The Color Code


I've been frequently asked about the Gunsite Color Code.  Nowadays, just about everyone is familiar with the silly "color code" formerly used by the government to indicate terrorist threat level.  However, 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 Jeff, it related to the degree of peril you are willing to do something about and thus allows you to move from one level of mindset to another to enable you to properly handle a given situation.  Jeff never claimed 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 and he definitely spread the word about it.  (Unfortunately, there are some other people out there who think they invented the concept and refuse to give Jeff Cooper any credit.)

A lethal confrontation is not something anyone expects.  An excellent explanation of the real world was given in the novel State of Fear, by Micheal Criton, and I have paraphrased it here.

"If someone tries to kill you, you don't have the option of averting your eyes or changing the subject.  You are forced to deal with that person's behavior.  The experience is in fact a loss of certain illusions.  The world is not how you want it to be, it is the way it is.  There are bad people in the world and they need to be stopped."

The color code allows you to have a sequence you can work with to prepare you for "something bad."  I spoke with Jeff and Janelle about the color code and Jeff isn't sure exactly when it all came together.  Jeff and Janelle believe that he started to codify it in the late-'60s when he was teaching overseas.  The precursor to it was his Principals of Personal Defense monologue (c. 1972).  It was part of the curriculum when I took my first API class with Jeff in June, 1976, and a friend who took a course in mid 1975 said that the color code was discussed but it was not in his notes.  The earliest mention it in print that I have been able to find is 1977.

If you took a class with Jeff earlier than June, 1976 and can document his discussing the color code please drop me a line by clicking here.

The color code defines four different mental states (and not tactical situations).  Why four? Because three doesn't adequately cover the needed range and five simply adds an unneeded level.  The four colors used are white, yellow, orange, and red.  

Any way, here it is straight from the famous "Wednesday lecture."

White - Relaxed, unaware, and unprepared.  If attacked in this state the only thing that may save you is the inadequacy and 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 alertness.  No specific threat situation.  Your mindset is that "today could be the day I may have to defend myself."  There is no specific threat but you are aware that the world is an unfriendly place and that you are prepared to do something if necessary.  You use your eyes and ears, and your carriage says "I am alert."   You don't have to be armed in this state but if you are armed you must be in yellow.  When confronted by something nasty your reaction will probably be, "I thought this might happen some day, and I know what to do."  You can live in this state indefinitely.

Orange - Specific alert.  Something not quite right has gotten your attention and you shift your primary focus to that thing.  Something is "wrong" with a person or object.  Something may happen.  Your mindset is that "I may have to shoot that person."  Your pistol is usually holstered in this state.  You can maintain this state for several hours with ease, or a day or so with effort.

Red - Fight trigger.  This is your mental trigger.  "If that person does "x" I will shoot them."  Your pistol may, but not necessarily, be in your hand.

The following are some of Jeff's additional comments on the subject.

"Considering the principles of personal defense, we have long since come up with the Color Code.  This has met with surprising success in debriefings throughout the world.  The Color Code, as we preach it,  runs white, yellow, orange, and red, and is a means of setting oneís mind into the proper condition when exercising lethal violence, and is not as easy as I had thought at first.  There is a problem in that some  students insist upon confusing the appropriate color with the amount of danger evident in the situation.  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 has gone into this and 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.  We cannot say that the governmentís ideas about colors are wrong, but that they are different  from what we have long taught here.

"The problem is this: 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.  You may be in deadly danger at all times, regardless of what the Defense Department tells you.  The color code which influences you does depend upon the willingness you have to jump a psychological barrier against taking irrevocable action.  That decision is less hard to make since the jihadis have already made it."

He further simplified things in Vol 13 #7 of his Commentaries.

"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."

Even Worse

My wife always jokingly likes to add one other color to the color code:  "transparent."  This is one notch below white and represents a mindset even less than "relaxed, unaware, and unprepared."  More like totally oblivious to everything.  Those folks who jog with their iPod headsets on, their eyes half closed, and  in a trance are a good example of this.  In this state you won't know it when something bad happens to you.  You won't even have time to say " This can't be happening to me."  You'll just wake up in the afterlife wondering why you are there.

An Observation

"I made an interesting observation this week, regarding of all things, our house cat. He wanted to go out early in the morning. I opened the door for him, and he stepped just past the threshold and stopped. He looked to the right and left, up into trees and shrubs, visually checking-out the area for several seconds before stepping out the rest of the way. He, through personal example, reminded me to watch myself and not to let my guard down, even among familiar surroundings!" -- John Farnam

Another Observation

If you intend to go armed the following "4 Steps" should be observed before you ever leave your house.

  1. Recite The Four Rules
  2. Set your mental condition to "yellow."
  3. Recognize that today may be the day that you might have to defend yourself.
  4. Ensure your weapon is loaded and in the condition you want it to be in.
  5. Ensure that you have at least one full reload.

The Black Box Concept

Some of the bleeding heart liberals and socialists try and make excuses for the violent people in our society, using these excuses as a reason why we should not "resist" them. They are more concerned about why they act like they do than the fact that they are evil violent people. They have their priorities all wrong and thus have a very hard time getting in the proper mindset to survive.

The  "black box" concept might help to set them right.

For those of you not in the engineering business, the famous black box works like this.  You have a black box, with certain characteristics. Say, you throw a switch and it produces 1.5 VDC. What's in the box? Maybe a battery. Maybe a fusion power generator. Maybe a hamster on a treadmill running a generator. It doesn't matter. Click the switch, get 1.5 V.

So, now you have someone trying to kill you. What's inside? The Devil incarnate? The product of a broken home? Someone who forgot to take their medication? Who cares!  The important point being, that unless you switch them off, they will produce your death.  They are evil and produce evil results.

When it comes to personal safety, that's what is important.  Not why they are so. 

Thanks to my friend Lyman Lyon for this great explanation.

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Updated 2018-02-01