Friday, October 22, 2010


In my blog item of June 17, I wrote about the importance of never relying on just one -- or even two -- defense methods. This is known as having Redundant Defense Systems. Last weekend, during a comprehensive training workshop sponsored by the Academia della Spada in Seattle (see previous item), the few dozen participants who attended got a basic understanding of using disparate combat methodologies in a synergistic manner. (I must mention, however, that the Academia had arranged for this workshop well in advance of my writing the June 17 item.)

As you might expect, the first training module of the workshop focused on reviewing the fundamentals of the Spanish navaja. Although the majority of participants had prior experience in this weapon, the review helped to level the playing field among beginners and "veterans."

The evening training module was for advanced members only, and we worked on removing familiar knife combat parameters in order to heighten their sensitivity to the blade's lethality. Working from an upright stance, with a low guard, and no use of the off-hand (or mano siniestra), the participants gained a personalized appreciation for the elements of distance, timing, reaction time, evasion, and attack ccmmitment.

The following day, the third training session was dedicated to French foot-fighting, However, instead of using traditional Savate, the instruction explored the rudiments of Chausson, the older street kicking art where dirty tricks are considered fair. We moved from the basic low kicks (coup de pied bas, coup de savate, coup direct) to higher body kicks, such as chasse lateral, chasse frontal, and foutte Italienne.

Continuing on to defense techniques and combinations, we integrated the knife work from the previous day by looking at methods for defeating the blade.

The afternoon's training module was centered on French cane fighting, or Canne de Combat. After a cursory review of the variety of cane systems that exist in France, we began with the standard blows codified by Maitre Maurice Sarry; brise, enleve, lateral exterieur, lateral croisse, croisse tete, croisse jambe, and others. The parries for defeating these blows, or Parades, followed. We ended the module by working combination drills intended to sharpen the eyes and the reflexes.

The final training module was, again, for advanced members. Here the participants learned the use of Le Couteau, or the application of the common knife in conjunction with Chausson foot-fighting. Physically and mentally exhausted by this point, the participants nonetheless excelled at not only picking up the basics of this unique system, but also in demonstrating their understanding of it by applying it in a realistic, albeit non-lethal, manner.

My point in describing all this is not to superficially document a weekend of training, but to highlight the need to train in a variety of systems and show how they can be practically and tactically integrated. This provides you with a variety of skill-sets, as well as a realistic understanding of distance, how it varies according to weapon and methodology, and how controlling it can determine the outcome of an encounter. The most important lesson here is to train to fight effectively at every combat interval. You cannot have the luxury of a favorite comfort zone -- the choice of where and how you fight may not be yours to make.

Great job, Academia!
(Photos: S. Zimmerman)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Frequent travel, as I've written previously, is one of the nicer perquisites that come with being a World-Class knife fighter. (That, and never having to put up with other people's stupidity as long as there's a sharp blade within reach, are among the Top Five.) Conducting Acero Sevillano (Sevillian Steel) workshops on the West Coast is always an exciting proposition because of the sharp contrast between the pace and lifestyle there and here, in NYC. Moreover, workshop participants from Arcata and Seattle are very dedicated to their edged weapons skills, approaching their training with the same academic rigor that they approach their livelihoods and professions.

The salle sponsoring the workshop is the Academia della Spada in Seattle, a classical fencing venue where Cane fighting, French dagger, and Pugilism are taught alongside the more historical combat disciplines of Italian rapier, French smallsword, and, of course, Spanish rapier. I first met these fun-loving but hard-working martial fencers through my association with the Martinez Academy of Arms. In recent years, the members of the Academia have become major navaja enthusiasts and, together with the members of the Destreza Pacifica salle in Arcata, are well on the way to becoming responsible representatives of the weapon (navaja sevillana) on our western shore.

The navaja, however, in not the only dish on the menu for this weekend's activities. In keeping with the two salles' focus on historical but practical forms of combat, we will also be conducting training in French savate and chausson. Savate, of course, is the traditional martial art that almost exclusively uses the feet as weapons, with a few punches thrown in (pardon the pun) for good measure. Chausson is the original version of this combat, a quick and dirty style of street fighting practiced around the docks and bars of 18th century Marseille. As this style was gradually introduced to the French capital in the early 19th century, it was cleaned up and dignified in keeping with Parisian sensibilities. Ironically, the request by the west coast students to learn this kicking art is actually quite fitting for savate was often referred to by its documentarians as ... "fencing with the feet."

Friday, October 1, 2010


Brooklyn is New York City's most populous borough with approximately 2.5 million residents, and second largest in area. It is also the westernmost county on Long Island. Since 1896, Brooklyn has had the same boundaries as Kings County, which is now the most populous county in New York City and the second most densely populated county in the United States, after Manhattan.

