Systema Gun Seminar at FightClub

by Barry Gibson

Over the years of my Systema training I have had only a handful of classes using training guns – far less than sticks and knives.  I have always enjoyed those opportunities, so I was very excited when I found out the topic for this seminar.  I think the chances of me ever being in a self-defense situation involving a gun are very remote; it’s always good to explore all of the realms of possibility and to train for those unlikely situations, but that was not the main motivation for me to attend the seminar.  I like guns – I have since I was a kid – and I just thought it would be a fun topic to explore.  What I came to realize is that a gun is a great tool (just like a knife, stick or chain for that matter) to help you learn about yourself and your understanding of Systema.

Guns have an interesting power to them, probably because of their deadly potential.  The mere mention of guns can be upsetting for some people, never mind the actual presence of a gun.  Pick up a loaded gun for the first time and you’ll know what I mean.  Tell me you don’t feel the power of that gun in your hands – it is equal parts exciting and scary.  With training and with experience we can learn to not let that power overcome us.  I remember how gingerly and cautiously I handled a gun the first time I went shooting.  Now I’ll carry my shotgun for hours when hunting and not think a thing about it.

Emmanuel has a lot of experience with firearms and knows the potential power that they have over the psyche. He designed the seminar so that we would have to opportunity to familiarize ourselves and become comfortable working with a gun so that we would be able to maintain our calmness when we eventually got to disarming a gun-wielding attacker. Emmanuel divided the seminar into three sections: (1) getting comfortable with the gun, (2) shooting (and being shot) with the gun and (3) disarms.  

Much of the seminar was devoted to the first section.  Through many different drills, Emmanuel helped us become comfortable with a gun and not “lose ourselves”, so to speak.  One of the most basic drills that we do in almost every class – moving on the ground – suddenly became much more difficult when a gun was added into the mix.  It is necessary to be conscious of where that barrel is pointed at all times and to not pass any body parts in front of it at all for fear of shooting yourself.  It took some time for my usual smooth, calm movements to come back while moving with a gun and to stop being self conscious and choppy.  With practice I was able to find myself again and not let the gun take over my psyche.

Emmanuel had a ton of great, fun drills to help with this work.  Before pointing our training guns at one another he had us walk around the room and point with our fingers.  He urged us to keep that feeling when we went on to point our guns at one another.  Throughout the first section of the seminar we were diving on the ground to pick up guns, drawing guns, handing off our guns to another partner, acquiring targets while moving and calmly picking our guns up off the ground to defend ourselves from a charging attacker.

The second section of the seminar involved shooting the pistols (we were using BB pistols – most were spring loaded, but there was one CO2 handgun in the mix which was significantly more powerful) to become comfortable with them before shooting one another.  This part was a lot of fun and there was a lot of joking and laughing between everyone.  This is an interesting point, because the seminar could have turned very serious during this section.  There was some fear to being shot, and shooting people for that matter, but it didn’t overcome anyone.  All the participants were able to “keep themselves” as in they didn’t allow the power of the gun to take over their psyche.

One takeaway from this section is that the mid range distance of a pistol, say 5-10 feet is a bad place to be for an unarmed defender.  It is really easy to shoot someone from that distance; most participants were inexperienced shooters and had little difficulty hitting a human sized target – moving or not.  It is also extremely difficult to close that distance without getting shot.  We did not go into great detail working from this distance in a self defense situation because it can be brutal and was not the focus of the seminar.  Emmanuel advised us to use this drill sparingly, doing it once or twice, and to use it as a tool to observe yourself.  Are you calm?  Can you move under this pressure?  Again, are you able to stay within yourself and not lose to the power of that gun.

The third section of the seminar involved disarms.  We were working from the closest distance – contact with a gun.  Imagine an attacker pressing a gun against your body somewhere.  In traditional Systema fashion we worked on moving from contact before adding in any sort of defense or takedowns.  This again allowed us to keep our calm while working.

Things got very challenging when Emmanuel instructed the attacker to try and keep the gun and to not give it up willingly.  Emmanuel’s demo was incredible.  He used calm, heavy, precise strikes with devastating effect to disarm his resisting partner.  Attempting this drill was the real work of the day – this is what we had been building towards.  It was also quite revealing of the work I have to do in my Systema practice.  I confess that my psyche lost out to the power of the gun.  I found that when my partner offered aggressive resistance my focus was almost all on controlling and taking the gun from my partner.  Fear, poor breathing, excess tension, restricted movements and desperate tactics ruled my work.   I frequently found myself locked and in a power struggle with my partner.  With the adrenaline came exhaustion. We decided together to slow down and we noticed dramatic improvements in terms of being more precise and effective.  It is clear to me what I need to focus on in the coming months.

