The Stick-based versus Blade-based Debate
I would atart out by making a controversal statement:-
"Anis/Eskrima/Kali was originally a blade-based system"
Q: If Arnis was originally a bladed-based system, then why is that we see sticks, sticks
A: This is because there was probably a sudden shift in emphasis from the blade to the
stick around 1920 to 1950. This shift was so widespread that virtually all styles
in urban areas became stick-based.
However, Arnis/Kali was originally blade-based. Kalis Ilustrisimo is one of the
few exceptions that survived that "revolution" and remained true to the old way.
(Just as Jujitsu and Aikijutsu of the Japanese systems remained 'Jutsu' and not 'Do').
Q: But other styles also claim the same. In fact, they have performed demonstrations
A: Yes, but what was demonstrated was actually the translation or adaptation of the
stick techniques into swords. They could have adapted the same to a tennis rackett
or golf stick - does that make them Pat Cash or Greg Norman?
Arnis techniques are very flexible and can be adapted into empty hands, umbrellas,
chairs, books too. These are ADAPTATION of a stick based techniques - it was
not a sword fighting technique. Sword techniques are executed differently to stick
techniques. But, one will have to study swordmanship to really appreciate what
this statement really means.
As an analogy, just as in traditional aikijutsu, the sword is the main principle,
so the jo and barehand techniques are based on the sword. This means that a
swordsman from that old system will be able to execute jo and barehand moves
of the system. But the reverse cannot be said for a modernised system that is
based on jo or barehands. eg. a Karatedo master cannot be expected to be an
expert swordsman, unless he undergoes proper training in the blade.
To put it bluntly:-
"To be a swordsman, you have to study swordsmanship, not sticksmanship".
Q: You claim that your art of Kalis Ilustrisimo is a pure undiluted system that is still based
on the blade, whereas most other systems are based on the stick. But I have seen
numerous Arnis masters and practitioners who gave fantastic demonstrations using
cressendo. Surely you are wrong.
A: No, I am absolutely right and therefore will not retract, nor modify my statement.
Look at it this way, just because a person is using a tool does not mean that person
is an expert on that tool or a person whose professional livelihood depends on that tool.
Let me cite a few examples to illustrate my point.
1) Most people can fire a gun, some are great at firing guns on the screen - for example,
Clint Eastwood is an impressive "gunman", some are even fantastic sharpshooters at
target shooting. But are they really professional gunmen or soldiers?
2) A soldier's training and livelihood, and in fact his life revolves around and is based
on his weapons. Whereas others may be able to use his weapons, they are not
soldiers, they are not professionally trained and dependent on the weapons,
their lives do not revolve around the weapons, their existence is not based on the
3) Any motor vehicle driver may be able to drive a racing car, and some do it very
well too. But that does not make them racing drivers - that domain is for those
who based their life, energy, time, gamble, training......etc on the racing car and
The statement is not that those Arnis masters can not use the sword. They may actually use
the sword very well! Their art may be "stick-based" and not "blade-based".
Just because some Arnis practitioners were practising with swords does not mean
that they are swordsmen. Neither does it mean that their art is based on the sword.
What it merely means is that they are trying to apply their Arnis techniques with swords.
That is all that is!!! Full stop. Extrapolation would be erroneous. They have even use tennis rackets, but that does not mean that they are tennis players, or their art is based on tennis. I have used chairs in Arnis training, would you call me a "sitter"?
This is the bottom line:- When Arnis players are using swords, what it means is that they
are implementing and translating their stick-based techniques into sword play.
It does not necessarily mean that their art of Arnis is based on the sword - it may actually
be based on the stick!!!!
Let us examine this topic further.
1) Real swordsmen will not dent their swords.
Just examine the old swords of previous famous swordmasters who had numerous
encounters. This is real skill - they can avoid damage to their weapon because
damage could be fatal! If the weapons were not manipulated correctly during combat,
"pork" marks will result.
If a system is really based on the sword/blade, then the blades of its practitioners
would be unblemished. Otherwise, you will find dents. Just take a good look at
the swords of your Arnis "heroes" after they had an impressive "great clash" and
you will find the truth.
2) Genuine fighting swords are tampered-hard and therefore brittle.
(I am talking about real swords that they used in the good old days, and not those
imitation Samurai swords in the shops). Some may be easily broken if a strong force
is suddenly applied.
I have seen sword demonstrations by Arnis master too. They clash their swords.
That could have broken the old swords! Why are they ignorant of this fact?
The fact that they clashed their swords is evidence that their system of Arnis is not
based on the blade.
