kenjutsu weapons

Passive, Active, Proactive

In this post, I’m going to talk about three approaches to defense. I’m talking about these in terms of swordwork, but they can apply to any weapon or even unarmed combat (and I’ll talk a bit about that at the end). Don’t think of these as techniques, think of them as philosophies or approaches.

When we start teaching students how to defend against attacks, we start with what I refer to as “passive” blocks. This is a misnomer, because they’re not passive in any sense other than by comparison to the other options, but they’re the ones that people think of when you say “block”. We drill those a lot so that they become the default response when the student is attacked, and then we start introducing more advanced options for defense.

In swordwork, a “passive” block is where you interpose your weapon in front of the oncoming attack. If you actually just did that, then they would be truly passive, but of course if you just did that then the attacker would have a lot of options for avoiding the defense and it wouldn’t be effective. To avoid that, there is a fair amount of subtlety to the position and timing of the technique, most of which I’m not going to go into now.

An example: if attacked with a forehand kesagiri (so from the defender’s perspective it’s coming down diagonally towards their left shoulder), the defender would place their defense with their hand over their right shoulder, blade pointed towards the left *, with the kissaki (tip of the sword) lower than the hand. In particular, you want the defending sword angled so that the attacking sword will slide away from your hand rather than towards it. You also want your blade turned so that you’re not making direct edge-to-edge contact, because that will notch both blades and likely cause them to lock together.

* Note: many styles of kenjutsu would execute this block the other way, with the hand on the left. That’s a valid approach but it puts your hand in danger if you can’t also step, so we teach it the “safe” way first.

Simply intercepting the attacker’s energy is the most basic form of defense. It has some significant advantages, the biggest of which is that it’s pretty forgiving with respect to time – you can be a bit early or a bit late, and it mostly still works.

That said, passive blocks have some significant downsides. First, it means that you’re absorbing some portion of that energy. You can try to angle your defense to let it slide away, but ultimately you have to just soak some fraction of the energy no matter what. Second, the positional requirements for passive defenses are pretty strict. There are some options, but fundamentally you have to have the defense between yourself and the attack and rotated appropriately on multiple axes before the attack reaches you in order for it to be effective.

Active defenses, also known as “parries”, address both of those limitations. In an active defense, you apply a force roughly perpendicular to the incoming attack in order to redirect it away from yourself without actually opposing it. In terms of the sword, you can think of it as “cutting the cut” – you strike the incoming cut across its line. This avoids absorbing the energy of the attack, and it also gives you a lot more freedom spatially; while there’s certainly an optimal way to do it, in most cases you can pretty much just whack the attacker’s sword on the side however you can manage and it’ll work. There’s an additional advantage, which is that by allowing the energy of the attack to continue it takes longer for the attacker to recover and begin their next attack.

On the other hand, active defenses are much less flexible in terms of time. The window between when the attack starts (and gets close enough to reach) and when it’s too close to deflect away successfully is very small. What works best in practice is to mix passive and active defenses – you use active defenses either when you’re out of position or when you’re early enough to take advantage of the gap in the attacker’s defense. You use passive defenses when you’re in position to do so or when you’re too late to use active defenses.

There is a third “layer” of defense. If you’re early enough, you can defend by attacking: this is part of the “fire” element in kenjutsu, or the technique known as a stop-thrust in fencing. In the sword, the typical technique is to cut the hand or wrist of the attacker’s sword hand as they’re beginning their attack while simultaneously moving off line or out of range. For the forehand kesagiri I’ve been using as an example, typically one would shift back and left while cutting kiriage (diagonally upwards) towards the attacker’s right wrist. This puts you out of immediate danger and also hopefully injures the attacker in the process. By analogy with “passive” and “active”, I refer to this as “proactive defense”.

The big advantage of proactive defense is that there’s no point at which you’re actually in front of the attack, because you start your evasion just as the attack is beginning. That means you have two lines of defense: you’re hoping that your cut will stop the attack, but if it doesn’t it should miss you anyway because you’re not there. The big disadvantage of proactive defense is that you have to really be ahead of the attacker to pull it off. You can’t react to an incoming attack with a proactive defense (that’s why it’s “proactive”) – you have to predict the attack and be ready to counter it. It’s a “great if you can get it” sort of technique.

So, to summarize: earliest and farthest, you have proactive defense. If you’re later or closer than that, you have active defense. If you’re even later or closer than that, you’re down to passive defense. Proactive defense gives you the maximum flexibility in terms of your movement, and passive gives you the least, so there’s a tradeoff between freedom in time and freedom in space.


Why Practice Kata?

It’s an ongoing debate in the martial arts: are kata useful? Virtually every traditional martial art includes some kind of prearranged forms, and many modern arts (e.g., BJJ, MMA) do not. There’s a strong feeling among the modern-art practitioners that kata are a relic and useless. In my opinion, it shows astounding arrogance to assume that you know better than centuries of masters who used kata as a training tool for their students who were going to have to rely on their skills in life-or-death situations.

So, obviously I’m on the pro-kata side of the argument. It’s on me, then, to explain what kata actually are good for, and that’s what this post is about. In my opinion, there are three major reasons for kata to exist:

  1. They’re a catalog of techniques.
  2. They’re a framework for structuring your practice.
  3. They’re a standardized way to compare different people practicing the same style.

Catalog of techniques

Even today, the transmission of martial arts is largely done by person-to-person instruction – it’s effectively an oral tradition. It’s useful, then, to have a stable way to encode a catalog of all the techniques that a student is expected to master. It’s also useful to place the kata into an order, because that establishes a “curriculum” for the art where the fundamentals come first and the more-advanced techniques are placed later in the sequence.

Without kata, there are some situational techniques that might end up never being taught. For example, there is one Suisha Ryu kata named akumabarai that ends with the practitioner dropping to one knee and performing a close-range infighting-style cut with the spine of the blade braced by the left hand. This is one of the only places in the curriculum where that style of cutting is explicitly called out, but having it there means that anyone who learns all the kata will have at least some exposure to infighting techniques.

Framework for practice

I like to explain this as “kata give you something to do while you’re working on something else.” If you’re working on, for example, integrating your cuts with your body movement, you need to do a whole bunch of cuts. Ideally, you’d hit every variation of combining cuts, and you’d repeat each variation as many times as possible. You could certainly sit down and try to list out a whole bunch of variations, but conveniently it’s been done for you – if you work through the kata, you should get every variation that somebody felt was important to practice.

Because you’ve practiced your kata enough to internalize them (you have, right?), you can focus on the thing that you’re trying to improve rather than thinking about what movements you’re doing. You can easily vary a different dimension, such as speed, without spending a lot of mental effort on the general shape of your movements.

Standardized comparison

This is by far the least important reason to practice kata, and I have a suspicion that this may be what the people who argue against kata think is the primary purpose: because kata are standardized, you can use them to compare two practitioners of the same style against each other. You can have each person perform the same kata, and it’s fairly easy to tell the more-advanced practitioners from the less-advanced just by observing what mistakes they make.

