Six Letters Re: Empty Hand Survival

Mr. Rawles,

I have black belts in two different styles of martial arts: Okinawan Karate and a form of Japanese Jiu-jitsu. I can say without a doubt though that studying Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu/Grappling and Mixed Martial Arts (grappling and kickboxing) is bar none the best and most effective way to learn to fight and made my previous training largely irrelevant.

You don’t need years to become effective in grappling styles as I’ve seen people with six months of training take down and submit much larger opponents who were fighting as hard as they could. In addition to this, the focus on competitive training builds reflexes, muscle, cardio endurance and the ability to take hits and keep on going. Martial arts that do not use competition and real life sparring to practice are not more deadly. Only those arts that actively encourage students to spar against others who are forcefully resisting have the proven track record of dealing with hostile opponents. In one former school we routinely had people from other styles come in to prove their mettle against our “sport” and our instructor would just make them spar a middle-rank student first and get beat. There was no need for a senior student or instructor to even get involved. Often these other systems do not focus on real-life sparring and as a result the students are out of shape, cannot react to spontaneous and unpredictable situations quickly, nor can they take a punch and have the wits about them to follow-up and take the fight back to the attacker. Virtually all of these other styles of fighting were helpless once they landed on the ground where a large number of fights eventually wind up.

It is my experience that those who do not train “sport” martial arts will quickly lose their steam inside of two minutes with a grappler and easily be submitted. Those that have never taken a strong hook to the jaw, likewise. Sport fighting is the most exhausting and intense activity most people will ever do. Whether it’s grappling, judo, boxing, kickboxing or wrestling. Indeed, the most dangerous fighters I’ve sparred with have always been grapplers. Not only is grappling effective in dealing with single opponents, but it also trains you stay on your feet against multiples so you can make a quick exit if you need to. Not just this, but the cardio it develops means you can outrun your attackers which is the best way to deal with multiple opponents. As a side benefit, grappling arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can be done until a very old age as they are low impact. One of the founders of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Helio Gracie, practiced grappling well into his 90s.

Those interested in learning martial arts should stick to those styles that have a proven track record in full-contact and full-resistance competitions and should not discount such activity as “sport.” Those who dismiss a martial art because because it is a “sport” have obviously never been in a full-contact sparring match and wouldn’t stand a chance against a trained fighter with rules or not. Yes, this is a challenge to anyone reading this who thinks otherwise to go into a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Mixed Martial Arts school and prove what you’re doing works better. I’ve yet to run across a “secret” martial art that can stand up to cold hard empirical testing that a cage fighter or experienced grappler can bring to the equation. – Craig


While I agree with Joe G. on the utility of learning to fight empty handed, his reasoning is wrong. Humans have never relied upon empty handed technique unless they were forced to do so by a government who outlawed weapons. Unless you are caught off guard in the shower, I can’t foresee a set of circumstances that wouldn’t allow you to have an effective weapon of some kind. A bow, spear, club or knife is always going to be available, because you can make them. In fact, I can’t imagine most of your readers ever running completely out of ammunition for their main battery.

I congratulate Joe on defeating 10 opponents with only his bare hands, but I question whether this would have worked against armed or resolved enemies. I too have studied several martial arts over the last 35 years and hold advanced belts in 3 of them, but I consider an unarmed fight against 10 resolved opponents pretty much hopeless. Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan together probably couldn’t survive a street fight against 10 armed opponents. Don’t get caught up in martial arts myths.

Combat skills are magnified by the weapon you use. A highly skilled man with pistol can beat several unskilled opponents because he has a tool capable of killing at a distance very quickly. His ability to shoot fast and accurately can really make a difference. Skill with a knife magnifies the natural lethality of the knife and allows you to kill very quickly. Any decent weapon can kill or disable in less than a second. Skill at punching, kicking and grappling don’t make nearly as big a difference because they are not lethal enough to put someone away before their buddy can kill you. Killing with bare hands is much slower and even a skilled opponent can be overwhelmed by multiple opponents. Unarmed combat should always be considered a last resort. Any weapon is better than none at all, so why would anyone choose to fight unarmed?

Don’t lose sight of the real threats. Real combat is not a schoolhouse brawl where you can yell “uncle” and they will let you up. Real combat lasts seconds, not minutes. It’s fast and brutal and usually ends with somebody dying. Close combat is about killing your opponents as quickly as possible so you can escape. Always use the best weapon you can get.

