The Way of the Wheelgun: The Defensive Mindset, Pt 2

Posted on April 16, 2011 by


As mentioned in the last post in this series, we’re continuing our look at the Defensive Mindset. Yeah, this series is about wheelguns and specifically about using them defensively. But any such conversation, regardless of platform, needs to talk first about the way your grey matter should be sorted before you strap on a pistol.

With that said, today we will be looking at the first of three concepts that I have found helpful when thinking about the combat mindset. The first, and the most important, is Situational Awareness. Situational Awareness is something all of us should strive to cultivate, whether or not we carry a gun.

Situational Awareness

Awareness, in self-defense terms, means being  constantly alert to your surroundings, and specifically to the things around you that could pose a threat or that would make encountering a threat more likely.

There are certain things that, if you’ve seen enough crime dramas, you know could be threatening. Large groups of young men moving rapidly toward you in a poorly-lit inner city parking lot, for instance. And you know certain places should be avoided. Like poorly-lit inner city parking lots. Yes, most of situational awareness is common sense.

But what about the friendly-looking salesman who rings your doorbell in the middle of the day? Or the workplace where you leave late at night every day? Whether it’s a quiet food court or placid suburb, virtually anywhere you go can be the scene of a violent encounter. The reason this takes people by surprise is that they simply refuse to believe it’s possible. Surely, violent crime isn’t going to invade the sanctity of the place they feel the most secure, like their home or their churches.

Whether or not you admit it, that’s the unrealistic mindset that most of us live in seven days a week. It’s called the “normalcy bias” – the idea that things will always be like they always have been, that horrible tragedies may happen to other people, but they can’t happen to us.

A look at the news will tell you otherwise. In the broken world in which we live, disasters and tragedies happen on both a personal and a national scale. You already believe this to some extent if you’ve chosen to carry a gun. The next step is applying it to your surroundings.

On a practical level there are a few different ways you can do that. Probably the best is Colonel Jeff Cooper’s “Color Codes” – essentially a way of characterizing different mindsets by color. The color system is used by a variety of defense training schools and by several branches of the US military. It goes like this:

Condition White: This is where most of you live. You’re unaware, not alert, and oblivious to what is going on around you. People in White walk with their heads down, focused on themselves or their own problems, not aware of what people around them are saying or doing. Reacting from Condition White has been shown to take five to six seconds. You simply don’t have that much time.

  • Condition Yellow: You’re still relaxed, but you’re generally alert. You have your head up and your eyes open. You’re not expecting to be attacked today, but you recognize that it is a possibility.
  • Condition Orange: This is when you spot someone, or something, that could be a potential threat. You start making a plan to deal with the situation when and if it escalates. This is how you get past the element of surprise that any bad guy will naturally have. When and if you are attacked you will have at least a rudimentary plan in place for dealing with the situation.
  • Condition Red: In Condition Red you are ready to fight. At this point you’ve determined a “mental trigger” (more on this later) and you are ready to take a predetermined action – whether that’s fight or flight – as soon as that boundary is crossed.

Ideally, when you’re out and about, you need to be in Condition Yellow. You don’t have to be paranoid, but you need to be aware. Only as situations start to present themselves should you escalate to Condition Orange or Red.

For example, let’s say Ted is walking down the street of his neighborhood late at night. It’s not such a great neighborhood, but it’s where he lives, so he has to deal with that. Ted carries a gun for personal protection.

But Ted had a fight today with his wife and he’s had a long, hard day at the office. He’s focused on his problems and knows that when he gets home he’s going to have to make up with his wife and when he goes to work tomorrow he’s going to have to schmooze and get in good with the boss again. Ted does not notice that walking towards him from the opposite end of the sidewalk is a man holding a screwdriver. Ted doesn’t see the weapon until it’s too late. He’s in Condition White, and it takes him a few seconds to react and try to draw his gun. But it isn’t fast enough. By the time Ted can put his hand on his revolver, he’s lying on the ground, bleeding out, and his wallet is gone.

This story isn’t hyperbole – it’s reality. This is what would happen to most people if they were violently confronted.

As a side note, screwdrivers are becoming one of the favorite weapons of muggers and gangbangers everywhere. They aren’t illegal, you can buy them at any hardware store, and they will inflict a wound that will not close.

But let’s say Ted is walking down the street and he’s being alert to his surroundings. He’s got his head up and he is paying attention to what is happening. Ted notices the man with the screwdriver and he knows that screwdrivers can possibly mean bad news. So Ted crosses to the other side of the street and continues his walk. Ted then notices that a moment later the man also crosses the street. At this point the man is clearly a potential threat and Ted mentally has escalated to Condition Orange. This is where Ted has to start putting a plan together and set a mental trigger.

The mental trigger is a set of predetermined circumstances that you set as the threshold for action.

“The guy looks like he is going to stick me,” Ted thinks. “What am I going to do about it?”

Ted is in his mid-forties and realizes there’s no chance he’ll be able to outrun this guy if he has to. Ted knows he’s going to have to confront the mugger. “I’ll draw my gun and tell him to stop. And then if he takes one more step toward me with the screwdriver I’m going to shoot him.” So there’s a plan and the mental trigger is set. Ted is ready to deal with the situation if he has to.

Screwdriver-man gets closer and closer. Ted stops and makes eye-contact. Screwdriver-man picks up his pace and moves in on his intended prey. Ted draws a snub nose .38 from his pocket and points it at the would-be mugger. Ted’s mind has now escalated to Condition Red. All of the important decisions have been made. There is a plan and the mental trigger has been set. Good thing, too – there’s too much adrenaline running through Ted’s veins now for him to formulate, let alone execute, a new plan.


The man lifts both hands in the hair and backs up. “Hey man, be cool. You’re not going to shoot me.”

“LEAVE NOW! IF YOU COME ANY CLOSER TO ME I WILL SHOOT!” Ted is determined. He doesn’t argue with the man because he doesn’t need to. He has a plan and he has set his mental trigger.

This is very important. Don’t ever try to argue or reason with people when guns are involved. And don’t let them try to argue or reason with you. Hopefully by Condition Orange you already decided what you had to do and how far you were willing to let them come before you had to take action.

Screwdriver boy decides there are easier pickings out there and turns and leaves – as quickly as possible. Ted puts the gun back in his pocket, calls the police to report the incident, and goes home to see his wife. That’s the best ending these situations could possibly have.

The reality is, about 99% of “social situations” are avoidable in Condition Yellow. We carry guns for the other 1%.

And it should go without saying that your plan and mental trigger settings should always be done in light of a proper understanding of the self-defense laws and regulations of your city and state. Don’t ever put yourself in a situation where you might have to do something illegal to defend yourself. Just don’t do it.