Haven't you heard the loud "thangs" and "clangs" of their clash? Looks very
impressive to the ignorant, but it is very bad taste to those very few who came
from a blade-base system such as Kalis Ilustrisimo.
3) I have seen Arnis demonstrations where the lights are dimmed when sword fighting
is demonstrated. When the swords clash, they do so with such vigour and force
that sparks flew. The crowds are very impressed with such "skill".
This is precisely what real swordsmen try to avoid at all cost. The swords should not
clash at all! And worst of all, the demonstrators try to impress the crowds by clashing
as heavily as possible!
I actually have a video tape of a famous Arnis master doing this at a Kung Fu tournament
4) As I have mentioned, real swordmen try to avoid damage to their swords by not
clashing (mark of a vulgar swordman is clash, clash, hit, hack....). And we have seen
those Arnis swordsmen clash, hit and hack at one another's swords - not a good indication.
Please take a closer look. See how they block or parry the opponent's attack.
They block will a nice "thwang" don't they? Examine the way they do it.
It is the way that they would have done it with a stick! That is why I assert that
their art is based on the stick! Point taken and understood?
If their art is based on the blade, the parry would have been different.
The move would not look as if it were "executed as if it were a stick".
Unfortunately, most Arnis systems in existience fall under this catergory -
they are stick-based, but can be modified to use swords, but with damage to
weapons. They are not swordsmen. The moves are not elegant sword moves.
5) I have come across hard-core stick-based system also. Such systems will
use the Alive Hand to grasp the opponent's stick. This is alright, or even
effective for defenses against sticks, but if the opponent were welding a
sharp sword, the fingers would have been cut off! We will have an
Arnis swordsman who lost his fingers because he tried to catch the opponent's
This shows that the system is based on the stick, not the blade. I consider
Modern Arnis and the Balintawak Style to be in this category. Of course,
all Arnis systems can try to translate their moves into sword moves.
So such systems also have practitioners trying to translate stick moves into
sword moves. On the other hand, the moves of blade-based practitioners
do not have to be translated into stick moves - they are executed as if the
sticks are actual swords. That is why there is a difference that is discernable
to a practitioner of blade-based systems.
6) Many well known systems of Arnis deploy the use of what they term the "abanico"
(or fan) technique. This technique depends very much on the flick of the wrist and
the stick travels about 360 degrees in a reasonably flat plane to hit the target from
both sides alternatively.
This abanico technique has been made famous by the Doces Pares group.
It seemed to have been popular with the Lapunte group too at one stage.
This type of abanico technique, if employed with a sword would mean that
the Arnis "swordsman" would hit the opponent with the flat part of the blade!
Isn't that weird. This is what I mean when I say that system or the technique within
that system is actually based on the stick.
If a system's main techniques, or a lot of a system's techniques, or the training is mainly based on the stick, the system is either a stick-based system already, or is evolving into a stick-based system.
At no time am I saying that the stick-based systems are lousy and cannot be used for combat. All Arnis systems can be used for combat, and this is true of all martial arts. In many ways, the result of an encounter depends on the skill of an individual - the system he has learnt is a minor factor only................
What I am trying to say is that almost all Arnis systems nowadays are based on the stick. Illustrisimo Kali is one of the very few exceptions.
Q: What are the main differences between stick-based and blade-based systems?
A: In the main, the moves in stick based system tend to clash whereas sword moves
are subtle and tend to flow with the strike. Sword moves tend to be smaller and more
Another big difference is the way a strike is executed. A sword-based strike is
always based on the sharp edge of the sword.
The motion of swords is based on the cutting, slicing and hacking of a sword.
Practitioners of sword based systems can thus be identified even by the way they strike!
Some stick-based systems employ strikes using the "sides" of the stick. This is the flat side
of the blade. This is the typical "abanico" technique most often used by Doce Pares
practitioners in Arnis competitions.
Another difference is that sword-based systems do not hold the opponent's stick
as that signifies a sword. On the other hand, hardcore stick-based systems have
moves that involve grasping the opponent's stick (eg. Modern Arnis, Balintawak)
Also, many sword-based strikes cut with the tip of the sword. When a swordsman
strikes like that with a stick, the blow is thoroughly inefficient as a strike.
Thus, a swordmen is identified by his cutting moves even when he practises with a stick.
While a stick welder may employ blocks to the opponent's strikes, a swordsman
would only parry the strike. Farrying and flowing and re-direction is the prefered
Many sword moves totally avoid contact with the opponent's weapon.
In fact, a superior swordsman should be able to defeat his opponent without touching
the opponent's weapon.
Sword systems also tend to employ more thrusting moves.
