Martial Arts

Thoughts on martial arts as well as videos, with an emphasis on Systema.

Here is an excellent self-defense weapon, the Cossack whip, or nagaika. I received mine directly from Siberia (thank you Andrei!). It is a short braided leather whip with a hard handle and a tip which sometimes contains metal (mine doesn’t) like a small lead bullet. Overall length is thirty seven inches.

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It feel very good in the hand. I can’t imagine a better weapon against an armed attacker. I don’t mean someone with a gun twenty feet away.. However, I would rather have a nagaika against a knife, than holding a knife myself. Unlike a bull-whip (the Indiana Jones kind), which is much longer, the Cossack whip is used for horseback riding. It is ideal to strike targets from a foot to about six or seven feet away, if you have long arms. Otherwise, it can be wrapped around arms, neck, or any part of the body for a take-down or choke. The handle can be used to strike. You can aim for an attacker’s ankle and send him flying.. Combined with Systema, which is a Cossack style of fighting, it becomes a redoubtable tool. Sure, it isn’t as easy to carry as a folding knife, though I have found a pretty good way (see photo below).

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The handle sticks out a bit much. I could have one made with a handle a couple of inches shorter, but I don’t think I will be packing a whip that often! Which makes me wonder about the legalities of doing so. Maybe a LEO reading this could post a comment.. The tip is secured through the lanyard with a hair-tie. Another way is to stick it down my pants with the handle coming up on the side, which makes it practically invisible under a shirt. Though I did not buy it for carry, I would not hesitate to go investigate suspicious noises outside with it, even having a large selection of other items at hand for that purpose 😉

When I have time, I will make a video showing Systema principles applied to the whip. I need practice though, so you will have to wait a bit, so that I can make a decent one and post it right here.

Except for the diameter of the braid near the tip, which could be slightly thicker, I have put praise for the design, which I am sure evolved through centuries of practical use. They certainly know how to make them in Siberia! If any of my readers want one, you have two options: Order one there for $220 if you can’t wait, or let me know, and when I have five or ten buyers, we can place a group order, $180 a piece, shipping included. I am just doing this as a courtesy to my readers, it could take a LONG time.. A cheaper alternative would be the Cold Steel Sjambok at $15, made of polypropylene. Of course, you could also cut a piece of garden hose.. What would you rather say to someone asking you what is budging under you shirt though, “a garden hose,” or “a Cossack whip?” Well, either way, they will deem you crazy, but the Cossack whip sounds way cooler!

Having a good opinion of yourself is great. An inflated ego in martial arts however will hamper your training. Sport-based martial arts (I just called them sports), do use ego as a driving force, pushing competitors to train harder and perform better. In that sense, it works, as long as nobody’s life is in the balance. I am not an instructor, but I have taught a few Systema classes while my instructor was away, and of course, we get the occasional new student. I can classify students in two groups: Those who want to learn and are willing to let you show them, and those who, although they also want to learn, are very reticent to let you take them down or strike them, even just as a drill or to show them a move. They usually are very tense, which in itself slows their progress. It is the job of the instructor to make them realize that it isn’t about who can kick who’s ass.

Let’s look at this latest statement. We are dealing here with survival, not a competition or simple bar-fight where one opponent has to achieve control of the other, thus increasing his social position, to the detriment of the other. A simple premise like “I can beat that guy” makes no sense. You can beat him when? When you had a good night of sleep and he didn’t? When he had a nice breakfast and your stomach is bothering you? Or simply when it’s your lucky day and not his? There is no point in wondering about anything like that, because you can’t know the answer all the time, and really, it doesn’t matter. When a beginner slugs me in the face nicely because I failed to move, I laugh and congratulate him/her. I can hit my instructor too, he finds it funny as well. We do have a lot of fun in class, because we don’t care. We have no belts or ranks, and that makes training much more relaxed. Being worried about your group social standing puts too much pressure on you. In many martial arts, high-ranking students do not even practice with beginners. Would a white-belt take-down a black belt, oh my God, how could he dare do such a thing! Ranks give a false sense of superiority and breed contempt for lower-ranking students. It is often all about testing fees, selling ego-boosts for money. That’s how you get ten-year-old black belts anyone can beat-up.

