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...

Friday, June 25, 2010


Below is an old verse I originally composed in 2006. I've included here for those of you who have not yet seen it. It's not a sophisticated poem, but then neither is its subject...

I use a simple knife
Without fancy locks or Kraton© scales
It doesn’t have a space-age blade
That chops through cars or cuts through nails

I use a simple knife
It requires no special gadgets to hone
I use two hands to open it
But it did not cost me a fortune to own

I use a simple knife
It’s razor-sharp and locks with a clasp
Its looks won’t win high-tech awards
But its touch will make a strong man gasp

I use a simple knife
One called a navaja throughout Spain and France
It’s made from humble wood and steel
But when it strikes … you’ll have no second chance.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


As human beings we are multi-dimensional. There are many facets to us, and within those facets we can also express many temperaments. We are also different things to different people: husband to one; brother to another; instructor to one; student to another. In the same manner, it is vital that our martial skills be similarly multi-dimesional.

When I taught ninjutsu for Duncan-sensei at the Queens Village Pistol and Rifle Club, I believed I was multi-dimensional because I taught students the use of traditional weapons (tanto, hanbo, kusari, jo, and bo) in addition to various approaches to unarmed combat. I was, however, rudely awakened by Sensei when he unceremoniously informed me that I'd also better get skilled in the use of firearms -- and soon! (See prior post.)

At the time I was smug in my ability to effectively engage in defensive unarmed combat. The handgunners at the Club were smug in their ability to shoot us at 35 feet (if they ever had to.)

I quickly got over my smugness when I undertook extensive firearms training and eventually became certified as an NRA Pistol Instructor. (Regrettably, the Club's handgunners never saw the wisdom of becoming trained in unarmed combat skills. Perhaps they wore their guns in the shower.)

The point is, never rely on only one -- or even two -- defense systems. One or two systems are not enough. Understand that thugs and felons are allowed to practice martial arts in the prisons, so they're criminally-motivated and they're combatively-trained. Your Tae-Bo or Cardio-Kickboxing workouts are not going to save you.

Navaja students must learn to integrate unarmed combat into their knifework. Savate works very nicely. My fencing friends should also study knife or cane arts in addition to their epee, saber, and smallsword disciplines. Traditional martial artists should also explore boxing or military combatives, the use of chemical sprays, and expandable batons.

And everyone -- political leanings notwithstanding -- should have a fundamental working understanding of firearms use.

Don't become complacent with your current skills, no matter how masterfully you perform them -- and don't neglect to develop The Other Side of the Coin!


At a very young age during my tutelage under him, Shihan Ronald Duncan finished instructing a lesson on some obscure ninjutsu weapon and. turning to face us, emphatically revealed, "Hands and feet are not enough."

This seemed to me to be a remarkably obvious thing to say, given that I was there to study ninjutsu which, almost by definition, focuses on a wide array of exotic Japanese weaponry. Hmm?

A few years later, as I became a candidate for my first black belt, Sensei informed me that I would have to apply for and acquire a NYC Pistol Permit as well. Huh? Throughout my entire time training, the handgun had always been held by the student in the attacker's role, the uke who represented "the Bad Guy."

The defender, tori, was the Good Guy. We were all there to be Good Guys, capable of using ancient Japanese arts to defend ourselves. Why did I need to acquire a gun permit to qualify for my black belt evaluation? Guns, I reminded Sensei, were the purview of the bad guys, the guys we learned many disarms to defend against!

In an uncharacteristically patient manner, Sensei explained:

"The ninja was a master of all the weapons of his time; to become a master of weapons you must learn to master all of weapons of your time. Of course it's great that you can use a katana, a tanto, and a hanbo expertly, but you'll rarely face those in the street. Today's cowards will use a handgun, so you must know how they work in order to contend against them.
"Nor is your knowledge of disarms enough. You must learn how to load a handgun, how to unload it, how to take it apart, and how to put it back together. Now go and apply for that permit or you'll remain a brown belt for the rest of your life!"

This was my second encounter with "The Other Side of the Coin."
At this point, readers who are navaja aficionados may be asking, "What has all this Eastern arts stuff have to with the art of la navaja?" Well, effective combat strategies know no ethnic borders!


In 1968, when we demonstrated at Madison Square Garden for The Oriental World of Self Defense, Shihan Ronald Duncan amazed the audience by taking a pair of nunchaku from his tunic, twirling them around in blurring movements, and taking out six or seven attacking students. [The students were not permanently hurt and, yes, we knew that the nunchaku is not a ninjutsu weapon.] The audience sat stupefied.

