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This series offer advice of how you should think before, during and after a defensive gun use. How to create mental patterns that determine the neurological pathways between recommended actions and actual behavior. Today I’m going to try to bridge the gap between defensive thought and defensive action with defensive execution. That’s because the most finely tuned weaponry and advanced training in the world won’t save you if you aren’t alert enough to know when to use it and seize that opportunity. Let’s start with the Human Traffic Light . . .

There are three essential states of human awareness. Think of them as lights on a traffic signal: Green, Yellow and Red.

Condition Green: You’re comfortable and sociable with no or few defensive thoughts or concerns.

Most civilians operate in Condition Green. Although it’s accepted in social settings, Green is the least useful from a tactical perspective. Newton’s law about an object at rest tending to stay at rest applies; it’s exceptionally difficult to transition from Condition Green to a more heightened Condition Red in a fluid or timely fashion.

Yellow: Condition Yellow is called the Passive Threat Detection phase. It’s characterized by heightened awareness and attention to sensory data. There’s a growing awareness that it may be time to get the hell out of Dodge. Most people refer to the Yellow mental state as “Increased Situation Awareness.”

Red: Red represents the Active Threat Detection and Elimination phase, It usually applies just before and during a survival scenario that requires combat or fleeing an area.  You have clearly perceived the need to deploy and use force on an assailant. Timing and environment obstacles are the thing.

Upon entering Condition Red, body functions change. Blood flows away from the extremities, towards the core.  This removes both sensation and control from vital defense systens that require fine motor coordination (e.g. releasing the slide stop on a semi, or reloading a revolver).

Your endocrine system dumps adrenaline and pain-killing endorphins into your blood system to prepare you for impending defensive action (a.k.a.,”Battle Mode”) At the samne time, ment functions become compromised; You can become too highly focused performing a single task, or unable to prioritize available options, or lose information and behavior deemed critical to survival.

Upper level thought in Condition Red is limited or non-existent,The shift, while doable, causes the much talked about ‘defensive freeze’ in a lot of situations. The ‘defensive freeze’ is literally just that; your body stops short of whatever it was performing at the time of the defense reaction stimuli, you may gasp and your brain goes blank often causing you to be immobile at the worst possible time.  How long that lasts depends on your defensive experiences and how well you negotiate heavy stress personally.

]As a rule of thumb the more often you are forced to perform the defensive shifts the smoother they become but a shift from Condition: Green to Condition: Red is never going to be perfect.  Two seconds of inactivity may still get you hurt and that is a short duration for the freeze to last.  As someone who has experienced a fair share of them it is dangerous and terrifying to say the least.  This is why we train to avoid it and the purpose of Condition: Yellow.

Condition: Yellow is the missing link between Green and Red.  Some physical changes may take place during Yellow as opposed to Green but are minor compared to the physical changes of Condition: Red as Yellow is more a mindset than anything else.  Condition: Yellow is assessing threats and considering accordingly your possible actions.  By making a conscious effort to perform certain actions regularly they become habits subconsciously.  A lot of us when we sit in a car buckle up our seat belts after shutting the door.  A similar reflex I have is to look around and count the people around me before I sit down in public.  Both are simple actions and useful but one is to prevent injury in an automobile, the other is to prevent injury once you’re out of it.

By constantly making the effort to be aware one can more easily transition to a heightened awareness if you note something wrong.  Take the last example for instance, say I just sat down in a restaurant.  As I walk to my table I will count the people in my immediate vicinity and make a note of anyone who looks like trouble, basically any able-bodied male but that’s my personal qualifier, and I will be sure to sit with my back to a wall if possible so I can watch the nearest entryway without being approachable from behind.  If I note a few really rough characters when I do my headcount and that side of the room begins to have a loud verbal argument I am less likely to be startled into a shock reflex if they start being violent.  By spotting and noting a possible threat it will not surprise me enough to cause the defensive freeze.  My plan in restaurants, with direct and unavoidable violence excepted, is to stand and proceed to the exit after looking around to see who is participating and which route is most prudent.  I will not take my eyes off of the disturbance without suitable cover until I’m far enough from the threat to not feel endangered.  If they start throwing chairs I will be aware enough to dodge, not just dive under a table and I will continue in my course of action unless otherwise impeded.  Most of the time in Condition: Green we flinch when the atmosphere changes and there is impending violence.  It’s the herd animal in us and another sheeple reference but it is true.  It also is why people tend to panic in large groups during a violent situation; one person panics and lacking another conscious recourse during the defensive freeze we all panic.

