Diogenes the Cynic, meet Funakoshi’s Karate-Do

No Labour, according to Diogenes, is good but that which aims at producing courage and strength of soul rather than of body.

– Epictetus, Golden Sayings of Epictetus

The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of character of its participants.

– Gichin Funakoshi

You may train for a long time, but if you merely move your hands and feet and jump up and down like a puppet, learning Karate is not very different from learning a dance. You will never have reached the heart of the matter; you will have failed to grasp the quintessence of Karate.

– Gishin Funakoshi, Karate-Do, My Way of Life

Funakoshi and Diogenes would have had a lot in common. I say would have; they did. Both men were philosophers and educators, and both men were trained as warriors. Funakoshi in Karate, and Diogenes in the Greek discipline of Pankration. And I think both of them have touched on the thing that interests me most when it comes to martial arts.

I am going to get old. There, I said it. There’s only so long I can push my body to kick higher and move faster before I start slowing down, before the injuries picked up over the years take their toll, and before I am effectively past my best as a physical specimen. If I viewed martial arts as a route to physical perfection, I would be kidding myself about the nature of time and entropy.

Don’t get me wrong, this can’t become an excuse for lazy training; one day I absolutely will nail that flying tornado kick, and I take a huge pride in the physical accomplishments of my training partners too. But I am even more impressed by the confidence and discipline I see young people develop when they commit to their training.

This year we have had a new crop of students join our dojo. One by one I have seen them face and lose their fears, self-doubt, paranoia, indecisiveness, and laziness. Somewhere in a hail of kicks and punches these young people have learned to believe in themselves and begun the long and painful journey of mastering themselves. They have become more aware of their impact on others, a necessity to take care of training partners. They have become more focused, learning to set and achieve realistic goals. They have become more honest; developing the ability to provide constructive criticism to team-mates when a technique isn’t quite right.

These things carry over into one’s life off of the mat. I know in my own case I have benefitted hugely from the dscipline and simplicity that hard training has brought to my life, and looking at our newest crop of recruits I can see exactly why educators like Funakoshi and Diogenes would have regarded this as the ultimate goal of any physical training. After all, what is the point in developing highly tuned skills if one lacks the courage or strength of character to use them for the good?

Training for Self Defence: Why Martial Arts Alone Don’t Cut It

  There is a story about a kung fu student who was walking down a street when the horse in front of him went crazy and kicked out. Using his kung fu training, he blocked, sidestepped, and was able to avoid a kick that might have killed him.

   He was understandably upset when he told his sifu, who immediately expelled him for being reckless. The curious student decided to follow his teacher, waiting to see how he would react. Many days and nights he kept his vigil, but his patience was rewarded. Eventually, he saw the same horse becoming agitated as the teacher walked towards it. He was at first dissapointed when he saw his teacher cross the road and give the horse a wide berth. Then, he understood the meaning of kung fu.

I don’t know if the above story is true (spoiler; probably not) but it is very popular. You’ve probably heard several different versions of it, but the message is always the same – the wise/best martial artist avoids danger altogether rather than Jackie-Channing it with his fists of fury.

The thing is, martial arts are about fighting. That is the bottom line. Sure, you can use them for some higher purpose; to bring self discipline, to find enlightenment, to protect the weak and vulnerable from hordes of viciously one dimensional oppressors with weak chins. But that stuff is all a by-product of your training. Your actual training is on how to fight; how to hurt people, pure and simple.

(If you are up on your daoism you’ll know that you can technically find  enlightenment in anything – what is important is the self discipline it takes to master a skill.)

What that story outlines is that “self defence” is a very different thing from fighting; and it bugs me to see the two conflated and confused. Not just because it is ignorant; mostly because it is downright dangerous. To quote Kurt Osiander; if your self-defence involves fighting then its usually because “you f****d up a long time ago, now you’re gonna have to work really hard”. Anybody who is really practicing self-defense should be crossing the road, not fighting the horse; it’s way easier and all it takes is a little know how.

I tend to use a tripartite classification when it comes to self defence. Things are split up into Risk Avoidance, Risk Management, and Crisis Management. Fighting is only a solution when it comes to Crisis Management, and even then it’s only part of the time.

Risk Avoidance:

There are certain things you can do to avoid being put at risk at all, but you have to be sensible. The only way to truly avoid all risk is to live in a hermetically sealed dome and cut yourself off from civilisation. In the real world, everything you do has an element of risk which is unavoidable. What you can do is avoid excessive risk taking.

A great example of this is police advice to foil burglary; don’t leave valuable items on display and make sure that all doors and windows are securely locked. The only way to avoid the risk is to not have a house or stuff altogether, but taking some relatively simple steps can lessen the level of risk to which you are exposed.

Likewise, simple steps can go a long way in other aspects of life. If you’re travelling abroad, travel with friends. If you’re going out on the town, stick to populated places with plenty of lights and security – and conversely try to avoid areas that are known for being rough. If you’re drinking, drink in moderation – alcohol often plays a role of some kind in committing offences, just over half of all incidences of violence with injury are thought to involve alcohol.

There is nothing magic about this side of keeping yourself safe; by doing these things you are playing the numbers. Hopefully this is as far as you will ever need to go.

Of course sometimes things do happen, even if you have taken every possible precaution. This (and I can’t believe I have to spell it out in the 21st century) does not mean that if or when something happens it is your fault for not taking more precautions, or skipping one, or simply forgetting one. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need locks or security guards. The fact that we have these precautions doesn’t take away from the monumental ass-hat-tery of the people who made them necessary in the first place. They are still responsible for being crappy people to steal things and start fights, what you are doing in risk avoidance is trying to reduce the odds of them stealing your stuff or attacking you.

Risk Management:

Personally, I would argue that this is by far and away the most important stage in any self defence practitioner’s arsenal. Since you can’t totally avoid all risk, and very few people come balling out of nowhere ready for a fight, this middle stage – how you handle the weird, awkward soup that is human interaction – is your best chance to take control of a situation and prevent it from becoming a truly bad one. There are several strategies open to you at this point – the main ones are:


If somebody wants your wallet or phone, give it to them. Better yet, throw it in one direction and walk away in the other. Things can be replaced, you can’t.

This, of course, has its limits. It’s one thing to co-operate by throwing away your wallet. It is another thing entirely to let yourself be tied up and transported to a secluded spot by a potential attacker. In Meditations on Violence, Rory Miller makes the point that allowing a violent or threatening attacker to transport you to a secondary location is probably never the best strategy. Nothing good is going to happen once you are there, and if the attack is inevitable it is probably better to have it somewhere that is not of the attackers choosing.

This, or course is difficult to decide in the real world, as events usually escalate gradually. Miller recommends establishing cues in your mind. Deciding on lines which you will not allow to be crossed for any reason. This makes it easier to formulate the appropriate response if one of them is ever crossed. For example, if before hand you know your reaction to being mugged is to hand over your wallet and replace your credit cards, whereas your response to being moved to another location is to kick off and do your best Tony Jaa impersonation, these cues and their associated responses will help you feel more in control, and will help to break the paralysis of choice that can set in under pressure.

Derren Brown tells the story of a time he was walking home from a gig, and he encountered an aggressive drunk, who greeted him with the age old “What the F*** are you looking at?”.


Being Derren Brown, he resolved the situation by using misdirection. He replied “the wall outside my house is not four feet high”, and then went on a little monologue about Spain and the height of the walls there. This confused the drunk, who went from being aggressive to being passive.

Believe it or not, there is some science behind this. Heightened states of emotion make people more suggestible; and anger and aggression are both heightened states of emotion. Teachers learning behaviour management are taught to employ similar distraction techniques to calm angry students. Don’t engage directly with any question you are asked; any answer you give will be wrong, and it allows the aggressive party to steer the conversation. Start be refocusing their attention, preferably on something in the local environment, and then use reassuring tone and body posture to gradually de-escalate the situation whilst continuing with your distraction topic.

Of course, this works best when someone is being aggressive near you. If they are being aggressive at you, it’s far more difficult to deflect that attention, so perhaps it’s better to  use


Remember when your mum told you that you could “just walk away” from the school bully? It didn’t really work, but the idea is a solid one. If you’re not there, you can’t fight. De-escalation is the precursor skill so that you can walk away safely.

The first step in de-escalation is obvious: don’t escalate things!

Some exchanges start with verbal abuse and threats. Don’t respond in kind. (This will get you into a cycle of rapid escalation, which is what we are trying to avoid). One option is to ask open ended questions, and turn the threats into a discussion.

“You’re a such-and-such!” “That hurts! Why do you think that?”

Bringing an emotional level may evoke empathy, and dissembling over the cause of any grievances may work as a distraction technique.

The acronym TACOS reminds you of the five things to avoid when trying de-escalation


Threaten the aggressor
Argue with the aggressor
Challenge the aggressor
Order the aggressor around
Shame the aggressor

A lot of confrontation is born out of power struggles and the need for respect. By avoiding these things, and trying to do their opposite, it may be possible to talk an aggressor down by showing them that you are open and receptive, respectful, and above all not a threat to them or their perceived status. Of course, this can be difficult to achieve whilst still remaining confident and assertive. The best advice available probably comes from Rory Miller, George Thompson, and Patrick Van Horne, all of whom go into a great deal of depth on these strategies.


Run. If it doesn’t look like a situation you can manage or de-escalate, get out of there – at speed if necessary.

If there is an obvious avenue of escape, and you don’t think your aggressor will pursue you then this course of action is quite simple. Walk or run away. Escape the situation and make sure that you are safe.