In 1969, when we again demonstrated at Madison Square Garden, Duncan-sensei amazed the audience by disarming an attacker -- portrayed by one of us -- who was whipping and twirling a nunchaku against him at full speed. Not having advanced knowledge of Sensei's plans, even we were stupefied by his incredible degree of skill at not being struck while taking the thrashing weapon from a trained dojo-mate.

Afterwards, back at the dojo, the other students and I were equally amazed and conflicted by the demonstration we ourselves had been part of at the Garden. The lead black belt expressed to Sensei the confusion we were all feeling.

"Sensei, we had begun to believe that the lethal weapons we train in were the epitome of our skill at personal protection and dominance over our opponents. We work relentlessly to keep those weapon skills honed and polished, as we would a lethal katana. Yet today you seemed to negate our armed skills while being completely unarmed. Is our weapons training then a waste of time?"

"Never become complacent," Sensei somberly told us that day. "Your audience during a demonstration is like your enemy: surprise them and you can likewise surprise an actual opponent. But become complacent and predictable, and even your opponent will know the depth of your skill."

He paused to let us process that, then continued. "Right now you are all capable of surprising a bigger and stronger opponent when, as he makes a move on you, you reveal and use a concealed ninjutsu weapon against him. He doesn't expect it, and perhaps doesn't even know what it is. That momentary confusion is your advantage."

"Today I probably surprised the lot of you because you, too, did not know my intention, nor the depth of my small skills -- much like the audience -- or like an enemy. You're conflicted because you believe up till now that weapons were superior to unarmed hands and feet. I demonstrated otherwise."

"So Sensei, which is it," I cautiously asked. "Weapons or empty hands?" I was very impatient at 16.

"It's knowing both," said a dojo-mate who thought he was smart.

"No, it's using whatever you have at the time-- weapon or empty hands, " said another dojo-mate who thought he was smarter."

"No," said Sensei. "It's knowing that there is always another approach to what you think you already know. It's never becoming overconfident or complacent. It's knowing that every coin has two sides!"

That was my first exposure to the philosophical tenet we call: "The Other Side of the Coin."

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Two exhausting weeks ago I arrived in Spain in the company of Maestri Ramon Martinez and Jeannette Acosta-Martinez and over two dozen instructors and students from Europe and the US -- all of there to participate in one way or another in a well-planned workshop on the historical edged weapons of Spain. I will leave the descriptions of the maestri's training sessions to those more qualified to speak of them articulately, and will limit the reporting on my own sessions to a superficial overview. (There were far too many notable elements during our stay and our training to attempt to justly describe them in their entirety.)

The venue for our training, as I mentioned in my first Ravenblade post, was a rural hacienda called El Tesorillo II in the Andalucian city of Arcos de la Frontera. Although more landlocked than I am used to from my prior visits to Andalucia (Malaga, Sevilla, Marbella, etc.), the Arcos region is renown for its tasty jerez, soulful flamenco, and Arabian steeds. The maestri and I were there to re-introduce to it their own once-formidable but now-forgotten arts of handling naked steel; in my case, the Andalucian clasp-knife known as the navaja.

Was this arrogance on our part? One might think so, but No! Could it have been accomplished more capably by any other instructors in or out of Spain? Absolutely not!

The vast majority of the participants who'd traveled to El Tesorillo had trained with us at previous workshops in France, Italy, or the US. Their experience in arms dictated that the training we provided be of a more advanced level -- and, of course, this suited us just fine. It's a rare joy for an instructor to impart the higher levels of his craft without having to first inculcate his pupils with the base fundamentals. This fact alone made my instruction all the more enjoyable to me.

The first two days of training were focused on the Baratero style of using the navaja. This covered grips, guards, footwork, and the essentials of attack and defense. Drills were used to quickly familiarize newbies with the variety of thrusts and slashes that are used to defend against an opponent's attack.

On days Three and Four we delved into the Gitano, or Gypsy, style of navaja-handling. The Spanish Gypsy incorporated the use of tricks and deception into the art of knifeplay, making the Gypsies very formidable opponents for their skill in preventing you from seeing the knife or anticipating their tactics. We worked diligently on floreos, the deceptive brandishing movements used to confuse the opponent, as well as on cambios, the dexterous methods for invisibly passing the knife from one hand to the other before the opponent could see what was happening.

Days Five and Six addressed the Sevillano style of navaja, one which most approximated the tenets of Spanish fencing while using the shorter blade. I rarely offer instruction in Sevillano as it requires that the pupil have solid experience in the prior, less sophisticated, styles. However, instructing this group was never a problem because they were either instructors or accomplished fencers with significant experience in blade exchanges.

Throughout the six days I also dedicated time to the use of the cape in knife dueling. This was by design, as both the fencing maestri and I felt that the cape was a vital combat element common to both the sword and the knife. It was also an area where detailed instruction is either rare or totally lacking.

