How to Write Master Martial Artists

Everywhere he goes people whisper his name with fear and reverence. Bandits are either terrified of him or conspire to kill him. He walks with a palpable aura–either of carnage or of peace. And whenever he draws his sword, he leaves broken and bloodied bodies in his wake.

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Miyamoto Musashi takes on the Yoshioka School in the manga Vagabond. Spoiler: he wins.

Martial arts exponents are a staple of most genre fiction. From Chinese wuxia to Western high fantasy, sword & sorcery to steampunk, if the story justifies it, a martial hero or villain will appear. He wears an aura of supreme confidence, and woe betide anyone who stands in his way. His presence alone guarantees spectacular action scenes.

Unfortunately, most people have no idea how to write one.

To be clear, this article is aimed at writers who want to authentically portray trained martial artists in their stories. This applies to stories whose aesthetic favours the realistic portrayal of martial arts. Here, characters who properly apply martial principles survive battles, and those who are less skilled fall by the wayside or into shallow graves. In such a setting, their skills may be augmented by magic or superscience or some other justification, but this augmentation does not take the place of skill.

Why would you want to write stories like this? Readers are already used to portrayals of martial arts that are more grounded in fantasy than reality, in flashy visuals rather than gritty realism. It’s easy to just cook up a showy fight scene and move on. Why spend the time and energy to choreograph a realistic fight scene?

I do it because I’m a contrarian who grew up reading thrillers, and I get bored when I see unrealistic action scenes. Less flippantly, a realistic fight scene would reinforce the aesthetic of a story that is meant to carry the weight of reality. The gritty feel of action movies like Taken and the Bourne series come in no small part from the way the characters move, think and act in combat, reinforcing the notion that the protagonists are truly highly-trained operatives. Furthermore, a fight scene that respects martial applications demonstrates the true power and grace of the human body, a kind of beauty that can manifest in the real world outside of the screen or the page. Done right, it is so awesome it inspires people to seek training and build up their bodies.

It’s Not (All) About Speed, Strength, Size or Fancy Techniques

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Tiny girls, huge swords, not quite what we’re looking for.

When described in fiction, martial experts tend to fall into two not mutually exclusive categories: superstrength or superfast.

In the first category we have characters who rely heavily, if not exclusively, on physical might. Conan the Cimmerian is described as ‘steel-thawed’ and as primal as a wolf, with sword by his sword and magnificent musculature on display. Guts from Berserk carries a stupendously long and heavy sword, and is seen cleaving armored enemies in twain. Such characters are shown accomplishing incredible feats of strength, all the more impressive if they are merely mortal. More often than not, these characters tower over everyone else, emphasising their strength.

In the second we have characters who are incredibly fast and/or agile. Himura Kenshin is the most famous Japanese example, being able to accelerate and strike so quickly no one sees him coming. Yoda appears tiny and elderly, but he is deceptively acrobatic. These characters impress the audience by acting much faster than the average human.

At the intersection of both categories, we have characters noted for their special skills, which are usually flashy named moves. Himura Kenshin’s ultimate technique is an attack so fast it appears to strike all nine key targets on the body at once. In wuxia stories with heavy fantasy elements, heroes and villains routinely execute special techniques that grant them supernatural speed or strength. These techniques come to define the character, and the appearance of an ultimate technique signals the desperation of the moment.

In a realistic fight scene, none of these elements are paramount.

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Prodigious size and strength are useful, if you live long enough to employ them.

This is not to say that strength, size or speed don’t matter. They do. Mere mortals are not going win a grappling match with a three-hundred-pound sumo wrestler, or go toe-to-toe with Jack Dempsey in the ring at his prime. However, true mastery of martial arts allows the practitioner to at least partially negate these elements through applied skill. Being strong and fast and resilient is useful, and indeed necessary for the kind of physical work that martial heroes find themselves doing, but they don’t always decide the outcome of a battle.

As for flashy techniques, it is my experience, and the experience of those more experienced than me, that flashiness equals death. For the user. Sure, they can be fun to perform, and they may even work against rank amateurs, but the more complex a technique is, the more likely it will fail under a life or death situation. And that’s not even counting techniques that violate the laws of reality (see Himura’s ultimate technique).

Mastery of the Fundamentals

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Kenji from the eponymous manga shows us how it’s done

In my previous post on martial mastery, I described how mastery of the martial arts comes from mastery of fundamental skills. In my opinion, many creators ascribe to the physical what they should instead ascribe to skill.

The perception of superstrength comes from perfection of body dynamics. You can be the strongest person in the world, but if you don’t know how to punch, you’ll just hurt yourself. People with an innate understanding of how their bodies work will be able to transfer their entire bodyweight into the target, allowing them to defeat seemingly larger and stronger opponents. In addition, people who can move efficiently have no wasted movements, allowing them to move faster than those who can’t fully control their bodies.

The perception of superspeed comes from the understanding and application of footwork to control range. If you control the range between yourself and the opponent, you control the speed of the action. Counterattacks in the martial arts tend to involve stepping towards the enemy–in addition to adding momentum to the blow, you are also reducing the range to your target, which makes you look faster. Likewise, using deceptive footwork and body language, you can create a false perception of the distance between you and the enemy, allowing you to seemingly move faster than he can react. Stepping to the side maintains the range but changes the angle between you and the enemy, and a large enough side step may carry you out of an enemy’s cone of vision, effectively making you disappear to his eyes. Stepping backwards is usually contraindicated since a human can move faster forwards than back, but if weapons are in play it is one method of sniping at an opponent’s hands without getting struck yourself.

Proper timing creates the perception of speed and invincibility. A person with proper understanding of timing knows just when to move, allowing him to block an attack, strike at an opening, evade a counter. Such a person seems to have an impregnable defense and unstoppable offense. He doesn’t need to be strong or fast; or just needs to know where to move and when to defeat you.

Dojos and martial arts schools break out fancy techniques mainly as a means to attract and retain students. For combat applications, instead of flashy techniques, strive for what Rory Miller calls ‘Golden Moves’. These should do four things: put you in a better position, put the enemy in a worse position, defend yourself from the enemy, and dump power into him. For example, in FMA, a response against a downward slash is to step out with a rising cut. By moving to the outside, you have evaded the enemy’s attack and put yourself in a position where you can flank him. The enemy, in turn, can’t attack you without turning, buying you time to react. If your timing is poor, the rising cut deflects the enemy’s blade, and now you are at the right angle to pin the enemy’s arm and deliver a finishing stroke. If your timing is good, you’ll cut off his hand or arm. With excellent timing, you’ll slice right through his torso. Such techniques are easy to remember and pull off, are grounded in reality, are still accomplish the same goal as a flashy technique — that is, to finish the fight.

Every martial art is built upon certain assumptions and principles of movement. Kali is based on weapons, and practitioners move as though weapons are always in play. Boxers focus on punches, footwork, timing, slipping, blocks and footwork, usually with gloves on. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has a powerful ground game. Every master has an inherent understanding of these principles of movement, as well as the above-mentioned skills, allowing them to perfectly execute their favourite techniques.