In essence, swords are cutting, slicing, hacking and stabbing weapons.
Sticks are impact weapons. Swords tend to avoid. Stick tend to meet.
Q: What is your preference? Sword or stick?
A: I am glad you used the word "preference" as I think it is more of preference and
reasoned choice rather than right and wrong.
For learning and training purposes, I prefer sword-based systems for the following reasons:-
a) This is the original way - unmodified and ancient. It has been this way for hundreds
of years and the experience built up by our forefathers who sacrificed their lives to
find out what worked cannot be discounted.
b) Sword moves are very precise and exacting. I want to learn the "real" thing.
Besides, I love the discipline involved in striving to achieve precision and accuracy
in martial arts training.
c) From experience, I found that training with the sword automatically induces the
practitioner to strike at the correct angle. In fact, one is induced to cut correctly.
Good habits are formed, which when translated to the stick, easily causes the
practitioner to develope in the "correct" manner.
d) Because swords are more dangerous that sticks, one has to be more careful.
This automatically hightens ones awareness and instinct which are very important
qualities to develope in a martial arrtist. I have never had an acident even when
training with sharp blades, as the mind is very smart and automatically adjusts to the
e) I think if someone in the street were to attack me, the chances would be it would be
with a knife or machette(sword). I may not feel confident if I had trained mainly
against opponents welding only sticks. I need to have steadied my nerves through
intensive training against a bladed opponent. On the other hand, if I were attacked
by a stick or club welding opponent, I would not feel the psychological shock as
I am already adjusted to being attacked by blades.
Come to think of it, if one were to encounter a mugger or a rapist in a dark alley,
the chances that a blade or knife is involved.
*) Some smart people have countered, saying "Why train in
swords/blades? They are illegal".
Yes, they are illegal, but so are the knives and machettes
use in dark alleys and subways. You must train in blades and
blades so that you can defend yourself against blades. Use
Also, some suggest that since sticks are not illegal, you
in sticks. But the truth is that sword techniques can be
translated to sticks techniques (we use sticks as our training
so we are more than familiar with sticks), so there is no
all in training in stick-based techniques as far as this
particular point is
*) These are just point I can think of at a moment's notice. There
be more, but this would suffice.
ARNIS - ORIGINALLY A BLADE SYSTEM
Whenever I mention the words Arnis/Escrima/Kali to anyone who knows what
this martial art is, I usually get the response "Oh, you mean that martial
art where you use sticks........". Well, just ask any martial artist, or
Arnis player, you get a similar response. To the general public, it seems
that to us that Arnis is the Filipino martial art that uses sticks as its
primary weapon of manipulation.
Well, that assumption is not ill-founded. Whenever I see an Arnis
demonstration or school, I see sticks, sticks and sticks...... When they
spar, I see sticks, sticks and sticks .............. When I examine the
techniques used, I see that these moves are suitable for stick manipulation
only - not for blades, thereby giving credence to the public image that
"Arnis is a Filipino martial art that uses sticks".
Yes, this is true for almost all the well known Arnis systems that are
known to the West. "Stick-based" is truely what they are. In other words,
our currently popular Arnis systems seem to be based on the stick, and not
But has this always been the case? Was Arnis originally stick-based? And
would most Filipinos, when they get involved in a conflict simply go
looking for a stick to kill the opponent? The answer to both questions is
I am of the opinion that the traditional martial arts of the Philippines
are actually based on the blade for the following reasons/arguments:-
1) Most Filipinos, in the past, as well as in current times, in a physical
conflict will reach for a bladed weapon such as a knife (for conveneince of
carrying and concealment) or a bolo (ie. sword) - provided guns are not
available. The is their natural way, and that is their natural reaction.
I do not subscribe to the view that when a Filipino get mad at you, he
will go home and to get his rattan sticks to kill you.
All things being equal, and taking aside circumstances that 20th
Century developement has forced on them, it can easily be deduced that the
natural way of Filipino martial arts is developed and based on the blade -
because that is their natural instinct.
If a search were to be made a all households in Philippines, there is
a likelihood that there is some sort of a bladed weapon in most
households. The likelihood of finding stick weapons would be low (even in
these modern times).
2) Due to the prevalence of stick-based systems (sword-based systems nearly
died out), people and Arnis authors (especially those in the West) got the
mistaken impression that Arnis is performed with sticks. They say that
"Magellan was killed with rattan sticks". This may not be true! In fact,
pictures that depic this story show Lapu Lapu welding a sword. To explain
this away, modern authors say this must be an "ideallic representation" of
the saga - to give Lapu Lapu some respect and dignity. This may not be so!