What I am displaying here is a default course of action for when things are starting to go sour.  No amount of fast draw drills and dry firing will give you a course of action for when you need to  begin your defensive maneuvers.  A common cause for panic is not having a plan to execute your defensive tactics.  You need a default course of action that you can always fall back on so you don’t frenzy when put in a defensive situation.  If you’re eating and the place starts getting robbed let’s just say you will want to be able to draw and fire your weapon twice centermass and avert the robbery.  That’s in a nutshell what we would all like to imagine happening smoothly, complete with cool camera angles and the old Walker: Texas Ranger slow motion sequence but there are a few missing steps.  The concept of standing to get clear of your table, the person next to you, reaching into your pants around a bunched up shirt to perform a draw from an inside the pants holster then looking around to make sure other people aren’t accomplices before you start picking targets is not included in this defensive tactic though.

You want a default course of action that is not directly tied to your weapon but can fill in the gaps from the instant you feel threatened to when you need to deploy and use it.  The reason being that it is more practical and versatile for the things you encounter in daily life and is less likely to result in people being hurt needlessly or unwanted litigation.  I will list a few of my personal tactics to maintain a roughly Condition: Yellow status when I leave home and go interact with the world, be it at work or off the clock, that I use to maintain control of my safety.

Look around before picking a place to sit or stand– I cannot stress this enough.  People walk into situations they should not simply by nature of wrong place and wrong time without looking for indicators that things can go south.  Avoid places where people are known to get into violent arguments, like the doorway to really crappy bars and nightclubs if you aren’t feeling lucky, and don’t walk into a dispute without at least looking at all of the participants before going about your business.  If you don’t think that the people at the counter will solve their business politely then take your business elsewhere.

If someone approaches you and gets within nine feet (9 ft) of you then stand and face them–  Some people take this as an act of aggression but it is practical to keep people out of arms reach if you carry a weapon and to maintain your options of combat and egress if you’re in public and this person is someone you do not know.  They can engage you verbally from three yards and you can ascertain your business and proper reactions without having the added stress and possible threat of someone who is in your space and limiting your movement and eyesight.  Also step back if needed, some people continue to approach even after standing.

If you hear something out of place figure out what and where it is–  There are some sounds you can hear that signify bad things ready to happen.  A hammer cocking and racking an action aren’t as common as the sound of a blade being flicked out or someone throwing an object to the ground but they are all signs of impending aggression and it behooves you to keep track of it.  Even the sound of change dropping can be worth note if someone just snatched the tips jar.  If you can’t see when the sound occurs then stand and triangulate the sound.  Do not exit a scene close to the disturbance whenever possible.

If you feel uncomfortable, stand up and stretch while looking around– This affords you a fresh look at your surroundings, which change constantly while you’re out in public.  Condition: Yellow doesn’t make you psychic; you have to be vigilant.

Do NOT make running your very first priority– This is a common defense error.  No I do not mean fighting is the only way to get something done but it is the option of the two that cannot be denied even if you have to struggle.  If your primary means of defense is to flee then you subconsciously will not be prepared for a door to shut and lock behind you or someone to block your path and that could cause you to panic if you do not feel the scene is safe and your only option just vanished.  Egress is vastly preferred to combat but view it as a goal not an approach to defense. Be prepared to fight your way out and not just run like Hell.  Also, if you are running you lose some of your hearing from the wind in your ears so only run if you’ve already discovered and are fleeing your threat if possible.

Basically, stand up if you feel like something isn’t right.  Stand up, assess the area with your eyes, ears and nose then analyze the data your senses give you and act accordingly, leaving the area if necessary.  What is more, when something isn’t right, scowl and get your game face on.  By scowling every time you find something wrong you can subconsciously give yourself a trigger to Condition: Yellow.  It may alert your would-be assailant but they also planned on attacking you anyway and if you display a willingness to be aware and address them as a threat then a lot of assailants move onto easier marks.  There is a lot more to Self-Defense but this is the basics on Condition: Yellow and why it is useful.  A lot of this may sound like common sense and a lot of it you can definitely learn in a school yard (if you’ve ever been bullied or followed home you probably already have) but it’s stuff that is useful for your entire life.  Assailants by nature are bullies by trade and need to be treated as such; some things never change.

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  1. Love him or hate him, Jeff Cooper blazed this trail.