Going beyond mastery of the principles, martial masters control the fight. They won’t fight someone else’s game; instead, they use their skills to force the opponent to fight their game. For example, against a boxer, our master may use long-range kicks or shoot in for a throw. When facing a grappler, he’ll keep out of grappling range and wear him down with strikes. If the stakes are high enough and it’s a life or death situation, he won’t even go for a stand-up fight. He’ll call friends, bring tools, and use deception and the environment to get in close enough to unleash his skills without risking the chance of a counterattack.

Reference Materials

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Kamishiro Yuu gets his game face on in Holyland

This article is just a primer. I do not claim to be a master, only that I have studied under them. If you want to delve deeper into the subject, you need to do your research.

The ideal is to study a martial art and pay close attention to acknowledged masters of the art. Even if you don’t or can’t attend classes, you can find plenty of books and videos. Look at how these masters move. Observe the totality of their bodies, starting with their feet and working your way up, and seek the principles they employ. Look first at the universal skills — body mechanics, range, footwork, timing — then look at the skills specific to the art.

If you want to dive deeper, you need to develop the vocabulary to understand and describe what you’re looking at and for, and the effects of violence on characters. Rory Miller’s Violence: A Writer’s Guide and Marc MacYoung’s Writing Violence series are excellent primers aimed at writers. NRA Freestyle Media Lab examines action scenes in popular movies and breaks them down from a self-defence perspective, while Nerd Martial Arts and Martial Gamer examine techniques in martial arts.

Once armed with the basics, you have the foundations for additional research.

Done properly, though, violence is boring. If your character can reliably end the fight in one move, it’s not particularly exciting for your audience. To write exciting fight scenes, look also at how creators choreograph them. For movies, I recommend Taken (the original!), The Raidand The Raid 2, the Bourne series, and the Rorouni Kenshin live action film trilogy. In written fiction, look up John Donohue’s Sensei series for Japanese martial arts, Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town for Western stick fighting, and Marcus Wynne’s novels to examine modern combatives. For manga, there areVagabondOokami no Kuchi: WulfsmundKenji and Holyland. Anime has Junketsu no Maria and its authentic portrayal of Historical European Martial Arts while Cowboy Bebop has stylised depictions of Jeet Kune Do.

Fight scenes, authentically and excitingly portrayed, make stories stronger and show the reader what a trained human can truly do. If you want to do more than rely on the same tropes of superstrength, superspeed and flashy techniques, seek out the fighting arts of the world and see how you can apply them to your own work.

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Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that my own novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS features an exacting portrayal of Filipino and Historical European Martial Arts. You can find it on the Amazon Kindle store and the Castalia House ebook store. It is also eligible for the Dragon Awards; please vote for it under the Alternate History category. Thanks!

Martial Mastery: From the Fundamentals to the Complex

 

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Ikken hissatsu. One strike, sure kill.

It is the standard karate practitioners aspire to: to finish the fight in a single blow. Combative oriented martial arts echo this principle. Jeet Kune Do aims to swiftly end fights with decisive strikes. Self-defence instructors advise students to defeat an attacker with three moves or three seconds. In Filipino Martial Arts, when weapons are in play, combat can be decided with a single stroke.

In movies, television and video games you’ll see plenty of flashy techniques and drawn-out action scenes. During live demonstrations and exhibitions, performers will roll out complex and fancy kata. It may look beautiful, but it is not combat. It captures the artistic side of the discipline, but not the martial component.

If you train for real world applications, then you must align your training methodology with reality. Under the stress of a life-or-death encounter a cocktail of hormones will flood your bloodstream. You’ll gain strength and endurance and pain resistance, but you’ll lose the fine motor control needed for flashy stunts. You won’t rise to the occasion; you’ll fall to the level of your training. And the longer the fight drags on, the more opportunities the bad guy(s) will have to harm you and your loved ones. Thus, your number one priority is to end the fight now.

You don’t need a thousand techniques. You don’t need to memorise entire catalogs of kata. You don’t need to know how to do two-man drills blindfolded. What you do need is a toolbox of high-percentage techniques that cover the scenarios you’ll reasonably expect to find yourself in.

And these high-percentage techniques tend to be the basics.

The Hidden Complexities of Basic Techniques

Basics look boring. These are simple, uncomplicated moves that old, slow grandmothers can do with their eyes closed. It’s tempting to skip them and go straight to the fun stuff. But these moves are basic for a reason: they are the base upon which you build true martial skills. And the truth is, basic techniques are anything but.

A staple technique in Filipino martial arts is the number 1 strike. This is a diagonal forehand shot aimed at the opponent’s temple or neck and bisects him clean to the hip. It looks simple. It is simple. But to do it right, you need to understand the following:

  • Targeting
  • Footwork
  • Hip twist
  • Shoulder whirl
  • Elbow drop
  • Wrist alignment
  • Grip control
  • Range
  • Timing
  • Recycle

For this one technique to work, these eight elements (and more) have to be tightly integrated into a single fluid motion. Beyond that, you need to know a host of other things: how to avoid feeding your hand to the enemy, how the length of your weapon affects your footwork, how to adjust for a moving target, how to extend or contract your arm to suit different ranges, how to step and strike simultaneously, how to conceal your intent until the last moment, how to whip your arm if you’re striking, how to follow through if you’re slashing…

If you break down a single technique into the parts that make it work, you’ll find that you need to understand and internalise a huge array of concepts before you can perfectly execute it. Perfecting even a basic technique will take countless hours of sweat and hard work. Not because the technique is difficult — the number 1 strike is a gross motor technique and easily to remember — but because to get the most out of that technique you must be able to integrate all these principles into a single fluid motion. Hard enough to do when training; now imagine doing it when you’re facing a maddened terrorist with steel in his hand and murder in his heart charging at you while screaming “Allahu Akhbar!

Basic techniques aren’t basic just because they are simple. They are basic because they contain the base principles upon which the entire martial art is built. The principles I described above apply to every slash in every flavour of FMA out there. The body mechanics are the same, the considerations of range and timing are the same, the way the weapon and the target influences the angle is the same, the only real difference is the direction the strike comes from.

To master the art, you have to master the principles.

It’s not easy. With so many things to integrate, it becomes extremely easy to mess something up under stress. During my last training session, we did basic knife drills. A response to a low line thrust and a response to a horizontal thrust. They looked simple enough, but when we flowed at speed, everything broke down. Footwork became clumsy. Angles got confused. Suboptimal responses came out. More than a few times a stab or slash broke through. And it wasn’t even close to the speed of a true lethal force encounter.

Basics aren’t simple. For the basics to work you need to put together a vast array of seemingly disparate concepts. With the basics being so complex already, why make your life more difficult by jumping to the advanced stuff?

And, more to the point, there is no need to.

Martial Simplexity

The foundational skills are the building blocks for more advanced techniques. A thorough understanding of the basics gives you the keys to understand more sophisticated concepts, and build a toolbox of techniques that you can call your own.

