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Improvised Weapons: Forever Armed

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A Quick and Dirty Guide to Improvised Weapons

Although the concept of using improvised weapons for personal protection is far from new, it has taken on a whole new meaning during the past few years. After the tragic events of September 11th and incidents like the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech, the carry of purpose-designed weapons has become much more restricted and the number of “non-permissive” environments (where weapons are totally forbidden) has increased tremendously.

improvised weapons backpack
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, weapons are in the mind of the wielder. Here’s a small sample of the types of everyday objects that make viable improvised weapons.

From a functional standpoint, we all know that these prohibitions have no real effect on stopping violent crimes. Laws only affect the law-abiding. If a criminal or terrorist chooses to bring a weapon into an environment where they’re forbidden, he becomes the only one in that environment who’s armed and the rest of us are forced to operate at a serious disadvantage.

Fortunately, like beauty, weaponry is in the eye of the beholder. The ability to recognize and apply practical, functional improvised weapons can ensure that you always have a capable defensive tool available no matter where you are.

Basic Concepts

The first step in understanding the selection and use of improvised weapons is understanding and accepting the fact that the real goal of self-defense is to physically disable your attacker or hurt him badly enough to make him stop trying to hurt you — stopping power. You also need to accept that tactics and actions that don’t authoritatively support this goal are a waste of time and are at best distractions, not fight-stopping techniques. As such, separating effective, reliable tactics from misguided, ineffective ones is a key element of effective improvised weapon use.

Improvised Weapons
The availability of environmental improvised weapons varies significantly from place to place. If you have control over an environment, make sure you have some options available by positioning them for easy access — like this stout Sharpie marker, scissors, and stapler.

If I may go off on a bit of a rant here, this aspect of improvised weapon use is rife with misinformation. There are countless self-defense books and videos that recommend MacGyver-esque tactics from lacing your car keys between your fingers to hosing your attacker’s eyes with hairspray. In reality, it’s far more likely that you’ll simply grab whatever tool you have handy, ball it tightly in your fist, and whack your attacker as hard, fast, and frequently as you can until he stops trying to hurt you. If you’re close enough to slash at him with the sharpened corner of your specially prepared credit card, you’re probably better off mashing his face with your fist — or the ashtray, hairbrush, or coffee mug you manage to shove into your fist on short notice. To put it simply, leave the James Bond stuff to the movies and grab solid objects that you know you can use to hit with full force, causing maximum damage to him without endangering your own hand.

Another key element of the effective use of improvised weapons is having a simple set of body mechanics to wield your weapon. Ideally, those body mechanics should be common to the application of a number of improvised weapons to make them easy to learn and apply under stress. Esoteric skill sets (like turning your belt into a bullwhip) require a lot of practice to use effectively and are probably not the best way to spend your training time.

improvised weapons pen to eye
In self-defense, your defense must be reasonable to the severity of the attack. Since improvised weapons are typically less capable than purpose-designed ones, you need to fine-tune your responses accordingly. Using a pen against an attacker with a crowbar? Go big and stick it in his eye.

Finally, you need to accept that improvised-weapon tactics alone may not be enough to end a fight. Using a ballpoint pen to put a few holes in your attacker’s hide may be a great start, but it may not be enough to make him really cease and desist. However, if at the moment he’s “contemplating” his new pen-made orifices you seize the opportunity to blow out his knee with a solid kick, you’ve now got a true fight-stopper. Similarly, if you’re carrying a capable purpose-designed weapon, you can use the improvised weapon (which can be carried innocuously in your hand or in open view) as a bridging weapon to create the opportunity to draw your real weapon.

Categories of Improvised Weapons

Once you’ve grasped the fundamental concepts of improvised weapon use, the next step is to understand the basic categories of weapons. These include:

Weapons of opportunity: Items that you find in your environment that can be adapted to weapon use, like a beer bottle, a mop, or a trash can lid.

