The Cane, Practical Self Defense

shaolin cane

Our Shaolin Cane DVD has engendered more questions and reactions than almost any other DVD we developed. This article focuses on those questions, partially in the hope that this weapon—which some people actually rely on for self defense—grows in popularity and improves in technique.

Let’s first recognize the diversity of the instrument. It’s more than a short stick. If gripped with both hands, it’s more like a staff. If you use the tip, it’s wielded in the fashion of a sword. And then there’s the hook!

I regard the cane as a fine close in-fighting weapon combining striking ability with grappling and blocking skills. This unthreatening tool can turn savage in a moment.

You may encounter some of this power in a Shaolin rendition of the cane set, with its twirling, jumping, spinning collection of actions. When people see this weapon—named after the patriarch Boddhidharma (DaMo)—performed, they are surprised at the controlled endurance it demands. I have had many Kung Fu students ask me to teach the cane “because I want to teach my dad.”

“No, you really don’t,” is pretty much the whole of my response.

Whether performance or application, this weapon is valid because universal principles govern usage. The cane’s versatility grows from its simplicity: handy, no blade (this can be a good thing), accepted anywhere, natural in grip and movement—the Swiss Army Knife of Kung Fu weaponry.

Given my respect for this weapon I can only say that I’ve been generally disappointed with the usage I’ve seen. On the one hand, you find the theatrical where each attacker is hooked and then pulled into a pretzel. On the other hand comes a storm of blunt whacks suggesting the subtlety of Conan the Caner.

Typically we see the following scenario: you are attacked by a large man so you step back a pace and swing your cane against his arm. That’s it, that’s the technique. I especially don’t like the bet-it-all approach of one big swing. What if you haven’t calculated the correct distance in the first place? Not to mention that strike is really more like one from the nuns at St. Joseph’s—humiliating, but hardly deadly. No technique is completely useless, but it’s a mistake not to be critical, especially when older people are using this weapon for self-protection.


All of the techniques I’m outlining come directly from our Cane DVD. The methods hidden in traditional forms may be difficult to decode but the information is there. Now that cane is popular, we see a few self defense motions invented by this or that instructor, then re-made into a form, and then practiced from that aspect. Despite good intentions, this will not lead to much because this version of a form is simply a pastiche of movements pasted together.

Most of the suggestions here are directed toward training elders. To make the elements effective we have to teach our students repeatable actions that keep the cane in the grip of the defender, not just plain unrelated strikes that seem easy. At this stage, single-handed movements are not the best. Both hands should hold the cane, one hand sliding it through the other to create rapid and accurate poking actions as with a pool stick.


The student should continually and unpredictably circle the tip making it difficult to see. Meanwhile, poking shots should be scattered high and low. Put up a simple target poster with a bullseye on points like neck, face, groin etc. Continual alterations to vital targets is the key.

As a variation, two-handed usage creates a lot of torque and a good striking surface. At close quarters, the middle section of the cane can strike to the throat or push the attacker 6 feet away.

The hook end of the grip can be useful if not made into a fancy toy. Try to hook, if you need it. Use simple movements meant to control an opponent, but only for a moment. Don’t expect to tie him into a knot just because it occurs in movies.

The student should revolve the tip of the cane if grabbed by the opponent. The double handed grip can roll the cane tip over his wrist, then extricate it using a Chin Na.

Another design for a paper poster is to draw four lines into an asterisk forming eight different pathways. Instead of poking, slice along each of the eight pathways. Do this until your cane can trace any indicated lines. Change often from one line to another. Fluid, fast and strong. Use your waist to power the slashes. Don’t worry about looking good.


Everyone says weapons are an extension of the body. I’ve always felt them to be extensions of the mind. You can imagine far more than just the extension of some body part. In the hands of someone who knows martial arts an unknown object can be instantly transformed into a weapon. When you have learned your movements passably well, go outside (spare the furniture) and just see which move leads to what. Adapt your stance to protect yourself and generate power by turning back and forth. Body, mind and cane should move in one accord.

One Response to “The Cane, Practical Self Defense”

  1. Jeff says:

    All too true. Unless you are wielding a stout lead-weighted Victorian walking stick, a strike with a cane just can’t generate enough force to stop a determined attacker. The mechanics of the hand and wrist just don’t allow for it.

    The thrust is another matter altogether.

    I have a Century B.O.B. that I use for training with cudgel weapons, whether bo or jo or cane. The hardest strike I can muster with a jo may make a lot of noise, but it barely shifts poor old Bob – the stick with break before he does. But a well-placed thrust can knock him over. To my mind, strikes are for ‘chipping away the corners,’ to borrow from Musashi. The thrust goes to the heart of things. Plus, it is much more difficult to intercept a thrust than a strike.

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