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I had planned on getting something “better” than the iconic GP-5 Russian gas mask, until I started thinking a bit… What is a gas mask and what is it supposed to do?

GP-5 Russian Gas Mask

GP-5 Russian Gas Mask

The key element of a gas mask is the filter. It traps aerosols and gasses to make the air you breathe safe. You could put the filter in your mouth, pinch your nose and breathe in clean air without a mask. The mask protects your eyes, nose, mouth, and holds the filter. It needs to make a good seal with your face. A good $20 mask will do this as well as a $200 mask. It’s the fit that matters; get the wrong size and you might as well not wear one. I did pay $20 for my GP-5, shipping included, with a carry bag and a filter.

What a more expensive mask will get you is maybe a drinking tube, better field of view and a voice box. A $100 British S10 might be more modern than the GP-5 and offer more features, but it won’t be any safer. I get a very good seal with my GP-5 even with my short beard. I will just include a safety razor in the bag in case I have time to shave…

The GP-5 might not be the easiest mask to put on, especially if you have long hair, but once fitted properly it is very comfortable. The lenses do not fog up easily. The field of view isn’t great but if you need the mask on, you have other things to worry about right then… There is no drinking tube or voice box. You would have a hard time to be heard talking at a distance. The mask with a good filter will keep you alive. What other $20 item can make such a claim? Keep in mind that with modern nerve gasses you will need a full suit to be protected. I plan on getting a British CBRN suit in case the “S” really “HTF.” They sell for about $30 on Ebay plus shipping.

You may have heard about the asbestos issue with the GP-5K Russian filters… They ALL contain asbestos, especially those made in 1972 and earlier. If you get a filter dated prior to 1973, dispose of it safely and buy a modern NATO 40mm NBC filter. My filter was made in 1974 and supposedly contains a very small amount of asbestos. Still, any amount of that substance is too much. The post-72 filters should be somewhat safe if the asbestos doesn’t get dislodged, but are you willing to risk it? I decided to keep mine but only to be used in a life-or-death emergency, after running out of modern safe filters. The jury is still out on the GP-7K filters…

GP-5K Filter

GP-5K Filter

So instead of spending $100 on a more modern mask, I decided to get two or three GP-5 masks. This way I can stash them where I might need them and not worry about carrying one with me, though I think there is enough room in my get-home-bag for one, given its small size folded.

GP-5 Folded

GP-5 Folded

In this day and age, I don’t have to tell you how a gas mask could save your life… Get a couple, along with a few new filters and keep them in good shape. That means having at least one stored full of talcum powder for long term storage. Practice putting it on. Have one in your car and your home, in your luggage when you travel. Remember, we can go a month without food, three days without water, but only three minutes without air, probably less before passing out! Best thing about the GP-5, you can also use it on Halloween!

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.

Click on the image to enlarge..

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).

Click on the image to enlarge..

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!

I have been interested in martial arts since probably around age twelve. There wasn’t many classes available in my home town of Comines (France), only traditional Judo and Karate. I tried a few Judo classes, but it wasn’t what I had in mind when thinking about martial arts. Judo would actually have given me a good base, but I chose karate, because let’s face it, it was flashier, more like what I saw on television! Progress however was slow. Not only did we have to repeat precise movements over and over, but we also had to remember their names, in Japanese. I didn’t question their methods. There was an older (I just say that to make myself feel better) girl in class who had a brown belt and could kick my ass. I thought that eventually, I would get there.. Four years later, I wasn’t much better, but I didn’t know it. My training, or so I thought, would have been sufficient to prevail in most violent encounters. I am rolling my eyes here thinking about how naive I was and how little I knew. Fortunately, I didn’t find out after waking up on a hospital bed, like so many “martial artists” who encounter real violence. No, I got punched by my little brother! The worst part is, I told him to do it. But I told him to hit me with a right to show him a cool move. He used the left… Wham! I said “no, you can’t hit me like that.” That’s when reality set in.. What I learned worked, only in the dojo…

