Originally introduced as far back as 1392 by the Chinese to the Okinawan Ryukyu Islands, Shorin-Ryu and many other forms of Karate were further developed and became widely popular as forms of self-defense for peasantry who were prohibited from owning swords and other military weapons (sound familiar?).

As one studies Karate (which essentially means “empty hands”) and progresses through the ranking system and belt structure, he or she is gradually introduced to the use of traditional weapons to enhance his or her fighting effectives over and above the use of hands and feet alone.

The “weapons” used in Karate, although relatively effective, are modified peasant farm implements. Therefore, those who became skilled in their use were not violating the laws that were in effect at the time, since weapons used in Karate were not military in nature. They were simply hand tools. One of the most well-known Karate weapons that century was the Tonfa, a granary tool consisting of a straight stick with a side handle. In the 1970s, the Monadnock Company further refined the Tonfa and introduced it to law enforcement officers as the PR-24 side handle baton. The PR-24 served officers on the street from the 1970s through the 1990s as a primary, less-lethal law enforcement tool.

Another defensive tool that appeared as a contemporary of the PR-24 was the Kubotan, a 5.5-inch cylindrical self-defense Lexan “stick” with the diameter of a marking pen. I carried the Kubotan on the street for several years in the 1980s and actually used it once to affect a control hold on a resistive arrestee’s wrist. As I controlled the suspect, who, although handcuffed, had been thrashing about and refusing to enter the cruiser, my sergeant told me that we weren’t authorized to use the Kubotan on the street. I asked if he wanted me to let the suspect go. He quickly replied “no,” and the suspect was transported to jail without further incident or injury.

Kubotans also became popular as civilian self-defense tools during the 1980s, although their actual effectiveness when wielded by someone with little or no experience was questionable. That leads me to our discussion of the tactical ink pen…

The tactical ink pen is essentially the Kubotan of the 21st Century. It is a “more-convenient-to-carry” form that is lower profile in appearance and multi-purpose. Because the tactical pen is also a working ink pen, it can do more than just take up pocket space while awaiting a “combat mission.” (The Kubotan normally ended up unused for defensive purposes and spent most of its time as a large keyring.)

With a smaller diameter than the Kubotan, the tactical pen is usually constructed from aircraft-grade aluminum rather than plastic, and most feature a pointed end that can be used for jabbing or applying pressure-point discomfort. The barrel portion can be used for control holds.

I recently received a first generation SWPENBK Smith & Wesson tactical pen at a conference I attended and decided to look it over. Constructed of T6061 aircraft aluminum and with a weight of 1.6 ounces, Smith & Wesson’s version of the tactical pen features a lifetime warranty against defects in construction. The main body of the pen is sharply fluted and would likely prove uncomfortable if locked across a wrist in a control hold. The fluted end comes to a narrow, rounded point, while the cap end is pretty much standard in appearance with a pocket clip for easy carry.

To access the ink pen, the cap needs to be unscrewed and separated from the main body. Doing so requires 2½ turns. While you’re writing, the cap can be placed on the pointed end of the pen to hold it (by friction fit). The actual ink pen is a Schmidt P900M Parker Style Black Ball Point Ink Cartridge, and replacements should be readily available when the ink runs out. Smith & Wesson now has an M&P version available that does not require unscrewing the cap to access the pen. It pulls off instead. I think I prefer the screw cap, as there is little chance of losing it when you need it most.

Like the original Okinawan Shorin-Ryu self-defense tools, a tactical ink pen is a last-ditch emergency defensive device—one to be carried in places where you aren’t permitted to carry a handgun or other defensive tool. In the case of the Smith & Wesson Tactical Pen, it is likely capable of delivering some very serious blows, possibly of the life-threatening variety if the strike is hard enough. If you found yourself the victim of a close range attack—one in which you were in danger of serious physical harm (including sexual assault)—and were justified in using your firearm but did not have it available, then the Smith & Wesson Tactical pen might be a good potential option for defending your life. Certainly it is better than your bare hands, but you must be willing to drive it into your attacker with everything you’ve got and understand that the injury to your attacker could be potentially lethal.

If you get a tactical pen and expect to use it as an emergency self-defense tool, you will need to carry it in a place where it is easily accessed. If you are having to walk through a parking garage at night, for example, it would be good to already have the pen in hand, holding it with your thumb over the endcap for added stability. Holding a tactical pen tightly in your fist also helps stabilize your fist when throwing a standard punch.

The Smith and Wesson Tactical pen can be carried discreetly in locales that frown upon knives or other defensive devices. While it may not call attention from the average person, DON’T try to carry it aboard a plane—check it in your baggage instead, as an alert TSA agent will consider it a weapon.

Available from Amazon.com for $22.97 as a “recreational and professional level use” product, the Smith & Wesson tactical pen, like others on the market, continues a unique martial arts tradition of modifying common, everyday items and implements for defensive use when nothing else is available.