The Staff: A Remarkable Weapon

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The Staff

The Staff is a simple, but remarkable weapon.

From humble beginnings the staff has aided mankind throughout history. In many countries, stories have been interwoven into their cultures, handed down over centuries through folklore and tales of triumphant warriors and their mighty champion, the staff. Folklore and tales were first painted on walls and carvings. These stories of adventure were then printed in books and now can be seen on the silver screen.

Modern mankind has seen the staff in action, but mostly as a medium range weapon. The reason why so many movies and books add in medium range techniques is that…the actors or characters were able to have dialogue. (Two men fighting it out, strikes are going back and forth while they lunge at each other hitting their staves together. Muscles flexed and sweat pouring down their bodies these combatants have a pushing contest with words and accusations flying back and forth to keep the audience at the edge of the seat.).

When viewing movies from the west, notice the staff being used more as a medium range weapon, while movies and entertainment from Eastern cultures have a tendency to use staves as long-range weapons. Many ask…which styles and forms offer the most knowledge? What techniques are most effective?

Throughout the martial arts community there are many techniques, styles and forms to train in and master. There are 1000’s of techniques, which are theorized in text, picture and video. Theory is usually executed at one-third speed, which allows students to grasp concepts more clearly Traditional, eclectic, artistic, correct or realistic, all ask the age-old question. Who is better? What style is stronger? Which techniques are faster? Will a 6-foot bo overtake a 4 and a half foot jo?

Debate continues about what style is better. We all know that practical application of proper techniques will cause pain and injury. With video and print we can only speculate about who the hero is and what style works best. In the real world of sparring there has never been a safe, practical and speedy application of technique that could be practiced without the possibility of errors, resulting in weeks or even months of painful recuperation without training.

Moreover, the law condemns metal and wood full contact sparring. Individuals spend time fighting in the legal and court systems instead of other martial artists. That is why many forms have been watered down to protect the non-focused. Forms and sets are slowed down to third speed, sets using light toothpick fiberglass staves, which look fantastic while cutting through the air at amazing speed.

The techniques incorporated into the staff are diminished when speed is increased. When speed is increased the physics of the staff changes, causing many theorized techniques to become complex and applied incorrectly resulting in injury. Which sometimes is not a good thing for a dojo or martial artist. This is one reason why martial arts schools wait until their students are at a proficient belt level to understand the word focus.

Most martial artists and combatants begin training in open hand technique, quickly learning how to block effectively with their hands, limbs and arms. Although, try to block a staff whizzing down on your head, and the possibilities of body trauma, injuries increase. That is why; combatants must expel 30 to 50% more energy to effectively redirect any weaponry.

Telegraphing also has to be considered in full-contact sparring with the staff. In most cases the combatant gives away his position and attack plan when he telegraphs. Mainly because, the initial thrust or motion was not done with conviction hindering the execution into two or three separate movements, instead of a smooth gliding strike. Another issue is how to breathe correctly to avoid fatigue. When sparring at full speed plan to double or triple your kai (yell, scream, shout of encouragement). Remember, the first thing to give out are your lungs and then fatigue sets in.
A long-range weapon used as a medium range weapon becomes bulky and a hindrance. Speed and range are compromised. Two combatants with 6-foot staves; one used as a medium range weapon, the other used as a long-range weapon. The survival rate is at the advantage of the combatant with the long-range weapon. The advantage is more options to attack and defend.

Attack with straight thrusts and strikes to the chest, head, neck and limbs. Fast, simple and safe striking zones conserve energy and are a difficult combination to defeat. Although, If a 6-foot staff is manipulated as medium range weapon. There is less deflection and more blocking. A block is absorbed through the staff and vibrates causing physical loss in nerve and dexterity while the body takes the full brunt of the strike force. (Yes, It hurts).

Add full-contact weaponry to the formula and safely discover what works best. Go in for the point, shot, kill… depending on the ferocity of your martial art or sport. Enter the zone at full speed. Thrust, block, attack, retreat, block parry and fight you’re hardest in the Ultimate Physical Game of Chess.

Staves used in the act of defense, war and peace have been in use for thousands of years. During that time many a warrior has been put to death and difficulty with simple errors and mistakes made when the block, parry or strike was made with poor rhythm and timing.

Through history there has been many a warrior who became heroes and socially elevated through beating off the attacking hoards. Through these champions and their teachings. Many strategies have been documented and practiced. Today, we have more written words and text on the staff than staff practitioners.

In this space age world of peace and instant knowledge and gratification and civil laws where a fight to the death or massive injury results in years of incarceration. Especially in developed countries where laws and society force the martial artist to water down techniques, while teaching at a slower one-third theory speed.

This is all well and good, but in the heat of battle would your staff and technique put you on the casualty list?

And this is why…….
When the modern warrior/ combatant/ martial artist practices the staff. He is more likely to elect to fight with techniques viewed on a VHS tape or a book which have trouble showing true movement, eliminating the “spirit of the thing”.

