Systema practice includes all sorts of weapons training so you will eventually amass a small arsenal of personal practice weapons. Though all you need to get started taking Systema is yourself, you will want to have, and you will need, some practice weapons. Here’a a quick list:
First, you will need at least one training knife. Ideally, you should have a training version of whatever knife you carry regularly. This is so you become comfortable with the weapons you might have to use. Your training blade would either be one the knifemaker sells as a practice knife or the same knife as your EDC (every day carry) that you have ground down so you can safely train with it in class.
It’s a good idea to have several training blades of differing materials. DO NOT GET A RUBBER KNIFE that bends easily; these are a waste of money and are an unacceptable substitute for a solid blade because you need to feel the rigid, flat part of the blade to learn about edge awareness and safety.
You can start with a wooden knife, which gives you the rigidity you need and a realistic yet safe point. Or, you might skip wooden knives altogether and choose something a bit more realistic.
For that you will want a metal training knife. You need to get used to feeling cold steel on your bare skin, a sensation you do not get with a wooden knife. Seeing a metal blade is also more intimidating and can elicit your fear response more than a wooden knife can. Training with metal blades will help overcome your fear of the knife and keep you alert to the seriousness of a knife attack.
A third type of training knife to have is one made of hard materials that you can use at full speed without fear of injury, such as the Nok knife. This type of knife will allow you to feel the stabs without leaving bruises, or worse, punctures. There are also various padded knife-like weapons you can use safely at full-speed to test your responses after having trained slower with metal blades.
How Sharp is TOO Sharp?
I had student who worked in a restaurant. He took an actual steak knife from work and minimally ground it down enough so it wouldn’t slice, however, after he poked a hole in one partner’s cheek I confiscated it and soon after he was asked to leave the school. His overly-simplistic defense was “I thought we were supposed to train as realistically as possible.” While this is true, you must first agree to use a more dangerous training weapon with your partners, you must be able to trust your knife-wielding training partner, and you shouldn’t be working at full-speed and struggling over the knife.
You will need a training pistol, at the least, for class. Again, avoid the cheap piece of wood shaped like the outline of a pistol that is virtually useless when it comes to firearm defense.
Likewise, avoid rubber guns that will bend rather than being rigid enough to manipulate out of an attacker’s hand.
Hard rubber or plastic guns, commonly called “blue guns” because police use them in training, work great as they are molded replicas of actual guns.
If you really want to get a true feel for defending against pistols you may consider using an actual metal handgun. My school has real guns with the firing pins removed because the weight of metal in your hand affects how you grab the weapon and how you disarm the attacker. Even without a bullet in the chamber and no firing pin, having a real gun pointed in your face elicits a strong emotional response you will learn to control to protect yourself. Further, with a real pistol you can train to drop the magazine and use the sight and other protruding metal parts to use against the attacker, giving you realistic responses you do not get from a flat, wooden toy gun.
You will likely want a training rifle as well, as they are now favored by civilian mass shooters. Such training weapons can run you a few hundred dollars, so depending on your financial situation, commitment to training and whether your school has some you can train with, you might want to put this one on the bottom of your priorities list.
You will need a shorter, single-handed stick of the kind commonly used in Filipino Martial Arts and a longer, two-handed stick of the kind commonly used in Japanese Martial Arts for training. The single-handed stick is a common weapon that moves at high speeds, while the two-hand stick approximates holding a rifle and teaches you how to work at longer ranges. Working with two-handed sticks is also a fantastic method to teach you how to work the long levers of the body as well as working with your attacker’s limbs.
When it comes to Systema and weapons work, anything goes, as there is no such thing as a standard or regulation weapon. I trained in Kali and in this Filipino Martial Art the sticks are fairly uniform in girth and length. The first time I went to Russia I was taken aback when one of the teachers came into the gymnasium with an armful of sticks, all of seemingly random, varying sizes like they just grabbed a pile of whatever they could get their hands on to use in class. This variety of sticks trained us to adapt to the various weights, thickness and lengths of different sticks and helped us to instantly judge the range of differing sticks so we could move accordingly and not get hit.
Aside from the requisite blades, sticks and guns, you will see weapons like whips, chains, swords, specialty weapons such as canes and military shovels, and improvised weapons in class. When it comes to weapons, martial artists collect unique weapons like kids collect toys. I had one student come in every other week with a new blade he came across (he really liked edged weapons). You don’t need most of these unless you are like him, a collector of exotic weapons, and besides, other people are always bringing them to class for you to play with.
Weapons: Effective Training Tools
Beyond using weapons in class to learn how to defend against them and to learn how to use them, weapons are unparalleled training tools. Students from other martial arts (the many I have met and taught) have a difficult time grasping this concept, that training with real weapons forces you to breathe, relax, and move correctly, eliminating wasted movement and facilitating effective self-defense. They confuse training drills, e.g. using knife stabs to soften your body, with self-defense applications. As soon as I hear them ask, “why would you let the person stab you before moving?” I know that they have not understood or experienced the idea.
For me, having trained previously in other weapon-based arts, this principle — that real weapons make you move correctly — was a powerful paradigm shift in my thinking. For years I watched bigger, stronger students fall back on and rely on their strength when their technique wasn’t up to the task. I thought it was unfair and, even back then, thought that things would be different if a weapon were involved.
Early in my Systema career I had a rather large student who didn’t like or didn’t want to move when we pushed him, he just thought that since he was so massive that he didn’t need to move. So, I brought out a series of weapons and went through the paces. He resisted pushes, then he still tried to resist the thrusts from a wooden knife, and even the metal trainer. By the time I got to the ground-down knife and finally the sharp knife, he began moving out of the way, correctly, beautifully. When we finished, he lifted up his shirt to reveal his Systema “leopard print” of bruises.
I explained to him that those were all the signs of his mistakes, when he didn’t move properly, and had I wanted to stab him for real, he would have been bleeding through like a sieve. To prove my point, I had him stab me the same way and when I lifted my shirt there were no bruises. Then, we returned to empty-hand work and he began relaxing, moving out of the way, and effecting some nice takedowns. Only then did he understand the training value of real weapons.
NOTE: when we talk about using real weapons, we use them in a safe, controlled manner to teach specific skills, it’s not a free-for-all with full-speed, live blades.