Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thoughts on personal defense

By FBI statistics, in 2009 there were 1,318,398 violent crimes reported in the US. Of course, there are crimes that never get reported, so this is the best number we have to go on. In a population of just over 307 million, that's, statistically, better than a 1 in 307 chance of being involved in such an incident. Now, obviously, there are high risk factors that many of us try to avoid, such as drug use, organized crime, and "dangerous" neighborhoods, but the fact remains that, with all the improvements we have made as a species, some of our population decide they will use whatever methods they deem necessary to gain their ends.

What is it?

When going through our daily lives, we hope never to need to deal with a situation where defense is needed. However, having a few tools at our disposal to help prevent injury to ourselves or our loved ones can be invaluable if the need arises.

Why do it?

This should be fairly apparent. With very limited exception we all desire survival. Even those who intellectually might stand opposed to self-defense might find that their instincts will betray their brain if such a situation ever arises. Therefore it seems sensible to me to do just a little thinking about the topic while we have the luxury of time.

How did I learn it?

I will first and fully admit that I am NOT a self-defense expert! While I have taken some Eastern Martial Arts training (tae kwon do, kashiman shun riu, and aikido) I don't hold any serious levels of those skills. Most of my close quarters training is Western in form, including longsword, dagger, pole-arm, and grappling. You'll notice most of those forms listed won't be of much use while wandering a modern city as I seldom have a halberd on which to rely. I have also had some firearms experience, but have never, thankfully, had anything worse than a paintball or BB shot in my direction, and hope that never changes. I can count on 3 fingers the number of unplanned (non-consensual) fights in which I ever fought and all were in high school. Please consider that when digesting this information.

That said, I have picked up some basic pointers and commonalities of defense that I think are valuable and can serve anyone well, regardless of how they decide to go about preparing for a situation we all hope will never arrive. To supplement the training I've taken, I have fought in armoured combat tournaments and trained others in armoured combat.

How do you learn it?

This is a big area, and this time I will say "Not here - mostly". As I said, I'm not an expert on this, I'm an interested student. My goal is to make you think about it and give pointers to both reduce the need to ever have to defend yourself and some basic things to do if it happens. I will mostly encourage you to seek out additional training depending upon your preferences.

First, what do you need to defend yourself against? According to the same FBI statistics mentioned above (and available here), aggravated assault is the most likely danger. This generally means "assault with a deadly weapon", regardless of intent. This may be mugging, an attempted sexual assault, domestic dispute, etc. Broad area, obviously. Robbery falls next, though it may not involve a weapon as this often elevates to the first category. The last 2 violent crimes by quantity are rape and manslaughter, though if we get to this point, defense has likely already failed. All of these are terribly unpleasant, so let's look at how we might go about defending ourselves. I'm going to go in order of most favorable to least, by my reckoning and preference.

#1- Avoidance - Don't be in a position for this to happen! The defensive tool here is called "situational awareness", or listening to your gut. We often suppress this instinctive warning, but it is worth honing it up a bit. When you see that unpleasant alley, don't walk through it. Avoid sketchy parks after dark. Don't wear expensive clothing or jewelry where everyone can see in areas of risk. Too many people, IE men, take a tough guy attitude and "aren't afraid of anything." Well, I'm afraid of being shot or stabbed to death, so I think it's worth taking stock of your surroundings and deciding if what you're about to do or where you're about to walk is worth the risk. Sometimes you may decide it is, but you certainly better be aware of your surroundings.

#2- Run and yell - I think people forget that this is a valid defensive technique. Criminals do not want a ton of attention brought to them, generally, so making noise, setting off car alarms, etc, can convince them not to push forward with their plans. Combine that with GETTING THE HELL AWAY! If you have a viable avenue of escape, use it. Think of this the way many of us were taught to think of driving. At any time, if you had to get away, which way would you go? This takes little time and, once a habit, little thought. In my opinion, everything else we talk about here is a precursor to this method.

