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A major shortcoming of the self-defense world is that it is full of misinformation, untested theory and gimmicks. Like the fitness world’s “blink your way to washboard abs” type of quick-fix programs, the personal-defense market has always been littered with “declassified” courses, secret systems, high-speed devices and other assorted schemes that promise the average desk jockey that he or she will be able to defeat a platoon of Navy SEALS.

If you’re truly serious about personal protection, you need to do your homework and approach everything with a healthy dose of skepticism. Here we’ll guide you through the process of separating fact from fantasy, and lifesaving gear from money-wasting gimmicks.

Fighting is Physical

Let’s start with the basics: If a self-defense situation ends up with actual physical violence, you will have to do something physical to solve your problem. While that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be a UFC-level athlete, it does mean that you need to break contact with your couch if you want to have any real capabilities. Yes, there are experienced martial artists out there who can destroy people with movements so subtle they appear effortless. The talented folks who can really do this possess a set of skills, knowledge and timing that has been developed over a lifetime of study. They didn’t learn what they know in a week, and you won’t be able to either, no matter what the bold print says.

If you want to learn to defend yourself, don’t look for someone who wants to teach you a few self-defense tricks. Real skills take real time and effort to develop. Also, don’t fall prey to the other end of the spectrum, which insists on taking perfectly functional methods of hurting people and turning them into an aerobics or gymnastics routine. Fitness and endurance are definitely assets in a fight, but they are not prerequisites or replacements for skills training.

Good self-defense technique should make sense to you the first time you see it and you should be able to understand and perform the mechanics of it with enough power and intent to hurt someone within a couple of hours of practice. If not, you’re probably not going to be able to use it if you need it.

Things To Look Out For

Let’s face it: People have been fighting for as long as we’ve been people, so there really isn’t much about fighting technique that hasn’t been done before. Sure, somebody may “discover” a technique that he or she didn’t know about previously, but that doesn’t mean it’s new. (It just means the “discoverer” was previously unaware of it.) Look long and hard enough and some fighting art has probably already employed the technique.

Similarly, the idea of “secret” fighting methods is overblown. In my martial arts research, most things that qualify as secrets are, in fact, an individual instructor’s ability to finally explain something that his predecessors couldn’t or weren’t willing to teach properly. Everything is a secret if the person who knows it is incapable of or unwilling to explain it.

Learning respect and gaining insights into another culture are good things and very positive elements of the traditional martial arts. Unfortunately, when the systems of respect of the Asian martial arts migrated to the West, some instructors got carried away with them and took them a bit too far. The market is now filled with masters, grandmasters, sensei, gurus and dozens of other honorifically titled instructors. While many of them are worthy of their titles and have the skills and integrity to back them up, the sad truth is that there are also a significant number of marginally qualified practitioners who have bestowed themselves with lofty titles, 10th-degree black belts and shiny uniforms full of patches. They have also used their minimal knowledge to “invent” new arts and manipulate Asian cultural traditions to demand far more respect than they deserve.

There are many reasons to study the martial arts. If your primary goal is self-defense, be honest about that when you look for an instructor. Observe several classes, watch how the instructor interacts with students and see if what is taught really meets your needs. Be prepared to compromise a little bit to get what you want, but remember that you’re the customer and this is America. You shouldn’t have to settle for or put up with a learning experience that doesn’t meet your needs.

Even The Odds

There are very few things that a smaller person can do to an attacker that a larger person can’t do better. That’s why there are weight classes in professional combative sports. If two people of equal skill fight, the larger, stronger one will typically prevail because he can express the same level of skill with greater force. Does that mean smaller people can’t defend themselves effectively? Absolutely not. It does mean that they need to understand the limitations of their strength and power and have the commitment to use vicious, ruthless tactics much sooner than a larger, stronger person does. It also means that they should embrace the idea of carrying and using weapons to help even the odds.

Classical martial arts weapons were the height of combative technology—several centuries ago. If the samurai were alive today, they’d be toting M4s and Glocks. And, yes, a broomstick can be wielded like a sword, but that’s not enough reason to invest your self-defense training time in sword-fighting or any other training that focuses on archaic weapons that you won’t ever have with you on the street.