Sometimes escape may be possible, but your route is blocked by an aggressor or you  have good reason to think they will give pursuit. This is when escape starts to merge with crisis management and you may have to adopt a strategy known as the “stun and run”. The basic aim of this strategy is to disrupt and temporarily disable your aggressor with a powerful attack and then use the window of opportunity that this creates to get the hell out of dodge.

If your technique involves going to the ground or a sustained combination, it isn’t right for “stun and run”. This is not the time to demonstrate your killer gogoplata or chain punching. It is also not the time to experiment with that thing you half remember from that one self-defence seminar… was it a palm heel and knee strike? If you are a practising martial artist, you should have a few techniques that are your go to moves, (your Toki Waza), now is the time to burst out the reverse punch or Uchimata  you’ve spent tens of thousands of reps honing.

The key thing is to create an opportunity to escape, so the techniques have to be decisive. This can be difficult for sport martial artists who are used to pulling their punches or following their opponents to the ground. (For self defence you don’t want to overcommit to a throw – if it doesn’t work do something else!) If you get bogged down you will be trapped in a fight; even if you’re winning you don’t want to be there.

There is an ethical consideration here – if we are initiating the attack, are we the bad guys?
I think the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Iain Abernethy has addressed this point in an essay on the maxim that “there is no first attack in Karate“. To my mind the heart of the argument is that if somebody is acting aggressively towards you and has shut down all of your attempts to de-escalate or leave the situation, that is already an attack. Their actions are placing you in a situation where you are made to feel vulnerable and have prevented you from leaving that situation. If you are already backed into a corner with somebody threatening violence, then you are a mug to let them throw the first punch.

Gichin Funakoshi put it slightly more elegantly in Karate-Do Kyohan:

“When there are no avenues of escape or one is caught even before any attempt to escape can be made, then for the first time the use of self-defense techniques should be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first let the attacker become careless. At that time attack him concentrating one’s whole strength in one blow to a vital point and in the moment of surprise, escape and seek shelter and help.” 
Crisis Management

As you can see, we’ve already exhausted a lot of non-martial-arts options before we get to crisis management. In order to be in a position where you actually need to use your martial arts skills you should already have failed at risk avoidance and management. If that’s happened because you have been careless, then kung fu your way to freedom by all means, but perhaps work on your awareness and people skills for the future.

Sometimes, however, risks simply cannot be avoided or managed, and that’s where crisis management plays an active part. Perhaps you can’t escape; maybe the stun and run hasn’t worked, maybe the threat is in your house, or you have to act to protect others from harm. Whatever the reason, it’s now time to dust off your black belt and deliver an ass-kickin’!

But actually, can you respond appropriately? The law in England states that one is

“entitled to use reasonable force to protect himself, others for whom he is responsible and his property”

So you have two considerations here, one tactical and one legal;

a) How to engage your aggressor in such a way as to minimise risk to yourself and those you are protecting
(note: there is no such thing as “winning” a self defence scenario!)

b) What force is ‘reasonable’ in pursuit of that goal?

For a) you need to know the answer to a raft of questions:

Can you perform your favourite techniques in your everyday clothes? On an uneven surface? In a confined space? In the dark, or when temporarily blinded? Seated, standing, or from the ground? When adrenaline or shock are hampering your fine motor skills? When you’re exhausted?

What is the most appropriate strategy?
Is there one assailant? How do you neutralise him whilst causing minimal harm?
Does he have a weapon?  Do you know how to disarm it?
Is there more than one attacker? Do you have appropriate skills to engage a group?
What if they all have weapons?

All of these questions are pertinent to our training, and should be getting covered in your club’s “self-defence” syllabus. These skills are the crossover point between martial arts and self defence, and if you are not able to answer them then it is perhaps worth considering the answers yourself, or raising the point with your instructors.

The main take away here, though, is that even if your are training well, and can answer all of those questions in your sleep, and are confident that should the need arise you will be able to defend your family from vengeful ninjas, that still doesn’t constitute good “self defence”. Good self defence is building those habits which help you de-escalate confrontation or avoid it altogether, and learning how to put them into practise so that all of the martial arts training doesn’t have to be called upon.


On the use of Atemi in Grappling Arts

I have recently posted a developed moan about the over-abundance of kick-punching in Karate, and how the over development of the “sport” side of the art is – to my mind – dangerously undermining its actual combative efficacy. It is perhaps, then, time to come at the same topic from the opposite angle.

I train Shorinji-Kan Jujutsu, and have dabbled in Aikido, Judo & BJJ with (at best) mixed results over the years. De jure, Judo & BJJ claim to be “martial arts”, however de facto I have never seen them taught or practised as anything other than sports. Admittedly, sports that are really helpful for learning self defence skills, but sports nonetheless. And, since I think most practitioners would roll with that distinction, I plan to give them a pass on this topic. Jujutsu & Aikido, however, which variously claim to focus on martial arts and self-defence do pose some problem in a modern context. Simply put – Jitsuka can’t hit.

It is not that atemi (striking) techniques do not exist in Jujutsu or Aikido systems, or that senior practitioners are so advanced they don’t think they need good atemi (Gozo Shioda, Founder of the Yoshinkan School of Aikido, is on record as saying that around 70% of any real fight is Atemi) it’s just that these techniques appear to be forsaken or marginalised in order to focus on the big throws or tricky joint locks.

Aikidoka, working on their “Hadouken”

Presumably this is a pedagogical decision. If students are only assessed on throws and submissions then why would one waste valuable class time teaching atemi that will not be part of the grading? My answer would be that gradings, like any exams, are there as a tool to measure progress and ability – they are not a goal in and of themselves. In self-defence, the only goal is to be able to fight. In martial arts, there may be more spiritual or esoteric goals added on, but that principle emphasis should be the same. By the time one holds a black belt (which, rightly or wrongly, is a symbol in the Western world which is recognised as having achieved a level of mastery, or at least competency, in fighting) one ought to be able to actually fight if it is necessary to do so.

Yet recent experiences with fellow jujutsu students have served to disabuse me of this notion. Most of the students I have encountered have little to no ability to perform atemi correctly, let alone use it. Even at relatively senior levels some practitioners appear to have limited abilities when it comes to this entire corpus of technique, which can have amusing consequences when they attempt a throw…

“Bitch, please…”

Admittedly, a jujutsu Sensei would not necessarily have the punch-kicking ability of a Karate master, but one should at least have the basic competency to rely on those techniques if an when the situation arose. (Likewise, one should hardly be called a Karate “master” without the ability to perform the chokes, jointlocks, throws and ground techniques preserved in the Kata). In other words, in order to be considered a competent martial artist, one should be a rounded martial artist. It is completely normal to have preferences and specialisations, but one ought to be conversant in all ranges of fighting and types of techniques before one can be considered a competent fighter.

Disclosure – I like hitting things. When we do pressure work and I have an uncooperative uke, or a technique doesn’t work, or I’m getting overwhelmed by multiple attackers, I will absolutely bust out my atemi and hit the problem until I can get in some sweet textbook Jujutsu. This sometimes results in censure. Accusations that I’m using my size and strength (hint: I’m not – but this accusation does reveal a blind spot in some Sensei who appear to equate “hitting” with “strength”. Ask any striker; there are absolutely technical aspects to striking) or that my defence “isn’t jujutsu” are not uncommon. And while I do recognise the need to keep working on my grappling so that I’m less likely to revert to type, I have been interested to note that as late as the 1950’s, virtually all Judo/Jujutsu textbooks available had substantial sections on how to hit things properly. For most of the 20th century atemi was either an alternative or a set up for a “proper” technique. It was considered important not only to learn how to hit, but to be quite good at it too.

Alternatively, you could learn to impersonate Gary Busey. That appears to work too.

What I think we’re looking at here, in a general sense, is a preference for “form” over function”. As a pedagogical tool, it is definitely worth setting students to master the form of a technique. But it does not do to forget that the function of these techniques is to fight with them, and real fighting looks messy. Even at the highest levels.

Kemlyn Munn, a UK Bartitsu practitioner and enthusiast, sums up the continuing appeal of Victorian Martial arts thusly:

My personal fascination with Bartitsu, DDLR (Defense Dans La Rue) and similar approaches from that era comes down to the pragmatism and open-mindedness I see them exhibiting, and the resulting no-nonsense fighting and self defence methods that I still don’t see bettered anywhere.’

Whilst the first part of training has to be getting the form right (otherwise one can’t use it) that on its own is no good. You then have to work on the function of applying the form – the reason the martial arts exists to begin with – actual fighting. Sometimes it makes sense to hit an attacker, whether to set up another technique or just to deal with them quickly. And grappling arts lose effectiveness by ignoring or discouraging this entire branch of techniques.

If you are serious about grappling, you should also be training striking (and vice versa). Good strikes make grapplers better and align more with the real world application of the arts we practice as a hobby.

Karate as a Sport, Do, & Jutsu

In my study of Karate, I have had the opportunity to study under several Senseis and with a great many more advanced martial artists, each of whom has brought their own strengths and style to the exercise. When it comes to the more philosophical side of the art, however, much of my understanding has been influenced by books. It is study of these sources that causes me to wonder if a large portion of our “advanced” practitioners may, in fact, have very poor Karate – regardless of the quality of their spinning ura-mawashe-geri.

