Skip to main content

Col. Jeff Cooper: Developing a Defensive Mindset

Cooper11In case you aren't familiar with the late Col. John Dean "Jeff" Cooper — which probably means you're new to defensive shooting — allow me to introduce you. Born in 1920, Cooper earned a political science degree from Stanford before receiving a commission from the United States Marine Corps, and he fought in the Pacific in World War II and later in Korea before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. Cooper went on to earn his master's degree and taught high school and college classes before he opened American Pistol Institute (API), now known as Gunsite, one of the nation's top training destinations for civilian shooters as well as law enforcement and military professionals.

Cooper4Col. Cooper changed the way shooters handled their guns, how they engaged enemies and, perhaps most importantly, how they managed to develop a mindset that prepared them to face a lethal threat at any time and place. In his written works and his teachings, Col. Cooper made it clear that technical skills — how to load and fire your weapon — were of little value without being mentally prepared to win a gunfight. Today, 39 years after the doors opened, the instructors at Gunsite still prepare shooters to face the most dangerous situations and survive using Cooper's techniques and methods. Here are five key points from Col. Cooper that are essential to understanding how mindset affects the outcome of a gunfight — or prevents a gunfight from ever happening.

Surviving Is as Much Mental as Physical: In one of his lectures, Col. Cooper touched on several occasions where officers and civilians who were proficient with firearms, some of which were elite-level shooters, died in a gunfight. It's very clear by looking at the resume of these shooters that they had sufficient technical skill with firearms, but they also had, as Col. Cooper puts it, an "unsatisfactory mental condition." Teaching the mental aspects of shooting is far more esoteric than teaching the physical and mechanical skills needed to survive — double-taps, tactical reloads, drawing the firearm, and so forth. Proper mindset is something that the student must be willing to adopt. Ken Campbell, Gunsite's Chief Operating Officer and a former law enforcement officer with 35 years of experience in the field echoes Cooper's words:

"It's not just owning a gun. It's not just knowing how to clean the gun or shoot the gun that's going to save your life. You have to have the right mental attitude." Or, as Colonel Cooper once said, "Owning a piano does not make you a pianist."

Cooper10The World Is a Dangerous Place: One of the central tenants of Col. Cooper's philosophy on surviving a dangerous encounter is situational awareness and an understanding that violence might, as Cooper says, come to you. To illustrate his point, Colonel Cooper developed four stages of preparedness — white, yellow, orange and red. The white state, according to Cooper, is a state of relaxed ignorance, an individual who is unwilling or unable to come to grips with the fact that the world, even their little corner of the world, is not immune to violence. Being in the white state of mind leaves you unprepared, and when you find yourself in the midst of a deadly encounter, individuals who survive in this frame of mind usually share the same thought — I can't believe this is happening to me. That mindset leads to a loss of faculties — the heart rate increases, we don't react as quickly, we lose control of our fine motor skills. We freeze. It's how seasoned police officers and trained competitive pistol shooters find themselves in a deadly shooting and never manage to fire a shot. Cooper refers to this stage of mind as "relaxed, unaware and unprepared." Refusing to come to terms with the fact that there is violence in the world does nothing to protect you when you find yourself face-to-face with those that would do you harm.

Cooper3Awareness Is Critical: Col. Cooper and his team at Gunsite have been teaching people how to survive in a different state of mind — an aware state — for almost four decades. Cooper referred to it as the yellow state — situationally aware and always prepared. According to Cooper, the threat is not specific during the yellow state, but the shooter is prepared. ┬áIn an aware state of mind, Cooper says, your odds of surviving an attack are substantially higher. At Gunsite, students learn Cooper's method for existing in a yellow state of mind, prepared to face a threat at any moment and ready to take the steps necessary to win. The first step to living aware is to accept the fact that you may face a dangerous situation at any moment, and truly living in a prepared state requires a fundamental acceptance that, due to factors beyond your control, you may have to defend yourself and the lives of others.

Cooper9The Right Attitude Can Save You from A Fight You Never Saw Coming: In one of Col. Cooper's videotaped lectures, he discusses a research project in which violent criminals were asked to look at a city street and identify possible targets of attack. By and large, these criminals chose the same individuals as potential targets. The people that were most often targeted were in the "white" state of mind — oblivious, ignorant of their surroundings, detached from the reality of living in a potentially violent world. We must all ask ourselves whether those criminals would have identified us as potential targets, and, if so, what we can do to change that.

"Mindset allows you to avoid a fight, which is a huge win," Campbell says. "We need to recognize problems, and the only answer to a problem does not rest in your holster." By presenting yourself as a hard target you can diffuse violent situations before they escalate — sometimes before you even realize that you were being sized-up by an attacker. Col. Cooper's teachings help students present themselves as formidable opponents through subtle clues like carriage, head position, and the use of their eyes, and by presenting yourself as aware and prepared you will sometimes manage to avoid conflict in the first place. Recognizing situations that could be dangerous also give you a major advantage if a confrontation happens, which is less likely if criminals understand that you are going to be a difficult mark.

BF (3)Prepared Does Not Mean Fearful: I'm often asked if I train with firearms because I'm afraid of bad guys. That's as illogical as asking a trauma surgeon if they went into medicine because they are afraid of being hurt. There is a vast difference between being prepared and being afraid. And, if you do find yourself in the midst a violent encounter, fear does very little to help you survive. Preparation, on the other hand, provides you with the mental and physical tools you need to win.

"In a confrontation, you let your opponent know that they've bitten off more than they can chew," Campbell says. "They thought you were a proverbial sheep, but in reality you are a sheepdog."

Col. Cooper also describes the prepared attitude as not being one of, "an uncontrolled, explosive kook." According to Cooper, the best preparation leaves you, "in full control of your mind." And, ultimately, that is the key — learning to be in charge of yourself and your actions even in the midst of a terrible, violent attack. So important was mindset to Cooper that he made it part of the Triad which Gunsite still uses and still teaches to their students, along with marksmanship and gun handling. Ultimately, though, your skill with a firearm is of no use in a situation where you can't control your emotions and mental state.

For more information about Gunsite visit


Current Magazine Cover

Enjoy articles like this?

Subscribe to the magazine.

Get access to everything Guns & Ammo has to offer.
Subscribe to the Magazine

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Guns and Ammo Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Guns & Ammo App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Guns & Ammo stories delivered right to your inbox every week.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Guns and Ammo subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now