This is not useless – for one thing, the less-advanced practitioners can learn a lot by watching more-advanced practitioners perform a sequence of movements that they themselves have trained. It’s also useful for a teacher to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a set of students by having them all do the same thing. That said, this is really not very important, and if this truly were the point of kata I would agree that they’re not worth the time invested in them.


I have a standard lecture that I give to my students, that starts with “knowing kata is useless.” The idea is that the only thing that’s useful is practicing kata – lots of people learn kata because collecting them is fun, but you don’t get any real benefit that way. You have to practice them, over and over, for them to actually help you become a better martial artist.

For those people who say kata are useless, I ask: what do you do when you’re practicing a technique? You take a short sequence of movements and repeat it over and over again, right? If you’re a boxer, I bet you’ve spent a whole lot of time doing jab/cross/hook, or jab/cross/slip/jab, or lots of other standard combinations. What are those if not kata? A kata doesn’t have to be long – most of the Suisha Ryu kata can be done in five seconds or less at a moderate speed. In fact, if you can’t reasonably just run the whole kata several dozen times in a row in a single session, I would argue that you’re missing much of the point.

kenjutsu movement

Kenjutsu Drills

In your martial arts journey, you will inevitably spend a lot of time doing drills. Repetitive practice isn’t always fun, but it’s the best way to hone physical skills and pretty much the only way to build muscle memory. One of the things that a teacher can do to make this easier is to provide lots of options for drills; even if they’re exercising the same skills, having different drills at least provides some variety. This post is just a listing of a few of the drills and approaches that we use for solo and partner practice.

Solo Drills

Movement Cuts

Movement cuts are the most fundamental drill in the art. They exercise cutting, stepping, and the integration of the two. There is a drill for each of the five cuts, and there are many variations you can do.

For each cut, you step on the appropriate angle and cut towards the stepping foot (so for a forehand kesagiri – the downward diagonal cut – with the right hand, you’d step back with your left foot and cut from right to left).

The transition between cuts that alternate lines (that is, kesagiri, kiriage, and yokogiri) involves an overhead block. For shinchokugiri – the vertical cut – the block interferes with the flow so we omit it, and for kiriage – the rising cut – we “elide” it a bit just to keep the flow going.

For tsuki (thrust) you can optionally do a “flip” by reversing the grip of your left hand, releasing your right hand, and allowing momentum (not muscle!) to spin the blade to where you can catch it again. The point of this is twofold: first and most importantly, it lets you translate the kinetic energy of your backward step into the next thrust, so it gives you continuity of energy. Secondarily, it’s practice for reversing your grip on the sword (see this).


I’m going to do a post soon about what kata are actually for (which is a surprisingly contentious topic!), but in this context practicing kata is about repetition. The kata gives you a framework in which to repeat a sequence of movements without having to invent that sequence yourself. Each kata is designed to encapsulate one or more lessons about movement and combining movements, and in the repetition of the kata you have a chance to discover and explore those lessons.

Tameshigiri or other target cutting

The distinction I’m drawing here between tameshigiri, the practice of cutting targets (usually tatami omote, straw mats) and “other target cutting” is that in the latter case it doesn’t matter if you’re actually cutting through the target, it’s just about cutting against resistance. I’ve used heavy bags, and for a long time I had a tire hung up under my porch that I could whack with a bokken.

Real tameshigiri, where you’re actually slicing a target, teaches you blade control – it shows you any flaws in your blade angle, mainly by examining the path and cleanness of the cut after the fact. Some people practice tameshigiri with challenging targets: multiple mats rolled together, green bamboo, etc. This can teach power, but it’s tempting to try to muscle your way through these tests so I don’t think much of them as a training tool. Sensei always used to say, “it’s not about cutting the grass.”

The real problem with tameshigiri is that it’s expensive (straw mats are cheap, but shipping them isn’t!) It also takes a lot of time and effort to set up, so you don’t want to do it often unless you have a lot of money and preferably minions to do the work for you. It’s not the sort of thing that you’d be doing several times a week unless you’re both fairly rich and dedicated to the practice. If you don’t feel like dealing with tatami omote, two-liter soda bottles work fairly well as a substitute: fill them with water and hang them from something overhead. Fat pool noodles also work, but are also fairly expensive to destroy regularly.

Cutting resistant targets like my tire, on the other hand, is cheap and easy. It doesn’t show you problems with your blade angle, and while it gives you a sense of how much power you’re generating it will punish you for hitting too hard, by hitting you back just as hard. It’s mainly useful, therefore, for getting a sense of what it feels like to cut something solid. You need to understand what kind of impact you’ll feel, how to keep control of your sword when it hits, and how to flow through multiple cuts when your target is maybe not flat or still.

Partner Drills

Cutting Drills

I know, that’s a totally useless name, isn’t it? An alternate name for this drill is “four and four”, which might be a bit better. The idea is that you make four cuts at your partner, who defends them, and then they make four cuts at you. The number four is arbitrary – we sometimes do six or even eight, but if you make it only one or two then the drill becomes too much like sparring.

In the simplest form of this drill, the partners are stationary and the four cuts are predetermined (for example, kesa, kesa, yoko, yoko). This is mainly useful for practicing specific defenses repetitively, and for just getting used to having someone swinging a sword at you. That last is not to be ignored – for many people, it’s difficult not to flinch from an incoming sword, and that makes defending very hard.

The next step up is to vary the cuts. Normally we require that they alternate sides and don’t include shinchokugiri or tsuki; the former is because it messes up the alternation, and the latter is because it breaks the timing and range. Those things are useful, but they’re a more advanced skill. This version of the drill is about building the reflexes to associate each cut with the appropriate defense.

From there, you can introduce footwork. At this point, the drill becomes very dynamic – range is a major factor, as is angle. You can do a lot of work exploring what happens when you move to specific places (in general, you want to step towards the cut so as to end up farther away from the sword afterwards; people often have trouble with that part). There’s a version of this drill that doesn’t alternate; one person simply attacks continuously, and the other person tries not to be cornered. As the defender, it’s entirely possible to back the attacker into a corner and hold them there (and this is a fun party trick), but it takes good control over intent and structure as well as an understanding of range and movement. You can simplify this version of the drill by restricting movement to a line, so the only variable is range.

Notice that I’ve been saying “defense” above rather than “block”. That’s because, while we start out teaching what I refer to as “passive blocks” where you’re intercepting the force of the attack and not otherwise affecting it very much, it’s absolutely viable to mix in “active blocks” where you’re deflecting the attack away, simple dodges and evasions, or even counterattacks as defenses.

The “final form” of this drill involves free movement, any attack, and any defense, but it still keeps a consistent pace and sequence, so it’s still “four and four”.

Shadow Kata

This drill works by taking a kata that both partners are already familiar with. The junior partner simply executes the kata; the senior partner performs the opponent side of the kata. Since most kata don’t actually have a predefined opponent side, the senior partner gets to do some invention; there are often lots of different movements they could do that makes the movements in the kata make sense.

The nice thing about this drill is that both partners get to practice different things in a highly dynamic environment. The senior partner gets to ad-lib around the kata, playing with distance and timing, angles and interactions. The junior partner gets to figure out how to use the movements of the kata to react to the senior’s actions, without having to actually decide what actions to take.

