Saturday, January 30, 2016

Crossing the Dead Zone

I have always been a defensive fighter or a counter fighter. It's just my nature. I like to assess a situation, learn about my opponent, before charging in. This may be to do with the fact I have never been able to rely on muscling my way in, or imposing my will by strength and size alone.

In any case, this tendency has definitely helped me in understanding tactical thinking and its probably why I enjoy sword play more than empty hand fighting.

Dueling with swords gives you the opportunity to test, investigate, and decide how to play it. This is why it is the perfect forum in which to learn about tactics, how people move, what their triggers are and how to manage them.

The reason why is that there is this distance, this dead zone, that stands between you and your opponent. It is a dangerous space to get caught in, and the price of choosing or acting incorrectly will end the game before it has even begun. Neither party wants to enter here undefended or behind the curve on the OODA loop ... And this creates time.

The size of this dead zone is generally determined by the length and the lethality of the weapon, along with it's unwieldiness. These will dictate how much time you have, both to decide what to do, and how much time you need to cross that space and gain the advantage

So how about with a shorter weapon? The shorter the range of the weapon (note that this can be different from the actual length of the weapon itself), the shorter the dead zone. Thus the safer it is to cross. Less is at stake by crossing and closing as fast as possible, and being the one with the initiative is what you want.

Does this mean that all the tactical stuff you learned with sword goes out of the window? Maybe not.
The same danger remains once in range, and the dead zone exists on the way out as it did on the way in, it's just the geometry that is different.

Perhaps some interesting questions to ask are: How big a dead zone can you create with the shortest range weapon? And to what extent can you decrease the dead zone you need to cross to get to an opponent using a long range weapon?

And if you are caught behind the curve, how short can you make a long weapon, and how long can you make a short one?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Tools of the Trade

My favorite picture of Sonny is of him standing in front of a wall of weapons, blades mostly, but some sticks too. Apparently he thought he looked like a shopkeeper in the picture and did not really like it. Ah well.

Every blade on the wall was something he had made or modified, and he had a wide assortment of blade shapes for us students to play with.

Sonny thought that every weapon had a personality because of it's design. More specifically that the balance, the curvature, the re-curve, the width, the size of the tip, the flare along the length, and the handle design, all played a part in the way it moved.

Most classes would start off with one blade shape, but over the course of the next hour, he'd switch up blades maybe 3 or 4 times, returning to some later in the lesson.

Why did he do this?

He thought particular blade shapes would give the student particular insights when used. For instance, curved blades slice better/easier, than straight ones, just because of the way human arms are attached to the body. Narrow blades with long tips move faster in space and feel more nimble, 'flicky' even. Long blades 'turn corners' better than short ones, even more so with a curved back tip. Handles that turn down at the end move the tip differently than straight handles.

Every blade changed the way you cut, the way you blocked, and so how you moved with it. Basically, the whole geometry of the interaction, where was safe, unsafe, in range, out of range, would shift dependent on the blade design.

But instead of inventing different systems for every blade, he used them interchangeably to teach concepts, with the idea that eventually you would be able to use any blade to do anything. You'd begin to feel the curved slice in the straight edge, the fast tip in the wide blade, the fulcrum in the straight handle.

He wanted you to understand that it was the body movement that changed, not just what was in it. So not only would changing the blade make you move differently, but that by moving differently, you could effectively change the shape of the blade in your hands ....

And just because I'm throwing some old posts back up, here's one about context and blade design.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Opportunity and Means

I've been trying to write a blog post for while and it just gets messier and messier. Language is not the friend of physical description ... Anyway, I realized I already sort of wrote it:

But perhaps it does need more ..

Within swordplay, as in all martial arts, you have a 'what', a 'how', and a 'when' and a 'why' that you need to learn.

An example of 'what' could be - A cut to the hand with a flicking back cut utilizing the back edge of the sword near the tip.

'How' would then be - Pull the tip back, either using the bending of the wrist, or moving of the arm/body to create a cutting action across the target.

'When' might be - A good time is when your blade is in a low position and the opponent's hand comes into range

And lastly 'Why' - Because their hand came into range and I was in a position to cut it, and hand cuts are very useful as targets.

The vast majority of martial arts answer these what/how/when/why pretty well, in fact most of their training methods are focused there.

But there are other, bigger, 'Whys', like

Why did this moment come about?
Why did the opponent let their hand come into range so you could cut it?
Why were you and your weapon in the right position to do it?
Why did you decide you could get away with it, as in, not get cut yourself in the process?

