The conditions of the Cooper Color Code

Cooper Color Code – The 4 Stages of Combat Mindset Readiness

Colonel Jeff Cooper and the Cooper Color Code. He 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.

Cooper Color Code Conditions

Condition White

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.

Condition Yellow

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 and 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.”

Condition Orange

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.

Condition Red

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).

Further simplification:

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 years ago. It is a timeless thing (the Cooper Color Code) and well worth reminding, remembering, and practicing.

[ Read: Situational Awareness and a 360 Mindset ]

[ Read: 4 Steps To Situational Awareness ]


  1. I haven’t been in condition white since I was a toddler. I have been in condition yellow most of my life with several oranges and even a couple of reds. Entering a small or unknown building I go from yellow to orange until I see all is well, then back to yellow.

  2. I was born into a yellow world and have never gone white. I have gone orange a few times when going into a completely unfamiliar setting without someone. I have only gone red once when a huge multi-person fight broke out in a parking lot right around my car. Luckily the cops showed within a few ticks and broke it up before I got involved to get to my vehicle. If damage would have been done to my vehicle, it would have been returned in kind to that persons body. That was about 20 yrs ago.

    1. I was born into a yellow world also,and have been in orange mode more than a few times.Red is a very strange and determined feeling,and it takes a while to calm down after you go back to yellow.Wouldn’t it be a great world if we didn’t have to change colors.

  3. It seems I am always in condition yellow because I do not trust people to act as gentlemen (or ladies) anymore. A sad state of affairs for our country. A number of times I have been in condition orange because of peoples aggressive behavior, such as making threats and/or brandishing a weapon. I went condition red once when I had to pull my weapon to stop an idiot from trying to car jack my pickup. When he got the truck door open he was looking down the barrel of a 1911. He ran. Thank God it stopped there. Many hours went by before I calmed down.

    1. I too am yellow most of the time outside of my home and have been orange many times (military). In non-military circumstances I have been orange probably a dozen times and have gone red on 3 occasions without incedent that I remember. It was very intense. I have not killed anyone that I know of and hope I never do. But, will do the unthinkable if needed in the current state of our country–it’s sad.

      1. Agreed – the current state of our country – one’s situational awareness is very important…

  4. My condition Yellow is CCW XDs 9mm . My condition Orange is CCW. XDm .40 cal with tac 500 behind truck seat. My condition Red is open carry Sig .45 on my hip, body armor with load out and Colt M-4 in my hands. If you keep your head on a swivel and know what’s going on around you condition Red should not catch you off guard. We have left stores and restaurants mid visit when I have seen activity I was not comfortable with.

  5. Wonderful information Ken, I have decided to order the Book for whatever information I can glean out of it.

    Back in the time, before dirt (as my children would say) I owned a small business which opened at noon and closed at 9PM. The small town, in eastern Washington, we lived in was home to Eastern State Hospital, one ward being assigned to the criminally insane. Many times I left the business after closing with over a thousand dollars in cash. After much thought I decided to buy a gun and become proficient in it’s use. First, I had to decide if I could shoot someone, dead. The answer surprised me–yes, but not to protect the money I would throw that at who ever hoping they would grab and go. However, many criminally insane are not predictable, so if the situation deteriorated, to protect myself and any employees who might me leaving the business with me, yes I could shoot and would continue to shoot until the gun went click.

    Every night when I left that business I was in code orange or maybe even red. I checked all the nooks and crannies around the building and to the best of my ability the vehicles before I locked the business door, I sent the employee to their car with instructions to get in and lock the door, then wait for me to get to my car. I locked up, put my hand in the pocket the gun was in and proceeded to go quickly to the car, got in and locked my door. Then we would all drive off together. I slowly shifted from whatever code down as I proceeded home with no problems.

    One time and only one time, thank goodness, did the situation look really bad. Just before closing my employee and I were in the close up process and the door (solid core, no glass so our view was blocked) swung open and a voice said, “this is a stick-up give me all your money”. The little .38 revolver I kept above the cash register came off the shelf, the holster hit the floor and I was double braced leaning over the register waiting. My emloyee was on the floor in a corner. The customer laughed and stepped out from behind the door to see me looking at him across the sights, he froze and went dead white, I pulled up and my emploiyee came up off the floor and called him every name in the book for being a dumb whatever.

    He never forgot the incident and neither did my employee or myself, My point–always be prepared, ready and willing. I recognized the clients voice when he laughed as he stepped out from behind the door, thank God. My plan was to tell whoever, stay there, my employee will fill the money bag and throw you the money, then you leave–if you come one step closer I will shoot you dead! Could I have done it that day, that time, yes! It’s a mental capacity and each and every day when we leave our safe place, home, we have to put the mind into the mental attidude of I can do it or perhaps face the grim reaper yourself.

