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


One Inch Distance


Life And Death in the Thickness of Paper.

by Rick Rowell

Distance - Life and death in the thickness of paper

In the duel between Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro made famous in the novel Musashi by Eji Yoshikawa, Musashi’s headband (hachimaki) was cut by Kojiro’s sword the same instant he killed Kojiro.

Kojiro may have died smiling, thinking he had cut Musashi.

Musashi, however, fully understood the concept of distance or Interval (Ma-ai) and its relation to time. Kojiro’s sword was a fraction of an inch too far away, but Musashi’s was not. As Kojiro was famous for the use of a longer sword, Musashi used a wooden sword carved from a boat oar—just a little bit longer.

The ability to judge the distance between your opponent within one inch or less can mean the difference between life and death.

There are a number of distance concepts used in the martial arts, but I am going to focus on two that are essentially the same principle and related:

    • Issun no Ma-ai – literally “One Sun Interval”. A sun is an old Distance - definition of SunJapanese unit of measurment a little over an inch long (1 sun = 3.03 cm). For the sake of clarity let’s translate it as “One Inch Interval”


  • Kami Shitoe – can be variously translated as “The difference in the thickness of a piece of paper,” hair’s breath, razor’s edge, paper thin, or nick of time.

The two ideas are essentially the same principle. To illustrate the principle, the figure below is a stylized overhead view of an attacker and defender. The person attacking is the black circle.

A. Shows two opponents facing each other from a slightly Toma (Far Interval ) distance—the starting position of the engagement.

B. Shows the defender maintaining the same distance from the attacker by shifting back at the same rate the attacker moves forward. Tactically this gains no advantage because it maintains the distance the defender will have to cross in order to counterattack. Any counterattack takes longer—because you have to cross a larger gap, and that takes time. A large spatial gap also gives your opponent the opportunity to re-take the initiative (Go no Sen) from you, or at the very least to strike you at the same time you strike him (Aiuchi, mutual striking). This type of movement (maintaining distance) can be useful if you are not ready to engage and want to remain at a safe distance outside the opponent’s Hitting Distance (Uchi no Ma-ai).

C. Shows the principle of “One Inch Interval” or “Difference in the Thickness of Paper.” Reducing distance by controlling movement backward to just outside the attacker’s range, means you are still a hair’s breadth out of range—in other words, safe. Tactically, you gain advantage because your counterattack does not have as far to go to reach the opponent and is hence faster.

D. Shows the same concept only by Shifting to the side or Entering (Sabaki or Irimi) and actually moving toward the attacker and just evading the attack by the “thickness of a piece of paper.” Tactically this makes the counterattack faster yet again.

Distance Concepts

The Issun no Ma-ai/Kami Shitoe concept can be used with any timing concept (Go no Sen, Tai no Sen, Sen no Sen) whether you block or not. The important aspect of this principle is that it is used to tactically retake initiative and make it very hard for your opponent to deal with a counterattack that is both compressed in time and space.

One Inch Distance (Issun no Ma-ai) is a critical concept in combat. It is not wasteful of time or distance, can be used with all timing approaches, and—no matter how strongly an opponent attacks, a miss is a still a miss. A miss by only one inch leaves you alive just as much as a miss by two feet, but the smaller miss leaves you in position to immediately exploit the opponent’s weakness (Kyo) that inevitably follows his missed attack.

Kami Shitoe is sometimes referred to as life on one side of the paper and death on the other and hence the idea of a razor’s edge between life and death.

Miyamoto Musashi in his book the book of five rings (Go Rin no Sho), written in the seventeenth century uses a very similar concept when he discusses the Spark of Flint Hit (Sekka no Atari to iu Koto).

“The ‘Spark of Flint’ means to strike with a great deal of force when the opponent’s long sword and yours are close enough to be barely touching, but without raising your long sword in the slightest. This means cutting quickly with hands, body and legs—all three cutting strongly. If you train enough you will be able to strike strongly.”

Musashi’s example shows how by lifting the hands the sword moves away from the opponent and increases the distance away from the opponent. Cutting immediately reduces time and distance, but you have to practice to become sufficiently strong enough to cut with force.

In unarmed martial arts such as Karate, the principle is no different. Moving just out of range of a punch or kick, then immediately countering is a common tactic in more experienced Budoka than in beginners.

The principle of minimizing or closing distance is as old as warfare, but you can challenge yourself to use this concept in other ways. Can you find examples in negotiation, hockey, formula one racing, or baseball?