In this monograph, I propose to examine the changing meaning of Karate in three technical forms, as a Sport, a Do, and a Jutsu. In so doing, I plan to follow and extend the division outlined by Damon Young (D. Young – “Pleased to Beat You” in Priest & Young – Martial Arts & Philosophy) and accept that the soundest functional translation of the Japanese term “jutsu” denotes technical mastery of a craft or body of knowledge. Hence Karate-Jutsu would simply be the art of fighting using Karate as a body of knowledge and a training base. Do, influenced by Taoism, has strong relations to our term ethos, and therefore Karate-Do is to combine the technical aspects of Karate-Jutsu with a philosophical and ethical programme for self-improvement (though without losing the jutsu aspect). Karate-Sport is the extension term I propose for those who study Karate, and yet are neither fighters nor philosophers.

I will finally argue that Karate-Sport has its own system of values, different and distinct from Karate-Jutsu & Karate-Do, and that recognising these differences will allow Karateka to engage in more honest discussions about what they are teaching or studying, why they are doing it, and what value they think it is to others to learn it. Whilst I will admit quite openly that I have little interest in Sport Karate, I do not think that this should be used as a pejorative term, for it is in many respects a development and improvement of the art, and my main motivation is not to berate, but to identify an epistemic difference so that where gaps are occurring in the teaching of the art (jutsu) it is easier to identify what is being lost, why, and whether and how to correct it.

All Karate is a Solution to a Problem

Allow me to provide a little context. Karate was not invented in a vacuum. No martial art is. The exact history of the art is at best mysterious and at worst lost to the sands of time; however there are a few general points of agreement:

1) Karate comes from Okinawa
2) It was developed on Okinawa from a number of influences, but most notably Chinese Gung-fu. (Also including Tegumi, Aiki-Daito-Ryu Jujutsu, indigenous Okinawan striking systems, and possibly Muay Boran)
3) It has been indelibly associated with eastern philosophy, even before the contributions of Gichin Funakoshi. The survival of Kata such as Jion, supposedly named for the Jionji temple (H. Kanazawa – Karate: The Complete Kata), and the nominal survival of groups such as the Shorinji-Kan (“place of the Shaolin Temple”) indicate a connection with Buddhist temples. It is traditionally believed, at least in the West, that Karate was developed as a response to the invasion of Okinawa (then the Rykyu Kingdom) by the Samurai. This is unlikely to be true; firstly given that Karate is a striking based art and that Samurai tended to wear armour. Most battlefield systems that deal with armoured opponents utilise grappling in order to disable the opponent or to set up a killing blow – Karate does have these elements, however the balance is all wrong for the assumption that one’s foe is armoured. Secondly, the invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom was resolved quite quickly. The Rykyu King, Sho Nei, did not wish to waste his men’s lives, and after the capture of Shuri Castle in 1609 the Rykyu Kingdom became a vassal state to Japan. There are stories of Karate warriors taking on local Samurai, however these tend to have the hallmarks of folk tales rather than authentic history, with the Karate warrior rescuing a damsel in distress, or oppressed villagers. Whilst it would be impossible to say that such things did not happen, I think it is reasonable to assume they were, at worst, isolated cases.

Generally, the relationship between Okinawa and Japan seems to have been quite harmonious. In 1639 Japan closed its doors to the outside world for two and a half centuries when it adopted the Sakoku policy. The vassal state of Okinawa would have done likewise, were it not also a vassal state of China for reasons of trade. This provided a back door for trade between Japan and the rest of the world, and helped to keep the Okinawan port of Naha very busy.

Gichin Funakoshi grew up during the Meiji restoration of 1868, and in his Karate-Do: My Way of Life, he several times mentions encounters with local toughs in Okinawa. He relates tales of robbery, drunken assault and gang violence both as he experienced them personally, and as they were experienced by his mentors, Anko Asato & Anko Itosu. What is noticeable is that all of the events Funakoshi relates were of civilian violence. There was no suggestion of Karate being a battlefield art in his time, nor that it was used against oppressive Samurai.

Given this information, I would suggest that Karate was developed in an unstable civil environment rather than a hostile military one. Okinawa between 1609 and 1868 was an international port of some importance, and would have been host to contingents of sailors on shore leave around coastal towns. Inland, whether through unemployment, idleness, or some form of oppression, there appears to have been enough civic disturbance to keep the practitioners of Karate busy. This combination of circumstances more than explains why people may have felt the need to develop a fighting system – any why it appears to be one targeted at unarmoured individuals – potentially those who attack in groups. (Do not forget, Jujutsu, a battlefield system, can afford to assume a 1-on-1 approach because you are likely to have other soldiers with you at the time)

The historical data combines with the technical styling of Karate to suggest that this fighting system was designed as a form of civic combat, to protect the individual from violent criminal aggressions.

When the Problem Changes, the Nature of the Karate Changes

Of course when Japan opened its borders and restored the Emperor Meiji, Okinawa would have become less important as an international port. This might explain why it was around this time that Anko Itosu began to teach Karate in schools – developing the Pinan/Heian series of Kata as a suitable exercise and self defence programme for school children.

The traditional explanation offered had been that the study of Karate was banned in Okinawa until 1868. However just because a ban is lifted does not mean that the formerly-banned-thing would take on a popular mantle, which is precisely what appears to have happened. I think there may be another pressure at play. If one were studying a combat art, primarily to defend against unruly sailors, and then a change in circumstances meant that those sailors were no longer around, would there still be a need to study the combat art?

I suspect what may have happened is that there was a decrease in local pressures to learn Karate, both due to the opening up of trade and the improving administration of the islands, and the response from teachers – simply to ensure the survival of the art – was to evolve it into another context.

It was a civil servant named Shintaro Ogawa who formalised the decision to include Karate in the Okinawan school system. After seeing a demonstration at Gichin Funakoshi’s school, which was in turn based on the material being taught by Itosu, he was impressed and wrote a formalised report to the local government (Gichin Funakoshi – Karate Do: My Way of Life). The virtues of karate as a form of self-defence, a means of instilling discipline, and physical exercise were noted, and it seems that these bases formed the planks upon which a new, socially driven, Karate could be built.

Shortly afterwards, around 1912, Gichin Funakoshi gave a demonstration of the art to men of the Japanese Navy. This appears to be the first time in modern history that Karate intersected with the military (who saw immediate application), again suggesting that prior to this time it was a purely civilian pursuit.

Broadly put, this is when a new type of Karate can be said to become prevalent. There is no doubt in my mind that the great masters of Karate had been practising a Taoist form of the art long before this time (Funakoshi himself notes that most of his teacher were great scholars of the Chinese classics, and in the stories he relates they show great ethical character), however this focus on Karate as a “way of life” – as opposed to ” a tool to stop people assaulting you” – becomes the foremost element in the art around the turn of the twentieth century. It is this different/ciation that provides the philosophical basis for what we now call “Karate-Do”.

This transition was aided by Funakoshi’s own scholarship. A schoolmaster, Funakoshi was also familiar with the Chinese classics, and this influence can be found throughout his work. Throughout Karate-Do: My Way of Life, there are constant themes of learning from one’s experiences, seeking to do the ethical thing, and seeking to eliminate the illusion of the self (all central tenets of Buddhist philosophy, particularly the last one). Karate Do Kyohan closes with a reflection on the meaning of Budo; much is made of the fact that the ideograph for the idea means “to stop halberds”, and this reflection invites the reader to reflect on how training shapes character. Likewise, Funakoshi’s “Twenty Precepts” and “Dojo-Kun” are philosophical codes for modern warriors, broken into bitesize and repeatable chunks so that they can be learned in a Dojo environment. The main influence suggested both by Funakoshi’s thought and his relative paucity appears to be Zen Buddhism, though another possibility is that he kept his philosophy brief out of a teacher’s habit of engaging the audience (as opposed to the philosophers habit of bewildering them).

In essence, what is evident over the period from c.1900-c.1930 is that Karate undergoes a change in image. This is largely led by Gichin Funakoshi, who spread the art to a wider Japanese audience during this period. (It was also influenced by his friendship with Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo). This change in image is likely to be a retreat from justification by proximal to ultimate causation. That is, as the immediate need to learn a way of fighting died down, other reasons for studying Karate had to be found, and the easiest place to find them was in the most advanced practitioners. Advanced practitioners like Funakoshi and Itosu saw Karate as a being much wider mental and physical discipline which could be practised across all aspects of one’s life, so as the proximal need to learn how to fight declined this projection of Karate as a system of moral and spiritual development came to be the main reason people were encouraged to study it.

This may sound silly at first, particularly to those who are most concerned with the act of fighting, however it does bear scrutiny. In no way was the fighting technique of the art compromised by this repositioning, it simply ceased to be the most important part (remember Funakoshi’s 5th principle; variously translated as “Spirit first, Technique Second” or “Mentality over Technique“). And one should also bear in mind that the traditional way of teaching Karate had not involved sparring as we would understand it. Funakoshi tells us he devoted himself ten years just to learning Kata (the three Tekki or Naihanchi forms), and only introduced Kumite training drills once he moved to Japan (Gichin Funakoshi – Karate-Do Kyohan) because several of his students had also studied Kenjutsu and were used to participating in shiai or contests. Funakoshi saw the benefit of this method of training but was careful to warn us “it must be emphasised that sparring does not exist apart from the kata but for the practice of kata… When one becomes enthusiastic about sparring, there is a tendency for his kata to become bad“.

So, whilst the focus may have shifted from Jutsu (the technical aspects of Karate) to Do (the ethical and philosophical aspects) there was, in fact, more fighting going on in classes than there had been before.

Has the problem changed again? 

Funakoshi may have been very prescient to forewarn against taking sparring too seriously, or divorcing it from the study of kata. I would argue that we have potentially entered a new phase of development; moving from Karate-Do in the first half of the twentieth century towards Karate-Sport as the century progressed into the new Millennium.