What matters most is increasing your odds of survival.

Ego or should I say insecurities, can get you in trouble faster than a chameleon gobbles a fly, and you can end-up just as dead. You must recognize what’s important to you, physical integrity or perceived social standing. You can insult me as much as you want, I don’t care. As long as you are not threatening me physically, there is no need for me to “teach you a lesson.” My social standing might go down in the minds of whomever witnesses the incident, but the victory is mine, having shown self-control and avoiding possible injury, or worse. It might be more difficult when someone insults your wife, girlfriend or other family members, but the problem is the same. You need to be ready to defend their lives, not their ego or yours. I am not talking about a simple argument here, but an escalating situation when violence becomes likely. After all, that is why we train, so that we can go back home with our families after a violent encounter. Get used to defend your ego in training, and you might be inclined to do as well in real life, at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons!

Insecure, competitive, or ego-centered students usually realize early that their weaknesses will be exposed in training (nothing wrong with that, that’s the goal of training), and will soon leave. I can spot them immediately. I had new students try to teach me on their first class, when I have been training for years. I always welcome feedback and suggestions, but the intention here is misplaced. Those who stay will be a challenge for the instructor. They will try to teach other students their “own things,” or simply do what they want and miss the fine points of learning that the instructor might pass down to them. They’ll say things like “Yeah, yeah, I know,” or always try to have the last word. They’ll try to fight you when you show them something, resist take-downs, put a lot of tension in their work. I am not saying that they are bad people. I have seem very motivated students, great individuals, missing the point, so to speak. It is often the result of many years of competitive mindset beset upon them, or insecurities that have not been dealt with. A good martial arts training is probably the best thing for them, but they will have to check and change their premises to get the most out of training.

UPS finally dropped my much anticipated Kaze Ko-Katana outside of my house last night (they didn’t bother to knock on the door, as usual). You might want to read the introduction to this full review here.. I am not a sword afficcionado, but I do know quite a bit about knives. This is my first katana, and I will try to provide an objective and complete review, though I have no other sword to compare it to. The closest would be my Cold Steel Master Tanto; apples and oranges..

Initial Impressions:

The sword came in a nice wooden box, cheaply made, but nevertheless attractive and practical. A lined sword bag is included, also much appreciated for the price.

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My first impression upon picking up the Kaze was that of a solid chunk of steel, well built and fitted. There is no “rattling” of any kind, nothing moves. The blade feels heavy, though I am sure not as much as a full size katana, which I have never handled. The short blade makes it comfortable to hold. For a beginner like me, it is important to track your blade in space as you move it around. Friends, pets and significant others will appreciate that.. Better have nobody around actually, that is much safer. Two things jump at you while looking at the blade: The natural hamon looks great. It is subtle, but obviously authentic in it’s beauty. The kissaki (tip) however is awful. More on that later. The sword feels very agile.

Specifications:

The blade is short, 20.5 inches. Mine has a brown cotton ito wrap, which is very tight. As I understand, it is also available in black. One menuki (handle ornament) is located on the left near the tsuba (guard), the other one on the right near the kashira (pommel). They feel good under your fingertips and improve your grip. The mekugi (pins) are set at an angle, which I guess is to clear the ito wrap so that the tsuka can be removed without unwrapping the handle. One is bamboo, the other one appears to be brass. I don’t see how the blade could possibly come loose with this setup. The saya (scabbard) is lacquered glossy black, and attractive from the outside. There is no reinforcement at the mouth, so I expect it to crack soon or later. Except for a slight difference in blade length, the specifications are pretty much what Mark Mowrey has in his excellent review.

