INB #07: Showing the Sword

deerhorn1_miniI think that most martial arts instructors enjoy teaching weapons. It’s a charge keeping alive tradition. It’s a break from the rigors of normal physical training. On the other hand not every student feels the same way as the instructor. Many teachers have that experience of showing a beginner his first weapon only to watch most of that hard-won skill disappear in awkwardness. Some students even demonstrate a distinct fear of weapons – even in their own hands. Then there’s that very special experience of arming and instructing a student who is truly, dangerously klutzy.

Also many people have varied opinions on the usefulness of weapons training in the present world. But let’s put that off for a while.

My expertise (however little that may be) is in the weapons of Kung Fu so forgive me if I use this point of view as my reference. I do think, though, that most of my comments will apply to many types of weapons instruction.

Probably one of the first things to do when introducing a student to a weapon is to establish some rules. I have two rules for teaching the staff. They may seem odd but they have worked for me over the years and they address some issues that will face most students. #1. The staff is not a cigarette. It should never be held between the fingers. #2. The student must never “reposition” his hands. That is take one hand off the stick and replace it with the other hand.

Each weapon has its pitfalls. The art of the staff is one of hand rolling. The biggest problem with the staff is that when your hands are, say, both palm up the student’s will both be palm down or some variation. If he or she is allowed to “fix” their hands positions in stead of rolling the staff itself they will never learn. They have to understand that to get where you are they have to roll the staff, not reposition their hands. The same ambiguity exists if they are allowed to have the staff between their fingers. It won’t take much time for them to be twirling the staff like a baton but never knowing which relationship is right for the grip.

I go into all this to show that the technical stuff can be helped by establishing ground rules which fit each weapon. That leads us into other aspects of the teaching which can make it more enjoyable.

TEACH THE BASICS: in truth only about 5% to 10% of teachers show the basics to the weapons. We all ask people to master basic actions with the bodies before using combinations but when it comes to weapons we go right ahead and teach fancy sets with no basics. Of course some are covered within the sets but the weapons would be a lot more interesting if movements were broken down and principles explained.

TEACH USAGE: Not to sound too harsh but most of the usage demonstrated is very under par. This is not only true in the west but holds for China. Most teachers are showing usage that is pitifully incomplete. We have to consult with one another on usage. We have to realize that Kung Fu usage, for instance, was some of the most sophisticated in the world. We have to stop using movies for inspiration and investigate usage. The meaning here, that students will have a lot more respect for the weapons when we do.

TEACH HISTORY: Why is the broadsword so shaped? Was the three-sectional staff really a battlefield weapon? The history is fascinating. Every weapon has a story. Don’t rely on just the obvious legends. Investigate. Buy our Spring and Autumn book (plug) and others. Dig a little.

IDENTIFY THE PRINCIPLES: To give some very fast examples. The staff coordinates the two hands, the straight sword improves angular stepping, the broadsword helps the student master “orbits”, the spear increases fa chin. Every weapon had information that can be transferred to the hands. Weapons have much to teacher empty handed fighting. We can’t go into it here but many of the most advanced principles of empty hand fighting were developed first from weapons than applied to the bare hands, not the other way around.

Weapons can bring the student into a new world of thought. If there’s interest out there from teachers on this subject I would be happy to revisit this topic with more depth and comments.


Nowadays, there is a lot written about martial arts, probably more than any time in human history. But very little of this is at the instructor level dealing with the problems, goals and strategies of imparting the arts. This series, written by martial instructors, will be a frank and directed discussion of such topics. If you are a beginner and new to the martial arts, you may find some of these subjects a little distressing. And, indeed, this may be premature for you. The only thing we guarantee is a sincerehandling of informed viewpoints.

2 Responses to “INB #07: Showing the Sword”

  1. Jeff says:

    And I, as well. More on this subject, please.

    For some reason, weapons aren’t a big part of taekwondo training, if at all. I suspect the reason has to do with the business side – a greater chance of injury when you have multiple weapons flying around in a narrow room with a giant mirror covering one wall. Yikes!

    Since I couldn’t find a teacher, I began learning staff from videos and have found that nothing has improved my understanding of taekowndo like my work with the staff.

  2. Stan Meador says:

    Well, this is a nice entry to revisit. I read this a couple of years back and just re-read it today.

    I would love to read more on this subject. Your book on the Kung Fu staff was excellent information.

    And, can you point readers to resources that show the basics for weapons? Most of what is available is about the sets or forms. Or, do you think there are few resources dealing with weapons basics because it may be better for people not to self-instruct?

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