I wasn’t about to give up. I later found a Kung-Fu class in Villeneuve d’Ascq, 45 minutes away on my 50cc motorcycle (a glorified moped actually). Most of the time, that meant 45 minutes in the cold, or rain, or both. What we trained in was a sort of stylish Karate. The teaching methods were about the same. I did last six months in that class, just because the techniques were more refined, more clever. In the end, it wasn’t any more effective. Unfortunately, I regained that false confidence that comes so easily when among peers, unchallenged. When a Tae-Kwon-Do class opened right across the border, on the Belgian side of the town, I gave it a try. This time, it was sort of an aerobatic karate. Fortunately we also did full contact, and that was somewhat better. Ground fighting back then was not popular like it is now. That experience didn’t last long. One of the students ended-up sleeping with the teacher’s wife (now, that’s what I call having some balls). The class closed shortly after that. So, I had trained for years in different styles and was pretty confident of my abilities. But confidence isn’t a bad thing, right? Well, only if it isn’t misplaced…

Not far from my house was a “maison de la jeuness” of sort, a youth house, with a bar, ping-pong tables and whatnot. I don’t think the bar was supposed to serve alcohol, but it wasn’t like anyone would card you in France if you looked old enough to ride a bicycle. I was wearing a black leather jacket, which I set on the back of a chair to play ping-pong. After a while I heard a ruckus behind me, some drunk guy jumping on tables, wearing a jacket too big for him… Mine! I decided to finish the game before leaving. He would get tired of it and leave it somewhere around, I figured. I just kept a eye on him to make sure he didn’t leave. Ten minutes later, it was time for me to go home, and I asked him to give me my jacket back. “Come a get it!” he screamed.. That moron was going to waste my time. I ran after him. He couldn’t run straight, so it wasn’t long before I caught him. He tried to swing at me, but I was holding him by his collar, actually, my collar. Now, I have long arms, and he was smaller than me. He tried to swing at my face repeatedly, but wasn’t making contact. I thought that was pretty funny and laughed. His face turned red, he violently shook himself free and pulled a knife out of his pocket. By that time, we were outside, with about two dozen witnesses around. I heard someone yell “cut him!” (went to see the guy afterwards. He apologized profusely). This is when false confidence can get you killed. I stood my ground, in a classic karate stance. Today, I would simply leave, I don’t care. At eighteen years old, you don’t think conservatively. In a way I am glad I didn’t turn around. I don’t know if that would have been better or not. He may have decided to attack if I hesitated. I made one step forward. He hesitated for a couple seconds, then suddenly put the knife back in his pocket, and threw my jacket on the ground. The incident was over. Lucky or not, I can’t help but think about the consequences, had he attacked. We had a photo in our Systema class of someone’s back after been sliced. You can see it here, with other gruesome photos (NOT FOR KIDS!) That always turned “knife fighting” from “cool” to “get me out of here” in two seconds flat, for most people, me included. The others never stayed more than for a few lessons.

I gave up martial arts as soon as I could buy a gun. I trained regularly for ten years. I would go to Arras, when the only IPSC (International Practical Shooting Confederation) club was. I became pretty proficient with pistols and sub-machine-gun (Owned a Mini-Uzi for three years). I kept on shooting until I moved to Florida in 1993. Five years ago, riding a Honda 600 on a dark rainy night in Sarasota, a driver cut me off in front of Marina Jack. I hit the car head-on at 40mph. I saw the car below me, then the sky, then the pavement, crashed on my face on the wet asphalt. I remained conscious the whole time, got a helicopter ride to Tampa where they put my shoulder back in it’s socket and inserted a titanium rod inside my broken femur. I had no insurance, so they let me out after only eight days, without reeducation or anything else for that matter. I can’t blame them, I didn’t have the money. I knew however that I needed to do my own reeducation if I wanted to walk properly again.

