In 1984 Jim Wagner read the book The War Against Terrorists by Gayle Rivers. The beginning of the 1980s saw increased terrorist attacks globally, and American targets were no exceptions: the U.S. Air Force Base bombing at Ramstein, West Germany on August 31, 1981, three American nuns were murdered outside San Salvador, El Salvador by a right-wing death squad on December 4, 1981, a U.S. citizen was seized by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and held for ransom on April 8, 1983, the bombing of U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon on April 18, 1983, the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut on October 23, 1983, a U.S. Navy officer was shot by the November 17 terrorist group in Athens, Greece on November 15, 1983, and the list goes on. The book inspired Jim to start studying case studies on terrorism, which in turn led Jim to read books on counter-terrorism tactics and SWAT structure and techniques. Since the first SWAT team was development in 1967, by the then-inspector Daryl Gates of the Los Angeles Police Department, there were not a whole lot of open source books on the market at the time, and the Internet would not become public for another ten years later. Jim Wagner was only 22 years old at the time.
By 1985 Jim Wagner had a handful of students he was giving private lessons to while earning a living as an Art Director for an advertising agency called Advertising Design Centre. He was also attending Orange Coast College in the city of Costa Mesa. Jim blending what he had previously learned in karate, judo, kung-fu, Jeet Kune Do, Wing Chun, Filipino Kali and experimented with the modern tactics he had learned in the U.S. Army and called it Wagner’s Modern Fighting Methods. He even designed his own logo that depicted an M-16 rifle and a shuriken within an outline of a shield. A shuriken (Japanese for "sword hidden in the hand") is a traditional concealed weapon shaped like a star with sharp points, and are sometimes called throwing stars.
Jim Wagner had the opportunity to use his martial arts skills on “the big screen” by appearing in the 1985 film Fury to Freedom. The movie is based on the true life story of Raul Ries; a very angry martial artist, Vietnam veteran, who was about to murder his own family but then suddenly gives his heart over to God becoming a pastor and preaching the Gospel to those he had wronged. Jim Wagner plays the role of a 1970s gang member who has a fight scene with the lead actor of the film. The film, directed by Erik Jacobson, is still in circulation today.
On September 3, 1986 Jim placed a display advertisement in his college newspaper, called the Coast Report, to attract new students to his new system. He decided not to place the Modern Fighting Methods logo in the ad knowing the college newspaper would probably deem the ad too violent and not print it. For this ad he decided not to go with a logo, and the advertisement appeared on page 4 of the paper.
A few months later Jim designed another logo that would represent his system calling it the “strong arm holding a scimitar sword.” The sword represented all weapons, both ancient and modern. The severed arm represented the war arts (martial arts) of the Western World and the Southwest Asia sword represented the war arts of the East. Jim believed that the two worlds had to be infused together in order to have the best of both worlds.
Jim Wagner spent a fare number of hours practicing his marksmanship skills with his AR-15 assault rifle at the Jamboree Shooting Range in Irvine, California. At the end of the year he placed another 3” x 5” display advertisement in the Orange Coast College newspaper again, only this time he had moved and he had his contact information listing the new city he had moved to. The headline of the ad read, SPECIAL WEAPONS TRAINING COURSE. The text read, This is a private hands-on course designed to familiarize the average person with modern weapons, skills and tactics for the purpose of self-defense. Training includes knife fighting, Filipino stick fighting, handgun, automatic assault rifle, modern strategies. $150.00 for 12 sessions. Jim realized that both the traditional martial arts, and even the revolutionary martial arts of Jeet Kune Do, were not just deficient in teaching a blend of modern weapons and hand-to-hand combat, but completely void of such a mixture; not to mention no viable scenario training.
The Orange Police Department was alarmed by Jim Wagner’s advertisement, and for good reason. It was an advertisement one might expect to see in Soldier of Fortune magazine, but not in an urban newspaper. The female police investigator who contacted Jim by phone warned him not to teach any firearms training. Jim heeded the advice and toned down his next advertisement. He eliminated any reference to firearms, and the police never called him again. He put his ideas about teaching firearms on hold, but followed through with other innovative techniques and training methods.
