Is it Time to Replace the Cooper Color Codes?

Gun guru Jeff Cooper’s “Gunsite Color Code” describes four states of preparedness. White (unaware and unprepared), yellow (relaxed alert), orange (specific alert) and red (time to cap yo’ ass). “There is a problem in that some students insist upon confusing the appropriate color with the amount of danger evident in the situation,” Cooper kvetched. “As I have long taught, you are not in any color state because of the specific amount of danger you may be in, but rather in a mental state which enables you to take a difficult psychological step. Now, however, the government . . . is handing out color codes nationwide based upon the apparent nature of a peril. It has always been difficult to teach the Gunsite Color Code, and now it is more so.” With all due respect, the Code is a bitch to teach because it’s confusing and impractical.

Don’t get me wrong: I get it. Your color level/awareness may or may not reflect an actual threat. It’s a psychological enabling device that prepares you for action—which may or may not be required. In Cooper’s words . . .

Your combat mind-set is not dictated by the amount of danger to which you are exposed at the time. Your combat mind-set is properly dictated by the state of mind you think appropriate to the situation.

Good luck convincing the average pistol-packing citizen that there’s a difference between perception and reality, teaching them to appreciate that disparity on the fly, and training them to react appropriately within a spectrum of perceived threat or threats.

At the best of times, people with guns need a simple way to think about using them. At the worst of times—and it’s always the worst of times when someone may be about to kill you—they need a thought process that’s such a no-brainer that Jessica Simpson could explain it.

Cooper’s Gunsite Color Code system is so not it. For one thing, it’s got four elements. When it comes to remembering things, four of anything is exponentially more difficult to memorize than a set of three. The Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Go, Slow, Stop. Curly, Moe and Larry (the other guy was Shemp). Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner. Game, set, match. Etc.

For another, Cooper’s system is color based. About ten percent of men are red – green color blind. Most can tell the difference between yellow, orange and red; but the colors don’t fluoresce (a.k.a. “jump out”). They lack the visceral visual impact experienced by most males.

While we’re at it, the Gunsite Color Code system lacks Apple Mac-like grokability for non-color blind folk. Neither yellow nor orange are natural warning colors. Yellow? Sunshine! Orange? Anita Bryant? When it comes to clear, unambiguous ”oh shit” hues for humans, red is pretty much it.

Simply put, the Cooper Color Code system requires too much thinking. Colonel Cooper himself made this realization, and tried to simplify his system.

In White you are unprepared and unready to take lethal action. If you are attacked in White you will probably die unless your adversary is totally inept.

In Yellow you bring yourself to the understanding that your life may be in danger and that you may have to do something about it.

In 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.

In Red you are in a lethal mode and will shoot if circumstances warrant.

“May” have to do something about it? “If circumstances warrant?”

Fair enough, but the average person doesn’t like ambiguity. They want to be told what to expect. YOU tell ME what color we’re in. And they want to be told WHAT they should do in any given color. Fight, flight or freeze?

The average Joe doesn’t want to think before, during or after a dangerous encounter. In this they’re not wrong.

During a life-threatening situation, most people enter a trance state. Their subconscious mind takes over. They don’t think. They react. That’s no secret. Experience teaches all of us that when the going gets tough, we act “on instinct.” We understand that we need “basic training” and general guidelines, not a highly analytical framework for combat.

Which is why the federal government modified Cooper’s modification of the Marine Corps. combat awareness system. That’s what people want. They want a system that tells them the threat level and gives them a pre-set plan so they can react to the threat.

Problem: the feds’ color code doesn’t tell people what to do. For example, did you know that today’s national threat level is “Elevated” or “Yellow”? According to the Homeland Security Advisory System, the threat level for all domestic and international flights is High” or “Orange.”

Who knew? What’s the difference? What are we supposed to do? Fly? Not fly? Stay close to home? Stock up on double-ought buck? Buy extra water? How many Americans know what Condition Yellow or Orange means? Not many and nothing much.

