Teaching Classic Weapons and the Art of Survival

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IF you've been in the martial arts community

for very long, chances are pretty good you have heard a line that goes something like: “I don’t train with classical weapons because I don’t plan on having a bo staff or a (fill in the blank) with me if I am attacked on the street. It’s a waste of time and/or it’s impractical.” Sound familiar? To some extent I have to agree. The lion’s share of old-school weapons are cool and fun to watch in the hands of a skilled practitioner, but are, in my opinion, relics being passed on for what I can only assume are historical purposes. I say this because (1) many classical weapons don’t have any particular "street" equivalent to them (speaking of a commonplace object that might be used in place of the actual weapon), and (2) carrying them with you is probably not legally advisable.

So what, then, is the point of studying classical weapons? Is it indeed pointless? Many would say, “Yes.” A lot of folks, on the other hand, will rebut with something like, “But weapons training can also teach a lot about footwork, distance, timing, etc.” I agree with that. American Ninjutsu schools regularly teach the use of a sword. It’s such an ingrained part of our Ninja culture and lineage that you almost can’t separate it from our image. But for all practical purposes, I cannot think of an object I would find on the street that would be easily applied to my sword training. I have, however, learned a lot of practical strategies that apply to other areas of combat by exploring its various uses. So don’t think I am writing this just to bash on those who teach historical weapons. Far from it. I think you should embrace it, have a blast doing it, and learn as much from it as you possibly can. But let’s call it what it is and not try to argue that with any probability you will use it someday to protect yourself from a would-be assailant (outside of somebody breaking into your house, which, if you are reading this, I assume is full of cool weapons). And if you are one of those people that would carry one with you “just in case,” I hope you have a good lawyer.

Am I - a Ninja—implying you should never carry weapons? Not necessarily. But that isn’t the issue I am trying to tackle here. I have not the legal background to advise you one way or another. Check out what’s legal in your state, and follow the law. If you don’t like the law, write to your Congressman.

So if the ability to legally carry weapons varies state-by-state, and training with most classical weapons as a means to defend oneself is questionable, what then do I advise on the topic? First, I advise non-violence. If somebody wants your wallet, give it to them! And by all means walk on down the road and live another day. In the mindset of the Ninja, survival, not winning, is the key to any confrontation. If the point is always to win, you will eventually lose. Put simply, “life” happens in a real fight. No amount of training or preparation guarantees a victory, so stay out of harm’s way every single time you have the chance. Anyone who disagrees with that has probably never experienced real violence or has a rather loose grip on reality.

Secondly, if a fight is inevitable, I advise being as prepared as possible. Non-violence sounds great, and it is! But the fact is nobody has the right to physically harm you or those you love. If there is no peaceable way out, we believe one must have at his/her disposal every means possible of surviving (notice I didn’t say winning) so as to never be caught outside our element. This is what we in American Ninjutsu refer to as being an “unlimited” warrior. We train with every manner of strikes, throws, takedowns, ground fighting, and many other practical methods of combat. This includes all those nasty little tricks that are banned in tournaments: eye gouging, head butting, groin shots, biting, pressure points and joint manipulation….if it works, we use it! And yes, we even train with classical weapons.

Now, before you cry “Hypocrite!!” let me explain something: we train with classical weapons, but we train only with those that we believe would have a street equivalent (aside from sword, obviously) or that can otherwise be legally carried. Some examples would be: using a shovel handle or mop handle in place of a bo staff, car keys/finger nails in place of hand claws, a small dinner plate or coaster in place of a shuriken, a neck tie or hand towel in place of a strap (unique weapon to American Ninjutsu and its affiliates), and the list goes on. Are any of these perfect substitutes? No. But in a potentially life-threatening situation we should use whatever legal means available to gain distance, gain time, escape, disarm, etc. Will it be pretty? If your adrenaline is pumping, I doubt it. But at the end of the day, if you can use something in your surroundings to gain the advantage and escape with your life, you have won. I don’t know about you, but I am not going to risk serious injury to myself or a loved one so I can claim it was a fair fight (whatever that means)— while keeping in mind, of course, the legal ramifications of taking an altercation further than it needs to go.

At this point, some would argue, “Yeah, but what are the chances of that happening in a real fight?” The realistic answer is, I don’t know….and neither does anyone else. The point is to be as well-rounded and well-prepared as possible so that no matter the situation, we have the maximum number of options available to answer the threat. And if, however statistically improbable, that happens to include using a mop handle to fend off someone wielding a knife, then I for one will be glad to have trained to a high level of proficiency with a bo staff.

As an example: a man is purchasing a beverage from a vending machine and is approached from behind by a mugger. The mugger is given a wallet, but will not simply take the wallet and leave. He becomes violent, pinning the defender against the machine by grabbing his shirt and shoving him.

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Picture #1: The defender purchases a soda from the machine.

Picture #2: The defender is shoved against the soda machine as the mugging becomes violent.

Picture #3: Reaching for his keys to make the attacker believe he has more to give, the defender obtains the lanyard from his rear pocket.

Picture #4: The defender loops the lanyard over the attacker’s head and pulls him close, limiting his range and ability to strike back.

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Picture #5: The lanyard is crossed in front of the throat to tighten it and prevent escape.

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Picture #6: The defender quickly maneuvers his body out and backward, using his heel to strike the attacker’s leg to off-balance him. Immediately, the attacker is thrown into the soda machine head first.

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Picture #7: Prior to escaping, the defender continues to focus on the attacker to insure the threat is neutralized.

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When it all comes down to it, the point of self-defense is to make it out alive. Why, then, be unnecessarily self-limiting in our approach? Should we eliminate weapons training altogether merely because we may never use it? In my opinion, absolutely not. Be a little more creative! Broaden your perspective! But at the same time, let’s be realistic in what our training will reasonably accomplish and try to differentiate between what is fun to train with and what is likely to save our lives—and then train with it!

Being prepared for whatever comes and never being caught out of your element— that is the art of survival.

Written by Aaron Awbrey, Instructor of American Ninjutsu in Edmond, Oklahoma. Aaron Awbrey is native to Edmond, Oklahoma and is the owner, Instructor at American Ninjutsu of Edmond. He holds a 2nd degree black belt in American Ninjutsu and has earned advanced level belts in multiple other art forms throughout his nearly 30 years in the martial arts.

For more information visit his Facebook page, American Ninjutsu of Edmond.


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