When I was well enough to run around with a cane, I started to go out again. One night I met my friend Milos at Jacks (now Esca). I knew he was into some Russian martial art, and started asking him a few questions. Was it some sort of Russian Judo? I had heard of Sambo before. He assured me it was quite different, and invited me to the class. I made my way to Orange Avenue on my new GSXR1100 (I know, I never say I was quite sane). I could barely climb the stairs to the class. They had a couch there. The room was small, without mats, just a thin office carpet over concrete. The students were wearing normal clothes, some camo pants, jeans, sweat pants, whatever. Some wore shoes, some didn’t. They had no rank belts.

The class started with warm-up exercises, hard ones. Then a ten-minute static push-up, which not everyone finished. The instructor, Sonny, ex Spetsnaz soldier, looked like a though guy who knew what he was doing. The real work started. That’s how we call it, “work.” I guess because Systema used to be only for “professionals.” Sonny had one of his best students Blake attack him any way he wanted. I have seen many martial arts demonstration when I was younger, and I always had the same reaction: “Waoh!” Not this time. This time, it was: “Oh shit…” I knew what I saw was real, and it was the first time I saw it.

Systema doesn’t teach much techniques, it teaches principles. You don’t have to remember any names of moves in Russian, any more than you have to remember the moves themselves. How is that possible you may ask? Without going into every principle, the four main ones being: Breathing, movement, form and relaxation, I will try to explain. There is an infinite number of ways an opponent can attack you, with or without weapons. Preparing to defend against every possible attack, even against every possible kind of attack is a fantasy.

One of the first thing you learn is to move aside. It sounds simple, but it isn’t so easy. Many arts teach blocking. That’s may be fine in some cases, but what if the blow this time comes from a baseball bat? Want to block it? I think not. However, if you have been practicing blocks for years, you may just do that. If you have never trained in martial arts, you probably will. Some people just freeze, an old evolutionary reflex, and get hit in the head without moving an inch. So, you learn to relax and step aside. Not too much, because you want to be close enough to inflict damage to your attacker. You move just enough to let the fist (or whatever else) graze you. That’s where we do our “work,” intimately close, where it will be most uncomfortable and devastating to your attacker. By stepping aside, you can exploit your opponent’s momentum. By not learning techniques, your mind is free to invent it’s next move on the fly, because your brain has learned body mechanics through training, not moves set in stone.

Learning was fast. After three months, I could ask any friend to attack me any way they wanted. Something would come out.. At least, I was avoiding the strikes or kicks, or anything weird my most creative friends would come up with. I learned something I now repeat often to new students: “Move your feet first.” It’s not quite as simple, but it helps them like it helped me.

Next comes the relaxation. Relax in a fight? You can take much harder blows without damage when you’re relaxed. Drunk drivers seldom get killed in the accidents they cause, because they are loose. I don’t even get that many bruises anymore, because I am pretty relaxed when sparring. I am still learning to relax, and more specifically, relax different parts of my body. Good Systema practitioners can use selective tension and relaxation to confuse or hurt an opponent. I am only beginning to explore that realm after more than four years of training.

Good movement is a prerequisite of survival. We learn to move constantly. Our strikes and movements are more circular than linear. This way, you don’t stop moving and become a sitting duck. With good movement, you need good form. Simply stated, keep your back straight. If you need to go down, bend your knees, not your back. Simple in theory, difficult in practice. When a fist flies at your face, your natural reflex is to bend backwards while raising your hands, leaving your feet right where they were. The problem is, you’re still in the line of attack, and now a slight push will make you topple over. Not to mention that you could trip on something behind you. Again, those are principles, not techniques. Once you can reasonably move in a relaxed manner, a flurry of opportunities “magically” appear for you to take advantage of. Actually, your brain, free of unreasonable fear, has learned to recognize those opportunities and make your body move as to steal your opponent’s movement and make it yours, to his demise.

