Live Blade Training: Debunking Myths and Promoting Safety - Paul Janulis

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  1. Bob Hubbard

    Bob Hubbard Retired

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    Live Blade Training: Debunking Myths and Promoting Safety

    “Sure, but those schools don’t have realistic knife fighting because they don’t do live blade! We do, and I have the scars to prove it!”

    “Traditionally in the Philippines, people do partner work with the live blade!”

    “Real masters spar with live blades!!!”

    Heard any of these? There are many myths in the martial arts world, and there are many more myths regarding realistic blade training. These myths are propagated by variety of things from lack of blade education to egomaniacal behavior. In this article I will debunk a few myths regarding live blade training, and I will provide some information on training with the live* blade both realistically and SAFELY.

    First I’ll share a story to help illustrate the kind of damage a blade can do. This story shows the simple concept of “cutting tendons.” People often have mythical ideas and perceptions about the damage a bladed object can do to the human body, throwing around words like, “and then this’ll cut the tendons…” as if this was nothing. Well, basically I ran into a guy who worked behind the desk at a local gym. He had his hand in a nasty looking sling and I could see stitch marks all the way up his arm. I asked him what happened, and he told me that he cut himself with a knife. He proceeded with the details that he was holding a lime in his left hand, and miscalculated how sharp the knife actually was; he slipped, and cut himself diagonally from index finger to pinkie. He severed all four tendons in his hand. The tendons crawled all the way up his arm, and they had to surgically re-attach what they could, and attach artificial tendons with what they couldn't. He will be in various different casts for the next 6 weeks or so, but the heal time on this injury is 2 to 2 1/2 years. And, that is hard years of continued physical therapy, and second or third surgeries where they will attempt to borrow tendon tissue from his foot to create new tendons for the hand.

    So, did you get all that? This guy had an accident cutting a piece of fruit, and this cost him his hand. It will take 2 to 2 ½ years to be fully healed, and even then it probably will never be the same. So, ask yourself this: How valuable is YOUR hand? How would you like to take a few years off from your training, just so you can tell glory stories at the bar, lionizing training improperly with the live blade? Is it really worth it to not take the proper safety precautions? Well, considering that accidents can occur while NOT training, I’d say that it isn’t worth it to not take proper safety precautions with the live blade.

    All that said, training with a live blade is imperative for learning knife work. Many people don't train live blade at all, and I think that this is detrimental to their knife skill. When you’re working with a trainer, you may be doing things that would be inefficient in reality. Live blade work and blade awareness prevents working your training blades in an inefficient manner.

    So, how should one train the live blade? The best advice is ONLY do Live blade work for SOLO TRAINING**. This basically cutting drills on targets or even in the air. By doing cutting drills on targets, one gets a sense of how the blade cuts, which is imperative for understanding blade awareness. Then when you use your training blade, or trainer, your knowledge of how the real thing works will add the realism you need. The live blade is not for partner work, however, and it is especially not for sparring. That is why trainers were invented. There are multitudes of good trainers out there today that work enough like the real thing for partner work. Use them.

    Now, I know that some people will (and most likely rather futilely) argue with the idea of only using the live blade for solo training. They'll say that their Silat master or their Filipino Arts master does live blade partner work, "with the scars to prove it!" So, because some obscure individual who is foreign and who can ‘beat you up’ does something, then that must mean that it must be a good idea. Bullstuff again. Here's a news flash for some of you, and please don't take this offensively. Just because a guy is Asian and older then you, that doesn't mean that he knows what the hell he is talking about. Furthermore, just because someone is a "master" at the martial arts, that doesn't mean that they know everything there is to know about life, or that they even have your best interest in mind. That said, some people long ago in a place far far away may have trained live blade partner work, and they may be very good and reputable. Hell, many of us have done this without thinking it through. I know I sure have. However, at least I will admit that I was wrong, and that it isn't worth the risks. Can everyone hear his or hers mother saying, “If your master jumped off a bridge, would you do it?” Well, mothers are usually right, and usually more often then ‘masters’. Just because someone did something long ago and far away, that doesn't mean it is smart for you to imitate the behavior.