In Pekiti Tirsia Kali, the forewall is the last-ditch block. You turn into an incoming strike, meeting the blow with your weapon and reinforcing your primary hand with your secondary hand. It is a basic technique, easy to remember under stress. The only major consideration is that if you have a sword, you should meet the enemy’s weapon with the flat of your blade to preserve the cutting edge. After you defend against the opponent’s attack, you dash in for the counter–perhaps a basic number one strike. To augment a forewall, step into the enemy. This shortens the distance between you and him, allowing you to absorb the shock of impact on the strong of your weapon (i.e. the lower half) and reducing the time you need for your counter.

This is a basic technique, but if you enemy has fast reflexes or anticipates the counter, he’ll just block or evade your counterattack and you’ll be back where you started.

Now suppose, when your weapons contact, you slide your secondary hand across your primary and check your opponent’s wrist. Then slide in with a cut from six o’clock to twelve o’clock, slashing up through his groin. With your blade now pointing at his neck, if he’s still standing, you can step in and thrust deep into his throat for the finish.

The check clears a line of attack and delays the enemy for a split second, long enough for your counter. As the groin slash comes from below his cone of vision, he isn’t likely to see it coming until it’s too late, and the arc of the slash chambers your weapon for the throat thrust if needed.

If you break these motions down into individual steps, you’ll see that they are all basic techniques. The forewall is the same, just with a slight modification. The slash is basic, and so is the thrust. But the application requires an understanding of range, timing and footwork, foundational skills which are less easily learned.

Now let’s say you get lucky. You step into the attack with your forewall, and you grab the opponent’s thumb. With your hands still crossed, swing your arms anticlockwise and turn the hand palm-up. Done properly, this would break his structure, weaken his grip and strip his weapon. If he hasn’t dropped his weapon yet, snap your primary arm to the side to disarm him. Then finish him as you please.

Every movement is still basic, but now everything must be perfect. You must land the forewall at the perfect distance to allow the grab. Your gripping hand must be dead on target, or you will either grab air or a live weapon. The wrenching motion must be swift and decisive. When you perform the disarm, it’s the same mechanic as a horizontal slash, but if the enemy has a sword you must present your arm to the flat or you will cut yourself. You must also send the weapon flying in a clear direction or send it straight down into clear space, lest you hurt yourself or an innocent person nearby. And the entire sequence must be performed so fast, the enemy must be disarmed before he realises what’s going on.

This is not a high-percentage move. FMA masters note that the best way to disarm someone is to dis-arm him: to destroy the offending limb. But if you are supremely skilled, if the stars align, if you have the opportunity to do it… Execute at your own risk.

Once you understand the basic principles, you can pull off some pretty cool moves. But you can only reliably execute these cool moves if you are intimately familiar with the principles that make them work.

Returning to the Beginning

My training purposes have remained the same: self-defence, research and health in that order. I would like to be able to defend myself against aggressors. I would like the knowledge needed to credibly write protagonists skilled at martial arts. I would like to keep fit above and beyond my regular gym sessions.

The advanced stuff sure is pretty, but in sparring and high-speed flow drills, I find myself reverting to the basics again and again. No flashy disarms, no eight-strike combos, just techniques easily remembered under stress. Even so, execution isn’t always perfect. And that’s okay; it just means there’s always room to grow. Basic techniques are complicated enough as is; there’s no need to make things even more difficult by adding additional complexity when the body isn’t ready for it. My current training goal is to grasp the foundational skills of my chosen art. It’s going to take a while, but that’s okay.

The basics will save your life. Everything beyond that is a bonus.

Martial Concepts: Principles of Footwork

When people think martial arts, they think of stunning strikes, intricate grappling and dynamic takedowns. Footwork is underappreciated in pop culture. But footwork makes these techniques work.

In some martial arts and sports, such as boxing and Muay Thai, it may be advantageous to absorb blows to less vital parts of the body in exchange for setting up a decisive blow. This is Rocky Balboa’s favourite strategy, letting his opponents wear themselves out and setting up opportunities to counterpunch. You can see this in his immortal fight against Ivan Drago.

In Filipino martial arts, when faced with an incoming blow, the preferred approach is to get out of the way. To understand why, simply replace Drago’s gloves with knives.

You can be as tough as Rocky, but mere flesh and bone isn’t going to stop steel and hardwood.

FMA originates from a weapon-based culture. The main assumption is that everyone is either armed or has ready access to a weapon. There is no way you can block a blade or stick with your body. You’ll just end up a bleeding, broken mess. Even if you don’t see a weapon, it doesn’t mean that the threat doesn’t have one—in the dark, against a small blade, you can’t tell if the threat is armed until your lifeblood gushes out on the floor.

You cannot afford to take a hit in FMA. The surest defence is to evade.

This is the guiding principle behind footwork. But it’s not the only reason to train footwork.

Footwork and Range

To understand footwork, we need to first understand range. There are three main ranges in Pekiti Tirsia Kali, my base art: largo, medio and corto. They are analogous to long, medium and short range.

At largo, you and your opponent are out of range. Neither of you can attack each other. Footwork in largo serves three purposes: place yourself in an advantageous position, bridge the distance and strike, or to escape before he and his buddies catch up to you.

In medio, you and your opponent can strike each other. This is the most dangerous zone in FMA. Assuming the two of you are equally skilled, there are three outcomes: you hit him, he hits you, or a mutual kill. Two out of three outcomes against your survival is not a winning proposition. In PTK, footwork at medio is designed to take you out of the danger zone: either out into largo, or deep into corto.

Corto is bad breath range. This is the realm of grapples, elbows and knees. PTK specialises In combat at this range: its name loosely translates into ‘chop up into little pieces’. In PTK, the goal of offensive footwork is to carry you safely into this position to finish off the threat. If the opponent resists you more effectively than you realise, or if he has friends coming to his rescue, footwork also takes you out of corto and into safety.

Footwork lets you control the range to your opponent to suit your goal. If your goal is to escape, you want to maintain distance at largo, identify a clear escape route, and run. If he tries to catch up, footwork helps you evade.

If your goal is to finish the threat, footwork places you in prime position to launch your attack. It puts you at the range and angle to employ your favourite techniques without exposing you to the enemy’s.

Against multiple opponents, mobility is critical. You cannot afford to slug it out with one guy. His buddies will flank you, slam you to the floor, and introduce you to the joys of a boot party. You need to keep moving to avoid being swarmed. This allows you to either exploit an opening to escape, or to maneuver yourself so that the threats get in each other’s way, allowing you to engage just one at a time.

Footwork and Angles

The second component of footwork is angles. Different styles have different approaches to controlling range and angles. FMA players use the analogy of a clock to describe angles of attack and movement. You can see this in the picture below.

You are the blue circle. The threat is the red oval. The lines indicate possible angles of movement. In front of you is 12 o’clock, where the threat is. He is in medio, advancing to strike you. As mentioned earlier, there are only three outcomes, and only one will go your way. You must get off the X and turn the situation around. There are four ways to do it.

The first method is to close in with a diagonal forward step. You step off on the 10 or 2 o’clock line, about 45 degrees off the line of attack. Other styles prefer the 11 or 1 o’clock, or 30 degrees. Combine this footwork with a turn towards the opponent. This places you on his flank. When the enemy sees you vanish from his 12, he needs to reorient towards you, buying you a precious moment to escape or to strike.