The fact that there are now infinitely more Karate competitions, both in Europe and globally, than there were 70 years ago is not evidence that there has been a change in ethos, which is the claim I am making. It is simply evidence that more people are training in and learning karate, and that more hobbyists are treating that study recreationally. These things could all be true whilst maintaining an ethos of Do or even Jutsu. What must be evident in order to suggest a transition away from Do is three things

1) The over-development of sporting techniques relative to the other aspects of Karate study (such as self-defence, biomechanics, anatomy, and self-discipline)
2) The loss of knowledge amongst senior practitioners of certain technical (jutsu) elements of fighting.
3) The inability of Karateka to spar with, and exchange ideas with, other martial artists and styles.

The first point cannot be clearly demonstrated except by long and detailed study, which I unfortunately do not have the resources to do at this time. I shall simply say that I have observed enough clubs where this is true that I think a more in depth study ought to be carried out, and I suspect that there will be a substantial number of Dojo which fit the bill.

The second and third points are more easily demonstrated, and so it is to these we now turn. We find evidence of point (2) as early as 1938, when Kenwa Mabuni stated:

The Karate that has been introduced to Tokyo is actually just a part of the whole. The fact that those who have learnt Karate there feel it only consists of kicks and punches, and that throws and locks are only to be found in Judo or Jujutsu can only be put down to a lack of understanding… Those who are thinking of the future of Karate should have an open mind and strive to study the complete art.

Gichin Funakoshi hints at a similar concern in the 1957 preface to the 2nd edition of Karate-Do Kyohan;

As a result of the social disorder that followed the end of World War II, the Karate world was dispersed, as were many other things, Quite apart from a decline in the level of technique during these times, I cannot deny that there were moments at which I came to be painfully aware of the almost unrecognisable spiritual state to which the Karate world had come from that that had prevailed at the time I had first introduced and begun the teaching of Karate.”

Later in the same book, Funakoshi tells us:

… in Karate, hitting, thrusting, and kicking are not the only methods; throwing techniques and pressure against the joints are also included… it is not always necessary to use powerful techniques like hitting, thrusting, and kicking, but, adjusting to the situation, softer techniques such as throwing may be used, and in this versatility there is an inexpressible savour. … All these techniques should be studied, referring to basic kata.”

We even have pictoral evidence of Funakoshi demonstrating throwing and joint locking techniques, and there is evidence that there were more practised and waiting to be rediscovered in kata.

To put it simply; Gichin funakoshi thought that if you are not studying throws as part of your kata, then you are missing something out from your Karate practice. As Funakoshi is one of the strongest links to the traditional art, and one of its most revered masters, I am willing to bend to the argument from authority (a move I seldom make) and agree that it is so.

There are obviously other elements to kata, but ask yourself – when was the last time you studied a kata in depth? Learning how to deploy the moves as an integrated system of combat? Who were you supposedly defending yourself from, and how were you supposedly doing it? Did you understand the moves, and could you apply them in a live situation? Were you thinking of fighting, or just kicking and punching? Was your bunkai perfunctory, or was it a vital part of your study?

The unfortunate truth appears to be that bunkai is seldom practised seriously in most karate clubs. Personally, I find this odd, because to my mind bunkai is the ultimate purpose of karate – as well as the road to mastering the art.

Try thinking of karate like any other subject. There are certain key texts, in our case kata, that one must be familiar with to be considered fluent in the subject. In the case of Shotokan, there are 26 kata, some styles may have more, some have less, however they all serve the same purpose. They are texts to be studied. Understanding what they say is key to learning how to use them.

In philosophy, people are still trying to develop ideas based on the writings of Plato, who wrote two and a half Millennia ago. More importantly, they are still finding new ways to read the texts he left behind and gaining new insights from re-reading them. Likewise in theology; Christians have a limited number of texts in the Bible, but are constantly shedding new light on old writings through diligent study. This is even more so the case in science, where we are discovering new texts and new ways to read old texts all the time. The nature of mathematics had not changed, but our ability to apply it to new situations is leading to the potential for things like nuclear fusion and more manageable space travel. At the other end of the spectrum, we are only just beginning to discover how to “read” genetic material, and the potential horizons for new discovery are being pushed back on an almost monthly basis.

The apex of these fields is research – looking at the subject matter, combining it in new ways or with new problems, and advancing knowledge in the field. Close behind is teaching, which is largely aimed to give students enough skills in research to be able to conduct their own research.

Yet I know of very few dojo that could be considered a “research” environment. Students tend not to be asked to solve problems or study bunkai intensively. (There are a few exceptions that spring to mind, however these are – to my knowledge – an acute minority). They are taught to learn the kata, to perform the kata, and … that’s the endpoint. To be able to perform the kata for the sake of performing the kata. I know that certain kata are now a requirement for a grading syllabus, but surely the requirement should be that the student has studied the kata and can apply the knowledge and principles it contains, rather than whether they can perform it by rote? If a person walked into a physics exam having memorised every formula known to man, but was unable to apply them to solve the problems set before him we would regard him as the most useless specimen of a physicist ever known – so why do we treat our kata any differently?

And in case it appear I am going too far, it may be worth sharing a snippet from Funakoshi’s “Karate-Do; My way of Life”:
You may train for a long time, but if you merely move your hand and feet and jump up and down like a puppet, learning Karate is not very different from learning a dance. You will never have reached the heart of the matter; you will have failed to grasp the quintessence of Karate.

So, there is documentary evidence from the masters which suggests that we, as modern practitioners, have lost a substantial portion of their art due to things not being practised or passed down properly. But I think there may me more compelling circumstantial evidence; how many throws and joint locks can you find in Bassai-Dai? Could you use the Tekki/Naihanchi kata in a ground fighting situation? What are the hops for at the end of Chinte? If we truly knew our kata, these questions would pose no problem. Unfortunately, I think a substantial portion of use would – if we were being honest – have to admit that these are not questions we can answer readily.

And this leads me to the third condition which would indicate a movement away from “Karate-Do”; the inability to spar with and exchange ideas with other martial artists.

In the mists of Karate history, we know that exchanging ideas with other martial artist must have occurred, because we know that karate has several sources, including Gung-fu and tegumi. The melding of these styles into karate could not have happened without practitioners of one style engaging with and learning from practitioners of the others. More recently Gichin Funakoshi formed a friendship with Jigoro Kano which impacted the teaching of both arts (Kano developing Judo kata to include some Funakoshi inspired striking, and Funakoshi refining his philosophy to me more in line with Kano’s), and is even reputed to have trained with him for some time. More significantly, Hironori Otsuka, founder of Wado Ryu Karate, created his style after blending elements of Shotokan Karate with traditional Japanese Jujutsu. This exchange of ideas, particularly amongst senior practitioners, not only helped to cement their legacy as legendary martial artists, but made the martial arts scene as we know it today.

Unfortunately, more recent examples are not so easy to find. Iain Abernethy, who is said to be the world’s foremost expert on practical bunkai, is one. But few others stand out, even where they should. The popularity of the UFC and the rise of mixed martial arts competition should be a blessing to Karateka; an organised and relatively safe forum to practice technique and learn from opponents of different styles is an opportunity previous generations could only have dreamed of. Karate, however, seems to be under represented in the sport of MMA.

There have been some prominent practitioners; Bas Rutten, Chuck Liddell, Georges St. Pierre & Lyoto Machida, but when compared to the hundreds of boxers, Muay Thai fighters, wrestlers and BJJ fighters it seems like small fry. Especially when considering that Bas relied as much on his Muay Thai, and has now eschewed Karate in favour of Krav Maga, Chuck relied mostly on his boxing and wrestling abilities, and Georges & Lyoto both have reputations as being relatively boring fighters (i.e. they tend to win “decision” victories rather than finish their opponents with strikes or submissions).

An early example of a Karateka who was open to this new venue was Fred Ettish. In 1994 Fred was called in as a replacement fighter at UFC 2. The fight, as described by one internet commentator:

He faced Johnny Rhodes, a doughy but tough kickboxer. The bell rings and Ettish strikes a pose. He throws a snap kick… It hits exactly where he threw it and he, Johnny Rhodes, and the people watching from home all say the same thing: oh shit. A guy who trains with nine year olds at the YMCA is in a real fight.

Fred Ettish was dominated for three minutes and seven seconds before being choked out Johnny, whose expertise was listed as “streetfighter”. It was an embarrassing match.

(As an aside, Fred should get ten out of ten for his approach after the match. He learned from the experience, upped his martial arts game and is now a highly proficient martial artist in several styles, though he still teaches karate. In 2009 a 53 year old Ettish took his second professional MMA fight and emerged with a convincing victory after forcing his opponent to tap. This is a man who, to my mind, embodies the ethos of Karate-Do. After all, anybody can fail, but not everybody is willing to learn from it.)

There could be many reasons why one doesn’t want to compete in professional MMA. Lack of time, fitness, injuries and so on could all be good reasons as to why Karateka are not flocking to the sport en masse, and prefer the relatively comfortable confines of Kumite tournaments. But that does not explain why Kumite is not being adapted to involved a more MMA type element – or why we continue to neglect those elements in our training.

If nothing else, televised UFC events should have sent a message to all traditional martial artists – learn to fight on the ground; you cannot always guarantee you will be standing in a fight. If you are training for self-defence, it seems only logical that you would train from the worst case scenarios; such as being knocked over or pinned down. Yet most of the Karateka whom I know seem unwilling to work these features into their training. Partly because it’s never been done before (it has, just not by people in your lifetime) and partly because “it’s not really karate” (it is; just not a part of it you know).