  6. I hit Condition White every night right about 8:30-9:00PM. Than revert to Condition Orange 2 milliseconds after Blue gives one of his monstrously LOUD barks (one only) at about 2:00 AM to let me know there is a Skunk sitting on the porch (Thanks Blue)

    Mostly I live in a White World because of my living conditions and whereas I live/work, very secure, BUT I have set up a good security perimeter plus I do have backups to the backups. I stay at Yellow anytime I have visitors.

    When I’m out and about I hit Condition Yellow or Orange, depending where I’m at, work, Yellow, when driving ALWAYS at Condition Orange.

    I have only ever actually hit Condition Red, was fishing down on the Animas, heard a ruckus less than 50 feet from in the deep thicket, kept an ear and both eyes exactly where the noise was and became a rock, perfectly still. About 45 second later a small 300# bear comes strolling but within 15-20 feet, he never saw me and was not smelling the air for intruders. I want home after he passed by to clean my shorts……

    Interesting line in your text Ken,
    “As taught by Cooper, it relates to the degree of peril you are willing to do something about —“
    I guess it’s a decision if you are willing to do anything about the “peril”, meaning to me the situation. There is always the “just walk away”, if your stuff is in danger, is killing or possibility of being killed worth a bunch of “Stuff”? Yes you have a right to protect your “stuff” and property (The Castle Doctrine, check your state if valid) BUT, again, is it worth dying or killing for? A decision we all need to make BEFORE put into that position.
    Personally; if someone wants my Truck, by all means TAKE IT, I have a ton of insurance and will get a Brand New One (just not a Ford, hehehe)….. Thank you very much.

    And yes I carry legally, and pray I never NEVER have to use my “Defensive Skills” to save myself or someone else, because I will be Judged by Twelve, NOT carried by Six.

    1. NRP

      Where I live it used to be a white condition area nearly always too. Now, not so much I am afraid yellow always and bumping into orange too often and I am fairly rural too! Like you my four legged alarm can put me into red real quick, especially at 3 AM out of a dead sleep! :) For various reasons I depend on them for a perimeter alarm. Two or more really encourage one another and make for a robust alarm.

  7. Spend almost all my waking hours in Condition Yellow, even here on the farm. When I used to work underground I was always at Condition Orange from the time I went in the Portal until I came out. Same in most other industries I have worked in, always watching out for the hidden ‘Gotcha’ that would get me or my crews. I have hit Condition Red many times, but never from a human threat, always from hazardous conditions in my working environment. Good system to be presenting to our younger people, helps them learn to consciously think about protecting themselves from all sorts of harm.

  8. I wake up and live in Condition Yellow during my waking hours to include driving on the public roads. When I go to condition orange, I usually vacate the area as drawing a weapon in Appleby’s or Denny’s is never appreciated by the franchise managers.

    I have had to go to condition red and discharge rounds several times during a 6 year career in Law Enforcement. The last one was a career ender because I was probationary employee in a justified shoot. Now I work as a nurse within a locked psych ward. ( My early career prepared me for my 2nd and present career.)

    I have gotten used to living in some type of alert level for my entire adult life. No bad dreams, no sky-high blood pressure, no anxiety attacks, only 1 drink at night at the end of my workday. One psychologist said that I was a sociopath. maybe that is the secret to doing what I do every day for the govt.

    If I do carry a gun outside my home. (most of the time) it is either a Kahr CM9 ( single stack 9mm or a Ruger LCR in 38 Special. They are concealed and I have never had to go Condition Red since I have become a civilian. (some 25 years now.).

    I rely more on keeping my eyes open and walking away or stepping on the gas pedal. ( Oh Blessed Lord God of Acceleration Do Not Fail Me Now!)

  9. Thank you for the information. It does get a little tiring living in the “yellowness” and a couple of days off in the white zone sure sounds nice 😊

  10. Mostly yellow here also. Last night was a orange as we walked the farm looking for the coyote that has been haunting and taunting my livestock. But usually we are at a yellow. Resting inside our home we get to a white.

  11. I spend most time in yellow but admit to daydreaming when out with the dog so occasional foray into white. Go into orange sometimes when I come upon a group of rowdies.

  12. I was running in white today in the Lowe’s parking lot when an asian woman came up and handed me a note that was asking for money as she had lost all her family.

    I politely told her I was sorry and couldn’t help her. She left.

    I flashed to red !! Too late tho.

    That was when I said to myself, “Stupid me. You didn’t even look around to see if she was a diversion for an attack from behind.”

    I was way in the white zone. I’m just not used to having to be “on my guard” all the time. I suppose it will cost me big time some day.

  13. Wow, talk about reading my mind. I just started reading a book called “Left of Bang” and this color code was spoken about right from the start of the book. So far it seems to be a good read. Thanks for bringing this topic up Ken. We all need to be more aware of our surroundings – especially now a days!

