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Making Self-Defense Training Realistic

Self Defense Training

I recently had an interview with a European martial arts organization. If you’ve been keeping up with the news lately, Europe is not only seeing an increase in crime and violence, but they’re also experiencing a war; the Russia-Ukraine War, now in its fifth month.

Knowing that I first introduced reality-based self-defense to the martial arts community over two decades ago, thanks to Black Belt Magazine bringing me aboard in 1999, this organization had six questions for me, and I answered them. I’ve had many such interviews over the years, and I see it as an obligation to educate my fellow martial arts practitioners.

Black Belt Plus

In fights people can get hurt. Here my students are learning how to evacuate an injured person in a nylon rescue litter. Before that I taught them how to make improvised litters out of common objects found at a business, school, or at home.

Batlle Damage Wall

To create “battle damage” to a wall, simulated with carboard, I cut a hole into it and painted the edges, and then painted a star pattern for the “blast marks.”

Shoot Through Holes

To get my armed students used to shooting in awkward positions, and learning to shoot through “mouse holes,” I had them learn the techniques by first dry-firing with blue non-firing training guns, then shooting with airsoft guns that fire a 6mm plastic projectile with enough force to punch a hole through the photo realistic target downrange.

Black Face

No, this is not a racist photo just because this light skinned woman is putting on “black face” with stage makeup. This is a Christian missionary who is going to Africa this summer in a very dangerous area of the continent. In this exercise that I had her do, she must put on black stage makeup within two minutes (a disguise to blend into the local population), then go outside and act as natural as possible to evade or escape terrorists. I’ve been training her in all kinds of tactical fieldcraft for six months.

No, this is not a racist photo just because this light skinned woman is putting on “black face” with stage makeup. This is a Christian missionary who is going to Africa this summer in a very dangerous area of the continent. In this exercise that I had her do, she must put on black stage makeup within two minutes (a disguise to blend into the local population), then go outside and act as natural as possible to evade or escape terrorists. I’ve been training her in all kinds of tactical fieldcraft for six months.

This woman is 76 years old, and she has become an expert with the pistol after training with me for two years. She is on an armed security team, and fearless. Here she is moving up on an “active shooter” with her teammate on a live-fire shooting range.

After the interview I thought, “Those were some good questions that were asked. I think the Black Belt Magazine readers could also benefit from my answers.”

So, I will present each question that was asked, in bold type, and after each one my response follows.

Martial Arts Drills

Question 1: How do you achieve realism, as close as possible, in a gym, training hall, or dojo?

Over 20 years ago, I was the first martial arts instructor to categorize the martial arts into three separate categories, which are traditional-based, sport-based, and reality-based.

Look at any martial arts magazine printed prior to 1999 and you’ll see exactly what I mean. That’s because there was very little content about reality-based training, and by “reality-based” I mean realistic self-defense training based on those who fight (life and death fights) for a living: combat military personnel, law enforcement officers, correction officers, bodyguards, bouncers, and some private security officers, which all those professions listed happens to be my tactical background – literally, all of it. When I started writing for the world’s largest and most popular martial arts magazines, starting in 1999, they saw the future that I saw. They expanded their reality-based content in their magazines and then social media when that came about.

I started with this history lesson to point out that realistic training in gyms, training halls, and dojos hasn’t been around long, and that which exists today is taken for granted, although many martial arts schools are still in “the Dark Ages” when it comes to realistic self-defense training.

To help you better understand my contribution, I’ll list what I personally introduced to the martial arts community over the past two decades to make training parallel to real-world attacks: paint guns and then airsoft guns when they first came out, combat first aid, stage blood for knife defense training (for physical and psychological effects), stage makeup and wounds for shooting and terrorism scenarios, stage sets and props to create more realistic environments, bomb and hazardous items searches and scenarios, sniper survival, counter-surveillance, no kicks above the belt line (just like the militaries and police around the world also teach), arrest & control techniques, weapon transitions (such as going from a knife to a gun or visa versa), and many more techniques, tactics, and training methods.

For the first several years of the turn of the century I was heavily criticized by many instructors, well-known instructors, in writing found in martial arts magazines and social media. To give you an idea of just how far we have come since then, here are a few comments that were published about me and my “radical” ideas:

“Nobody will attack citizens with an assault rifle.”

“Teaching students how to survive bombs and hand grenade attacks! What’s next, learning how to survive a nuclear bomb?”

“Wagner says that katas have no value for self-defense just because police and military don’t practice them. That’s because he doesn’t know the true value of katas.”

“He was never a sergeant.”

“Wagner is a liar! He was not a counterterrorist.”

Of course, as indicated by the last two quotes, my character was also attacked, and probably much more than my teaching methods.

By briefing explaining the history of my role in introducing reality-based martial arts, and don’t forget that the literal definition of “martial arts,” in English and other languages, is “war arts,” I am pushing realistic training – the practice of war arts.