Personal-carry items: Items that you can easily carry on your person that can be used as weapons, like a flashlight or a ballpoint pen.

Prepared weapons: Items that in their basic form aren’t capable weapons, but with a little preparation can have weapon potential. For example, a magazine by itself won’t do much, but rolled tightly it can be a potent weapon.

Weapon Attributes and Awareness

“Awareness” is a term we hear a lot in personal protection training. It’s generally interpreted as being alert to signs of unusual activity that could represent potential threats, such as people coordinating their movement with yours or attempting to arrest your movement, unnatural eye movements, and motions that indicate that they’re carrying and/or intend to use weapons. However, real awareness goes much deeper and should include things like assessing your footing and your ability to move quickly, a consciousness of obstacles, cover, and concealment, mental planning of escape routes, and, you guessed it, the consciousness of potential improvised weapons in your environment.

improvised weapon trash can lid
Trash can lids, cafeteria trays, and similar objects make excellent shields, provided they’re available when you need them. You also need a way of stopping the threat. Defense alone isn’t good enough.

While many things can qualify as improvised weapons, the best objects share a number of common attributes. If you learn to look for and quantify these as you move through different environments, you’ll quickly realize that often a serviceable weapon is never more than a few steps away. Of course, if you incorporate improvised weaponry into the personal carry category, you’re even better prepared.

trash can lid improvised weapon
Trash can lid throw B: A trash can lid thrown Frisbee style at an attacker’s shins is a practical example of a projectile improvised weapon.

The attributes that make a good improvised weapon include:

Structural integrity/strength: The object must have the integrity to stand up to full-power impact. If it doesn’t (for example, a No. 2 pencil), you need to realize that it’s basically a one-time shot and be prepared to back it up with something else.

carabiner 2
This carabiner’s design provides a natural palm stand-off for shock absorption. Amazingly, it was given to me by an Austrian student of mine on the “other” side of security in a German airport.

Appropriate mass to wield or employ effectively: Very light objects don’t offer much impact potential. Conversely, very heavy objects cannot be wielded with speed. Objects that offer a happy medium are the best choices for improvised weaponry.

improvised carabiner
A big part of improvised-weapon use is making sure you cause more damage to your attacker than your hand. Grip a standard carabiner line this so it’s anchored against the soft portion of your palm, not your knuckles.

Supports immediate (or near-immediate) access and employment: Violent situations happen suddenly. The midst of an attack is a poor time for a weaponry craft project. You need something that you can grab and put into action very quickly.

improvised weapon jewelry
French custom knifemaker Fred Perrin is an expert at improvised and covert weapons. His hand-forged steel bracelets are beautiful “jewelry” with a deeper meaning when held like this.

Versatility/ability to employ in multiple roles: A beer bottle can be used to deliver serious impact. A frying pan can be used as a bludgeon and a shield and is therefore more versatile. The more the tool can do, the better it’ll serve you.

improvised weapons souvenirs
Wanna have some real fun? Shop for weapons-grade souvenirs on the “other” side of airport security. This miniature Seattle Space Needle came from a gift shop on the “secure” side of the airport. It’s made of solid brass and makes a devastating fist load.

Once we understand where weapons come from, we can then start identifying them by type based on the capabilities they offer and the types of functions they can perform. Improvised weapon types include:

Impact weapons: Suitable for striking and creating blunt trauma

Edged: Suitable for cutting or hacking

Pointed: Capable of puncturing

Flexible: Suitable for whipping, entangling, and possibly striking

Shield: Can be used to block or deflect an attacker’s strikes

Hybrid or multi-function: Offer two or more functions in a single object

The final consideration in evaluating an improvised weapon should be the mechanics that are most appropriate to wield that weapon. In the most basic terms, that means can I swing it well with only one hand or is it long or heavy enough that I need to use two hands.