Breathing might sound simple enough. Everyone breathes, we have been since we were born. I remember learning to play the guitar. I would be so tense and concentrated that I would forget to breathe! The same happens in a fight. I still forget sometimes, fighting on the ground. Our strength comes from both the food we ingest and oxygen. There isn’t any time to eat a power bar when someone puts a knife to your throat, so oxygen is your next best choice. Forget to breathe for a few seconds, and you will be in a world of trouble fifteen or twenty seconds later, even after resuming it. I used to find 2-minute full contact rounds exhausting. Now I can last easily ten minutes or more, just by breathing properly and relax. I was sixteen then, I am forty two now. Breathing is also essential to absorb blows, and avoid panic in some situations.

The teaching methods of Systema were developed for the Russian elite special forces. Training elite soldiers is expensive. The faster they learn the better. Systema is fast to learn, even though prospective students find the training awfully slow at first. The reason is that you can’t learn something well by starting to do it fast. No music teacher will try to tech you to play guitar by having you try to play like buckethead (Google him!). Your start slow, your brain learns. As time goes, you slowly learn to replace the flinch response by more appropriate movements.

Strikes are an art in itself within Systema. All parts of the body are used to strike. Blows are loose and heavy, like hitting with a sledge hammer on a string. I often strike with my shoulders, elbows, forearm.. unlike most martial arts, strike are multi-directional, and used to affect an opponent’s form and balance. We learn to take punches too, and getting hit in the body by an experienced instructor can be a sobering experience. A good instructor will find out what your comfort level is, and hit you slightly above it. After a few months, you really just don’t care much anymore.. There are not set techniques here either, and the same general principles apply. Emphasis is on avoiding injury. The only goal of Systema is survival.

Systema is not the only combat system teaching principles versus techniques. I mentioned it here because that’s what I know. Other such systems are mostly military in nature and reserved for special forces. Nobody else, aside from some law enforcement agencies need that level of efficiency in hand-to-hand combat. I say combat here, not fighting. Fighting is a sport, or an agreed upon duel. Combat is when someone tries to kill you, without warning. Most “general public” martial art practitioners fortunately will never have to use their skills. Those who will probably will face unexperienced attackers, and the techniques they know might be enough, with a bit of luck. Our instructor used to tell us about a fictitious character named Todd, or whatever his name was at the time:

Todd is an angry man. He just finished his second tour in Iraq and saw things that really desensitized him to violence and death. He himself killed a few people at close range. He started to go a little crazy, so the Army had to let him go. Back home, Todd didn’t fare too well, started using meth, couldn’t keep a job. He blamed it on everyone else but himself. Todd spent all his time at the gym, getting stronger. He is 6’2”, 250Lbs of muscles. Todd trains five times a week in various martial arts, practices knife fighting. On week-ends, he goes to the range and shoots a thousand rounds, pistol and assault rifle in realistic situations, moving targets while on the move. His wife has had enough of his physical and verbal abuse, and just left him. He is furious! He needs to take it on someone, and goes out, fuming, looking for a victim. That night, that someone turns out to be you…

That is when techniques won’t be enough to save you. Only a good physical condition, with good sound principles of combat will give you a chance. Whatever your art or discipline is, you can always incorporate those principle in your system. Free yourself of limitations imposed by tradition and dogma, and let your mind show you what it can do. If you never trained in martial arts or self defense, then make sure the style you get into isn’t too strict and limited in it’s teachings. Most styles labeled as “traditional” are outdated. You should probably visit quite a few schools before signing-up.. If there is a Systema group near you, give them a chance, go to a few sessions. Training should be fun. Keep an open mind, that is the best way to learn.

Here is an excellent introduction to Systema posted on my instructor Marc Bresee’s site systemasarasota.com, and reposted here with his permission. We have a great class here in Sarasota. In my opinion Systema is one of the very best self defense systems out there..

