Limb Destructions From the Filipino Martial Arts

Anyone who's been around the martial arts long enough no doubt has heard a certain boxing maxim: Make him miss and make him pay. That's all well and good, but what if there was a way to just make him pay and immediately reverse the momentum of the fight? It just so happens that there is.

The Filipino martial arts teach a strategy called “defanging the snake." It has you literally attacking your opponent's incoming limb before it can do any damage. While this fighting tactic clearly stems from the influence that armed combat in the Philippines has had on the greater martial arts community, one should not think for a moment that it doesn't apply equally well to empty-hand skills.

In the empty-hand training sessions I organize for my arnis students, we refer to this category of techniques as limb destructions. Their role in armed combat is the same as it is in unarmed combat: to exploit the fact that the opponent is reaching toward the defender. Because all martial artists intuitively understand where their body is in space relative to their opponent, this path to victory is clear: Deny him his target and replace it with your weapon so that it's the opponent, and not you, who is injured.
But just because the path is clear doesn't mean it's easy to pull off. In reality, a limb destruction is a skill that needs to be practiced seriously by any martial artist who wishes to make it a reliable tool in his or her arsenal. Once mastered, though, it will become a prized possession that can be used to bypass the purely defensive initial phase of a violent encounter.

Stages If you dissect the art of fighting into its various components, you'll notice that altercations have three stages. Yes, the stages can be repeated several times within the same battle until a conclusion is reached, but basically they are the only distinct parts of combat. They are the entry, the follow-up and the finish. If you knock out your foe with a single punch, all three stages are embodied within that punch. If you're in a fight involving multiple technique exchanges, there will be multiple entries and follow-ups until the finish occurs.

The advantage that the defanging-the-snake concept bestows is it allows you to remove an important time suck, the delay that normally occurs between a purely defensive action such as a block or cover and the moment you inflict injury in an effort to end the threat. In essence, you convert his opening move into the first part of your counter. Once you're able to seize the offensive, you quickly can turn the momentum in your favor.

Clearly, defanging the snake operates on a physical level, but it also can have a huge psychological effect. When he attacks, your opponent expects to hit or miss you, but he certainly doesn't think he'll feel sudden pain. That, in a nutshell, is the brilliance of limb destructions. Many times, one can be enough to crush an adversary's fighting spirit.

Caveat I won't underestimate your intelligence and tell you that knowing how to defang the snake will lead to easy victory. Anytime you find yourself in a fight, it has the potential to become a lethal encounter. That's why good instructors will caution you never to underestimate your opponent or his resolve. And never overestimate a tactic or technique in your toolbox.

Treat defanging the snake as any other weapon in your arsenal. Learn where it will be most appropriate because — just like with disarms — depending on a limb destruction rather than the totality of your martial arts skill set is foolish. Doing so will leave you vulnerable to an opponent who knows better than to play the game you want him to play.

A superior self-defense plan entails developing all your offensive and defensive skills to the highest possible level. Once your go-to techniques and tactics are reliable and your overall skill base is solid, start experimenting with the limb destructions shown here. Then spend time fine-tuning those that fit your way of fighting.

Requisites To be able to implement a limb destruction, you must possess a good sense of timing, as well as defensive skills that are second nature. Practitioners of different martial arts will depend on different methods to get into the most appropriate ranges for launching their counteroffensive. Knowing this is critical when you first attempt to use limb destructions because you'll need to focus on those that are closely related to your natural defensive tendencies.

Another factor to keep in mind is that limb destructions work because they afford you the same level of defense as your passive defensive skills — while simultaneously adding that aforementioned element of pain. In other words, even if you don't injure your opponent's limb, you've still fended off his attack. In a properly executed limb destruction, you never have to gamble that a failed defang means you're getting bit by the snake.

Training Over the years, I've found that the best way to develop this tool set is to focus on one destruction at a time during sparring. Defend normally most of the time, but try a limb destruction on one of your opponent's strikes — perhaps a jab or lead-hand punch.

Once you've become successful with that, refine it during “handicapped sparring" against the same attack. Handicapped sparring refers to sessions in which you purposefully limit the techniques you use. When you've mastered that, test it in free sparring against various opponents. When you deem it reliable, move on to the next destruction. Approaching the task in this manner means you'll be able to quickly dismiss the moves that don't suit your style and focus on those that are higher percentage for you.
In my arnis classes, I like to introduce a limb destruction to my intermediate students and have them practice it in partner drills. Then I have them try it in sparring. Once we've done this with a particular set of destructions and identified which ones are most suitable for each person, we work on tactics that reinforce those destructions. At this point, coaching is critical.

