Thursday, September 8, 2016

Getting Killed Second is Still Not a Win

Sometimes I get asked "What do you think about this drill or technique"?

My standard answer "What happened to get to this point so this could happen"?

Here are 2 exercises that will find you answering this question yourself.

1 - Reverse engineer the moment the drill/technique starts, using the logic of an opponent with a known motivation to get to this freeze frame in the action ... and see if you can pull it off, or put a different way - What needs to happen with them and you, your relative positions, the range, the timing, the targeting, and the scenario in general (location, purpose, numbers of individuals etc etc) for this moment to come about? Can you make it valid?

2 - If I was on the receiving end of this, how would I avoid having it happen to me?

There are very few techniques that are really just plain wrong. It's just that every technique has edges past which it won't work. You need to find the edges more than you need to master the drill.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Wave Returns

I'm not sure if this will make any sense in words, but here goes -

If you stand still the range between you and your opponent can only shorten. This also applies to orbiting around them, because the range is still constant if they keep turning to face you.

The action can only get faster (space shortens, so does time to do stuff) because you are both in range straight away if either moves. Not so much a problem if you don't mind fending off some blows and maybe taking a little damage, but much more of a problem if you want to avoid the double death.

Create distance however, and now you have essentially made time. I'm talking here of the backward half of the pendulum, not imbalanced backpedaling.

In general going backwards is a bad idea because someone going forwards will always be faster, but if you can sneak step, angle off, and slide, to subtly change the range they think they see they will have to recalibrate whether they do it consciously or not. The more you can do to screw with their PERCEPTION of where your actual position is, the more chance that you can catch them in an error.

This requires motion.

Basically you have created a target moving in 4 dimensions (3 +time) and this means your opponent must move too if they want to hit you. And they want to hit you. Remember that.

Be there, and then take it away.

RELATIONAL movement means you can freeze, entice, and maneuver your opponent much more easily.

Of course you must be the one leading this dance, not the one following, so move first.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Concrete Boots

The other day, I found myself watching a martial arts video purportedly showing defensive tactics against a short sword or long knife.

I tried to tell myself that what I was watching was taken out of context, but try as I might, I could not rationalize the idiocy of what was being shown.

Everyone has had this feeling, it is the downside of the internet where everything is on show to be critiqued. And I really do try not to diss other styles or opinions. I try to be generous. I try to be understanding, and I try my utmost to avoid laughing and pointing at things I know little about. It annoys me when others do it, and it is lazy and counterproductive to the whole community.

Still, I was left with this video by a well known teacher, showing something I completely disagreed with. In fact not only disagreed with, but think is absolutely horrible advice to give anyone learning swordplay.

So, I started thinking more about why.

WHY was it bad advice?

WHY was this the best solution to the problem presented?

And it came to me - The problem ITSELF was 'wrong'.

In a static interaction, when the feet don't move, and when both players are facing off, the problem presented was actually a real one. A static target is an attacker's dream come true, and the defense shown at that point was an absolute possibility. Technically nothing was 'wrong'.

The defender then counters, but the counter only works because the attacker ALSO stands still, did not move their feet, did not angle off, did not use their other hand, and did not switch the weapon hand. So again, technically, in the situation presented, the counter worked. Add any of the changes however, and the defender would be taking a long nap in a pool of his own blood.

The whole premis was nonsense ... I had basically spent 3 minutes watching a guy standing still strike at another guy standing still, who's counter only worked because the first guy was standing still.

Sigh ..

So, what was the REAL lesson?


[There are other lessons too -
Don't think stick techniques always transfer to edged weapons.
You can learn something from anything.]

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Epee Tactics

Here's a radio piece from yesterday. Transcript also included.

My favorite part:

" I want to suck people into my motions so that they get desensitized. They don't notice when I creep distance and then finish the action. You know, in and out so that when they think, oh, he's coming in and then they jump, and no, that's the moment when I'm leaving. I want all the motions like my chest and my hips and my hand all moving independent in this sort of weird, flowing, jerking motion that, you know, is really in your face."

