Some students approach a shooting exercise as though they were trying to win a giant stuffed mouse to improve their living room decor.

Some others draw their guns with the concentrated intent of getting good enough before the end of the week to blow the stuffing right out of the big rat. The difference is mindset.

The only interior decorators this week were gone after three days. The ones who stayed were more substantial in character. There was the lady from the East Coast who was being stalked and threatened by a vicious former boyfriend. A bright young cop from California who was assuming responsibility for his own firearms training since his department provided little of quality. An undercover federal agent was here as R&R for an undisclosed job well done. Several shooters were taking the course for the second or third time, gradually improving their already considerable skills. There was a martial arts master over from the U.K. just to get a fresh breath of lead-and-powder-scented air because his own country prohibits him from even owning a gun, as it prohibits him from defending himself and his family with his well-trained hands. There were pairs of best friends, mates, brothers, fathers and sons, all come to taste one of the original crucibles of humankind.

Course 250 at Gunsite Academy, Basic Defensive Pistol, is an intensive week-long training regimen dedicated to the tactical deployment of powerful handguns that prepares students to handle, manipulate, control, shoot and think more effectively than any standard law enforcement or military course of training provides. Gunsite is not the only such celebrated firearms school –- there’s TFTT, Thunder Ranch, Yavapai Firearms Academy to name some of the other top schools –- but Gunsite was the first, founded by Col. Jeff Cooper himself.

This looked like a particularly good class. There were 20 students, 20 guns, half 1911s, half Glocks, with the exception of one each agency-required Beretta and Sig. The team of six instructors was led by Louis Awerbuck, world-class shooter, thinker, writer and instructor, veteran of the bloody and tragically concluded revolutionary wars in Rhodesia and southern Africa. Each of the adjunct instructors was fully capable of leading the class on his (or her) own. Michel Rothlisberger, who looked fresh out of high school but is a colonel in the Swiss Army and head of Switzerland’s vaunted handgun training program. Il Ling New, a delicate beauty of no more than a hundred pounds who grew up helping her father guide big game hunters in remote wilderness areas all over the country and who could undoubtedly take a grizzly bear apart in three seconds flat. Steve McDaniel down from Alaska, Doug Day, Alice Rogers. Quite a team.

The first order of business on the first day was a brief classroom session where the rules were laid down. Awerbuck held up a toy pistol which reminded me of my Dick Tracy model from days gone by. He explained that he would sometimes appear to break the ironclad gun-handling safety rules with this gun-shaped object in order to make a point and he wanted everyone in the room to be satisfied that it was indeed a toy, not a gun at all. He asked if anyone wanted to inspect the plaything to be sure. No one responded, and that was lesson number one.

“Never ever again take anybody’s word that the thing he’s holding in his hand that looks like a gun is harmless,” Awerbuck told the class. The black plastic thing was then passed around to all the students, everyone dropping the little magazine designed to hold soft plastic BBs, racking the plastic slide back and forth to clear any BBs that might be lurking inside, sticking their fingers down into the action to make sure, watching their muzzle control, treating the thing as though it might be loaded with invisible 45-caliber Black Talons. Good lesson.

The shooting started right away. At distances from three to 25 yards, students drilled in the drawstroke, fast and accurate fire, reloading, clearing malfunctions, shooting from different positions. Under the quiet direction of Louis Awerbuck and with personal attention from the other five instructors, each shooter started gradually pulling together the three elements of Jeff Cooper’s Combat Triad. Mindset, the ability to control a dangerous environment. Marksmanship, accurate fire delivered under pressure. And gunhandling -– as Awerbuck stressed, it is not bad shooting that gets people killed so much as it is the lack of good gunhandling skills. Awerbuck never let an opportunity pass without reminding students that losers in gunfights most often come in second (that is, dead last) because “most people beat themselves.”

“Your weapon is your mind,” he said more than once. “Your gun is your tool. A lethal confrontation with firearms is about strategy and tactics, not just shooting.” Awerbuck knows of which he speaks.

As the hours and days wore on, shooters moved from the square range to the outdoor simulators or “jungle walks” to the nerve-wracking indoor simulators and house-clearing exercises. Targets changed from the plain tan IPSC-style that encourages focus on the front sight, to camouflage patterns that challenge recognition of center body mass, to realistic depictions of criminals, hostages, innocent bystanders and little old ladies with sawed-off shotguns to force target identification and accurate shot placement, to reactive steel Pepper poppers of both good-guy and bad-guy varieties. Shooters fired their weapons under stress in the light and heat of the high desert sun, in the treacherous glow of twilight and the dark of night. There were man-on-man “duels” that tested speed of the draw, accuracy and follow-through, the smoothness of reloads and the sheer nerve of the contestants.