It's essential to remember that not all limb destructions are suitable for all martial artists. If you're an instructor, it's your job to keep in mind that the focus of any fight — and the focus of all training — is to enable the student to get to the finish line as quickly and safely as possible.

Gunting While it would be impossible to describe every limb destruction in the Filipino martial arts in one article, this tutorial would be sorely lacking if it didn't include at least a few. The two we'll explore are the infamous gunting (Tagalog for scissors) and the siko (Tagalog for elbow) limb destructions.

The gunting techniques are often preferred by counterfighters who use quick footwork and mobility as their primary defensive strategy. A gunting depends on your ability to parry. When facing an opponent who likes to jab and run away, a gunting can work especially well.

Practice the technique as shown in the accompanying photos. Make sure your head is off the line of attack. Remember that a fore-knuckle punch to the biceps will make that arm heavy to hold up — and can cause your adversary to drop it altogether. That makes this move a great strategy for those who like to counter off their opponent's jab.

Experiment in class. After the gunting, try a cross, an overhand or a rear-hand punch of your preference. Then immediately follow up with more punches.

If your defensive skills include blocking and exchanging in middle range, try pairing your gunting with an inside block to stop your opponent's cross or straight right. The block can be followed with a lead hook and a cross.

Often, it's preferable to punch your opponent in the face using a split entry because it can lead to a quicker finish. However, if you've already tried it and he became a little squeamish and no longer closes as aggressively, this destruction just might be your ticket to victory.

In training, I've seen opponents who let their arms become entangled when this limb destruction is tried, especially if both parties are aggressive. In such cases, a head butt can work wonders. It also can serve as an entry into a clinch — but that's best discussed in a separate article.

Siko The category of limb destructions known as siko is favored by martial artists who prefer to cover while moving in. These fighters also tend to operate at close range, so if you're one who favors infighting, I recommend you look into the siko techniques.
These destructions work by turning your passive cover into a pointy exoskeleton — hopefully, one that your opponent will impale a body part on. For a good visual, picture him punching a rhino's horn. In one example, the opponent opens with straight punches. You execute a destruction, then move inside to get out of his preferred range. At that point, if you're a fan of clinching, you'll be at home. Likewise, those who like to throw hooks and elbows as follow-ups are likely to be successful.

I especially like siko techniques for countering wide hook punches. The terminal effect is very similar to a gunting aimed at the biceps, but it requires significantly less effort on your part. Depending on your opponent's reach and timing, you might be able to also spike him in the sternum, thus impeding his forward momentum.

As with the split entry mentioned earlier, timing and range will determine what's most appropriate. Experience will help you realize that height and reach are also important factors. Never forget that the goal is to prevail. The exact destruction you use to do that is not important. Go with what's most appropriate for the circumstances.

Prognosis Regardless of which limb destructions you wind up favoring, understand that every one that you add to your arsenal will need to pair well with your other defensive skills. The methods described here work off different timing: The gunting are more proactive, while the siko are more reactive. Sometimes the right choice boils down to that, and sometimes it boils down to nothing more than personal preference.

No matter which set of destructions you choose to adopt, don't dismiss the possibility of mixing them up in a fight. Moving in and out of the various ranges can provide opportunities — in other words, a technique you didn't consider initially might work later on.

In closing, I would like to remind you these techniques are just tools in your arsenal. They're intended to be used in a fight — not a punching fight, a clinching fight or a limb-destruction fight. Just a fight. The tool you employ in any given altercation ultimately is less important than your survival. Work on developing skills that are congruent with that goal.

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"Unlike karate training outside a combat zone," Cpt. Yoon explained, "it is important here that the troops be able to turn their techniques into devastating, bone-crushing blows. There is no place for mild strikes in combat when a VC is trying to push a bayonet into your stomach."

For that reason, the compound is peppered with makiwara punching boards, and the Korean Tigers spend much time conditioning the weapons of taekwondo. Also, throughout Vietnam there are plenty of sandbags, which are used to protect all kinds of constructions. They make excellent striking bags for a karateman.

