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Thoughts on HEMA Singlestick
A Myth of the 20th Century Listener Discusses the Validity of European Stick-Fighting with James

Thoughts on HEMA singlestick

Hello James, I have listened to you speak on the “myth of the 20th century” podcast, as well as reading a few of your books, and I had a couple of questions.

Do you have any experience with western martial arts, especially in the context of stick fighting?

If so, do you think that this is a valid approach to the “weapon”?

Reading/listening to you reminds me of my WMA maestro, it’s uncanny.


Hi, Roman

I must confess that I do not know what HEMA means, though I am guessing Historical/?/Martial/Arts.

I once had a conversation with John Clements of HARMA, who helped me a great deal with my initial boxing research. I have not received any instruction from a master in Western Martial arts and what I know about gladiatorial combat forms comes from sparring and competing with dulled machetes and a variety of shields, pipes, steel bars, sticks, poles, gauntlets, chains and nets.

I have done quite a lot of reading on ancient, medieval and early modern weaponry, but nothing like the extensive survey I did on ancient boxing, as the material is so vast it would occupy a man's lifetime gathering a comprehensive set of weaponry lore.

Below I mention a few leads for your own inquiry:

-In The First Boxers I do an extensive review of Egyptian stick-fighting, which used helmets and sword canes made of reeds.

-Varus' three legions were wiped out by Germans, many of whom wielded war sticks. Burton, in his Book of the Sword, traces sword evolution along two paths: from knife to, dagger, to sword and from stick, to club, to war stick to sword, with paddles and oars being precursers of swords, being wooden wedges.

-Around 100 A.D. a Roman rod fighter retired with over 80 wins in stick fights, which were similar to modern Zulu stick fighting with stick and bracer.

-From the 1350s through 1500, Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish expeditions were soundly defeated by the Canary Islanders of Big island, Fire Island, Palm Island and Gomera, whose stone age warriors used sticks and stones to slaughter armored knights, until the Gomeran's [exiled from other islands] were recruited as scouts and mercenaries.

-In medieval and early modern Germany there was much practice and competition with the Dussak, a kind of blunt cutlass made of wood and or leather.

-English swordsmanship was often honed with the "waster" a wooden sword, that was no less damaging to the body than dull steel but was expendable, unlike the expensive blade. Where available, whalebone ribs were used as wasters for the broad sword, with organized competitions which outlawed strikes to the leg.

-English fencing masters fought with staffs and cudgels, the cudgel surviving as a light stick as a sparring weapon in England up to the 1870s, when Burton had his shoulder damaged in a friendly bout.

-Irish-American boxer, "Old Smoke" Morissey, once beat up two gangsters on the docks in a fight with belaying pins [rigging batons].

-Stick fighting survived in European forms primarily as cane fighting up until about 1900, and seemed particularly developed in France.

-Indian clubs were a popular exercise tool until the 1920s in the U.S.

-Portugal keeps alive the most dynamic stick-fighting in Europe.


Roman, the only validity I recognize in training in a combat discipline is whether or not it builds a better man. To that question I have to say that any training, sparring or competition with a blunt extension weapon does that in many ways. I list potential man-building benefits below:

-The stick was probably our first weapon, perhaps in the form of a bone as depicted in the film 2001 A Space Odyssey. Using it takes us back to the base of our psychology.

-The stick, if used as a blade substitute, counting only a strike with the front of the stick aligned with the knuckles, does improve blade discipline and grip stability.

-One must be careful to declare whether the stick is used as a stick or blade in given session. Playing tag must be avoided. To dominate a tough man using a stick requires power combinations, which closes distance and do not sanely apply to fighting unarmored with a blade.

-It has been my experience that unarmored stick fighting translates better to unarmed blade fighting than does armored blade fighting to unarmed blade fighting.

-Do not consider yourself worthy of taking a stick against a knife until you have sparred and competed, unarmored, with a stick in one hand and a blunt knife in the other. At some point you will find yourself stabbing with the stick and clubbing with the knife! This weapon set is the ultimate point of departure from stick to blade.

Finally, you mentioned singlestick in your email title. Double stick—so loved by FMA non-contact and armored fighting types—is something that has no useful correlation in real life, but is rather a conditioning/coordination set and a hell of a crowd pleasing competition set, which no fighter I known does consistently well in an unarmored bout. For defense with or against the blunt extension weapon used in one hand, singlestick is the primo skill set in weapon-fighting, in that it is most dependent on empty-hand competence and has asymmetry built into the form.

Some kind of stick-fighting is going to be a base element in a wide variety of fencing arts.

I have never been a member of any martial arts school, Asian or Western, never wore a gi, a sash or the period costumes used by some Western practitioners.

I did fight a foil fencer once with shinais and did spar with a guy that did stage fighting at Medieval Times.

So, actually I have no martial arts experience of note.

I have just fought and trained a lot and coached some.

I have no idea if any WMA schools engage in stick-fighting, but must imagine that it would be both useful and a potential pitfall, as too much stick work can make you too aggressive with and against the blade if you don't balance your training.

Take care, Roman and good training.

I will probably handle more specific questions in a less disappointing manner, so feel free to send any queries along.

I'll protect your identity and post this as an article.

I close with this video of Charles and I practicing on a bag with light rattan rods.

And our full catalog of training, sparring and competition videos.

Below are the two books that focus on the stick.

Being a Bad Man in a Worse World

Fighting Smart: Boxing, Agonistics & Survival

Twerps, Goons and Meatshields: The Basics of Full Contact Stick-Fighting

Add Comment
Bruno DiasMarch 9, 2018 7:02 PM UTC

Just to clarify, HEMA menas "Historical European Martial Arts"