An Eternal Passion
As a martial artists that I work with likes to tell his students, “Hitting someone with a stick is not difficult. Noting getting hit with a stick is…a lot of fun.”
The history of Western single-stick practice suggests that innumerable soldiers, fencers, students, athletes and regular people have come to the same conclusion. Perhaps this explains the repeated rebirths of these systems of weapon practice.
My own brush with single-stick occurred rather recently. A local instructor had agreed to introduce me to a system of early 19th century American military saber. Of course I brought my fencing mask, gloves and other gear. While I had been informed that we would be working with “historical training methods” I was nevertheless surprised when I was presented with a set of slender rods fitted with tough leather bell guards. What followed was one of the most enjoyable afternoons of training that I have had in a while. At least part of that, I think, had something to do with the simplicity of the sword analogs themselves.
I haven’t yet made a detailed study of the history of single-stick practice in the West, nor am I sure that such an adventure is in the cards. That is a shame as most of the material on this topic is in languages that I can actually read. Still, a few general points are clear. First off, what we now think of as single-stick seems to have started off as a training regime for back-sword, and latter saber, practice in the UK. Something like single-stick was being practiced as early as the 16th century. During the first half of the 18th century, single-stick seemed to hit the peak of its popularity in both cities and the countryside and was widely practiced.
This sort of mania has not always been the norm. The popularity of the practice has waxed and waned (somewhat cyclically) through the decades. The construction of the sticks, their hilts and other safety equipment has also evolved as different rule-sets were invented, or as the practice was adapted for different social uses. This makes for an interesting case study within the field of Martial Arts Studies precisely because we have a long history of continuous usage which nevertheless shows a distinct pattern of stochastic innovations.
Nor has the humble stick attracted the sort of nationalistic myths that follow the katana or the jian. As such we seem to have hit something of a sweet spot. This practice was popular enough that it left a documentary record. Yet it was not so popular that 19th or 20th century nationalist myth-makers would be tempted to rewrite it, in essence obscuring the past. In that sense single-stick has benefited from being viewed as “just a game” and not a “martial art,” where a good dose of myth making and invented tradition seems mandatory.
While fairly common in the early 19th century, its popularity later declined. During the final years of century, and the first years of the early 20th, it seems to have enjoyed a short lived (but influential) return to popular consciousness. This resulted in a flurry of articles in magazines, newspapers and other sources. Of course, some militaries had continued to use it as a training method all along.
The late 19th century resurgence seems to have been culturally driven. There was something about single-stick that fit with the era’s notion’s of “muscular Christianity” and the supposed benefits of living a “strenuous life.” We should note that its brief revival also coincided with other trends including an expansion in boxing’s popularity outside the working class, jujutsu’s entrance into the West, and the rising tides of nationalism and imperialism that would set the stage for the First World War.
This reemergence was ideally timed to provide us with some great vintages images and sources which will be of interest to martial arts historians. Much of this material is not cataloged in libraries as it initially circulated as ephemera. Single-stick postcards seem to have been quite popular for a while. Many of these had a naval theme and showed sailors training on ships. Other sorts of soldiers can also be seen drilling on land. One commonly encountered card even shows a group of Canadian Mounted Police engaging in a mass melee. This cannot have been an uncommon activity as other images, and even films of similar events, exist.
Other surviving bits of ephemera suggest that single-stick had come to be accepted as a civilian game and an ideal pastime for boys with too much energy. The Boy Scouts included it (along with boxing, wrestling, staff fighting, fencing and jujutsu) in their short lived “Masters at Arms” merit badge program. Teddy Roosevelt also lent some of his own mystique to the practice by training in the White House. And multiple groups promoted the walking stick as a weapon with practical self-defense benefits. Indeed, the cultural multi-vocality of single-stick, its ability to be all things to all people, foreshadows in some ways the social position of the Asian martial arts in the post-WWII period.
This conceptual flexibility sometimes leads to confusion. For instance, “single-stick” can refer to a type of training tool, or a very specific set of competitive rules coming out of the UK. As such, some sources draw a clear distinction between English and French practices (Canne de combat) while others do not. Yet one gets the sense that in the late 19th and early 20 century it was precisely the perceived universality of the phenomenon that gave it a degree of cultural power.
Single-stick is currently going through yet another period of increased visibility. As HEMA grows more popular, people are once again taking an interest in it as a historical practice. But I wonder if its former status as the ideal adolescent recreation has had other, less obvious, implications. I was recently talking with a HEMA instructor who has started a lightsaber club. He was noting how difficult it was to get long sword and rapier guys to get their heads wrapped around this new weapon analog. But he noted that “everything finally clicked when I told them to think of it as a single-stick or longer two handed staff.”