The full-speed physics of a staff are theorized and toned or slowed down technique to explain away all the minute details written down for the non-focused to ponder, but not practice. Many cannot see or even comprehend the forest from the trees.

Moreover, many Americans and American instructors elect to sound like a geometry professor to explain how knowledgeable they are and to keep the student at bay verbally. This eliminates many important aspects of combat and while others are neglected. A student will regard a staff as a mystery weapon and not be able to fully and completely comprehend the physics of fighting. Giving these students false confidence and slower reaction time. Result; another one bites the dust!!

Go back to the basics where full-contact sparring offers the combatant a very realistic approach to the staff. Instead of going over dozens, if not hundreds of techniques and striking areas one must consider.

These few simple areas which were first written into blocks to allow guidelines for military personnel to effectively fight in battle. As in Japan as with the rest of the martial arts world. Many books written on the staff and weaponry were re-written and revised with minute/ detailed techniques and strikes [perfected during peace time.

These authors/ scholars spent more time in books, quotes than out there in the proving ground of battle field.

Back to the basics…
There are a few things to consider with the main point. How does one hold a staff. Is it used as a middle range weapon which is seen throughout the martial arts community. Or is it used as a long range weapon seen throughout military history. (In Japan a bo is a spear with the tip broken off!!).

Americans are big on explanation and want a lifetime of knowledge in a video of short book. In actuality to gain proficiency using a staff, hard-core practice is a must. Besides most hard-core fighters and martial art masters who go the distance snicker at martial artists who are referred to as posers and would rather talk about how to strike and fight instead of just doing it.

Things to consider if you were in the middle of the African savannah with a hungry lion sizing you up for his next meal and all you had was a staff. How would you defend against the lion’s fierce attack? Would you put both hands towards the middle of the staff as a medium range weapon and attack his legs, groin, chest, and head as he is coming down on you at full speed. Or would you place the staff to your side with hands towards the end using it as a long-range weapon, which promotes added defensive/ offensive protection and leverage. Put this in your mind.

Which way will allow you to effectively save you from the lion’s mouth? Then consider a 185 pound human with a staff or other weapon which is much more dangerous since a human can think, make decisions and use technique. In the heat of battle, does one do simple or difficult technique when striking the various areas?

Let’s consider this.
A simple weapon should use simple and strong basic technique and striking areas. Note the following basic striking areas. Head, Torso, legs, arms.
Strikes should all be practiced with sped, rhythm, timing and power. There are hundreds of striking patterns. Although, the first 2 strikes should be the overhead strike and thrust. An overhead strike does not mean that the staff should rise 6-feet above ones head. It means that the overhead strike has enough area/ space to effectively come down on the opponent with severity and no telegraphing. The over head strike can come from about 1 to 3 feet above the opponent to allow the 3 basic striking positions12 to 6, 1 to 7 and 11 to 5 as in a clock. 12 to 6 is 12:00 O’clock to 6:oo O’clock vertical strike. Where as the 1 to 7 and the 11 to 5 diagonal strikes come in at angles, which can be adjusted, to the head, shoulders, arms, torso, legs, etc.

Thrust is also a very important aspect since the opponent might have good blocking and evading technique. Even though in modern America thrusting is mostly seen in kata. In real life a thrust does not telegraph and can enter the opponents circle of influence.

· Note: If you must strike the person twice, re-evaluate your technique and practice until one strike can bring the opponent into submission.

Moreover, if one stays with a basic 12 to 6 thrust and strike pattern the recovery from mistakes, miss judgments and errors are lessened and defensive follow through with offensive attacks keep the opponent at bay.

Telegraphing is very important issue which stops most practitioners in their steps. Because a straight live down on the chest, head, arm, etc. takes up less time/ space, telegraphing and energy. Compared to a staff that is being wielded in long range turns and circles. For years all societies say, Don’t beat around the bush, just go through it.” This is applied to staves too. If you will not be able to block re-direct and be put into difficulty.

Moreover, blocking with your staff with a blow screaming down on your head, etc. is very difficult on the body, joints, hands, muscles, etc. If you are in a big truck and hit by a smaller vehicle. You might not die in the crash, but you will get banged up. And that takes away from the combatant who might have to continue the fight, since there might be more then one opponent in the dojo or the battlefield.

Striking areas used in a sucker punch or atouchi can be throughout the body. Especially, when one attacks another with the spirit of the thing. Of course, many techniques can be successfully employed especially strikes which move in an upward or sideways motion, (5 to 11 or 7 to 11 or 9 to 3). These are called fee good shots or strikes which work very well. Although, try to incorporate these techniques to a seasoned staff combatant or practitioner and 80 to 90 percent of these strike area become too difficult to attack and then retreat without getting hit. In the spirit of the thing”, between two combatants…he loses, you lose or you both lose. Since striking patterns from the bottom to top or south to North or 7 to 1 open up big unprotected areas in your defensive counterattack and put you into harms way by holes in your defenses.

