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Preview – Zeroed In – Ken Hackathorn

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The Living Legend With a Signature ’Stache, Ken Hackathorn Reminiscences About Teaching America’s Warriors and Helping Influence Modern-Day Shooting as We Know It

The name “Hackathorn” strikes a chord of respect among the pantheon of firearms enthusiasts and instructors. In many ways he is the Obi Wan Kenobi to our collective Luke Skywalker: the shooting sage we want to learn from and the wise man we hope to be. These sentiments are not without merit.

The man behind the ’stache, Ken Hackathorn, was a formative force behind three-gun competitions as we know them today and is a founding member of two competitive shooting titans, the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) and the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA). His status as a former U.S. Army Special Forces soldier and a certified deputy sheriff only furthers his real-world credibility. If that’s not enough, he has taught everyone from local SWAT teams and federal law enforcement agencies to special operation forces in the USA and elite units in nations around the globe (Germany and the Netherlands just to name a couple). Hackathorn’s wealth of knowledge and experience have made him highly sought after in the private sector. He has served as a consultant for Glock, Heckler & Koch, and Smith & Wesson, teaches classes through Alias Training & Security Services, and is also one of BCM’s vaunted Gunfighters. And no surprise, Wilson Combat designed the Hackathorn Special 1911 to honor the master and his love of the iconic handgun. It comes complete with an ivory stock handle that matches the color of Ken’s facial hair.

Clearly, the man affectionately known as “Hack” is anything but that. What a Google search won’t tell you about the man is how his impressive résumé came to be and why he deserves every bit of the respect he has earned.

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Watching Hackathorn go through his extensive firearms collection is akin to seeing a young boy thumbing through his baseball cards. In his six decades of life, he’s never lost the enthusiasm he first found in firearms as an Ohio adolescent. “When I was 14 years old, I ordered guns in the mail,” he says with a laugh as the morning sun peers into his Idaho homestead. “I remember ordering a .303 carbine and 100 rounds of ammo for $14.95, delivered by Railway Express. Of course, this was all prior to the ’68 Gun Control Act, so there was no age restriction.”

It’s that genuine enthusiasm that makes Hackathorn so compelling. He knows his sizeable collection like the back of his hand, and an afternoon discussing guns with the man means an afternoon of learning and laughs. He can rattle off technological advancements and country-specific platforms off the top of his head like a historian from the Smithsonian. “It’s been interesting to see the stuff that at one time was considered the way to go, but by today’s standards wouldn’t be much good,” he says. While most would be impressed by Hackathorn’s wisdom accumulated over the decades, some have actually bristled at his age.

“Sometimes I get people saying, ‘I don’t want to take Hackathorn’s class — it’d be like taking a class with my grandfather,’” he says. “I’m not offended. If you think one has to be 25 to be proficient, then that’s fine. Hell, back when I was 25, I might have said the same thing.”

RECOIL: When did you first fall in love with firearms?

Ken Hackathorn: While other kids were talking about baseball or drawing naked girls, I was the kid in class drawing pictures of guns. I’ve always been interested in them and gravitated to them all my life. I read Guns & Ammo in high school study hall religiously, and there were two writers in particular whom I took influence from. One was Jeff Cooper, who was kind of the tactical shooting combat guy of the day and the other big handgun guy was named Elmer Keith, who was from Salmon, Idaho. He’s the guy who was responsible for the .44 Magnum round and wrote for a number of periodicals. I read their stuff all the time.

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How did you initially pursue shooting instruction?

KH: When I went into the Army, I ended up getting a slot as a small-arms instructor, which everybody assumes was the jumping off point for me, but it wasn’t — though it did give me the interest. I got out and into law enforcement, and where I lived in the Ohio Valley they paid starvation wages. I ended up taking a job with Union Carbide for years when it came time to start a family, but I would periodically go back and forth with law enforcement. So much so I actually have a retirement from the Washington County Sheriff’s office in Ohio; I was a deputy sheriff. Some of the guys I worked with and I would go out to local clubs and practice what would now be considered “combat shooting techniques.”

Did you take any shooting classes yourself?

KH: When I first started out in the private sector, Jeff Cooper influenced me. I wrote a letter to him in ’75 and told him I would like to learn more about his combat shooting techniques. Most people assume the military gave me most of my techniques, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. He told me he was teaching a class in Fort Collins, Colorado, and it was a weeklong deal. My wife had an aunt who lived in Denver, so we made the trip with my 1-year-old daughter in tow.

Jeff and I hit it off because he was a genuine gun guy and so was I. Before his course was called Gunsite, it was called the American Pistol Institute, and he brought in a few guys to be range officers. In the original brochure, I’m actually the first instructor listed. Everybody in this business today is a product of somebody from Gunsite — Jeff Cooper’s influence is still that huge. At the time, I was an NRA-certified police firearms instructor, and for me to go from that to what Cooper was having us do, it was mind-blowing. Cooper started IPSC around this time, and I was one of the founding members.

Was this time period the beginning of IPSC?

KH: Yes, when IPSC started, in the mid ’70s, it was combat shooting. We were drawing from holsters, shooting multiple targets, reloading under stress, using varying courses and it was “radical.” For the first five or six years, people showed up with guns that represented what people really carried — and then it started to evolve. I think Americans uniquely tend to bastardize everything they get involved in, and you started seeing guns and holsters made strictly for IPSC competition. Then the mindset of the real hardcore competitor shifted to trying to gain an edge by any means, and it gravitated to the point that it lost any relevancy to the real world.

Were you still training at Gunsite during this time period?

KH: I was. Eventually there were things I started to question regarding techniques, and Jeff was a bit more locked into his dogma than I wanted to be. Over a period of time, we butted heads too much, and I was the first person to break away from Gunsite. It was tough in those early days. Cooper took it pretty hard and initially refused to acknowledge me in public and so forth. I just had my own ideas, and since I had worked at Gunsite, people approached me to teach classes, and I taught as much as I could. I figured initially that teaching would just support my love of shooting, and it evolved into becoming more of a supplemental income for my family. I came from a fairly humble background. I was one of those kids who never knew he was poor until I went to high school, because at elementary, everyone was the same as me, so the early money I made training was great for me.

How has firearms training evolved or changed in your eyes?

KH: The most sweeping changes in firearms instruction have happened within the last decade. Not only what the students are about, but the explosion of instructors. Everybody’s an instructor, and everybody is an expert. Mind you, there are some really good guys out there, but it’s changed to the point that those of us who have been in it for a while have a joking term for the hype. We call it “enter-trainment.” I don’t see it getting any better, but life is about change. You’ve got to move forward, regardless.

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For the rest of this article, subscribe here: RECOIL Issue 17

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