This is the preferred approach of PTK. PTK is an offensive-oriented art. This step places you in corto, giving you easy access to the threat’s head, throat, arms, side and legs. From here you can employ elbows, knees, stomps, traps, whatever you like. Other styles go one step deeper, circling around the threat to gain his back. From here, you can do whatever you like to him without fear of retaliation.

The second method is to step off with a diagonal rearward step (or leap). You move back on the 7 or 5 o’clock line (or 8 and 4), taking you to largo. This is not a permanent solution: a person can advance three times faster than he can move backwards. If you keep retreating like this the enemy will catch up and overwhelm you. This is a desperation move, to be employed only when you are surprised.

There are two main reasons to do this in PTK. The first is to buy you time and space to turn and run. The second is to stage a counterattack. For the latter, as you move, you take a piece of the enemy by striking at his hands while moving your body (and vital organs) out of the way. Then, with the enemy weakened, you can close into corto for the finish.

The third method is to sidestep to the 3 or 9 o’clock. This maintains the range between the two of you, but it puts you on his flank. If you have a long weapon like a stick or a staff, this lets you employ the weapon’s reach to the fullest; had you moved to corto, you would either have to give up the weapon’s advantages or employ different techniques. Further, if the opponent is bull-rushing you, this sidestep uses his momentum against him, either by giving you an opportunity to strike him before he can turn towards you, or to let him give his back to you.

The last method is the most dangerous: you move along the 12 or 6 o’clock line. You are still on the enemy’s angle of attack. But this may be your only option if you are attacked in a train, a bus or some other location where you have no room to maneuver.
If you go down the 12 o’clock, you are countercharging into corto range. This is the realm of clinches, infighting and takedowns. Once inside, there is little art here, just single-minded aggression and a desperate fury of elbows and knees, chokes and strangles, throws and takedowns. As the enemy can also do the same to you, you need to finish him off before he recovers–especially if he has a weapon.

Down the 6 o’clock, you encounter the same perils as the backward diagonal, with the added disadvantage of still being in the line of fire. Committing to retreating on the 6 o’clock is viable only if you are going to turn and run. If not, you need to use this move to set up a counterattack. When the enemy attacks, he is opening a line to his body. What you want to do is to step out into largo (ideally striking his hand), then counterstrike along the open line before he puts his guard back up. High-level players don’t even step; they just subtly sway or shift their bodies, just enough to take the target out of range, then lunge in on the counter. Floro Fighting Systems specialises in this method of countering a threat.

Notice how the players subtly sway and step back as the attack comes in, then immediately counter along the exposed line. This requires a superior sense of range and timing to pull off—but highly effective when done right.

Footwork and Fighting

Moving isn’t just about getting to safety: it powers your attack. Since you’re already burning all the calories to move your body, you might as well drive your bodyweight into the threat too.

FMA torques the hips to generate power. After completing a technique, the player is in a position that allows him to twist his hips and launch into another attack, which places him in a new position to strike yet again. This synergy is the basis of kali’s famous flow principle

For example, assume a threat is throwing a straight right punch. A kali player might crash in on the 10 o’clock line, slapping down the extended arm with his left hand and jabbing at the eyes with his right. As he retracts his right arm, he snatches the target’s arm and pulls it down. This clears the way for a left cross, a right uppercut and another left cross. Four blows in three seconds or less.

Different martial artists will have different responses. A silat player may step off-line on the 11 o’clock line and follow through with an ankle stomp, and if that doesn’t finish the job, he can whip around into a groin slap, then grip and rip. A boxer might slip the punch and shovel hook the threat’s side, then continue swarming him with punches. A judoka could attempt a throw, a Brazilian jiujitsu player might go for a takedown and a submission. But they all have one thing in common: they move off the line of attack, then use their new position to recapture the initiative.

Different styles have different methods of generating power through movement. Find the techniques that suit your body and personality best and see how your footwork can accelerate these techniques. Then drill incessantly to ingrain them.

Final Thoughts

Footwork is critical. For martial artists, proper footwork takes you out of danger and places the threat at risk of your most effective moves. For fiction creators, understanding footwork lets you choreograph exciting, dynamic fight scenes a cut above bog-standard Hollywood brawling. For gamers, proper footwork means you won’t bleed so much, especially in action RPGs.

Martial arts is about doing to the enemy without him doing the same to you. Footwork is how yo do this. If you are a martial artist – get on the mat and train.

Martial Analysis: The Knife

Knives are brutally effective at killing people and terribly ineffective for self-defence. To understand this conundrum, we need to understand the properties of a knife.

First, the pros. Knives puncture and sever. With a properly sharpened knife, it doesn’t take a lot of force to penetrate flesh and open veins. Smaller knives can be easily concealed on your person, under a thin layer of clothing. The blade of a knife adds a few inches to your reach when held in a forward grip; held in the reverse grip, the blade can be used to hook and clear the opponent’s limbs. As a short and light weapon, it can be used freely in the clinch and at grappling range, allowing for multiple rapid strikes. Many commercial knife designs are adequately sharp, cheap and utterly disposable — which lend themselves to specific applications by certain professions.

Now the cons. Knives do not usually impart kinetic energy into a target. They cannot break bones or shock the nervous system; when the adrenaline is going, the opponent won’t know he’s been cut. Most modern knives have little mass behind them, so unlike their larger classical cousins they cannot cut off limbs. Cutting a threat will spray blood all over you. A blade offers only a few inches of extra reach — against a longer weapon like a stick or a chair, a knife wielder is at a clear disadvantage. Folding knives require greater fine motor manipulation — and training — to properly deploy, and there’s a not insignificant risk of messing up the deployment under pressure. Fixed knives, while easier to draw, are harder to conceal. And in the First World, it can be a tad inconvenient if the police ask you why you’re carrying a blade — especially if you do not live in a blade culture.

Forget what you see in Hollywood and most pop fiction: a single lethal strike is not enough. There is no such thing as an immediate kill with a knife. It takes between one to two minutes (usually on the longer side) for someone to bleed to death from a single severed major blood vessel. Up to an hour if you’re unlucky.

In combat every minute is an eternity. If you can’t intimidate the threat after pulling the knife, things will get very ugly, very quick. On the other hand, knives are ubiquitous, cheap, disposable, easy to handle and easy to conceal. Sneaking up on someone and stabbing him to death is depressingly easy. It’s not a clean death: it’s hard and messy and noisy — and that’s if everything goes your way.

This is the reality of the knife. It is an excellent offensive weapon. If you have the initiative, you can overcome its drawbacks through stealth and violence of action, filleting your target without ever giving him a chance to retaliate. And when you’re done if you have a cheap blade, you can simply toss it and get a new one. On the other hand, knives are poor defensiveweapons: they’re not going to quickly stop a threat — at least, not without proper training.

Before You Take Up the Blade

I am not a self-defence instructor. I’ve studied martial arts for a mere three years. Do not count on my words as gospel; if you want to dive deeper, seek out the knowledge of qualified teachers, many of whom I will link to at the end of this post. All I will do here is summarise what I have learned over the years.

