With respect to personal safety, your dominant concern should be awareness. Jeff Cooper's color code is widely used, but it's easy to get fixated on the colors themselves and loose sight of the importance of the critical transition between these states: the edges.

Like the rest of your skills, you can only improve your performance with practice. So below, I'll discuss how I practice the most critical of these transitions, the one between yellow and orange.

Let's start with White. I spend a lot of my life in condition white: when I'm asleep, when I'm on my couch reading or watching TV, when I'm in my office being productive (i.e., not in a meeting). There's nothing wrong with White. Most of the most enjoyable and productive moments of my life occur in White. If you have a job that requires flow you spend a huge chunk of your waking hours in White.


When do I transition from White to Yellow? When I step out the front door in the morning. When I leave my office at work. That is, when I relinquish a level of control over my immediate environment that significantly diminishes the amount of time that I'll have to respond to potential or actual threats.

Critically, I resolve to myself that I won't become task-fixated -- that I won't slip back into White. My goal is to maximize my reaction-time gap by simply being aware of what's going on around me.

White-Yellow happens at least daily. For me, it happens several times each day, so I have plenty of repetitions to practice this mental transition.


When do I transition from Yellow to Orange? When I notice something out of the ordinary, something that doesn't smell right. I think there might be a threat to me or mine. This is not necessarily a specific person or thing.

When I notice something amiss, it's immediately time for me to start doing a few things:

  1. Communicate with any companions.
  2. Learn details about what I noticed.
  3. Find the other out-of-the-ordinary thing I missed.
  4. Where will I escape? (Can I leave now?)
  5. How will I fight?
  6. Set the mental trigger that will push me to Red.

Yellow-Orange may happen infrequently. For me, as a civilian who commutes by car and lives and works in a pretty safe place, this happens no more than weekly.

In order to get in some extra repetitions, I play a little game. When I see something weird -- and working in downtown Austin, I see weird things daily -- I force myself to work through the steps above.


When do I transition from Orange to Red? Easy: when the mental trigger I set up in Orange is tripped.

If you're a martial artist or shooter, you already spend a lot of time practicing this. When the instructor yells "Fight!" or the timer beeps. Here, you execute one of the plans you made. This transition marks the beginning of all technique-oriented self-defense training drills.

The Edge

The Yellow-Orange transition is critical, and it's one of the things that the civilian self-defense practicioner probably gets little specific practice at. What's more, we don't spend a lot of time talking about the specifics of it because it's much less sexy than equipment, and less interesting even than specific tactics.