    One would think that this should all seem like common sense, but I have gotten into and witnessed so many frivolous arguments over this. The example of “he has scars to prove it!” comes from these arguments. Yes, I have even heard someone say something like it once: "I met this guy who was the most skilled blade master I have ever seen. He's old and from Indonesia and he showed me the scars up and down his arm from his live blade work. Hard way to train, man, but worth it if you want to get that good." My response was the equivalent of “Arrgh.” So why is he so good? Because he's Asian, and he has scars? Hmmm.


    The reality is that the people who advocate unsafe training are usually doing it to appease their own psychological need to be ‘better’ then other people who train safely, so they will refuse to see a different way, despite what idiotic thing comes out of their mouth to justify it. And yes, these people are out there. Yet, my surprise at idiocy never ceases.

    Now, one might ask oneself, why in the world would someone NOT be on board with everyone else in the 21st century, and insist on doing partner work with the live blade? Usually it is because of myths surrounding the idea.

    Myth #1: The "old school" way of training partner work was with the live blade. This is a total bill of stale goods. Too bad for those who claim this that the idea is not founded by history. Trainer blades in all cultures that have blade arts have been used for as long as we know of. We are talking hundreds of years. Filipino masters have often used the sticks and wooden daggers to immolate the blade for partner work. The Japanese had wooden versions of their bladed weapons. Training weapons have always been used, and have always been available, as far as we know.

    Now, even with training blades available, just like today, there were people in the past that trained live blade with a partner. Some of these people may have been pretty good at their craft. However, to say that this was the "old school" way of training, or that "only the true blade masters trained this way," is a false claim. Also, just because someone 50 or 100 years ago didn't have the tactical education that we have today (and trained a certain way because of it), that doesn't mean we should emulate these inefficiencies.

    Myth #2: Live blade partner work is more realistic then using a training blade. This is totally false. Live blade partner work is actually LESS realistic then using a training blade. This is because you trade one reality for another.

    When you have a training blade, you’re not concerned about cutting your training partner. So you can do your drills "live," you can spar "live," and you can challenge your training partner and really make him work. You can train as hard and as realistically as possible with each other, without having to worry about cutting each other. When you train live blade, all of a sudden, you and your partner have to be extra careful not to cut each other. Your drills now become very gentle-like dead patterns, for fear that if one of you are too unpredictable, then one of you will be cut. Now, if you think that dead patterns are realistic, then you have another problem that is probably worth a different article all together. The point is you trade one reality for another. You trade the reality of an unpredictable, resisting attacker, who is trying to cut you for the "reality" of a sharp object. This trade off makes your training less realistic instead of more.

    Now, one may run into some clown who will try to say, "Oh no, we train live and real serious when we use live blades against each other." Just know that this is total B.S. If it were true, then their injury rates and mortality rates would be high, as this is called fighting not training. I have yet to see a case that fits the criteria.

    Myth #3: You need to train live blade with a partner to develop 'blade awareness.' Also false. First of all, you develop any blade awareness you need through your live cutting drills and solo live blade training. Solo live blade work tells you how to cut, which is what you need. Second of all, the trainers they make now are realistic enough to tell you if you screwed up something or not, and they tell you this without injuring you. This is all the blade awareness you need, and live blade training with a partner does nothing to add to this.

    Myth #4: You need to do partner work with a live blade to learn how to deal with the fear and adrenaline of a real blade encounter. This is also false. When one is talking about this, one is talking about dealing with the "adrenaline dump" of a real fight. There are a lot of ways to train to deal with the adrenaline dump that have been addressed in modern tactical and reality based training circles, as well as in the competition martial arts circles. And I assure you, none of these involve the faux reality of live blade partner work.

    Now, if you are talking about "fear of the blade" in general, I find that doing careful and gentle live blade drills with a partner does very little to address this fear. At least, it does little else to address this that your live blade cutting practice won’t. You live blade cutting practice informs you of the strengths and limits of your tool; this knowledge is usually what dissipates any "fear of the blade…" beyond a good healthy fear, of course.

    When doing live blade training what precautions should one take?

    Again, you save the live blade work for solo practice and for cutting drills. When you do cutting drills, you could use a variety of things depending on how big of mess you want to make. Materials like paper, cardboard, meat, tami mats, bundles of straw, etc., are all very effective. Here are some safety measures, and things to be careful of.

