Principles of Personal Defense

Mastery of these principles as your standard operating procedure is the key to personal safety.

(Left) Shooting skill alone is not enough. A good grounding in basic tactical principles is critical! (Right) Coolness comes from confidence. Confidence comes from skill. Skill comes from training.

Some years ago, Jeff Cooper wrote an excellent booklet entitled, Principles of Personal Defense. This brief work outlined seven principles that, according to Jeff, lay the groundwork for all successful self-defense efforts. This little book is available from Paladin Press ( 800-392-2400). It should be required reading for anyone interested in personal security.


Police officers in this country have an average hit ratio of about 18%. That means that in the field they hit with 18 out of every hundred shots they fire.


I have taken the liberty of listing the seven keywords that Jeff used in enumerating these principles, and adding my own perspective to them. I truly believe that mastery of these principles as your standard operating procedure is the key to personal safety. Many of us concentrate too much on hardware (specific gun model, caliber, type of ammunition, etc.), when it is the software issue that really decides who wins. The seven key words used by Jeff Cooper to enumerate his principles of personal defense are used here with permission from Paladin Press.


This one trait is the cornerstone of all physical security. You cannot defend yourself against something you don’t know is there. You must learn habits of alertness and awareness so that you are always in tune with your environment.

Elsewhere in this text, we discuss some of the important facets of observation skills, but you must grasp the importance of this principle. If you know who is around you and what they are up to, you are in control. Always be on the look-out for people, behavior and activity that are out of place or out of context. When you see something like this, question it. Ask yourself, “Why…?” If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, treat this as a danger signal.


You are going to have to select a course of action and implement it right then! No one is going to be there to tell you what to do. You’re on your own. This is especially difficult for us these days because all decisions are made by committee, and no one likes to sign off on anything any more. Always do something immediately.


This is another principle that is difficult for the average person, as aggressiveness is systematically being bred out of us. You have been taught all of your life that fighting is bad, human life is sacred and you should play nicely. The trouble is that you will be up against someone who shares none of these sentiments!

To a degree, we do a disservice to our students when we harp continually on the “defensive” nature of the pistol. The pistol is defensive in concept, but not in use. Gunfighting is just a form of fighting, and any type of fighting is, by definition, an aggressive activity. You cannot win any type of fight by being passive. Imagine yourself in a fist fight where all you do is block punches, but never throw any of your own. Gonna win? The same goes for armed conflict. If I have to defend my life with a firearm, I will use it vigorously, with all of the violence, aggressiveness and commitment I can muster because my life is at stake!

Once the fight starts, failing to respond aggressively is the same as surrender. If you let evil people do evil things to you, guess what will happen? You have a duty to resist evil. You owe this duty to your family, to society and to yourself. If attacked, attack him right back!


Speed is the defining element of any form of fighting. Whoever moves faster, wins. You must develop quickness in your presentation and your firing stroke. This comes only through structured, careful, frequent practice. You also must develop speed in your ability to assess developing situations and make sound decisions. Again, this comes from prior preparation. Play the “What if…?” game, to develop responses in advance of need. The time to debate strategy is not while someone is trying to kill you.


If attacked, you must keep your wits about you and do what you have to do to win. You must concentrate on the task at hand, and in our context, that task is to focus on the front sight and press the trigger.

Invariably, when I discuss this with a new group of students, some of them look incredulous and say something like, “How am I supposed to keep cool while someone a few steps away is trying to kill me?” The answer to that is simple. Every day, a large number of people have to do this. I personally know a very large group of people who have done this successfully. The key is in prior mental preparation. You must consider the possibility of an armed conflict, and be prepared mentally to deal with it.

Part of the answer is practice. Practice builds skill. Skill builds confidence. If your mind knows you have a fair degree of skill, your confidence in that skill will help you remain calm. Police officers in this country have an average hit ratio of about 18%. That means that in the field they hit with 18 out of every hundred shots they fire. This is due to several factors. The first is startled response, which is from not being mentally prepared for an attack and being caught completely off guard. This always is a training issue. The second is infrequent or poor practice.


OODA is the acronym for “observe, orient, decide, act.” It doesn’t matter if someone’s I.Q. is 40 or 140. One’s mind has to work through this sequence before any deliberate action can take place.


Over the past several years, the school where I work has trained almost 16,000 students, and a fair number of them have been involved in shootings. As far as I can tell, they have about an 85% hit ratio. This is because they come here on their own time, and spend their own money, and then spend the time and effort it takes to achieve and retain basic proficiency with their weapons.

