Self Defense

Cooper’s Colors

A brief introduction into Jeff Coopers' color system for situational awareness from a layman's perspective.

I’ve found myself thinking more and more about Jeff Cooper’s color system for situational awareness after attending the Personal Tactics Skills course offered by KR Training. Some of those thoughts have simply been cursory academic exercises in an attempt to better understand the system. Other thoughts have been an attempt to put the system into practice. After all, the value of situational awareness is often held in high regard especially when it comes to personal safety and self defense. In this post, I’ll explore Cooper’s colors as I understand them and provide a few examples of how I’ve put them into practice.

As usual, I’ll preface this topic with a reminder that I’m a student at best when it comes to the topic of self defense and a passionate hobbyist as it pertains to firearms. Cooper’s colors are a topic I’m learning about as an armed civilian. I hope that folks reading this take nothing more than an interest to learn more about this topic from qualified sources.

Let’s begin by summarizing Cooper’s color codes or conditions:

  • White – Unaware
  • Yellow – Relaxed and Paying Attention
  • Orange – Focused Awareness
  • Red – Imminent Danger

Sometimes a fifth color, most often referenced as black, or condition is added to the system to describe the state of being in the fight or dealing with the aftermath of a fight. Given it wasn’t part of the original system and for the sake of brevity, I’ll omit condition black from this discussion.

Condition White

In condition white, we are unaware. The lack of awareness can be for a number of reasons. Perhaps it’s because we are sleeping or otherwise unconscious. Maybe it’s because we are “in the zone” while focusing on a specific task like a work assignment or a chore. Most likely it’s because we are distracted by some form of media such as a book, a TV show, a movie, music, or social media on a handheld device. Regardless of why, it’s important to realize that this is a condition that when we find ourselves in condition white we are mostly oblivious to our surroundings and that makes us vulnerable to an attack.

It’s unrealistic to completely avoid going into condition white. However, there are things we can do to minimize the time we spend in condition white. For example, one could make it a habit to actively avoid using handheld devices while in transitional spaces and minimize their use while out in public. One can employ early warning systems in order to be alerted when a chance in the environment is detected – think smoke alarms, motion sensors, or even a pet dog. Another strategy might be to position oneself in a manner where peripheral vision can still be used to detect motion like situating a work space or selecting a seat so that entries or walkways aren’t completely obscured from vision. The main idea is to expose one or more of the senses so that it can break one’s concentration and transition us into condition yellow.

Condition Yellow

While in condition yellow, we are relaxed and aware of our surroundings. In other words, we are paying attention to the world around us. We are watching and listening.

As John Daub put it during the Personal Tactics Skills course, “this is the ideal condition to be in” as it allows one to quickly transition into condition orange while having the maximum amount of information about the surrounding environment. One should have a good idea about the potential exits, available cover, location of other people, and so on.

While relaxed awareness sounds ideal, it seems to me that it’s a transitional condition that takes some discipline to maintain. One or more typical stimuli can transition a person to condition white which can increase the difficulty of identifying a stimulus that should trigger a transition to condition orange.

I might be over complicating this, but consider this scenario I find myself in more often than I’d like to admit. From time to time, my wife will ask that I go pick up a handful of specific things from the grocery store. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say she’s requested a specific spice and I don’t know my spices as well as I should. After making my way to the spices, my attention is now focused on the task at hand – finding the spice in the desired quantity which can take a moment. For the duration of that moment, I’m in condition white.

Another example is an unexpected but important incoming call on the smartphone. One answers it and focuses on the important conversation. Again, one goes into condition white for the duration of the call.

Condition Orange

In condition orange, we have identified something of interest and focus our awareness to it as it may or may not pose a threat or danger. This stimulus for this narrowed focus is generally a result of something seeming out of place. Something makes the Spidey sense tingle. Something isn’t quite right or obviously wrong. We remain in this condition until we determine whether or not a threat is present. If no threat is present, then we transition back to condition yellow. If a threat is present, then we transition to condition red.

While in this condition, one could take the information collected while in condition yellow and begin running through specific what if scenarios. One might also decide it’s time to leave and start making way towards an exit.

A thing to note is whatever triggered the transition to condition orange could very well be a diversion for an attack coming from another direction. Craig Douglas wrote an excellent chapter titled “The Criminal Assault Paradigm” in the book Straight Talk on Armed Defense that discussed the growing trend of multiple assailants and the use of diversion tactics. As such, there may not be a lot of time to discern if the trigger is a threat or not. Furthermore, while this stimulus has narrowed our focus it’s critical to maintain some level of broader awareness.

Remember that condition yellow is the ideal state. I suspect it’s safe to say that it behooves us to minimize the time spent in condition orange and work quickly towards determining if the thing(s) or person(s) of interest is a threat or not. Avoid getting stuck in analysis paralysis.

Condition Red

In condition red, we have identified a threat that poses imminent danger. This doesn’t mean it’s time to draw and shoot, but it is time to start taking defensive actions in order to avoid or break contact with the threat.

The question should never be, ‘Can I shoot him?’ The question should always be, ‘Do I have to shoot him?’

Tom Givens, Concealed Carry Class: The ABCs of Self-Defense Tools and Tactics

This might mean quickly heading to an exit if possible or working towards a tactically advantageous position. There are plenty of defensive tactics and skills that can be employed to avoid deploying lethal force and the aftermath that will follow. Granted, use of lethal force may be unavoidable and one is not likely to have the luxury of time to use alternative tactics.

The context of the situation will dictate the available courses of action. This is the condition that will demand use of defensive tactics developed, information collected while in condition yellow, and the execution of one or more what if scenarios explored while in condition orange. With a little luck, a fight will be avoided or deescalated. In the worst case scenario, one should be fully prepared to use the appropriate level of force to defend themselves.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.