Chambering By Victor Smith and Christopher Caile

If you are a karate student you probably chamber your non-striking hand. But why do you do this, and what is the position of the chambered hand? Also, why do different systems do things differently, and why isn’t chambering explained by instructors?There are many who disbelieve the worth of traditional technique, including chambering. For in many fighting arts and styles the non-striking hand is kept up to protect the head. Within their narrow vision of combat, their interpretation is quite correct.

In this historic photo Gichen Funakoshi, considered by many to be the father of Japanese karate, demonstrates how a chambering action by one arm pulls the opponent into his punch.

So in explaining chambering it should be noted that there are vast differences between fighting an opponent (practice fighting or in competition) and the use of karate as self-defense against a random attack. Also, there are vast differences between what is taught to beginners in terms of technique and its use, and more advanced understanding of technique and applications. Unfortunately the latter has been largely lost as karate has expanded and evolved world-wide. The result is that entire generations of students never learned, or looked to uncover, applications of chambering.

Why do students just accept chambering? In my mind, if you as a student do a technique and it isn’t effective, or the technique itself can’t be used in the way it is practiced, you should view the technique as wasted effort. My own assumption, however, is that there is a value to everything within the ‘traditional’ karate vocabulary, regardless of whether my instructor could or did tell, show or teach me. So let’s amble through the layers of what I see as the value or uses of chambering. But, first it should be noted that pulling back one arm into chamber as done in practice as well as kata only indicates the direction and method of an application. When actually performed as part of a technique the chambering arm may only pull back partially.

1. Against a sudden grab from the rear. Every kata technique where you move forward with one technique (including those where you move rearward) and chamber one hand is building an automatic response against a grab from the rear. The sharper you chamber, the sharper you strike back (a rear elbow can be combined with a rear leg foot stop to the attacker’s instep). Likewise double strikes become double rearward elbow strikes. They don’t necessarily finish an attacker, but they have the potential to create an opening for further response. The rear elbow attack is often a staple of many jujutsu and self-defense systems against a rear attack, or to create a momentary opening. Thus chambering should be re-examined by karate-ka for similar potential applications.

2. Against a sudden wrist grab from the front or the side. Traditionally the first self-defense technique taught by Isshinryu karate’s founder was to counter a wrist grab by sharply turning the arm over (against the thumb which is relatively weak) to release the attacker’s grip and then pulling the arm back into a chamber position. Here the defender add a powerful knife-hand strike to a pressure point on the attackers inner arm (very painful and can numb the arm) to assist in the release.

3. Destroying an attacker with one technique. Here, chambering often implies a technique using the retreating hand. This is a concept many have a real problem with today. It’s often corrupted to “one punch won’t stop a real attacker.” Of course they ignore the reality in boxing, where, on occasion, a fight is finished with just one punch to the jaw. So, one technique can stop a fight in the right circumstances.

Of course there is the issue of what is “one technique.” A piece of a movement, one movement or one series of movements all can fit that quantification. One’s intent should be to: (1) try and do it with one technique, yet (2) be instantly ready to go the distance if you’re less than perfect.

Here it should be noted that chambering is more than just retracting the hand. It’s retracting the hand while using correct body mechanics and then looking at the rest of the body’s technique. Thus, if you chamber one hand while punching with the other, chambering (pull back of one hand and shoulder) can add power into the punch. But the chambering movement also promises much more.

Hence if you grab somebody’s jacket collar, or wrist (of an opponent who has his arms raised in a fighting position, as shown in this illustration) and then sharply chamber that hand (pulling back) as you strike them with a reverse punch or backhand into the jaw/neck/side of the head, you first pull the person off balance, into your zone of attack, and use the grab as a force multiplier to the strike. Your opponent’s body isn’t free and can’t move away from the force of the punch, so more of the impact is imparted into his body, creating more shock.

This applied force multiplier has as much to do with chambering to create stronger strikes, as the reciprocal nature of the chambering motion. This force multiplier may not result in finishing an opponent with one technique, but it certainly goes a long way towards that goal.

4. Another view of chambering is in conjunction with a block and punch, something found in many Chinese arts as well as some older forms of Okinawan karate. (1) For example, in Northern Mantis (Tai Tong Long), Northern Eagle Claw (Faan Tzi Ying Jow Pai) and in the tuite (the art of grasping and grappling) taught in Okinawa by Hohan Soken(2) and others, their methods include simultaneous blocks, grabs and restraints. (3) For example, a block is often used to parry and set up a grab (immobilization or pulling-in) before a strike. The hand returning to chamber after a block simply slides down the arm to grab it and yank backwards, or locks an arm in place as seen in this illustration from the Bubishi. (4)

In another illustration the defender first traps the attacker’s punching arm between his own (the forward arm moving inward and the rear hand moving in and back toward a chamber position). This scissoring action can break or injure the attacker’s elbow. The defender then opens his forward hand to grip pressure points on the attacker’s bicep (seen from the opposite side) while also pulling that arm backward (toward chamber). The other hand attacks the aggressor’s eyes using a finger technique.

The difference between those arts and modern karate is that the manner in which they grab is more defined. Where in modern karate simply grabbing and pulling is used, many Chinese arts and Okinawan Tuite practices use more specific grabbing techniques (the fingers of the grabbing hand attacking pressure points to create pain as well as to create a stronger grip) to help maneuver or immobilize the opponent into a better lane or position for striking.

5. Based on the above Chinese and/or Okinawan tuite model, I believe that chambering in kata is used as a strength building tool. There are several forms of strength being used. First, there is strength from using the body in a more coordinated manner. A weight lifter needs correct technique to lift heavy weights as well as body power. Likewise precise kata practice enhances strength.

The second more hidden strength building technique is actually the way you tighten the hand as you chamber. This builds a stronger grip. This, it should be noted, is not simply pulling your hand back. If you ever had the chance to train with somebody doing Eagle Claw for many years, you discover the great hand strength they have in their locks (grips). Here a double hand Eagle Claw grip is shown. One of the primary training tools is actually the correct use of the hands in their complex forms. Correct use of chambering can strengthen the grip. (5)

In the same manner, those karate systems which include Kobodu (Okinawan weapons such as the sai, tonfa, bo and jo) have actually followed the Chinese model (likely unknowingly), as the practice of weapons actually is also an incredible grip development tool.

Of course there are other ways to enhance kata practice. Drills with partners, up to free sparring practices where grabbing and pulling while striking are permitted, do so too. The study of karate isn’t as simple as one tool; instead there’s an entire tool box involved.

This arm bar demonstrates how the rear arm can be used in a semi-chambered position.

In this historical photo the famous karate pioneer Choki Motobu attacks an opponent’s ribs with one arm while simultaneously pulling back on the attacker’s other arm.

6. Likewise, a great range of karate’s potential block, grab and chamber while striking moves don’t involve striking into the body. Instead the strikes can be shearing planes of force across the tricep’s insertion to become variations of arm bars, attacks to the ribs, or as shearing planes of force across the neck. Each of these examples strike with the forearm sliding across the target instead of the punch into the torso.

For example, the opponent might punch at you, and you as a defender might respond with a technique that redirects that force in such a way as to control the opponent and his attack. The result may be a projection technique or one where you control the arm (as in the arm bar illustration here) or head of the opponent.

This article represent only a small step into a very large body of material.

Many don’t see these things, or won’t address these possibilities. Perhaps, it’s simply that most students become comfortable in their own practice or beliefs. This makes things easy. You aren’t challenged and forced to stretch.

In my opinion, however, you can eventually see the Okinawn arts as a vast grappling system of study (where chambering points the way) if you choose to see what is actually there.


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