Jeff Cooper, 86; Firearms Expert Set Standard for Pistol Technique

Times Staff Writer

Jeff Cooper, a firearms expert who formulated the widely used “modern technique of the pistol” and founded a highly regarded firearms training center in Arizona, has died. He was 86.

Cooper, an author and longtime Guns & Ammo magazine columnist who had experienced health problems in recent years, died Monday at his home near the training center on Gunsite Ranch, his family said.

A big-game hunter and retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, Cooper founded what was originally called the American Pistol Institute on Gunsite Ranch in the Sonora Desert just west of Paulden, Ariz., in 1976.


The training center expanded from teaching pistol techniques to covering military carbines, shotguns, submachine guns, hunting rifles and various other small arms. Now called Gunsite Academy, it boasts an estimated 40,000 graduates, including law enforcement officers, military personnel from around the world and civilians.

Cooper, who wrote several books on firearms and was one of the original writers for Guns & Ammo, sold the training center in 1992 but continued to live on the property.

“He’s an icon in the field,” Gunsite Academy owner Owen Mills said. “Probably, in the use of small arms, he is on par with John Browning, the inventor of modern American semiautomatic pistols.”

Cooper, Mills said, “codified the use and deployment of small arms for personal defense.”

Cooper’s modern technique of the pistol grew out of his involvement with two groups he organized in the mid-1950s, the Bear Valley Gunslingers and the Southwest Combat Pistol League, which held matches in the Big Bear area and other locations.

“Jeff’s contribution to all this was that he was able to observe what other people were doing and see what worked,” said Ed Head, operations manager at Gunsite. “His particular genius was to turn it into a particular teaching methodology.”

The modern technique of the pistol, which was later branched out to other small arms, features five elements, including the Weaver stance, named for Jack Weaver, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who used two hands to grip the pistol, which created isometric tension to steady it, and used the gun sight.

“Before that, everybody had been hip-shooting -- shooting with one hand, without the use of the sights,” said Head. “It made a big difference.”

The modern technique “has been widely accepted by all the law enforcement agencies in the world,” including the Los Angeles Police Department, Mills said. “The man’s probably responsible for keeping more soldiers and law enforcement officers alive than anyone in the world.”

He added that Cooper’s codification of firearm safety rules is “universally accepted.”

Cooper, said Wiley Clapp, former handgun editor for Guns & Ammo, “has been referred to as the father of modern handgunning -- accurately, I think. He is the guy who developed the technique of using a handgun defensively, the technique that is almost universal in both police and military circles and civilian circles.

“If you go to the movies and see Tom Cruise fighting his way through the bad guys ... in the way they hold the pistol, the way they fire multiple shots, all of that is a somewhat Hollywood-ized version of the modern technique. The position they’re generally in is a Weaver.

“So this thing that one ultra-conservative, right-wing retired colonel started in the mountains of Big Bear is so permeated in our culture that they’re using it in the movies and so forth.”

John Dean “Jeff” Cooper was born in Los Angeles on May 20, 1920. As a Marine during World War II, he served on the battleship Pennsylvania and later conducted what he described as “clandestine services” during the Korean War.

Cooper, who was discharged from the Marines in 1955, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Stanford University and a master’s degree in history from UC Riverside. From the late 1950s through the early ‘70s, he taught history part time through a community college and at the high school in Big Bear.

His books include “Cooper on Handguns,” “The Art of the Rifle,” “To Ride, Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth,” “Sports Car Annual,” two volumes of “Gunsite Gossip,” “Fireworks” (a collection of essays) and the memoirs “Another Country” and “C Stories.”

After Mills bought the center from another owner in 1999, Cooper returned to teach master’s classes, quitting for health reasons in 2003.

His column continued to appear in Guns & Ammo, however, and he also continued to meet with Gunsite students who would visit after classes on Friday afternoons.

He’d greet them in his spacious, high-ceilinged living room, whose walls are adorned with game heads, swords and other military artifacts. Then he’d take them to his downstairs armory, where he’d hold forth on guns, politics and other topics.

Cooper, who served as the first president of the International Practical Shooting Confederation, also served on the National Rifle Assn. board of directors. In 1995, he received the Outstanding American Handgunner Award.

Cooper is survived by his wife of 64 years, Janelle; three daughters, Christy Hastings, Parry Heath and Lindy Wisdom; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.