If someone says “code red”, most people think that there is some type of emergency and immediate action is required. Even though it is part of the language and everyone seems to recognize the terminology, there is more to it than most people know.

Using colors to indicate a level of readiness seems to have been around forever, but it was actually formalized, according to Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper (USMC), by Cooper himself to help people prepare themselves for action if needed.

Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper served as a U.S. Marine during World War II. He was also a writer, instructor, and real life gunfighter. Among his other accomplishments, he devised a color code to help normal, healthy people overcome the natural reluctance to take violent action if legally required for self-protection. (Photo courtesy Gunsite Academy)

Cooper served in World War II with the Marines and later founded the American Pistol Institute (API) located near Paulden, Arizona. API became Gunsite Academy which still exists and is arguably the premier gunfighting school in the world. Gunsite trains military and law enforcement personnel as well as people from government agencies you may never have heard of. It also trains everyday law-abiding citizens including young, old, male, female, and people who have never shot a gun before. After completing the basic one-week course, those graduates are trained to fight with a handgun and are better shots than most law enforcement officers.

In short, Col. Cooper was a gun guy. Some people say he was THE gun guy. In any case, Cooper was also a writer, real life gunfighter, and instructor. And one thing he taught people was a color code he devised to help prepare them for the day when they very well might have to use a gun for self-defense. The color code was devised to help people develop the right mindset to do whatever was lawfully needed to protect themselves.

Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper founded the American Pistol Institute which was located near Paulden, Arizona. It evolved into what is today known as Gunsite Academy, which is regarded by many as the world’s premier gunfighting school. There, experts and novices are taught to fight with a gun. (That’s a raven, not an eagle, by the way.)  (Photo courtesy Brock Auten)

As Cooper devised it, there are four conditions of readiness or awareness that are indicated by colors. They are white, yellow, orange, and red. The colors are easy to remember and follow a logical sequence that is understood and accepted by most people. And it is so simple and easy that many government agencies use or have used a color scheme to indicate a threat level and level of preparedness for a response that could involve force or other action.

There is an innate mindset of reluctance to injure another person which is present in mentally healthy human beings. According to Cooper, that is good. But if someone is about to severely injure you or perhaps kill you, a person with a healthy mind will want to stop that from happening. It’s self-preservation, which is also a natural and healthy condition in a normal person. And the purpose of the color code is to help people overcome that natural reluctance when it is lawful and necessary to use force to protect oneself.


White is a condition of unreadiness. The person in white is completely unaware of what is going on around him or herself. The person is completely unprepared to handle any problem or threat that may arise.

When in condition white, it is nearly impossible for a person to first realize there is a danger, and second, to take action to stop or eliminate the danger. A person who is asleep is in condition white. If you are home in a locked house watching television and are not aware of things happening around you, you are in condition white.

The Cooper color code is very simple. Moving from left to right, condition white is the lowest level of awareness and alert. Basically, in white, the person does not know what is going on around them. The levels progress until red is reached which is a condition that requires immediate action to prevent serious bodily injury or death. (Doug Larson photo)


Going up the scale from completely unaware to recognizing an emergency that requires action, the next level is condition yellow. It indicates a condition of relaxed awareness or alertness. There is no specific threat, but the person in yellow is aware of what is going on around himself. The person can use all his senses to help him be aware of his surroundings. Condition yellow is relatively easy to maintain because there is no stress on the nerves and there is nothing to cause fear or anxiety. You simply know who and what is around you.

Condition yellow can be maintained indefinitely. If you are walking down the street, just pay attention to the things and people around you and what they are doing. As long as everything seems normal and people and things seem to belong where they are and are not out of place for the situation, you can continue in condition yellow.


Next up the scale is condition orange. This is a condition of a specific alert. In other words, having been in condition yellow, you notice something out of place. Usually, although not always, it is a person who doesn’t seem to belong where he is, or is acting in a way that does not seem normal. You may not even be able to articulate or explain what it is about the person or situation that causes you concern, but you recognize or sense that something is wrong.

