By: Jason Deatherage

When we think about the necessities of survival and self-defense, we naturally tend to prepare for unforeseen circumstances by accumulating the necessary tools, consumables and equipment to provide ourselves with the material means to accomplish our goals. Often, the majority of our efforts are spent acquiring things and feeling that if we can just get the best stuff, we’ll have the best chance of overcoming bad times. The reality of an emergency is that it may catch us away from home, unprepared or at some other disadvantage.

If we are fully prepared and supplied, it’s likely not going to seem like much of an emergency. However, if we truly wish to be able to move with confidence through bad times and good, we need to develop deeper levels of preparation and be ready, willing and able to prevail—even if our careful material preparations are lost to us. If we can only survive or defend ourselves when we have all of our perfect stuff at hand, we can hardly call ourselves prepared; we are actually entirely dependent on that stuff and our self-reliance is only a comforting illusion.

Being prepared in the fullest sense of the term has a great deal more to do with how we think than what we have. If we can teach ourselves to be keen observers and be willing to trust our own skills and insights, we can be prepared to handle whatever is necessary in almost any circumstance. More importantly, we can be of better service to others in hard times.

Aware & Engaged

keys improvised weapons
Your keys are a last-ditch defense, and used correctly, they can be extremely painful to an assailant. Also remember to protect your head from possible attacks.

If we narrow our focus to self-defense (and the defense of others in need), this skill of observation and assessment of what is around us is still the most important aspect of being ready. We have all sorts of fancy terms like situational awareness, the OODA loop, etc., but what we’re really talking about is just paying attention and not being easily distracted. Obsessively threat scanning and focusing on what seem to be the most dangerous aspects of our environment is actually a particularly compelling form of distraction. Any exclusive focus of the attention necessarily limits attention to other aspects of the environment, and is also biased by various preconceptions we might have. The fact is, in most cases we really don’t know what will be a critical piece of information, so we need to be open and receptive to a wide range of incoming information.

By taking this attitude of openness, we are far more likely to be responsive to actual threats if they should occur, even if they’re from unanticipated sources. We also appear as a more natural part of our environment to those threats; we don’t call attention to ourselves by aggressively assessing the environment all the time. This gives us a certain “invisibility” to aggressive or dangerous people by not marking us as competition. While nothing can keep us completely safe forever, every little bit helps.

Invisibility, or at least a deliberate discretion, is an important concept, especially in our fearful and security-conscious modern world. We can have all the guns and knives we like, but they won’t be with us on an airplane or in an airport. Government buildings, day-to-day workplaces and an increasing number of public spaces are now subject to security measures that preclude the carrying of weapons of almost any sort. If we travel abroad, we often are in countries and jurisdictions that preclude the carrying of weapons and sometimes even basic tools like folding knives and multi-tools. It’s natural that we prefer to be armed, but this preference also creates a distinct feeling of being unarmed when we’re somewhere that doesn’t allow our usual level of preparation.

We can stand firmly on our ideals, but the reality is that we all live real lives, have families and jobs, and must engage with a civil society in various ways in the normal conduct of our lives. Better that we develop a skillset and frame of mind that allows us to be able to effectively use the seemingly mundane items around us to our advantage. By doing so, we are never truly unarmed, and more importantly, we become more aware and engaged with who and what is around us. This awareness and engagement itself becomes something that makes us less likely to need to defend ourselves in the first place.

Using What’s Near

new improvised weapons
A hammer-style grip can be used on soft targets when maximum penetration is needed.

The first skill to cultivate is one of assessment: We need to be able to look at something “normal” and understand how it can be effectively used to our advantage. This skill is a critical part of effective training with weapons, but it’s also vitally important to understanding what is available around us and can open up a whole new world of improvised weapons.