    1. Usually, keep the sharp parts pointing away from you (best at target). Yes, there are a lot of exceptions to this one.


    2. Keep your knife clean, dry, and sharp. The sharper the better. This way, when you handle a live blade, you will not miscalculate or take for granted how sharp it is. Plus, a sharp, clean blade bites more when it cuts, meaning less of a chance for slippage.


    3. Don't cut things that will break or chip your knife.


    4. Be careful when drawing your knife, whether it is sheath or folder. Don't put any of your body parts in the way of the blade when drawing.


    5. BE EXTRA CAREFUL WHEN CLOSING OR RESHEATHING YOUR BLADE!!! Wha? Yes, be extra careful when closing or resheathing your blade. Most people I know who have cut themselves while training have done so from putting the blade back rather then taking it our or actually cutting. I've seen people close knives on their hands, stab themselves in the legs while trying to close a folder there, slice themselves because they were "wiping the blade off" on a body part, Slice their hand when resheathing from holding the sheath too close to the entry point, and stab themselves because they missed the sheath all together when resheathing. Most of these accidents happened because the person is trying to close or resheath too fast, or they simply aren't paying attention when they are putting the blade away. There isn’t much of a tactical reason for having to resheath the blade quickly. You need to draw quickly; you can take your time when you resheath. Also, realize that when you’re closing or resheathing, this may be the one time that the blade is actually pointing towards your body; when you look at it like that, then you will better understand the need to be extra cautious here.


    6. Make sure you have a tight grip. You don't want to slip up on the blade. You don't want to drop your blade. Start off slow and make sure that your grip is secure. If there is danger of slippage, wear a protective glove.


    7. Eye protection is suggested, especially if what you are cutting might create debree.


    8. I'll say this again, but start off slow, and work your way up to speed. This will allow you to catch mistakes that may cause injury before they do.


    9. Keep others clear of your blade. No one should be closer then their arms length plus the blade length from you when you are cutting.

    That should cover most of the safety precautions that one should take when training live blade. There is just no good reason to not take these measures in my opinion.

    – Paul Janulis


    Paul Janulis is a 20 year veteran of the martial arts, and is a free lance writer out of Auburn Hills, MI. He also owns and runs TULISAN Tactical Training, a training company that offers, “High Caliber Private Close Quarters Defense Training.” Paul can be reached at paul_janulis@yahoo.com



    * Live: Live can mean a number of things. For the purpose of this article, in the context of training ‘live’ means ‘a resisting and unpredictable partner;’ almost like in sparring or semi-sparring. ‘Live’ in the context of ‘live blade’ means a blade with an unprotected edge sharp enough to cut.

    ** Disclaimer: There are few exceptions to training live blade with a partner, and that is when one takes the proper safety measures. I know that some people out there will actually put on leather stab proof gloves that cover the forearms, fencing masks, and stab proof vests, and they will do some training that way. Although I think that doing so trades one reality for another as well, I am not against this when one is taking the correct safety measures. So, for you guys, I am not talking about you when I yell about not training live blade partner work; however, I also know that you guys are the minority.
     
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  2. arnisador

    arnisador Sr. Grandmaster

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    Some good stuff here. (Also in some of the other articles.) What kind of feedback are you looking for, if any?
     
  3. Bob Hubbard

    Bob Hubbard Retired

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    Whatever people wish to give. I posted the backlog of stuff I'd gotten for the e-zine to start things rolling. Now, I'm looking for people to submit their own articles, and folks can comment on them as they see fit. :)
     
  4. Cruentus

    Cruentus Grandmaster

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    Man...that guy is an idiot who has know idea what he is talking about! :rofl:

    Seriously, thanks for digging up that old article Bob. It gave me a chance to read something I wrote a while ago with a new eye.

    :)

    Paul
     
  5. kroh

    kroh Brown Belt

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    I really enjoyed this article and I am ashamed to say I had a morbid fascination for the quotes and "perpsective realities" expounded on. I have practiced both kenjutsu (Japanese sword fighting with pratcice in cutting on different types of targets) and Filipino weapon based arts (Yep...I'm still a newb!) and in both cases I have had exceptional teachers that extolled the safety aspect of training. After all, you are training to be able to perform a certain feat of skill. If your training constantly injures its exponents before the skill can be utilized, then the training is worse than no exposure at all.