Nicely put Jason Pryor :-)

Friday, June 3, 2016

Brain Shift to Exit

They say that our internal dialogue is very important in how we view the world and our place in it. Language and words can be used to change the way we see things ... not necessarily how they are, but how we see them, and thus relate to them in real life.

Therefore I propose stopping using language that insists on 'stopping the fight', 'ending the duel', or 'winning the altercation'.

'Prevailing' is better, as it lends an expansiveness to the method and outcome that I like, but how about thinking of swordplay/dueling/fighting, as something even more radical? How about seeing it all as - 'Creating an Exit'?

It adds a real goal to the whole, and frames the solutions to the problem at hand (how to deal with an adversary) in a very different manner.

It flows past and through rather than stops with one, predefined ending.

It gets you to see space and time differently, both before and after potential contact ... and indeed, it's the 'after', the exit, that matters most.

Perhaps it might even lessen the human tendency to come to a mental halt within training, in range, and with nothing certain achieved?

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


Pretty much everybody has some idea about how to prepare food.

As one generally uses knives to prepare food, it's fair to assume then that most people have used knives at some point in their lives, to slice tomatoes or apples, chop vegetables, maybe carve a roast. Some may even have cut up joints of meat before cooking.

(I actually know this is not 100% true from a first hand account from friend Toby, of a young lad who had lived on prepackaged, pre sliced, food all his life and had no idea that a knife often had a non sharp side, but I digress)

Put a sword in people's hands though, and suddenly this memory is lost, I guess because it's a different shape and not in the kitchen? Who knows ...
Anyway, what happens is that many students use the sword like they are holding a crayon and trying to write on their adversary, instead of trying to cut, slice, gouge, or stab them.

You will never understand why sword play looks like it does and moves like it does if you don't use the weapon for what it was designed. Everything is based around that.

So here's a hint (I know it's weird but ... ), to gain a better understanding of edged weapons, start thinking of your opponent as food.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Throwing It Out There

People think feeding is something you do so your partner an practice the techniques. It's the boring part you have to do until it's your turn to do the real stuff that matters.

Instead, why not start thinking of feeding as making your partner do things.

I want them to close distance.
I want them to back out
I want them to move left.
I want them to block high right.

Start thinking of every feed as a way to control what happens next.

How would that change how you feed to achieve this?

Sunday, April 24, 2016


The original meaning of 'parapet' was a defensive wall to protect soldiers, usually made of earth.
Nowadays we use the term more loosely. One meaning is a short wall surrounding a roof that is put there to prevent you from falling off the edge.

Back in the day, people used to practice martial arts forms standing on the parapets of roofs to practice their balance, stability, and precision, either standing still or in motion.

There's nothing like the awareness that comes from adding a potentially fatal fall to the equation if you screw up. It requires focus, agility, and confidence in your footwork.

Like the roof, every truth has an edge to it, a parapet, defined by context. Pretty much everything will work in some situation or another, by luck, by chance, or by a specific set of circumstances coming together to make it possible. Doing nothing CAN be a solution. So can offering an ice cream cone to a stranger, or kicking them in the balls. A look CAN sometimes stop someone in their tracks, and merely walking straight towards someone with a sword hanging from your hand can make them freeze and back off.

Problem is, they all work ... until they don't. And relying on something as 'the only solution' or the 'go to' can be an awful lonely feeling when it fails to deliver and the parapet trips you up and sends you sailing over the edge.

I recently had a conversation about 'reality' - a not uncommon occurrence. 'Well I'd just do X' was the jist of it, followed by a critique of why someone else was showing something that was obviously 'wrong'.

I do not purport to have all the answers, and there are better people to ask out there than me. However, I do know that this certainty is not a healthy approach, and believing you have THE answer means you are just raising your parapet to hide behind rather than expanding the size of your roof.