  14. CaliRefugee

    “it was heartwarming to see my wife with a sleeping dog and a pump shotgun beside her as she drank a cup of tea. ”

    For some reason that quote really made me smile….. :-) :-) :-)

  15. Always good to hear someone has their back covered! Or as I mentioned just a few minutes ago to a friend “A woman who shoots cannot be beat”.

    Bullet/Blast resistance is excellent but I was more thinking about how to quickly make your windows far less accessible using for example pre-cut and drilled plywood covers (with observation holes) fishing line with cans/stones (remember rain drainage!) rattlers and others to give more reaction time.

    NH Michael

  16. “Officer!” Thank God you’re here! This person was trying to kill me! I had to defend myself! I will be happy to talk with you as soon as I contact my attorney!” Now, class, burn that into your brains. Never and I mean never give a statement to the cops after a shooting until you have talked with your lawyer. Police are not your friends. They will try to trick you into talking with them about what happened.

    How do I know this? I was a Peace Officer for over thirty years in SoCal. I worked Homicide and Officer Involved Shooting cases. I would recommend you inquire on the USCCA website or other websites about concealed carry insurance. It is not that expensive. I did not invent this statement but I use it often: Every bullet fired has a lawyer attached to it.

    1. I have been told to say, I feared for my life and I will be happy to cooperate after I speak to council. If you can not remember what to say, say nothing. There is a video on line, don’t talk to the police. Regent Law Professor James Duane gives viewers startling reasons why they should always exercise their 5th Amendment rights when questioned by government officials. It is worth the time.

      [ Ken adds: I also wrote about this awhile back (here) ]

      1. I appreciate this is an ongoing conversation spanning half a decade now.

        In addition to the 5th amendment advice, I will say all that goes 100X if you’re ever speaking to _any_ Federal agent of any type for any reason.

        Feds are notorious for using fictitious evidence, outright lies, and coercive tactics involving your spouse or children or grandchildren in order to get you to just start talking about seemingly unrelated or innocent topics.

        Remember that Feds can and will use every single little nuance you say as a “perjury” charge, additively, and no matter whether those perjuries were actually lies or just normal memory contradictions or fuzziness.

        They are allowed to and trained to lie to you, but you can and will be threatened with years in Federal prison for each alleged infraction. And your lawyer will 99.9999% of the time tell you to roll over and plead out with Feds because virtually no one ever wins in court (especially in their home district, which they can compel you to appear in).

        I raise this because so many states are fastly becoming 2A “sanctuary” states. Unlike the R’s, the D’s won’t just fight this in court. They will, and probably already have, begin harvesting leverage on people in R states who are attempting to resist the current regime’s disarming agenda.

        (If any Feds are reading this…take a good long hard look in the mirror and ask yourself, honestly, are you making the world better or are you “simply following orders”?)

  17. Thanks Ken for the article. I was lucky enough when I worked for the government that they sent me to Col. Cooper’s school twice and went through the primary pistol course and the advanced pistol course. Col. Cooper was quite the man a Marine and deafly a gunfighter I learned a lot from the two times I was there and I stay in condition orange constantly just because of the way the world is at this point I still am a reserve deputy in Florida and I use my skill set every day almost everyone here on this form needs to understand that the bad guys are going to come and get you if they set their mind to do it I haven’t had the discharge my weapon in over 25 years now thank God for that any regrets that I have that I didn’t go to get to go back to Coopers school and do the shotgun course and after I was done with the secondary course I went and bought a dam Bren 10 just like Cooper touted . As being the ultimate combat pistol. Which I still have to this day and carry it sometimes. I do not like the weapons that is supplied to us from the Sheriff’s office right now I don’t like Walther’s especially the new ones, so the way the world is right now y’all need to stay at least bright yellow or maybe dim orange and hope to God you never have to go red. Just a little side bit they were really pissed off at me because I smoked them all with the model 13 Smith & Wesson K frame when they were all shooting 1911’s and every other kind of semi-auto. The only reason I use the Smith & Wesson was because it was my issue duty weapon and I had to qualify with it there but still my most favorite pistol in the world is a 1911. Just the ramblings from an old retired Leo

  18. Sheepdogs are always in con orange, even when they appear to be sleeping.
    As a licensed PI having spent a couple years doing nonstop surveillance on people trying to cheat workers comp, 99% of people lie, cheat and steal. And they do it every single day. My wife has learned that I always sit facing the door, and with any luck that puts a solid wall behind me so I don’t have to worry about my 6 in case of an unexpected event occurring. I’ve carried my handgun since I turned 21, and that was 22 years ago. I’ve drawn twice and never had to fire. And as the above former LEO mentioned, I thank god everyday I don’t have to draw.

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