It’s best to pick a kata, invent an opponent sequence, and then stick with it for a while. Once both partners are comfortable, the senior partner can start varying the distance, timing, and angles, and the junior adapts. When that becomes easy, the senior can start introducing different movements that force the junior to change the interpretation of their actions, without actually changing the actions themselves.

An example may make this clearer. I’ll take a specific movement from the kata ipponme: the practitioner steps with their left foot, pushes their sword to the left side of their body, steps forward with their right foot, and performs a backhand kiriage. A typical example of an opposing action would be that the partner attacks with yokogiri (and is blocked), and then evades the kiriage by moving either back or sideways.

Once the partners are comfortable, the senior can start executing their yokogiri more or less aggressively (forcing the junior to adapt their first step), changing the angle of the cut (forcing the junior to change the angle of their defense), and so forth. Ultimately, they might change the yokogiri to a kiriage, forcing the junior to reinterpret the defensive movement, or even simply move in deeply on the first step to try to get the junior to interpret that movement as a strike.

Slow Sparring

Slow sparring is simply free sparring done at a very slow, constant speed. The advantage of this is that it takes the fear element away (see below about that) and so gives people an opportunity to be much more experimental and explore different techniques. By moving slowly, there’s more time to see what’s working and what’s not, and to try different things.

The hard part about slow sparring is to keep moving slowly. If you find yourself out of position and about to be hit, it’s really difficult not to speed up, just a little bit, to get the block in place. Then, of course, your partner speeds up to match you, and pretty soon you’re free-sparring. This takes constant attention and discipline, and usually an outside observer watching and calling out infractions.


Finally, the one that everybody is interested in: free-sparring. In Suisha Ryu, we practice this using shinai but no armor. We don’t always go full speed and power, but the option is definitely there. Being hit by a shinai hurts but generally doesn’t injure you. That said, nobody likes getting hit, and it’s normal to be afraid of it. That fear is necessary – if you want to learn how to fight, you have to learn how to deal with being afraid.

There’s a saying in the SCA, where I do my Destreza practice: “armor makes you stupid.” It’s very common in SCA fighting to see somebody step into an attack, or rush in with no defense, or defend with a “bare” hand, all in order to get a hit. In real combat, any of these would likely get you injured at least, but under the rules of the game they’re viable and winning techniques, and everyone is willing to try them because there’s no penalty in pain. Pain is the best teacher, and sparring is how we enlist that teacher.

Besides the pain, there’s a big downside in sparring with shinai: shinai don’t move like swords do. Look at (nearly) anyone practicing kendo, for example, and then picture those techniques done with katana – they don’t make any sense, and generally wouldn’t work. Under the stress of sparring, it’s extremely difficult to maintain good technique, and almost everyone inevitably falls into “stick” techniques instead of proper cutting. Sparring is not the place to try to refine your technique, because in order to do that it’s necessary to let your techniques fail and most people aren’t willing to do that when the consequence is getting hit.

For those reasons, we don’t do a lot of full-power, full-speed sparring. When done with shinai and no armor, it tends to build bad habits; if you add enough protection to avoid that problem, you remove most of the benefits of sparring. It’s a necessary part of training, but it’s not the place to focus beyond what you need to do in order to be able to handle the stress.

kenjutsu weapons

Infighting with a Sword

(Yes, I know that’s a gun and not a sword, but it illustrates the principles.)

Infighting is what happens when you get too close to use your sword “properly”. Let me get this out of the way first thing: this is not something you want to do if you have a choice. If you have a sword, you want to be at sword range; if the enemy doesn’t have a sword, you really want to be at sword range. The reason you’d be infighting with a sword is either because you moved in and need to defend yourself until you can get out again, or because the enemy rushed you and you couldn’t get away.

Let’s just define the situation first: you’re close to your opponent, easily within arm’s length. You’re at a range where you could reasonably throw elbows and knees; your hands are likely in contact with your opponents’. You’re not quite in shoulder-strike or headbutt range, but it doesn’t take much movement to get there. You have a sword; maybe they have a sword, maybe not. This fight lasts no more than a couple of seconds; either somebody will disengage successfully, somebody will get disabled, or somebody will grapple.

So, having defined the situation…what do you do? First, what you don’t do: you don’t do normal sword cuts. You can’t, because there isn’t enough space, and you don’t want to, because it would involve leaving yourself unguarded. You don’t turn your body, because you’d be giving your opponent your side or your back. You don’t drop your hands if you can help it, because that exposes your head.

Given that, what do you do? You hold your sword across your body and brace the mune (spine of the blade) with your left hand. Keep your hand flat and don’t let your thumb go under the blade, because infighting is messy and there’s a real chance of cutting off your own fingers. Keep your elbows bent and low and the sword at about chest level, because that gives you a cage around your torso and lets you block the natural position of your opponent’s hands. Without any actual “techniques” at all, you can use the sword to push the opponent away with both hands, and this position gives you excellent structure to apply force.

The downside of this position is that there’s nothing directly protecting your head, so you need to be prepared for the opponent to strike at your head, either directly or with a hooking motion. If they have a sword, that might be a kashira strike (direct) or an attempt at a cut (hook). You can defend yourself against direct strikes by raising one hand or the other in order to parry attacks across your body (so for a right-hand strike, you’d parry with your left; you don’t want to cross your own center line if you can help it). For hooking strikes, you can intercept with your forearms by lifting the near hand (think outside block, but without removing your hand from the sword).

The most important thing to remember about infighting is that it’s fast and messy. If the opponent opens a hole in their defense, a lot of the time it’s better to just hit them than to defend their attack. Keep in mind that you have a sword, so even if you can’t cut your strikes will still be more effective than you could get with empty hands. You can parry downward for strikes to the body, but unless they have a knife or something you’re almost always better off just eating the attack in order to take a free strike to their head when they drop their hand.

Speaking of strikes, what options do you have available? The easiest ones are effectively a palm strike with the left hand, which will end up striking with the blade, or a punch with the right hand, which will ideally strike with the edge of the tsuba (but hitting with the knuckles or even tsuka are OK too). Your other options are:

  • A cutting motion where the right hand pulls and the left hand applies pressure.
  • A strike with the kashira.
  • A thrust with the point.

All of those options involve moving the sword away from its guard position, and so you have to be careful not to open yourself up in the process.

Be aware that while all this is going on above the waist, there may be kicks and knees happening beneath. You don’t have any hands available, so you’re going to need to counter with your legs; luckily, they can’t develop a whole lot of power in the space they have available. If the opponent does pick up a foot to kick or knee you, you can likely push them immediately off balance, which will take their attack away and might even knock them down (though they’ll quite probably try to drag you down on top of them, so be prepared).

Slightly more involved techniques involve trapping one hand with your tsuka (for any wing chun folks in the room, this is a flavor of lop sau). You can also remove your left hand from the blade and use that to trap, but in so doing you lose almost all of your control over the blade and you risk having it taken away from you.