The next unit in the schedule is to display free fighting. The commander again explains that this form of fighting is used to test the Tigers' skills against one another rather than to demonstrate the actual methods of close-quarters combat, as a fight on the battlefield is nearly always over in an instant.

The sparring matches are exhibitions of technique and control. Perhaps the only recognizable difference between these and matches held in tournaments is the consistent power the soldiers put behind their blows and their concentration on hard taekwondo techniques rather than elusive ones.

Against Weapons

At last, a final group prepares to show what happens when an unarmed Tiger meets a VC with a knife or a bayonet fixed to his AK-47 rifle. Two pairs of soldiers stride to the center of the hard-dirt arena, face the commander and render a snappy salute. Then they fall into a four-man square and await orders.

Sgt. Lee barks a command, and the best of the best explode into action. One gladiator leaps for a knife that has been thrown into the arena. He jams it, hard, at another, who violently kicks the striking hand and jumps shoulder height, scissoring the attacker's neck and tumbling him forward onto the unyielding ground with a crash. The knife spins away.

Meanwhile, another black belt catches a rifle with a fixed bayonet that is thrown to him from the sidelines. With a guttural shout, he lunges for his opponent. The defender spins to the left, brings his knee sharply inward against the weapon and rolls the attacker onto his own shoulder while tearing at his windpipe. It's over in seconds.

The couples repeat the performance again and again, smashing full tilt against each other. Every time, the attacker thrusts hard with his weapon. It's just less than miraculous that the practice doesn't turn into a blood bath.

Korean Budomen

Initiated as the Capital Infantry Division, the Tiger Division was activated on June 20, 1949, in Seoul with the mission of providing security for the capital. It was charged with additional security of the 38th parallel in Ongjin in September of the same year. When the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, the division began to prove itself in heavy fighting during battles at Ahn-kang and Kyung-joo along the defense line of the Nakdong River in the southeastern part of the country.

Following the successful Inchon landing by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces, the division penetrated deep into the North across the 38th parallel, overrunning enemy strongholds and advancing close to the Korea-Manchuria border. As their ability became recognized, the division was committed repeatedly and saw the armistice signed while fighting at the front in the spring of 1952. They captured more than 9,920 enemy, killed more than 91,000 and seized more than 31,000 weapons. As a result of their valor, the division was awarded five ROK Presidential Citations and a U.S. Presidential Citation, an ROK National Assembly award and 42 other plaudits.

After the armistice, the division had already been dubbed with the Tiger laurel and was deployed along the front line of the central part of the Korea DMZ. They remained under continued training and constant combat readiness.

Upon approval of the National Assembly, the division was directed to combat in the Republic of Vietnam on August 20, 1965. Three separate elements arrived at Qui Nhon on November 1 after four weeks of preliminary training. That month, it received its tactical area of responsibility, which consisted of 1,400 square kilometers in Binh Dinh Province in central Vietnam. The division's general mission objectives are to protect travel routes, military installations and facilities within its TAOR and to assist the Republic of Vietnam in its pacification plan by eliminating Viet Cong in the area and helping the people rebuild their destroyed homes.

Since 1965, the Tiger Division has stabilized security within their area to an impressive degree. The TAOR itself has expanded from 1,400 to 3,800 square kilometers. As of mid-June, the Tigers had killed more than 9,000 enemy, captured nearly 3,000 and counted 4,500 defectors, as well as seizing nearly 4,000 weapons.

All this leaves little room for doubt about whom historians will count as the true elite of Vietnam combat. In the ranks of the VC and the NVA, mention of these ferocious Koreans brings shudders to the comrades. Even as he fights those from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the Tigerman knows that he has full command of his body and his mind. When he's faced with hand-to-hand combat, he need not rely only on the ferocity of his rifle to equalize the score. He can hammer out punches with machine-gun rapidity or swing a full-flogging kick with sufficient force to gain the advantage. When a man is trained in karate, or to be more specific, taekwondo, he's ahead of the game and the Viet Cong, that crap-shooting armada of insurgent forces, and the crack North Vietnamese troops who come to do battle. They know full well that the Tigers with their taekwondo as well as armaments are tough to beat.