The principle of “One Inch Interval”  or “The Difference in the Thickness of a Piece of Paper” can produce tactical advantage by manipulating time and space to stay just out of range of your opponents attack, and hastening contact with a counterattack.

There are many other distance and timing principles used in the martial arts.

Consider Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles as a reference to learn more.

Muto (No Sword) and a Man with a Stick

I’m Still a Man With a Stick

But Have a Goal Called Muto (No Sword)

Muto - no sword

I remember practicing Staff Basics (Bo Kihon) in the dojo with Sensei Akutagawa watching. He corrected me and then said something that at once surprised me, then was so totally obvious that it was one of those slap in the forehead moments (why didn’t I see that before!).

He said that all staff techniques were the same as the unarmed techniques we used in Karate. The blocks were the same, thrusting with the staff was the same as the punching, and the bottom of the staff rising upward was just like a front kick. To anyone who studies Kobudo (“Old Martial Way” but commonly used to reference Okinawan weapons such as the Bo, Sai, Tonfa and Kai), the Okinawan weapons such as the Tonfa and Sai are used as extensions to our existing unarmed technique. This is nothing new. In fact all weapons as an extension of our bodies.

But then, Sensei continued with his stick analogy using an inductive reasoning approach (going from a specific to a generality) and took me to a new place of thinking about my Karate, Kobudo and Iaido. He went the other way. He reversed the question and instead of saying the Bo was an extension of the body, he said the body was an extension of sticks. The structure of our body was really a bunch of connected sticks, and we use those sticks just like we use the Bo.

For example, we use the end of the Bo for striking, and when we make a fist, we are striking with the end of the bones in our hand. When we strike with an elbow or knee, we are doing the same. Even when we kick, for example, front kick, we are kicking with the ball of the foot which is the end of the tarsal bones and metatarsals.

While the ends of the Staff are used for striking, the center portion of the staff is used for blocking, controlling and deflecting, just like we do in Karate.  Many of our blocks use the forearm to catch and deflect an incoming punch. While there are a number of notable exceptions to this generality, this way of looking at the body gives you a tool that can be used when you pick up a weapon or as you practice unarmed technique.

A weapon becomes an extension of those sticks in your body. When I first started Iaido, the sword felt awkward in my hands, but as a came to realize that it was and extension of my existing linkage of sticks (bones), the sword began to take on a familiarity.

There are three training stages you go through when picking up a weapon.

First you are a man with a stick (or man with a sword, gun etc.)—meaning the stick and the man are separate things—no connected. The weapon is a distinct and apart from you. I’ll use an analogy of chopping wood with an axe. If you are using an axe and swinging it like a hatchet, your technique is likely to suffer. Trying to swing your axe with a quick chopping movement using your wrist is likely to be inefficient and weak. Whereas swinging the axe with the arms in a full arc will be much more effective. Here the length of the tool requires it to be used with larger movements. Likewise swinging a hatchet like an axe is likely to be equally ineffective and possibly dangerous to you. Each tool has a natural swing and has a natural cadence.

The second stage is where you are a stickman (swordsman, or marksman)—meaning the stick and the man become extensions of each other. There is a familiarity with your weapon, you know how it balances, your muscles feel comfortable with its weight and you know how to use it naturally. But what happens when you loose your weapon or have none to begin with when you need it?

The final stage is when the man and the sword are one Muto - definition and kanji–meaning there is no man and no sword, just a single entity. Understanding the body is made up of a series of connected sticks (bones) means adding one more does not make any difference. The arm becomes a sword if you don’t have one, if a stick is available then it is used. This is the essence of a concept called Muto (No Sword).

Muto, however, goes well beyond technical  application  and  is  not  about  technique,  but  more  a  state  of  mind.  When one  has  reached  the  state  of  No  Sword (Muto), one does not need a sword. Yagyu Munenori, a famous seventeenth century swordsman describes  some  of  the  aspects of Muto Tori in the following:

“If  you  can  adopt  as  your  sword even the one you take from your opponent   when   you   do   not   have   one, shouldn’t  you  be  able  to  make  use  of whatever else you may have on hand? Even with a fan, you should be able to defeat  an  opponent  equipped  with  a sword.  No-sword  means  the  readiness to do this.”

His  statement  is  actually  very  profound.  It  refers  to  the  ability  to  meet the  opponent  in  a  fluid  and  confident way, were one is able to see the possibilities of the engagement all around him.  This  means  the ability  to  use the  environment  around  oneself  to defeat the opponent. All possibilities exist—because you are the weapon.