Speaking of which… imagine for a moment that the opponent has a sword and you don’t. Assuming you can’t run away, certainly the best move is for you to close with them as much as possible, which puts them into an infighting mode. If you assume they know how to infight (in the way that I’m describing; I’m not claiming this is the only method), what can you do about it? Trying to strike past the blade is a Bad Plan for reasons described above. Instead, you need to grapple the sword or the sword hand; ideally, you’d take the sword away, but failing that you can at least isolate it while you do some damage.

Just grabbing the tsuka doesn’t work very well, because in the direction that you’d like to torque it (tsuka up, blade down) they’ve got their left hand to brace with. What you need to do instead is to use their grip on the sword as a lever to manipulate their body with. There are a few ways this can be done, but imagine reaching to the far side of the tsuka with your right hand and gripping it with your elbow high and your palm towards your own chest. You can then take their right elbow with your left hand and execute what amounts to an arm bar (hyperextending their elbow and using it as a lever to move their body). Either they’ll let go of the sword, in which case great, or else they’ll hang on, in which case you have an arm bar. If they brace with their left hand and have good structure, you may not be able to straighten their right arm; in this case, you can raise their elbow and move into something more like a hammerlock or figure four. Be careful where their point goes – it’s pretty easy to stab yourself in the leg during any of these maneuvers. Regardless, though, once you’ve gripped the tsuka you’ll have fairly good control over their sword hand and there won’t be a lot they can do to you without breaking that control.

As the sword wielder, what can you do to prevent this? If they get a grip on the sword, the thing to do is to lever your left hand and blade up into the bottom of the right arm, before they execute their arm bar. This will effectively reverse the lock; they’ll have to let go or end up in a similar sort of position, though you can’t get a real arm bar. If you do it forcefully enough, you might even be able to do some damage, possibly to their tricep or brachial artery. Most people will let go at that point. Even better would be to do this before they get a grip in the first place; that will likely result in turning their whole body away from yourself, at which point you have lots of options.

I’ll say this one more time: this isn’t something you’d do on purpose. This is a situation that you might find yourself in and that you should be prepared to deal with if you’re serious about learning how to fight with a sword. This also isn’t something that you’d do for any length of time – don’t look at this like boxing or ground-grappling, where you might spend half a minute probing and looking for opportunities. This is something that’s going to be over and done with in no more than a few seconds; either you’re going to separate and go back to “normal” combat range, you’re going to be on the ground wrestling, or somebody’s going to be out of the fight. Infighting is fast, messy, and dangerous, especially when there are weapons involved.


How to Train

So, you’re going to classes, or maybe you’re lucky and you’re getting private lessons from a teacher. That’s great, but you can’t get good at martial arts in an hour a week, or two, or four. If you’re serious about martial arts, you must train on your own. So, you set up a training area (with a nice high ceiling if you’re using swords!), you drag yourself out of bed a half hour or an hour early so you’ll have time, you warm up with some exercises and stretches, and then… what?

This is an ongoing problem, and in my experience it gets worse rather than better as you get more experienced. There are two reasons for that: on the one hand, you just know more stuff, so the process of deciding what to practice is more difficult; on the other hand, you’re not learning new things nearly as often, so there isn’t necessarily an obvious “next thing” you should be working on. Spending your training time just randomly doing a few reps of one thing and a few reps of a different thing isn’t a good use of your time, and it isn’t going to give you good results. So, what do you do?

The first thing to understand is that fundamentals are fundamental. The basics are basics because they’re important, and they only get more important as you get better. If you’re learning the sword, you should be practicing cuts. Not fancy swallowtail cuts, not spinning flying behind-the-back cuts, just cuts. There’s a story by Dave Lowry in an article in Black Belt (you can see it here) in which a great and renowned kendo master named Torao Mori asked another kendoka to help him practice a technique. When asked what it was, he said that it was shomenuchi, the very first cut that kendoka usually learn. “I still don’t have it down quite right,” said Mori.

OK, so you’re going to work on your basics, and you’re never going to stop. Great, but obviously at some point you have to work on the more advanced stuff or you’ll never get good at it, no matter how niche its applications might be. How do you pick?

The critical point here is to limit your scope. If you know 30 kata, don’t do 30 kata, or you’ll just be exercising (which is fine, but we’d like to get more than that out of our time on the mats, right?) Pick one, and do it a lot. Do it thousands of times. The rule of thumb as it was given to me is that you don’t begin to understand a kata until you’ve done it 500 times, and only then can you figure out how to practice it for real.

Sensei once challenged me to do 10,000 repetitions of something. I chose spear thrusts, and I did it; it took about a week of doing not much else in my training. That was some of the better practice time I’ve ever had – because I didn’t have to decide what I was going to practice, I was free to just concentrate on the practice. Because the movement itself is so “simple”, I could focus on all the tiny details that make the difference between just doing it and doing it well.

Some people are highly analytical. If it wasn’t obvious from this blog, that’s me – I like to break things down and understand them intellectually. That’s great, but it’s not enough – knowing that there are three turns in a step, for example, helps you not at all in terms of actually being able to step properly and effectively. The only thing that will make you able to execute correctly is practice – analysis is great, but then you have to do the work.

By the way, my analytical nature drove Sensei nuts – he’s much more intuitive, more of the “shut up and train until you get it” type. He was very good about not telling me to shut up when I kept asking him detailed technical questions, but I knew he wanted to. If you’re like him, that’s fine, it’s a difference of order rather than completeness. Intuitive people internalize first and then understand; analytical people try to understand first and then internalize. There’s no right answer – do what works for you.

One last thing: when you’re training, pay attention. That sounds obvious – clearly, if you’re training with the TV on, you’re not getting as much out of it (which doesn’t mean people don’t do it!) Even without the obvious distractions, though, it’s really easy to just go on autopilot and do reps without really paying attention to them. When you do that, you’re not only not getting all the benefit you should, you might be “burning in” bad habits. It’s critically important to give your full attention to what you’re doing, because that’s how you’ll learn the lessons that your practice has to teach you.

So, here’s the bottom line: work on your basics. With the rest of your time, pick a small set of other things to work on, and do them a ton. Cycle through your material as you need to in order to stay interested, but not so fast that don’t have time to get some depth in each thing. Pay attention to your practice. Now, shouldn’t you be training?


It’s Just a Step -or- Three Turns

There’s a thing that my students are all tired of hearing: “It’s just a step.” What I mean when I say this is that the movement is entirely dictated by the feet, and everything else happens as a consequence of the mechanics of the step itself.

Here’s an example: when you execute the cut yokogiri (horizontal cut), you normally step to the side with your leading foot pointed to the side (so, past your target). This step causes two things to happen: first, the weight shifts from the back foot to the front foot, and second, the body turns due to the difference in angle between the feet. These two movements added together result in angular momentum being transferred up the body and out the arm to the sword, resulting in the sword swinging through a particular arc.

This example is oversimplified (there’s an awful lot more to a cut than that!), but it illustrates the point: the step is what makes the cut happen. Notice what isn’t there – there’s no mention of any arm movement. Students always assume that sword cuts happen because the arm moves from the shoulder, and getting past that assumption is difficult and yet crucial to the process of understanding the sword.

