due in some measure to more reasonable regulations regarding personal armament for defense. Our gun makers continue to offer a selection of instruments which ought to be enough to satisfy almost anyone.

The world scene is not so bright, since the nanny states do not seem to understand that it is the responsibility of the individual to protect himself and his family, in the absence of the state. We remain the last best hope of Earth, which would be a rather bleak prospect if it were not that we are now the one great super power. It is comforting, in a way, to observe the ineptitude of our world enemies. Our optimism is fortified by the understanding that we now alone cultivate the warrior spirit. It is not only permitted, but fashionable, for the individual citizen to possess the means and the skill with which to protect himself, his property, his family, and his political rights. There are cultural losers among us, but as of now they constitute a minority. Thus American shooters stand against the encroachments of those who do not believe in liberty.

It is vital, of course, for us to keep up the battle. Despite our majority position, there are plenty of Americans who do not value their political heritage, and who would reject it if given the chance. It is up to us to see that they do not get the chance.

We note with some amusement the proliferation of pistol lights in various configurations. We cannot actually call these things "coaxial," since the light and the bore do not constitute a single axis. However, the idea is there. Your illuminator should show you approximately where your bullet will strike, but we should not view this as a sighting system since its alignment is insecure and it tends to slow down the firing stroke. I experimented with this many years ago when we were still living in California, and found it more useful as a shotgun enhancer, in its combative sense. You are never going to improve your skeet score with a light or a laser, nor will you improve your tally on ducks, but it may be a distinct asset in house clearing situations. I believe the combat shotgun to be the most efficient house defense implement, and I think the light offers certain advantages in repelling boarders after dark. It is not widely offered in this fashion over-the-counter, and moreover it does not help the expert as much as it does the novice.

Did your grade school teacher ever point out to you that 50 percent of the people you encounter in any situation are below average? Do not let that spoil your day.

It is annoying to hear of people who regard a court-martial as a punishment in itself. A court-martial is a means of determining guilt or innocence, and a "full and honorable acquittal" by a court is the equivalent of a commendation. Soldiers have frequently requested courts-martial in order to clear the record in their direction. To say that a man will be court-martialed in no sense means that he will be punished. That is for the court to decide. The court-martial may be the equivalent of a medal, in some circumstances.

I do not own the dictionary, and I certainly cannot tell people how to use it, but it is annoying to introduce a term and then see people pick it up and run the wrong way with it. As I have often pointed out, I do not own the term "scout," but I did introduce it to the sport shooting community a good many years ago to describe a rifle of certain definite attributes. I do, therefore, try to define the "scout rifle" correctly and to resist its imprecise use. For example, one of the qualities of the scout rifle should be its adaptability to readily obtainable ammunition. Therefore the scout, as I see it, is a 308. Certainly there is plenty of 223, 30 Russian-short and 30-06 ammunition obtainable worldwide, but the carbine cartridges are underpowered and the 30-06 calls for a long action, which while not exclusionary adds a bit to both bulk and weight in a proper combination.

When we set up the criteria for the Scout at the factory in Austria, we agreed upon just two calibers, 308 and 7-08, the latter for use in those situations where the 308 is forbidden or restricted as a "military cartridge." But immediately the factory people pushed through a rifle in 223, simply to take advantage of the immense stores of this ammunition available throughout the world. The fact remains, however, that no rifle in caliber 223 should be called a Scout.

The factory people offered a notion that its proposed scout rifle should be available in a heavier caliber, and suggested a 9.3 round based on the 404 Jeffrey case. This was to make the piece legitimate in those jurisdictions which enforce a caliber floor for dangerous game. The suggested designation was "375 Steyr," but I pointed out that 376 would be an improvement in avoiding confusion at the gun store.

So the "376 Steyr" was born, using readily available 375 caliber bullets. The results on the test range were interesting. I thought the weapon would have to be excessively heavy to take care of the stouter barrel. As it turns out, the resulting increase in weight was almost undetectable.

Since the ballistics of the 376 Steyr (which I wanted to call the "Dragoon") are only a hair short of the redoubtable 375 Holland & Holland cartridge, some of the factory people thought that a "magnum carbine" would kick the teeth out of the customer. Well it does kick, but not enough to bother a practiced hand, and an unpracticed hand is likely to be bothered even by the kick of a 308 scout. We have now tested the Dragoon on shooters with various builds and degrees of experience, but the stock design by Zedrosser and Bilgeri at the factory is so extraordinarily comfortable (for most people) that in the field the Dragoon has turned into a masterpiece. The factory rejects the "Dragoon" designation, so the rifle in my possession now is the only one in existence, so far as I know. My version is stamped "376 Dragoon," but all others are stamped "376 Steyr."