Should you care about these? Perhaps it's enough for you that the moment happens and you just take advantage of it?

Well, my opinion is that you should, because you are leaving things to chance very late in the game when you could be shifting the balance in your favor way earlier.

And how can that be a bad thing?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Twirling with Purpose

Some comments came up recently regarding the utility of flourishing and moving the blade around. In FMA it's called Carenza, or 'shadow boxing with weapons'.

What's it for? Isn't it kinda useless? Where's the application in it? 

Well, here's my take, and obviously highly influenced by my time training with Sonny, whose Carenza was indeed a thing of beauty.

Firstly, as a personal practice it is an awesome way of gaining skills manipulating the weapon, learning how it moves, and making it flow as part of the body.

It can also be a way of familiarizing oneself with a particular blade design, where it's power lines are, how it recycles between strikes, how it thrusts and slices.

But are there uses past that? Can there skills be of use with an opponent present? Isn't it just fancy and unnecessary? Perhaps even a dangerous waste of time?

First off, here is a quote from Lt Col W E Fairburn, of Fairburn Sykes fame:
"I believe that a knife should be bright and highly polished for the reason that 20% of the fight is lost by not striking awe in the mind of the victim that a flashing knife gives."

The psychological effect of an edged weapon is part of it's character, and thus should not be dismissed in training. One of Sonny's questions to me when we worked was: "Do you want your opponent to see your blade? Or not see it?" Truly, both are important parts of the whole.

Sometimes not being seen is crucial, but then so is being seen when they can already see you and are waiting for you to act. Non telegraphic and fully committed motion definitely has a place here, but if you are not fast enough, or are behind the curve to start with, then visual and psychological deception are your friend.

Sonny avoided altercations on more than one occasion by flourishing his blade and having his opponents think better of engaging. He also used his Carenza to confuse and disorient his opponents, thus creating time in the OODA loop to do what he needed to do. Remember time and space are interchangeable, and thus movement is key to this being successful. 

This lack of movement, or using the Carenza in the wrong context (like standing still at long range against a gun) gives this deceptive element a bad rep.

But used in the correct place, as a way to close distance and open up a guarded line, it is very useful indeed. In fact I would say that it is the best way, combined with footwork to move off line and change angle, to get away from the glorious double death outcome so often seen.

I think one major reason why people don't respect the utility of this part of training edged weapons is the multitude of 'twirling' videos on youtube that have given it a bad name. I've actually written about this subject before if you are interested:

One last thing - perhaps the context of the usage can be widened to think about any situation where escape and evasion are paramount. Think of juking and the Malicia of Capoeira as examples without weapons?

Obviously the utility also holds true for knives in the 'real world'. 

Here is Mark Human of Multi Dimensional Warriors in South Africa talking about his perspective:

"We make a point of ensuring that we stay up to date with how violence transpires/ particularly related to edged weapons attacks and confrontations. Research includes interviews with victims, practically working in the field, reading accounts and watching footage of fights and stabbings. There are knife ambushes and attacks and yes there are such things as knife fights and even ambushes that evolve into knife fights that resemble duels. Interactions include hard and fast attacks, fast and flowing attacks, committed and non committed lunges, fakes and picks, unimaginative single strikes or complex combinations and really any combination of anything the human mind can imagine. Don't box yourself into finite presumptions of how someone will attack- to improve your chance of victory become a navigator of chaos by understanding the framework of chaos."

Remember, like Sonny said (paraphrasing here), there is no art in killing, and none in dying, but living ... that's where the art is ...

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

SoMiCo Knives

I've been rather lax on posting lately. I have to admit that my creative attention has been turned elsewhere for the last few months.
Earlier this year, my good friend Toby Cowern at came up with a design project, a collaboration between me, Rory Miller , and himself to design a knife.

As it turned out, we decided the best way to do this was to each take a lead on a blade, with the others adding comment/critique as necessary.

And finally our first creation is finished and it ended up being my lead.

Despite being incredibly opinionated about blades, something for which I blame fully on having handled Sonny's designs and modifications, I did not realize how immersed I would get into designing something myself.

I realized I wanted something that would feel in the hand like it wanted to move and work, in the same way that anything Sonny made moved and worked.

