It is a predilection of romantic and heroic fiction and moving pictures the world over to imbue lead characters with skill in the use of edged and pointed weapons, most notably those that require at least one good strong arm to manipulate.
All that graceful head-lopping, true-hearted flesh piercing, and well-choreographed duelling ignores the plain truth that a sword is really, in many cases, just a pretty club, an expensive bludgeon, or an edged bat.
If You Please, Don't Do That Again, Sir!
Historically speaking, even up until relatively recent times, there were many soldiers, knights, nobles, and officials (not to mention clergymen) wandering about with devices designed to impose blunt force trauma upon other human beings.
The wish or the ability of the authoritative to make an impression on the unresponsive with a miniature battering ram, a large meat tenderiser or a small tree is not a matter for nostalgia in these more sensitive days.
Currently, only the police and certain military groups are allowed to carry big sticks with impunity. Oddly enough, some of them have found carrying a tokushu keibo1 more satisfying or useful than a PR-24 side-handled baton (the modern version of the Japanese tonfa) or a good old-fashioned riot club (commonly known as a truncheon).
Le Menu d'Ouch!
- War Hammer - This looks like it sounds. Fetch a standard claw hammer from the toolbox, gaze at it and imagine it to be roughly ten times bigger with a straight round claw and a four-pronged or triangular hammering face.
- Tomahawk - While later trade versions had elegant hatchet heads, the earlier version was nothing more than a rock tied to a cleft stick. The word tomahawk itself is a term used by one specific tribe, the Algonquin, and was used as a blanket word to cover a whole class of weapons from a single continent. The war clubs of various tribes and cultures on the North and South American continents show an enormous amount of ingenuity and imagination. Even though most of the surviving museum examples seem to have had only ceremonial purpose, it is not a pleasant thought to consider what one's skull might look like if the ceremony got out of hand.
- Maces - Basically a metal club (or a wooden club reinforced with metal) made nastier by the addition of pointy things sticking out of the business end. Certain tribal traditions in the Pacific Islands and the Americas have used shark teeth embedded in war clubs as well as other items ie shells and bits of chert, such as broken arrow heads, to achieve the same effect with a slightly improved aesthetic appearance.
- Bludgeons - A sort of mix between the above two, though items of this kind have been known to be made of animal jaws and other odd bones. Anything that happened to be lying around and was heavier on one end than the other was generally considered suitable. Modern versions of these have been found in certain oppressed urban areas made of broken bicycle cranks attached to pieces of lumber or plumbing pipe.
- Truncheons - These are anything from blackjacks or saps (the proverbial garden hose filled with sand) to riot batons and tonfas (later patented as the PR-24). The iron truncheon of Japan, the jutte, has a hook to catch a blade, other weapon, or, in the hands of a skilled user, snag clothing and wrists in order to control a prisoner.
- Knobkerry - A fire-hardened bole of a tree with a limb or a root still attached. It was originally encountered by Westerners as a tribal weapon of the Zulu in Southern Africa. The word itself is from the Afrikaans language.
- Shillelaghs - An Irish version of the knobkerry, made from the trunks of a rather nasty relative of the Tea Rose.
- Cudgels - A cross between a quarterstaff and a club and apparently a primitive version of a shepherd's crook or a Bishop's Crozier. Rumour has it that they are mentioned so often in fiction because they sound so cool and tough.
- Clubs - Pretty much as they sound, a stick that is fatter on one end than it is on the other.
A Sporting Chance
Outside of role-playing and computer games, these items are not portrayed very often in the hands of heroes2. This is understandable since they do not lend themselves much to niceties. When they are shown, they are usually found in the hands of villains and generally clumsy people.
Sorry, Little John!
The quarterstaff, a cross between a hiking stick and a truncheon, has a certain romantic cachet, but it is basically a spear without a point on it, or alternatively a 'skinny club'.
This leads us to the thought of golf. It is not difficult to make a connection between golf and hockey. One of them involves a net and both of them involve whacking a round thing with a degree of accuracy, toward a target with the aid of a glorified club. All of which evolves a need to move to the next topic, post haste, since only one of them involves actually whacking some of the opposing side with the club.
Duck, M' Lady!
Maces are these days generally found lurking in legislatures, royal museums and university closets (with the exception being those urban areas mentioned above). Their ceremonial nature hardly conceals the fact that their gilded metals and polished woods are still rather menacing. If the Sergeant at Arms was inclined to take a swing at someone, you can be reasonably sure that the first one or two whacks would leave a permanent impression.
It might also be pointed out that a sceptre is basically a decorated stick with a heavy thing on top.
Not much nobility or romance to be found in this image.
Good Chukka, Old Chap!
Let it not be forgotten that there are several venerable games involving the severed head of some creature (or a ceremonial substitute) being whacked about a field by fellows perched on horseback wielding rather wicked-looking mallets.
