It is said that there are few new things under the sun, and that is certainly true of tactics and philosophies of self-defense. In these disciplines and others, today’s leading practitioners will be the first to tell you that they stand on the shoulders of giants who have gone before. Yes, we just hit you with a double-tap of cliches. But don’t forget why cliches are so commonly used: It’s because they are generally true. So let us examine just a few of those giants of the past, no longer with us. But their lessons still resonate today.
ICONS: 10 of the Best Shooting Instructors & Gunfighters of All-Time
Col. Rex Applegate (1914-1998)
Col. Applegate was a renaissance man of self-defense. He was the first gun expert of the 20th Century to integrate bare-handed combat with the combative use of the knife and, of course, gunfighting. His Applegate-Fairbairn fighting knife, in both fixed blade and folding formats, remains in production and popular use today. He taught self-defense techniques to OSS and others during WWII, and was a bodyguard for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Col. Applegate was well along in years and was walking with the support of his cane when he was jumped by a pair of vicious muggers. Rex’s cane flashed twice, and he went on his way unmolested, leaving both of his attackers horizontal on the sidewalk. One was clutching himself between the legs, and the other was unconscious due to head trauma.
Rex gave us the single most popular style of self-defense revolver still widely in use in modern times. Working in Mexico in the years after WWII, he found the old top-break hammerless .38 S&W handy for concealment under tropical wear. Attacked by an enraged man with a machete, he had to empty that little gun into the assailant to stop him. Rex went to S&W and asked them to make that neat little hammerless as a more potent .38 Special with a solid frame. The result was today’s hugely popular Centennial series.
Rex had his own method of point shooting, refined from that of Fairbairn and Sykes. It worked, because it brought the handgun to line of sight. Applegate contributed a great deal of knowledge to the art of self-defense. His classic book Kill or Get Killed is available on Amazon.
William Aprill (1966-2020)
We lost William Aprill all too soon in 2020. Cop and therapist, he was a true renaissance man in terms of self-defense. An award-winning shooter and master instructor in weapon retention, disarming and close combat struggles, William’s signature specialty was understanding the criminal mindset. He had debriefed and analyzed countless violent criminals. Picture a combination of criminal psychologist Stanton Samenow and the fictional John Wick, and you have an idea.
Aprill’s most famous lecture was “Unthinkable,” in which he distilled his time studying violent criminals and how they selected, approached and finally attacked their victims. Key in this research was how they de-selected, that is, made the decision, “I’m not going to attack this victim, because something tells me he or she will hurt me more than I will hurt them.”
Sadly, William never wrote a book. He did, however, contribute an excellent chapter on criminal mindset to my own book Straight Talk on Armed Defense: What the Experts Want You to Know. Fortunately, he allowed his lectures to be recorded, and his legacy is a trove of those. They are critical viewing for everyone in your life, not just the gun people and dojo denizens. An online search for “lectures of William Aprill” will get you there.
Col. Charles Askins, Jr. (1907-1999)
The son of a famous gun writer, Col. Charles Askins, Sr., Charlie literally grew up with a gun in his hand. The many gunfights he survived during his years on the U.S. Border Patrol, where he rose to the position of chief firearms instructor, are legend. So are his many gunfights, including some of his adventures in the Army in WWII.
Charlie was an award-winning competitive shooter, that portion of his career culminating when he won the National Pistol Championship in the mid-1930s. He shot all Colts: a customized Woodsman auto pistol in the .22 division, a heavy-frame .38 Special Shooting Master in centerfire and an accurized Government Model in .45. I, for one, learned more from his book The Art of Handgun Shooting as a boy than from any other shooting book. On the practical side of things, he was a pioneer in teaching his men active combat shooting—firing while moving and from awkward or wounded positions, and focusing on double action with the then-ubiquitous service revolver.
Charlie earned a reputation for having killed a lot of men. He was a stone killer, but in person an affable sort with a subtle sense of humor and—like many other highly accomplished and prolific hunters—a man who loved animals.
Askins left behind many books that have stood the test of time. The best read among them is his aptly-titled autobiography Unrepentant Sinner, if you can find it.