In a court of law, a knife is a deadly force implement. It is illegal to use one if your life is not at risk. In many places, it is illegal to use one, period. In my own country, it is illegal for civilians to carry weapons for self-defence. If you choose to carry a knife as a weapon, you must understand your local law and the penalties for breaking it.

If you do carry a knife for the express purpose of combat, you must be psychologically prepared.

Extend your arm to the fullest. This plus the length of the blade is the maximum range of knife combat. More often than not, it will take place closer than that, so close you can smell the threat’s breath. You will be pumped full of adrenaline, your senses will be simultaneously sharper and duller than usual. Through the blade you will feel flesh parting and blood gushing. You will hear the grunts and screams and cries of a dying man. The stench of his fear and blood and waste will fill your nostrils. He will thrash and buck and flail and fight and you have to hold on. You must stitch the threat over and over and over and over again, working the target until the moments a viciously violent living being becomes an inanimate lump of meat and bone.

When it’s over, you will be covered in blood and filth. If the threat had a bloodborne disease, you’ve just exposed yourself. If you’re lucky, you will merely suffer long, agonizing weeks of pain, fever and vomiting. If not, you will suffer long, agonizing months of pain, fever, vomiting, intensive medical treatment — and then you will die. HIV and Hepatitis B and C are the primary pathogens of concern; using a knife on a threat with one is a fine way to catch it.

And even if you manage to walk away clean, you will never, ever, forget. All you can do is make peace with what you’ve done. Be ready.

Targets and Tactics

Different knife arts have different targeting methodology. In Pekiti Tirsia Kali, there are three primary targets: the guts (or groin), the underarm and the throat. There are five secondary targets: the eyes, the hands, the inner forearm, the biceps and the thigh. The primary targets are for killing, the secondary targets are for degrading the threat’s ability to fight.

To defeat a threat with a knife, you must achieve at least one of the following:

  • Psychological stop: Intimidate the threat into running away, or to give you enough space to deploy another option
  • Exsanguination: Puncture so many holes in the threat he bleeds out
  • Structural stop: Sever the muscles, nerves and/or tendons that allow him to move

A psychological stop is simple. When a threat accosts you, pull out a great big knife with a great big smile. If the threat persists, cut at his hands, eyes or face. Humans are hardwired to instinctively protect the head. The flickering blade, the spray of blood and (hopefully) a sudden pain combine to terrify the threat. The idea is to give him something else to think about and to convince him that you aren’t an easy mark.

But this only works against an uncommitted attacker. This is for the mugger, the woofer, the punk with more mouth than brains. Against someone whose blood is up and hell-bent on killing you, you can’t count on it. He may not even register the blade’s existence. Also, in many jurisdictions, this is a crime. You clearly didn’t feel threatened enough to carve up the threat, so it clearly wasn’t a life or death situation, so clearly the use of a lethal weapon is not justified. Use this tactic at your own risk.

Exsanguination is easy. Puncture the major blood bearing organs, sever the arteries and wait for him to bleed out. It doesn’t take a lot of training to do this; you just need to will to do the ugly, dirty job of manslaughter.

In PTK, the throat is the ideal target. Here are the carotid arteries and the trachea. Slice these and blood will gush free and flow into the airways. The threat bleeds and chokes out simultaneously.

After the throat is the underarm. The rib cage protects the chest, but the armpit is undefended. A stab here will puncture the lung and, with a long enough blade, the heart. When you retract the blade, the muscle and tissue collapses. The target suffers a sharp shock to the chest. With every breath, his lung deflates.

The groin region should properly include the guts as well. Here is a wealth of blood vessels and organs: the intestines, liver, spleen, stomach, pancreas. Rapid, upward thrusts and swift horizontal cuts to the region leads to massive internal damage.

Pulling off an exsanguination stop is depressingly easy. Just watch this:

There is no dancing around, no fancy footwork, no posturing. Just four easy steps.

Get as close as you dare. Jam his primary arm. Crash him into a wall or floor. Stab until you or he blacks out.

What if the bad guy attacks you with a blade or stick ? Simple. Cut or stab the hand, clear it out of the way, then bum-rush the target and stitch him up until you or he blacks out. If you have a knife in the reverse grip, it is easier to hook and shear the enemy’s weapon away.

What if the threat is already grappling you? Draw knife, cut him until he lets go, then escape or use the above tactic.

This is the essence of knife ‘fighting’. It is less a two-way exchange of blows, more a sudden furious desperate blitz of steel and spit. Advanced knife tactics are all about creating an opportunity to close in so you can do this.

As discussed earlier, an exsanguination stop will take time. Long minutes of stabbing and slashing and cutting and piercing until the threat ceases to be one. And if he is in knife range, you are also in knife range. The threat may access hidden weapons and fight back even as you stab him. You won’t feel it until you grow weak and black out and die. Even as you work him over, you must deny him the ability to kill you. You need to move as he moves, keeping his arms tied up and jammed against obstacles, and if you sense him drawing a weapon you must respond. Similarly, if the threat has friends, you cannot let yourself be tied up taking one guy out. Otherwise, they will pull you off him and do unto you what you were doing unto him.

The structural stop is based on the concept of defanging the snake. If a threat cannot hold a weapon or cannot stand he is no longer a threat. This plays into the main strength of a blade, allowing you to rapidly incapacitate a threat without the inconvenience of waiting for him to bleed out. As a bonus, you are less likely to take a spray of blood to the face.

The weapon arm is the primary target. The inner forearm is rich with nerves that control the hand. The largest muscles that power the arm are on the upper arm. To attack the former, you need to perform what is known as a gunting or crossada: a scissoring motion that deflects the weapon hand with your secondary hand while simultaneously slashing with your primary. This requires a great deal of training: it is very easy to miss or, worse, catch the blade with your naked hand. Alternatively, you move to the inside of an incoming attack, blocking the weapon arm with your secondary arm and slashing the forearm. To take the biceps or triceps, go for a deep gunting or inside slash, or slip out and jam the opponent’s arm against his body and slash the exposed muscle.

The eye is a valuable target. If the threat can’t see he can’t fight. The goal is to thrust and run. After you stick the eye, the threat will be blind in that eye. Run past his blind spot. This should buy you enough time to flee the area.

The thigh is the other main target. Here, you target the quadriceps. If the threat can’t stand, he can’t slash or strike you. However, if the threat has a firearm, you must also disable the hand (or stomp him in the face) or risk being shot in the back.

While a structural stop may be quicker than bleeding out a threat, it requires training. You need to meet an incoming attack with your naked hand and a tiny blade without getting cut. This requires exquisite timing and bravery, developed only in the training ground. If your cuts don’t go deep enough, the threat will still be active, allowing him to harm you. Further, most FMAs were born in a time and place without heavy jackets or jeans — blades may simply slide off clothing or won’t go deep enough. You need to train the comma cut, and to stab andslash a target muscle. Michael Janich has more below.

Structural stops rest on the assumption that you have someplace to escape to and the threat will obligingly go down and stay down. If you’re attacked at home, or if you’re in a confined space like an elevator or stairwell, you have to fight until the threat stops. If the threat runs away or gives up after you cut his arm, great. But if your cuts are too shallow, if the threat simply picks up his weapon with his other arm or draws a backup, and is still able to harm you, the fight is still on.

