Weapons and Empty Hand Combat – Does One Size Really Fit All?

26 Jan

      In my book The Principles of Unarmed Combat (which I know you must have purchased by now) I address the question of whether, when you are the victim of a surprise attack, it’s better to adjust your technique to what your opponent is doing in order to use the best possible defense against him, or whether you should have one default technique that you always rely on. The theory behind having just one default technique that you always go to in a sudden, pressure-filled situation is that you will react more quickly and instinctively if you only have one option (which, presumably, you have practiced over and over again).
      Without rehashing what I’ve previously written, I’ll merely state that both theories have some validity. Highly expert martial artists, who are used to fighting in pressure-filled circumstances, can often effectively choose the best possible defense in a given situation. But less expert martial artists may, indeed, be better off simply having one general response that they can use in a wide variety of situations and then practicing just this response, i.e. when looking to defend against a sudden, unexpected punch to the head, rather than practicing blocking, ducking and various other defensive techniques that might depend on the specific type of punch being thrown at you, you may want to practice just one basic defense like covering up your head with both arms.
      But this question of whether to have multiple options or to rely on just one technique in a given situation becomes even trickier when considering weapons styles. On a number of occasions, I’ve heard respected experts in weapon-based styles of martial arts express the opinion that a person who trains with weapons should use the same techniques empty-handed as they do with their weapon. In other words, the way you might swing a sword or stick would be the same way you would swing your fist at an opponent. The way you’d avoid a knife thrust is, essentially, the same way you should avoid a punch.
      While this strategy might sound ludicrous to people who specialize in empty handed martial arts – the idea of throwing a punch in the same manner you swing a sword clearly seems less effective than punching the way a boxer, or even a karateka, might – the reasoning behind this strategy is similar to the theory of why you should have a single default technique you rely on in a surprise attack. The idea is that if you train regularly with a weapon, just as with any martial art, you are attempting to ingrain the techniques you learn with said weapon, to make them instinctual so that if you have to use them (or defend yourself against such a weapon) you will be able to react automatically. According to this belief, if you were to then learn a completely different way of moving, filled with (empty hand) techniques which may be in complete conflict with the techniques you learned as part of your weapons system, this would become a hindrance to you. Not only would you perform less effectively with your weapon but you would be hampered in empty hand fighting by trying to pick between two very different alternatives when attempting to come up with a defense on the spur of the moment. Thus, if you are someone who is learning a weapon-based martial art, you would be better off in employing the techniques of this art, even in empty-hand combat, since they are what you are most familiar with and you may be able to employ them more instinctively. While most weapons experts do not assert that using your empty hands as if you had a weapon in them is the optimum response in an empty handed fight, the belief is that this strategy gives you the best chance to execute the instinctive response you are most expert at, even if it is not the ideal choice of techniques for an empty handed self-defense situation.
      I cannot fully argue against this approach and I have even seen a handful of people who fight effectively by mimicking the motions of their weapon system in empty-handed combat (though these were typically quite large or powerful people). However, I am not fully convinced by the argument, either. The key point that leaves me skeptical of this approach, at least when it comes to basing your empty-handed combat on weapons techniques out of a desire to maintain technical consistency, is the fact many – if not most – people who practice a weapon style use more than one type of weapon. Western sport fencers often learn foil, epee and saber, three different types of swords which make use of different targets and striking patterns. Those who practice classical western swordsmanship often employ an even wider range of weapons and styles for using these weapons. Filipino martial arts practitioners frequently practice with sticks, knives and sometimes swords, all of which are quite different from each other. And while some insist that these are all used the same way, in reality almost everyone varies their techniques somewhat depending on the type of weapon they are using (not to mention the type of weapon they are facing). Thus, it seems the argument in favor of employing empty-hand techniques in the same manner you would employ a weapon loses some validity if the reason is to always keep things simple and consistent for the sake of reacting instinctively. Surely, if one can learn to use different weapons in different ways, one can learn to also use empty hands in a different manner as well?
      However, the one thing that you can, and should, carry over from weapons combat to empty hand combat (or from empty hand combat to weapons combat) is the most vital quality you can have in any combative situation: the psychological/emotional strength that is necessary to win a fight. The legendary Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, wrote that “when you freely beat one man you beat any man in the world. The spirit of defeating a man is the same for ten million men.”
      One might also say that, although the technique may change from weapon to empty hand fighting, the spirit of defeating a man is the same for weapons or the empty hand.


One Response to “Weapons and Empty Hand Combat – Does One Size Really Fit All?”

  1. Roger January 26, 2013 at 10:46 pm #

    In my early years of martial arts my instructor told us that in order to become fluent, each technique had to be practised fifty thousand times. Many years later, when I became a pro body guard, i understood what he meant. Hoodlums on the street don’t wait then bow politely before trying to insert something sharp and painful into you.

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