It was not only a pleasure for me to interact with these talented participants, but also to work yet again with my close friends and colleagues, the Martinezes. Whenever and wherever we co-instruct -- be it in Italy, France, Spain, or the US -- it is not so much collaborating with other professionals as it is interacting with family. Their constant camaraderie alone makes the less glamorous aspects of training -- the lesson plans, the preparations, the travel logistics, and the grueling travel itself -- nonetheless well worth the effort.

It was a further treat to work with Mr. Anthony DeLongis and wife, Mary, a highly-skilled couple recognizable to anyone familiar the Highlander television series, as well as the recent Deadliest Warrior and Extreme Marksmen programs. Mr. DeLongis became an immedeate fan of the navaja, as well as of the flexible faja, the waist sash in which the knife was historically carried. As thirsty for new knowledge as they are skilled, Anthony and Mary trained untiringly in every weapon area that was covered over the week-long workshop.

The couple was also kind enough to provide us with an impromptu display of their exceptional abilities in handling the bullwhip, a skill which they have successfully taught to Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeifer, Halle Berry, and Ellen Barkin, among others.

They, along with all the other participants, have my respect for the long hours they endured under the merciless Andalucian sun, absorbing with the 100-degree heat the rigorous instruction the maestri and I were so happy to share.

Now that I am back home, I will take a few weeks to re-acclimate to life in NYC before starting to plan the next workshops and the next training venues. In time, I will head in whatever direction my navaja points, doing what little I can to help hone the skills of those who, by choice, travel Life on the edge.

Hasta la proxima, to all!


The city of Albacete, located in the Castilla-La Mancha region of Spain, has been the cutlery capital of the country for more than three centuries. While Toledo may be acknowledged as the birthplace of the aristocratic sword, Albacete is the source from which the navaja -- the weapon and tool of the common man -- emanated.

I recently stayed in Albacete after conducting a week-long workshop on the Art of the Navaja in the southernmost province of Andalucia, in the city of Arcos de la Frontera. Albacete no longer relies on its dwindling cutlery trade, depending instead on the various commonplace industries that abound in all modern cities in the 21st century. Vestiges of its former livelihood, however, can still be found throughout the city if one is willing to look. The best place to start is at the cutlery museum.

Manoly, the young woman behind the reception desk at the Parador de Albacete where we stayed, was helpful in setting up an appointment for me with the staff at the Museo Municipal de la Cuchilleria Albacete. She relayed my interests and background to the museum representative and by the time I arrived thirty minutes later the rep, Alicia, had visited my website, read up on my two navaja-related books, and had questions of her own she wanted to pose.

Another perquisite of being a World-Class knife fighter is that you often afforded entry into otherwise restricted venues. Alicia informed me that the museum's curator was in Madrid for the day but had indicated that I should be assisted in any way I might ask. The restrictions against photography were waived and -- declining a personally-guided tour -- I was allowed to wander about and explore the various salas of navajas, cuchillos, tijeras, and punales throughout the museum. The fact that the museum was empty during my visit made it easy from my to take my time reading the exhibit's narratives, setting up my shots, and revelling in the design and craftsmanship of the ancient Albacete cuchilleros.

When I finally returned the the museum's reception area I was ready to peruse the dozens of navaja-related publications and select those that would complement my own extensive collection. In addition to the many museum-generated books and publications that the staff generously gifted me, I spent another 200+ euros on books from other publishers, all of them unavailable in the US. As I left, Alicia informed me that their curator, Mariana de Pascual Lopez, would be back from Madrid the following day, and would appreciate my returning then to meet with her.

The next day I met with Ms. de Pascual, who spoke with me of the museum's history, mission, and efforts to protect and preseve the legacy of Albacete's master craftsmen. One of the museum's publications, Navaja, Temido Acero [Navaja, The Feared Steel] outlines how the navaja has become stigmatized as a dreaded weapon of the criminal class. This stigma has been perpetuated by modern media and Spain's modern politically correct society to the point that sales of artesanal navajas have plummeted, centuries-old cutlery shops have closed, and an entire population of craftsmen have had to seek employment elsewhere. The navaja, once carried proudly by every Spaniard as the protector of his home and family, is now perceived as a despicable relic of Spain's lawless past.

Spain, the nation that first brought the concept of honor and self-sufficiency to the New World has now, it appears, become influenced by our New World "values" and adopted our emasculating fear of "anything that might potentially hurt us."

How ironic and sad! Having once taught us what it means to have a sense of cultural pride, the Spanish now tragically emulate our lack of it!

[Visit the museum's website at:]