#3- Non-lethal distance defense - Pepper spray, mace, and distance tasers fall into this category. The goal of them is to distract, delay, and hopefully incapacitate an attacker so that you can get away. Pick up whatever you can legally carry in your state (and figure out what you need to do so legally, if need be) and keep it on you. Personally, I would defy legality on sprays if needed on this for defense as I'd rather face a charge than end up in the hospital or morgue, but that's a risk I take on myself. Do your research before deciding on a spray to get (I prefer sprays as I think they are more instinctive and more likely to effectively land than distance tasers) and try to find a model where you can get an inert practice canister to try out. Be aware that a stream model may be better than a spray (especially in a windy situation) but requires more aim, thus making that inert practice model more vital. There are folks who are not very affected by certain sprays, but shooting ANY liquid into someones face will give them at least a brief pause, during which, you guessed it, you run!

#4- Firearms - The reason I list firearms before the remaining topics is one of range and staying at a safer distance to avoid personal injury, even though this is controversial to many people. I do not personally carry concealed, a decision that is partially due to legality in the state I work (I can carry in my home state, but not the neighboring one where I spend a lot of time) and partially by request of my wife, who does not like guns. That said, I probably would carry if things were different, mostly so that I would have the experience of carrying when I went somewhere I felt the need. If someone doesn't carry all the time and practice with it regularly, I think it is possibly more dangerous to do so "on occasion" and I would urge them not to do so. I would ALWAYS encourage someone who does carry to have a non-lethal spray as above to use first.

With a firearm, the second you draw it, you are in an lethal force situation. It should never, ever, come out unless there is definite and deadly threat to you or your loved ones. Generally, this means your assailant has a lethal weapon (gun, knife, baseball bat, etc) and has threatened to use it. It can never be brought out to scare someone off as, once it has drawn, YOU may be considered to be assaulting THEM! Compound this with the fact that, if you shoot someone, you have to deal with all the emotional trauma this will bring (no matter how justified you were. Ask an Iraq War veteran if you doubt that this can mess you up!) And, of course, the legal problems that ensue. Suffice to say that, while I think this is a viable form of defense, you SERIOUSLY need to learn all you can about it and train in how and when it can be used properly.

#5- Close quarter weapons - There is an old saying that "Nobody wins in a knife fight." Friends of mine, while teaching stage combat, illustrate this point well by having the combatants wear white t-shirts, then fight with giant markers instead. The resulting marks illustrate well how likely both parties are to receive injury. If your opponent doesn't have a knife, you might seem to have an advantage, but realize you will be the one using what is in most places considered a lethal weapon. I do see value in items like the kubotan when facing an unarmed assailant, but all close quarters weapons require some serious training. Keep in mind you need to be able to bring it into play, as well. The fastest weapon to draw is the one in your hand. And expect that if you are this close you may be injured.

Oh, and I don't consider most of the weapons I have the most practice with, like the sword, to be viable defensive items for everyday situations. It is unlikely you'll have it on you when you need it, and less likely a criminal will mess with you if he sees it on your hip. Some folks may have them around for home defense, but I only think that will work out well if you really, seriously, know how to use a sword. Even then, you're screwed if the guy breaking in has a gun.

#6- Close quarter martial arts - I consider this the last place you want to be, within striking distance of an assailant. It may quickly shift into a bad situation and will almost always require far more skill and training on your part. That said, I think everyone, especially women, need some experience here. Not a black belt in any Asian art, but experience with a handful of quick, effective, injure and escape techniques. Remember, everything here is about getting away, not having a kick-boxing match with some stranger. Leave the movie antics to Hollywood. Break a knee or crush and arch and GET AWAY!

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

If ever you are involved in a situation you need to defend yourself, it will likely mess you up emotionally and mentally. Please, get the help you need. Many of us have experienced the unpleasantness of injuring a friend, even slightly, and felt the guilt that follows. Compound that and add in the complete loss of personal security and you can begin to understand the impact. If the assault comes from someone who is known, it's even worse. Plan for this to be part of your defensive strategy.