Rich, one of Jim’s students who had responded to the ad campaign meeting in Hart Park to train regularly, invited Jim to go to a climbing and rappelling course with him up in the canyons in Los Angeles. Jim accepted and got hooked on the sport. His first rappel was off the side of a cliff 60 feet high.
After some more rope training the new interest led Jim in joining the Saddleback Search & Rescue Team in Orange County. This was a group of volunteer rescue workers who would respond to emergencies if called upon by law enforcement or fire agencies needing additional help. During the several months Jim was on the team he trained with various police search & rescue teams, and he entertained the idea of perhaps a career in law enforcement. However, it would be two more years until he followed through. Jim also attended a SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) course put on by U.S. Navy instructors. This is the same course taught to downed pilots behind enemy lines. In this course Jim learned how to live off of the land. Unfortunately, the Saddleback Search & Rescue Team was disbanded due to jurisdictional conflicts and a shrinking wilderness in the OC.
Rich also invited Jim Wagner to be a guest instructor at Lou Michaelson’s garage converted into a Shotokan dojo in Huntington Beach. Lou was a professor at Golden West College who ran a Shotokan class on campus. Although he had plenty of students at the college Lou taught a few nights a week out of his own garage where there were fewer restrictions, the college prohibited sparring, and where he could make a little extra money on the side. On any given night he 15 students, and he boasted 100 students in total. Jim accepted his student’s invitation and taught a one hour course on Filipino Kali techniques and drills. The students love it, and had never seen anything. Filipino Kali and Jeet Kune Do were just starting to become popular throughout the United States at this time.
One of Lou’s new black belts, Mike DiGiovanni, 49 years old, came up to Jim and said, “I want to learn some more of that stuff.”
Jim responded, “I’ll tell you what. I’m making a video, and if you help me with it I will train you.” Mike agreed and they began working on Jim Wagner’s first video titled Women Against Rape. They also started training together at Hart Park.
While looking around for women to be in Jim’s video Mike suggested that he consider Becky Bruckner who was also a student of Lou Michaelson; a green belt. Jim agreed and she to became a devoted student of Jim’s new mix of martial arts.
After a few weeks Mike went to Lou and convinced him that he should allow Jim to teach a Filipino Kali class on a regular basis. Lou agreed because he didn’t offer any weapons training, and Jim’s one hour lesson had been well accepted. Jim started teaching in Lou’s garage once a week every Tuesday night.
After a few months Jim started throwing in some empty hand training into the lessons introducing Lou’s students to Jeet Kune Do and Wing Chun. Lou accepted it at first, but three weeks later told Jim that he would prefer that Jim stick with teaching weapons only. This “restriction” actually motivated Jim to expand the weapons program.
Using Mike and Becky as his experimental subjects Jim taught his two “disciples” Roman spear throwing and blocking drills, medieval sword fighting, and lots of Filipino Kali on a field at Orange High School. Just behind Hart Park, Jim’s old stomping grounds, he took advantage of the archery targets on a sliver of land that butted up to the freeway and they let the arrows fly. In Mike’s backyard they would often throw Shurikens at a thick wooden pine board cut to the height of a man. The thrower throws several at a time trying to make all of them stick. However, after some time perfecting all of these ancient weapons Jim decided that the real future for the martial arts was in modern weapons and modern situations. He decided to get back to serious training in firearms, knife attacks, and modern impact weapons like he had been doing the previous year with his smaller group.
Jim started introducing paint guns into the Tuesday night training. He started by teaching his students basic marksmanship and then guided them into pistol tactics. In early 1988 Jim was setting up boxes and hanging black plastic tarps from the ceiling in Lou’s garage to create his own “shoot houses.”
In an interview with Mike DiGiovanni, 69, on August 22, 2008 Mike said, “We were doing back then in 1987 and 88 what we now call Reality-Based. We were learning to do room clearing with paint guns. We stacked up boxes and learned about cover and concealment, how to keep a low profile in crowds to avoid fights, and we did airplane hijacking stuff long before it became popular. We set up Lou’s place in an airplane configuration, learned how to fight with rolled up magazines as improvised weapons, fight in aisles, and the likes. Jim was toying around with a lot of ideas at the time, which nobody else was doing in the martial arts then. Today everybody is doing what Jim started. It’s a lot easier to build on something that has already been started than to break new ground.”
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