    I have seen recent footage of live blades against all sorts of targets (such as hanging ham hocks and hanging chicken parts) and I think this training is great for the "feel" of going through actual meat and flesh. I have also seen vids of people using aluminum trainers with padded protection on, to teach edge retention. These people all seem to have the right idea in that "live training" contains several different training aspects so that the student can get ready for the real event without any of the danger. The people who say stuff like , "real swordsman and knife fighters always use live blades!" This scares me as I wonder what their training must be like and what it took for them to become REAL blade fighters.

    Great article Paul,
    More please...
    Regards,
    Walt
     
  6. James Patrick

    James Patrick Orange Belt

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    I think Paul did a good job with this article.

    I hear stories all the time of even qualified instructors not being safe with the blade, and cutting themselves or their students. Scary stuff! Don't do something unsafe just because your teacher said so!
     
  7. Brian R. VanCise

    Brian R. VanCise MT Moderator Staff Member

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    Absolutely! Always train safely.

    Brian R. VanCise
    www.instinctiveresponsetraining.com
     
  8. Mcura

    Mcura Green Belt

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    It comes down to respect of sharp blades. Sure it's fun to swing a sword against a rolled mat. Heck, I got that initial sense of power merely from holding a steel sword (it's what sold me on my school). Having said that, the damage that these things will do, even from a less-than-ideal cut, is horrendous. And this is the impression I got from cutting a straw mat. I have yet to make a cut on meat (mainly because of the mess involved).

    Recently, I got a dulled knife drone at an event. It's a cheap knock-off that closely resembles CRKT products. It's something that I've only used in solo practice. It's still steel, meaning that a hard enough punch will penetrate my companions. If I get stopped on the street, it will for certain raise the eyebrows of the cop that's questioning me. No, that's okay. I'd rather not skewer my friends, thanks. I'll use the rubber knife to spar, thank you.
     
  9. Hand Sword

    Hand Sword Grandmaster

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    Don't worry! Just a needle and some thread, and, it's all good!

    Seriously speaking, when training with partners, why would one use a real blade? Seems like common sense, but, haven heard those statements myself, and seeing results for real (feeling them too), it makes one wonder.
     
  10. Spencer Burns

    Spencer Burns White Belt

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  11. Blindside

    Blindside Senior Master

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  12. Cruentus

    Cruentus Grandmaster

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    Yes. That is very cute. They did a prearranged knife drill with a live blade, opened themselves up for injury unecessarily while not recieving any real benefit that couldn't be realized with a trainer blade at all.

    That's fine, but I stand by what I said in the article.

    Thanks,

    Paul
     
  13. Cruentus

    Cruentus Grandmaster

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    Interesting read.

    I see nothing wrong with live blade practice, and I in fact encourage it because it does remind one of the realism of the blade. It is live blade partner work that I don't see much value for.

    Paul
     
  14. Brian R. VanCise

    Brian R. VanCise MT Moderator Staff Member

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    Paul, you are right on there! There is really no need for live blade partner work. Especially since the chance of injury is so great. With trainers that are almost identical now, you can certainly get the feel without opening yourself up to serious injury.

    Brian R. VanCise
    www.instinctiveresponsetraining.com
     
  15. Istvan

    Istvan Yellow Belt

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    thanks Bob for the share. Absolutely agree. Even after this many years actual if not even more :)

    We are in Systema practising knife defense principles, which includes shaping the body to the knife and wishing to match body part with the blade flat side. No way to practise such a work with a `live weapon`. Many people misjudge the importance of this practises. Few of the Systema masters and practitioners are aware of your mentioned issues with live blade (regardless i`s used in fight or kitchen). In my understanding our work aren`t prepare our defense to be offence against knife. Even though when we teach the transformation between defense to offence against knife scenarios we explain clear scenario and compliant partner in real fight are not exist. Set scenario and set partner reaction helps only to analyse basic bio-mechanical (automatic body survival) moves where the adaptation is the main key. So we starting and ending up (in a continuous circle) practising no techniques but principles in a way it mentioned in your article.
     

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