The result, as I have discovered over the past several years in both Africa and Alaska, is a triumph. It puts a 270-grain bullet, of ample impact area, out of its 19-inch barrel at an amazing 2450 - measured. It starts the 300-grain solid at around 2200, depending whose bullet you use. It works just fine when properly placed, of course. If you do not put the bullet in the right place it hardly matters what bullet it is. I took the bison at 82 yards (lasered), a bit high in the shoulder. He ran 22 paces and dropped dead. I had to take the shot from offhand since I could not lower the sight line and no rest was available.

Now every season I get a few more case-studies involving the Dragoon. It combines the "friendliness" of the Scout with the authority of the 375 H&H. There is a definite place for such a gun, but it may be appreciated only by people who use the piece intelligently in the field. It has not been marketed with any great success, at least in North America, but this does not matter to those who know. "I've got mine, how about you?"

We wish that people would quit calling our big Western pussy cat a "mountain lion." This practice is not exactly wrong, but it is confusing. No one who has ever got a good close look at a real lion is ever going to confuse him with a cougar, a puma, or a painter, or whatever. We have a pretty good population of cougars here in our neighborhood just now, and while they should not be treated as harmless, neither should they be considered a pressing danger. Be alert, keep your distance, and all will be well.

We are told that the excellent 45 caliber, 230-grain JTC bullet for the 45 auto is no longer being made. I suggest you get yours while you can, and use something else for practice.

It seems that brown bears are now becoming a problem in Romania. I do not know many people who spend time in rural Romania, but those who do are duly warned.

We have long understood that while the big brown bears (grizzly and otherwise) are dangerous to man, they rarely regard human beings as prey, whereas if the American black bear attacks people, he usually does so with a meal in mind. A correspondent from British Columbia tells us that his bears have come to regard the sound of a shot as a dinner bell, since their experience leads them to expect a gut pile after the hunter has departed. This has sometimes led to misunderstandings about just what is meant by "departed." If you are hunting in bear country, and not necessarily for bear, be aware that your shot may invite extra guests for dinner. Be alert, as somebody once said.

Fear is an interesting study, and various authoritative people have studied it. Not everyone reads their work, of course, and the effect of fear on the marksman is not as well understood as it should be. An expert marksman is exclusively aware of his marksmanship at the moment of truth. This does not make him fearless, but it does make him unaffected during the few seconds necessary for him to bring off the shot. Thus a truly masterful shot displays a coolness under crisis which may be misinterpreted as fearlessness. When you shoot for blood you concentrate totally upon two things - your sight picture and the surprise break. No matter what is threatening you or at what distance, you are not thinking about it. In that moment you simply cannot be bothered! This may be why certain people have demonstrated astonishing coolness in the face of death but who do not do very well in formal marksmanship competition. The degree of concentration necessary for a perfect shot is the same on a charging lion as in a formalized shooting match, but the hunter need only bring this off once, whereas the target master must keep on doing it time and again up to 60 shots without fail. In a successful pistol engagement the same conditions apply. If you are forced to shoot an armed goblin, you should be so concerned with two things that you simply cannot muff the shot. Those two things are front-sight and surprise. They should be automatic, and if they are, you win. That is where the color code comes in. In Condition Red, which is the condition which you shoot from, you cannot be afraid - you are too busy with the important matters required for successful marksmanship.

We're off to the SHOT Show presently and look forward to it with mixed emotions. Each affair we have attended in the past has been presented as miles of displays attended by thousands of salesmen. There is nothing wrong with that, but I am a rather poor prospect for a sales program. The thing is: I have my guns and I simply do not need anything new. It has been said that the object of salesmanship is to make a possible purchaser discontented with what he has. The people I know have no need to be discontented - for the most part. That is one of the good things about a good firearm. If you own a good one, you do not need a new one. This makes life miserable for the salesman.

But not necessarily. There are sport shooters - a surprisingly large number of sport shooters - who regard quantity as more significant than quality. Showing such a man something new entices him only because he does not at this point have such a one. So we come up with some very strange and inexplicable products which fill no known technical or tactical niche. The guns available on the market today are quite superior to the shooters who may buy them. On the day that you can shoot up to your rifle, your name must be inscribed among the immortals.

I have been teaching the Color Code for about 30 years now, but I have not been teaching it well. I keep seeing something handed back to me which purports to be what I have taught, but which is not. Clearly I am not as much of a teacher as I would like to be.