There is an expression in the tactical community, and that is train as you fight. Ask yourself, Is how you are training actually going to work on the streets, in a bar, or on the battlefield? If you can answer YES, then keep doing what you are doing, but if the answer is “SOME THINGS” or “NO,” then make your training more realistic. Make the training look exactly like it would in a real-world attack, and there are many types of attacks today. However, if you don’t really know what real attacks looks like, and Hollywood movies make for bad fighting teachers, then go to those who have actually been in life and death fights. As one of my students once told me, Major Avi Nardia who introduced the Israeli KAPAP system to the world because of my prompting, “I’d rather be the student of reality than a master of fantasy.”

Black Belt Mag Shop

Question 2: What do you think is more important, training with the hands or the feet, and why?

The answer is, “You must train the hands and feet equally.” What do I mean by that? Well, think about it. To advance on an opponent, or retreat from him or her, requires movement, and you move in any of the 10 directions using your feet to get you there.

Yes, I know, the question is meant to be interpreted as, “What’s more important, training to strike with the hands or with the feet?”

Well, to answer the intent of the question, in any given fight you will strike with your hands, and very little with your feet, if at all.

As a former jailer, and a police officer on the streets, I never had a criminal try to kick me. I have also literally trained thousands of law enforcement officers who have told me they have never been kicked by a criminal. Yes, there were perhaps a few that were, but not even 1%. So, what does this indicate?

Kicking in real fights is rare. Yes, it still can happen, and that’s why you should learn how to block, or get away, from any martial arts kick.

I’ll use another common tactical expression, to prove my point, and that’s it’s the hands that kill. Criminals use their hands to hurt and kill people.

Obviously, well-trained self-defense fighters need to know and practice a few kicks, but they are few indeed: the front thrust kick to the pelvic area, a back kick to the knee or stomp on the top of the foot if grabbed from behind, a side kick to break the attacker’s knee, and a stomp to the appropriate target (based on the appropriate legal use-of-force) when the attacker is on the ground and you’re standing.

That’s it, you don’t need any more kicks than that. Now, if you are in the traditional-based or sport-based martial arts, then learn and practice all the kicks you want (high kicks, spinning kicks, flying kicks), but those are not practical for self-defense, and a total waste of your time. I don’t know about you, but the time I can devote to training is limited.

Question 3: Please tell us about footwork. What are the main exercises you would recommend to those involved in the martial arts?

This is a good question, because it ties into the question before this one.

A couple of weeks ago I taught my Women’s Survival course. I always start the course with situational awareness first (walking them around a city street and pointing things out to them), then I train them how to use guns (airsoft guns) next (this is the United States of America after all, where we have the right to protect ourselves with firearms), then knives, and then finally hand-to-hand combat. Notice that I save the kicking and punching until last, and that’s because few women can go “toe-to-toe” with a male attacker. When it came time to teach them to kick I took my students outside, and stood them before a concrete wall with a door drawn in chalk, and a second drawing of a human silhouette outline.

I asked the question, “How many of you ladies have ever kicked open a door before?”

No hands went up. Not many women have had to kick open doors.

I told them, “I have, many times as a police officer and as a soldier, and I am going to show you how to do it now.”

I then demonstrated how to properly kick open a door, but with only half force so they wouldn’t break a foot on the concrete wall.

I then told them, “Just as you would kick open a locked door, you will kick your attacker the same way to the center of the pelvic area; center mass.” That means they had to use their back leg for momentum, thrust through the target, use the whole flat of the foot, and fold the attacker over.

I started with the front thrust kick, which in my Jim Wagner Reality-Based Personal Protection system is called the FORWARD LEG STRIKE WITH THE FOOT, because that is the most used, easiest to execute, and least risky of all the kicks to do in a fight.

Of course, if you ever get the chance to kick open a locked door, and you don’t hurt yourself in the process, then you will know exactly how to kick an attacker.

I don’t have time to go over the other kicks in this interview, but all of them are based on simple, effective, principles.

Black Belt Wellness

Question 4: What does the principle ONE MIND ANY WEAPON mean?

Back in the early 1990s I was hired by the United States Marine Corps to train many Marine instructors and units. One group that I taught at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California was the LINE (Linear Infighting Neural-override Engagement) instructors. LINE training was their hand-to-hand combat training at the time, but today it is called MCMAP (pronounced mick-map), which is the acronym for Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.

Anyway, after I had taught the LINE instructors, because they wanted to learn my system (especially my knife combat system, because they believed it to be superior than what they were teaching), they gave me one of their official training sweatshirts with their symbol and motto on it, which read ONE MIND ANY WEAPON. The symbol contained a crossed M-16 rifle and bayonet, and a closed fist in the middle of these two weapons.

Why is this their motto? It’s because it’s their combat philosophy. They believe that no matter what weapon they pick up to fight with, be it a pencil, hand full of dirt, a knife, or a firearm, they will expertly know how to use it and win with it. And, if they have no weapon at all, then they will use bare hands, head, feet, or even their own teeth if they have to, in order to defeat their enemy.

