Revisiting Col. Cooper’s “Principles of Personal Defense”

What better way to pass the time flying West to observe a 250 Pistol Course at Gunsite Academy than revisiting Principles of Personal Defense by The Colonel, Jeff Cooper?

Originally published in 1972 and again in 1989, my copy is the 2006 Paladin Press edition with a foreword by the late Louis Awerbuck. In the Preface, Cooper says he re-read the book and “felt no need to change anything of importance” (p. 11). But the Preface is undated, so it’s not clear whether it was written for the 1989 or 2006 edition.

In any event, here are some brief snippets from the book I found interesting in 2017.

First, although I have usually heard the analogy made to a piano, the statement commonly attributed to Col. Cooper is found here as follows:

“You are no more armed because you are wearing a pistol than you are a musician because you own a guitar” (p. 43, emphasis in original).

Cooper begins the book by encouraging readers to think of personal defense as war:

“In war there is no substitute for victory, and this is equally true of personal combat, which is, after all, a microcosm of war” (p. 14).

I.e., Bill Jordan: No Second Place Winner.

He also gives instructions on how to be a man: “Any man who is a man may not, in honor, submit to threats or violence. But many men who are not cowards are simply unprepared for the fact of human savagery” (p. 17). Here I do not believe he is using “man” as a generic term for human being.

He transitions into his 7 principles by stating, “Strategy and tactics are subordinate to the principles of war, just as individual defensive combat is subordinate to the following principles of personal defense” (p. 18):

1- Alertness: Principles are based on dealing with low odds, high stakes events.

“The statistics may be against a threat waiting outside, but statistics are cold comfort after you discover that your case is the rare exception” (p. 27).

Cultivating a “tactical approach to life” is “like a fastened seat belt, a life jacket, or a fire extinguisher, it is comforting even when unnecessary” (p. 27).

2- Decisiveness: Ask yourself ahead of time “What would I do if…?” and know what you are permitted to do by law so that you can take decisive action if and when necessary.

3- Aggressiveness: “In defense we do not initiate violence. We must grant our attacker the vast advantage of striking the first blow, or at least attempting to do so. But thereafter we may return the attention with what should be overwhelming violence” (p. 41). After all, “The best defense is a good offense.”

An aggressive response can be cultivated by developing a sense of indignation at being attacked. Not fear, but anger (p. 44). Interestingly, Cooper notes that his view of violent attackers as “bad people” — who deserve resentment “to the point of rage” — “is quite obviously not an approved outlook in current sociological circles” (p. 44).


He continues, “That is of no consequence. We are concerned here simply with survival. After we have arranged for our survival, we can discuss sociology” (pp. 44-45).

I will have more to say about this issue later, but for now I will simply note the old joke about sociology. Question: How many sociologists does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer: Four. One to change the bulb and three to consider the root causes of darkness.

Root causes are important, but Cooper is right here that the more immediate concern is personal defense. The Scots-Irish culture of violence or the racist origins of mass incarceration are of no concern to me if I am being attacked.

4- Speed: “The stake in personal defense is your life. You cannot afford to play by sporting rules. Be fast, not fair. Be ‘offside’ on the play. No referee will call it back. . . . Therefore, if you are attacked, retaliate instantly. Be sudden. Be quick. Speed is your salvation” (p. 52).

5- Coolness: Keep your head. “The sociopath is indeed usually a bad shot” (p. 58).

6- Ruthlessness:

“If you are justified in shooting you are justified in killing. . . . The world is full of decent people. Criminals we can do without” (p. 68).

Ruthless, indeed. And the latter part of this passage is probably not anything someone wants to boast about on social media lest it be introduced into evidence in a post-shooting court proceeding.

7- Surprise: Because personal defense only comes after an attack, it doesn’t seem defenders have the element of surprise at their disposal. But, Cooper notes, “that does not mean that the defender cannot achieve tactical surprise” (p. 75). Meaning? “The criminal does not expect his prey to fight back. May he never choose you, but, if he does, surprise him” (p. 76).

Among Cooper’s final words is something we hear incessantly today:

“Your physical safety is up to you, as it really always has been” (p. 78).



  1. Stephen Wenger points out, per “7 – Surprise,” that there seem to be as many, if not more, anecdotal instances of law-abiding victims disarming their attacker and using their weapon against them as the (claimed) risk of an attacker taking an armed defender’s gun.

    Since criminals control the victim selection, time, and location of their attack, it makes sense that they could and would be taken by surprise when their victim selection skills fail.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In a shooting competition, one’s ‘time’ begins when the match official blows a whistle, rings a bell or sounds a horn. One must then react to the stimulus in some manner.

    In many cases of self defense, one’s ‘time’ begins when the evil-doer becomes aware one is a potential threat. My plan is my attacker will first discover I am armed when my first shot strikes him in the chest.

    I approve of LtCol Cooper’s writings in terms of mindset. Defense against an armed attacker is indeed a mortal struggle.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Just coming back from travels overseas and catching up on your blog. Thanks for your insight and rekindling of a great book by Jeff Cooper. I am always amazed at some of the simple, yet brilliant quotes that came from Jeff Cooper.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A quote I have used frequently comes to mind:

    “I hold it as a principle that the duration of peace is in direct proportion to the slaughter you inflict upon the enemy. The harder you hit them, the longer they remain quiet.”

    General Mikhail Skobelev (1843-1882)


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