In shooting sports firing the gun, whether in practice, class, or competition, is undeniably the most fun part, but when we take a step back we can see there is so much more to it than just pulling the trigger. That is especially true when we get into the self defense and personal safety portion of shooting sports. You may go to a class to learn to shoot better but it’s not the only topic that is taught. That is only one piece of the self defense pie, and while we need those skills we also need to look at the bigger picture. After all, the best defense is to not be in the situation in the first place. The skill that allows us to do that is situational awareness and we use a Color Code to easily break down this skill.
It may surprise some people but the current method of shooting is not that old. In fact it can be traced back to the early 1970’s with Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper. You may have heard of him as he is the founder of the world class Gunsite Academy (originally the American Pistol Institute) in Paulden, Arizona. He used the school to bring his defensive combat concepts to the shooting world. He created The Modern Technique of the Pistol, is the founder of the basic firearms safety rules, the color code for situational awareness, conditions of readiness, and so much more. You might be surprised to know he literally wrote the book on self defense called “The Principles of Personal Defense” and is regarded as the father to what we know as defensive shooting today. Lt. Col. Cooper believed that “your mindset is your primary weapon”, and that it is the base foundation that combat preparedness was built on and allowed for competence rather than chance to increase the probability of survival. One of the pillars in that mindset is being aware of your immediate surroundings. The Color Code is meant to be a simple and clear mechanism for gauging one’s ability to address and respond to the actions of others.
The Color Code
The Color Code is Lt. Col. Cooper’s breakdown of personal readiness for combat. It is meant to condition a mindset for defense practitioners to assess potentially combative situations. This is particularly useful for individuals who frequently carry a firearm. It ensures they are aware of their surroundings and have a guide to know when to step up or down in threat level according to their observations.
To put it simply, we should operate through most of our life in yellow and be ready to move to orange and/or red based on awareness of our surroundings. The only time we should be in white is when we are asleep, and even then you should have delegated the yellow condition to a security system as it is always aware.
While this may sound like a great idea, most people have a hard time putting it into practice and making it a habit. If you conceal carry then you should be able to keep yourself in condition yellow, but how do you get there? Enter the “What If?” Game.
The “What If?” Game
One of the most common tools you will hear people use to exercise their situational awareness muscles is the “What If?” Game. While it is a regular family friendly card game, it is also a useful mental exercise in an endless amount of topics. When defensive shooters talk about the what if game, it is in a situational awareness scenario. So the next time you are out and about ask yourself what if questions and use your environment to devise your answer, after all the answer will forever be changing based on environmental factors. From your yellow condition of being relaxed but aware, ask questions like:
Those types of questions will get your brain to think through situations and we have a much better chance of reacting in a way we want if we have already become aware of the situation before, imagined or real. Keep your head on a swivel and be aware of your surroundings but imagine the next few steps you would take in each of these scenarios.
The trigger to move from yellow to orange is that a specific alert has been identified, this might be something that makes you uncomfortable or a suspicious looking person/situation, it puts your full attention on that potential threat and makes you anticipate what might come next. Next is moving to condition red, which is when a specific mental trigger has occurred and fight or flight action is necessary. Setting what that specific mental trigger is as simple as saying “When he does this…then I do that…” it gives you a signal to set you in motion with a predetermined solution.
The “What If?” Game can be played at any point in time and if you have friends or family to play it with that’s even better. This exercise is fun, makes you think, and will help to form the habit of situational awareness.
Other Situational Awareness Practice
While the “What If?” Game is a great tool in building up your skills at situational awareness, it is not the only way. A few simple ones can be done while you are engaged in other activities, like the next time you watch your favorite show, see if you can notice what the background is and what is going on in it. Observe what the extras are doing, the layout of the space, and if it’s an action genre show try to predict possible actions that could be taken. Another is to do it while driving, it might not be combat readiness but it is still personal safety. Pay attention to the other cars but also to what you pass by, notice if you observe things you’ve never seen before despite it being on your drive every day. Turn situational awareness into your own Worst Case Scenario game and drill yourself and others.
If you want to step it up you can start to combine this skill with dry fire. Have a partner set up realistic image targets in your house and then work your way through it. Observe if that realistic image target is a threat, holding a knife, gun, or other weapon, or an innocent with no weapon or a non-threatening item. There are some digital tools out there as well, situational training apps and videos that allow you to observe and decide what course of action to take. Even if it is just a screen, it still puts you under pressure and having the skill to pay attention to the entire situation and move through the levels of awareness with a plan of action can be practiced and honed in.
One thing to consider when incorporating dry fire into this skill is to make sure there is variation in the outcome of the scenarios. What is meant by this is that not all scenarios should result in a draw and fire (condition red). Some should result with you being suspicious initially and then it being quelled and going back to yellow, having never touched your firearm. Some should move you from yellow to orange and back, resulting in you having been suspicious, moving your hand to your firearm and then being quelled and not having to draw it. Some should go from yellow to orange to red, resulting in being suspicious and rightfully so as you have to draw and fire. This variety trains your brain to make a decision based on information rather than react like Pavlov’s dogs and go straight from yellow to red, where drawing and shooting becomes an automatic response.
Gamifying situational awareness makes it fun and easy to do which will help it become a habit that you want to engage in. It will soon become second nature to enter an area and assess things like…
Recycle those answers over the course of time you are in the environment and keep your head on a swivel and you will be much more aware than 99% of people out there. It may just give you a fuller life experience by taking in more around you and seeing how people act when they think no one is watching or it might give you the head start you need to escape a potentially dangerous situation. Either way if you are carrying a gun for self defense you need to master situational awareness.