Practice what you think you will use. Even if it's getting out that can of pepper spray, building up the muscle memory will be helpful. In a violent situation, your mind often goes to what is called by some the "lizard brain", that instinctive survival state. If you haven't practiced with your defenses, you may not actually utilize them no matter how good they might be.

You will note that I did not include "Call 911" in the defensive options. While I respect the police and what they can do when directly confronted with a bad situation, they will take at least a few minutes to get to you. You won't have minutes to wait. Get away, THEN call 911. Let them help you with the aftermath, whatever that might be.

Finally, remember your single best defense is that mass between your ears. Use it and be safe.

Friday, March 25, 2011

EDC follow up, now with pictures!

I figured I would put up images of what is actually in my bag since everything is moving over from the old bag to the new one as a follow up from my EDC post. First, the new bag(s) is here, so let's look!

Maxpedition Kodiak Gearslinger
This is the main bag. It is slightly taller and a little less deep than my old bag, but far more pockets. I'll let you explore Maxpedition's site for all the ins-and-outs, but here's mine unloaded for comparison later on.
I'm seriously impressed with the construction. The stitching is great, YKK zippers feel solid, and the pocket layout is sensible. It has no real pockets for pens and the like, but that's why I picked out a few other pouches to attach.

EDC Organizer


This is my solution to no pen slots and the like. It will connect onto the main bag using 2 Blackhawk Speed Clips, which turn out to be quick and easy to use.

FR-1 Pouch
I wanted to move a few things to the outside and my first aid kit was one of them. This was the solution, and gives me room to add a few missing items.

Double Magazine Pouch
A difficulty in my old bag was keeping my flashlight and Leatherman. They lived in a side pocket, which made them less speedy to get to without taking the pack off. I picked up this, designed for gun magazines, to hold them both.
It has an extra advantages of doubling as a belt pouch for both items and being able to easily come off at the airport.

Universal CCW Holster
I don't actually carry a pistol everyday, but I wanted to try this out as an option for easily carrying my fixed blade knife, as I spoke about here. No picture this time, you'll see it in a minute and it isn't that special. It hooks into the loop fabric in the back pocket on the main bag.

All that stuff!
So, other than a laptop and/or iPad, plus the occasional jacket, here's everything I carry in my old bag.
Most of this you can identify from my previous post
A few things I missed, many of which others pointed out in the comments, include a water bottle, tissues, some snacks, and my emergency radio/light. Missing in all this is the first aid stuff. Let's look at that.
Again, much of this I mentioned and I'll be doing a med kit post or 2 later on, but the key thing I didn't mention (and motomuffin did) is gloves. Be safe! I also have a tube of super glue in there for sticking cuts back together. Not always pretty, but very effective. Not shown is the piece of moleskin I carry for blisters.

Here it all is in it's pouch
and all closed up

The knife has had some modification to the sheath (easy to do on this model) and been put into the the holster, so it now looks like this:

All zipped up!
Putting everything in the bags, zipping it up, and attaching the external parts to where they belong, here's what we get.

You'll note that I put the first aid kit and sheaths off to the side of the bag. This is largely an access bonus but also keeps the bag from sticking too far back from my body. When spun to the front I can easily get to flashlight, multi-tool, and first aid kit.

First impressions
I've only been carrying this rig for a few days, but I already like it. I have easy access to stuff, better organization, and the comfort level is good. We'll see how it fairs over the coming weeks, months, and years!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Everyday Carry, or "What's in your backpack?"

What is it?

Whether we think about it or not, we all have some level of what in some circles is called EDC, or EveryDay Carry. This is a term often applied amongst gun enthusiasts to their chosen self-defense weapon, but has been expanded to include those items you make sure you always have on you or very nearby. It is the latter we will be talking about in this post.

Why do it?