They augment their argument by refering to an old written account
indicating that in some skirmishes, the native used long sticks that had
their tips fire-hardened. That is true! But usually, that sort of devices
were used as spears to thrust and throw! Not as substitute for swords!!!!
The natives noted the weaponary and armour that the conquerors had and
decided that the best strategy is to use that sort of weapons. Why use
rattan sticks to beat against the armour of the Spaniards???? Isn't that
foolhardy? I have welded rattan sticks, so I know for sure they are
useless against armour. Have you ever tried striking metalic armour with
a rattan stick? You would look very silly........... Yet, I see my Arnis
friends still claim that might of the Spanish armoury and weaponary was
crashed by a couple of rattan sticks! Ridiculous!
Here is a more plausible explanation. Isn't it true that armoury still
has "holes" and "crevices" that a spear can penetrate? Well, thrust your
spears and hurl them at the invaders then! These spears are made of wood,
and that is easily and cheaply available.
This was a strategy that the crafty Lapu Lapu and his contemporaries
devised with good effect.
A stick with a fire-hardened tip would be used mainly for thrusting.
Yet, most of the moves employed by our Arnis friends are strikes, not
thrusts! How can we say that this fighting art, and the rattan weapon, are
the same ones as that used by our fore-fathers to repel the Spaniards?
One might counter that my argument proved the point that the nativesdid
use sticks with fire-hardened tips to fight the Spaniards. Yes! I agreed
they did! But that was not a personal dual from a system of combat. We
are talking about BATTLES, not personal conflicts. Not all Filipinos are
trained in Arnis (not in the past, not at present), so how can I claim that
they are all trained swordsmen? Most families may have some sort of bladed
weapons at home, but are not trained to weld them.
Now, look at this room another point of view. Rattan and wooden sticks
are cheap, plentiful and very available at that time. When you wish to
quickly arm an hastily formed army, the best option is to get whatever is
in plentiful and ready supply to you, and what will destroy the enemies
defenses. Remember - the Spaniards also had swords. So sword-welding
natives have no particular advantage here. In addition, the Spaniards also
had armour - that is a distinct advantage. Moreover, the native army is
not really organised - it is not a real army in the eastern sense. It was
more like groups of natives who banded together under leaders to fight the
invaders. The best strategy is to equip them with spears that can be
thrown at the invaders (dirt cheap to them, plenty of supply, reuseable,
don't mind losing them at all.....). Of course, they would be some true
warriors amongst them who are sword-welders, like Lapu Lapu - these are
warriors who are trained in combat systems. To say that Arnis is a combat
system based on the stick just because of such incidences is superficial.
My contention is that modern authors, on superficially examining the
historical description of "savage natives fighting the Spanish with
fire-hardened sticks" and combining it with the observation that Arnis
seems to be practised with rattan sticks (they are not wrong in this
observation!), concluded that our fore-fathers were actually savages whose
battle technology was only limited to the fire-hardened sticks. I say
this is a wrong conclusion.
3) The Philippines has been influenced by various civilisations especially
the Hindus, Chinese, Arabs, Sri Vijayas, Majapahits, Malaccans. Each of
those brought their own cultures and martial arts which influenced the
natives. So the natives are not as "savageous" as we are lead to
But do they have bladed weapons? Of course! It is a historical fact
that each of those "foreign" civilisations are known to have bladed
weapons. Even if I accept a (doubtful) concession that the natives were
originally backward, the foreign civilisations that came along would have
brought that culture and technology along with them. So how can we
conclude that the natives have no bladed weapons when the Spaniards
4) The Muslim areas that were yet unconquered by Spaniards and remained
least changed, were inhabited by fierce warriors who have many types of
bladed weapons of which the most popular are the barong, kampilan and
kris. These are the legacies of mostly the Hindu and Muslim influences
that pre-date the Spanish.
These legacies are still in existence now as evidence which my Arnis
friends seem to over-look. In fact, many of the battle weapons are of
great practical value. My father's favourite weapon is a barong which is
so (unbelieveabley) well made that it would sever old wild boars with one
hack whereas other swords make a pitiful mark on the boars.
I also attest that there are many beautiful ornamental weapons still in
existence in museums and antique shops.
Are we to assume that when the Spanish came, northern Philippines was
populated by backward savages while the fierce wild south was populated by
a great Islamic culture that had fantastic blades? I contest this
5) My contention is that the rattan stick is a very cheap and easily
available device for training. It is a training device - that is what it
was and no more. When it comes to real action and real killing, the blade
is used, unless there is a particular battle strategy (as in the case of
using sticks with fire-hardened tips for thrusting at enemy soldiers).