Basic Body Mechanics

In my research on personal protection, I’ve watched countless videos of people being attacked with weapons. One of the most interesting constants I’ve found is that people (regardless of ethnicity, culture, or experience) seem to be hard-wired to fight in the same way. Under stress, we typically lead with our weak side and use our weak hand to probe, grab, and gauge distance before striking with forehand blows with our strong side. Since that’s the way we instinctively move under stress, it should also be our default tactic for our use of improvised weapons. To borrow a term from my friend Kelly McCann, we’ll call it “cycling.” For natural right-handers, it’s a repetitive left-right, left-right cyclical action that focuses mostly on downward or inward hammer-like strikes.

When performed with empty hands, the natural “weapon” is the hammer fist — the bottom of the clenched fist. When performed with an improvised weapon, the operative term is “fist load”— anything solid that doesn’t have nerves in it that you can hold tightly in your fist and use as a striking, puncturing, or cutting surface. 

For a right-handed person to perform the basic cycling action, assume a left-lead stance (like a boxer) with your left palm facing forward and your right hand and fist-load at about shoulder level. Extend your left palm straight forward without any windup and touch your intended target. That touch tells your brain exactly where that target is in space. Now, with an elliptical motion of your right hand (as if throwing a ball), strike with the portion of your fist-load that extends from the little-finger side of your hand. Then, repeat the entire sequence over and over until you develop a smooth, powerful, elliptical flow with both hands.

Tactics and Targets

At this point, most people start wondering, “What targets should I be hitting?” The easy answer is, “The ones on the other guy.” The more sophisticated answer depends upon the type of weapon you’re wielding. The Filipino martial arts has a saying: “Wood seeks bone; steel seeks flesh.” I like to add to that: “Big steel seeks both.” What that means is that impact weapons (usually made of wood) are best used to target bones to break the skeletal structure. Cutting and puncturing weapons (typically made of steel) work best when aimed at fleshy targets. “Big steel,” like a machete, does both, so you don’t have to be as particular.

improvised weapons doorway
Improvised weapons alone may not be potent enough to stop a threat, so they should be combined with sound unarmed fighting skills — like the low-line kick shown here.

With this concept in mind, think of having a beer bottle, flashlight, Magic marker, or any similar object in your hand. When your attacker strikes, use your left hand to check, parry, strike, or just gauge distance before you smash him in the nose, cheeks, jaw, collarbones, or sternum with your fist load.

improvised weapon fire extinguisher
Fire extinguishers make excellent improvised weapons, because they can blind attackers from a distance.

If instead your fist is full of ballpoint pen, scissors, fork, chopstick, or similar object (and the situation warrants it), use the same mechanics to strike his eyes, ears, throat, and jugular notch.

improvised weapon bear hug
In some situations (like a surprise bear hug from behind), it may be possible to access an improvised weapon, but not a purpose-designed one.

If he raises his hands to block, slap them down with your left hand or hook them out of the way with your fist-load and go back to cycling.

Once you’ve landed a few hits, if you’re worried that the fight’s not over, take advantage of the fact that he’s preoccupied with guarding his head and fire a full-power knee to the groin or low-line kick to the knee or ankle to put him on the ground long enough for you to make your escape.

Even if you carry a purpose-designed weapon, get used to having your improvised weapon in your hand and ready to go. This is one of the advantages that improvised weapons have over their overt counterparts, as you can literally walk down the street “armed” without raising any eyebrows. If a situation does arise, use the improvised weapon as a line of first defense to deliver a few strikes. Then, use the time and distance you’ve bought with your initial response to transition to your purpose-designed weapon. In the process, make sure you can effectively sequence your skills and transition from gross-motor-skill actions (like pounding on someone) to complex motor skills (like drawing a pistol or folding knife).

Improvised weapons offer a lot of options that literally range from a last resort to, quite possibly, a purposeful first choice. By learning to identify and assess them as part of your overall awareness, and employ them effectively with a solid, basic skill set, you can ensure that you’ll always be “forever armed.” 

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