In terms of firearms-based self-defense, people need a less complicated psychological framework. To that end, I [modestly] propose the V-Speed System, based on aviation airspeeds.

V1 – Avoid, evade or escape

In airplane-speak, V1 is “critical engine failure recognition speed.” The pilot has enough time (i.e. runway) to stop the plane if an engine or engines fail.

In self-defense, V1 occurs immediately after you’ve identified a threat. If you have time to avoid, escape or evade that threat, that’s what you do.

But even as you run away, you formulate a plan for direct confrontation. Ideally, the plan’s based on circumstances, common sense and training, with multiple alternatives and “trip wires” leading to lethal force.

For example, if my would-be attacker gets out a knife, I’ll put that car between us and tell him to drop the weapon. If that doesn’t work, I’ll draw for my gun as I continue to keep the car between us. If I’m losing ground, I will fire as I seek cover.

V2 – Take Action!

In aviation, V2 is takeoff safety speed. The aircraft can now take off with one engine out of commission.

In self-defense, V2 means confrontation is unavoidable. You must implement your self-defensive plan or plans, whether that’s yelling, running, seeking cover, drawing your weapon, some combination of these and/or something in between.

V3 – Apply Lethal Force

In aviation, V3 is flap retraction speed. You HAVE to take off. There’s not enough runway to stop.

In self-defense, you’re out of non-lethal options.

[Note: just as different planes have different take-off speeds, your state has a legal definition of  the self-defense equivalent of V3. Google it. Train to it.]

The V-Speed system is like playing the blues. Anyone with a modicum of musical talent can learn the basic three-chord musical structure. It then takes a lifetime to master.

BUT—even before mastery is achieved, and even if it isn’t achieved, the V-Speed structure can become instinctive. All it takes is practice.

You have to train yourself to A) identify a threat B) formulate a defense plan that includes non-lethal responses and C) have the skills needed to accurately shoot another human being whilst seeking cover (where possible).

The V-Speed system may not be better than Cooper’s Gunsite Color Codes, but it could be more effective. Which is the ultimate measure of any self-defense system.

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About Robert Farago

Robert Farago is the Publisher of The Truth About Guns (TTAG). He started the site to explore the ethics, morality, business, politics, culture, technology, practice, strategy, dangers and fun of guns.

10 Responses to Is it Time to Replace the Cooper Color Codes?

  1. avatarHerbM says:

    The key is to do a better job of explaining the colors and the meaning of the code.

    Since you know the PROBLEM students will have with the meaning, set it the confusion for them explicitly and make it clear which is the right way to consider the code.

    This is a base where if students aren't learning it is the instructor's job to improve the teaching.

  2. avatarHerbM says:

    Oh, and the prevalence is more like 1 in 10 or 12 (red green) or 1 in 6 (all forms) in men.

  3. avatarRobert Farago says:

    HerbM, Thanks for the comments.

    It would be great if the average Schmo took the time and made the effort to understand the Cooper Gunsite Color Code system as writ. It would be wonderful if firearms trainers had the time and expertise to help them do so. Here in the real world, color coding their life is way too time intensive. Equally important, it asks them to be self-conscious in a way that makes them uncomfortable.

    I reckon most people want to maintain their current way of being (security consciousness-wise) and simply add a gun. They think of it as a ballistic parachute for those times when they find themselves in an incipient plane crash.

    Ah, but how do you KNOW the plane is crashing? When do you "wake-up" to that fact? When do you jump?

    Cooper was pissed that people used his system to answer those questions. But again, the desire to be told what to do and when to do it is simple human nature.

    Not Cooper's nature. He was an alpha. Let's face it: most people are genetically predisposed to follow commands rather than devise and issue them (especially to themselves). If trained properly, they'll follow commands inculcated previously.

    The Cooper Gunsite Color Code system survives because armed citizens need a cut-and-dried theoretical construct for one of the most important decisions of their life: shoot or don't shoot. The fact that trainers, bureaucrats and gun-wielding citizens have all bastardized the Gunsite Color Code shows that it doesn't do what they want it to do.