As an example, if I only have a pencil with me, I need to really understand what it can do as a weapon and as a tool. A pencil is a terrible cutting tool. It can’t slash or bludgeon, doesn’t fire a projectile and won’t explode. Those limitations are seemingly obvious, but when cultivating this skill of observation and assessment, it is often the very basic attributes that are ignored. We need to know what this pencil can and can’t do; what is its “vocabulary”? A pencil does have a fairly decent point and is of a length to allow a full grip with one hand. This indicates that it could be a fairly effective stabbing weapon. It is thin and could likely break as well, indicating that we need to support as much of its length as we can with our grip to better be able to use the stabbing power of the point.

By just looking at the pencil and handling it, we have discovered some of its “vocabulary” as a weapon and can begin to train ourselves in that vocabulary. A pen is not much different from a pencil in its vocabulary, or a chopstick, or any number of similar items. By knowing the one, we can know the many. Pencils and pens are nearly everywhere, regardless of the security environment. I’ve frequently been given all the chopsticks I want at restaurants inside airport security zones and in international locations that are otherwise very restrictive about personal weapons.

cell phone improvised weapons
Even your cell phone can assist in self-defense. Once you’ve dialed 911, there’s no need for it to be idle. Use it as a striking weapon.

Once we take this method of observation and assessment seriously, we begin to see the wide variety of tools and improvised weapons that surround us at all times. Most security and criminal psychology is hampered by thinking of weapons as only those things that are purpose-built for the task of injuring or killing people; if an object is not meant to be a weapon, it tends to fade into the myriad of mundane items that surround us. Therefore, if we have the proper frame of mind, we are never actually unarmed, and better yet, we never seem to be armed at all.

This seeming to not be armed is an important point. The last thing we want is to call attention to ourselves. We want to be able to move smoothly through modern security zones and bad areas of town because this lessens the inconvenience to us as we travel and work. We also want to be innocuous to anyone with hostile intent.

To be “invisibly armed,” we need only observe and identify the items around us, and must resist the urge to start collecting them and arming ourselves before the time is right. If I take every weaponizable item I can find and start tucking them into my socks and elsewhere, then unscrew the plunger handle in the bathroom and tuck it into my bag, I’m starting to make it obvious that I’m arming myself. Like the hunter-gatherers of ancient times, the real skill is to know where things are and keep a constantly updating mental inventory, not to accumulate things and carry them around. Weapons can be seen in the same way. By taking this attitude, we are always surrounded by available improvised weapons and tools, but we are not burdened with them.

Never Empty-Handed

improvised weapons options
Rolled-up magazines, pencils and chopsticks are great for thrusting, stabbing and hooking techniques. Try to strike the attacker’s weapon hand, then seize it with your off-hand to control their weapon. Then you can land whatever blows are necessary to incapacitate the attacker and flee.

Let’s take a look at some basic techniques we can use with some innocuous items that are found almost anywhere that humans live and work. Let’s consider pencils, pens and chopsticks.

First, we know already that we’ll be using the point, and that we need to be careful about not breaking the pencil, so our grip will have to be solid and supportive of the length of the pencil.

Unless circumstance requires it, we won’t use the whole length of the pencil, but rather just a few inches of it near the point. This gives us a few options that might be useful, and looks less threatening while actually being more effective on whomever we apply the pencil to.

Chopsticks give us even more options, providing a tool for each hand. If we grip them so that both ends are useful, we have a versatile pain-compliance tool. These are only a couple of examples that the diligent reader can expand into almost infinite possibilities.

It’s important to remember that we are operating at disadvantage with improvised weapons, and we must make up for the deficit by being direct and aggressive. We have to end the fight quickly and decisively.

As we’ve discussed, improvised weapons are all around us. Are they always the best and most effective weapons possible? No, but if we have no other options, improvised weapons easily conform to the principle that the best weapon is the one you have with you. Observe the environment with a thought to what might be useful and you will rarely be left empty-handed. Train hard, train smart.

About The Author: Jason Deatherage is the chief instructor of the Piercing Cloud Sword School. He’s worked as a paramedic for 15 years and has studied martial arts intensively for over 30 years, as well as more modern weapons systems, such as pistols, carbines and shotguns.

This article was originally published in ‘Personal & Home Defense’ #187. For information on how to subscribe, please email or call 1-800-284-5668.

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