This way of thought might insult or offend some martial artists, in some cases and when I was first taught the staff the same applications were understood. Although, in Japan and the Orient where many martial arts have begun. Treat the staff as a longer-range weapon, which allows for more protected defensive and offensive application.

Furthermore, when the staff’s techniques are slowed down and applied they work very well. But if the techniques are sped up angles and such are lost and many subtle aspects are lost too. Study is important…practice makes perfection. Theory and dedicated assumption build confidence that can easily put into dismay and disarray by strong steadfast, basic strikes to the 5 areas. Moreover, many use the staff in the same manner of a cue stick made for pool. Which appears fast and lethal. But, problems arrive when these techniques promote telegraphing and bring the top of the body slightly forward opening up areas on the arms, chest and head.

Much telegraphing is seen before the staff is even on its way to the target. Many believe that the staff must be moved several times before it hits the target. Sort of like a windup pitch seen by picture on the baseball mound. If one is to select a proper way to execute a strong technique the staff has to immediately come off the line. Like a drag car racer. If there is any play in the wheel a greater chance of being all over the track instead of down the middle line telegraphs you intentions.

During intensive courses on full-contact weaponry and chanbara staff technique and manipulation. Emphasis is placed on the first strike, especially, when a multi-person scenario is being played out. You just do not have the time to slowly defeat your opponent. It has to be done with one strike with conviction and the knowledge ( most important ) of how to recover after a strike or misjudgment or error. Not to mention, after the strike is completed is there full follow through like one would see is the most physical endeavor or sport. For Example: golf, tennis, and baseball. Soccer martial arts where a smooth follow through immediately goes into the next step of the attack. Again without moving to center the body(regroup) for the attack or retreat. Mostly, the combatant will turn and show their kidneys and become set up for defeat.

Again your feet need to walk you into battle and utilizing simple foot technique keeps one from tripping, falling, and unbalanced movement. Even for a second who allows the opponent to come in take the shot and win.

For the untrained eye. Staff work and technique is fast, exact and deadly. Moreover, wielding a staff on a non-focused partner is like taking candy form a baby. Compared to a seasoned fighter where they can easily defect and penetrate your defenses. Using as a medium range weapon. Sends a barrage of strikes which our unleashed on an opponent. Although, more than 2 effective techniques or strikes during the same attack can work against you since you loose strength and power to pursue softer but more strikes (per beat) Again one well placed strike can be more devastating than a barrage of attacks and not leave the combatant fatigued especially when there are more than one attacker.

Moreover, when the staff is used as a medium range weapon the hands have a tendency to be unprotected and blocking is done close to the body in 45-90-180 degree angles, which also can cause injury to the nervous system. Especially, if the staff stick is heavy and strong. If a staff is heavy it takes longer to manipulate from area A to area B. Again telegraphing is seen and the opponent can easily be countered on. If you are in a big rig trying to run down someone. If you get them they are road kill, but like a big rig on the street one can see it coming from far away and more easily move out of harm way compared to a lighter faster vehicle which can follow your twists and turns eventually getting a better chance to run you over.

Many staff users go in for the stick. Yes, stick shot, not the point, shot or kill, just to the stick. This also is a problem to combatants who have never practiced the spirit of the thing at full speed. The technique looks great the weapon is correctly wielded, but the shot is always a tad short. Causing the combatant to waste time, effort, strength, and technique.

Of course, many schools start their students on working the staves into each other, but with the possibilities of injury, pain , etc. The spirit of the thing is lost and many combatants will not penetrate the opponent’s defenses movements. Again causing wasted time effort and being put into difficulty. And when someone does penetrate the circle of influence all technique is slowed down to theory speed. Students who have been studying the staff for years are at a loss when a well executed and speedy technique has gone their way.

The instructor says, I know the staff. I have studied for 30 years and know kobudo well, but when their staff came in on me at full speed I was at a loss and put into difficulty. No one is really prepared to handle a weapon being wielded at you at full speed.

Editors Note: There is now a venue open to martial artists and combatants from around the world. Competing with no restrictions, at full speed and power, in the Ultimate Physical Game of Chess. Participants do not have to be 250-pound guys that beat on each other in cages nor have to train and study for years just to test their skill. Full-contact weapon sparring is thousands of years old, but in the year 2002 innovation allows fighting without the hindrance of pain and injury.

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Dana Abbott

Shihan Dana Abbott spent a quarter century in extensive study learning the ways of the Japanese sword, including 14 years in Yokohama, Japan. After graduating from Arizona State University, Shihan Abbott became a world traveler. In Japan he began his kendo/martial arts studies at Nihon Taikiu daigaku. In addition, his bladed weaponry experience is extensive and well polished. He has taught and conducted seminars in over 30 countries. He is honored to hold the esteemed rank of Shihan 7th Dan, in the sword art of Goshindo, obtained at the Hombu Dojo in Yokohama, Japan. He was also appointed Kokusai Bucho (International Director) for the All Japan Goshindo Renmei and the International Sports Chanbara Association, which has more than 220,000 members worldwide.