I wanted the balance to be right, and because of the importance of feel, we decided to work with Will Capron, a fabricator of hand made knives in Minnesota. You can find him on Facebook at

Will was willing to work with me to get the balance and feel exactly how I wanted, and we ended up spending some days together refining, grinding, troubleshooting, and working on the handle and sheath designs.

As an artisan myself, I am a huge supporter of high quality, hand made, products, and will do anything I can to support those who care about their work and make cool stuff.

And this is 'cool stuff'.

Here's our website:

Check it out if you would be so kind. You will see this first knife 'in action', with all the inspiration and design elements that form this blade explained.

I can't wait to do the next one ... :-) 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Long is Short

A few thoughts came up for me teaching Xing-Yi this week -

I wanted to correct a student who has a tendency to extend their arms out too far, so, I gave them a long staff to practice with. Long weapons are heavy and difficult to balance if held away from the body. Feeling this, the student started quite naturally to keep the hands in better positions, and also use their back hand as the 'power' hand more than they had been.


Empty hand, Xing-Yi is known for it's short power generation, which perhaps seems weird for a system trying to extend it's power through a spear or similar, but it makes complete sense. Long and heavy weapons dictate the hands and elbows do not extend too much, and that it's the body that follows that creates the power. The hands and arms are just the delivery device. You have to use the body (and movement), not the arms, to strike with.

So with short, as with long.

The weapon dictates the movement, dictates the power, dictates the usage.

Interestingly enough, I was also trying to correct a student who has a tendency to step too narrow, almost crossing their feet as they move. Xing-Yi, demands a stance that is a little wider to accommodate the weight and length of pole arms from which it was developed, so again I tried adding the weapon to see if the footwork would appear.

No change in footwork. Hunh.

So I added me, as the opponent, holding the center line. To move, the student had to take my weapon off the line so that they could create an opening and strike. (They can do this using timing and evasion of course, but best not to rely on always having this.)

Bingo! You can't use a narrow stance against the pressure of an opponent holding the center with a pole arm, you have no stability .. feeling this, the footwork shown in the form appeared with no correction.

I talk about it all the time in Eskrima. Each sword or weapon has a characteristic way it moves and needs to be wielded. Put that weapon in the hands of the student, and give them a 'problem' to solve,  and all the reasons for why the footwork, the hand positions, and the body alignment have to be as they are, become instantly much clearer. Take the context away however, and now you are fixing things in foot placement and alignment that are abstract and imaginary.

Of course you can do this empty hand through applying pressure that the student must move around or deal with, but I have to say, using a weapon seems more immediate and efficient.  Everything is more obvious and harder to fake when a long weapon is in play. Using structure with alignment is the only way.

It's funny that we teach unarmed before weapons in so many systems. If we did it the other way around, perhaps people would learn much faster ....?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Throws, Bullets, and Swords

Had a fascinating weekend cross training with some very high level folks from different genres and backgrounds.

Ostensibly I was in town to work on a design project with a custom knife maker (more info to follow), and whilst there, took the opportunity to get some training time in with some hugely talented people. Kasey Keckeisen ( and Dillon Beyer both come from a perspective of the traditional Japanese Arts, Kasey is also a veteran police officer and SWAT sniper and trainer. And if this was not enough, I also got to get a day in training tactical shooting with one of the best firearms teachers in the area, Cabot Welchlin. Cabot taught Kasey and still trains the SWAT guys in the area.

These guys are all gentlemen and scholars alongside being highly efficient and effective fighters, and it was a true pleasure to get taken out of my comfort zone into some new worlds.

What was most fascinating to me, and the huge benefit of spending time with smart people, is seeing the connections and principles consistent between skill sets … and also how transferring them does not necessarily come naturally!! An enormous amount of the stuff I know about alignment and movement principles with sword can transfer directly to moving and shooting, as was pointed out to me by my betters as I apparently forgot all I knew on the range.

The center line/aiming connection is there, as are the 'cusps' of movement in the pendulum, when moving in and out of cover.

Switching the weapon from right to left hand, grip, and positive feel - same ideas.

Draw and aim, and most of all the idea that movement and cadence are the keys to 'Don't get hit'.

Movement really is the key. To everything. Movement means change, and all power, positioning, opportunity, evasion, alongside areas of danger and safety depend on the relative movement between you and your opponent. This is of course why the pendulum is such a powerful training tool as it sets up all the options of closing, opening, turning, stepping, and weight shift..

This whole experience has made me want to set up a 'Skills through Movement' clinic …. Shooting, Swordplay, Striking, Throwing, to see how they combine ...