Ideally, everything should be “just a step”, beyond some small movements that don’t need significant power. In particular, when you’re moving a sword or any other heavy weapon (light weapons like knives don’t need or in fact want this much body connection), it should be integrated into the structure of the body so you can keep control of it. If you take a heavy club and use it to strike somebody behind you, you’re going to have a hell of a time getting that weapon back under control quickly because you’re outside of the zone where you can apply any power. In order to keep the weapon integrated into your structure, you have to move it with your body. All body movement ultimately comes from the ground (you can argue that it comes from the hara and “bounces off” the ground, but that doesn’t matter here), so the movement of the weapon is ultimately secondary to a movement of the feet. This isn’t specific to weapons, of course – any movement that needs power has to be integrated with the body structure, so a punch or a throw is just as applicable.

In order to understand this, you need to grasp what actually constitutes a step. There are two primary components to a step: the weight shift, and several body turns. If we assume a “full” step (100% weight shift from the trailing foot to the lead foot), you can break it down into stages as follows:

  1. Turn 1, extend the lead foot.
  2. Turn 2, shift the weight from the trailing foot to the lead foot.
  3. Turn 3, settle the weight onto the lead foot.

So, what’s up with those turns? This is a critical part of understanding the body mechanics of a step, and it dictates in which direction you can apply power at what parts of the step. Every step contains three turns as shown above: turn 1 is away from the lead foot (e.g., to the left if you’re stepping with your right foot) and enables you to extend the foot, turn 2 is towards the lead foot and happens as part of the weight shift, and turn 3 is away again and happens as a result of the mechanics of the leg and hip. When you stand on one leg, the natural position for your upper body is turned inward somewhat from the foot – that is, if your left foot is pointing north, your body will end up pointing more or less northeast when you’re in balance and relaxed.

When I introduce this concept to people, they usually immediately try to figure out how this works in the context of walking. You certainly don’t do three body turns per step when you’re walking, so that seems like it shoots the whole concept down. That’s not the case, though, because when you’re walking you’re not actually taking “full steps” – in particular, you never settle your weight onto a single foot. When you step with alternate feet, the three turns end up overlapping:

  • First step:
  • Turn 1 to left, extending the right foot
  • Turn 2 to right, shifting weight
  • Turn 3 to left
  • Second step:
  • Turn 1 to right, extending the left foot
  • Turn 2 to left, shifting weight
  • Turn 3 to right
  • Third step:
  • Turn 1 to left, extending the right foot
  • Turn 2 to right, shifting weight
  • Turn 3 to left…

The result of this is that there’s effectively a single turn per step, turning away from the foot you’re extending at each step. You can work this all out for cases like walking backwards or sidestepping as well – this is left as an exercise for the reader (and it’s actually a good and valuable exercise, because it’ll help you understand how your steps drive your movements).

So, let’s take an example to see how this analysis works. We’ll use a simplified case: three steps, starting on the right foot, with a backhand kiriage (rising cut from left to right) on the third step.

  1. Start in balance on both feet.
  2. Turn to left, extending the right foot.
  3. Turn to right, shifting weight to the right foot and extending the left foot.
  4. Turn to left, shifting weight to the left foot and extending the right foot. Use the momentum of this turn to bring the sword to the left side of your body.
  5. Turn to right, shifting weight to the right foot. Use the momentum of this turn and the weight shift to drive the cut.

Now, let’s look at some variations. What if I don’t take the third step? Interestingly, the last turn (in stage 5) will still happen, because that means I’m settling on the left foot that I shifted to in stage 4, and therefore I can still execute the cut in the same way. The angle of the cut will be a bit different if I’m doing it without the step, but that’s all.

What if, instead of that backhand kiriage, I want a forehand kesagiri (diagonal-down cut from right to left) instead? Well, that I have to do on a turn from right to left, so I can look at my turns and just pick one. I could do it on stage 4 and drop the third step entirely (this would make it a “closed-side” cut, meaning that I’m cutting towards my lead foot – this works, but it’s not a completely natural movement). I could take the third step and then introduce a stage 6 where I reverse the weight shift; this is a more natural cut, but it means I’m reversing the momentum of my body, which is not ideal.

This kind of analysis can be applied to any sequence of movements, and in so doing you’ll find that there’s always a way to map the movements to the steps (assuming the sequence makes sense). By doing this, you’ll develop a much deeper understanding of any sequence of movements, and you’ll learn how to align your upper-body movements with your steps in order to produce the maximum power.


Principles of Footwork

Footwork is a critical aspect of all martial arts, and I just had to search the blog because I couldn’t believe I hadn’t written this post earlier. Proper footwork gives mobility, but also balance, structure, and root – without it, you’ll be off-balance, immobile, and unable to exert power.

The term “footwork” covers multiple aspects of movement. At its most fundamental level, you can describe it as the study of weight and balance – where you put the weight on your feet, how you arrange your feet under your body, and how you transfer your weight while moving. This has implications, however – depending on how you arrange your feet, the directions in which you can exert power or absorb force change. Even subtler, the structure through your legs determines how much muscular tension it takes to support yourself, and therefore how quickly you can move your legs.

This post isn’t going to be about how to do proper footwork, because the details of footwork are highly style-dependent. If you look at someone practicing taiji, someone practicing taekwondo, and someone practicing, say, boxing, they look very different, but if they’re done correctly the fundamentals are identical. So, this post is going to look at the fundamentals: what does good footwork need, regardless of what art you’re practicing? What, in other words, are the principles of footwork?


Let’s start at the beginning. The balance point of your feet is in the center, right behind the ball of your second toe:

This has to do with the structure of your ankle and the cantilever effect of the arch of your foot. If you need to stand on a pole, that’s the spot to put it on your foot; anywhere else and you’ll have to contort your ankle, knee, and hip in order to keep your balance, and it will cause a lot of extra muscular tension. Ideally, you’d like all the weight to fall on that point on both feet.

Incidentally, this is why there’s disagreement between arts as to whether your feet should be flat or whether your heels should be raised. The balance point is right at the edge of the contact area when your heels are raised, so either way can work. I prefer a compromise: keep your heels in contact with the ground so that if you suddenly absorb force they’re there to catch you, but don’t plant weight on them because that tends to make you immobile.

Being in balance is critical. If you’re out of balance, the best case is that you need to use some muscle to maintain your position, and that’s muscle that’s then not available for movement. Worse, you may not be able to exert or absorb force, because ultimately all force must connect to the ground. For example, try standing on one foot and pushing on a wall – you’ll just push yourself away without exerting any particular force on the wall, because you’ll immediately take yourself out of balance. The worst case of being out of balance, of course, is that you fall down.

Because humans are bipedal, the region of perfect balance forms a line between the balance point of one foot and that of the other. If your center of mass is anywhere above that line, you’ll be in balance. Anywhere else, and you’ll be out of balance to some degree. From this, you can immediately see that there’s only one way to move that doesn’t result in being out of balance at some point: shift your weight 100% to one foot, move the other foot without placing any weight on it, and then shift your weight along the line of balance. If you watch taiji practitioners, they’re a really good example of this type of movement (and they tend to move slowly enough that you can see what they’re doing!) Anything else involves moments of off-balance – for example, if you try to put weight on a foot before it contacts the ground, you’ll “fall into your step”, and in that moment you’ll be unable to change direction or stop.