The reticence to engage with MMA, which is the closest we are likely to come to an objective test of “real” fighting without entering into morally abhorrent territory (For a full examination of the problem of knowledge in Martial Arts, see: Gillian Russell – Epistemic Viciousness in the Martial Arts) is baffling. Most clubs are taking few, if any, steps to address groundwork, grappling, or getting grabbed and instead appear to be focusing on the three K’s, Kihon, Kata, and Kumite.

A New Problem: The Focus on Kumite

I hope the evidence outlined above, has convinced the reader that the “problems” we are addressing in Karate have moved on. Traditionally, the problem was one of self-defence, for which our main tool was the study of Kata. This, as I have outlined above, we tend no longer to do effectively. In the twentieth century, the problem was re-emphasised to be one of personal development. This, I believe, has been narrowed to one particular type of development, and that is linked to the growth in sport Kumite and sport-Karate.

The self-development inherent in sporting competition comes to us from the public school ethos of the late Victorian period. Healthy competition can drive people to improve their techniques, work harder, become fitter and, hopefully, become better Karateka for doing that. On the other hand, unhealthy competition can lead to gamesmanship – playing the rules to maximum advantage without regard for the spirit of the game.

In some ways this can be actively hurtful; Rory Miller (in Meditations on Violence) relates the story of a friend, a prison guard, who was assaulted by a criminal. The guard, being a Karate expert, evades the attack and launches three punches in return. They all land with a loud snap on said criminals chest, doing absolutely no damage. Whether the story is true or not (and it has many variations) it illustrates the point that training solely for Kumite can get in the way of fighting. Given that Karate is fundamentally a fighting system I would argue that should be viewed as a problem – anything we do in training should be designed to make us better at fighting, not worse!

This can be nowhere better demonstrated than in developing habits or techniques which rely entirely on the rules of Kumite competition for their effectiveness. Take, for example Aghayev Vs. Smaal at last year’s European Karate Championships. Both of these men had adopted a stance that begs the question; “how practical can that be?”. Each man fought sideways on in an extended kiba-dachi. All movement had to come from bouncing and shuffling which, to their credit, they managed to achieve and make look easy (I can assure you, it isn’t). Firstly, fighting sideways on may have the advantage of presenting a smaller target, but it also leaves half of your weapons trailing behind. (Personally, I side with Bas Rutten on this and prefer to be close to square on, so I can throw more techniques.) Secondly, this side-alignment robbed their kicks of much of their power. In a points based Kumite environment that may not be an issue, however for self-defence throwing a weak kick is almost universally a bad idea. Thirdly, nobody moves around the world through stylised shimmying. It’s just not practical, so my understanding is that this is a technique that was developed to give an edge in the competition. Fourth, the stance they have adopted appears to assume the opponent will not throw leg kicks. In Kumite, they cannot. I would be interested to see a Muay Thai or MMA fighter try that stance. Perhaps worst of all, when they closed, all aggression ceased. Neither showed any real inclination towards preventing clinching or takedowns, knowing that the referee would separate them.

These techniques and strategies are, at least in some clubs, being taught as the proper way to perform a technique. Tommy Morris (in Karate: the complete course) includes the following advice in a section on “getting your scores seen”:

“Don’t use the shorter range variants (of the roundhouse kick) which impact with the ball of the foot because this configuration… (slows) the kick right down.”

“Lean away from the kick to take your body out of the line of counter attacks”

At another point in the book he counsels;

“From the scoring point of view it is not a good idea to use more than three techniques in any combination… with a melee of arms and legs flying about it becomes very difficult for the referee to distinguish what is and what is not a scoring technique.”

I would not wish to imply that Morris is a bad Karateka (after all, there is plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite), however it is clear that his practise and teaching have been heavily influenced by the rules of Kumite competition. The advice he gives, whilst good for point sparring, is actively harmful for self-defence, and in that sense I would argue it poses a threat to Karate as an art. It is quite one thing to vary a technique for competition for reasons of athletics or safety, it is quite another to change the technique and forget its original purpose.

Kumite and Do; Finding Focus 

It should not be understood that I am opposed to Kumite or competition, quite the opposite is true. I am, however, opposed to “teaching to the exam”. The purpose of studying Karate is to learn Karate, not to learn how to perform a menu of tricks.

If the focus of one’s training becomes Kumite, at the expense of studying the Do & Jutsu aspects of Karate, then one will perennially be seeking an edge on the competition. How to kick higher or faster, with little regard as to whether the technique is becoming more effective (for the true test of effectiveness is in causing injury to an opponent if necessary). This puts the focus on the self in relation to others, which is contrary to the aim of “perfection of character” which Funakoshi thought was the ultimate purpose of all Karate. The focus on the self in Karate should never be in relation to another self, it should be in relation to one’s own previous self. Is your technique better now than it was yesterday? Are you working harder now than you were last week? Do you feel more in control than you did last year?

These are the fundamental questions we are trying to answer every time we enter a Dojo. Kumite can be a part of that, insofar as it gives us recognisable goals to work towards, achievements, motivation and enjoyment. However it has to be understood that Kumite, or sport Karate, is only one small aspect of the art, and that if it is taken out of this context then what is being taught cannot be the Karate that masters like Funakoshi wished to hand down.

As such, I would suggest there should be several types of Kumite used in training (and I owe this idea to Iain Abernethy, who I believe does this in his club); as well as the standard kickboxing style that we are all used to, why not also include Kumite which just uses hand techniques, kumite with just kicks, kumite with only grappling, kumite where one person is a striker and the other a grappler (to practise takedown defence), kumite where one karateka starts on the ground and has to fight back to his or her feet? The possibilities in this sense are endless, and using these ideas would help form Karateka as well rounded martial artists.

Using Kumite as a proving ground for one’s skills is not only admirable, I would argue it is necessary in order to advance as a martial artist, but not at the expense of actually studying the art. As such, I think the easiest solution is to identify what type of Karate is being taught, so that students know what they are learning, why they are learning it, and can put that knowledge into context in their own study.


Most clubs will be able to teach all three elements of Karate, however asking people to identify what they are doing and why they are doing it (reflective pedagogy) will help to highlight gaps in instructors knowledge, so that they can take steps to address these gaps, and will be more aware of their own abilities when it comes to teaching their students.

In writing this monograph, I have highlighted three distinct ethos (ethodes?) within the world of Karate, and given some historical context to each of them. Further, I have argued that these ethos have advanced progressively from each other, and that they represent developments in the modern art of Karate. I have, however, raised concerns about over-developing any one aspect of the art relative to its history and functionality, and set out the case that the modern focus on Kumite competitions is showing signs of doing just that – to the possible detriment of the art.

Moving from Jutsu, or the technical aspects of Karate, to Do – the much broader notion of a “way” of Karate represented a significant shift in focus, however this change in pedagogical emphasis did not fundamentally alter what Karate is or was. In order for Sport Karate to have a similar effect we, as  practitioners, require to be aware of the essence of Karate, and use sport to augment that essence – not to substitute for it. If done properly, the sport form of Karate can build upon the Jutsu and Do forms, preserving the art for the next generation as well as providing a forum for practitioners to improve their skills. If done poorly, focusing on sport can distort what Karate is to the point where understanding is lost, and nothing but the game will survive.

In order to prevent that, it is not enough for advanced practitioners to be merely technically proficient Karateka, they must also be scholars. They must have an understanding of the history and philosophy behind the art as it stands, enough knowledge of contemporary matters to allow them to read Kata as texts for self-defence and combat, and the creativity to search for new bunkai and adapt the principles contained in kata for the situations people face in the modern world.

The first step in that process is recognising what type of Karate we are teaching and learning, and having the objectivity to ask whether we have departed from the way outlined for us by past masters. If we are to change something, that should always be a conscious selection; something done for a known and planned reason. It should never be allowed to happen through an elision of tradition caused by ignorance, complacency, and the fetishising of superficial victories over perfection of character.

On the use of “Milling” in Bareknuckle Boxing

Jeremy Brett, arguably one of the best actors ever to portray the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, brings to life a scene from “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” in this clip:

Being a made for TV drama, the fight choreography does leave a little to be desired; but what is interesting is that Brett was clearly trained enough in period pugilism to know about “milling”. All that waving his hands about is not just for show, it is accurate and – perhaps more importantly, it had a purpose.

Most modern fighters tend to think of a guard as a “passive” thing. A defensive posture designed to absorb impact and minimise damager. I have talked at some length about this before; this absolutely has its place in the martial arts canon, but I would argue it is a more important strategy in the modern sporting arena than in self defence or in a bareknuckle contest. The extended guard favoured in the 19th century would be pretty poor at absorbing impact; it gave virtually no consideration to “covering up” at all.


Instead, this guard was more “active”. The hands were constantly moving, disguising your own intentions, creating a tangle of motion through which it should be difficult to sneak a good blow, and deflecting strikes using the sort of forearm blocking now considered to be more “eastern” in style. This practise, of keeping the hands in constant motion, was known as “milling” (presumably because the motion was reminiscent of the sails of a windmill).

This “active” guard is now found in a particular style of Silat called Lian Padukan. Lian Padukan was developed after the Malay riots of 1969 where native Malaysians and ethnic Chinese immigrants fought running battles in the streets and mixed traditional Silat with the Wing Chun style of Gung fu. The core punch, both of Lian Padukan & Wing Chun, shares several technical similarities with the vertical fist punching favoured by bareknuckle boxers, and in both of these systems, martial artists use a milling style motion to trap and deflect their opponents strikes, before opening them up for a counterpunch, usually to the face.

