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.