But we must appropriately assess the stick in its true function - a
training device. It appears we, and may some forefathers in the earlier
part of this century, misplaced that importance and changed the emphasis
of the art, perhaps due to certain historical and environmental
circumstances. (This would have happened around 1920's to 1950's)
6) The very old Arnis players who are still in existence, and the those who
have recently passed away are known to have a knowledge of swordsmanship.
Grandmaster Antonio Illustrisimo is a superb swordsman at 91 years of
age (born in 1903). I heard that within the Doce Pares organisation, Momoy
Canette, who is around Tatang's age also knew the blade.
Yet the younger generation of masters and grandmasters who are below
the age of late eighties seem to emphasise the stick and also seem to have
"problems communicating and reconciling" with the older masters.
There appear to be a generation gap that had developed around early
20th Century caused by a sudden shift in emphasis from blade to sticks as
the main weapon.
7) The old book "Weapons and Armour of the World by XXXXXXXXXXXXXX
describes weapons of many parts of the world. Of all the descriptions, the
only bladed weapon that he stated as being very well balanced is the
This proves that the art of bladesmanship is already advanced in the
Philippines! So much for the theory of savages who had to resort to
In addition, he did not refer to sticks as the fighting weapons of the
Filipinos. He refered to BLADES.
This book was published in XXXX. So the data would have been compiled
around XXXX to XXXX. Why did blades get a superb mention and sticks did
not warrant mention? Why were sticks so irrelevant at that time and yet it
is THE weapon of Arnis now?
8) Remy and Ernesto Presas, in their books admited that "(Antonio)
Pigafetta, Magellan's historian and chroncler, recorded that on April 27
1521, Lapu Lapu felled the great Spanish warrior wih a bladed weapon."
This is a historical fact. It was also noted that Andres Bonifacio
brandished a bolo - his statue can still be seen in Fort Bonifacio today -
with a sword. I therefore have no doubt that our Kali forefather are adept
at the blade and used the blade for "serious work".
9) The term Kali or Kali probably is related to the Malay word Kali which
is a large bladed weapon. It may also have connections with Tjakalele
which is Indonesian swordsmanship. In this case, Kali was most likely to
be bladed system originally.
10)Remy Presas also admitted "What should be emphasised, however, is the
fact that the cane is used for practise purposes for it is less lethal in
nature. For in actual combat, the standard is still the bolo or any bladed
weapon which is more suitable and convenient for this kind of combat."
This is exactly the point of view of Illustrisimo Kali - the stick is only
a training device. You would expect Kali to be based on the blade if this
were so. Who, in the right frame of mind, would base their martial art on
a stick so that they can used a sword if action is required?
Although the techniques and training of Arnis currently are based on the
stick, the original and natural fighting systems of the Filipinos were
based on the blade. Then somehow, around XXXX, there was an emphasis to be
stick-based. This shift was so strong and widespread that Arnis virtually
became a stick-based system of martial arts. The old arts of the sword
almost died out, except for a few masters like Grandmaster Antonio
Illustrisimo who still know the original arts of the blade. They are our
last bastion of an ancient tradition. I am honoured to have learnt from
In no way, am I stating that stick based systems are not
useable.............. I am only trying to assert that the original artsof
Kali were actually based on the blade.
My study, training and research into Kali would not have been possible
without the following to whom I am grateful:-
Grandmaster Antonio Illustrisimo ("Tatang")
Henry Chow (my father)
I wrote this article based on my own study and research into the Filipino
martial arts. I do not claim to be the authority on this subject, and I may
have made the wrong conclusions here and there. As with any subject, there
will also be agreements and disagreements. I do not wish to offend anyone,
and I do not intend to, and therefore, I have tried to make "general"
references only. I apologise to any Arnis player who might have been
Written by Guro John Chow who teaches Illustrisimo Kali, Lameco Eskrima and
Tai Chi Chuan in Melbourne. He is a certified teacher under Grandmasters
Antonio Illustrisimo and Edgar Sulite. He has taught Kali and Tai Chi Chuan
in Australia and England. Contact: (03) 848-6963 or (03) 685-9126 for more
Well, this statement is not entirely true. According to the great Kali
Grandmaster Antonio Illustrisimo (refered to by his students as "Tatang"),
sword techniques can be translated directly to sticks, but not all stick
techniques can be translated directly to swords. In fact, a system is
either stick or blade based. To an Arnis player who is experienced in blade
training, is easily determined even by watching a practice session. This is
because the techniques and principles of stick-based systems are different
from those of blade-based systems!
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