So; how was milling used in Bareknuckle boxing? The Simple answer is we don’t know. One of the first things Thomas Edison recorded in his Black Maria studio was this fight between Leonard & Cushing in 1894. And although some footage survives of James Corbett & Bob Fitzsimmons fighting in 1897, it is grainy, partial and does not show much in the way of milling. Both of these recordings, which are amongst the earliest boxing clips known to exist (in fact, I think the Leonard-Cushing clip might be the earliest. I recall reading somewhere that Edison had intended to have Jim Corbett & John Sullivan spar but couldn’t afford them) are after John L. Sullivan, and well into the territory of Queensberry Rules, which might go some way to explain the lack of milling.

Another alternative is that milling was never particularly widely used. Many boxers and MMA fighters “paw” at their opponents to mess with their guard and create openings for full punches. That is certainly displayed in the early clips, and perhaps milling was simply the term that contemporaries applied to this “pawing” gesture.

There, are, however, no surviving videos from the heyday of Bareknuckle pugilism, and the few photos and illustrations we have offer no clues as to how this concept was put into practise. Our best surviving evidence is footage of John L. Sullivan at the world’s fair in 1908, as he demonstrated his milling with James J. Jeffries. John uses the mill not as Silat practitioners to – to trap arms and throw strikes whilst inside the opponents posture – but instead to confuse his opponent and open them up by manipulating the level at which they are guarding. This would suit his known style as a rusher who preferred to deliver haymakers.

I suspect there might also have been a slightly more scientific use of the mill by James Mace, who was a self professed “Disciple of the straight left”. I know from my own experience and experiments that it is possible to circle out to the left of an opponents jab and use milling to contact their extended left arm with my right whilst delivering my own left either to the eye or the short ribs.

Another point to consider would be Daniel Mendoza, who has a reputation for “milling on the retreat”. This most likely means that Mendoza used his much vaunted footwork to execute the retreat whilst his arms became more active, adding to his defence and unpredictability to discourage opponents from chasing him.

The above image, from magnolia box, suggests that milling on the retreat might largely have been a strategy of smashing down one’s opponents incoming strikes as they attempt to rush. Note the figure on the left has the left hand, which would usually be leading, raised as though about to strike Tettsui, either on his opponents arms or at the bridge of the nose.

There are all sorts of possibilities that milling opens up, however the existing evidence of to what extent and how milling was actually used is frightfully thin on the ground. The fact that it seems to have gradually disappeared as a fighting strategy suggests that the close guard which is now favoured is a better option for modern fighters. But whether this is because of rule changes, different approaches to throwing punches, or simply the impossibility of not getting exhausted from waving large and heavy gloves around for an extended period of time is not something that we can know at the minute.

My suspicion is that it is a mix of all three elements, and I think the only way to proceed is to experiment with traditional pugilistic rules and techniques and establish how it works when interacting with the other known technical facets of pugilism in the period. For example, the preference for longer, straighter punches, body shots and wrestling and the avoidance of looping or power punches. Whilst this cannot give us a definitive answers as to how milling was used, it can give us a good indication of it’s likely uses, and we can then corroborate (or not) this with eyewitness accounts.

Bartitsu Demonstration: 10/07/2015

The video below is part of a paper I presented at the University of Huddersfield PG conference;

“Violence as a Performance of Identity: the necessity of an experimental archaeological approach to Victorian cultures of physical violence”

I would like to thank Becky Longden, who made a very patient and helpful demonstration partner, and the conference organisers for allowing me the opportunity to present my research live.

Keep an eye out for the full paper in a forthcoming edition of the Journal: Postgraduate Perspectives in History.

The psychology of John L. Sullivan’s fights.

   “You go get a reputation first”. The champion’s words echoed in the big man’s ears as he hugged a blanket to himself, fending off the chill of the Hudson river. His breath steamed in front of him as he sized up his opponent. Flood, the man’s name was. An enforcer for some of the river front gangs; his reputation was as foul as his appearance. Darting eyes peaked out from under a thick brow. Stubble covered any scars on his face, but those on his arms and torso were plainly visible. His nose displayed a twisted cant – a memento of several previous breaks. He was one of the roughest men in one of the roughest cities in America. He had brought with him a crew of toughs and low lives, who passed these final minutes in betting and drinking. Some would occasionally scan the river in case the police sought to interfere, but even if any were about, few constables would dare to tackle a barge full of rowdys. And out in the river, who were they hurting except each other? The call came to toe the scratch. The big man shrugged off his blanket as his seconds exited the ring. As he squared up to his opponent there was no flicker of doubt. As the round began he rushed forward, firing a volley of lefts and rights which beat the other man down. Each blow that connected landed with the force of a sledgehammer. “I can lick this sonofabitch” he thought to himself.

John L. boasted he never took a boxing lesson in his life. He learned how to fight by doing it. (Whether this was as the aggressor or the defender is never clear, though give his tendency to aggression and bullying one might reasonably suspect the former.) Most street fights between males do not end in serious injury. It just isn’t hardwired into us. In fact a lot of fights are about dominance – and we need to be clear about the difference between fights for dominance and fights for survival. (There is an approximate, though not perfect, correlation to sport fighting and self-defense fighting in martial arts). John L would quickly have learned that steamrolling someone is very effective in a street fight. Hit first, hit hard, and be aggressive. This is opposed to a more measured, technical “scientific” style. Which can be seen in trained athletes like Jem Mace, Mohammad Ali, Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida. He quickly overhwelmed most of his opponents psychologically which, I would argue, was every bit as important in understanding his ring prowess as the more well known facts about his hitting speed and power.

John L. holds an impressive ring record; 40-1-2 over his career. Thirty four of those forty wins came by way of knockout. What I am about to present is a short argument, based on that record, that John owed as much of his winning style to the psychology of his fighting style as he did to his speed or punching power. I’ve already written up one contemporary account of the Strong Boy’s legendary fistic prowess, but this seems like a good opportunity to elaborate on some of John’s fights.

One fight which appears in Christopher Klein’s biography, but not on Sullivan’s official record, is said to have taken place at Harry Hills’ (an infamous venue, known as “the most reputable den of vice in New York”. It featured stage shows, singers, exhibitions of boxing and wrestling, and was also a hangout for several local worthies involved in local gangs) and involved a Tammany Hall brawler called John Mahan, who had previously trained with Jem Mace and Paddy Ryan. When time was called, Sullivan rushed the older and more experienced Mahan, hitting with great rapidity and forcing him against a wall. Mahan hit the ground five times in the opening round. In the second, his seconds threw in the towel. One of New York’s most notorious street fighters could not withstand four minutes of Sullivan’s blows.

Later, in a match with Jack Burns which does appear on his record, Sullivan’s performance was even more impressive. Having knocked Burns down within twenty seconds of the first round, he allowed the shaken man to get to his feet, only to lift him off of them with a blow powerful enough to launch him straight into the audience. Two other matches of this period, those with Fred Crossley & Dan McCarty, were also measured in seconds with both men being put out in the first round. This impressive series of performances earned him his reputation, and John got his title match with Paddy Ryan.

After losing his championship to Sullivan, Paddy Ryan is reported to have said “I never faced a man who could begin to hit as hard… One thing is certain, any man that Sullivan can hit he can whip”. (Klein, Strong Boy, pg 50). The fight with Paddy Ryan was, by all contemporary accounts, largely one sided. Sullivan rushed the champion and blistered him with headshots, while Ryan himself landed few meaningful blows. The fight ended after 9 rounds of this action with Ryan too exhausted and weakened to toe the scratch. Despite being dominated, however, it is worth noting that Ryan lasted longer against all of the opponents I outline above put together.

Illustration from the Sullivan-Ryan fight, courtesy of theboxingmagazine.com

What is unusual is the brevity of all these fights. Nine rounds for a championship fight under LPR rules is almost ludicrously short. For reference, Paddy Ryan won his title from Joe Goss after eighty-seven rounds of fighting. Joe Goss had himself won it after twenty-one rounds. (And had previously lost a title shot to Jem Mace in 19 rounds).

To stop an opponent in the first round was uncommon, to routinely stop opponents in the first round was almost unheard of, and yet John L. was capable of dispatching very tough ring fighters with great rapidity.

This pattern continued throughout Sullivan’s fights, and if anything it intensified after he defeated Herbert Slade and went on his famous “knocking out tour”. Sullivan crossed America offering hundreds of dollars to any man who could stand four rounds with him. He never had to pay out once.

On this tour, something very interesting happened. Herbert Slade, who Sullivan had so thoroughly dominated in Madison Square Garden was a poor boxer. So when he and Sullivan had a falling out and it erupted into fisticuffs the result should have been a forgone conclusion, yet when the police arrived it was Slade who was on top, pinning Sullivan to the ground (Klein, Strong Boy – pg 86). The champion had to be helped to leave the establishment (though whether this was through injury or alcohol is unclear).

Desperate to see Sullivan toppled, Richard K. Fox, who had arranged Slade’s championship shot, arranged for Sullivan to fight an English pugilist called Alf Greenfield. The pair fought twice; two of the most desperately boring matches in boxing history. Sullivan charged the Englishman, but Greenfield, who was aware he simply had to last the four scheduled rounds, simply ran away. When he couldn’t run away he would clinch so that the pair would be reset and he could run away again. When neither of those things were working he simply fell down and took advantage of the ten count to slow Sullivan’s advance and stall out the round. Weirdly, it was these displays of boxer vs. sprinting acrobat that highlighted John L.s weakness and was to lead to his ultimate defeat.