    Unlike Darwinism, we CAN change the system for greater utility. Why not?

    Color blindness: I hate it when I forget to fact check a fact because I know it. Only I don't. With the Internet, there's no excuse for NOT getting it right. My bad. Text amended to 10 percent of men being color blind—which is still a high enough percentage to leave in the complaint. IMHO.

  4. avatarnightowl says:

    Wouldn't it just be easier to say 1,2,3, GO? We have all been saying that since we were children.

  5. avatartheaton says:

    I’m not sure how there is any difference in a color code and a v code. Since neither is intuitive as related to a threat, they both require training and teaching. If the student isn’t willing to take the time to learn one, they will not take the time to learn the other. While were at it, lets get a greater resolution. Five shades of white, five of yellow, five of orange and five of red for a twenty-five level of awareness code. Or V1 through V25 for the aviation enthusiasts. How about 11001 for we that are binary inclined. Actually, let’s use the binary idea for WYOR. 0 for white, 1 for yellow, 10 for orange and 11 for red. Then let’s teach it with our hands and fingers. Make a zero with your thumb and pointer finger, kind of like okay. Extend your index finger for 1, kind of like pointing at the problem and saying “be careful.” Next we flip the problem of to make the middle finger one and the index finger 0. Here we are warning the problem that we are really irritated. Finally we put up the index and middle finger for 11, this looks kind of like the three stooges weapon for eye poking which let’s the problem know they’ve had it now.

  6. avatarSkip W says:

    I believe it is still too complicated.. Try teaching this to a housewife with a concealed carry permit who has no understanding of aviation or real world threat levels and is just learning to shoot. She'll die in place as she attempts to recall the training. The KISS method (Keep It Student Simple), to me, is the easiest and best way to learn. Teach them to shoot a firearm safely, accurately, and confidently. Once that confidence is achieved then build on it at a pace the STUDENT is comfortable with. With some students this takes some time and effort individually; frequently the kind of effort instructors who do this for a living aren't willing/able to provide. Over the decades I've taught a number of people to shoot handguns safely and accurately for defensive use. Most of these students happened to be women. Most of these women were primarily interested in keeping themselves and their family safe, rather than learning to be "gun slingers". Most of these women also ended up easily being able to outshoot their macho husbands or boyfriends.. Reason…?? They had no bad habits to break going into the learning process and they would focus on the basics rather than revert back to bad habits. The thing that took the most time was getting them to understand the necessity of building a multi-level defensive system around themselves, most of which consisted of gaining habits and awareness of surroundings that they had not considered to that point. Most of these were learning to be aware of one's surroundings, whether they carried a firearm or not. One of the most basic models I use for this can be found at http://www.nononsenseselfdefense.com/pyramid.html While this website wasn't around decades ago, the basics of it certainly were. Most new students heretofore not interested in or aware of any "system" for self-protection and self-defense can grasp the concept this pyramid provides and will make efforts to learn it. Like anything else, it is not perfect but does provide a mechanism to improve one's self-awareness while providing ways to heighten one's awareness of increasing threat levels. I've found various versions of this to be quite helpful over the decades in helping others to become aware of threat levels and how to act accordingly. Perhaps it is worth considering as opposed to systems that the student has problems understanding and therefore learning.??

  7. avatarStevelyn says:

    I don't see what is so difficult to understand. The color codes are a simple means to differentiate a persons level of awareness.

  8. avatarariel says:

    I like the 3 level concept. However, the V-speed analogy just doesn’t help illustrate it enough (and I know a little about aviation). I think if you can you come up with a more common 3 level/action analogy, you might be there.

  9. avatarMichael says:

    This article is ridiculously stupid and highlights the exact reasons why there should be no ‘regular gun-packing citizens’

    Where is condition black

    The idiocy of people in this country offends me

  10. avatarJohn Clay says:

    I have taught Cooper’s Code to civilian and law enforcement personnel for years. It seems much easier than the aviation thing and my students seem to catch on. The key is teaching it correctly. Sounds like you just needed an article published so you went off on a foolish tangent.

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