Now, I do agree that there ARE high percentage solutions to problems, which, if you choose to train only one thing, are your best bet. There are also really stupid things that are foolish to pin your hopes on, or at worse get you into even more trouble that you are already dealing with, BUT ... if you have the time and the interest to investigate further, you come to realize that you can in fact connect to the real time dynamics of an interaction and solve issues on the fly. One potential solution can turn into the next and perhaps even one more, with no effort. Your roof, your context, expands and the parapets recede. You are able to adapt on the fly as the context changes and do what you need to do. No boxes. No edges. No parapets.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Violence Dynamics West

The week after next will be The Violence Dynamics West series of workshops here in lovely Oakland California (Home of the Hell's Angels and The Black Panthers .. and Bruce Lee for a while too :-) )

I'm a huge believer in the value of physical, hands on practice, especially under the close supervision of skilled teachers - and there will be plenty of that, from empty hand all the way through to firearms with a day at the range scheduled for mid week. Additionally, I personally gain a great deal watching these skilled teachers work, and being able to ask questions about why they do what they do.

I like to watch how they move, what their body language conveys, and how they manage people. But possibly my most favorite thing of all is learning what they see out of their eyes when they encounter new situations, walk through spaces, and notice the people that inhabit them.

This last thing - being given the opportunity to see through another person's eyes - is possibly the most valuable. It will give you perspectives you may have never even imagined before and enhance your appreciation of your environment, whether it be for threat assessment purposes, urban survival skills, or just making everything in your proximity a bit brighter and deeper.

The line up is ridiculously good and encompasses a full spectrum of characters from 'both sides of the tracks'. We even have a couple special guest coming ...

I can't wait.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Grey Man in the Mirror

If you have not heard the term 'Grey Man' before, here is an article explaining what it means, how to become one, and how to notice one.

This is a useful skill set to have if you even find yourself in dangerous times and places, but does it have anything to do with training for sword play?


Grey Man is all about blending in, and observing one's situation. Grey Man understands what people see, and how to avoid triggering their RAS to stay safe and survive. Grey man is all about gaining intel without being noticed.

Know what people see and what they don't, and now you have both options to play with when you play. 

Here are a few quotes from the article that I think are particularly useful:

"The RAS will send data related to fast movement, threatening movement, movement on vectors that will intercept your own ..... The RAS ignores areas of continuous color, shadow, dull, natural colors, slow movement and off vector movement."

"The speed at which people move, the way they gesture, the volume and speed with which they speak. All these elements and many more make up the baseline."

"The element of matching the baseline is probably the single most important element of personal camouflage. Learning to walk like the natives walk will hide you better than just about anything else."

Just substitute "opponent" for 'natives' and now you have the concept of 'Mirroring' so key to our system.

Mirroring your opponent's movement is not only the best way to disappear, but also one of the quickest ways to understand their character.

Thing is, you have to dispense with your own personality and ego to be successful at this. To lose your identity and become others, is perhaps one of the harder things for most people to accomplish.

And to know whether you are doing it involves feedback from them. You cannot know it yourself until you have NOT been seen.

Monday, March 14, 2016

For Your Consideration

In progress:

Move. Always.
Relative movement is more important than movement alone.
Know and use still points - What moves, what does not?
Every thing has space around it.
The halfway point between things is important.
2 angles are better than 1.
Arcs are better than straight lines.
The center line is dangerous.
When you attack you are open.
Constant range is dangerous.
All tempo has gaps.
A constant tempo is easy to read.
Disconnect intent from tempo.
People tend to notice the upper body more than the lower body.
People tend to defend their eyes.
Commit last.
Have an exit.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Keep Out/Come In

 Questions about 'opening the door' came up recently, so here it is in a nutshell:

One of the counter intuitive things you have to learn in sword play is letting your guard down. I mean literally, taking your sword off the defensive line, removing the cover that it gives you, in fact removing it completely from the space between your opponent and yourself.