Greenfield had hit on something; if John L’s rushes could be blunted there was little else he could do. John had no plan B. This knowledge enabled both Patsy Cardiff and Charlie Mitchell, two competent middleweight boxers, to claim draws against the heavyweight champion. The fleet footed middleweights simply outran the strong boy and fired jabs at him when he tired. With him unable to catch them, and them unable to finish him, the fights were declared draws.

It was in his final fight, against “Gentleman” Jim Corbett that this weakness was fatally exposed. Jim had both the footwork to outpace Sullivan and the hitting power to stop him. It was the only time that John L. was ever knocked out.

What I think happened is quite simple; John had a reputation as a fearsome hitter, a man whom nobody could stand before. That, combined with his ability to hit someone “like a telegraph pole shoved against [them] endways”, would give him a psychological high ground. John genuinely thought he was indestructible. That confidence made him take risks. He thought nothing of unloading everything into his opponent very early on in the fight.

If you are a more cautious, scientific fighter, that Blitz is overwhelming. The first time you see it, you are probably going to get hit by it. This has happened to me several times; I’ll be sparring with a new partner and suddenly they will be all over me and I have absolutely no answers. In a competition, that’s a loss. In sparring, I have the luxury of time, and can usually learn to recognise these rushes and work to counter them. Unfortunately, Ryan, Mahan and the others didn’t have the luxury of time – they had one of the best heavyweights in history hitting them in the face.

When you feel the rush come on and you have no answers, you become very defensive. Your entire fight psychology goes from “looking for openings” to “cowering, bleeding and praying whoever is hitting you gets bored” very quickly. I think this explains why Ryan lasted so much longer than the earlier fights – because he was experienced and because he was a champion it took him longer to think that he was being outclassed than the other men.

The bar fight with Herbert Slade brings home another aspect of this; in the ring Slade knew he was outclassed, and his demoralisation probably contributed to his defeat. In the bar, however, he was able to hold his own. It seems to me likely that two things were in play here; firstly Slade’s known ability as a wrestler, but also I think the Maori would be in a different mindset. Outside of the ring he would probably not be fighting so scientifically, probably not thinking as much, and therefore probably less concerned about Sullivan rushing him. Sullivan’s reputation and blitz would have so much less impact in this scenario because Slade was not thinking about the audience watching, how many seconds were left in the round, whether he was ahead or behind – he would simply be thinking about survival. His own safety came first and in a sports contest that can mean cowering in the face of an aggressive attacker – in a self defence context that means responding to that attacker with everything at your disposal.

Alf Greenfield, for all his fights with Sullivan might be panned, exemplifies the sport side of this. Aware he only had to last the four rounds, Alf was smart enough to realise the best way to achieve that was not to actually fight the four rounds. He focused simply on surviving. He cowered, clinched, ducked and dived his way into the history books.

Knowing that he didn’t have to stand up to Sullivan gave Alf the psychological advantage. He could act with impunity because “victory” for him meant something different to beating John L. down. Since this was the first time that such a thing could be said, Alf had moved the goalposts. All without telling the champion. Sullivan was awarded the win by decision, but these decision victories had tarnished the myth of his invincibility. His footspeed and stamina were exposed as weak points, and all future opponents had to do was learn how to take advantage of that knowledge.

This deprived Sullivan’s rush of it’s terrifying character. Instead of being an unstoppable force he was more of a storm to be weathered. That doesn’t mean that weathering him was easy, (notching up another 6 wins and only 1 loss after fighting Greenfield is evidence that he remained as potent as ever) but it was known that it could be done and this gave other fighters the confidence to really try. One of Sullivan’s main weapons was his rush, and when people stopped being scared of that he became a less formidable opponent – even if only marginally.

A Victim of Battery D

During Sullivan’s “Grand Tour” of 1883-1884, he fought dozens, if not hundreds, of willing challengers from all over America, offering $250, $500 and even $1,000 to any man who could best him. In the event, nobody did. During the November of that tour, John & his troupe stopped in Chicago and gave an exhibition at the Hall of Battery D. “The Big Fellow” was challenged by a Hoosier from South Bend, Indiana; an encounter immortalised by a poet of whom I can find no record, and thus can not properly credit.

This poem can be found in John L. Sullivan’s Autobiography, Reminiscences of a 19th Century Gladiator, where John reminds us that “the fatal ending [is], of course, only a humorous conceit … under what might be claimed as poets license”. It amused him to the extend that he reproduced it in its entirety. I have to say, if all boxing writing were this prosaic, the sport might have enjoyed a much broader support base.

A long and lean Hoosier ascended the stage,
And stepped to the front with a grin;
Removing an ulster, which showed signs of age,
He said he would like to begin;
While Sullivan, properly sizing his man,
‘Advanced with his left’, as they say,
Remarking: “I’ll touch him as light as I can,
By giving him Battery A.”

But John’s lightest touch, it is safe to suppose,
Weighed not a pound less than a ton,
And so thought the Hoosier, whose prominent nose
The slugger had landed upon.
The Hoosier arose and again made a pass,
But ere you could say ‘One, two, three,’
A blow from the Boston boy sent him to grass,
And John remarked: “Battery B.”

Adjusting three teeth and removing an eye,
The Hoosier, in terrible plight,
Laid over the ropes half determined to die,
Or, perhaps, to seek safety in flight.
But, cheered by the crowd, he came up with a smile
When ‘time’ was announced for round three,
Receiving in very weak action and style
The contents of Battery C.

Now wail for that Hoosier whose unhappy end
Remains in a word to be told,
And wail for the mourners today at South Bend,
Who gaze on those features so cold.
The coroner’s ‘quest has removed every doubt,
And soon on a tombstone you’ll see:
“Here lies a poor Hoosier completely knocked out –
A victim of Battery D.”

I think more fights should be recorded in the form of poems. Whoever you are, unknown poet, I salute you and the genre you invented; let’s hope this catches on.

Self Defense and the use of Improvised Weapons

I like weapons. Not in a serial killer-y way, but as a practising martial artist I think they are great fun. They are a good way to vary training and develop additional strength and dexterity. The thing is, because I like socialising with normal people, I tend not to carry these practise weapons round with me; which means I’m training for what exactly? The night somebody crashes into our dojo during nunchuck class they are going to be sorry, but otherwise I can’t think of a reason why I would learn to use them for “self defense”. I have had to admit, these weapons are for training and history purposes only. But looking into that history a little more closely has helped me realise some things about using weapons for self defense.

As some of you may know, my weapon of choice is the staff. I have invested a fair amount of time and energy learning to do complicated and intricate spins and combinations with this weapon. The thing is, I know that all of that is for fun – as my Sensei keeps reminding me “it’s just a big stick”. The way we train to actually fight with the weapon looks incredibly different from virtually all of the exercise drills we do with it because, at the end of the day, we’re really just trying to thump somebody very hard with a big stick. Everything else is for show and exercise. I think this happens a lot. If you enjoy training with a weapon you end up putting effort into making it look cool, and lose sight of the fact that it was originally used for fighting. Probably unintentionally. A huge amount of the most fetishised weapons in the martial arts were originally improvised from whatever happened to be at hand when the viking/mongol/pillager burst into your house.


Let’s start with that internet favourite – Nunchaku (or “nunchucks” as people insist on calling them). I remember watching an episode of the Simpsons as a Child (the one where Bart pretended to learn Karate, in case anybody is interested), and noticing a background joke; a documentary entitled “Nunchucks: Cool but Useless!”. This is pretty much the most accurate summary of nunchaku I’ve come across. (Disclaimer; I still practise with nunchaku – I’m just not under the impression they would be my first choice of weapon). If you practise with nunchaku, you can look incredibly cool. People like Bruce Lee did it, people like Jake Mace try and help you to do it too. Most of us, unfortunately, end up looking more like this guy. He’s no novice, there’s a bit of practice behind him, but he still ends up doing more harm to himself than anybody else. Even experienced martial artists who spar with these weapons look like they are having an advanced slap fight.

The point is not that nunchaku are not effective, but that they are not effective in the way that we think they are. That dynamic there is why no professional soldier has ever used nunchaku as a primary weapon. Ever. Can you imagine the chaos of hundreds of men flailing at each other – mostly impotently – for hours on end? The fancy stuff we do for fun and exercise does not translate to the weapon’s practical use, and the room needed to wield the weapon effectively make fighting in formation impossible.

“Chodowiecki Basedow Tafel 13 d” by Daniel Chodowiecki – 1774

Plus, the flail – our equivalent of nunchaku –  was a peasant weapon in Europe. There are no known paintings of Louis XIV holding a flail, but a peasant fending off an armed trooper (above)? Or a group of peasants in revolt? They had flails. Not because flails were super effective, but because they were the most effective things to hand that one could use. The flail is an agricultural instrument. It was used for threshing; separating wheat from chaff. If you were a European peasant called to go to war, or to a peasants revolt, or – as is the case above – who needed to defend yourself from a lone dandy, it was a handy thing to have around because it was big and could hit things very hard. It was a much better plan than going to war expecting to bite the enemy to death, so if you didn’t have a sword, spear or crossbow, you could grab your flail and turn up to the fight. It may not surprise you to learn that nunchaku had a very similar origin. They are nothing more mystical than rice flails. And they served the same purpose. While nunchaku do appear in several Asian martial art forms, not least kung fu, they are best known for their use in Karate, an Okinawan art. Here, the use of this farming implement was encouraged after the Japanese invaded the Rykyu kingdom and made the island nation of Okinawa part of Japan. Owning weapons of war was banned, however owning agricultural tools was necessary to eat, so there were plenty lying around. And if some Samurai invader decided to stick his Katana wielding nose in your business? You had two options; pray for a merciful beheading or pick up the nearest heavy thing and try to brain him with it.

