We discuss from first principles the cooperative decay of a system of two-level atoms, initially prepared in an uncorrelated excited state with population inversion N, and we give the conditions under which the superfluorescence effect occurs. Describing the atomic system in terms of collective variables, we derive a master equation for the reduced atomic density operator, which gives rise both to a damping and to a time-dependent frequency shift in the dynamics of collective modes. The coupled equations of motion are solved with a self-consistent approach. It is found that the system goes through a nonexponential decay if the maximum length of the active volume is smaller than a "cooperation range" and larger than a "threshold length," in agreement with the one-mode theory. The radiation burst has a time width proportional to N-1, and its intensity is proportional to N2. Specializing to a pencil-shaped volume, we find that only two atomic modes need to be considered; in this case, the average emitted radiation is all condensed in the two diffraction patterns of the opposite axial modes. © 1975 The American Physical Society.