Terminal Ballistics or What Sundome Doesn’t Teach Us

Tameshigiri (test cutting), not Sundome

Training with your partner in the Dojo and maintaining participant safety uses an important concept critical to your martial arts study, but also has some drawbacks.

Stopping Just in Time

(Sundome) means stopping your punch, kick or strike just before impact. You need partners. Failure to control your technique results in injury and then people do not want to train with you. Simply put, proper control and trust in your partner extends your ability to train with them.

Sundome is also important as a method of self-control. By practicing to stop your technique before full expression you learn to focus your level of effect on the opponent. The focus spectrum  ranges from not touching your opponent (as in pulling a punch) to striking with all the force you can generate. From a budo aspect this type of training has value.  Controlling technique gives you confidence in your ability and it is safe to practice with partners in a learning atmosphere. And there lies the trap—if you are serious about the Bujutsu application of technique in actual combat.

For me, the Sundome concept has some serious implications in my Budo study. To recap:

  • I recognize the value of Sundome training in the dojo. It allows me to train and learn technique with others in a relatively safe environment where I can concentrate on learning.
  • I recognize the value of Sundome for a sport competition venue which provides safety for all competitors.
  • I value Sundome training for developing control in my technique. To be able to apply it from stopping just before application to complete application.

The last point above gives me the tool I need to explore and understand Sundome is not complete application of technique—it is only the start.

What Sundome Doesn’t Teach

From an application perspective (I’m talking a bujutsu perspective here), Sundome can’t answer some important questions.

To use an analogy, in shooting a rifle, there are three important phases of ballistics:

Internal Ballistics – everything that happens up to the point where the bullet leaves the barrel. This includes everything you do while holding the rifle, pulling the trigger, the firing mechanism resulting in the firing pin hitting the cartridge, the primer exploding and igniting the gunpowder and the expansion of gases that push the bullet down the barrel of the rifle, and even includes the rifling that spins the bullet and stabilizes its flight.

We can think of this as how we generate force and movement in our technique.

External Ballistics – This is what happens between the rifle and the target. How the bullet travels through the air, effects of moisture, wind, distance to target, and even the corriolis effect of the earth’s rotation.

We can liken this to timing and distance concepts used in the martial arts.

Terminal Ballistics – the effect of the bullet when it hits the target, penetration, energy transfer, fragmentation etc., and most importantly, the effects it has on the target’s ability to continue to function. In other words, how our technique imparts force to the opponent and the results of that force on the ability of the opponent to continue fighting. Does the bullet impart all its force on the surface of the target, in the target or through the target?

Sundome training doesn’t allow you to study or explore the effects of impact on your opponent. Sundome doesn’t teach you about terminal ballistics. In addition, because you are physically linked to your fist or kick (unlike a bullet), those impacts can also have effects on you (Newton’ s third law – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction).

Let’s look at a few simple examples:

Recoil – If I hit with 100 pounds of force, the same amount of force travels back through my body.  Just like shooting a rifle, if I have a poor stance, wrong position of the butt stock on my shoulder, etc., my technique is likely to suffer in both penetration and effectiveness. You may be first in with a technique, but if you can’t penetrate because of a lack of understanding how impact affects your body—you better be prepared for the counter.

In fact, many times you can effectively weather an attack (blocking or not) because your opponent has no clue about how his body transmits force from the ground. If you understand this, you can overwhelm an opponent quickly by continuing your attack.

Range – If your technique is too extended or not extended enough, the effect of your technique is diminished when you hit the target, and also has effects on your body and the ability to move subsequently to the impact.

Target – If you hit effectively, but hit the wrong target, the effect on your opponent may be different than you expect. While Sundome training can teach precision and accuracy in technique, it does not help if your technique is not precise or accurate in its effects.  An example might be how much pressure is needed to exert control of a joint versus breaking it, or hitting the deltoid muscle on the upper arm versus the acromion process of the shoulder blade.

Impact as a way to create tactical control – Hitting an opponent can stop or change their forward movement during an attack and can lead to Collapsing Structure (Kuzushi) and further Gaps (Suki) that can then be exploited.

There are a number of other examples of how impact application effects further technical application. An example might be slapping the face (Kaze Uchi) or using a pressure point (Kyusho Uchi) to cause a reaction in the opponent that creates a bigger Gap (Suki) or Collapse in Structure (Kuzushi).

Sundome Does Not Teach Decisiveness in Combat

Sakki - Dangerous intentThere is one more concept that is very much related to Sundome training that many do not consider. I discussed with my Sensei a number of years ago about a concept I’m going to translate as Dangerous Intent (Sakki). A person in a highly emotional state because of anger, rage or influence by drugs may continue to be dangerous even after being struck with a well executed disabling or even lethal technique.  When the adrenaline is pumping in a highly dangerous moment or a person is lost in rage, you can strike him with a blow that would normally disable him, but because of his excited state, he is still able to function and strike back.

As an example, imagine a charging African water buffalo intent on impaling or trampling you. Even a well-placed shot may not be enough to drop the animal immediately, and you may be still in a very dangerous situation.  I have personally witnessed a white-tailed deer struck lethally with a well-placed bullet run two hundred yards before dropping. In tournaments one competitor is struck in the face as he attacks, continues his attack, sweeps, throws, and finishes his opponent before he turns away and the effects of his injury become apparent.

Impact that takes the momentum away from such an opponent or disables his ability to continue is the only sure way to stop them decisively other than retreating and letting them wear themselves out.

So how do we train to study the effects of impact on the opponent and ourselves? For karate, I cannot stress the importance of using the Striking Post (Makiwara). The makiwara teaches how to strike solidly and how force is transmitted through your body as a result of impact.  For the sword, an old tire stuck over a fence post, allows you to strike without fear of hurting anyone and at the same time, learn how to cut.  Using the makiwara is not about blasting it with your kicks and punches or hitting with your bokken. Using a makiwara inefficiently is probably just as bad as not using one (But that’s maybe for another article).

Some styles of karate use armor (Bogu) similar to kendo. This is not license to full use of your technique, but allows study of hitting effects with a partner in relative safety. Kendo with the use of the shinai and Bogu gives you opportunity to feel and experience the difference between playing tag or cutting.

Test cutting (Tameshigiri) with a sword and Test Striking (Tameshiware) using your body are two other methods. My own experience with test cutting taught me how to hold the sword properly and to make sure the blade aligned with the arc of the cut. Test striking has been less instructive for me. My opinion is that it’s not about how many boards, bricks, etc., I can break in a static application, it is about consistent ability to strike and create the effects in my target I wish to create—which is not always destruction.  The makiwara , shinai and bogu were the tools that gave me confidence in terminal ballistics.

Sundome safely teaches confidence in accuracy and timing, but you still have to understand the effects of impact to both you and your opponent. There is a lot more here to see if you look deeper.


by Rick Rowell


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