The Blade:

The blade is made of 9260 spring steel with a differentially hardened edge by the traditional clay method. As mentioned before, the hamon looks great. I would not want a fake hamon except for a back-yard beater, and even then.. Fake is just that, fake. One might argue that a blade forged in China is fake, but I disagree. Chop your finger off, and see if fake blood comes out.. The polish is decent, certainly sufficient for a $200 sword. The kissaki however is the hair in an otherwise delicious soup.. I can see file scratches on the tip, as clear as day. It looks like someone was doing a great job on the blade, then ran out of time and thought “the hell with it, it’s done.” I would have been glad to pay $40 more for a decent job. Lucky me, I own a Dremel! I can imagine people raising their eyebrows there, but remember, this is a cheap sword. I couldn’t get it any worst than it already was anyway. I went to work with a buffing wheel and polishing paste. The look improved slightly, but not as much as I hoped. I just didn’t want to waste any time on it, as I was eager to fill some plastic bottles.. Sharpness at first was disappointing. The edge was sharp mind you, but did not shave hair like my Master Tanto. It did cut paper well, but not every time. I worked on it for a few minutes with a fine stone, then took it to my leather belt. Finally, I managed to clear-up a bold patch on my arm. With the proper tools and a little time, this blade could be frighteningly sharp. Time to head for the backyard!

Though I tagged the following video as a “cutting test,” it was my first ever cutting session. My lack of technique is obvious, but I managed a couple decent cuts. 2” palm frowns offered no resistance at all. My friend Erin brought his stainless steel wall-hanger fantasy sword for a try. We made sure the area was clear in case it came apart. No such concern with the Kaze.

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Oh, and by the way, the dog is fine!
[warning]This 15 minutes impromptu cutting session was long enough to allow tiny rust spots to appear. Wipe your blade regularly while practicing, and oil it when you are finished.[/warning]
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My second cutting session was very educational. I went to cut palm frowns in the backyard. Sometimes the blade would go right through with no resistance at all, and sometimes I would feel a vibration through the tsuka. Re-enacting my movements slowly showed me that I was rotating my wrist, getting the wrong angle at the time of contact. As much as 15 to 20 degrees off! No wonder the frowns would just break sometimes. After correcting my grip, I could barely feel the cuts. This tameshigiri business isn’t easy. With my new confidence, I moved the the bamboo we have in the back.. It proved harder to cut, but with the right angle and swing, chop! 3/4” (nothing thicker in the yard), that’s enough for me, I’ll need much more practice before trying anything harder.

Verdict:

Historical accuracy: 3/5 – I don’t know! I am sure it detracts quite a bit from an original though.
Fit and Finish: 3/5 – If it wasn’t for the kissaki, I would have given it a 4.
Handling: 4/5 – It feels great in my hands. The short blade is quite fast.
Structural Integrity: 5/5 – I don’t see how I could possibly break it in normal use.
Value: 5/5 – Unbeatable price for a hand-forged sword with a real hamon.
Overall: 4/5

Pros: Cheap. Very strong. Beautiful hamon. Tight fittings.
Cons: Rough kissaki. Not as sharp as I thought (easy to fix).

Conclusion: A very good sword for the price. I tend to look at safety first when buying a practical weapon. The Kaze Ko-Katana does not worry me a tiny bit in that department. I do not think you can find a better deal for a hand-forged, differentially hardened blade. If Cheness spent a little bit more time on the tip, they could sell this sword for at least $50 more, if not $100. I am not worried about bending it on a bad cut either. It would take quite a mistake to bend it permanently. If the kissaki had been as well polished as the blade, I would have bought a Tenchi for cutting. As it is, the Kaze will be my backyard cutter. If I damage it, I can always buy another! I would recommend it to anyone, especially as a first time sword purchase. Even if you are not into cutting, it can make a nice display piece (polish the tip!) or an excellent home self-defense weapon.

Not only applicable to martial arts, visualization can help your training and improve your skills, as long as you avoid some pitfalls. By visualization, I mean creating a mental image of a particular situation to which you have to react. You imagine an attacker lunging at you, then imagine yourself changing the situation to your advantage. It might sound a bit silly, and though I am no expert, I have come to believe from experience, and talking to my Systema training partners, that it can be beneficial. The same thing can be said of training videos. Watching a DVD is a type of visualization. You can imagine yourself doing the same moves as the instructor. Your brain doesn’t quite differentiate between reality and an imaginary situation, thus it can learn from both, albeit much better from reality, which provides feedback.

