Jeff Cooper

In 1980, at the suggestion of a friend, I signed up for a class in “Basic Pistol” at the American Pistol Institute, in Paulden Arizona. My friend was new to shooting, while I thought I pretty much knew what there was to know (in that way I was a typical American male) and so I showed up expecting very little.

What I got was quite different.

The class was taught by Col. Jeff Cooper, who died at his home on the grounds of API yesterday. Col. Cooper, as most people who read his works or dealt with him indirectly – as I did – called him, was a commanding presence. He was loud but not profane, gruff but always civil, and a wonderful combination of earthy and erudite. He represented a certain ideal of American manhood; John Wayne without the mincy little shorts and man-bag. He’d ‘seen the elephant’ and served in the Marines and as a private military instructor in Latin America.

He was also by my standards (and pretty much by any contemporary standards) a racist and sexist, and his conservativism dial was set so far to the right as to be literally medieval.

He codified the body of doctrine and training that became the modern small-arms manual, and served as the center of a loose web of men and women who advance and teach the art of practical shooting worldwide. Our military and police today are taught by instructors almost all of whom learned at or from those who learned at, Jeff’s school.

There I was affectionately – I hope – known as “the hippie” and it was only my knowledge of the 30 Years’ War (a subject he challenged me on out of the blue) and some other random historical facts I managed to dredge out of memory that got him to tolerate me. I was a very good student, if only a decent shot, and managed not to piss off any of the other instructors too badly (except for Clint Smith when he asked me the “Bozo” question).

Col. Cooper had stage presence to burn. He used that presence – all of it – in the service of his teaching and craft, and after hours in wide-ranging discussions in his library with the students who – like all good students of a sensei – gathered around to soak up his mannerisms and wisdom in the hope that they would translate into mastery.

I never became a master, but the things he taught me in that class – and in later discussions – really did become core “truths” for me. I may have completely disagreed with Col. Cooper about female police officers (who he called “copchicks”) and on the root causes of political issues in Africa and Latin America – but he was always willing to engage in respectful argument, and when you’d made a point he couldn’t parry, he’d grunt softly and acknowledge it generously.

I hope to grow into someone with strong opinions and still keep that kind of honesty, and if I got nothing else from the Colonel, I’ll take that.

Col. Cooper and others of his ilk that I have been lucky enough to know represent a real kind of uniquely American ideal that I hope never goes out of style.

His writings – many not for sensitive eyes – can be found here, his Wikipedia entry here, and a good page on him and his works here.

In the middle of a shoot-off (class-ending competition that settled your rank within the class – none of this touchy-feely non-hierarchical learning for him) he stopped two of us, fixed me with a stare, and reminded me that “You can’t miss fast enough to win, Marc.”

Like many things he said, that is still and will always be absolutely true.

10 thoughts on “Jeff Cooper”

  1. “Medieval” is a word not all of us consider an insult.

    I’m sorry I never met the Colonel. His book title, “To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth,” seems to me to have gathered in a phrase the essence of American manhood.

  2. I have always wondered who taught law enforcement to use both hands when firing handguns.

    In the 1950s stationed in Europe, my Air Force buddies and I went in to forests near the base to target pactice. They were all fired up about the then new movie, “Shane”, playing at the base theater, about a Western loner. Shooting cans they tried repeatedly to do a “fast draw” and hit the target. Holding the handgun, a 38, with both hands I could usually hit them.

    But my buddies said that was “cheating”.

    Now we know how wrong their idea was. Those Hollywood types couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn. And two who had some movie experience spoke about the prop guns being useless junk because they had been, “Drop your gun”, so many times. Not to mention the barrels had sleeves in them and could only fire blanks.

  3. I was slated to take 350 and then GAS next week. The latter will be turned into a Wake. And at 250 I missed fast enough to lose – dropped the other guy’s half!

    I never met COL Cooper, but love his writings!

  4. I found “Ride Hard, Shoot Straight” invaluable in teaching my little girls about situational awareness and the “combat mindset”. Both are alien concepts to today’s kids. Cooper put it in a way that wasn’t paranoid, just basic common sense.

    The skepticism and self-reliance he counseled is especially critical for all those Cinderellas out there. It’s okay to prevail over the other guy, and as he said, roughly remembered, “You first have to know you’re in danger before you can defend yourself.” A wise man.

  5. Though I never had the pleasure and honor of meeting Col. Cooper, I will always remember some frank and wise words from him. It was to a gentlemaman who was complaining about the dominance of the champion pistol shots around the country. He exclaimed,(paraphrasing)”How is Joe Average supposed to compete against these guys with those custom built guns and sponsored ammunition and all the time in the world to practice?” He went on and on talking baout his 9 hour a day job and so on. Col. Cooper’s response was classic Cooper. (Also paraphrasing) “You know what? Even if Joe Average had the time to practice and sponsors for ammo and custom built race guns and all, he’d still get his butt kicked because those guys are that good! Competition is designed to find out who’s best, not who’s average!”
    Great words and though I teach shotgunning, I use them regularly with my students.
    Col. Cooper will be sorely missed. The world needs more like him but, they don’t make them anymore.

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