Brooklyn has played a major role in various aspects of American culture including literature, cinema and theater as well as being home to the world renowned Brooklyn Academy of Music and the second largest public art collection in the United States is housed in the Brooklyn Museum.
  • Walt Whitman wrote of the Brooklyn waterfront in his classic poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.
  • Francis Guy painted multiple views of Brooklyn in the late 1810s in a very precise and topographic manner.
  • Betty Smith's 1943 book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and the 1945 film based on it, are among the best-known early works about life in Brooklyn.
  • William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice is set in Flatbush, just off Prospect Park, during the summer of 1947.
  • Arthur Miller's 1955 play A View From the Bridge is set in Brooklyn.
  • Paule Marshall's 1959 novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, about Barbadian immigrants during the Depression and World War II is also set in Brooklyn.
  • Saturday Night Fever starring John Travolta was set in Bay Ridge, an Italian neighborhood in southern Brooklyn.
  • Neil Simon's 1983 play, Brighton Beach Memoirs, is set in 1937 Brooklyn.
Many Brooklyn neighborhoods are ethnic enclaves where particular ethnic groups and cultures predominate. The Brooklyn accent is often portrayed as 'typical New York' in American television and film.

Brooklyn is my “hometown” (not that you could ever call Brooklyn a town.) It is where I grew up, where I trained in ninjutsu before it was a household word, where I later established my martial arts studios (the New York Ninpokai and the Raven Arts Institute), and the starting point for all my globe-spanning travels. It is also where fellow sensei Chai Eun Hillmann prematurely lost his life yesterday.

According to the New York Times, a dispute began early Thursday over two dogs tied too closely to the other outside a bar in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Hillmann was fatally stabbed while trying to untangle his dog’s leash from another’s. It was the type of minor skirmish common enough on the crowded sidewalks of New York, reported NYT staffer Colin Moynihan, but as the owners of the dogs separated them, things quickly escalated. By the time it was over, two employees of the Branded Saloon, on Vanderbilt Avenue, had been stabbed.

Chai Eun Hillmann, an aspiring actor and a martial arts expert, was stabbed twice in the torso and killed. Hillmann, 41, worked as a bartender at the Branded, but was not working when he stopped by with his dog to see friends and participate in a charity poker game in the basement. At some point, the dogs became uncomfortably entangled and Hillmann and the other dog owner, Mrs. Pagan, both moved to unravel the leashes. An argument ensued, with Mr. Pagan confronting Hillmann.

“Hillmann put his hand on Mrs. Pagan’s arm, indicating he could handle it,” Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, the chief spokesman for the New York Police Department, said in a statement. “When Daniel Pagan saw Hillmann touch his wife, a fight between the two men erupted. Pagan produced a knife and stabbed Hillmann and another man.” Hillmann staggered back into the Branded, witnesses said, where friends tried to give him first aid and called 911. The police have arrested Daniel Pagan, who had served time for manslaughter, and charged him with murder.

Mr. Hillmann was born in Korea but grew up in the United States. He studied martial arts and in the mid-1990s was the sensei of Chai Karate in Ardsley, in Westchester County. In an interview in 1996 in The New York Times, he described martial arts as a means of self defense, saying of its practitioners: “They won’t be victims,” and adding, “They can choose whether to continue confrontation or get out of it and flee.”

As a life-long Brooklyn resident, it disturbs me that another human being has senselessly lost his life because such things continue to happen in my borough.
As an instructor of traditional Andalucian knife-fighting arts, it angers me that people with Spanish surnames continue to perpetuate the negative stereotypes that have, unfortunately, long existed regarding “Hispanics and knives.”
But it is as a martial arts instructor of over 30 years that I am most disturbed. We train our minds to be constantly alert, recognizing that awareness is the best defense. We maintain a good attitude and a patient demeanor to (hopefully) elicit good will and rational behavior from others. We train our bodies to respond skillfully with lightning reflexes when avoidance is not possible. And despite all these extra efforts, some unthinking sociopath still blithely draws a knife over the harmless mischief that two pets get into!

We cannot make sense of the killer’s senseless actions, nor can we second guess the victim’s reactions, whatever those may have been. All we can constructively do is to keep this tragic incident foremost in our minds and remember that such things happen, even to trained martial arts practitioners, and even in Brooklyn. If you already train, you must train even harder, expand your awareness, and realize that it is better to be over-cautious than overly trusting. If you don’t already train, or if you’re among those who smugly laugh at our incessant practice, you need to finally look in the mirror and honestly ask yourself – not only if this could happen to you – but what you would do if it did. You’d better make some hard decisions: stay away from people and bars, start training, or purchase a handgun.