The danger lies in the fact that without real training experience, you may visualize an action which violates the laws of physics, body mechanics, or exceeds your physical capabilities as well as pain tolerance. Even so slightly maybe, but that would be counter-productive to your training. One must ensure that the movements and timing involved are realistic. Someone else, preferably more experience, should keep you in check. That means regular “real” training sessions. You wouldn’t imagine yourself learning how to swim, then dive in the deep section of the pool… Again, the same applies to watching training videos. Soon or later, you need to apply what you saw. Otherwise, you are just deceiving yourself.

A good time to visualize, I found, is in bed, before sleep comes. Everything is quiet. In ten or fifteen minutes, you can explore hundreds of variations of a theme. Don’t do that then however if you are prone to waking up in the middle of the night fighting your significant-other sleeping next to you! You can also review a class in your mind from that evening to pinpoint your errors and successes before what you learned gets committed to long-term memory while you sleep. It is sort of a reinforcement of what needs to stay with you beyond that day.

I am curious to hear from instructors if they have ever suggested visualization to students, or practice it themselves? We probably all do it to some extent. Whether making it an integral part of training is worth it remains to be evaluated. Any information on the subject would be welcome. Feel free to post your comments below. Have fun training!

After weeks of consideration and research on the web, I finally decided to buy a katana. Not a cheap wall-hanger, but a practical sword, forged by hand and differentially hardened. I am very familiar with knives, even started to forge my own. Swords however are mostly unknown to me. Why would a grown man buy a sword you may ask, well, I have a few reasons, and they have nothing to do with the “cool” factor. Swords are not toys, but deadly weapons. I place them in the same category as handguns and rifles. I came to believe that they are one of the best home defense weapons available. My interest in knives came from the staggering number of designs found for such a simple, primary tool. Metallurgy, the forging and hardening processes have always fascinated me. I have barely scratched the surface of that art, but I can certainly appreciate the skills it takes to forge a blade longer than a few inches, then harden and temper it properly. My life-long interest and practice of the martial arts also influenced my decision. I have long ago found out that most Asian disciplines only work in their context. Russian Systema however works in any circumstances and can make use of any weapon. Give me a frying pan and I’ll be immediately efficient with it using Systema principles. A sword, though presenting some challenges, shouldn’t be too much trouble. Of course, I will use a dull one or bokken for practice. Other sword designs were interesting, but the Japanese katana in my opinion is the best sword. It is light, razor sharp, and simple in design. Nobody wears armor these days, so a heavier sword would make little sense. The way these swords are made is also fascinating. Even if you have no interest in swords, you can’t but admire the dedication and skills of Japanese sword-smiths in their pursuit of perfection. I never get tired of watching the following documentary from National Geographic:

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I can’t pay three highly skilled artisans for three months to forge me a blade, so I have to accept some technological shortcuts. Modern steels like 9260 Silicon Alloy Carbon Spring Steel are even better than traditional tamahagane. It’s not traditional of course, but much cheaper. The folding process becomes superfluous, since the carbon content of modern steel is constant throughout the material. I would love a folded blade, but the cheapest ones, forged in China, start at around $1000. More than I am willing to spend for a first purchase. A San-Mai construction like my Cold Steel Master Tanto would be desirable too, but simply too expensive. There is one feature I really want however, and that is a differentially, clay-hardened blade. This process of covering the back of the blade with thick clay before quenching in water produces a very hard edge and a soft back (watch video above). This way, a sword will bend but not break, while still holding a razor-sharp edge. It also produces a visible line of hardness called the hamon. Most replicas have a fake one, acid-etched on the blade. I can’t accept “fake” anything, so my choice becomes fairly limited for an affordable real sword. Thanks to companies like CAS Hanwei and Cheness Inc., real forged blades from China are available, starting at around $160 for something that won’t come apart in your hands and take a lot of abuse before breaking. Shell-out $200 to $300 and you get a serious tool. My choice is the Kaze Ko-Katana. With a 21-inch blade, this katana is about seven inches shorter than a regular sword. These swords are also called chisa katanas, and are easier to use in tight places. Here is another review of the Kaze (watch the cutting test video). I got a 10% discount and ordered mine for less than $200, with free shipping.

Proceed to the full review