I believe I can speak freely of the Color Code because as it applies to defensive pistolcraft I invented it. I cannot, of course, say that what I think is right, but only that what I have preached is just that - what I have preached. It works, and it satisfies me, but not all the time. I have scores of cases now from men I have taught and who have reported back to me that their understanding of a Color Code saved their lives. This, of course, is very satisfying, but I do wish the matter were more clearly understood.

The Color Code refers not to a condition of peril, but rather to a condition of readiness to take life. Fortunately most people are very reluctant to take lethal action against another human being. Most people are reluctant to shoot for blood on a harmless game animal, until they become used to it. To press the trigger on a human adversary calls for a wrenching effort of will which is always difficult to achieve and sometimes apparently impossible. Thus we live our days in Condition White, which may or may not have anything to do with our danger, since quite frequently we are in deadly danger and do not realize it. Any time you cross directions out on a two-lane highway you are at the mercy of that character coming towards you in the opposite direction. Usually he is okay, but when he is under some sort of chemical influence, or is psychologically upset, he may only twitch his wheel to produce a multiple fatal accident. Most of us would prefer to live in Condition White permanently, and many do, but those who are more aware of the nature of things are often in Yellow, which is a condition in which we are aware that the world is full of hazards which are human, and some of which may be obviated by our own defensive action. When one is in Condition Yellow he is aware that today may be the day. He is not in a combat mood, nor is he aware of any specific situation which may call for action on his part. There is a vital difference between White and Yellow, and it has to do not with any specific enemy or a set of circumstances, but rather with your awareness that you individually may have to take decisive action on this very day. If you are attacked in Condition White, you will probably die, or at least need a stretcher. If you are attacked in Condition Yellow, you will probably win, assuming that you are armed, awake and aware. The difference does not lie in the deadliness of the hazard facing you, but rather in your willingness to take a very unusual action.

If in the course of events you become aware of the possible existence in your presence of a lethal adversary, you switch from Yellow to Orange. The difference lies in the specific nature of your presumed antagonist, not in his evident competence or attitude. In Yellow you say to yourself, "I may have to shoot today." I may actually have to press my trigger on a human adversary, but I don't know who or where.

When you detect the presence of a target who may be the one you will have to engage, you shift from Yellow to Orange. In Yellow your mind-set is "I may have to shoot today." In Orange it is "I may have to shoot him today." At this point your normal reluctance becomes easier to overcome. Legal and moral aspects of the conflict are lowered and have been dismissed from your mind. Your attitude is dictated by the presence of that enemy standing there. You may have to shoot him, now, today. What is needed is a trigger. The trigger is the act establishing that the situation is indeed a matter of lethal conflict. This is Condition Red, and in Red you have solved the psychological problem and have no further concerns beyond the technical. In Red you are go, and your mind is concerned only with front-sight and surprise.

Moving from the various Conditions into each other is easy to accomplish once it is understood. If you are attacked in White you will lose the fight. In Yellow you will have the advantage of initiative response over your antagonist. In Orange you are pretty safe, provided you are armed, alert and aware. In Red you win. Simple, isn't it? Clearly you cannot go any further than Red because in Red you have already made the lethal decision. Complications are unproductive.

We are on the verge of abandoning The Project. You may recall that was the task of putting 20 shots into a 20-inch circle in 20 seconds at 1000 yards. The goal itself may be too difficult, as some people insist, but the problem is more administrative than physical. I simply do not have the staff necessary to set up the task, and I do not know anyone who has. However, if any of the faithful wish to pursue the problem, please go ahead, starting at closer ranges and moving out. On one occasion back at Big Bear, I got a clean score at 630 yards on our steel there which measured 16"x18". I did this with a G3, which is a very sound weapon if you can install a good trigger in it. Of course 630 yards is a long way short of 1000, but then I do not consider myself a candidate for the ultimate honors. Somebody else may be, and I would like to see him show me.

We should take note that this indeed is practice time in the Northern Hemisphere. These winter months should be utilized by the Gunsite Orange family in tuning marksmanship skills, as well as keeping track of equipment. It is important to remember that you do not have to go to the range and shoot live ammunition in order to conduct practice. Once you have obtained a good measure of competence, you know where the bullet went when the primer popped. You can test this pretty well without expending ammunition. With the rifle much of this time should be devoted to quick acquisition of position, including quick looping up of the strap. You can do this by conscientious work in your living room. You should go from standing to prone in a matter of five seconds or less, and from standing to sitting in three. Start by working with the rifle slung in a travel condition and then progress to commencing with the rifle in Condition 3, but do not let it get perfunctory. Every time that striker goes forward, you must tell yourself precisely where that shot would have gone had the piece been loaded. (With the Scout you should practice deploying the bipod.) Any sort of target index will do, from a doorknob to a light switch, but one of the best is your televisor screen. You will have displayed humanoid targets, usually in motion and for an undetermined space of time. The televisor additionally affords a proper measure of target discrimination - shoot only the bad guys.

