Martial arts weapons
The following are some of the numerous weapons used in martial arts. Most of the weapons are impractical or even useless in modern times but some have been adapted for limited practical use. Martial arts weapons training is mostly used to add variety to training and to pass on traditional martial art skills.
When asked to name a martial arts weapon, most people will probably mention the nunchaku, but the second choice will probably be the samurai sword, the katana. It has been glorified in movies and television shows. The katana is woven through the entire tapestry of Japanese culture. Samurai swords were made by honored craftsmen and were revered by the owners. Drawn in a "sky-to-ground" manner, it was worn in the belt on the left side, edge upward. Employed on foot or horseback as a thrusting weapon the katana was used in battle, competition, and ritual deaths. In addition to the long sword, the samurai would frequently carry a shorter blade, the shuto, and a short knife, the tanto. Samurai swords were the ultimate weapon of their time, but they have no use as a present-day self-defense weapon.
Wooden swords, called bokken, were used by warriors so they could practice sword fighting in relative safety. Bokken are made from hardwood, usually red oak. Although originally used as a practice weapon, the bokken gradually became a weapon itself. Where the sword is used for cutting bones, the bokken is used to smash them.
The shinai is the sword used in the art of Japanese fencing, kendo. Kendo is a full-contact art practiced in the dynamic atmosphere of a real sword fight. Flexible slotted bamboo swords, called shinai, are used along with protective equipment to allow realistic cut techniques to be delivered with full-contact.
The kama was originally a short sickle used for cutting rice, grasses, or other grain crops. It consists of a wooden shaft with a metal blade set at the top and extending out to the side. The bottom edge of the blade is sharp while the top edge is blunt. Kamas are usually used in pairs with the lanyards around the wrist so the kama may be twirled. Because of the danger of the sharp blades, practice kama for beginning students are usually made of wood, including the blade.
A redesign of the weapon, which is called natagama, is stronger in its construction because the blade runs through past the curve of the normal kama and down through the handle. This makes the cutting edge bigger, and the previous weak point where the sickle was attached to the handle was eliminated.
The kama is used with more sweeping motions than other weapons, so it is a close-range weapon. These sweeping motions include hooking, hacking, and chopping. The blade adds an extra deadly feature to this weapon since the user may block an attack with the wooden shaft, and then pull the sharp blade across the attacker’s arm or leg. While one kama is being used for blocking, the other kama could be used for slashing at the opponent. Also, both kama can be swung simultaneously, creating a sort of propeller effect.
The kusarigama is like the kama, except it has a chain with a weight on the end. The chain is used to block or to trap a weapon or arm. The weight can be spun and used to strike an opponent.
The manrikakusari is a chain with small weights at each end that is whirled and whipped to distract, ensnare, immobilize, or eliminate an opponent. They are particularly effective at trapping feet when thrown at the ankles. Carried with one end extending down inside the pants leg and the other end hanging over the belt, the exposed end could be grabbed, and the entire chain whipped out in an instant.
The nunchaku is composed of two rods that are attached at one end with a short cord. Few weapons have been so associated with the martial arts than the nunchaku, westernized as nunchucks, or simply chucks. They were first popularized in the west by Bruce Lee in his widely popular 1973 movie, Enter the Dragon.
Nunchaku originated in Okinawa. Some believe it was used by farmers to harvest rice. A farmer would be in his boat and swing the nunchaku in a long arcing motion to gather as much rice as possible. Grabbing the nunchaku on its return, the farmer would pull into the boat all the material that was encircled by the nunchaku. A second theory says that the nunchaku was derived from the Chinese three sectional staff. This weapon proved too large for easy concealment by the Okinawans, so they modified it, downsized it, and eliminated one section of the staff. Another theory has it being used as a horse bit (the original cord was made from woven horsehair).
Some versions have two rods of equal length, some had one rod longer than the other where the long rod was held with both hands so the small rod could be used to strike powerfully against a shield. The long rod prevented the short rod from bouncing back against the user.
The Chinese had similar weapons, the shuangchinkun, which had two rods connected with metal fitting, and the sanchinkun, the three-sectioned staff with three equal-length sections. A variation of this weapon has a middle normal stick long section with shorter sections at each end to make it harder for the opponent to block an attack and easier to loop another weapon or attack. Another variation is made of four sections: a long section and a short section connected with a rope or chain to a short section and a long section.