And until you decide, you’d better forget about walking around with a sissy dog.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


If it is true that we can only fight as well as we train, then the equipment we use in training takes on a special significance as well. Although I have read accounts of individuals who have even used popsicle sticks to train with -- and I find that commendable -- I also believe that training weapons should, as much as possible, resemble the weapons you expect to defend yourself with. I designed the above Carraca trainers with that in mind. They are modeled after the large carraca "sevillanas" manufactured by the cutlery firm of J.J. Martinez in Santa Cruz de Mudela, Spain.

The Carraca is the most recent design in a series of navaja trainers developed for use in our Acero Sevillano training. (Acero sevillano, or Sevillian steel, is the Andalucian art of defending oneself with the variety of edged weapons that evolved in the southernmost province of Spain.) Other navaja trainers include the Santolio and the Salvavirgo, a small knife carried by Andalucian women in a garter on their right legs.

The first few dozen Carracas that I received from my manufacturer sold out as soon as I arrived in Spain for this summer's Andalucian workshop (see the May 24 blog entry, below.) Recently I received a new delivery. The trainers, for those of you unfamiliar with them, measure 14.5 inches in length, 2.5 inches at the widest part of the belly, and come beautifully wrapped in navy blue para cord. Although it is very probable that you will buy other trainers that appeal to you in the future, you really would never have to get another navaja trainer after purchasing one of these. (And while the Carracas lack quillons, their size and weight make these trainers equally excellent for bowie knife practice.) Orders can be placed by visiting, and sending us an e-mail from the contact page. Happy Training!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


At the Raven Arts Institute, we have an annual tradition of commemorating 911 by training in Military Combatives for the entire month of September. While not directly related to the navaja or Spanish culture, Combatives is a western martial art that blends easily and effectively with other western fighting systems. Our particular focus this year was on the Combatives system of John Styers, author of the classic manual, COLD STEEL. For those not familiar with it, Cold Steel is a unique repository of fundamental -- and lethal -- methods of unarmed and armed combat: knife, baton, bayonet, and empty hands.
The knife Styers uses in the book is the iconic Marine Corps Ka-Bar, but the techniques he demonstrates are equally applicable with the navaja, the bowie, or any other blade-heavy knife.
Styers begins his knife chapter by reviewtng the proper stance and its tactical advantages, then quickly proceeds to the basics of using the Ka-Bar:
- the Thrust
- the Vertical Cut
- the Horizontal Cut
- the Hand Cut
From there, Styers moves on to demonstrate defensive actions with the knife, including the classic In Quartata, Passata Sotto, and the tactical use of distance. He then ends his knife instruction with a hierarchy of targets to be attacked with the knife, listing:
- the Hand
- the Heart
- the Throat
- the Chest, and
- the Back, between the scapulae.
While the Ka-Bar was the official knife issued to the Marines, the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger was the designated knife for our OSS, England's SOE, and the British Commandos. We train with both weapons, as they each have different designs which in turn offer different defensive/offensive attributes. Nonetheless, despite their different configurations, the two types of edged weapons handle quite intuitively.
In fact, the secret to efficiently using Combatives -- whether unarmed or armed -- is relying on your gross motor skills. This is what makes Combatives so teachable and so easily learned. So, if you don't yet train, 911 should be a great motivation for you to start. And if you already train, consider adding Military Combatives to whatever methods you already practice. Fortune favors the prepared!

Sunday, July 11, 2010


This weekend's training session turned out to be a breakthrough event for me as well as for the session's participants. After three full hours of kenjutsu suburi, we switched gears and picked up tanto knives. The purpose in the change in weapons from Japanese swords to Japanese knives was not, as you might expect, to explore how to apply sword techniques with a shorter blade -- we've already done that extensively in the past. The purpose was to counterbalance the theoretical training with the sword with practical training with the knife!

We began, as all innovations begin, by changing the rules.

As a prelude we discussed how fighting arts devolve from artistic systems to near neanderthal applications once they enter the competitive arena. We've all witnessed this. The beautiful, sharp, and crisp movements of the karate dojo fall by the wayside when the exponent enters the ring and faces a liked-trained opponent. The reptile brain takes over, gross motor skills negate the sophisticated movements of the dojo, and the combat ends up looking like a slugfest with two fighters relying on just two or three techniques to repel or defeat the other. What happened to the dozens of other moves they learned in the years of training? Hmmm!

The same often happens in the western martial arts. Modern fencers are a good example of this. With the focus moving from self-defense to sport competition, fencing sophistication is sacrificed to the quickest attacks that can be used to merely touch the opponent. It, like the karate match, becomes a primitive and desperate game of Tag between the participants.
The phenomenon is now known as Adrenal Stress Syndrome (or by other similar terms) and has been researched and documented ad nauseum by contemporary martial academics. We know it happens and you can pick up books by Bill Kipp or Peyton Quinn to understand why. Our point, however, is that IT HAPPENS.