Stand under a tree limb to prevent the  opponent  from  slashing  downward. Use a stick to parry the cut. Maneuver  the  opponent  so  the  sun  is  in  his eyes.  These are  all ways  you  can  utilize  the  surrounding   environment.   The   ability   to even  take  the  opponent’s  sword  and  use it against him is also a possibility.

Taking  this  idea  of  No  Sword  (Muto) further,   Yamaoka   Tesshu,   founder   of Muto  Ryu  (No  Sword  Style)  describes  it this way:

“Outside   the   mind   there   is  no sword.  Therefore,  when  facing  an  opponent, there is no enemy in front and no self behind. Miraculously, all boundaries are extinguished and no trace remains. This is No Sword.”

Sounds  remarkably  like  Zen—and  the collapse of Duality.

When it comes to Kobudo and Iaido, I’m still a man with a stick. Which means I still have a lot of quality time in the dojo to look forward to. When it comes to Karate, I have 206 sticks that I still am learning to coordinate in new and wonderful ways. Even though Sensei Akutagawa has passed away, I know he is smiling down at me knowing that my head is full of sticks (literally and metaphorically).

I still maybe a man with a stick (probably one too many), but I have a goal called Muto. Or in the case of the Staff – Mubo (No Staff). Which means the concept I am really after is Mushin (No Mind), but that is another story. I still have sticks in my head that I have to gt rid of.

by Rick Rowell

If you would like to learn more about concepts such as Muto, consider Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles.

Ways to look at Budo – Great Way, Small Way

Different ways of looking at the Way

Big Things Can Come in Small Packages and Vice Versa

I reviewed some old notes scribbled down hastily after a lengthy conversation with Akutagawa Sensei, and I found a little gem to share. We were discussing the concept of Do or ‘Path’ as it relates to Budo. Sensei Akutagawa is no longer with us, but the echoes of his thoughts in my notes allowed me to reflect on these ideas after all these years, and he still teaches me.

Daido - Great RoadDaido can mean a main street or highway, but in our Budo context, it can mean a great principle. Sensei described Daido to me as the main stem, like the trunk of a tree, the spiritual or intangible truths, the core of our being and our martial journey.

He contrasted this with the Small Way – Shodo, by comparing it to a single branch tip—to a single technique, action, or experience.

We all start our training in martial arts by learning little truths; for example, how to make a fist, or hold a sword. That little branch tip of information that your Sensei shares with you, along with others, merge into a twig that encompasses how we use our fist.

Shodo - the branchEven though I learned these small ways from my teachers, there was always something about my teachers, something deeper that made me want to learn from them. Was it their knowledge, wisdom, ability, and confidence? Yes, all that, but there was something else. There were all these intangibles that I wanted to acquire—something deeper that I could somehow feel but not experience directly. I had to train.

But I saw that deeper intangible in their Shodo—their technique, the way they helped me learn, the way they were hard with me when I needed that too. Another interesting thing that Akutagawa Sensei said to me was that Shodo is always inspired from Daido. The beauty and strength we see and appreciate in a well-executed technique is created from something deeper in the individual. We see only the downy tip of that creation, and yet, as a beginner it was technique that inspired us to want to learn more. To capture that something is what drives us to train and strive.

As I think about these ideas, I realize that Shodo gives me the pathway I can use to understand larger principles in myself from a single technique. Will the pathway be exactly the same as my Sensei’s? No. It may merge with a different branch, just like all trees are different. But if I follow it back far enough, my branch will merge into a single trunk and then into the soil. That soil is the same soil my Sensei’s tree grew from.

We spend a lot of our time out in the branch tips seeking new technique, action and experience. As we struggle to integrate these into larger meanings in our life, we realize that our roots are embedded in the same matrix as everyone else.

The point of this essay is that our teachers show us only the tips of their branches—their Shodo—because we can never directly experience the deeper core of their being. When our tree touches theirs, a new twig emerges in our tree. That new downy branch tip can sometimes drive our understanding straight down to the trunk like a lightning bolt, can whither, stay dormant, swirl around for years in the high branches, or reach further down to something deeper—the core of our being.

We need to experience the Small Ways (Shodo) of our teachers to seek the Great Way (Daido) underneath, and we need the Great Way in us to inspire us to search for the techniques, actions, and experiences that shape who we are. When Shodo becomes Daido is something hard to figure out. One can’t exist without the other.

Our techniques, actions, and experiences (Shodo) are created from something deeper in us (Daido). At the same time the Great Way in us is inspired by the Small Ways of our teachers. And that is what we call the Way.

Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Rick Rowell