Since they must withstand powerful strikes, most nunchaku are made from oak, although ebony and ironwood are used because of their heavier weight. The connecting cord is usually made of silk or nylon, but a chain is also used.
The proper length of each stick should normally be equal to the distance from the middle of the hand to the elbow so a stick may be held with the length along the forearm as protection for blocking.
A hard-plastic version of the nunchaku made by Monadnock and Orcutt has been used by some law enforcement agencies. Some law enforcement agencies experimented with it during the 1970s but abandoned it. They found that officers needed extensive training to be effective with it, there were too many training injuries, it was cumbersome to carry, and the public perception was that it was a weapon designed to beat down suspects. Some law enforcement agencies still use the nunchaku, such as taught by Orcutt Police Defensive Systems.
Legality in the United States varies at the state level. As elsewhere, the popularity of Bruce Lee movies in the 1970s led to a wave of nunchaku bans. Many states prohibit carrying nunchaku in public as a concealed weapon, but a small number restrict or completely ban ownership. California has made exceptions for professional martial arts schools and practitioners to use the nunchaku.
Many states, particularly California, specifically list the nunchaku as a deadly weapon that cannot be carried in public. Arizona had considered nunchaku to be a "prohibited weapon" since the 1970s but it was legalized in 2019. New York had banned all possession of nunchaku for many years, but this was ruled unconstitutional in 2018.
Since they are large and awkward to carry, they are not as effective as a present-day self-defense weapon. Also, if used, even in a self-defense situation, you will probably be viewed as the aggressor.
Nunchakus are glamorized by twirling and striking; a swinging nunchaku can reach over 85 miles per hour. But nunchaku may also be used as an effective defensive and control tool. Defensive techniques include using the shafts of the held together as an augmented block along the forearm, using the rope or chain to catch and control strikes and grabs, and using both shafts separated as a cross block technique for overhead and low strikes. The nunchaku may be used to bind an opponent's head and hands together in an "Okinawan Handcuff." It can also be used in a punching or clubbing motion to imitate most hand strikes.
The sai (pronounced "sigh") looks like a miniature trident. It consists of a metal shaft 18 to 21½ inches in length with a wrapped handle. At the bottom of the handle is a butt knob that may have various shapes. One-third of the way up from the butt are two prongs that protrude upward, acting as a handguard. The shaft tapers slightly toward the tip. Original sai had a sharpened point on the main shaft. The blade above the prongs is either an octagon shape or round. Original sai had a sharpened point on the main shaft. The round blade resists chipping better than the octagon one but the octagon blade does more damage on impact because the striking area is more concentrated. Modern sai are normally chrome plated.
Sai are made from metal that is chromium-plated or black anodized. In demonstrations, sai with chrome plating and a hexagonal shape reflect more light making the demonstration flashier.
Like all the traditional Okinawan weapons, the exact origin of the sai is not known. A few theories exist though. One theory is that the sai was derived from a farm tool, the short handles were held, and the main prong was pulled through the dirt to form a small trench for planting seeds.
A second theory suggests that the sai was always a weapon and that it made its way into Ryukyuan history by following the path of Buddhism, migrating from India to China to Okinawan. This theory suggests that the shape of the sai was designed in the image of the human body of the monks who carried them for protection. The rationale for this theory is that there is little iron on Okinawa that would be needed to make the sai.
Another more modern theory is that the sai originated with the Okinawan police force who carried them as their personal "side-arm" to control crowds and apprehend criminals. This story gains credibility because one of Okinawa's leading sai practitioners was Kanagushiku (Kinjo) Ufuchiku, a highly regarded police captain who lived from 1841-1926. However, if the sai was a required weapon for the police there should be some evidence in recorded laws or regulations, but there does not seem to be written evidence.
Rapid rotation baton
The old becomes new again. Much like the sai, the rapid rotation baton has two side handles that permit rapid and fluid grip changes. The batons are supposedly more effective as an extreme close-quarter baton against grips, grabs, body holds, and ground defense than previous batons. The baton is supposedly better for use in community policing, due to its non-threatening carry position.