Predicatably, the Filipino knife-fighting arts of eskrima and kali also exhibit the tendency to play Tag in their competitions. These devolved ways of applying karate, fencing, and knife-fighting result in points and tournament winners but -- and of this you can be certain -- they will definitively not save your gluteus maximus on the street!

I will not go through the entire lesson from yesterday but we determined that to keep knife-fighting practical, as was the purpose of the session, we had to change how we typically practiced it in sparring. Ergo, the changing of "the rules." What was the breakthrough? We revised the standard as follows:

  • Change the beginning distance in combat from long to extreme close quarters
  • Change the guard from a traditional one to an upright one, with feet only twelve to 18 inches apart
  • Chamber the knife on the lead thigh instead of the lead hip
  • Avoid using the off-hand by tucking it behind the waist, inside the belt
  • Avoid all counter-cutting or "defanging the snake"; substitute partial or full body evasions as the only means of defense
  • Make only committed attacks against the opponent, and only when you have a clear, undefensed line of approach
  • Remain relaxed, fighting from a state of mushin, rather than from "active alertness."

As I'd predicted, there were no winners at the end of the session. Each participant "killed" his opponent at some point, only to "be killed" later by the same training partner. That was actually a perfect result since it showed that, regardless of any disparate levels of skill, this kind of realistic fighting levels the playing field.

We conducted an "after action report" (AAR) following the knife-fighting session to explore the findings that participants experienced. Each articulated the different epiphanies he had from fighting at extreme close quarters with a minimal use of traditional tactics. The one discovery they had in common was that all assumptions going in as to who was better were shattered by disregarding the rules, and the ultimate realization that you must fight for your life very differently than you fight for a trophy.

[Note: The above photo is not from the session described.]

Monday, June 28, 2010


Nineteenth century literary accounts left to us by British and American travelers invariably record Albacete as the source city for navajas, sheath knives, and daggers. Although the city's reputation was based on the quality of its fighting steel, it was by no means the only venue that focused on the manufacture of navajas. The first chapter of the Manual del Baratero, in fact, lists the many other cities throughout Spain that were similarly dedicated to the production of small edged weapons. Today, Albacete's industry is primarily rivaled by knife manufacturing from Andujar and Santa Cruz, both of which also produce decent fare.

One could argue, however, that the premiere cutlers still reside in Albacete. Since I was going to stay there for a while. I decided to search out a cutler by the name of Sarrion. Sarrion's name is legend, even in the US, among connosieurs of fine navajas. I first heard of him ten years ago from Maestro Ramon Martinez. The Maestro had visited Albacete a decade or so prior and -- though not being a navaja stylist per se -- sought out Sarrion and acquired one of his formidable weapons. Maestro Martinez suggested that if I ever found myself in Albacete -- which is not at all near to my usual haunts in Andalucia -- I look up Sarrion and consider his wares. I said I would.

While everyone in Albacete seemed to have heard of Sarrion, the maestro cuchillero, very few knew if he still produced knives or was even alive. It was only the fact that the citizens of Albacete are very friendly and helpful that hept me undaunted in my search for this legendary knife artisan. In time, my persistence was rewarded.

At number 20 Albarderos Street, located two blocks from the cathedral, I found the Fabrica de Cuchillos Bienvenido, or the Bienvenido knife factory. [Yes, Bienvenido does mean "welcome" but it is also a common first name; and no, it was not an actual factory on a main street, but a factory outlet. The Spanish don't distinguish.] The proprietors, Bienvenido Gonzalez and his father, were very helpful in providing an extensive background on the current state of affairs.

As it turned out, Bienvenido has Sarrion as a neighbor. He informed me that while Sarrion is still alive, he recently retired due to advanced age and personal health complications that I cannot expand on in this post. Sarrion has two sons but neither is interested in carrying on the famiily tradition.

Bienvenido happened to have two remaining Sarrion navajas, which he was willing to sell me as part of a larger navaja purchase that I was making. The navajas, which I couldn't pass up, bear Sarrion's name engraved on the left side of their blades.

When I asked Bienvenido what the best way was to get back to the historical parador where I was staying, he smiled and told me that Sarrion's old storefront was right on the thoroughfare I would take to get back, the Avenida de Murcia. I could see it on the way.

Ten minutes later and halfway back, I found the place, now locked and neglected after years cutlery service to navaja aficionados. Its yellow sign, however, was still resplendent against the clear evening sky, persistent in letting the world know where it was that the retired cutler had once plied his time-honored trade. The Universe does indeed provide...