Systema is a Martial Art with roots in ancient Russia. It is in active use in top levels of modern Russian special operations groups. We teach Systema as taught by Vladimir Vasiliev and its founder, Mikhail Ryabko. This Style encompasses every aspect of conflict, from the psychological aspects of conversation and posturing, through all aspects of hand-to-hand fighting, grappling and groundwork and group attacks, and weaponry, including firearms. We also study these aspects of combat at different levels (lying, kneeling, standing) and environments (in the dark, against a wall, in a chair, car, stairway or in the water.) You name it, we work with it: It is a big world for self-discovery.

Our practice sessions are usually is a mixture of exercises, drills, and freestyle work. Most drills are done at a slow speed to create a fear-free environment so the body and mind can learn thoroughly. Speed becomes less relevant when the body understands the movement and can comfortably match the speed of an incoming event. Systema uses training in breath, movement and proper posture to achieve a relaxed state. Work can then be free flowing with no need to stop and try to apply a ” technique”. We train to move more from what we feel than what we see: this process is much more subconscious and doesn’t choke or waste time while the brain tries to figure out what to do. Analytical thought is usually too far behind the moment – especially if one is surprised. Systema methodology encourages instinctual work: the learning curve is shortened and a person can more easily maintain strength and manage fear. This provides an energized and creative state that allows free flowing and appropriate work. Unlike sport fighting, life is vastly more unpredictable and may demand effort for an extended period of time. Systema is designed to work when one is tired, injured or weak. This unfortunately leaves little excuse for those who think they need to get in shape before starting to train with us.

Almost anyone will benefit from regular Systema training. It is good for both men and women that want to learn to protect themselves and their families and gain better understanding and control of violence and fear. It is even good for older people that want to gain health and decrease injuries: Systema has students in their 70s. And it is appropriate for professionals because it can be applied judiciously according to the needs of a situation. It is in essence “professional work”. Training in Systema will give a professional more insight into controlling opponents while keeping ones on psyche calm. Really, it is for anyone who wants to strengthen his or her mind, body and spirit in an honest and real way.

It is really easy to fit in. Training is fun, good-spirited and cooperative. There are no belts or ranks. There are no traditions or cultural routines (well there is on: we meet in a circle at the end of training to share insights and then roll out backwards). Systema is universal: there aren’t even named techniques. And you don’t have to fight your way through a hierarchy of individuals who want to challenge you at the door. We are all adults and work with a fun but professional demeanor. It is physically reasonable to start learning. Extreme flexibility is not required: we all must come to the fight “as we are”. Whatever your condition or attributes, that is what you have to work with. Great strength is not required: We use manipulation of form rather than brute force. Systema promotes health: It strengthens and does not injure the body. You will learn proper breathing and relaxation and see a decrease in injuries and huge gains in stamina. Your posture will improve. You will learn to relax –even in a chaotic and dangerous environment. Systema is like a movement therapy that removes fear from the body. Fear is both our biggest ally but also one of our biggest enemies in life if not controlled. Fear management has very widespread daily benefits.

The best way to see what Systema is about is to train regularly for at least month. You can’t really get a good taste in a single session or even a week. If you come once it may be too brutal, or it may be too mundane. There are so many things to study and train that the content of training varies immensely. One time we work on sensitivity, another receiving strikes, then fighting in a crowd, or work against a knife, stick, or gun. It is always different so a commitment to a block of training and tasting will serve you better. I do promise you that it will be worth the experience whether or not you decide to continue training with us.

Read more at systemasarasota.com.

For more than three years now I have been training in the Russian martial art of Systema, and has affected my life in many unexpected, but beneficial ways. This art, or combat system originated in Russia about one thousand years ago to defend the country against many invaders. It was later adopted by Stalin’s bodyguards and the Russian military, but only for selected elite units of Spetsnaz, the Russian special forces. Systema is very efficient as a self-defense system. There are no rules, no ranks or belts, no uniform, no competitions, no nonsense. Movements are fluid and natural. Training is not based on techniques or form that keep you in a box, but intuitive, made-up on the fly to accomodate the situation. The only goal of Systema is survival.

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