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Weapon Ambidexterity: Vikings, Bushwhackers, & Necessity by Mark Hatmaker

In the empty-hand realm of combat true ambidexterity is a rare bird. Marvelous Marvin Hagler took great pains to develop facility both as an orthodox fighter and as a southpaw, but we could easily see where he stacked his chips when the heat was high. 

Seeking ambidexterity is a worthy goal, but one that has opportunity-costs. That is, the time put into developing the off-hand [off-foot for kicking, or off-side for grappling] means that is time we no longer have for moving the competency needle further towards mastery on our “good” side.

We should always make that opportunity cost/cost-to-benefit analysis in our training as there are only so many hours in the day, and precious few per week dedicated to training itself. With actual training time at a premium do we want so-so returns or better-than-average?

This is not an argument against empty-hand ambidexterity, not at all, just one of time-utility and, well, a jaded eye towards reality.

If we are to make the empty hand attempt, it might be wise to also attack the ambidextrous in the non-training realm as well. 

Practice even at the things which you despair of accomplishing. For even the left hand, which is ineffectual for all other things for want of practice, holds the bridle more vigorously than the right hand; for it has been practiced in this.”-Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations Book XII, 6

The Emperor is referring to building up qualities we despair of attaining, courage coolness under pressure, but his example does indeed show the way.

Brushing the teeth with the off-hand, feeding yourself with the off-hand, tying the shoes with the off-hand etc. can make in-roads into bringing the off-hand online, but…specificity of task being specificity of task this is zero guarantee that a facile off-hand tooth-scrubbing turns into a lighting fast laser-pinpointed off-hand jab.

Not to worry though, ambidexterity in the empty-hand game may be of little value in the long-run. Most sportive encounters no-longer see injuries where a switch must be made. Most street encounters are of such short durations that “equal” facility does not pay dividends.

Where a bit of ambidexterity may play a part is in the realm of weapons.

Weapons implies higher stakes, higher rates of injury and more dire injuries at that. Injuries that at the very least can put the “good hand” out of play.

But even here, opportunity costs must be obeyed. True ambidextrous facility may not hit 100%, but rather than despair that we might wisely shift our goal from being ambidextrous to being “shifty.”

Here, being shifty does not refer to being unscrupulous in character but having just enough facility with the off-hand that your off-side is not so much an ace in the hole, but at least a face card.

Let’s talk Vikings for a moment.

In the Sagas which, admittedly are legend, but in many cases, legend steeped in actuality, we occasionally come across references to a warrior being “cunning.” To be “cunning” in these old translations is not our current incarnation of the word which is something akin to wickedly ingenious. 

The early use of cunning refers to the ability to switch-hands with a weapon. A sword or battle axe or spear that is wielded with facility in either hand.

You will occasionally find this “cunning” trait in the Sagas referred to as “shifty” literally the ability to “shift hands” in battle. Shifty gradually mutated to meaning “resourceful, or full of maneuvers” and how it finally wound up with the disreputable meaning today is another story. Some folks considered it not quite “fair play” to be facile and shifty and able to swap hands with a weapon. [Sounds like sour grapes to me.]

There are numerous references in the Sagas to cunning and shifty fighters. Feats of sword and axe juggling demonstrated in leisure hours which seemed to be a part of gaining this facility/ability for either-handedness.

There are also numerous [oh, my Lord, I do mean numerous] mentions of warriors losing limbs in battle. Being able to “shift” is a necessity when the good hand is laying in the gore begrimed mud of battle.

There are other warrior cultures that placed a premium on two-handed facility but let’s place a spotlight on just one more.

The Bushwhackers of Missouri in the Civil War era [and Post-War for those who kept up the wilding ways on the outlaw trail.] 

The Missouri Bushwhackers were guerillas to some, heroes to some, violent villains to many [and the truth is an “All of the above” answer here.] 

But what was agreed on was their fierce fighting ability. One aspect of it was going into battle with more than a few pistols strapped to the body. A minimum of two, in some cases as many as five.

These Missourians were known for the ability to fire quickly and well from horseback [a none too easy feat—try hitting a moving target with a handgun from atop a moving perch while in the heat of battle.]

Many possessed facility firing with both hands alternately but…to keep us in the corral of being “shifty” many adopted a maneuver that become known as the Border Shift.

Let’s break this Border Shift down…

·        Draw both pistols, holding the reins at the same time with your teeth or off-hand.

·        Fire and empty the pistol in the strong hand.

·        Toss it for a single backward somersault in the air…

·        Toss the off-hand pistol to the strong hand.

·        Catch the somersaulting firearm and…

·        Fire the newly arrived strong-hand weapon.

Contemporary accounts say the manner was accomplished so fast you could not hear the break between the firing of two pistols.

[For the Record—I have practiced the Border Shit for just over three months. Mighty satisfying when it comes off right.]

To round this musing back to the present, it might be wise to look to the Vikings and Bushwhackers and consider that where weapons are concerned there is likely a high probability of debilitating injury. And with that in mind, like the Vikings and Bushwhackers it might be wise to devote a bit of time to being shifty, to being a bit cunning.

If never wholly ambidextrous we at least weight the game a bit more in our favor using real-world models as our “resourceful and full of maneuvers” template.

[With an eye on “shiftiness” RAW 198 features a tomahawk drill called “The Battle-Axe Dance.”]


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