Colonel Jeff Cooper was a legend in the shooting and self-defense world. In addition to being instrumental in refining and popularizing many modern pistol and self-defense techniques, Col. Cooper was an advocate of a prepared armed citizenry.
He believed that the most important survival tool was the mind. To help people prepare the mind for danger, he taught what is now known as the Cooper Color Code.
The most important means of surviving a lethal confrontation, according to Cooper, is neither the weapon nor the martial skills. The primary tool is the ‘combat mindset’.
Cooper presented an adaptation of the Marine Corps system to differentiate states of readiness. The color code, as originally introduced by Jeff Cooper, had nothing to do with tactical situations or alertness levels. But rather with one’s state of mind.
As taught by Cooper, it relates to the degree of peril you are willing to do something about — which allows you to move from one level of mindset to another to enable you to properly handle a given situation.
Cooper did not claim to have invented anything in particular with the color code, but he was apparently the first to use it as an indication of mental state.
UNAWARE AND UNPREPARED. This is a condition you should try to avoid. You will probably lose a fight here. One of the only times in condition white is when you’re asleep. And even then you wouldn’t consider yourself unprepared; you’re just unaware.
If attacked in Condition White, the only thing that may save you is the “inadequacy or ineptitude” of your attacker. When suddenly confronted while in this condition your immediate reaction will probably be “OMG! This can’t be happening to me…”
Most people spend much of their lives in this state of mind.
RELAXED ALERT Yellow means you are aware of what is happening around you, but you do not perceive a potential threat. Your mindset should be prepared to defend yourself if the need arises. Everywhere you go, you should be in Condition Yellow. You should keep a pretty good watch on the people around you, and continuously rate each person’s danger level in your mind.
There is no specific threat situation. Your mindset is that “today could be the day I may have to defend myself”. You are simply aware that the world is a potentially unfriendly place and that you are prepared to defend yourself, if necessary.
You use your eyes and ears. You don’t have to be armed in this state, but if you are armed you should be in Condition Yellow.
You should always be in Yellow whenever you are in unfamiliar surroundings or among people you don’t know.
You can remain in Yellow for long periods, as long as you are able to “Watch your six.” (In aviation 12 o’clock refers to the direction in front of the aircraft’s nose. Six o’clock is the blind spot behind the pilot.)
In Yellow, you are “taking in” surrounding information in a relaxed but alert manner, like a continuous 360 degree radar sweep. As Cooper put it, “I might have to shoot.”
SPECIFIC ALERT It means that there is a potential threat that has gotten your attention. This can be almost anything and usually results in nothing, at which time you go back to yellow. An example of Condition Orange could be when you spot a firearm under that bulky coat… Instantly, you determine what you’re going to do if he reaches for that gun.
Something is not quite right and has your attention. Your radar has picked up a specific alert. You shift your primary focus to determine if there is a threat (but you do not drop your six). Your mindset shifts to “I may have to shoot that person today”, focusing on the specific target which has caused the escalation in alert status.
In Condition Orange, you set a mental trigger: “If that person does “X”, I will need to stop them”. Your pistol usually remains holstered in this state. Staying in Orange can be a bit of a mental strain, but you can stay in it for as long as you need to. If the threat proves to be nothing, you shift back to Condition Yellow.
FIGHT It means that you are in a lethal mode of mindset and will fight if the circumstances are warranted. In the make-believe scenario, Bulky Coat draws a gun from under his coat. At this point, you implement your action plan that was determined during Condition Orange. This doesn’t always mean fight. If there are too many innocents around or you don’t have the means, your best plan might be to wait and see what happens or even retreat and call the police.
Your mental trigger (established back in Condition Orange) has been tripped. “If ‘X’ happens I will shoot that person”. In short, the Color Code helps you “think” in a fight. As the level of danger increases, your willingness to take certain actions increases.
If you ever do go to Condition Red, the decision to use lethal force has already been made (your “mental trigger” has been tripped).
White – Unprepared and unready to take lethal action. If you are attacked in White you will probably die unless your adversary is totally inept.
Yellow – Your life may be in danger and you may have to do something about it.
Orange – You have determined upon a specific adversary and are prepared to take action which may result in his death, but you are not in a lethal mode.
Red – You are in a lethal mode and will shoot if circumstances warrant.
Note: I originally wrote this article back in 2013 however I have just updated and clarified a few of the points above. It is a timeless thing (the Cooper Color Codes) and well worth reminding, remembering, and practicing.