The simple fact is there are certain things we need on us in our daily life and many more that would come in handy. Women have been masters of this for years. Think back on all the things your mother could pull out of a purse or handbag at a moments notice! Men, of course, have long resisted the desire to follow suit as it just isn't "macho" enough, but many of us have been carrying backpacks long past our school years. Laptops have become a great excuse to carry more with us without looking like we have a "man-purse", but a recent surge in messenger and sling bags, many with a tactical slant, have made it more acceptable to carry more stuff with us.

While we so often expect to be able to hit a convenience store when we need something, life doesn't always work that way. To be clear, I'm not talking about a "72-hour" or a "Bug Out Bag", which tend to be larger survival style bags. I plan to tackle that at some point, but here I'm speaking of something far more universal and versatile. A few simple things carried in a comfortable bag can make all the difference between a good or bad day!

How did I learn it?

At this point, do I even need to mention Boy Scouts? Seriously, "Be Prepared" sticks in your head! But I honed this over the last 20 years, first in college, then in the working world. My time as an EMT had an immense impact in this area as I learned you want to have everything you are likely to need when you get to a patient, but you can only carry so much, especially into, say, a wrecked vehicle. When I moved into IT and a laptop became something I toted around all the time, I shifted things again. Finally, learning to ride a motorcycle has led me to rely less on what might be in my vehicle (otherwise a large pickup), causing me to have a refined list of things that I never want to be without.

How do you learn it?

I'm going to give you my opinions here, then you should absolutely read what other people say. Mostly, however, you should try it out yourself. Some of this you'll discount immediately, some of it you'll take as gospel, but a lot will be experimentation. Try it out, don't spend a lot upfront, and see what works for you. But put some thought into it, otherwise you end up with more than you bargained for, like so many mothers have done!

The bag - For many of the women out there, you already have a favorite EDC or 2 in the form of a purse. Many, like my wife, don't carry a purse in the traditional sense but a small shoulder bag instead. Some of us favor backpacks or laptop roller bags. I've carried a variety of things over the years, including a waist bag (essentially a big fanny pack). Whatever you settle on is less vital than a few key criteria.
Is it comfortable for you? You're the one who will end up carrying it all the time, so your opinion is the most important. If you will be carrying a lot of weight, like a laptop, this is even more critical.
Is it maneuverable? This is why I moved away from a roller bag for my laptop. I found it was terrible on rough terrain and even slowed me down in the airport. The extra weight of a backpack was worth it.
Does it have space for what you'll be carrying? It seems obvious, but buying a bag then realizing there isn't a pouch that will handle your ever-present hardback book will certainly disappoint. When possible I like to take my largest item to the bag to verify, but when ordering online pay close attention to the dimensions. On the same note, too big will be bulky and lead you not to carry it, or carry too much!
Is it durable? This may not be a big issue for some, but I hate falling in love with a bag then having it fall apart or look terrible after a few months of work. Many fabrics such as canvas, nylon, Codura, and leather hold up well to continued abuse
Can you get to your stuff? Organization is often overlooked. I've passed it over many times myself, and I've watched others have to empty out a bag to find a single thing they wanted. Think about it up front, but realize you can organize in big compartments with smaller pouches and bags.
My current bag is the predecessor of this one, but after about 6 years of constant use it is wearing thin, so will be replaced this week by the Maxpedition Kodiak. I realized I almost never use both straps for the backpack and wanted better organization options, so we'll see how the Kodiak serves.

First aid - One thing I'm big on is having some first aid supplies on hand, no matter who you are or how much you actually know. Band-aids, some gauze and tape, tweezers, and alcohol wipes are a bare minimum. I also find it handy to have a bit of my vital medicine on me at all times, along with some painkillers. If you don't know what to put in a kit or like getting it all together, light and affordable(ish), check out Adventure Medical. They're industry leaders and have a variety of products you can pick up online or at your local EMS or Cabelas. Even if you don't know what to do with the items in the kit, someone around you might, but without the items available their knowledge may be for not. And, of course, take a first aid course! :)

Fire and light - Less people smoke these days (which is a good thing!) but it means few folks have a lighter or matches on them. This is a small, easy item to have on you that comes in handy whether you get stuck in the woods, need to scorch the end of a nylon strap, or sanitize a needle to dig out a splinter. I carry both, and also a magnesium fire-starter, but I'm all about the backup.
Similarly, you never know when you'll need a flashlight. I carry 2 myself, a small keychain-style LED light and a palm-sized tactical (very bright) one. They're great when you lose something under your desk, need to check out an issue with your car, or find yourself in a dark parking lot. I also have a few glow sticks to act as quick area lighting/flares.