This makes perfect sense when you consider the geometry and round blade profile of both training analogs. But it also suggested something else. Perhaps lightsaber combat is growing so fast because it owes more to prior cultural mythologies than we may have guessed. Whereas early Boy Scouts with their single-sticks may have dreamed of pirates and colonial adventure, their modern counterpart envision the Sith (space pirates?) and Jedi (no doubt colonizing some newly discovered planet for the Republic). The more things change…
To give readers a better sense of how single-stick was discussed in the late 19th century I have concluded this post with a short excerpt from the fourth chapter of R.G. Allanson-Winn and C. Phillipps-Wolley’s comprehensively titled, Broadsword and Single-stick, with Chapters on Quarter-Staff, Bayonet, Cudgel, Shillalah, Walking-Stick, and Other Weapons of Self-Defence, as published in New York City in 1898. Please note that I included these passages for historical interest only. Few modern coaches would endorse the author’s notion that we should go without (readily available) safety gear because one learns faster and “build character” through pain or injury. That is just the Muscular Christianity talking.
SINGLE-STICK is to the sabre what the foil is to the rapier, and while foil-play is the science of using the point only, sabre-play is the science of using a weapon, which has both point and edge, to the best advantage. In almost every treatise on fencing my subject has been treated with scant ceremony. “Fencing” is assumed to mean the use of the point only, or perhaps it would not be too much to say, the use of the foils; whereas fencing means simply (in English) the art of of-fending another and de-fending yourself with any weapons, but perhaps especially with all manner of swords.
In France or Spain, from which countries the use of the thrusting-sword was introduced into England, it would be natural enough to consider fencing as the science of using the point of the sword only, but here the thrusting-sword is a comparatively modern importation, and is still only a naturalised foreigner, whereas broad-sword and sabre are older than, and were once as popular as, boxing. On the other hand, the rapier was in old days a foreigner of particularly shady reputation on these shores, the introducer being always alluded to in the current literature of that day, with anathemas, as “that desperate traitour, Rowland Yorke.”
“L’Escrime” is, no doubt, the national sword-play of France, and, for Frenchmen, fencing may mean the use of the foil, but broad-sword and sabre play are indigenous here, and if fencing is to mean only one kind of sword-pay or sword-exercise, it should mean single-stick.
Like the swordsmen of India, our gallant fore-fathers (according to Fuller, in his “Worthies of England”) accounted it unmanly to strike below the knee or with the point. But necessity has no laws, still less has it any sense of honour, so that before long English swordsmen realised that the point was much more deadly than the edge, and that, unless they were prepared to be “spitted like cats or rabbits,” it was necessary for them either to give up fighting or condescend to learn the new fashion of fence.
As in boxing, it was found that the straight hit from the shoulder came in quicker than the round-arm blow, so in fencing it was found that the thrust got home sooner than the cut, and hence it came that the more deadly style of fighting with the rapier supplanted the old broad-sword play.
Single-stick really combines both styles of fencing. In it the player is taught to use the point whenever he can do so most effectively; but he is also reminded that his sword has an edge, which may on occasion do him good service. It seems then, to me, that the single-stick is the most thoroughly practical form of fencing for use in those “tight places” where men care nothing for rules, but only want to make the most out of that weapon which the chance of the moment has put into their hands. It may further be said that the sabre is still supplied to our soldiers, though rarely used for anything more dangerous than a military salute, whereas no one except a French journalist has ever seen, what I may be allowed to call, a foil for active service, the science of single-stick has some claim to practical utility even in the nineteenth century, the only sound objection to single-stick being that the sticks used are so light as to not properly represent the sabre.
This is a grave objection to the game, when the game is regarded as representing the real business; but for all that, the lessons learnt with the stick are invaluable to the swordsman. The true way to meet the difficulty would be to supplement stick-play by a course with broad-swords, such as are in use in different London gymnasiums, with blunt edges and rounded points.
But gunpowder has taken the place of “cold steel,” and arms of precision at a thousand yards have ousted the “white arm” of the chivalrous ages, so that it is really only of single-stick as a sport that men think, if they think of it at all, today. As a sport it is second to none of those which can be indulged in the gymnasium, unless it be boxing; and even boxing has its disadvantages. What the ordinary Englishman wants is a game with which he may fill up the hours during which he cannot play cricket and need not work; a game in which he may exercise those muscles with which good mother Nature meant him to earn his living, but which custom has condemned to rust, while his brain wears out; a game in which he may hurt some one else, is extremely likely to be hurt himself, and is certain to earn an appetite for dinner. If any one tells me that my views of amusement are barbaric or brutal, that no reasonable man ever wants to hurt any one else or to risk his own precious carcass, I accept the charge of brutality, merely remarking that it was the national love of hard knocks which made this little island famous, and I for one do not wish to be thought any better than the old folk of England’s fighting days.