Louis Awerbuck (1948-2014)
A combat soldier in Africa who immigrated gratefully to the United States, which he loved, Louie was a gentleman and a total professional. He did much to introduce realism into defensive firearms training: how to “work angles,” innovative use of relevant reactive targets, and use of three-dimensional reaction targets and moving targets. A strong advocate of back-up guns, his focus was on realism. His books include Tactical Reality and Hit or Myth, and his many articles for SWAT magazine.
Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper (1920-2006)
Jeff Cooper was an absolute giant in advancing the art of what he called pistolcraft. He popularized the two-hand hold and proved that fast hits could be achieved with aimed rather than pointed fire. He created the sport of simulated gunfighting with live ammo, beginning with small matches in California and founding the International Practical Shooting Confederation in 1976, which spawned similar sports such as the International Defensive Pistol Association. In 1976 he made another great contribution, the founding of Gunsite—the first training center to teach defensive shooting to the general public. It was he who quantified the now-ubiquitous Four Rules of Firearms Safety, which are often quoted without attribution.
Cooper was largely responsible for the renaissance of the 1911 .45 pistol. His books range from Cooper on Handguns to his classic Principles of Self-Defense, and much of his philosophy can be found in Gargantuan Gunsite Gossip. Jeff Cooper: the Soul and the Spirit, his biography written by his daughter, is an excellent read. Some of his live lectures can be found online, his books can be found on Amazon, and the spirit of his work lives on in the updated teaching at Gunsite, now under the able and forward-thinking management of Buz Mills.
J. H. Fitzgerald (1876-1945)
“Fitz” was a cop, a fighter, a gunsmith and shooter extraordinaire. Working for Colt, he was largely responsible for a classic genre of defensive handgun, the snub-nose .38 Special revolver, with the introduction of the Colt Detective Special of 1926-27, and had a hand in the first target grade .45 auto, the Colt National Match of 1933. He was an advocate of pocket carry and known to wear a pair of cut down .45 Colt revolvers in the leather-lined pockets of his trousers. He was the first of the gunfighting instructors to focus on weapon retention and disarming, and was famous for customized “Fitz Special” revolvers with cutaway trigger guards. His classic book Shooting seems like ancient history but is still relevant today.
Chic Gaylord (1914-1992)
Gaylord was a quick-draw wizard and a masterful, innovative holster maker. His work in the ’50s and ’60s popularized inside-the-waistband holsters, ankle rigs and other concealment gear, and paved the way for today’s cottage industry of concealed carry holster makers. His classic book Handgunner’s Guide touches on hunting and target shooting, but focuses primarily on self-defense, and is available online. Gaylord may have been the first to call for cartridges between .38/.357 and .44/.45 calibers, predicting the development of the .41 Magnum, 10mm Auto and .40 S&W.
Todd Louis Green (1970-2016)
Another who passed all too soon, Todd brought an analytical mind to both hardware and training software. An outstanding competitive combat shooter who won the Polite Society shooting match at Tom Givens’ outstanding Rangemaster Tactical Conference (rangemaster.com), Todd never wrote a book to my knowledge. However, the website pistol-training.com preserves much of his wisdom. Part of his legacy is the high-level gun and tactics message board at pistol-forum.com.
Bill Jordan (1911-1997)
As a WWII combat Marine in the Pacific and a legendary Border Patrolman, Jordan was such a gifted shooter that he could hit aspirin tablets shooting from the hip. Those who trained under him were in awe of his insights into the mentality of armed combat in America. His classic book No Second Place Winner is available from Police Bookshelf, P.O. Box 1477, Concord, NH 03301.
Pat Rogers (1946-2016)
In two careers that culminated as Chief Warrant Officer in the USMC and sergeant on NYPD, Rogers’ extensive gunfighting experience informed his no-nonsense practical teaching with carbine and handgun alike. Many of his informative articles can be found at the aforementioned SWAT magazine archives website, and his training videos are still available at panteaoproductions.com.
I’ve run out of space, but you haven’t run out of time to follow the leads and access the wisdom of these great leaders in the field. I knew all of the above personally except Fitzgerald, Gaylord, and Rogers, and not meeting them was my loss. But I learned lessons, one on one, from each of the others. Those lessons deserved passing on. Now you can learn them too.
This article originally appeared in the April-May 2021 issue of Ballistic Magazine. Get your copy or digital subscription at OutdoorGroupStore.com.