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The roots of taekwondo are in Korea, and for the ROK GIs who enter the Tiger ranks, the intensive routine of training in the martial art is strictly par for the course. No doubt every Tigerman hopes to use his martial arts training sometime in a tournament as well as he does in combat. That's the dream of every GI in the ROK division.

The Tigers, under Maj. Gen. Lew Pyong Hyon and with taekwondo's Capt. Yoon, have been making headlines throughout the world. They are the only troops, it's been said, who fight fire with fire, who use guerrilla techniques and ambush techniques in much the same manner as the Viet Cong. In a war such as this — where the boundary lines are questionable, where there is no front line and where your neighbor can turn into your enemy — such techniques are indispensable. Thanks to the hand-to-hand techniques and the combat-karate emphasis of this militia, the odds are clearly shaping up in the Tiger Division's ledger. Thanks to taekwondo, the Tigers are smashing the enemy with no holds barred and, if anyone doubts it, plenty of contact!

Read Part 1 of this article here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

Scene: A group of soldiers is gathered for a bull session. The subject under discussion is the Tiger Division of the Korean army. The soldiers are engrossed. One, a lean, tanned GI, pushes back his beret, squints into the darkness and looks out to see a mountain of burning embers.

"We were on recon operations in southern Binh Dinh Province," he explains. "One night, we caught the sounds of a skirmish. My squad leader held up his hand and when he smiled, we knew we were in for some action. As we approached the area, we were a little surprised that there was no small-arms fire, but we could hear a lot of guys yelling.

"When we got there, it was an unbelievable sight. Here were those Korean troops in close-quarters combat with what must have been superior forces, as there were [Viet Cong soldiers] all over the place. I've never seen so many broken necks and caved-in ribs in my life. We helped clean up what was left."

So goes the legend, and just in case you're casting a cynical eye as to the Tiger Division's aptitude in the use of martial arts, the record speaks for itself. If there was ever a primer on combat karate, these troops would write it. In two grueling periods daily, every troop in the Tiger Division trains in the taekwondo method, the official karate of Korea.

At one time, there were many factions, but in the past year or so, they've all been absorbed by the International Taekwon-Do Federation, with its headquarters in Seoul. In fact, with the Koreans, and even in many areas in Vietnam, taekwondo is synonymous with karate. Numerous Vietnamese do not even understand the word "karate" — but mention taekwondo and their faces light up with recognition.

Way of Life

At Qui Nhon, division headquarters, visitors are surprised to see sparkling white uniforms — and a sea of black belts — virtually in the middle of a combat zone. While on actual operations away from their base, the Tigers work out in field gear, but at the training center, everyone wears a gi and keeps it as immaculate as any other military uniform.

On the left side of the gi, each person wears the proud division emblem of a roaring tiger. On the other side, if he's an instructor, the soldier wears a black insignia of a fist with white dots above indicating how many degrees of black-belt rank he holds.

Commander of the massive taekwondo corps of the Tiger Division is Capt. Yoon Dong Ho, himself a third dan. But the rugged, intelligent captain is no armchair commander. He's on hand daily at the dirt arena, watching the troops go through their paces and often teaching a special class of officers.

Capt. Yoon is responsible for the official taekwondo training of more than 15,000 Tiger troops in Vietnam. Although popular belief holds otherwise, there are actually more than 200 black-belt holders in the Tiger ranks. Of them, three are fourth dan, 29 are third dan, 57 are second dan and 115 are first dan. There are roughly 600 red belts and 2,300 blue belts, as well as 9,000 troops holding degrees of white belt. Approximately 2,900 men recently began their training in Vietnam. Many of these, of course, already hold rank they won in Korea.


Each element of the Tiger infantry arriving in Vietnam goes through intensive schooling at Qui Nhon. The 26th of these classes began in July, to run just over a month. The sessions lead off with classical techniques under the direct supervision of Sgt. Jun Jae Gun, head taekwondo instructor for the Meng Ho in Vietnam. Sgt. Jun, one of the division's tough trio of fourth degrees, displays a certificate signed by Gen. Choi Hong Hi, International Taekwon-Do Federation president.

When a trooper is promoted in Vietnam, however, he's awarded a military certificate of training by his supplement company commander, who acts as a representative of Lt. Col. Jai Chun Ko, division field commander. All promotions are recognized by the federation. In cases of promotion to the higher grades, however, special recognition is often meted out. For example, Sgt. Kim Duk Ki was recently awarded his third dan by Lt. Gen. Chae Myung Shin, field headquarters commander for all ROK Forces in Vietnam.

"The major objective of our formal taekwondo classes," asserted Cpt. Yoon, "is to take the minds of our troops and replace civilian thinking with military spirit and fierceness. 'Tiger' is the nickname the division has been tagged with because of the fierce nature we have demonstrated in combat. We intend to live up to it."

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Cpt. Yoon reinforced that statement with an impromptu demonstration of his own favorite techniques. Choosing a brawny trooper with a bayonet, the captain rushed him, parrying the weapon with an onslaught of power strikes with the elbow, palm, heel and fist. He ended with a forearm strike to the windpipe, which he explained is effective when one wants to silence the enemy quickly.

Key elements in hand-to-hand combat, the commander explained, are attacking the weapon directly or the hand that holds it while simultaneously attacking the most vulnerable spot within reach, then pressing the assault to keep the enemy off-balance while finishing him.

Field Testing

Stressing physical fitness in preparation for the application of these techniques, Cpt. Yoon said his troops rely heavily on powerful, smashing blows against the smaller Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communists. He explained that the enemies are often undernourished because of their long treks from the North and therefore may fall easily under a strong attack.

"One particular situation where we encounter hand-to-hand fighting," Cpt. Yoon said, "is when the VC hide in bunkers and Tiger patrols do not have heavy weapons available to blow [the bunkers] apart. In such a case, the troops simply go in after them. The VC stand little chance against my men in close-quarters fighting."

In addition to the training of their own infantry, Tiger taekwondo instructors teach U.S. and Republic of Vietnam soldiers, as well as other Allied Forces infantry soldiers. Presently, some 1,250 Vietnamese and 150 U.S. soldiers are being taught by the Tigers at Qui Nhon alone. At other installations throughout South Vietnam, the Koreans teach their art to Allied Forces and Vietnamese civilians of both sexes and all ages.

There are scores of Korean black belts who are not members of the Tiger Division but who teach taekwondo to the local troopers and civilians. Many of these men belong to the larger White Horse Division. Especially in populated places such as the Tan Son Nhut Air Base–Saigon area, taekwondo has become as popular as baseball is to Americans. Today, self-defense is serious business to the Vietnamese, as no one knows when a VC terrorist squad will break into his home.

The Tiger Lair

Several miles away from the main training area on the Qui Nhon Air Base where the new arrivals hold classes, the Tiger instructors have their own compound, carved out of the verdant Vietnam countryside. Bordered on two sides by mountains and banked by the South China Sea, the encampment nestles into a serene and clean-smelling natural cradle, somehow out of place amidst the turmoil of war. The site has never been successfully attacked, and no one remembers the last time even a single mortar landed within the perimeter.

The perimeter itself is defined by roll upon roll of barbed wire, machine-gun posts and sandbag-reinforced bunkers. When not actually leading class, the instructors perform most of their military duties wearing their gi, often barebacked in the all-pervading heat. Somehow it doesn't seem quite right to see a fierce fighting man carting pails of water for the makeshift shower or spreading rolls of concertina wire — until you recall how budo masters of ancient times made their charges perform menial tasks before they would be accepted. Perhaps this accounts in part for their dedication and the respectful attitude the troops invariably display.

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Cpt. Yoon decides to review the instructors' training methods, so he has the select corps organize into a squadron to demonstrate their prowess. Sgt. Lee Jin Ho, whose official title is post instructor, leads the formation. They fall swiftly into ranks. The commander steps forward and receives the squadron's salute, then turns the command over to Sgt. Ho.

At a signal, the Tigers break ranks and rush into new formations with precision reminiscent of the Roman legions. The first squad is directed to show taekwondo forms. They snap through the kata in coordinated pairs, demonstrating the adroitness that can only come from military discipline. The forms are technically the same as classical Korean karate but are executed with the confident power of soldiers who have seen what their stuff can do to a man.

The next group forms behind a line of boards, bricks and tiles. Stacks of four and five bricks, up to 15 tiles and four 1-inch boards lie before them. The unit is called to attention, salutes again and assumes a ready posture. Sgt. Lee barks a command, and a dozen heads, hands and fists smash into the solid objects. Not a single one remains unbroken.

Read Part 2 here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

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