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Personal Combat: Moving to Condition Black

Ernest Emerson Contributor
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By Ernest Emerson, Emerson Knives 

There has been a lot written about Colonel Jeff Coopers color code system and the conditions of awareness. This system has been successfully taught to and used by Military, Law Enforcement and civilians for decades. Basically, the origin of the color code system is that colonel Cooper deduced that there were four levels of awareness that constantly affect us as human beings and that we are always in one of those conditions. Further, they will definitely affect our ability to survive a life threatening crises or event depending on which condition you are in at the onset of the event In order to teach these conditions by describing them separately and understandably to military recruits during their training, he assigned a color code to each of the four conditions or levels of awareness.

These conditions are as follows: In the words of Colonel Cooper:

1. Condition White -You are unprepared and unready to take lethal action. If you are

attacked in Condition White you will probably die unless your adversary is totally inept.

2. Condition Yellow -You bring yourself to the understanding that your life may be in danger and you may have to do something about it.

3. Condition Orange – You have determined upon a specific adversary and are prepared to take action, which may result in his death, but you are not in a lethal mode.

4. Condition Red -You are in a lethal mode and will shoot if circumstances warrant it.


In my words: 

1. Condition White -You are awake but not paying attention to your surroundings or environment.

2. Condition Yellow-You are paying attention to your situational awareness, surroundings, environment  and are aware and assessing others in your vicinity for potential threats to your safety.

3. Condition Orange-You have positively identified a threat and are actively formulating a countermeasure and response.

4. Condition Red-You are actively responding to the threat which now has you engaged in combat – the fight.

For a more detailed explanation of these conditions and how they apply to personal defense and tactical and combat awareness please read the article I wrote, “Preemptive Self Defense” Parts I and II.

As with everything, as more is learned, more experience garnered and more results analyzed, the process of evolution will inevitably occur. And so it is with the four conditions as developed by Colonel Cooper.

As a result of this evolutionary process, enter the 5th condition; Condition Black. Condition Black is the place in a fight, in combat, where you cease to exist. The you that I am describing here is the conscious you, the thinking you, the you that you know. It is in this condition (Black) that all cognitive operations cease to register.

There is no thinking, no decision making, no internal dialogue, no reasoning, no regard for safety and importantly, no fear. There is no before. There is no after. There is only now.

If all thinking and all cognitive process has ceased to function, then there is

no capability of judgement. Since nothing can be judged or assigned a value, there is…. no fear. This is the state of existence described by the Samurai Warrior as, complete disregard for the self.

This is as close to the pure animal state that a man or woman can ever get. This is, you might say, the state of pure survival instinct. It is the time and place where the lizard brain and our lowest brain functions are now in control. It is the “blind rage” that some have described after life and death confrontations.  And this creature that emerges, has only one goal, survival. In this condition the creature that now inhabits the human body will do anything to get out of the situation.

This is the realm of what I describe as, the elemental fighter. I have always believed and long taught that inside all of us is an instinctual fighter. Quite literally, our tooth and claw, cornered, animal self. Fortunately, I guess, few of us have ever had to access that being, our, dark passenger. I would say overall, that this is a good thing, since it is a testament to the order of our society, our laws our ethics and our morals as a whole.

I have met my “Dark Passenger” and it is an experience that is pure and powerful, shocking, yet exhilarating and in the end alluring and addicting. Perhaps this is why so many love the roller coaster and the out of control wild abondon that it can create. But, true Condition Black is far beyond the effects that a ride on a roller coaster can produce.

To be in a pure state of existence where there is only pureness of action, where no thoughts can occur is a rare dperience that is rarely experienced by some and never experienced by most. As I state time and time again in my classes,” You never want to experience something for the first time in combat,” so it is with Condition Black. Can we induce it in training?

Yes we can and it is always one of the “highlights” of the course. By creating specific training exercises you can get a student to experience Condition Black.

You can be in a fight, a real fight and never leave Condition Red, and in Condition Red you are still able to cognitively think, decide and act. But given the right, or wrong stimulus, whether it is merely an overload of the system or some internal switch that gets tripped due to a certain combination of psychological buttons being pushed, Condition Black can be triggered. When you enter Condition Black, you are still able to , physically at least, but it is more like lashing out in any and all directions. This can cause some problems. Problems because you don’t know what you are doing.  And, you may end up doing the wrong thing which can cause more harm than good, which is not a good thing.

Next, The “Calm of Combat”

Suffice it is to say that one of man’s greatest fears, a real gut wrenching primal fear, is the loss of control. To lose control, control of your actions, control of your safety, goes against our primal instinct for self preservation.   Whether that loss is to an outside entity, a circumstance, a bad guy, mother nature or some other cause your own loss of self control can put you very close to a Condition Black event. Condition Black can indeed seem a frightening place to vist.  But, like all conditioning, once you have been pushed there not only does it get a little less scary, but the stimulus and circumstances that trigger Condition Black are pushed a little further back. Your boundaries have now been increased.  And, as your boundaries are pushed lack you are able to exert more control over that situation for a longer period of time even in the face of chaos and deadly threat, perhaps never reaching Condition Black at all.  This would be the realm described as, “The Calm of Combat.”

Through proper training in forcing your access and exposure to Condition Black, you have a better chance of engaging in combat where you are still able exert some control over events to the best of your ability (Condition Red) rather than losing complete ability to control anything (Condition Black).  As you may surmise, once you are engaged in combat, it is a far better tactical position is to stay in Condition Red than in Condition Black.

So, just knowing that Condition Black exists  is of course the first step in training to use it to your advantage. In life or death combat you need every advantage you can muster to be on your side. These collective tactics and strategies along with your own experiences may ultimately, in the end, add up to enough of an advantage to destroy the enemy, ensure your survival and lead you out of the dangerous dark and into the safety of the light.


From the Editor: Thanks to Ernest Emerson for this series on personal combat. Ernest is a hand combat instructor and knife-maker – learn more about him here