It is allegedly out of Afghanistan that a sport called buzkashi originates. A sport where unarmed (except for a whip) cavalry ride around on horses fighting for an object rather than an objective. It also seems to be related to an older game, with more risky results, which involved riding around on horses whacking at each other. Given that the likelihood of making it home for dinner with an intact jaw were reduced in the latter case, the former seems to have grown in popularity by simple comparison (although the average game of buzkashi can involve a broken rib, arm or leg or two - but all in the name of fun!).
Foot or Spheroid, Sir?
Then there are those modern games that involve either the human body being flung about as an excuse to torture a defenceless ball, or a group of strangely dressed gentlemen, who really should know better, standing (or running) around watching another strangely dressed gentleman swat a spheroid or a disc with a club. The topics of lacrosse, jai alai, racket ball, tennis or handball are avoided because the first two seem to be a form of ritual suicide, while the others lack the herd instinct gratification of football, soccer, baseball, cricket, hockey, rugby, Australian Rules Demolition Derby, Jell-O Wrestling or Australian Rules Jell-O Wrestling.
Wheat or Rice?
There is also an object known as the flail, which common parlance holds as the descendant of an agricultural tool, such as the nunchaku or the three-sectioned-staff. Flails and Morning Stars are even nastier than swords and bludgeons, and they have concomitantly found little place in modern life outside of re-enactment guilds.
It is hard to imagine a sport that would involve whirling bits of anything attached by a chain or a rope to a stick. Although, with the current interest in 'extreme' sport, give it a little time and some idiot will try.
Persistent academic legend has it that clergymen, who were adverse to whacking limbs off and drawing blood through the use of blades, seemed to have had no qualms about causing subcutaneous bruising and internal injuries while using a Morning Star, a mace, a flail or a handy limb that the original owner was no longer using! The fact that the Morning Star in Christian mythology can mean both Lucifer and Christ with reference to the planet Venus, seems to oddly fit in with the visual incongruity of a 'Man of God' killing them all, so God can sort them out.
Our Friends in the East
The recent influences of Bollywood, Hong Kong and Japan on Hollywood have led to a plethora of images of people wielding finely crafted swords in well-choreographed dances of death.
One of the genuine Japanese heroes of sword swishing was a fellow named Musashi. His mentor was a master of the Iron Cudgel (or jutte, mentioned earlier in the menu), a nasty little police weapon that has only recently been replaced by an object that can only be politely referred to as a glorified switch (the tokushu keibo). Musashi himself learned to use two Iron Cudgels and later two swords, developing a technique that turned out to be almost impossible to defend against or to teach to others. Very early in his career, Musashi stopped using blades and began to humiliate and sometimes kill his opponents with a bokken, which is a wooden practice sword, and thus a form of club. One legendary story has Musashi dispatching a highly trained and respected opponent with a whittled down boat oar.
David Carradine's use of a flute as a weapon will not be mentioned in this entry.
It is in the East that once again we find ourselves with one sort of clergy taking a slight sidestep from this elegant mayhem by preferring to use a long pole-type staff (a bo) with a flex and a taper, with the tip able to be used as a type of stiff whip. Priests of another faith use a staff with a bell-decorated ring on the end of it.
We also find the tradition of the war hammer 'alive and kicking' in the East. In the case of the Japanese there were two types, the O-Tsuchi and the tetsubo. One of them is a rather formidable looking baseball bat 'on steroids' and the other looking like a barrel stuck on the end of a telephone pole! Not much in the way of elegance and Bushido to be found there.
Low Centre of Gravity, High-heeled Boots, and an Attitude
The modern art of Escrima, courtesy of our friends in the Philippines, involves a short hard stick (or sticks) being used as a rhythm instrument against an opponent’s stick or various parts of their body. A recent movie, Ecks versus Sever: Ballistic, starring Lucy Liu a practitioner of Kali Escrima, involved her demonstration of these moves using some ASP retractable batons, very similar to the police aerials and glorified switches mentioned earlier.
Going back to Musashi, there is one instance in legend of his using a steel fan to frustrate a sword-wielding opponent. In the end the opponent was irritated, which was the point, but both went home uninjured - Musashi to contemplate the merits of not taking a bath as a martial offensive move, and the sword-waver to contemplate choosing his opponents with more care. While the fan used by Musashi was most likely a lobe-shaped rigid device, other traditions and modern practitioners use a folding fan, which, when closed, can be used as a whacking tool, and when open can be used for distracting the opponent or making incisions with the sharpened ribs or the stiffened cloth itself.
The Ever-popular, Incredible, Inedible Chair
While the history of film and non-edged weapons cannot be truly addressed without mentioning chairs and bottles, it is strongly suggested that one try.
There is hardly a fight scene in the history of TV and film that doesn't involve a chair in it somewhere. Films from Jackie Chan and Jet Li have even managed to involve several chairs at once. This, of course, is hardly practical in everyday martial arts. The marvellous and inventive use of household items and the contents of the average DIY centre by Mr Chan on a regular basis bear mentioning, but only just.