There is just enough pain in the use of the sticks to make self-control during the use of them a necessity; just enough danger to a sensitive hide to make the game thoroughly English, for no game which puts a strain upon the player’s strength and agility only, and none on his nerve, endurance, and temper, should take rank with the best of our national pastimes.
Gallant Lindsey Gordon knew the people he was writing for when he wrote –
“No game was ever worth a rap,
For a rational man to play,
Into which no accident, no mishp,
Could possibly find its way.”
Still, there comes a time, alas! In the lives of all of us, when, though the hand is still ready to smite, the over-worked brain resents the infliction of too many “merry cross-counters,” and we cannot afford to go about with black eyes, except as the occasional indulgence. Then it is that the single-stick comes in. Boxing is the game of youth, and fencing with foils, we have been assured, improves as men fall into the sere and yellow leaf. Single-stick, then, may be looked upon as a gentle exercise, suitable for early middle age.
There is just enough sting in the ash-plant’s kiss, when it catches you on the softer parts of your thigh, your funny bone, or your wrist, to keep you wide awake and remind you of the good old rule of “grin and bear it;” but the ash-plant leaves no marks which are likely to offend the eye of squeamish clients or female relations.
Another advantage which single-stick possesses is that you may learn to play fairly well even if you take it up as late in life as five and twenty; whereas I understand that, though many of my friends were introduced to the foil almost as soon as to the corrective birch, and though their heads are now growing grey, they consider themselves mere tyros in their art.
That single-stick is a national game of very considerable antiquity, and at one time in great repute on our country greens, no one is likely to deny, nor have I time to argue with them even if I would in this little brochure. Those who are interested in spadroon, back-sword, and broad-sword will find the subjects very exhaustively treated in such admirable works as Mr. Egerton Castle’s “Schools and Masters of Fence.” These pages are merely intended for the tyro – they are at best a compilation of those notes written during the last ten years in black and white upon my epidermis by the ash-plants of Serjeants Waite and Ottaway, and Corporal-Major Blackburn. Two of them, unfortunately, will never handle a stick again, but the last-named is still left, and to him, especially, I am indebted for anything which may prove worth remembering in these pages. A book may teach you the rudiments of any game, but it is only face to face with a better player than yourself that you will ever make any real advance in any of the sciences of self-defence.
And here, then, is my first hint, taught by years of experience: If you want to learn to play quickly, if you want to get the most out of your lessons, whether in boxing or stick-play, never encourage your teacher to spare you too much. If you get a stinging cross-counter early in your career as a boxer, which lays you out senseless for thirty seconds, you will find that future antagonists have the greatest possible difficulty in getting home on that spot again. It is the same in single-stick. If you are not spared too much, and are not too securely padded, you will, once the ash-plant has curled once or twice round your thighs, acquire a guard so instinctively accurate, so marvellously quick, that you will yourself be delighted at your cheaply-bought dexterity. The old English players used no pads and no masks, but, instead, took off their coats, and put up their elbows to shield one side of their heads.
There are today in England several distinct schools of single-stick, the English Navy having, I believe, a school of its own; but all these different schools are separated from one another merely by sets of rules, directing, for the most part, where you may and where you may not hit your adversary.
The best school appears to be that in which all hits are allowed, such as might be given by a rough in a street row, or by a Soudanese running a-muck. The old trial for teachers of fencing was not a bad test of real excellence in the mastery of their weapons – a fight with three skilled masters of fence (one at a time, of course), then three bouts with valiant unskilled men, then three bouts against three half-drunken men. A man who could pass this test was a man whose sword could be relied upon to keep his head, and that is what is wanted. All rules, then, which provide artificial protection, as it were – protection other than that afforded by the swordsman’s guard – to any part of the body are wrong, and should be avoided.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Pushing and Pulling: Scouts and the Spread of the Asian Martial Arts
January 20, 2020 at 4:29 am
Something interesting to note in the historical accounts of Backsword (as distinct from the wooden military training sword) –there is generally little or no footwork! Of course, rules varied , and one does see footwork in some accounts, typically, the backswordmen of England would trade blows with the intent of scoring a point by hitting the opponent on the forehead so that “an inch of blood” would flow from the wound! Blows to other parts of the body were also a part of the game, but only for strategic purposes.
Interestingly there are parallels in British boxing which utilized throws, but little defensive footwork (until Daniel Mendoza came along), and even the German Mensur (Student dueling sword), which expected combatants to remain in one place and trade blows until one suffered a serious cut to the face.
I’m sorry I don’t have many sources to cite– I did a great deal of research years and years ago, but generally I don’t remember a lot of the sources. One fun and useful little volume is Donald Walker’s “Defensive Exercises” (1840)
January 20, 2020 at 10:26 am
An Irish connection is ‘pionsbata’, a branch of shillelagh fighting.
E-mail me at email@example.com for an illustration from the early 19th. C.