The notion of “keeping yourself” or not allowing external forces overcome you is a powerful aspect of Systema.  This is an essential skill not only in self-defense, but in everyday life.  There are many ways to explore and test this skill in class such as multiple attackers, more aggressive partners, or other tools that instil fear such as knives or chains.  Using a gun presents it’s own unique flavour and challenges while accomplishing the same goal.  Thank you to Emmanuel for presenting this opportunity and to all of the amazing participants in the seminar.

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Way back in 2008, shortly after Fight Club moved to its current location, Emmanuel conducted a series of seminars devoted to ‘live’ blades. Four Sundays in a row training with real knives. I don’t remember the dates. It must have been in the winter because you can hear the heating system kick in during the recording. Emmanuel gave each participant an edited compilation of scenes from the event. I found a copy of the recording last week when I was tidying my basement.

The club has changed a lot in the last eight years. Only two or three of the faces in the compilation are active members of Fight Club anymore. In some cases, the absence of those faces is a shame; they were the faces of good martial artists and good training partners. Others less so. Others even less. But that is normal in any club. We are all fellow travelers. People come and go, learning as much as they have interest to learn or as much as their bodies can handle before they move on. At the same moment a core of people remains in one form or another, as dedicated students move to the centre to replace those who have left.

The only constant at Fight Club is Emmanuel and Systema.

Working with a real knife is a very different thing from working with a training knife. With a training knife, you are playing with a toy. You can make all the fun mistakes you want. Nothing about the experience is real in the way that it can seem with a live blade. With a real knife you are scared to even hold it in your hand, let alone direct it at other bodies.

The knives at that seminar were sharp. Nonetheless, we found a way to play with them, to make a game of it. There was a lot of surprisingly relaxed work. There was also a lot of nervous, mediocre work. Some people, two in particular that I could see, revealed themselves as very dangerous individuals. One out of erratic carelessness; the other in their comfort with the prospect of violence. The majority of us, however, were little more than good-spirited novices. But in all cases, we found a way to be comfortable with the threat of serious injury. It was impressive so far as it went.

All of the tension and relaxation exercises that we practice in class have a purpose. You gotta be strong but mobile with a knife. All those awareness drills and all that emotion work have a purpose. You gotta see what’s there. You gotta be calm.

Emmanuel’s seminars are a treat. They are a good opportunity to practice the usual skills under more complex or trying conditions. I don’t participate in all of them, but when I do I always walk away with insights or glimpses of new possibilities. And, as was the case with this seminar series from 2008, I walked away with a snap shot from the ongoing history of our club, something that helps me to measure not only my own meager progress, but the general state of our training. I am reminded of the themes which dominated previous eras. Emmanuel is always tweaking his core message, finding new ways to explore the same ideas.

Be strong, but supple. Be ready, but calm. Be willing to commit to violence, but be humane.

I look forward to seeing these and other videos another ten years from now.

Happy New Year Everyone.

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Happy New Year!

A new year is like a blank book, and the pen is in your hands. It is your chance to write a beautiful story for yourself. Happy New Year!

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Training Tip from a Greatest Fighter

The Spiritual Journey of Joseph M Greenstein, – The Mighty Atom: World’s Strongest Man (As told to Ed Spielman. First Glance Books. Cobb, California. 1979) is one of the most inspirational books that I have ever read.

The following paragraph describes an early phase of Greenstein’s life where he travelled with a circus:

The circus travelled to India and Joseph saw the famous Indian wrestler Gama easily defeat an opponent. Afterwards Joe asked him about his training methods. Gama said:

“In the Punjab where I lived, there was a large tree behind my house. Each morning I would raise up early, tie my belt around it and try to throw it down.”

Did you ever succeed, Joseph asked? “No, but after a tree a man is easy.”

A more complete description of Gama’s training can be found in other resources but here Gama is clearly talking about isometric training.

“Iso’ means same and “metric’ means length. Thus isometric means ‘same length.” The length that remains the same is the distance between the origin and insertion of the muscle. 

The muscle fibres during isometric contractions actually shorten. This fact helps us understand why isometric training transfer to dynamic movements. This is especially the case, when the isometric training is performed in various angles.

Please note that, as a strength coach, my understanding pertains to the overall bio-mechanics of a punching motion. As you evaluate if the exercise is useful for your particular style please take into consideration any changes that needs to be made.


Karsten Jensen, MSc.

Founder-Strength Coach-Author


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Hands that Think for Themselves …

Ever dropped something from your hands and caught it before it hit the ground? Did you think about it? Most likely not. Your hands just knew what to do…

Here is a little footage from a class I taught last week. Wanted to have students develop their hands (arms) to act without using the mind. At speed the hands have an incredible ability to just react with there own intelligent. I hope this little clip helps you develop that..

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