Done correctly, this creates a “rolling” style of movement, where your center of mass glides over the surface of the ground. Sensei always described this like rolling a basketball – if you drop it from any height, it bounces, but if you roll it perfectly (on a flat surface) it’ll move quickly and perfectly level. Similarly, keeping your center of mass at a constant height allows you to put all of your energy into horizontal movement, without wasting energy in vertical shifts. There are secondary benefits to this in terms of making your attacks more accurate, but that’s a bit outside the scope of this discussion.

This, by the way, is one reason for the “crescent step” used by many arts. The idea is to move your trailing foot to your leading foot and then back out as it passes, so it describes a crescent shape on the ground. Of course you first need to shift your weight to the leading foot, but then when you bring your trailing foot up, it’s awkward (though not impossible) to move it from behind you to in front of you without bringing your feet together in the middle. There are other reasons for this step, such as to move around the leg of your opponent (e.g., for a leg sweep).


OK, so now we can move in balance. Now what? Well, the goal of footwork is to be able to move freely and to exert power when and how we need to. In order to do any of those things, we need to be able to translate force to the ground. As a counterexample, think again about the situation where you’re standing on one foot. You can absolutely be in perfect balance while standing on one foot, but you can’t easily exert power from that position (with the exception of certain kinds of rotational power), nor can you move without first taking yourself off balance.

If you’re moving in balance, every position can be structured and there are no “transitional” positions. Given that, you can just take any random position and analyze it for structure in isolation. What is “structure”? You can think of structure as a mechanical connection from the point of contact – say, a fist, or a hand holding a weapon – to the ground. Ultimately, all force comes from the ground; this is just Newton’s Third Law (“every action has an equal and opposite reaction”). If I push on you, you push back on me exactly as hard; if I’m not supported by something stable, I’ll just push myself away from you.

So, we need a mechanical connection to the ground. Now we have to get into some biomechanics. There are two groups of tissues in the human body that deal with forces: bones (and their connective ligaments), and muscles. These tissues have very different properties, and marshaling the right ones at the right time and place is critical if you want to be successful. Muscles are good at creating motion, but not so good at opposing it, nor are they good at handling sustained forces. Bones and ligaments are, obviously, dreadful at creating motion, but they’re terrific at opposing it, and they’re extremely good at handling sustained forces (your femurs don’t get tired after standing up, for example).

So, the goal here is to use muscles for starting motion, and bones for stopping it. If I throw a (vastly oversimplified) punch, I want the muscles of my arm to send it towards your face, but when it gets there I want the force coming back to translate down the bones and not down the muscles. You can feel this one for yourself: think of the top of a pushup versus the bottom of a pushup. At the top, your bones and ligaments are taking the force, and it’s fairly relaxed. At the bottom, your muscles are taking the force, and it’s a lot of effort.

When that force translates back down the bones of my arm, I need it to have somewhere to go, because otherwise it’s going to throw my whole body back. I need that force to translate down my arm, into my spine, down to my pelvis, and down my legs into the ground, ideally all without moving me. My skeleton alone isn’t going to do that, because while the individual bones are rigid, the overall structure is floppy – it’s like tying three rulers together at the ends with string and trying to use the collection to push on something. The rulers are rigid, but the collection is not, and your force will just go off to the side. That’s where the muscles come in – you’re going to use your muscles just enough to keep your bones in the places where you need them to be in order to translate the force properly.

A full examination of structure is (far, far) outside the scope of this post, but for the purposes of footwork, the important thing is that your feet are in contact with the ground and your legs are set at an angle where the force can translate. If your feet are close together when you throw a punch, for example, the angle between the force coming down your leg and the ground will be too great, and you’ll knock yourself off balance.


Root is a funny concept. It means different things to different people, and sometimes it means different things in different situations. Root might be “resistance to being moved”, or it might be “ability to move someone else”, or even “connection to the ground”. Fundamentally, it’s all the same thing, though – root is the combination of balance and structure. If you have balance but no structure, or structure but no balance, you have no ability to exert or resist forces. In the former case, you’ll collapse on yourself (that’s the “bottom of a pushup” situation), and in the latter case you’ll move away from the force (and probably fall down).

When you combine balance and structure, you get synergies that start to feel a bit magical. The cliché of the elderly martial arts master who can’t be moved by the giant bouncer? That’s root, plus a little bit of energy redirection. The guy who can send you flying with a gentle push? That’s root. With proper root, you become an extension of the ground, and the ground can’t be moved by pushing on it.

Tradeoffs: Stability vs mobility

If you look at different arts, they make different choices in terms of their footwork even if they’re following all the principles I’ve outlined here. The two arts I spend most time on here, kenjutsu and Destreza, are good examples: kenjutsu tends towards deep rooted stances, and Destreza makes a point of keeping the feet together and standing tall. Why the difference, and what are the advantages of each?

The fundamental tradeoff here is stability vs mobility. With your feet far apart and your knees deeply bent, you get good stability – you have a lot of room in which you can move without losing your balance (the line between your feet is long), and the angle at which you can push on the ground is acute so you can exert or absorb more horizontal force. However, in order to pick up either foot, you have to shift your weight a long distance to the other foot, so it’s more difficult and slower for you to move in this position.

With your feet close together, on the other hand, your stability is lousy – any force is likely to move you. When you move, however, you barely have to shift at all in order to free up a foot, meaning that it’s very fast to move in any direction.

There is one additional consideration here. In order to take a step in balance, you have to put a foot down without putting weight on it. Consider doing this with your knees locked – you can’t, right? If the knee of your post leg is locked, you can’t touch the ground with the other foot (yes, you can point your toe, so this isn’t strictly true, just run with it) and so the only way to move is to fall into your step. Try walking without bending your knees (“goose stepping”) and you’ll see how hard it is. The deeper your stance, the further away you can put your feet, and so the more ground you can cover in a single step. The taller your stance, the shorter your steps have to be.

In Destreza, we try to take advantage of this tradeoff. At range, we stand tall with our feet close together, optimizing for mobility. If you and your opponent both have rapiers, you probably aren’t going to have to absorb force at range – if they hit you, it’ll be with the sharp end. When we close, we widen our stance temporarily to increase stability (usually by just leaving the trailing foot one step away as we close with the leading foot), because at that point we’re worried about pushes and other kinds of strikes. There’s not as much room to move in close, so mobility isn’t as important in any case. On the way out, the stance becomes tall again.


Footwork is, literally, the foundation of all martial arts. If your footwork is poor, it doesn’t matter how good you are otherwise – you won’t be able to put power where you need it, or resist forces that are applied to you. You won’t be able to get yourself to where you need to be, when you need to be there. There are some fundamental principles that all good footwork must obey; while different arts may make different choices, they all have to move in balance, with good structure and root.

I should say that there are exceptions to every rule, including this one. For example, lunging or leaping movements definitely have their places, and can’t be done by following these rules. There are cases where you deliberately give up structure and balance, such as in a sacrifice throw. Mostly, though, if you take these rules to heart you will dramatically improve your own movement and find that it’s a lot easier to apply all the other stuff that your art has to offer.