Sayoc Kali teaches the concept of timers and switches. Timers are lethal attacks that will permanently end a target, but take time to bleed out. Switches are structural strikes that will permanently disable a target’s limb, but will not kill him. Learn to mix and match targets as the situation dictates. Against a single threat, flipping a switch or two may be enough to end the fight. Against a pack of enemies, you need to keep moving while defending against the possibility of hidden ranged weapons; you may have to employ a timer and a switch on every threat to stop them. A berserker or highly dedicated attacker may only stop when he runs out of blood and air.

With a knife, there is no clean distinction between lethal and less-lethal force. A quadriceps cut may non-lethally put down a target, but it can also sever the femoral artery and cause him to bleed to death. A cut throat is presumably lethal, but a shallow cut might not dissuade the threat. But to the courts, a knife is always a lethal weapon: even if you use a knife non-lethally you are only allowed to do so if your life is at risk.

Reading is no substitute for training and experience. If you dare to take up the blade, find a trainer and prepare for the worst. Study the human anatomy and psychology, understand the strengths and weaknesses of the blade, and be ready for a whirling maelstorm of steel and blood.

Further Reading

This is only a basic overview. There is much not covered here: psychology, anatomy, tactics, critical skills. For more information, please see below.

Other noteworthy instructors include Doug Mercaida, Terry Trahan, James A. Keating, Ed Calderon and Raymond Floro.

Martial Analysis: Mindset

Before the first punch is thrown, the fight is won and lost in the mind.

There are many, many instructors out there discussing a plethora of techniques and drilling down into the finer points of how to properly employ them. There are likewise many teachers who stress timing, footwork and distance. Technique, timing, footwork and distance are important martial skills, but they all rest on the assumption that you are psychologically ready for the fight. If you cannot match your mindset to the moment, no amount of fancy shuffling and technique can save you.

Try this exercise. Go to the middle of the most crowded place in your area, find a target, and ram your fingers into his eyes. No warning, no hesitation, just walk up to him and strike.

Can’t do it?

That makes you part of the vast majority of regular people out there. And that is fine. Most humans are hardwired to feel empathy for other humans. This allows people to cooperate and reduce the likelihood of conflicts flaring up into merciless battles to the death. In everyday life, there simply isn’t a need to switch off your ability to empathise with someone and go ballistic.

But a fight is not everyday life.

Professional athletes have it easier. They know the date and place of their next match, and sometimes their opponent. They have weeks, months, even years to train. As the day and hour approaches, they can pump themselves up, visualise themselves performing at their best, and mentally prepare for the fight.

Combat is nowhere near like that.

Nobody will warn you that they are going to attack you. Regular people won’t have a crystal ball that tells them when they will be attacked. All people can do is read the people and the environment around them. If you’re lucky, you get a monkey dance, with the participants working themselves up into throwing the first punch. If you’re not, you’ll get a blitz.

Being on the receiving end of a blitz is scary. The attack is close and sudden and hard and fast. You’ll have little to no time to react to everything coming in. The attacker will overwhelm you with screaming, constant forward pressure, attacks from multiple angles, shutting down your ability to respond. With so much going on, the mind shuts down. Everything does blank. You freeze.

And you die.

The Stranger in the Park

Many years ago, I was returning home from a writers’ gathering. It was late at night and I was heading for the train station. I decided to walk through a nearby park. It was well-lit, but the hedges and the plants and trees isolated me from the world. Deeper into the park, I sat down at a bench to take in the world. I looked around.

And saw him.

A tall, dark individual strolling down the path. The only path in and out of the area I was in, so narrow I couldn’t create distance. I glanced at him and felt the weight of his gaze on me. I looked down. He was still staring at me.

I stood up. Got out my phone.

Walked towards him.

As I approached I kept him in my peripheral vision, ready to trigger on sudden movements. I moved slowly and casually, but kept a tight grip on my phone. I readied myself to drive it into his throat if I had to. I took deep oxygenating breaths and readied myself.

We approached.

We brushed past each other.

Nothing happened. I left the park and headed for the train station.

Fortunately for everyone involved, nothing happened. But if he had attacked me, I would have been ready.

There was only one exit and no witnesses. When the person appeared, I decided I couldn’t leave from the other side. It would place my back to him, and a determined aggressor could run up behind me and strike. I decided I had to face him head-on to give myself a fighting chance.

I readied a tool, reconciled myself to the possibility of combat, and faced the danger zone head on. I had prepared myself for combat, and readied to strike at the first sign of imminent danger. And when I determined that violence was not called for, I calmed myself and left.

That is mindset. The readiness and willingness to respond if necessary, and the ability to step down when it is not.

Developing Mindset

For most of your life, there is a high chance you would have been raised to be a fine, upstanding citizen. Obey the law, follow directions, talk civilly, try to reason with people and so on. These are outstanding traits, but they only apply to regular life. Combat is not regular life. You must be prepared to harm people so quickly and brutally that they cannot do the same to you. It requires seeing them not as human beings but as harmful threats to be ended, like particularly dangerous cattle for the slaughter. If you apply the mindset of a civilised person in the toxic brew of combat, you will die.

The first step to developing a warrior’s mindset is to give yourself permission to attack. Reconcile yourself to the possibility that you may one day be robbed, assaulted, raped, stabbed or shot for any number of arbitrary reasons. Run yourself down a list of potential scenarios: a carjacking, a mugging, a home invasion, and ask yourself how you would respond.

Be honest with yourself.

Would you be willing to gouge eyes and rip throats if someone was trying to rob you? What if that person decided taking your stuff wasn’t enough, and escalated to rape and murder? What if a drug-addled home invader broke in late at night and went after your children?

What would you fight for? What would you kill for? And, most of all, what would you not fight or kill for?

The answers to these questions tell you what techniques you are willing to apply when under pressure. This is not about what you can physically do, but what you allow yourself to do. You may, for instance, be confronted with a pistol-wielding terrorist about to execute you. Your body may be physically capable of stripping the gun and turning it on him, but if you are so afraid or so unwilling to harm him that you won’t do it, techniques are moot.

You must give yourself permission to defend yourself and your loved ones in a critical event. If you do not, your brain will hang up and everybody will be at risk. Most of all, yourself.

The Eyes of a Predator

Armed with these answers, go forth and look at the world around you with the eyes of a predator. Identify blind spots and opportunities to set up ambushes. Look for choke points and kill zones where prey must funnel through. Look for signs that forbid people from defending themselves and see how you can circumvent local defences.

Observe the people around you. Are they fit or flabby? Do they have their heads up and scanning or their heads down and staring at screens? Are they listening to everything around them or are they listening to loud music pumping through their headphones? Who seems capable of defending themselves and who will not be?

This is how a predator looks at the world. This is how they will assess you and the environment. With this information, go one step further. Think about how you can bypass or observe these kill zones. Ask yourself if you really have to pass through danger areas, and if so, how you can minimise your exposure. See how you comport yourself with the eyes of a predator and ask if you are an easy mark. And if so, how you can change your behaviours and posture to be less of one?