About choosing a martial art: The newest ones that have been proven in combat are the only ones worth learning, period. All martial arts start out as a simple set of combat skills and progress into a martial art and then to a “martial way” like Tai Chi which is nothing more than a dance. This is because most of the instructors in the chain of tradition have never been in combat and don’t fully understand the moves they are teaching. All martial arts lose effectiveness as they age. Many martial arts still teach techniques for unhorsing an enemy or bypassing a specific type of armor. When is the last time you have seen a street thug riding a horse? The oldest martial arts have become insanely ineffective and contain moves that will get you killed in real combat. Don’t waste your money and time. Learn a new, effective set of combat techniques like the “Marine Corps Martial Arts Program” or army “Combatives” instead. You can learn enough technique to be very effective in less than 40 hours instruction. Any martial art that requires “years of dedication” to learn is bull. Here is an excellent book to guide your training program.

BTW, all the effective systems teach you how to use common weapons like clubs and knives (and bayonets sometimes). Learn those skills first!. Regards, – JIR


In response to Joe G.’s article on taking up martial arts as a dedicated study to prepare for the possibility of life without the security of conventional weapons in the event that “the ammunition dwindles and ability to procure or even manufacture more is gone” I disagree that effort put forth in martial arts training is well spent in a survival context.

If one has a passion for martial arts of course nothing is wrong with working hard at it. It will keep you in great shape and it will give you a tremendous edge in bare handed combat . However, beyond a basic self defense course (in the event you are caught off guard or are dumb enough to be found unarmed) I don’t see the practicality of it in a true survival scenario.

The reason I say this is because of the amount of time needed maintain proficiency in any martial art. (daily practice as I understand it) I had a friend that had a passion for Wing Chun Kung Fu, a very practical and effective street fighting martial art. He worked very hard at it and was deadly with bare hands. In the space of a year or so he had occasion to use it several times. He was able to knock out a guy with a single blow that smashed a bottle over his head in a bar one night, another time he quickly put a road raged aggressor on the ground in a parking lot. Still, a single bullet fired from a gun in the hand of an 80 year old woman with one eye would have defeated him.

Rather than practicing a martial art daily to prepare for the possibility that ammo runs out I just stock pile ammo and experiment with making more from scratch. Reloading [used cartridge] primers is possible now. (See the YouTube videos on the subject.)

I also disagree with the opinion that “A true effective martial art will be just as effective for the 18 year old as well as the 80 year old.” That statement is not believable by anyone that is actually 45 years old let alone 80. I’m only 41 but I’ve got arthritis in both knees, one elbow and my strong side shoulder. I’d need a baseball bat at least to handle most 18 year old aggressors.

Still, there is nothing wrong with martial arts if that’s your passion. Just don’t count on it as a serious self defense system in a survival scenario. – Mark S.

Mr. Rawles:
I just have a couple of comments to add to Joe G’s.

There are various pros and cons to choosing a self-defense system versus a martial art, most notably, how long you must train before the method you choose is combat applicable. For example, Krav Maga, the official combat method of the Israeli military was designed and refined over time to bring recruits up to a functional skill level quickly and with a minimum of training time, whereas in some traditional martial arts it can take years just to make the art functional under survival stress.

The right self-defense system will not limit your responses to a few situations, and will typically have the added benefit of enabling one to use their skills in self-defense fairly quickly compared to a more traditional martial art, typically. However, many traditional martial arts can have benefits far beyond simple self-defense. Many comprehensive martial arts, such as the Russian art Systema, or Japanese Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu impart skills and strategies for avoiding danger in the environment and survival under myriad circumstances, though some may find the Buddhist symbolism imbedded in the Bujinkan not to their liking. Systema’s philosophical basis is rooted in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which some may find more palatable.

The best way to choose, however, is to take stock in what your needs really are. What threats are you likely to face? There’s an excellent book written by Maj. Forrest E. Morgan called “Living the Martial Way” that has an excellent chapter on evaluating what your needs are in relation to your body type, and how to evaluate a combat system’s doctrine, strategy, and tactics in relation to your needs. I believe this book has been mentioned previously in your blog, and I can’t recommend it enough to your readers.

I would offer my own recommendations, in addition to Joe G.’s Chinese Kuntao, to include Russian Systema or SAMBO (the military version, not the civilian sport version), Filipino Martial Arts as taught and practiced by the Dog Brothers , Krav Maga (see and, Sammy Franco’s Contemporary Fighting Arts (his stuff is pretty brutal and he tends to use a lot of profanity in his materials, so be forewarned), and Combat Hapkido. This list is hardly comprehensive, but it provides, I think, a good overview of what’s out there and what might be useful to the community.