With the pistol procedure is much the same, but the starting position may be more varied. As somebody said, you can't make an appointment for an emergency, and the pistol is an emergency weapon, therefore you should commence dry practice from any assumed position and the target selected should appear in any direction.

It is unfortunately necessary to point out that we occasionally have a nasty negligent discharge on the part of people who start from an unverified position. The procedure for dry practice off the range is carefully instilled at school here at Gunsite, but nothing is infallible - least of all people. Last year we heard of a very bad one which had fatal results. Neither drugs nor alcohol was involved, but the procedures were incorrectly observed. There are those who would say that dry practice off the range is inherently unsafe and should not be attempted. This is rather like saying that driving a car in traffic should be forbidden because it has been known to result fatally. Safety, of course, is a vital consideration, but we cannot seek to eliminate human error just because it sometimes occurs. I marvel that I put in as much time as I did in the company of armed men without ever encountering a negligent discharge. All of my people were armed all the time and yet nobody ever shot anybody - by accident.

All it takes is a nickel's worth of brain power, and despite evidence to the contrary, that is not impossible to obtain.

So keep your practice up during the downtime. Atrocious gunhandling is one of those things that haunts us in the field. If you know the basic four rules, and observe them religiously, you simply cannot have an "accident." We would like to think that nobody will adventure afield without being exposed to proper safety training. We cannot correct the world, but we can indeed keep swinging at the problem.

In view of the various high quality air rifles now on the market, we consider the case of a friend of ours who is a very fine shot and has set up his backyard and vicinity for air gun control of pigeons. Pigeons can be a nasty nuisance, but the trajectory of a subsonic air gun missile is so curved that one's environment must be studied and calibrated so that wherever the shooter is and wherever the bird is he will know exactly where to hold. Only head shots work, so the target is no larger than a quarter. This calls for good equipment and a good marksman. Also it is frowned upon in some circles. Still, it seems to me an attractive idea, and a way to keep in practice during the off season.

Among the other horror stories we get from Africa are those of people who insist after the hunt has commenced that they cannot shoot without a rest. The problems of the professional hunter are all but insurmountable. The client is paying, but he cannot buy character, and for crisis management, character is the essential. Crisis is not always a feature of the hunt for dangerous game, but it can be, and the professional hunter must be prepared for it. This is a problem that money will not solve.

We continue to get wonderful reports from the battlefront, not from the press or the tube, but from personal communication with personal friends who are on duty at this time in the sand box. Colonel Bob Young has kept up his contacts with active duty Marines in most satisfactory fashion, and the rewards are very great. Here in my hand is a letter from a man who has been in action for most of a month during which time his outfit has scored 147 kills in return for two serious hospitalization casualties on our side. The media bleep continuously about our so-called butcher's bill, and certainly we should be aware of the fact that our volunteer warriors in Mesopotamia are indeed in harm's way. It is embarrassing to reflect upon the amount of hoopla which we see displayed on the screen at a time when our best and bravest are being shot at in our defense. Personally I never thought much about this matter of volunteering. When your country is at war you go fight it, and this is not a matter for exhortation or political discourse. We recall the case of the Shoshone war band which showed up complete with one 30-30 rifle per man the week after Pearl Harbor, and simply wanted to have the enemy pointed out to them. "We hear there's a war going on and we want to go fight it." War is a bad thing, but it should not be regarded as the worst of all evils. Like war, death is to be avoided, but not at the cost of dignity. The American military tradition is a gallant one and should be explained to the young at the mother's knee. As it was said in World War II, "We're in it, let's win it."

It seems to us that while we are involved in reporting casualties and awards here and there, we should consider the possibility of freedom from taxation as one of the perks of a Medal of Honor. The man who rates the Medal of Honor has certainly paid his way, and should not be troubled further by tax collectors. This would cost the government practically nothing, and yet it would show that our hearts are in the right place. There may be things wrong with this idea, but I think it is worth a try.

Please Note. These "Commentaries" are for personal use only. Not for publication.