Do your homework. Repetition is the mother of all physical skill. Make time to get to the range. By constantly repeating the motions involved in your presentation and your firing stroke, you burn a neural pathway from your brain to your fingertips, eventually ingraining the proper response into your “muscle memory.” Sports physiologists will tell you that it takes between 2,500 to 5,000 correct repetitions of any complex motor skill to automate it.

To “automate” the skill means to be able to do it reflexively, without conscious thought or effort, and this is the goal. You must concentrate your mental effort on the evolving tactical situation, not on marksmanship, and this is how you remain in control and hit under stress. Get some practice shooting under stress. Engage in realistic competition, like IDPA events. Hunt deer or similar game, and learn to control “buck fever.”


Many people think that this is an odd word in the context of self-defense, but in reality, ruthlessness is a vital element of fighting to stay alive. In our context, ruthlessness means “absolute single-mindedness of purpose.” Once the fight starts, there are absolutely no considerations other than winning! It doesn’t matter why he chose you; it doesn’t matter why he’s a criminal. All that matters is winning. Bear in mind, in our context, “losing” can mean “dying.” Hit him fast, hit him hard, hit him with everything you’ve got, then assess, and if needed, hit him some more.


Surprise is deliberately put last in this list, because surprise is the first element of offensive combat. Surprise comes in two forms: strategic surprise and tactical surprise.

Strategic surprise is what the bad guy plans on. I recently got my hands on a captured copy of “The Bad Guy’s Training Manual,” and when I opened it up, I found only this: “Sneak up on ‘em and jump on ‘em.” That is the entire strategy! Surprise is the only true advantage that the bad guy has over you. He is typically not as smart, as well armed or as well trained, but if he surprises you, the advantage is entirely his. Then how do we neutralize his advantage? It’s simple. Be alert! If he cannot surprise you, he probably cannot harm you. This is a looped system that goes right back to the beginning of this chapter. Be alert and aware, so no one can surprise you.

The other form of surprise is tactical surprise, and that is your weapon. If attacked, do something that he least expects. Make him react to you, rather than you reacting to him. Initiate a violent, explosive counter-attack. Action is faster than reaction.

He is just as culturally indoctrinated as anyone else. When he attacks, he believes that you are a helpless victim. What does he expect you to do? Whimper and whine belly up, and do whatever you are told. Think about it. If he points a gun at you and tells you to do something, what does he expect you to do? Comply, of course. The reason he didn’t shoot you was because he believes that you will comply. If you do something else, he has to process that information and decide what to do. And only then can he act. It should be over by then.

OODA Gun Safety Course: Speed comes with practice.

Speed comes with practice.

This is a good time to mention the OODA Cycle, which is used in training fighter pilots and others who engage in forms of one-on-one combat. This was the brainchild of Col. John Boyd, USAF. Understanding this cycle is critical to your training. OODA is the acronym for “observe, orient, decide, act.” It doesn’t matter if someone’s I.Q. is 40 or 140. One’s mind has to work through this sequence before any deliberate action can take place.

Observe: For the tenth time now, you cannot do anything about a problem until you detect it. Get your head up, open your eyes, and look around.

Orient: This means to turn your attention to the person or circumstance that caught your eye. Assess the person as a potential threat. Evaluate your tactical position. Consider your options for dealing with the threat.

Decide: Action is needed. Select a course of action to fix the problem.

Act: This is the physical action of self-defense, which can only occur after you have gone through the first three stages. You cannot act until you detect the threat, evaluate it, and select an option for dealing with it. The time it takes to process this information and act is reduced greatly by being alert and having practiced emergency responses before the crisis occurs.

Gun Safety Course: Being familiar, competent, and confident with your sidearm frees up the mind to deal with the tactical situation.

Being familiar, competent, and confident with your sidearm frees up the mind to deal with the tactical situation.

The same OODA Cycle applies to the bad guy. When he tells you to do something, do something else! He will have to see that action, realize that it is not what he told you to do, decide what to do about it (run, shoot, etc.), and only then can he act. By being alert and having pre-planned tactical responses, you can short-circuit his reaction process.

If he is in the act stage while you are entering the observe stage, you have lost. Be alert. The same works in reverse. If you are acting while he is looking, you should be finished before he can move through the orientation and action phases.


[ Tom Givens is a full-time trainer, with over twenty five years of experience. He has had about 85 articles published over the years in SWAT Magazine, Combat Handguns, Petersen Handguns, Soldier of Fortune and other publications. He is certified as an expert witness on firearms training in both state and federal courts, and he has a firearms training school, Rangemaster, in Memphis. ]