Having trained many Marine units over a nine-year period, I absorbed that motto and I have passed it onto my civilian self-defense students ever since.

I still have that Marine instructor sweater to this day, one of my most prized gifts.

Question 5: Many masters claim that “a good offense is the best defense.” When should you attack if you feel you are in danger?

This warrior expression, a good offense is the best defense is absolutely true. Yet, for civilian self-defense it must be in the proper context.

Before 2003, do you know what legal use-of-force graph that civilian martial artists had available to them so they would know what they could and couldn’t do legally to defend themselves? The answer is NOTHING.

Prior to 2003 only law enforcement agencies had various Use-of-Force Continuum graphs and militaries around the world had their Rules of Engagement. Using my law enforcement and military training and experience, I created the first civilian use-of-force graph called the Jim Wagner Use-of-Force Ladder. Not only have many martial arts schools adapted my graph since I created it, because it is easy to understand and teach, but the U.S. Army had it featured in one of their tactics publications for dealing with civilian situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Amsterdam Police (the Netherlands) used it as a reference when creating a new Use-of-Force Continuum graphic.

Once you know by heart the Use-of-Force Ladder, then it’s easy to know what techniques to use to defend yourself in any given situation. If I’m in a bar, and someone tries to punch me in the face, I can break their head open with a pool que. On the other hand, if that same person comes at me with a broken beer bottle, and I have no other options, I must resort to using deadly force; meaning going for the eyes or throat with my bare hands or using a weapon myself.

The problem with self-defense is that there are a lot of factors to consider. It’s rarely “black and white” in the eyes of the law, and that’s why every fight is judged by the totality of circumstances. However, as a general rule, you should strike the enemy before the enemy strikes you. Because if you don’t, you may be too hurt to counterattack.

Black Belt Wellness

Question 6: What should martial arts instructors know today, to be truly “masters?”

Of course, I am only addressing those instructors that teach reality-based self-defense.

The world has changed since I first started learning martial arts at 14 years old, just south of Los Angeles. At this time there were no school shootings, no office shootings, no church shootings, parents allowed their children to walk to school without worrying about them being kidnapped, if there was a fight a school between students it was only a fist fight, we never heard of “drive-by shootings,” acts of terrorism against civilian targets was extremely rare, and nobody in their right mind would have even thought of “defunding the police.” In fact, many people I knew at that time didn’t even lock their front doors or their cars.

Nobody can tell me today that “things are not getting worse” in the world, because I have seen the world get progressively more violent with my own eyes for my 60 + years on this planet. I have not only been in the tactical world since I was 18 years old (soldier, corrections officer, police officer, deputy sheriff, dignitary protection, counterterrorism, executive protection, and private security with some of the top companies in the world), but I have taught in 20 countries, plus I’m still doing security missions today with various organizations. As such, I believe that self-defense instructors must keep up with the times. Even if their jurisdiction does not allow firearms, they must still be firearms experts. Why? Because criminals and terrorists use firearms, and one must know combat techniques and tactics if the bad guy(s) are spraying the place with bullets: cover, concealment, playing dead, rushing the shooter, et cetera. One must also know how to use the firearm against him or her if a disarm is performed or if the weapon laying on the ground. If anything, the instructor must know how to render the firearm safe.

Today’s instructors need to prepare their students physically and mentally for what they will actually see during or after an attack, and that is done by using stage blood and latex wounds applied with spirit gum. One simple way to make a “fist fight” more realistic is to put some stage blood on the boxing gloves for light contact training. When the two students hit each other, they will be transferring the “blood” to their opponent’s face and body. The participants will not only see the “results” of hitting someone (a bloody nose or lip for example), but they’ll have blood all over himself or herself from getting “injured,” which helps them get used to that uncomfortable feeling, and not be shocked when it occurs in a real situation. Of course, the follow-on training will be first aid. After all, injuries are part of fighting, and that part of training falls in the category of post-conflict.

Today’s instructors also need to learn about terrorism, anti-kidnapping techniques, what to do during a Vehicle Ramming Attack, how to survive a pepper spray or Taser attack, and a whole host of knowledge and skills.

Of course, I have put out a lot of material (books, articles, and videos) on these very subjects over the past three decades, and one place you can start with is with my YouTube channel called jimwagnerrbpp (the “rbpp” is for Reality-Based Personal Protection).

Although I first opened the door to the martial arts community to reality-based training two decades ago, there are now many like-minded self-defense instructors out there that have followed my example, and from many different systems, teaching a lot of good stuff. As such, see what they have to offer, and let it flow through your “reality-based filter.” If it’s real and effective, then keep it. If it’s too complicated or unrealistic, then reject it. After all, your student’s lives may depend on what you teach them.

My motto is, BE A HARD TARGET, because the way things are going today, you need to be one now more than ever.

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