The jutte is a form of sai with one short prong instead of two long ones. It was used by the Japanese police to defend against swords and knives; the short prong was used to snare, trap, or break the blade.
A shuriken (pronounced "sure-ee-ken") is a sharpened star or rod-shaped, multi-pointed, throwing weapon made from various metals. They come in many shapes and sizes. It was mainly used as a harassing, nuisance weapon that was thrown at the opponent to give the warrior time to draw his sword.
When using the shuriken, some warriors carried it in the palm so that it was hidden from the opponent's view. Some carried a small stack of them so that when thrown they would spread out in an array.
A staff, or bo, is basically just a long wooden pole. The staff was adapted from the tenbin, a stick held across the shoulders, usually with buckets hanging from each end that were used to carry things. When attacked, the defender could easily slip the buckets off each end and have a very handy weapon. Staffs would also be used as a walking implement. But when attacked, what seemed a harmless tool became a deadly weapon.
Staffs are mostly made from hardwood, usually oak because of its natural weight, strength, durability, and resistance to splitting. The ends of staffs are usually tapered to make them lighter and to consolidate their mass near their center so they will be lighter and easier to handle. The tapering also reduces rigidity to reduce breakage and to permit power, whipping attacks. Also, sharper ends make jabs more painful to the opponent. Some staffs have a square, hexagonal, or octagonal shape since the edges will cause more damage during strikes.
Staffs come in three basic lengths:
- Bo: 5 feet 11 1/2 inches long and 1 1/16 inches in diameter
- Jo: 4 feet 2 3/16 inches long and 7/8 inch in diameter
- Hanbo: 2 feet 11 3/4 inches long and 7/8 inch in diameter
The bo staff, because of its length, was not a weapon for close-in fighting. Rather it was used to defend one's self from outside the opponent's attack zone. It is also most useful in relatively open spaces and is best used when both hands manipulate its use.
Striking techniques include switching the weapon from side-to-side while switching the places of the lead end of the staff. The quicker this switch is made, the greater the potential energy of the strike. The user may also twirl the bo either overhead, or in front, confusing any attacker. The attacker never knows exactly where the strike is coming.
Like the nunchaku, tonfa were improvised weapons adapted from farm tools. The tonfa originated in Okinawa as a millstone handle. The tonfa is like a baton with a side handle. The tonfa's circular movements as a farm implement evolved into its rotating strikes as a weapon. The sides of the tonfa are used for blocking and striking, and the ends are used for thrusts and strikes. By spinning the tonfa around the short handle, tremendous striking force may be generated. By using the long portion in conjunction with the short handle, the tonfa may be used for numerous come-a-longs and arm locks.
Because they are so versatile and are not viewed by the public as excessive force, many law enforcement agencies use a version of the tonfa called the PR-24, previously called a Prosecutor, made by Monadnock. The Prosecutor name was dropped due to its negative connotations. It is interesting to note that Monadnock states that the PR-24 is a uniquely designed weapon that is in no way related to the tonfa. When used for law enforcement, only one is used rather than the traditional pair.
The balisong, or "butterfly knife, is a type of switchblade knife from the Philippines. The blade is carried enclosed between the two halves of the handle. By twisting and flicking the wrist, the two halves of the handle separate, the blade is brought outside the handle, and the two halves are brought back together forming a grip for the blade.
It can be dangerous when used by a person skilled in its use, but it not effective as a fighting knife: it has no hilt, the joint is weak, it is single edged (some are double edged), the handles too long so end of handles that protrude from fist may be grabbed (although the protruding end may be used as a weapon), it requires skill to operate, it has a drop point blade, the handle is too smooth and small for a good grip, and there is no way to know which way a single edge blade is facing by using feel of the grip (although, on your weapon, if you know which way the blade faces in respect to the handle, you can know which way the edge is facing).
The balisong is easily recognized by many and is easily hidden. It can be palmed very easily and quickly snapped open. It is flashy by appearance, and its flashy opening acts as a warning. The open and close routine sounds dangerous and makes the user look competent. With one balisong in each hand, and with alternating open and close routines, your opponent does not know which hand has the blade at any point in time.