Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Martial Arts and Weapons

I mentioned in my last post that a lot of martial arts lately seem to be discarding or downplaying the study of weapons - owing, I think, mostly to the popularity of MMA. I also mentioned that I think this is, or at least can be, a serious mistake.

Admittedly, I'm biased. I love swords, spears, staves, knives, and all their manifold variations. I love them with the sort of deep, irrational interest that leads other people into truly inexplicable hobbies - like philately, say, or golf. But having said that, I still think there are good reasons to include weapons training in the study of traditional martial arts.

From a self-defense standpoint, any kind of weapon completely changes the nature of the game. Fighting unarmed, you can sometimes afford to take a hit in order to give a better one. If your opponent is armed with a knife, or swinging a stick at you, that simply isn't true. In fact, in a case like that your entire focus shifts to the weapon; getting control of the weapon is absolutely essential. (That assumes, of course, that you have no choice about fighting in the first place; getting away is really a much better option.) So if you're interested in martial arts for self defense - rather than, say, as a violent and competitive sort of exercise - ignoring melee and/or ranged combat is a pretty major oversight.

The obvious counterpoint is that nobody fights with swords or spears anymore. That's true, but that doesn't mean that the knowledge is obsolete. Techniques for the chinese straight sword transfer easily and immediately to a cane or anything similar; for something a bit heavier, you'll swing it around like a saber. Spear or staff techniques map fairly well for use with a broomstick or any reasonably sturdy pole that happens to be lying around. The tip-heavy, two handed cleaver (generally sold as a Dadao, if you want to google it) can be easily replaced with a baseball bat. The edge-awareness and general caution that comes from practicing with a blade is, in this context, basically just a bonus.

So that's one reason to retain weapons in your martial arts curriculum. There's also an exercise issue. One of the criticisms I've heard (generally from Mixed/Modern Martial Artists) is that the traditional arts don't put enough emphasis on conditioning. There's some truth to that accusation; I've certainly heard enough traditional schools claim that "you don't need to be in shape to study with us," or "it doesn't matter what shape you're in, our techniques will work," to become quite annoyed with those sorts of claims. Physical conditioning - and even more basic things like size, reach, and body mass - make a big, big difference in a fight. That's why combat sports (boxing, wrestling, MMA, etc.) invariably have weight classes. Yes, if someone is larger and stronger than you, you can still overcome those advantages if your technique is good enough; but that should never be taken to mean that those aren't advantages.

(Interestingly, this is much less true in any sort of armed combat. As I said, weapons are a game-changer. But I digress...)

Anyway, traditional martial arts really should involve a lot of physical conditioning - but frequently they don't, and often that seems to be because they're being taught incompletely. I can't speak for every style, obviously, but I have it on pretty good authority that the weapons forms are the loose equivalent of weightlifting in Tai Chi. From what I've seen, that appears to be the case in BaGua, also. I presume, admittedly from a small sample, that this a role that weapons commonly play in traditional training. So by leaving them out, you're potentially losing a lot of the physical conditioning that was originally part of your art.

Finally, of course, there's the inevitable Zombie Apocalypse to consider. While it's true that swords never run out of ammunition, that isn't the best reason to use one. Gunfire is noisy. Shooting a zombie invariably attracts more zombies. A quiet beheading offers you a far better chance to pass through the hordes unnoticed.

Well, okay, you can probably ignore that last bit. Probably. But I still think that a comprehensive study of the martial arts should include the study of weapons. (That actually includes guns, too, but guns are a subject for another post.)


  1. I'm afraid I would not be too graceful with any sort of sick like object and spinning it around. It would inadvertently whack me in the head or some other body part that is equally hurtful.

    Though you are on to something about the zombie thing. Guns are noisy and to be able to wield a stick properly would be most useful.

    Also I'm short. Really short, so I would never be evenly matched.

  2. You might be surprised - especially with some things like spear that use very little spinning, and much more Poking Things At A Distance.

    Mainly, though, if you're short enough that you'd never be evenly matched in hand-to-hand combat, then a weapon makes a big difference. My brother's wife is five foot nothing, and maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet in winter clothes; put her up against a guy who's six foot four and has arms like a gorilla, and she's overmatched. Give 'em both swords, though... all of a sudden, strength isn't so important - the amount of damage you can do with a blade, any blade, cancels most of that out. He'll still have an advantage in reach, but with the extra three feet of steel for each of them, the comparative difference is a lot smaller.

    And if you go to guns, of course, strength is completely unimportant and size can actually be a disadvantage: it makes you a bigger target. So at that point, it's pretty much all technique: who can hit the target?

    Though, again, from a strictly self-defense standpoint, avoidance is always the best strategy if it can be managed. If you absolutely have to fight, you want to set it up so that you have every possible advantage.

    And, of course, that's completely setting aside the emotional element: are you psychologically prepared to really hurt someone. That's a much bigger deal than most people would think - a much, much bigger deal than any action film would leave you to believe. So, obviously, you need to take this with a huge grain of salt, particularly in that regard.

  3. It's like I pointed out to a guy many years ago who was bragging that Bruce Lee was the World's Greatest Martial Artist: Lee may have been good/great/spectacular at unarmed or armed short-ranged combat, but put him up against someone reasonably competent with firearms (and who has enough patience and ammo), and it probably won't be Lee who'll walk away from that encounter at the end of the day. Like the old saying goes: "Ya don't bring a knife to a gunfight." (But, then again, having a "silent option" is a good thing to have when the situation calls for it...)


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