While we may think of martial arts as a way to fully optimize the human body to be able to use it to defend, there are other aspects to these arts that involve rudimentary weaponry. None of them rely on modern weapons, such as firearms; instead, the weapons that are being used in some of these arts are older and more traditional striking tools. Although back in the day, they may have been used closely with martial arts and in real life combat situations, today these weapons are more for traditional demonstration, education for history on the art, and for training purposes. Most of these weapons were treated as an extension of the body and promoted increased strength and coordination while unarmed.
We first examine one of the more famous and traditional Japanese striking arts, karate. Karate translates roughly to 'empty hand' so one would think that weapons are looked down upon. However, this is a misconception as weapons have been associated with karate, stemming back all the way to the 15th century.
In an article from Shotokai.com by Marian K. Stricker, karate expert Tadashi Yamashita describes karate and weapons as "brother and sister…they complement each other". The earliest karate weapon dates back to 1470, and it is known as the kama. This sickle began its use as a weapon in the late 15th century when the Japanese military confiscated weaponry from the common people.
The kama, which was originally used for cutting grass or wheat, was then fashioned into a fighting blade, and was useful for trapping an opponent's weapon in its curve along with striking. The people who utilized it also attached a chain to its base which allowed for a greater reach. Today, the kama is used in forms for training and competition, and is said to improve blocking and countering techniques.
Another common weapon in Karate is a six-foot staff, known as the bo. This weapon is deeply seeded in the early Japanese martial art systems, and was used by samurai, priests, and commoners. Its length allowed for the ability to keep a safe distance while being able to engage the opponent. The bo likely came from the poles that people balanced across their backs to carry buckets of water or other heavy materials. Today, the bo is used in demonstrations and in training, it can be used to improve balance and upper-body strength.
The final Japanese weapon we'll examine, and perhaps the most known is the nunchaku, sometimes stylized in English as nun-chucks. This flailing two-sectioned baton was developed in the 17th century by Okinawans as the Japanese had confiscated their weapons. This weapon had appeared harmless to the military, as it originally was a tool used for threshing grain. However, in the hand of the trained individual, it was an effective weapon that was used in conjunction with stances and fighting techniques. The sticks could be used to strike and the chain that holds them together can be used to choke the opponent, block their strikes, or trap their weapons.
In a shift from a more traditional art that incorporates weaponry at times, we will now examine an ancient art from India that is more heavily oriented in the use of weapons and combat techniques.
Kalaripayattu is a martial art system that had its origin in Southern India, and is one of the oldest fighting systems in the world that is still practiced today, with its origins beginning around as early as the 3rd century BC. Its name translates to "Practice in the Arts of the Battlefield" and its techniques follow this idea. They include hand-to-hand striking and grappling, as well as healing massage techniques that could heal warriors by helping their vital points rejuvenate. The main aspect of kalaripayattu, however, is the use of battlefield weapons in their movements and sparring, with its main premise to prepare people for war. The weapons and techniques of kalaripayattu are separated into levels.
The basic level deals with basic forms, unarmed striking, and grappling, more specifically locks and throws. The intermediate level brings flexibility forms. It is not until the advanced level where weapons come into training. We'll discuss the common weapons of the advanced, senior, and instructor levels.
At the advanced level, the most common weapon is the rad veesh, or a long staff. This is used in training to build strength and ability to use a longer weapon, and can be used in ranged protection. It is primarily spun around, which has the ability to put out powerful strikes and traditionally, people who want to protect their land would train with this and put fireballs at the end of the sticks to scare away animals
At the senior level, sword fighting is introduced to the practitioner and the more common weapon is called the valum, which is a long sword. This is considered a more dangerous instrument and as such more training is required in movement and technique with the sword as the practitioner can do damage to himself if not done correctly. This was the commonly used weapon in battles in the history of India and at this level, it is instructed to be used without the shield, as to build up the fighter's strength in his strong arm and his ability to absorb blows and block with the sword itself.
At the instructor level, the highest, there are two weapon types that stand out. The first is the valum parichayum, which is taking the sword skills that were learned at the senior level and combining them with a shield. This is a different type of combat as the practitioner must also be able to use his lead hand to control the shield as a separate weapon, used for blocking and some strikes, and also blend that together with the movements of the valum to have one set of movements that flow smoothly and allow for the practitioner to easily transition between offense and defense.
The most dangerous and advanced of all of the weapons, however, comes as the last to be learned, and with good reason. The Urumi, otherwise known as the spring sword, is a sword that has a coiled up and flexible blade, which when swung uncoils and has a whipping motion. According to Kalari.in, a website that has info about Kalaripayattu, "
The Urumi is a weapon unique to India. No other country in the world has a weapon like this. Worn like a belt by the warrior, this weapon is only for the most extreme and dangerous situations, as it is one that can easily cause self-injury. When a true master uses this weapon, it has the ability to cut off a hundred heads in a single draw. If used without proper practice, this weapon can take the warrior's own head."
This weapon is obviously reserved for only the most experienced masters as its ability to do damage is unparalleled. This gives a glimpse back to where martial arts were truly preparation for life-or-death battle, and these weapons like with all techniques, if put into the hands of a trained individual, could cause immeasurable damage.
While many martial arts today focus on unarmed combat, it should be known that weapons are still used for training and demonstration purposes, and in some cases they are the center of the art, and although there isn't as much practical use today, the people who choose to train with these weapons and master them are no less dangerous than the warriors who were skilled in these arts centuries ago.