Letter Re: Weapons-Based Martial Arts for Survival

I’d like to comment on some of the restrictions on long blades and impact weapons: Thinking about the gap between empty hands and a firearm is a false exercise for most people, most of the time.  Most people spend at least some time traveling, and most live in restrictive legal environments that don’t allow the carrying (or sometimes even ownership) of “weapons.”  Don’t forget readers that the vast majority of people live in countries with very different gun and weapons carry laws than the U.S.!  Even if you live in country like the United States their are large areas that don’t follow the 2nd Amendment in practice (such as New York City).  Mixing an understanding of local laws and common sense will keep you out of trouble and allow you to actually have an item on hand to defend yourself with. 

Talking about using “swords” and “sticks” to defend yourself isn’t realistic. 

Do you walk down the street with a sword?  Even if you legally can in a strict sense, a concerned citizen would eventually call the cops and you’re day would go downhill quickly.  Could you take one through customs while visiting most countries?  Many countries, such as Great Britain and Japan, don’t allow citizens to even own katanas and other types of swords without a license.  On the upside, most countries allow citizens to own machetes of various types.  Locals carry machetes in rural areas all the time in Mexico/central/south America.  Just because the locals can do something without running into trouble don’t assume you can!  Use your judgment carefully.

Do you actually carry a knife?  This is a possibility in some countries and localities, and not others.  Be advised that such places usually assume the carrier of a knife intends to use it as at tool, not a weapon, and may have specific bans on types/sizes of knives.  Also, in practice, police have a lot of discretion in this area.  Most countries in Europe essentially ban the carrying of even a tiny pocket knife for any reason in Cities.  The penalties for violating these laws can be surprisingly severe, and are, at a minimum, going to ruin your vacation.

A medium sized club, anywhere from length of your forearm to that of your whole arm, is a far superior weapon to a small knife because of its extended reach.  It’s not as lethal as a machete, but this can be a good thing.  Any police officer knows that good stout club strike above the knee will bring just about anyone down.  A solid strike against the hands or arms of a weapon wielding opponent will usually cause them to drop their weapon.  Against an unarmed attacker you have a huge advantage.  And, as a huge plus from a legal perspective, its use might not be considered “deadly force” in some situations and is very unlikely to kill your attacker unless you strike them in the head or neck.  Many people might say they don’t care what happens to someone that threatens their life, but I assure you that you want to avoid this (especially in foreign countries) for a host of legal and/or moral reasons.

When you add it all up you have to make an honest assessment of what the best item(s) for self-defence you can carry or travel with with.  These items(s) have to have no legal or societal constraint to being on your person or nearby, yet have huge defensive utility.  The key is that the item you carry is a tool, not a weapon.  Some good examples:

-Entrenching Tools:  A solid, collapsible, entrenching tool (my favourite is the Glock e-tool) is a must have for any earthquake or tsunami survival kit.  It’s a very useful and reasonable thing to carry in your car.  It fits easily in a small backpack.  As far as I know of there is no country with a law on the books banning the carrying or possession of a shovel.  It’s also can function as a hatchet/club very easily.  For self-defence while traveling it’s my primary item.

-Hiking Poles:  Great for adding extra stability on the trail, or extra power on snowshoes or skis.  A good pair of collapsible hiking poles made of aluminum are cheap an common (especially with tourists).  Also, while collapsed, they are essentially a metal club that will be about as long as your lower arm from your elbow to your fingertips.  The ends tend to be made of durable graphite pegs that you don’t want to accidentally put on someone’s foot.  I also know of no place where one cannot legally carry a hiking pole.

-Hatchet:  A common camping tool with obvious uses.  Are you planning to go camping while traveling?  Good.  Then I guess you have a good reason to bring this with you.  I’ve had my luggage searched many times, and I’ve never had any issue bringing one to any country.  This is not something you can carry everywhere, but if you’re backpacking through a place and have all your stuff with you then you have a legitimate reason to have it in your backpack.  Go for something woodsy, not tactical looking.  I’ve taken my Cold Steel Trail Hawk or Husqvarna hatchet on my many such trips. 

-Machete:  There are all sorts of options here.  This is not something I would ever travel with to Europe or many parts of Asia. But I have taken machetes to Mexico and some South American countries.  Machetes tend to be seen as weapons, not tools, in most countries.  In some cultures, usually tropical ones, a machete is a common tool that nearly everyone owns.   You will sometimes see people walking down the street with a machete in their hand and nobody bats an eye!  This is not something I think a foreigner could do, but it gives you an idea of the attitudinal difference.  Beware of your destination and be prepared to have your machete confiscated!  Travel with something that looks as much like a simple traditional machete as possible as it attracts less attention.

-Sporting Club or Bat:  A baseball bat, right down to a tee ball bat, are common sporting equipment in many countries.  Traveling with your children, either to the park or overseas?  Those little guys love tee ball.  Are you or someone in you party going to be playing the sport in question during your visit?  If so, you have a very good reason to have a that bat, along with gloves and balls, on your trip.  When your kids aren’t blowing off steam playing sports you’ll probably have to carry the equipment.  In a self-defence situation such an item is essentially a metal war club, the utility of which is obvious.

Remember, if you are ever forced to use an item in a serious defensive encounter that ultimately involves the police the legality of your carrying that item in the first place will be scrutinized heavily! Nobody on this site agrees with the silly weapon laws that governments make to “protect us,” but they are a fact of life.  Be smart and be safe! – Urban Raccoon

JWR Replies: Canes, walking sticks, umbrellas and tire checkers, have been discussed at length in SurvivalBlog. (See the archives.) The best advice is to not carry anything that looks out of place for the environment or for your personal circumstances. For example, it would seem normal in any season for anyone of any age to carry an umbrella in Seattle. But not so in Phoenix. Similarly, a man or women in their 60s can carry a cane without suspicion, but not so for most men in their 20s without disabled veteran identification or a note from their physician. Truckers can carry tire checkers in the cabs of their big rigs with nary a second glance by law enforcement officers, but it might seem odd if one were found in a passenger car. Likewise, it seems normal for bicyclists to carry a bike tire pump, but not so for pedestrians to tote one. (A clip-on bike tire pump extends much like one of those often-banned collapsing batons.)

One great self defense item that can be carried in a car is a long Maglite flashlight. But keep in mind that anything longer than a 4-cell light might look too much like a baton and arouse suspicion unless you are an off-duty LEO or security guard. Also note that LED replacement bulbs for MagLites are available, and highly recommend. (They greatly extend the light’s battery life.) There has also been some discussion in SurvivalBlog of small impact weapons, such as kubotans. These are banned in some locales, but their pen equivalents generally aren’t. For example you could carry a Mini Maglite, a Cold Steel Pocket Shark pen (be sure to sand off the markings) or for a touch of class, a Mont Blanc Meisterstuck. Even an innocuous pocket comb can be an effective weapon, in the right hands. And then there is always the ever-popular roll of quarters (preferably in a stout plastic tube), for “making emergency calls at pay phones.” All the usual self-defense provisos apply: Get the requisite martial arts training, and be sure to thoroughly research you state and local laws. Stay safe, and stay legal, folks!