This is hard to do because we like to protect ourselves from things that are scary/dangerous by building a barrier, a fence (as in de-fence) no less, with our arms or weapon(s) to keep the threat at bay. It's very natural and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it .... unless ... it's the more dangerous option ...

Here's the logic

If we accept that change creates opportunity, and that a holding pattern only gets more and more dangerous as the moments tick by, you can't stay there.

The reason it gets more dangerous is that when you do nothing, you are in fact waiting and you have no idea what is going to happen next, or when. So the temptation to take a risk grows, possibly because we have an innate understanding that waiting is bad, tactics go out of the window, and the fastest person tends to get the first hit .. though often eats one in return due to the risk they too are taking.

Neither party is controlling the space, the time, or the action, so bad things happen.

This is when you have 2 options - You use your opponent's fence as your bridge to close the distance and bring the live hand into play, or, if this does not work, drop your guard and invite the opponent to come to you (resulting in the same change in range).

And the range needs to change. Standing at static range on the center line is the most dangerous place to be.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Window of Opportunity is Closing ..

This is a clip from 12 Monkeys. Brad Pitt's character Jeffrey has stolen a key so that Bruce Willis a.k.a Jim can escape from the mental asylum. Problem is that Jim has been drugged up to the eyeballs. It's a great scene.. but what does it have to do with swordplay?

Swordplay can be thought of as a series of windows and doors of opportunity opening and closing. Different openings give you different options, and if you are smart and adaptable, one opening will lead straight to the next, or perhaps even directly to the exit.

Sadly these openings are not always meant solely for you, and often by walking through one door, you may create a window for you opponent that you must bar if you are to continue on.

The other difficulty is that these windows are tiny, sometimes in space, but for sure in time. They are fleeting at best, and in the same way that a baseball hitter needs to align to the pitch before the ball is thrown, you too have to see it coming before it arrives to take advantage of it.

One option is to make your own door, but like in the clip, you'll need a distraction to cover your true motives (though sometimes you are truly lucky and you can do it in plain sight and still not be 'seen').

It takes practice to get your nervous system on line to notice the action, and training to do this can feel a little like being Jimbo (which I guess would make me Jeffrey?).

It takes time. Really. Time spent watching, participating, and experimenting. However, once you can understand what is going on, a whole new world will open up. Not only will you be a drug free Jim, you will be Jeffrey too.

Monday, February 15, 2016

News but No Politics

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia just died. He was an incredibly opinionated and polarizing figure, highly conservative in the old sense of the word, and both loved and hated equally (depending on your political persuasion) for his views.

This is not what this post is about.

It's about his lifelong, close friendship with another member of the court, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, pretty much his polar opposite in political terms.

Here is a link to an article about this relationship:

Why is this important and what does it have to do with dueling?

Well, in essence, the better your adversaries are, the better your game will get. 

The sharper witted their critique or dissent, the more you'll have to up your game to stay in contention. They will show you your errors, point out the holes and gaps in your argument, and will not tolerate a lack of precision in your aim.

In this era when so many wish to be surrounded only by those that agree with them, who keep all 'enemies' or dissenters at arms length, and who refuse to consider the opinions of 'the other side' as worthy of anything more than some yelling and pointing from a distance. It might pay to consider the repercussions of never letting the opposition come close enough for a nice friendly chat.

The old adage is "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer" comes to mind, but I prefer Sonny's - 'Don't keep them out. Let them come. They are coming anyway."

What he meant was: Keep control of the relationship, the time and the space. Make things happen on your terms.

But in training, what he also meant was that you should always be trying to learn your adversary's game, and learn what they see as the holes in yours. You can't see what they see, and you can't be who they are. And the only way is to let them do their thing. Listen to them. Watch them. Learn.

Obviously the classier and skilled your opponent, the more there will be to consider ....


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.