The First Principle of Personal Defense

The First Principle of Personal Defense

Some consider Jeff Cooper to be for practical pistol shooting what Webster is for dictionaries - the final authority. His thoughts are simple, his actions straight forward, and his results are unquestioned. His book, Principles of Personal Defense, has only seven short chapters, but the topics of those chapters should give you some impression of how he approaches self defense.

  1. Alertness
  2. Decisiveness
  3. Aggressiveness
  4. Speed
  5. Coolness
  6. Ruthlessness
  7. Surprise
These, more than the kicks and punches you train in karate, are the tools which will keep you alive when the worst case scenario occurs. In the following chapter, "The First Principle is Alertness," Jeff Coopers lays out the importance of what we in kenpo call Environmental Awareness, and describes some drills the student can use to develop it as an ability.

The First Principle is Alertness

"A commander may be forgiven for being defeated, but never for being surprised. This maxim is among the first to be impressed upon new lieutenants. It is equally applicable to individuals who aspire to a degree of physical security in today's embattled society. Alertness is, to some extent, an inherent personality trait, but it can nonetheless be learned and improved. Once we accept that our familiar and prosaic environment is in fact perilous, we automatically sharpen our senses.

Two rules are immediately evident; know what is behind you, and pay particular attention to anything out of place.

It is axiomatic that the most likely direction of attack is from behind. Be aware of that. Develop "eyes in the back of your head." Eric Hartmann, the WWII German Ace who is unquestionably the greatest fighter pilot of all time, (1405 combat missions, 352 confirmed victories), feel that he survived because of an "extremely sensitive back to his neck;" and conversely, claims that 80 percent of his victims never knew he was in the same sky with them. Combat flying is not the same as personal defense, but the principle applies. The great majority of the victims of violent crimes are taken by surprise. The one who anticipates the action wins. The one who does not, loses. Learn by the experience of others and don't let yourself be surprised.

Make it a game. Keep a chart. Every time anyone is able to approach you from behind without your knowledge, mark down an "x." Every time you see anyone you know before he sees you, mark down an "o." Keep the "o's" ahead of the "x's." A month with no "x's" establishes the formation of correct habits.

Observe your cat. It is difficult to surprise him. Why? Naturally his superior hearing is part of the answer, but not all of it. He moves well, using his senses fully. He is not preoccupied with irrelevancies. He's not thinking about his job or his image or his income tax. He is putting first things first, principally his physical security. Do likewise.

There are those who will object to the mood this instruction generates. They will complain that the do not wish to "live like that." They are under no obligation to do so. They can give up. But it is a feral world, and if one wishes to be at ease in it he must accommodate to it.

Anything out of place can be a danger signal. Certainly anyone you don't know approaching your dwelling must be regarded askance. It's 99 to 1 that he is perfectly harmless, but will you be ready if he turns out to be that other one who is not?

Certain things are obvious. An unfamiliar car parked across the street for long periods with people in it who do not get out. A car that maintains a constant distance behind you while you vary your speed. Young men in groups, without women, staying in one place and not talking. These things should set off a first-stage alarm in anyone, but there are may other signals to be read by the wary. Anyone who appears to be triggered out of watchfulness and into action by your appearance must be explained. Anyone observing you carefully must be explained. Anyone whose behavior seems to be geared to yours must be explained. If the explanation does not satisfy you, be ready to take appropriate defensive action.

A common ruse of the sociopath is the penetration of a dwelling under false pretenses. Anyone can claim to be a repairman or an inspector of one sort or another. It is often impractical to verify credentials but merely being aware that credentials may easily be falsified is protection against surprise. The strong need only remain watchful. The weak should take further precautions.

On the street let no stranger take your hand. To allow a potential assailant a firm grip on your right hand is to give him a possibly fatal advantage. Use your eyes. Do not enter unfamiliar areas that you cannot observe first. Make it a practice to swing wide around corners, use window glass for rearward visibility, and get something solid behind you when you pause.

All this may sound excessively furtive and melodramatic, but those who have cultivated what might be called a tactical approach to life find it neither troublesome nor conspicuous. And, like a fastened seat belt, a life jacket, or a fire extinguisher, it is comforting even when unnecessary.

Needless to say, no sensible person ever opens the door of his house without knowing who is knocking. If your entrance way does not permit visual evaluation of your caller, change it. The statistics may be against a threat waiting outside, but statistics are cold comfort after you discover that your case is the rare exception.

The foregoing suggestions are merely random examples of ways in which the principle of alertness is manifested. Situations are numberless, and specific recommendations cannot be made to cover them all. The essential is to bear always in mind that trouble can appear at any time. Be aware. Be ready.


Sound advice. There's a reason Environment is the first consideration of combat. You have to be aware of what is going on around you, who is a threat, where your escape routes are, and what you could use to defend yourself. Sometimes that means knowing where help is, sometimes that means knowing where the exits are. Sometimes that means knowing the terrain or the likely places for an ambush. Never walk by the entrance of a dark alley without looking down it first. Never leave a stranger at your back when you are alone.

The First Principle is Alertness. Practice it every day, and you may never need to resort to violence. Because you will avoid potentially dangerous situations before they become potentially lethal ones.

Drills -
Beginner: Practice walking into a room and immediately closing your eyes. See is you can identify ten objects placed throughout the room by name and location. Are there obstructions you could place between you and an opponent? Household items that could be used as environmental weapons? Everything in your environment can be used by or against you. Imagine ways in which they could be employed by you and your opponent.

Intermediate: Practice identifying potential striking targets on the people around you in public. Does the way the person stands in front of you in line at the taco stand make him vulnerable to unbalancing techniques? Does the heavy boxes a person is carrying down a flight of stairs make it more difficult for them to defend against low line kicks? Or does it give them a weapon to use against you? Engage this intellectual exercise as you go through your day to learn how to adapt to the position of any potential opponent.

Advanced: Think like a villain. Imagine how you would surprise and attack a potential victim. Look for dumpsters you could hide behind, dark corners that would cloak you in shadows, or blind corners where you could lay in wait. Understand how a predator would use these different aspects of the environment as lures or traps. The more you explore how your opponents would plan to attack you, the more prepared you are to avoid and react to those potential attacks.

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