For example, say you are walking down the street in condition yellow – which you should be in for your own protection. Then you notice someone a short distance behind you who makes every turn you do and seems to be following you. And for some reason, this doesn’t seem normal. You may not be entirely sure that the person is stalking you or is getting ready to attack or rob you, but the person’s presence, appearance, or actions make you wonder. So, while still maintaining an awareness of other activities and things around you, you say to yourself that this person following me may cause trouble.

At this point, you move up the scale to condition orange. You should be making a plan to do something if the person following you does something that ignites a need to take action. Maybe that something is nothing more than to run and get out of harm’s way – if that is possible. Or the action may be, as a last resort, to draw a gun and shoot the person. You don’t do anything yet, but you should have made a plan and made up your mind that you are going to take a certain action if that person who has aroused your suspicion does a certain thing. If that certain thing happens, there should be no hesitance in your mind to pull the trigger – if that is what is required to protect yourself and it is legal for you to do so.


The next and last level is condition red. At that point, the person who was the potential threat in our little street scene has done the thing, or something, that you said would cause you to take the necessary lawful action to protect yourself. If that person does that thing, it is clear to you that the person you have been aware of as a potential threat actually does intend to cause you harm.

Say the person following you suddenly rushes up behind you and draws his gun. At that point, your condition moves from orange to red and you take the action you had planned. There should be no hesitation on your part. So, if your plan had been to draw your gun and shoot the person, you do so – as long as it is legal to do so. In red, you have a fight on your hands and you must protect yourself.

So, the color code is really a way to stay in a state of preparedness. It is not a way to fight, but a way to prepare your mind to fight if necessary. It is not necessarily a way to tell if the situation is dangerous or how to deal with it if it is dangerous. It is a way to prepare your mind to overcome the natural healthy reluctance of human beings to hurt another person.

It works very well and is easy to understand. In fact, when the National Terrorism Advisory System was first created, it adopted a color code similar to what Cooper devised. It had five levels, starting with green which was the lowest alert level. From there, it rose to blue, then yellow, orange, and red, with red being a condition where there was a severe risk of attack. Incidentally, since then the system has been made even simpler and now has just two levels, elevated and imminent. But, as Cooper said of his system, “This is not theory. This is real.”

In fact, North Carolina and perhaps other states have adopted a color coded system of alerts – or preparedness or readiness regarding the spread of Covid 19 – using three colors. They are yellow, orange, and red.

This person appears to be in condition white and knows nothing about what is going on around him. A person who intends to rob or injure him could walk up to him and he probably would not even know the person is there. To get out of white and into yellow, where you should be, stop looking at or listening to that stupid cell phone. (iStockphoto LP image)

Keep in mind that if you recognize a threat in your environment that makes you go from yellow to orange – a potential specific threat – you must still remain in yellow as regards your general surroundings. But you should pay special attention to the specific potential threat. Remember, that specific potential threat that caused you to go from yellow to orange may be a decoy to divert your attention so that someone else can attack you by surprise.

So, don’t go around looking down or with all your attention focused on that device in your hands called a cell phone. And take those earbuds out of your ears and listen to what is going on around you. Get into condition yellow, and get out of white which is the condition you are in when all your attention is on your stupid cell phone or the music that is playing in your ears. Don’t be an easy target.

And that’s the what and the why of it.

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About the author: Doug Larson is a former Contributing and Field Editor for Guns & Ammo magazine, Doug Larson’s articles have appeared in many top firearm publications. He has completed hundreds of hours of firearm and self-defense training provided by some of the finest world class gun fighting instructors and schools. He has experience with handguns, rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, machine guns and other crew served weapons. He reports on the tactics, techniques and procedures developed by real life gunfighters and taught at the best martial arts schools. This information is passed on to the reader to stimulate thought and a desire to get the best training possible.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Chris Cook February 22, 2021, 1:25 pm

    Great article about a great man!

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