Self-defense weapons are another area of great confusion and misinformation. Like the quick-fix programs that promise magical fighting skills without any effort, there are a plethora of gadgets and gizmos available that are supposed to enable you to defeat any attacker with virtually no training. On the low end of this scale, you have the “tips and tricks” approach, such as the famous keys-between-your-fingers tactic. According to this tip, you simply grab your key ring and place a key between each of your fingers to create a no-cost spiky fist of death. Although this sounds great in theory, there is a major problem with this approach: You’ll most likely do more damage to your hand than to the attacker if you actually hit with force.

During an attack, your body’s sympathetic nervous system kicks in and some very significant changes occur to help empower you to fight or flee. When that happens, complex, finesse-based tactics will be overcome by caveman-style, gross-motor-skill actions. You will be hitting as hard as you can, probably with instinctive, hammer-like movements. Attempting that with keys gripped tightly between your fingers is a sure-fire way to mangle your hand. Add to that the fact that positioning keys between your digits takes time, and that you may be damaging the keys you need to drive your car to escape, and it’s pretty clear that the keys-in-the-fist thing is not highly recommended.

Moving up the scale a bit, we have all the many variations of the “pocket stick.” Whether you call it a Kubotan, yawara, tabak maliit or any other name, it’s basically a short stick or other object that you can hold in your fist and use to strike with. Since it doesn’t have nerves, it doesn’t feel pain, so you can hit harder than you can with your fist alone and concentrate the force of those hits on a smaller, harder surface. The pocket stick is a great weapon and has been used very effectively in personal defense. It works best if you don’t use it as a keychain, since hitting with it is far more effective than flailing at someone with a few keys at the end of a stick. You do need some skill to use it effectively and it must be combined with other unarmed fighting skills to form a reliable, fight-stopping strategy, but it’s not a bad choice.

The downside of the pocket stick is that it has become recognized as a purpose-designed weapon and is often prohibited in non-permissive environments. As such, it doesn’t enjoy as low a profile as it used to, so you may not be able to carry it in as many places, or with as much freedom, as in years past. To make this problem worse, a number of martial artists and inventors have decided to take a good, simple thing and make it even more complicated. Their claim is that you now have an even more potent and versatile weapon than a simple pocket stick and—you guessed it—that you don’t need any special training to be able to use it effectively. In most cases what you really end up with is a pocket stick with spikes, probes, rings and other unnecessary protuberances that make it stand out even more as a purpose-designed weapon and make it very inconvenient to carry. The additional features that are supposed to increase its effectiveness typically work best with finesse-based techniques—exactly the type of stuff that falls apart under stress and actually requires more training than does a conventional pocket-stick design.

So what’s the solution? Carry a high-quality tactical flashlight. Get one big enough so it sticks out of both ends of your fist when you grip it and sturdy enough that you can hit things with it full force. Also, get one bright enough to blind a potential attacker and illuminate areas of potential danger from a distance, and one that has a pocket clip so you can carry it conveniently.

Pen Your Destiny

For decades self-defense instructors have recommended high-quality production pens, like steel Cross pens, as improvised self-defense weapons. Several years ago this simple concept grew into a whole new genre of pen-like objects with striking points, replaceable tips, knurling, fluting and other modifications. Often retailing for well over $100 each, these pens became a cult favorite among the tactical-gear crowd because, yet again, it mistakenly believed that a cool, expensive, complicated object would eliminate the need for training. I do believe in pens as improvised weapons, but only when they are not so obviously weaponized that they draw undue attention and only when their use is backed by solid physical skills. No matter how cool and expensive a pen might be, unless it actually makes an attacker explode when I stick it into him, it’s still a limited weapon that must be wielded with a well-balanced skill set.

The very fact that you’re reading this means that you’re reasonably serious about self-defense. That’s good, but it’s not enough. You need to take action to develop a solid personal-defense strategy and a simple, reliable skill set that you can use now. If you choose to carry a weapon, get the training to use it properly and effectively and practice your skills on a regular basis. Most of all, be objective in your consideration of your self-defense options. If you’re honestly not confident that you can use a particular weapon, tactic or technique to defend yourself against a real violent attack, find something else that you can trust and don’t fall prey to the gimmicks.

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