I think that is where nunchaku would be valuable, as weapons of self defense. They are the sort of thing an Okinawan peasant would have lying around, and they pack the punch to take down an attacker, whether he be a criminal or a Samurai invader. Those are really the two most important things in a weapon of self defense; can it hurt my attacker? and is it there when I need it?. They have they additional advantage of articulation. A simple stick or baton works to multiply the force of your strike, but the rope or chain in nunchaku accelerates the striking arm much faster than the handle and this really improves the level of force your strikes land with. Nunchaku have virtually no defensive capability at all. You cannot block, parry or cover with them. But these capabilities are more important in a longer engagement, such as a battle – where shields were popular for covering and absorbing blows, or even in a more ritualised format, such as a duel – where both antagonists would parry for their own protection and work to take advantage of openings.
Recent research (Darin Waugh, Real Fighting – Real Facts, 2013) suggests that most self-defence encounters last around a minute. Also, they are frantic, and since you would tend to be on the back foot, your first priority is not to establish a solid defence but to create a counter attack, and preferably do enough damage to escape or win. Therefore, for the limited scenario of self-defence nunchaku are a good choice of weapon. Partly because they can hit very hard but mostly because they were right there when you needed them. This is going to be a common theme amongst our treatment of improvised weapons. Since most attacks are a surprise to the victim, a super cool weapon that is really effective but that needs retrieved from a hiding spot and/or assembled is less than no good for self defence. While you are trying to remember where you left that self cocking crossbow with the night vision sniper scope your attacker has all the opportunity he needs to beat you to a pulp or worse.

The Tonfa

The Tonfa (or Tunqua) is a side handled baton.

Sometimes colloquially called a nightstick, it is popular with some law enforcement and security agencies. This particular image is courtesy of the Galls security website.

Straight off the bat, this is a slightly more practical weapon than nunchacku. Lacking the articulation it packs slightly less punch, but is far easier to control, which is why it is favoured as a less lethal weapon by some security professionals. It can be wielded in a manner similar to a regular baton or stick weapon, but has the advantages of also being wielded with the side handle facing outwards (“hammer grip”) to give a smaller area of impact and thus magnify the effective force of the weapon, or defensively, using the side handle (“shield grip”).

A demonstration of the shield grip taught to security professionals.

However, despite its versatility and effectiveness for law enforcement and security professionals, the tonfa was never designed as a weapon, and it has never seen much military use. The humble origins of this weapons lie in another piece of Okinawan agriculture – folklore has it that the tonfa was derived from a quern handle (or a crutch). But we have one huge clue with the tonfa that should immediately tell us we are dealing with a weapon for self defence (as opposed to battlefield) use. Dual Wielding. It was not done on the battlefield, however it was sometimes done in duelling. It is definitely practised with the tonfa (at least if you study Kobudo). While training one tends to hold both Tonfa in the same grip, either a “sword”, “shield” or “hammer” style of dual wielding. Through experimentation I have come to enjoy using one tonfa in a shield grip and another in a hammer grip, finding this to be quite a practical combination – though not very flash. While maybe I would carry one of these around for enforcement or self protection (pretty much as police officers do) I would think carrying two would be unnecessary and cumbersome. The most logical explanations are that we train with them in pairs to build ambidexterity, and would only ever use one; but if that were effective then those police who use side handle batons would adopt the training method, and they don’t. Instead they learn how to integrate their free hand to use grappling and apply controls or restraints. The other explanation, and the one that I prefer, is that some sword wielding samurai bursts through the front door of your house, and you grab the nearest things to try and brain him with. I can absolutely see tonfa being used in pairs against an armed attacker who surprises you.


The horsebench is another example of the “heavy things that you can hit someone with an a pinch” genre. A popular form of traditional seating in China, it certainly has a history of being wielded in bar fights.

A Horsebench. Admittedly classified an “additional weapon” by the British Kung Fu Assosciation, but still popular enough to make their weapons page.

The Horse bench is very poor offensively, slow, clumsy and relatively low impact, it isn’t a very good weapon. It’s sheer size, however, makes it a surprisingly effective improvised shield, and it still has the advantage of increasing one’s reach and minimising risk to one’s person. The horsebench has been adopted into several styles of kung fu and wushu, and now has dozens, if not hundreds, of forms.

Note the large, deflective movements and the short choppy strikes. These would suggest that the bench was envisioned being used against swinging weapons (e.g. Naginata, sabres or baseball bats) rather than thrusting ones (e.g. spears, rapiers or knives). That is not to say, however, that the horsebench would be useless against these weapons, simply that the techniques we see in horsebench forms were not designed with them in mind. Our next entry demonstrates another line of thinking.


In WW2 W.E. Fairbairn encouraged us all to “get tough”, and suggested that should a soldier ever have to fight a man armed with a knife, he should follow the example set by the horsebench and grab his chair to defend himself.

This digitisation of the image from Stav Academy

Fairbairn gives the rather optimistic estimate that using a chair against a knife you should have the odds c. 3-1 in your favour. If this were true then more armies would issue their soldier with battle chairs rather than bayonets, however the general principle is sound. The chair is a shield, creating distance, and jabbing it into an attacker creates opportunities either to disarm, disable or escape. I would certainly prefer to bring a chair to a knife fight than nothing at all.

Cane/Walking Stick

Around the turn of the twentieth century a number of systems of self defence appeared utilising the cane or the walking stick. The most famous of these was Bartitsu, an eclectic blend of Boxing, Jiu-Jitsu, Savate and stick fighting.

Images appeared in Pearson’s Magazine c. 1901
Illustration of an inventive use of the crooked cane against a boxer, also from Pearson’s Magazine

However, Bartitsu was far from alone. Pierre Vigny taught canne de combat, a variant of cane fencing at his school of arms in Paris, and later became an instructor at the Bartitsu club. In 1923 H.G. Lang, an officer in the Indian police, released an entire book on the subject called The “Walking Stick” Method of Self Defense. The idea behind all of these uses was not that the cane was the ultimate weapon, but that it had the potential to be a weapon if needed, and it was something most gentlemen had on them most of the time. Similar ideas were applied to umbrellas and parasols, which the practitioners of these forms were quite open about being inferior quality sticks. To quote Neo-Bartitsu instructor Marc Donnelly “Is this a good weapon? It is if it’s in my hand when I’m attacked”.


Bicicletta-9 bicycle-2

The images above, printed in Italian Magazine La Stampa Sportiva in 1904, suggest using a bicycle as a shield or a battering ram in the event of having to fend off footpads. These suggestions appear to have been quite serious. As the victorian cyclist has already pointed out, conflict between pedestrians and cyclists appears to have been a serious problem – and from my reading it seems most likely that gangs of toughs saw cyclists as soft targets either for sport or mugging. The response from self-defense enthused bicycle riders appears to have been to weaponise their velocipede.


This entry is bound to be a little controversial. Up until now, everything mentioned in this article was purposed for something else, and has found use as a weapon under some peculiar circumstance. Swords and pistols are designed with being a weapon in mind. My argument, however, is that swords and pistols should primarily be considered civilian weapons – or at the very least equal parts civilian and military. Throughout most of military history both swords and pistols have been side arms. In Japan, the preferred weapon until the late 16th century was the Yari, and it was only after the battle of Sekigahara in 1600 ushered in the Tokugawa Shogunate that the Katana began to be preferred. It should be noted that after 1600 the main type of combat a Samurai was likely to encounter was duelling rather than battling. Similarly, in Medieval Europe polearms (poll axes, halberds, bardiches, glaives, spears etc.) prevailed on the battlefield, however the culture of duelling with swords lasted until the beginning of the nineteenth century (See R. Shoemaker – Male Honour and the Decline of Public Violence in Eighteenth Century London). Nobody in the 1800’s was suggesting they settle differences with a pollaxe, but this was not because a pollaxe is an inferior weapon to a sword, but because the sword achieved a crossover into civilian life as a fashion accessory and status symbol. It was a side arm – convenient to wear and therefore easy to take with you. This made it more useful for self defence than battlefield weapons like the pollaxe because it was on your hip. The pollaxe would have been a pain to carry around – and so you would have left it at home.

An eighteenth century flintlock pistol. Note the brass plating on the handle, to reinforce it for use as a clubbing melee weapon.

Likewise the pistol. Flintlock pistols were pretty hopeless as weapons. Smooth bore and short barrelled, their accuracy left a huge amount to be desired. Excepting a brief period where the caracole (ride horse into pistol range, shoot, run away, reload, repeat) was in battlefield use, pistols have never been primary weapons for soldiers. They have, however, been used for duelling, as personal protection, and as side arms for developing forces, like the police. Police in England could, and often did, carry pistols until 1896 – although this was often an officer’s personal choice rather than official policy. Police forces in America and Europe still carry pistols as standard. Again, the point is that a pistol is small enough to be easy to carry; and officers like the police are not expected to need weapons in the course of their normal duties.

What all of these weapons have in common is convenience. If they were particularly effective as weapons they would be front line use for military personnel, because those are the people who need the best weapons. For everybody else, be they private individuals or police, they do not need the most weapon-y weapons, they need the most convenient ones – because most of the time they are not using them, and hopefully they will never have to.

Realistically, my conclusion to this has to be that most weapons are actually pretty useless at self defense. And that most of the things we think of as self defense tools are pretty useless as weapons. What it comes down to is one simple question; is this likely to be in arms reach when I am being attacked? If the answer is “no” then it will be no good at self defense.

Some of this approach, however, can be more effective than others: