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A Conversation with Master Bladesman, James Keating by Mark Hatmaker


For those not in the know…

James Albert Keating: Master at Arms - Astonishingly good with all small weapons. A graduate of the ESI Bodyguard academy. A knife designer of note. A writer of poem, prose and storied tale. Four books to his name so far. Currently residing on a large Arabian horse ranch in the mountains of Oregon. Keating is the owner and operator of the Comtech Training Studio known worldwide as home to a vast array of fighters, fencers and fast guns. Keating has operated the training hall since 1972 when he first began teaching publicly. James Keating has trained in various combative systems since age 10. Just shy of being sixty years of hard work in the martial arts and tactical fields. His 2018 season of training seminars looks as strong as one of his hand made Bowie knives. His beliefs are as follows: "We advance together into the unknown future with the strength of our abilities sustaining us through thick and thin. Skill banishes fear. Skill is the secret, otherwise it's just plain ordinary violence. In the process of acquiring skill one also learns of  the discretionary judgement required to use such power in a wise manner". 



First things first, thanks for taking the time to chat. In matters of the knife I regard you about as good as it gets. That is not Mark blowing smoke up fundaments, that is his honest opinion. With that said, tell me a little about how James Keating goes from standard human being without a blade in his hand to where he is now.



Thank you Mark, I am honored to be able to converse with you! I guess the path traveled from my point of awakening to this exact point in time is a long road. The strength to walk that road was given to me by my father. He too believed in the blade. He was a knifemaker long before anyone gave a damn about such things. It was like a family thing for us I suppose. As a hobby we would often throw knives at home as well. So my Dad planted the first seeds of interest and instilled a sense of appreciation for cutlery. Over the years as an adult my interest evolved. It was a steady, life long quest that embraced armed and unarmed methods of combat with an unbiased approach. While some men become polarized and became frozen by their own extreme dedication to a limited line I went on to a wider avenue of thought that lead me to the heart of personal freedom. That freedom is the fuel that fires the imagination of creativity. A much needed element of survival for anyone who marches to that "different drummer" as I have much of my life. An open mind can take you further in life than any plane, train or automobile ever could.

In blade-culture much ado is made of Filipino and Asian systems. Your work has a distinct western hemisphere feel to it. Would you mind telling us about why this approach?



I have had great success with the fencing based skills as they are applied to the smaller weapons. I fenced in my younger days. By smaller weapons I mean those tools of combat smaller or lesser than the sword itself. This would include the machete, knife, dagger, Bowie knife, etc. The fencing based skills that I prefer are done in the so called "out range". In the parlance of the FMA this would be the "Largo Mano" range. It is there that the fight should begin and there also where the fight should end. This is called "keeping proper fighting measure". Rather than parry or pass as done in some systems in the long range method one learns the art of evasion. Just don't be there. Encapsulated nicely in the old saying: "When attacking, the weapon moves first. When defending, the target moves first" (then the counter-strike). This is done in order to be accord with the "True Times" that govern all successful combat methods. Particularly those methods used in the western kingdoms (IE: Europe, America). Historically speaking these methods have already proven themselves to be of worth. If one practices a fine system of blade work then one must also have a fine weapon to compliment the fine system. Thus the gentleman warrior is defined within the sanguinary boundaries of his art through his weapons and his ability with them in or outside the fencing salon.

Within martial arts, armed and unarmed, there is often a bit of observed dogma or fealty that can sometimes obscure the actual message. That is Mark’s opinion. Do you find any agreement here, if so where? If no agreement, set me straight.



Hmm, I am inclined to agree. I call this a type of misguided loyalty. It is the same element which gives some martial arts systems a cult-like appearance to outsiders. Such arrangements usually contain a great degree of self-limiting "humbleness" and even out right groveling in some cases. This can be expected though. The term "martial" bespeaks of whence this practice originates. A set series of ranks, titles and positions that are based upon this "fealty". In harkens back to another time. It  happens when the master or method supersedes the pupils quest in the order of importance. We have went from a military-like environment of the past to today's educational environment and the two paths seem to blend together just about as well as oil and water does. I say just get past this level of thought, see it as a barrier of sorts that must be overcame at some point in your career. Remember this is about YOU, not them, it or the system. YOU come first! This is not a selfish path as some will claim it to be. It is a  practical path that leads to mastery and to the understanding of your inner self.



I admire your frankness in all matters, but here I want to address your candor regarding blade work. There is much blade work that claims American Indian provenance. Now, in my studies both combat related and pure historical pleasure I find that, yes, Native Peoples did indeed have a heavy blade-culture but thus far, I can find no references to specific how to's in an extensive or codified manner, with that said, are such systems what they claim or are they good guesses with overlays of other blade cultures to fill in the gaps?



The Native American systems are one of those things like politics and religion I try to dodge. Some Native methods of combat appear to have more legitimacy than others. But in saying that we then must ask "what is legit and what ain't? That is a tough nut of a question that over the years has baffled many a scholar and historian. One cannot blame a person for wanting to take pride in their heritage. But in many instances this "heritage" is just some cobbled together "slash and thrust shenanigans" done in a "sparring" mode. If there is such a thing as a native combat system from what I have seen they tend to look more like random techniques or tricks. I have yet to see a historically true curriculum vitae for any known method of codified abilities from any Native American source. In saying that let the avalanche of hate begin from the shit stirring trolls that need to re-read the above paragraph again and get the shit straight. I merely stated what I know and have experienced. Nothing more. There have been guys that in the past taught "authentic” Aztec combat methods. It was just the same old Arnis as before but now done with a Mexican Macuahuitl sword instead of a stick. The times we are living in are like this now. It's a symptom, not a sin. There is an old axiom I live by: "Every squirrel needs a nut to survive". It is not up to me to deny another squirrel (just like myself) his right to have a nut. He gotta survive too. So whatever the true truth of the matter is I say "go for it man"I support your endeavor. In the end game it's all good - we are all one family. The lesser and the greater, the sooner and the later. The living and the dead, it's all in your head. There is only you!

[Mark adds an editorial comment. I led Brother James down the path with the preceding question. I asked it in a leading manner as it reflects my current skeptical bias informed by my research, thus far. Brother James’ reply to my leading question is gorgeous, honest, and welcoming. If anyone interprets it as a slight, I suggest that the reading might be superficial and if the ire is still up upon re-reading his response, your beef is less with James Keating than the with the Questioner. If you have solid research that proves my current take invalid, send it on! I love to be wrong. I’ll get that out to the world. Mabitsiar’u one and all!]



Your Bowie work is superlative. Your tactical knowledge is superb, but here I want to ask you for your favorite Bowie knife story. Your favorite, “This may or may not be true, but I love it either way” Bowie take.



My favorite "Bowie knife story": I suppose it'd be about the time that Bill Bagwell (King of the Bowie Knives) and I were at the Soldier of Fortune convention in Las Vegas. We were getting back to our room from dinner and Bill asked me how my Bagwell Bowie was holding up. He had made that knife for me several years prior. He took a professional interest in his products and their proper maintenance. I drew the Yellow Eagle (that's my name for it because it has a golden colored Bodark wood handle in the form of an Eagle head) and handed it to him. The blood red sheath showed little wear and that seemed to please him some. The blade of the knife itself was next for inspection. Bill's assessment was that my knife was a tad bit dull. Since there was no sharpening stone in our hotel room I asked Bill how he was going to fix this issue. He said it was easy and for me to sit down a while and we'd talk. So talk we did, Jimmy Buckner master maker from Putney, Georgia was also in the room with us at the time. As was my wife Norma. Bill took that scary sharp knife and began running it over the palm of his left hand. Every now and then stopping to "feel" the edge. Then start again, a slow, deliberate stropping process upon that weathered working man's palm of his. Maybe eight minutes in he said to me "feel this now Keating". Holy shit, it WAS sharper! That was amazing. Only a man who lived and breathed Bowie knives could or would do something like that. He then "touched up" the edge on my wife's Bagwell Bowie in the same manner. Let me tell you, that was authentic cool. As I sat there and watched Bill work I knew right then that I was a witness to a neat piece of modern Bowie knife history. The people in that room, the place itself, the magic of the desert night. Yep, I call that the Bowie knife done right!

What’s next in the pipeline for James Keating?



Next is to prepare for 2018 offerings of seminars & individual sessions I have booked. Plus I have three new Knives out for the 17-18 seasons as well. The first is the Comtech sub-hilt fighting knife. Next is the Spyderco Chinook four, a great folder in the Bowie tradition and then the Bowie knife's brother the toothpick project. I have a stunning Ozark Toothpick leading the charge for the 2018 lineup of professional grade fighting knives I offer through my collaboration with the brilliantly inspired knife maker Jeff Schafer. Together we are a driving force. Our magnificent and highly respected competitors should look out for us in the coming months.



More Youtube offerings are coming from myself as well. Some new DVDs are in the works. Something on Hubud Lubud shall be done. Many have requested that I do this. I refer to the Filipino energy drill (hubud) that so many in the blade community find valuable. Perhaps even another book after that. There also was a mention about some lucrative lethal force training being done contractually for reasons of national security as well. We shall for now eschew naming the alphabet agency in question until such a contract is formally signed. But as always in such instances I look forwards to meeting such a challenge with great anticipation. I am always honored to assist.

So thank you again Mark. Thank you readers for your understanding as well. Friendship like ours is power.

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