Just to tease a future post, there’s a fundamental interaction between stepping and power generation. I tell my students all the time “it’s just a step, all the other stuff is a side effect”. I’m sure they’re tired of that. 🙂


Combining the elements

This diagram was a thing that got stuck in my head, and I drew it (despite my near-total lack of artistic skill) mainly to get it out. I’ve previously discussed Musashi’s five elements and their characteristics – as a quick summary, each element embodies a combat style: earth uses strength and stability, air is evasive and mobile, water focuses on control through contact, and fire uses offense as defense. The ultimate goal per Musashi is “void” – total flexibility, or the capability to freely move between elements moment by moment as determined by the combat situation. In my experience, this is an unattainable ideal; every human has biases towards specific elements and a limited range of techniques that they can reflexively use.

In my training, however, I’ve noticed that even people who are very strongly biased towards a single element still incorporate aspects of other elements in their style. Nobody does or in fact can limit themselves to only a single element; if you try (and I have, in the course of teaching the elements), you quickly discover that you’ve limited yourself so much that you’re no longer effective. If you limit yourself to earth, your opponent will move out and fight from range, and you won’t be able to pursue them. If you limit yourself to fire, as soon as you’re put on the defensive you’ll have nothing to fall back upon. Most people, in practice, bias towards a pair of related elements: fire and earth, water and air, fire and air, etc. The diagram above tries to describe what style you get when you combine each pair of elements, and there are interesting interactions if you look at directly-opposed combinations.

Fire and Air: Fire is offense – a user of fire uses stop-hits and breaking rhythms to prevent their opponent from successfully attacking. It generally stays outside, but it’s never fully absent – there’s a constant threat. Air is evasion and absence – a user of air avoids danger through mobility. They may counterattack, but that’s always secondary to defense.

When combined, the word I used above is “unavoidable” – the fire/air practitioner stays outside, always in motion, and attacks at every opportunity. This is how most highly-mobile practitioners actually fight – they’re not fully offense-as-defense, nor are they fully defensive, it’s a mixture of the two. I personally use this style most of the time; I’d prefer to fight air/water, because I just like it more, but in fact I end up striking rather than engaging with my opponent’s energy most of the time.

When up against the diametrically-opposed combination of earth and water, it becomes a game of ranges. The earth/water practitioner wants to be close, where they can use their strength and “stickiness” to control the fight. The fire/air practitioner wants to be far away, where they can strike with impunity. Whoever has the best range control will win.

Air and Water: Water is always in contact and air is always absent, so you might think the two could never mix, but in fact there’s a significant overlap. I described it above as “untouchable” – the common characteristic of air and water is that neither ever opposes force, they always yield to it. An air/water practitioner adapts to whatever their opponent is doing; sometimes they may allow the energy to pass by simply avoiding it, and sometimes they may redirect it and tie it up, but in neither case do they ever offer the opponent a solid target.

Most people who have good sensitivity and aren’t concentrating on offense fight in this mode. They may not be mobile enough to always control the range, but they’re sensitive enough to control the opponent’s energy, making use of it when they can and letting it go when they can’t. I personally feel that this is the most difficult style, but also the most elegant. I’m not sensitive enough to pull it off most of the time, but I wish I were.

Placed against the opposed combination of earth and fire, air/water has its job cut out for it. Given an overwhelming incoming offense, the practitioner must evade until they find an opportunity to control, and doing that without getting hit in the meantime is not a trivial task. However, it’s still a better bet than meeting offense with offense; the only other path that works well against earth/fire is water/earth, because it’s strong enough to stop the offense while looking for opportunities to counter.

Water and Earth: Earth is solid and stable, whereas water flows and adapts. Put them together, and you get something like mud: it flows, but with difficulty, and it gets all over you in the process. The water/earth practitioner I described as “inescapable” – they tie up the attacker’s energy, never letting it go anywhere useful. They resist at every point but yield when necessary, so the attacker always feels like they’re getting somewhere but never actually does. This style involves a lot of grappling and body manipulation, and the trick is to balance strength and flexibility as needed from moment to moment without either becoming overly rigid or allowing the opponent too much freedom.

This is the wrestler’s style. If you look at a good wrestler or grappler, they almost never oppose force with force, because that’s the way to get tired out quickly. Instead, they off-balance their opponent, make them apply their force to the ground instead, or use the opponent’s force against them. This is the judo or BJJ approach, and it works in a swordfight as well if you’re good enough. If you want to incapacitate an opponent rather than killing them, you’ll need this ability.

Opposed by fire/air, water/earth needs to close and maintain contact. The more space the practitioner allows, the more danger they’ll be in; they need to smother fire’s offense and prevent air’s mobility from being useful in order to win.

Earth and Fire: Not just two-thirds of a legendary band. Earth is defensive and fire is offensive, but put them together and they have excellent synergy. From earth’s strong base, you can launch powerful, “unstoppable” attacks. This is the overwhelm-with-offense style – I will not let you attack me, not necessarily through stop-hits and clever angles and timing, but simply because you’re too busy surviving to have time to launch an attack.

This is one of the easier styles to execute, but it takes a very specific mindset to pull off. The samurai famously went into battle assuming that they were already dead but intending to inflict as much damage as possible before the end; ironically, this turns out to be one of the best ways to survive a battle. By taking this position, you’re free to ignore defense and focus entirely on offense, and by so doing you can avoid the need for defense entirely.

When combating air/water, earth/fire’s job is to pin them down so the overwhelming offense can be brought to bear. One way to do this is to create the appearance of an opening for control; the air/water practitioner will be looking for an opportunity to enter, so giving them that opportunity will make them stop running away. If they successfully enter, the earth/fire practitioner must use their strength to avoid being tied up by water – this is a risky gambit, since air/water is explicitly designed to yield to strength without being affected by it. The best bet is to catch the opponent on their way in, when they’re too close to use air’s mobility but yet too far to use water’s control. This is tricky and dangerous, but can be done.

Void: The perfect practitioner of void would spontaneously adopt whatever element or combination of elements is best suited to whatever situation they find themselves in. If you meet that person, send them my way, I have questions. 🙂

kenjutsu weapons

Wielding the daishō – two-sword style in kenjutsu


The Suisha Ryu, like most styles of kenjutsu other than the famous Niten Ichi-ryu, generally deals with wielding only a single sword at a time. That said, there is a case to be made for using both at once – in particular, when you have multiple attackers to deal with.

Fighting multiple opponents with a single sword is problematic. Any time you commit your blade to a motion, whether defensive or offensive, you necessarily leave yourself open to the other attackers. There are things that can be done with positioning and timing to mitigate this (which may be a topic for another post in itself), but the fundamental problem remains.

Using two swords against multiple attackers has the obvious benefit that you can attack with one sword while covering yourself with the other. However, especially when dealing with relatively heavy weapons like a katana, it’s important to be careful not to tangle yourself up; it’s easy to accidentally cross your blades or your arms and lose the use of one of them.

