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Training The Live Hand
Copyright Pete Kautz 2008

In the Filipino martial arts there is a great deal of attention given to the sophistication of the non-weapon bearing hand or 'live' hand as it is known.  As much time as is spent in Arnis on the correct use of sticks and blades, it is the supporting hand that so often is the critical deciding factor when fighting.

In his 2007 book 'The Gentleman's Steel Reader' MAA Keating states:

"The live hand is an important factor in the close interval fight.  In the long interval encounter the non-weapon bearing hand (or live hand) is not required as much.  It is the coordinated actions of the knife hand and the live hand which produces an astounding level of skill.  This skill bears the fruit of confidence soon after learning live hand exercises and growth drills.  Timing, good judgment, eye-hand coordination and knowledge of the human body's lever points create a wonderful defensive ability."

One of the drills that brings out this kind of immediate improvement in the use of the live hand is Knife Tapping.  In this exercise rapid-fire thrusts are exchanged back and forth with each one being parried by the live hand.  Supporting footwork and body evasions are also part of the mix.

Like many aspects of the FMA, Knife Tapping can be a whole method of defense and easily blends with other techniques such as de cadena (block, check, counter), crossada (crossing & uncrossing) and others to form an interactive matrix for skill development.  For an in depth look at forward and reverse grip Knife Tapping with these variations and more, please refer to MK#2: South East Asian Fighting Arts.

Beyond any individual drill, the overall desire for sophistication of the live hand is the reason why in some traditional FMA styles the double stick and the sword & dagger techniques are taught before the single stick!

The idea here is that by learning to use two weapons at the same time it forces the student to learn how to coordinate both their hands effectively.  Then, when they use just the single weapon they have the necessary skills and understanding of how and when to best utilize the live hand.

In America, this is not the common way you'll usually see it done though.  Here, most schools start a student off with the single stick and then eventually progress to the double stick and sword & dagger.

That is presuming they even teach the later two weapon combinations at all!  Many schools now follow a modernist trend of dropping the double stick and sword & dagger from their curriculums, thinking that it is not necessary since 'who would use double stick today on the street'.  They don't 'get' what it's for.

Humorously, most of these modernist Arnis / Kali curriculums also teach a combat strategy based on hitting the opponent's weapon bearing hand.  This is a good technique of course, but I always wonder - what if they get hit on the hand?  Will they be able to effectively fight on using their untrained live hand now as their primary weapon hand?  Good luck with that...

Obviously there are differences as well between true live hand usage and a second weapon.  You can't block a stick with your hand in the same way you would with a weapon, and the live hand offers the ability to grab as well as check, wrap, or strike.  In the WWII US Marine system the live hand was even referred to as the GRAB HAND.  While most of the work they taught was long range fighting using thrusts and backcuts there were also close range techniques taught.  These used an action identical to de cadena where an initial clearing or blocking action is followed by the grab and follow up attack.

In any case, whether grabbing, checking, wrapping, disarming, or striking, the live hand is an advantage for those skilled in its use.  While anything can happen once, only correct training can hope to bring out predictable responses and thus the emphasis placed on live hand development in the FMA.

All the very best,

Pete Kautz

PS - To learn more about the use of the live hand and the thrusting triangle, check out my segment on MK#2: South East Asian Fighting Arts.  We share numerous variations on how to do the basic drill from forward and reverse grip, and you'll see how this one drill can create a whole system of defense.  Plus Jim Keating and Kelly Worden deliver the kind of awesome blade skills they are famous for with segments on knife and kerambit!

MK#2: South East Asian Fighting Arts
With Pete Kautz, James Keating & Kelly Worden!  Learn about the thrusting triangle, elbow shields, the kerambit, and Filipino blade craft in this exciting issue of Modern Knives DVD


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