Do not be where the danger is. That is the essence of self-defence. But if danger finds you anyway, you need to deal with it.

The Gravest Extreme

When faced with a blitz, it’s easy for most people to go, Oh my God I’m gonna die!

They flinch, get their hands up, rear away, and be bowled over. If they are lucky they can flail their arms and get off a few ineffectual ‘attacks’. But they are not ready, and they will lose.

When faced with sudden violence, your first response must be, FIGHT!

When training, this is how you should think and act. Respond to aggression with aggression. The goal is to survive and end the threat right now. He does not get a turn, he never gets a turn. You take him down and move on.

There are two ways most martial arts achieve this. The first is to cultivate raw aggression. When the adrenaline hits, you burn it to induce a ferocious rage. You charge the attack and wipe out the attacker before he can respond. This is the hallmark of many hard or ‘external’ styles, such as Krav Maga or Muay Thai. The second is to become cold and implacable, riding the adrenaline rush to eliminate the threat, utilising the calm to employ more sophisticated techniques and tactics. Many internal martial arts like Tai Chi and Systema use a lot of breathing and relaxation work to achieve this.

The former is like a relentless wildfire, burning down everything in its path. The latter is a black hole, consuming all. In either case, the ideal is to transcend your ordinary human experience and become the avatar of a force of destruction.

Remember that all techniques flow from mindset. If you are not ready to destroy your opponent, but he is willing to destroy you, the only question is whether you are going to the hospital or the morgue.

Now the difficult part: you have to know when to back off.

The law only allows for reasonable force to defend yourself. Gratuitous violence will be punished with criminal charges. And you have to live with what you have done. It is well and good to work yourself up into a all-destroying rage, but you must be able to calm down immediately or face the consequences.

Putting It All Together

Training technique is well and good, but if you are training for combat you must also develop a combative mindset.

Understand your personality and ethics. What would you fight for? What are you willing to do to your enemy under what circumstances? When you fight, are you the kind to become a wildfire or a black hole? When training, focus on techniques, combinations and tactics that suit your mindset best.

When training solo, visualise yourself being attacked out of the blue. Train your mind to go FIGHT! when the scenario begins and unload on the attacker. If you have friends, role-play scenarios as realistically as you can, and go as hard and as fast as possible. Don’t throw halfhearted attacks and blocks; do go full power if you safely can. Best of all, get safety gear and bang it out. Be dynamic and noncompliant: the attacker should respond realistically, looking for holes to counter the counterattack. Embody the ferocity you need in a safe environment.

When training, learn to escalate and de-escalate. Be cognizant of what your moves to the threat and the legal consequences thereof. If you’ve knocked out an adversary, stomping his ankle is illegal. But if he gets up despite the damage and his friends are rushing in, the ankle stomp is necessary. Train for both events. Train yourself to go hard when you must in the face of continued resistance, and to stop when the threat is no longer a threat.

All deeds flow from mindset. The human body can employ a veritable arsenal of techniques. But to use them effectively, you must give yourself permission to defend yourself.

Bonus for Writers

If you are a writer, look at your characters’ experiences, background and personalities. Apply the above ideas and concepts to them. What is violence to them? Something outside everyday experience? A possibility they must prepare for? Something they have only experienced in combat? Or part of their job?

The more familiar and intimate they are with violence, the more likely they will have developed a predatory mindset. For violence professionals — soldiers, cops, hired killers — it is mandatory when on the job. This mindset manifests in behaviours and actions: an abundance of caution and wariness, constant scanning, walking in circles to detect tails, carrying concealed weapons, body positioning to be ready for violence. Other characters experienced in violence will notice these tails and react accordingly.

What you want to do is to have your characters act and talk in line with their training and lived experience. A combat veteran should not act like a clueless civilian, a professional criminal will find ways to carry weapons on him when necessary, and a sniper would scan windows and high-rises everywhere he goes. If a character’s deeds are not consistent with his described expertise, it leads to cognitive dissonance and creates the impression of weak writing.

Any dissonance should be deliberate on your part. For instance, if you have a civilian scanning rooms and people like a pro, it’s a sign that he’s not what he seems. Similarly, someone reputed to be a heavy hitter may decide to act carelessly to lure his enemies into a trap. Dissonance must be justified to believed.

When in combat, one way to differentiate between characters is the emotions and the mentality they bring to the table. A berserker will charge the enemy in a combat high, disregarding danger. Soldiers and tactical units will work together to overwhelm the enemy. A more calculating sort would analyse the situation and strike accordingly. Understand how a character’s experience, training and personality intersect and manifest in their deeds. This allows you to make different characters distinct in a reader’s eyes.

Further Reading

I am not speaking ex cathedra and I am no expert. This post is just an overview; it is not a be-all and end-all guide. For more information, please read Rory Miller’s Facing Violence andForce Decisions, and Kelly McCann’s Combatives for Street Survival.

For another post on mindset, read Dark Triad Man’s post here.

To learn how criminals think, see No Nonsense Self Defense here.

How many guards does it take to restrain a threat?

That’s a rhetorical question. But it’s one that refuses to die, especially now that the family of Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah is intent on suing the government. In 2010, Dinesh, an inmate in Changi Prison, kicked a prison officer in the abdomen. This sparked a 30-minute confrontation that ended with Dinesh’s death. The government has offered compensation, but his family wants to sue the government instead. This is unsurprising, since the official autopsy report was never made public, and without seeing CCTV footage of the incident — if any exist to begin with — nobody knows what really happened.

This is a very sticky situation. To be certain, many of the questions surrounding his death could have been answered if videos were available, if a coroner officially investigated the death and made his findings public from the start, and if the government actually acts on its watchword of transparency instead of keeping official documents away from the public eye.

But one thing especially irks me: uninformed activists and bloggers harping on the fact that 8 to 10 officers (the numbers aren’t consistent) restrained Dinesh. It is as if the numbers alone suggests wrongdoing or police brutality. Indeed, there have been claims of brutality and excessive force — none of which, as far as I can see for now, has been backed by evidence.

These people ask, why do you need 8 to 10 men to restrain a prisoner?

Okay, what arbitrary number then?

Because that’s what this quibbling over numbers is. Arbitrary.

I’ve known actual prison guards and read of their tactics and mindsets. One of them, Rory Miller, has 17 years of experience and specialised in handling unruly prisoners and cell extractions. He was a member in his prison’s tactical unit, handling cases just like this one. Care to guess how many guards he would take to respond to an incident like this?

Everybody he could find.

When dealing with a threat, such as a violent inmate, the rule is: the greater the number of responders, the greater your options, and the higher the chances of everyone being safe. Including the suspect. I’m not talking about Dinesh’s case now, rather I’m talking about principles of force.

Can the authorities send in one guy? Sure. Miller used to be ‘that guy’. But Miller has decades of experience training in and using classical jujitsu. Not modern jujitsu; the kind samurai used to immobilise, cripple and kill on ancient battlefields. He has an innate understanding of human body mechanics very few people will ever achieve, if only because very few people even know where to get that kind of training from. Also, he went in solo…with the rest of the team just out of sight, ready to back him up if things went wrong. And the prisoners he went after? The majority of them were either just making noise or not immediately attacking Miller, giving him the tactical flexibility he needed to resolve the situation.