The solution to this is to keep your weapons as far apart as possible. This is a bit counter-intuitive – we’re used to thinking about using two weapons in conjunction against  a single opponent, but that’s not the goal here. The point of having two weapons at all is to keep at least one of them free at all times, which means that if you’re attacking someone with the long sword, the short sword should be held as far away from that opponent as possible so as to be ready to counter another attack.

Unfortunately, the human body is not well-suited to keeping its arms 180 degrees apart while applying force; if you try it, you’ll discover that neither hand can exert significant power in this position. Also, keeping this position means that one or both blades are in your peripheral vision, limiting their usefulness. So instead, we hold them about 120 degrees apart and move them left and right as a pair: when one moves right to left, the other one does too, so that the distance between them is maintained. This normally results in rotating your entire body with each movement, which is generally what you want in any case when you have multiple opponents so as to maintain situational awareness.

A future post will look at the differences between the katana and wakizashi when used by themselves. In this case, though, you’re not using the two swords in the same way – it doesn’t make sense when you have two swords with different physical characteristics to try to use them equivalently. Instead, the katana is almost exclusively offensive, and the wakizashi is defensive unless the target is very close.

Given that as a plan, what suggests itself? What can we do to make the wakizashi better defensively, better as an in-fighting weapon, and less likely to get tangled with the katana? Use it in reverse grip. My most popular post of all time, “Zatoichi style”, looked at using the katana in reverse grip, and this works even better with a wakizashi. The downsides of the reverse grip (decreased range and power) are mostly avoided for a defensive weapon, and the upsides (increased structure for blocks, able to work at shorter ranges, and faster transitions) are accentuated with the shorter weapon.

So, to summarize – when wielding the daishō in Suisha Ryu, we generally use the katana in one hand and the wakizashi in the other, reversed. The two hands are about 120 degrees apart, and the body rotates to maintain that arrangement as the blades move. This means that we have effective offense, with one blade or the other, from extreme tsuki range all the way in to body-contact range. We have strong defense when needed with either blade, since the lack of mass in the wakizashi is compensated for by the ability to brace it with your forearm. We have optimal coverage on all sides, and we’re free to spin to address any attacker while continuing to maintain a defense against any other.

Is this the One True Way to wield the daishō? Of course not. The Niten Ichi-ryu style of wielding both blades against a single attacker is very effective, and even in the Suisha Ryu there are cases where using the wakizashi in a forward grip is preferred (in particular, if the attackers have longer weapons and a lot of space to work with, so you need every bit of reach you can manage). Still, it’s an excellent balance that maximizes the advantages of both blades, and if your footwork is up to keeping you mobile through multiple opponents, it can be amazingly effective.

destreza weapons

Destreza – the Movement of Conclusion

Movement of ConclusionIn Destreza, there is a technique known as the “movement of conclusion”, so called because when executed properly, it normally ends the fight. Unfortunately, when executed improperly, it also normally ends the fight.

Fundamentally, the movement of conclusion consists of grasping the opponent’s hilt, hand, or arm with your off-hand and striking with your sword. This can be done in a number of different ways, but the basic principle is always the same – control the weapon, and you can kill them at your leisure. Before looking at specific entering techniques, let’s consider the final position and strike.

Period rapiers are well-suited for grabbing. They have lots of complicated hilt structures that can be easily grasped, and the grip is such that it’s difficult for the wielder to twist the weapon to escape the grab. The downside of trying to grip the weapon itself is the possibility that you miss and end up grabbing the blade – this, as you can imagine, is likely to end badly. For this reason, I personally prefer to grab the hand or wrist of the sword arm. This gives the opponent less leverage and fewer degrees of freedom to escape, at the cost of a less-secure grip. It is important to grab below the elbow, however; otherwise, you have not controlled the arm and will certainly be hit.

Ideally, the grab should be performed from the outside line. The danger is that, having lost control of their weapon, the opponent will most certainly try to punch you with their off-hand, kick you, etc. By staying to the outside, you can limit their available weapons, at least long enough to strike with your blade. That said, if the inside line is what’s available, it’s certainly better to have control of their blade than not to have control of it – you simply must be prepared to strike instantly, and be prepared to take some damage in the process.

What kind of strike should one use in the movement of conclusion? The answer is the same as in any other case: whatever is available. In general, all rapier styles prefer the thrust because it’s faster and more damaging, but the movement of conclusion is necessarily performed from close range. Ideally, one does it with the left hand advanced and the sword hand held back in a striking position. If that’s not possible, the movement of conclusion allows enough time to perform a full-circle cut, which will normally end the fight or at the very least offer a window in which one might execute the thrust.

All right, so now we know where we’d like to get to – left foot advanced, in the opponent’s outside line, holding their right wrist with our left hand and thrusting with our blade. How do we get there without being hit along the way? As with most other techniques in Destreza, this relies on the atajo and blade control.

The simplest version of the movement of conclusion starts with an atajo on the high-inside line (that is, your blade is atop theirs, your hand is in their inside line, and your point is in their outside line.) From this position, you sweep their blade down and out, ending in the low-outside line (so assuming right-handed fencers, their blade is to your right and below your hilt). During the blade movement, you perform a transverse left step, which places you within reach of their hand with your left foot advanced; from there, the fight can be “concluded” by controlling their arm and lifting your point into thrusting position along the diameter. This technique can also be performed via an atajo from below with a bind into the high-outside line.

A slightly more complex version starts with an atajo from above in the outside line (that is, your blade is crossing from their high-outside line to their high-inside line.) In this position, if you perform a bind as above, you’ll end up in their inside line – not impossible, but not ideal. Instead, if you simply move in with a left transverse step as if you were going to perform a thrust in opposition, they will necessarily parry into their high-outside line. If they also execute the proper Destreza response and take a lateral step to their left, you must give up and move out again (or change to a different line of attack); however, if they don’t move, you can likely take their hand and release your blade for the thrust.

An interesting variant on this technique places the diestro on the inside line and very close to the opponent. This situation often arises when using the hanging guard discussed in a previous post. If the opponent attacks over the blade (that is, in your low-inside line) and overcommits, one possible response is a right transverse step into the attacker’s inside line. You can then reach under your own blade to grasp the attacker’s hand. At this point, you have performed a movement of conclusion, but it’s left you in a fairly awkward position and in some danger, since you’re on the inside line. You have two choices: you can step to your left, moving their hand with you, or you can step in.

If you step left, you will open up enough space to execute a full-circle cut from the outside line (that is, your blade moves counter-clockwise over your own head to strike the opponent from your right). This motion also takes you away from the opponent’s left hand, which is presumably trying to hit you.

If, instead, you step directly towards the opponent, you no longer have enough space to free your blade. However, you can instead strike with the hilt, either with the pommel or the quillons depending on position, and this gives you the opportunity to raise your elbow to protect your head from their left hand.

The major danger of the movement of conclusion is failing to get, or keep, control of their weapon. If you try to grasp their hand and miss, you’re in deep trouble. Generally the best you can do at that point is to make your attack anyway and simultaneously try to move away from the opponent again. The attack will not likely succeed, but it might delay them long enough for you to re-establish a safe distance.