I would like to conclude by reiterating Joe’s advice to avoid martial sports in favor of non-competitive martial arts. This, regrettably, applies to most commercially taught martial arts in the United States, at least. Most commercial Ju Jitsu, Karate, Tae Kwon Do/Tang Soo Do, and Kung Fu schools tend to be geared towards competition first, and street survival as an afterthought, if it’s given any consideration at all, so let the buyer beware! – Scott B.

Being fairly new to preparedness (only a year or two under my belt) I vary rarely write in, especially to criticize another contributor, but when I read empty handed survival it threw me for a loop. This article is very misleading when it comes to self defense in a survival situation. The author claims that for thousands of years man was able to flourish with open handed survival. This is just pure fluff and a very narrow view of developing societies throughout history. Every single culture had a method of hand fighting, that much is true, but every society also equipped their warriors with the absolute best weaponry available. Spears, clubs, swords, bow and arrow, what have you. Even in the far east where a lot of today’s popular “martial arts” were developed they still carried swords, learned to shoot a bow and arrow, and developed some of the most intricate and deadly weaponry in ancient times.

Now I don’t want to come off as totally against training to fight with your hands but I think that it needs to be approached with a realistic understanding of what hand fighting is all about. First off, the same guy that will tell you that your handgun is only used to fight your way back to your rifle will tell you how he can easily disarm three opponents barehanded without breaking a sweat. Fighting empty handed is the absolute last resort. If anyone, and I mean anyone, tries to fight an armed opponent empty handed then there is an almost absolute possibility that they will either be killed or severely wounded (a slow death in a TEOTWAWKI situation). There is a reason that every army that has ever walked the face of the earth carried weapons. The samurai didn’t dominate Japan for as long as they did because they were good hand fighters. Second off, this authors encounter with 10 assailants reads like a Bruce Lee movie. There’s no way on Gods green earth that any fighting “system” can teach anyone to handle 10 dedicated assailants at once. Oh sure, if they conveniently come at you one at a time then everything is gravy, but if even two of them decide to do a good old fashioned “prison rush” then its curtains (especially if you are unarmed).

There are hundreds of martial arts out there today and all of them have their merits, they will teach grace and balance, discipline, and will get everybody reasonably fit. However, for true self defense (I am no expert but I have been raised in a military family by WWII, Korea, and Vietnam vets and served in the Marines myself) things need to be simple, very quick, and effective (meaning deadly). Everybody should learn how to throw a couple basic of hand, elbow, knee, and foot strikes and practice them over and over and over again because in a high stress situation our bodies will revert to muscle memory and those of us without 30 years experience are going to be out of luck trying to remember the flying dragon claw in the moment. The truth is: A) there is no way to practice a real life or death struggle, they just happen, B) Winning is all about the will to win and the ability to adapt to given situations, C) If you have to fight remember to strike the soft parts of the body (face, neck, abdomen to include the low back, and the groin) and try to break the joints (specifically the knees and feet so you can run away) either by striking (kicking the knee, stomping the foot) or simply bending them the wrong way as aggressively as possible, and D) Learn to use weapons of opportunity (rocks, sticks, dirt, water, whatever) and learn to strike suddenly so that surprise is on your side.

I apologize that this is such a long response but it is unconscionable that someone would urge the use of empty handed methods or defense in a survival situation, especially those taught in a dojo (even one where the instructors work for free, you will probably get what you pay for). We must think as realistically as possible and look at what people in other times like we are headed for did. They fought dirty, they attacked from ambush, they never let their opponent get in the first blow, and they were always armed. I have included two links to a web page that should be required reading for anyone interested in hand to hand fighting, with or without weapons.

All in all its is best to forget choke holds, arm bars, ground fighting, flying kicks (any kick above waist high for that matter), and anything else you have seen on television or in the safety of a dojo or ring. Fighting in the situation we are addressing is about one thing only: kill or be killed. God help you if you are completely empty handed in a survival situation. Remember that even though King David had God on his side he still to weapons of war (that he was familiar with) into battle with Goliath.
No Nonsense Self Defense – Traditional Martial Arts and No Nonsense Self Defense – Knife Lies

Regards, – Doug W.

There is great merit in learning martial arts for self-defense as proposed by Joe G. However, time and budget constraints, competing self-reliance skills to learn, and age/health issues, many prep-minded folks may feel overwhelmed with the commitment required to master such a demanding discipline to be reasonably competent

As a second-best method, I would recommend preppers to learn effective pressure points and breaking away techniques. Regardless of one’s strength or size, the use of tried and true techniques against various parts of the human anatomy will prove effective against the strongest foe. Anyone can learn a dozen or so simple tricks to use, and with less practice required
than a dedicated martial arts course.

Sincerely, – Ron S., in New York