    White – Unaware and unprepared. If attacked in Condition White, the only thing that may save you is the inadequacy or ineptitude of your attacker. When confronted by something nasty, your reaction will probably be “Oh my God! This can’t be happening to me.”
    Yellow – Relaxed alert. 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 realize that “I may have to shoot today”. 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.”
    Orange – Specific alert. 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.
    Red – Condition Red is fight. Your mental trigger (established back in Condition Orange) has been tripped. “If “X” happens I will shoot that person”.

    • Oh without a doubt. My main point in this post was to highlight how useful Condition: Yellow is and to hand out a few of my favorite techniques to trigger it without hitting Condition: Red. Despite him touching on the entire color scale I like adding practical application to a useful concept. If you can sense something is amiss and learn to stand and assess the area and situation reflexively you will be ahead of any danger curve compared to the folks around you happily ignoring what you’re tuned into. No color scale recommends what to trigger what other than obvious Red situations, hence this post.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. This is a useful exercise, especially for those who are new to carrying as well as for those of us who’ve been doing it for some time. I am embarrassed to think of how many times I am surprised while going about my daily business. I consider myself to be fairly alert (for a civilian) but there are still times when I let my awareness lapse. Each time that happens I try to replay the situation in my mind with regard to the color scale and where I failed to maintain situational awareness.

  3. Sometimes I post comments on gun blogs that have nothing to do with the article, this has been one of those times.

  4. “If someone approaches you and gets within nine feet of you, stand and face them ”

    This used to be the custom – you stand and look a man in the face and extend your hand for a handshake. I do this almost all the time, I will come to my feet, smile and extend my hand. I can almost always tell if someone is pissed off (very rare) and I imagine by being immediately friendly one can diffuse a situation.

    Finally – one of the best ways to stay out of conflicts – Don’t be a jerk. Are you a jerk? Ask someone you know. If they look uneasy answering the question then you are a jerk. Work on it.

    • Well I concur. You’re right and I do still extend my hand however, the thing is you have at least two sorts of people. Those you address socially and those you don’t know and have no reason to interact with that you address in a practical fashion. Polite works in Condition Green. Social graces aren’t as vital in Yellow, jerk or not.

    • It depends on who and where as to whether I’d extend my hand for a shake.

      e.g.: walking down a sidewalk in downtown Houston (or other large city) when addressed in a “Hey buddy” chummy manner by an individual whom I do not know could be a time when one fellow is trying to set me up – focusing my attention on him while his partner(s) move in on me.

      Since my standard walking pace is around 4 mph, I can quickly move out of a potential encirclement by continuing my walk while politely but firmly declining to engage in conversation – keeping my scan going for other potential threats.

      I’m also hesitant to give a potential threat a chance to grab my strong hand when I might need to use it to grab my weapon.

      That said – the Proverb holds true: “A gentle answer turns away wrath.”

  5. It would be better if you used the same terms for color codes that everyone in the training community has been using since Cooper’s book was published, instead of making up your own similar-but-different terminology. His color codes, using his definitions, have been taught at most of the major private sector schools, and by many law enforcement agencies, for the past 30 years or more. The color codes are part of the Texas CHL training course, so that’s another group of 250,000+ people familiar with Cooper’s definitions of them.

    For readers unfamiliar with Col. Cooper: he created the model for every private sector training school (Gunsite), created a new shooting sport (IPSC), and led the team that developed the core “tactical/defensive” handgun curriculum that every school teaches. The color code definitions are one of his most lasting contributions, so it’s basically a big deal if you decide to make up your own terms. Sort of like coming up with E=nd^2 instead of E=mc^2. The math is right but Einstein was first and that’s the way everybody knows it.

  6. “This removes both sensation and control from vital defense systens that require fine motor coordination (e.g. releasing the slide stop on a semi, or reloading a revolver).”

    I disagree.
    Why do I never hear people say that pulling the trigger requires fine motor control, but using the slide release is…
    If you can’t operate it efficiently under stress, don’t use the platform. All current service rifles have a manual safety, and people around the world don’t seem to have problem disengaging it (including uneducated child soldiers).

    • Pulling the trigger is very simple and if you find it and squeeze it then you are there. Teaching a new shooter you have to generally remind them the slide release lever is there and some people can’t disengage them in practice, much less combat. Reloading a revolver fast under stress is hard. I still drop rounds on the floor doing it while timed, with bullets passing nearby it would doubtlessly not be better.

      Soldiers are trained to fight and on duty expecting combat if in a war zone. Civilians generally are not in a war zone or expecting combat. They start in and train in Condition Yellow. Civilians do not. I also imagine you do not hear of soldiers futzing with a safety or freezing up because that kind of error in live fire is probably fatal most of the time.