Can the average guard walk in and end a situation by himself? No. Simply because your average person, much less guard, does not have the decades of experience and specialised training Miller has. It is not necessarily a question of competency or training — it is a question of real-world experience, and that you cannot learn in a dojo or training room. How many guards in the prison, at the time incident, can claim to have Miller’s level of experience?

There is no substitute for experience. How do you train your brain to recognise when and how to step up to someone, slide the web of your thumb and forefinger into his philtrum, then slide up your hand and sweep out his leg to throw him to the ground? How to adapt your body mechanics, how far to close with him, how to move your limbs, how to move on slippery ground, how to move your other hand, how to defend yourself from a possible counterattack, how to move so you won’t expose yourself to a different threat, what to do if this move fails? And to do all this under adrenal stress, when tunnel vision is setting in, the hands are shaking — and the threat, too, is experiencing the same benefits and drawbacks of adrenaline, and is NOT constrained by safety requirements? All this can’t be learned in a textbook or in basic combatives class. This takes experience.

This is not to say the solo guard won’t prevail — it’s just that there’s a much, much higher chance of bruises, broken bones, blood infections, concussions and other injuries. On both sides. With one guy, you don’t have many options. If the first move doesn’t stop the threat right away, things might escalate, requiring ever-higher levels of force. The news said Dinesh started the incident by attacking a guard: if this were true, then a solo guard will be at an immediate disadvantage. With no backup around, and already taking blows from the get-go, he has to use a higher level of force to regain control of the situation. Or pay the price.

How about two people? Again, you still need skilled guards. It’s easy to slip past two ordinary humans if you know how to drop your weight. I’ve seen drills which require the participant to escape multiple attackers whaling on him simultaneously. The same considerations for a solo response apply, albeit to a lesser degree. If they cannot stop the threat right now, things will still get ugly.

If less-lethal tools are available and authorised, using them is highly recommended. Tasers and OC spray fall in between verbal orders and laying hands on a use of force continuum. Tools like that give the guards an edge — but they do not always replace the need to put hands on a suspect. Case in point, the guards did use OC on Dinesh. If OC dissuades a threat, great. But if it doesn’t, then the guards have to use bare hands to restrain the threat. And OC is an oil, making hands-on techniques even trickier than it already is. For one thing, your hands may slip. For another, OC may get into your eyes.

It’s time to rephrase the question a little. How many guards does it take to end the threat right now and ensure everyone’s safety as far as reasonably possible?

At least four. One for each limb. It’s a simple tactic. The guards surround the threat, secure each limb, then basically sit on the threat until he decides to give up. If you get a bunch of average guards — not tactical team quality, like Miller and his team, but regular guards — this tactic has a high chance of working well even under stress and when communications break down.

Restraining someone is tiring if he puts up a struggle. What most martial arts don’t tell people is that restraining someone, such as by using a wrist lock or a arm bar, does NOT automatically win a fight. In most classical battlefield martial arts, physical restraint moves set up a limb break. Or a crippling move. Or a kill shot. Those that don’t assume that you want to take the enemy alive and that you have both backup and a tool to secure him without needing your hands. And that you are willing to kill him if he doesn’t comply. Modern-day civilian self defence moves assume that you can call the police after you’ve secured the threat. If you ARE the police, you need different tactics. Like more manpower.

Physical restraint using bare hands, without wanting to escalate into more damaging attacks, is simply forcing a stalemate and hoping you can attrit the suspect’s stamina before you run out — or before he finds a way to escape. If a team has eight or more people, that means that if the first four guys get tired, they can swap out and keep up the pressure until the suspect gives up or runs out of energy. It also means they do NOT have to use a higher level of force.

Now going back to Dinesh: the whole incident assumes it’s just Dinesh and the guards. What happened to the other inmates? If the guards do NOT respond with a large force, if there are other inmates around, and the inmates see a fellow inmate attacking a lone guard, who is to say the inmates won’t seize the opportunity to gang up on the lone guard? Or challenge the guards in the future? Violence is not just between two parties — it is also a means of communication. If you are not killing someone, force is a means to coerce a subject into obeying your will — and to communicate a message to observers.

The problem is, a message or a tactic that is meant for a specific target can (and therefore, will) be misinterpreted by a third-party audience. This includes uninformed civilians with little to no knowledge of martial affairs and read about violence as it actually happens in the real world. From Zuccotti Park to George Zimmerman, I have seen so many people spout ‘police brutality’ and ‘excessive force’ without an inkling of what those words actually mean. Or what security forces need to accomplish the mission.

But that’s because we live in a safe world. One that has no need for average people to use violence regularly, where violence is an exception, not a rule. In such an environment, stylised or inaccurate portrayals of violence (think Hollywood) influences and informs how people feel about violence. None of which have anything to do with reality.

This is the real world. Not the Octagon, not the Olympics, not Hollywood. The suspect is coated in oil, the guards are not necessarily combat athletes and bad luck happens. It’s easy to imagine the suspect slipping free, the guards not being able to get a good grip, the guards being affected by the OC in the air, people crashing and slipping all around, the suspect gaining his second wind…there are so many variables the average civilian can’t even begin to conceive, that are learned only through blood and sweat.

The same reasoning applies to people who don’t believe that someone could put up a fight for 30 minutes, or that someone who weighed ‘only’ 51 kg is mostly harmless. Just pick up a cat and toss it at the nearest human. Weight isn’t as important as willingness to fight and power through pain and fatigue.

I’ve seen fights that’ve lasted for a long time. My sources have been in violent incidents which have lasted long, long minutes. For example, an aggressive emotionally disturbed person who wants to fight will fight until his body can no longer physically function. This is beyond the point of exhaustion, going on in spite of broken hands and limbs, being unable to register any kind of pain or fatigue whatsoever. Then there are other factors, like the ones I described above: slipping around with OC, suspect recovering, etc. It’s not likely, it doesn’t usually occur, but when — not IF — it occurs, a fight like that will become the longest thirty minutes of the first responder’s life.

(This is not to say the ’30 minute fight’ described in the beginning could have happened. From what I’m reading, the incident was over pretty quickly, and the 30 minutes could have included transit time back to Dinesh’s cell. But I digress. This is not about Dinesh; it is about fights that last for a while.)

For the ‘activists’ I’ve mentioned above, violence is no longer about tactics or effectiveness. It’s about how well a story fits and confirms preconceived notions of violence and state power. It’s about how violence makes them feel instead of what really happened. Hows and whys don’t matter, only personal opinions and which parts of a story fits personal prejudices. And taking potshots at The Establishment, regardless of justification.

This is not the activism and the reporting I set out to develop. There are questions of transparency and accountability here. But claiming excessive force and police brutality solely because of the number of responding guards is uninformed nonsense that serves no purpose. To reporters, bloggers and activists who want to talk about violence: first do your research and know what you’re talking about. There are better things to do than to quibble over numbers.