Tools and knives - I've talked about pocket knives before, and your EDC is a good place to carry something to back that up. A multi-tool that may be more than you want in your pocket is perfect here and serves a lot of purposes. I also carry a fixed-blade knife in my EDC, but that may be more than most want.
On top of those, I have a few other more survival based items. One of the most used is a cheap poncho. I keep replacing it as it comes out in those moments when I forget a rain coat. A compass is handy, but this is only good if you know how to use one, and best with a map. I also have a small, straw-style water filter which I have yet to use and hope never to do so.

Writing items - This may seem obvious, but having a pen when you - or someone else - needs it is a huge boon. I'd also remind you to carry something to write on besides gas receipts. I have a small Moleskine-style notebook I got at Barnes & Noble with tear-out pages. I've recently gotten back into the habit of carrying a Sharpie as well, a habit from my EMT days. I'm less likely to be writing on people with it now, but it still works on almost any surface you come across.

Defense - We hope never to need it, but it would suck to need it and not have it. I'll skip the whole topic of firearms for another post as it's such a polarizing topic, but I will encourage everyone (even if you do carry a gun) to have some form of defensive spray as a non-lethal option. I won't go into the choosing of pepper spray here, but send you instead to this great site about it. The idea of a self-defense item is not to permanently disable someone, it is to give you time to get to safety. Whether you do that with pepper spray, a taser, a defensive tool like a kubotan, a tactical flashlight, or whatever, just having a way to gain a few seconds to run to your car or a safe building can make a huge difference to you and those who hope you make it home safe. Give it some thought.

Random stuff - There are a few other things I like to carry with me that may not be important to others, but I find useful.
Trash bags - I have about 4 of these at any time, the large, black ones. They make impromptu ponchos, ways to carry wet or dirty clothes, and, of course, work for trash. They could be used for a shelter if you were hard up, but that's an extreme.
Paracord - The mainstay of survivalists everywhere, this thin, light cord works for so many situations. It holds knots well, doesn't stretch easily, and is fairly cheap. Use it to lash something onto the roof of the car, hold something onto your pack, or any number of situations where rope comes in handy. A 50' bundle is small and easy to carry.
Books - I almost always have one with me. Actually, I DO always have my pocket version of the SAS Survival Handbook with me, but I also normally have what I'm reading or my iPad so I can keep myself entertained during long waits. Of course, the Survival Guide has other uses than general reading.
Cards - Nothing cures boredom quicker than a game, in my experience, so a deck of cards is handy when stuck at a slow restaurant or waiting for AAA to come give you a tow. I currently only have a standard deck, but sometimes I carry other quick, small games like Fluxx

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

I've laid out a mess of stuff here, and I'm hoping others chime in with their experiences. It is worth noting that one bag will not likely serve all of your needs. I've changed what I carry over the years and bags have changed with me. When traveling you may need to pair down to meet space or TSA requirements. This is actually part of what led me to my new EDC bag, specifically the integration of the MOLLE system.

While designed for the military and obviously appealing to the "tacti-cool" crowd, I see a lot of appeal to those of us who travel a lot or need to change up what we carry. As pouches can easily be swapped on or off the webbing, it becomes possible to mix and match to create the perfect bag. Better still, in minutes you can take the pouches with your multi-tool or pepper spray off the bag and tuck them in your checked baggage before heading off through airport security. I'll be putting this bag through its paces in the near future and I'll let you know how the system works out for me.

The single most important thing to remember is that YOU have to carry this day in and out, so build the system that works best for you and don't be afraid to change it when it doesn't.