Col. Bob Young told me that, before he became Vice President of Operations at Gunsite, he used to train special Security Force Marines here and that after four-and-a-half days and 500 rounds of ammunition a Marine could draw his 45-caliber 1911 from his tied-down GI flap holster and shoot an adversary twice at seven yards in two seconds or less. After five days and almost 1500 rounds of ammo, most of these students could do the same, and their confidence showed. They could not be out-shot, even by a well trained Marine. But, as Awerbuck pointed out, the danger was that if they didn’t use their heads they might very well be out-thought.

“The teacher must first of all know ‘why,’” Jeff Cooper had said. Louis Awerbuck never directed a student to do anything without explaining the real-life reasons behind it. The lesson-filled anecdotes he had to tell were alone worth the price of admission to Course 250.

Stereotyping or “profiling” is a natural human trait and can be very useful. If you follow your initial instincts you will likely be right. And sometimes you will be wrong. A local sheriff responded to a major shoot-out between a gang of scruffy bikers and a bunch of guys in suits. Immediately joining in the gunbattle on the side of the guys in suits, the sheriff personally killed two undercover federal agents and helped a gang of well dressed armed robbers escape.

Dry-firing has always been a staple routine to aid rapid sight acquisition and trigger control. The head of a major law enforcement agency was practicing dry-firing at a target on the wall in his office. He had no sooner finished practice and reloaded his .357 Magnum revolver with high-velocity hollowpoints than the phone rang. After a long and heated telephone conversation he went back to what he was doing, dry-firing into his office wall. His second-in-command, sitting at his desk in the office next door, caught a bullet in the brain, the shooter’s brilliant career in law enforcement came to a sudden halt as well, and he went on to become one of the most famous gunwriters of all time.

There are signs in all of the restroom facilities at Gunsite explaining the “why” of certain necessary procedures. For instance, you are expected to close the door when you leave because, if you don’t, some wild desert critter is likely to seek shelter in the protected space, find itself trapped, and unintentionally set up a terrifying ambush for the next person entering. The restrooms are not meant to be simulators and are not equipped to withstand gunfire.

The thought processes underlying what some first-time students had previously considered the simple act of pulling the trigger tell you that it would be a good idea to prepare yourself by reading not only Jeff Cooper (and Awerbuck’s own book, “Tactical Reality”) but by studying the works of Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz as well. Sun Tzu reveals such kernels of Chinese wisdom as, “All warfare is based on deception.” The great Prussian soldier and writer Carl von Clausewitz presents you with ideas such as, “In war everything is uncertain and variable, intertwined with psychological forces and effects, and the product of a continuous interaction of opposites.”

These philosophical axioms of combat see practical application at Gunsite. They are important things for you to know before you strap on a .45 and sally forth into the real world.

Many students, especially law enforcement types, are surprised to look at house-clearing exercises the other way around. No one, not even a cop, will likely ever face the prospect of entering a house alone where one or more armed adversaries are known to lie in wait. It is quite possible, however, that you could someday find yourself inside a house suddenly containing such threats and have to fight your way out. The necessity for “cutting the pie” and other techniques practiced in the 360-degree simulators now come into stark focus.

Some are surprised, as well, when they realize the fastest reload or malfunction clearance is often a second gun. Malfunctions in this class were few, however, and jams nonexistent, even among the tightly fitted “match” guns that are frequently plagued by reliability problems. Awerbuck himself is known to routinely carry a 45-caliber 1911 as primary and a 9mm Glock 19 as backup, perhaps the best of both worlds.

A truism among African dangerous-game hunters is, “It’s the dead ones that kill you.” This wisdom comes from not uncommon experiences such as shooting an elephant in the head with a big-bore rifle, missing the brain by a fraction of an inch but delivering a Mike Tyson KO punch that lays the giant pachyderm out flat, dead to the world until you climb up on top of it so your PH can take your hero-picture, at which point the elephant suddenly wakes up in a foul mood indeed; or blowing the heart and lungs out of a Cape buffalo, sure of your shot, watching it fall, feeling victorious until the buffalo decides he wants to get even more than he wants to die and, drawing on that mysterious reserve life-force that seems capable of sustaining African buffalo even when all mechanical life-support systems are destroyed, he gets back on his feet and comes for you.

The same truism applies to human beings. Many are the good guys who’ve shot the bad guy dead center, watched him crash into the furniture Hollywood-style, holstered their weapon, turned and walked away only to catch a bullet in the back of the head.

These are things you learn at Gunsite too, at least you do if Louis Awerbuck is instructing.

So, a week and a lifetime after you enter the raven gates of Gunsite, you leave. But you’re likely to find that, sometime during that week in the country, your DNA shifted and recomposed in some subtle way that you didn’t notice. The world you are now reentering is not quite the same world it was just a few days ago. Something has happened, either to the world or to yourself, and nothing will ever be quite the same again. You feel you’ve left something behind at Gunsite. And the odds are, you’ll be back.