Most of us who have been around for a while know who Jeff Cooper was and what he accomplished. But it’s possible that many folks who are new to handguns and concealed carry may not know who he is. For anyone who is not familiar with Jeff Cooper, he was a USMC veteran of WWII and Korea.
After the military, he went on to create the “Modern Technique” of defensive handgun use and founded what became Gunsite, the best-known and most highly respected firearms training site in the United States. He is most often associated with the 1911 pistol and the conditions of readiness for carrying it.
But Jeff also created a very practical and easy-to-remember color code that sets out a quick reference system to describe states of situational awareness. This is something critical to anyone who carries a gun daily or just wants to avoid becoming the victim of a crime. Although his color code was first presented in his excellent book Principles of Personal Defense, first published in 1972, it is still highly relevant in today’s world.
The First Priority in Self-Defense
Mr. Cooper and anyone else who understands self-defense will tell you that it isn’t your gun or fighting skills that are the most important factors in staying safe. It’s your mindset. Your understanding of how to read a situation and react to it accordingly are the most critical aspects of keeping yourself and your loved ones safe.
To read a situation, you have to be aware of the situation, which brings us to Cooper’s color code. Like using a name or number to designate a certain play in football or a code name for a battle plan in the military, Cooper’s color code enables us to describe a specific state of readiness with a single word. The use of colors also helps us understand the psychological or combat mindset underlying the level of readiness each condition designates.
In Condition White, you are relaxed and unaware of what is going on around you. You are completely unprepared, and anything that happens will take you by surprise. Unfortunately, this is the condition most people are in most of the time. It’s the state of mind people are in when they are walking down the street or sitting in their car looking at their phones.
If you are violently attacked in this condition, the only way you will survive is if your attacker is incredibly inept or if they decide not to kill you. People who are in Condition White are the ones who waste time saying, “This can’t be happening.” In my opinion, the only time you should be in this state is when you are asleep. These are the soft targets criminals look for.
In Condition Yellow, you are relaxed but aware of your surroundings. You are going about your business but taking time to look around and listen, whether you are at home or out and about. This is the condition you should be in most of the time.
When you come out of a store to walk to your car, you should be looking around at who is in the lot. Are people watching you? Are there any suspicious groups standing around or people in an idling car who look like they are watching the parking lot? Is someone walking behind you?
It doesn’t mean you are paranoid, simply that you are aware and prepared. If something bad happens, you won’t be taken completely by surprise. You will have already said to yourself, “Today could be the day when something happens.”
When you enter a restaurant, try to find a seat where you can see the door. Note where the kitchen entrance is. Pay attention to the people already inside and those coming. Notice if there is a side entrance.
Once you note your surroundings, put together a quick plan for what you will do ‘if’ something happens. Then, if it does, you can act on it without having to try to figure out a plan under pressure.
We enter Condition Orange when we recognize a specific potential threat. It can be anything that doesn’t look or feel right. Most of the time, it will turn out to be nothing, and you can go back to Condition Yellow.
It’s something or someone you pick up on your radar or sixth sense that sets off potential alarms. It might be a person watching you intently as you come out of the store or bank. It could be two guys who seem to be converging on you from two directions in a parking lot. It could be when you’re standing at a urinal in a restroom, and someone else comes in.
You should be aware of everything around you but not fixated on any one thing. Focusing on one threat and missing the one behind you is just as bad as not focusing at all. Your mindset should be. “If that person(s) does X, then I will need to…”
If you are assaulted in Condition Orange, you will not be taken by surprise. You were already anticipating a possible attack. Hopefully, you will already be facing your attacker and have a plan of action. If you have considered the potential for trouble and trained often enough, you will respond in the best way. That might be moving to get a better angle or to put something between you and the threat. Muscle memory will take over as you prepare to clear your shirt and draw your concealed weapon.
If, as in the vast majority of cases, it turns out to be nothing, you smoothly drop back into the watchful awareness of yellow. Nothing has happened to tell the casual observer that you were ready for trouble. You may go through this process multiple times a day, depending on where you are and what you are doing.
In Condition Red, your mental trigger has been activated. The potential threat you identified in Condition Orange has progressed to an actual threat. Some instructors have misinterpreted Cooper’s system to mean that Condition Red is when you are pulling the trigger or otherwise engaging the assailant, but that is not the case.
Being in Condition Red means there is no longer any chance that an attack will surprise you. You are expecting it. You are still in the fight or flight stage. You may have drawn your gun, or you may have simply got out of the area and called the police. It all depends on the situation. But whatever happens, you are ready for it. You will not waste any time deciding what to do. When you hit Condition Red, you have already made the decision to use deadly force if the situation calls for it.
Be Prepared – Be Rational
Progressing from Condition Yellow through Orange to Red means that your mind has made an orderly progression through the stages of preparedness and response. It enables you to think in a fight and to make rational decisions. Shoot or don’t shoot. Is the assailant alone, or does he have an accomplice? What is behind the assailant? Where are the innocent bystanders?
Panicked reactions do not lend themselves to a rational response. It all depends on your mindset and level of preparedness. Being prepared puts you ahead of the game. Jeff Cooper understood that, and so should we.