« The shillelagh was not a mere stick picked up for a few pence, or cut casually out of the common hedge. Like the Arab mare, it grew up to maturity under the fostering care of its owner, and in the hour of conflict it carried him to victory. » William Wright
This is a question I get asked so regularly that I thought the best idea would be to write down an article on what makes a shillelagh a great fighting stick.
I want to say before I begin that these are my opinions as chief instructor in Antrim Bata. They do not necessarily represent what is correct from the standpoint of other styles, so take it for what it is worth.
A word of caution
I am going to get flak for what I am going to say, but not every shillelagh is a good fighting stick. For more than a century, the demand for shillelaghs as weapons has been nearly nill. I do not wish to disparage the great work that traditional stick makers do, and on the contrary, I would wish to encourage it, but the last faction fights took place in the late 1800s and shillelagh makers saw much more demand for walking sticks than their deadly ancestors. While the knowledge of making a robust stick is still quite alive, the more subtle art necessary for determining the right balance and built of a fighting stick is, like bataireacht itself, in need of a revival. The problem is that there is no « one size fits all » here. For the fans of Harry Potter among you – or for those who have been forced to watch it – it’s a bit like going into Olivander’s shop, what you are like (in this case mostly physically) will determine what is best for you.
So for this reason, do not expect to just pick a shillelagh off the shelf and expect it to be perfect. If you don’t know what you are looking for, it will most likely feel terrible… and you might not even realize it.
But it’s just a stick!
I can already hear it: « You should be able to use any kind of stick! » « You won’t always have the best stick on hands when you need it! » Sure. But it doesn’t mean you have to spend your life twirling lumps of lumber and being miserable for it. Bataireacht is a complex and refined martial art, and like all of its cousins it necessitates an equally refined weapon.
If you are skilled in bataireacht, you will be able to use your abilities with most sticks that come in your hands. You should train with many different ones, but having one or two great shillelaghs will only make you a better fighter.
Unfortunately, just like the medieval sword, shillelaghs are pictured in popular culture as ridiculously heavy and unwieldy, owing much of their deadliness to their sheer weight. And just like the medieval sword, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
What to avoid
I will already tell you what you should absolutely not choose as your first stick (or even as your last stick). The first one is to avoid most sticks that are sold in souvenir shops. They are easy to recognize as most follow the same pattern. They are made of cheap and brittle wood and usually painted black.
The Cold Steel Shillelagh and its United Cutlery counterpart are unfortunately close seconds. The companies decided to produce sticks based on cartoonish representations of a shillelagh, and what you get is a weapon that is great if wielded like a baseball bat, but not much else. It is uselessly heavy at 834 grams and quite overbuilt. Good perhaps for conditioning, but you can find much cheaper options to this end. It is unfortunate that the company did not seek the opinion of bataireacht practitioners before producing it, as it could be a reasonable option if correctly redesigned.
Avoid sticks that have too much of a crook in them. A good shillelagh should be straight. Curved sticks will tend to twist upon impact, making them awkward. Avoid also sticks that have been pierced near the top to place a lanyard. These only fragilize the section of the stick that already bears the most stress.
Weight is probably the first thing to look for, especially for a beginner. The motions of bataireact involve a lot of overhead and violent motions that can cause injuries to a body that is not prepared for it (and not just to the one receiving the blows). Starting with too heavy a stick is the best way to end up with a damaged rotator cuff or tendonitis. If you are an able-bodied adult, choose a stick that is around 300 grams and as you progress go for heavier ones.
A stick does not need to be extremely heavy to deal damage. To be effective, an impact must have weight but also speed. If the weight brings the speed of your motion down, the impact will obviously be less.
The important is really how this weight is distributed, and in this regard a shillelagh is really unlike most sticks. In many stick arts, the weapon used is really a straight dowel. When a weapon is shaped that way, the weight is distributed evenly along the whole surface. If I want to make my stick heavy enough to deal enough percussive force I then need to widen or lengthen it. It is quite different for a shillelagh.
The most dangerous part of the shillelagh is its knob, or murlán. This is the part that is used to strike with and one of the reasons why the preferred grip is thumb up as it gives more control on where the point of your weapon goes. The size of the shaft then has little to do with the effective weight other than to balance it.
Think of it as a flail. No one cares if the chain is big enough when considering the power of a flail’s blows. What really matters is the ball. The chain only needs to be solid enough to hold everything together and allow it to move well. Faction fighters understood this idea and drove lead into the murlán when it was too light.
For this reason, the point of balance should be at some distance from your hand. 5 or 6 inches being a good minimum, but too close to the murlán and the stick will become hard to manoeuver.
Ideally, your shillelagh should taper from the top down. The part closest to the murlán, the ramhar, should be the thickest as it will bear the brunt of the torsion when dealing blows and from the impact of parries. From there, it should get slimmer and slimmer to the point. The lower part, or buta, is used mostly to guard the forearm and elbow and to thrust with. On occasion, it can be used to strike, but is used far less for hard parries. You do want the buta to balance the stick like a counterweight to the murlán, but not to the point where your blows become too light or your stick unnecessarily heavy.
The part of the stick where you grip it, the dorn, needs to be small enough to allow your three bottom fingers to touch the palm of your hand. It is often said that the thumb grip is not secure enough as it can be too easily disarmed. I would say that this is true with bigger sticks, and if you should find yourself forced to use one you should absolutely opt for a hammer grip, but on a slimmer stick a thumb grip is perfectly secure, and I would say more so than a hammer grip which doesn’t allow as much control.
Try to measure what the ideal diameter you need based on your hand, and from there find a stick that will suit you.
We get here to the most popular issue (and the highest rate of salacious jokes): how long should the shillelagh be? Traditionally, and this is referenced in many historical accounts, the length in Antrim bata and many other styles was 4 feet long. But if you followed what I wrote earlier, you will notice that the length isn’t quite as important as how the stick is balanced and constructed. You can then use shorter and longer sticks knowing that longer ones will need to be proportionately slimmer in order to stay manoeuvrable. At some point, the stick will need to be so slim as to be too fragile for use or necessitating a different grip altogether. On the opposite end, too short of a stick will make it less protective and lack reach.
A good method to measure the minimum length of a shillelagh, which comes to us through Glen Doyle, is to take the stick with your lead hand making sure that the lower tip (or barr) goes past your elbow by an inch or two. Put your other hand opposite the other, grabbing the stick as well and mirroring the other arm, again make sure that the stick goes past the other elbow by a few inches. You should then have the shortest stick you can use in the traditional manner.
You can absolutely use shorter sticks. I use a two feet long kipeen fairly often without problems, but you will need to adapt your technique as your elbow and forearm will not be protected.
Most makers today put ferrules on their shillelaghs. Personally, I prefer to use none and I believe this was also the case historically. Nearly no ferrule can withstand the impacts and vibrations of training and fighting, and at some point it will start to rattle and eventually fall or fly away. Save yourself the trouble.
Where to buy and what to ask for
There are many options to buy a shillelagh today. I won’t name anyone in particular as I do not wish to be unfair, but I can still give you some general guidelines.
There are two routes you can go: traditional or modern. We are lucky that there is still an industry of shillelagh making in Ireland and even abroad. As mentioned earlier, a lot of what you will find is geared towards the walking stick crowd, but the fighting stick is getting more and more popular and better understood. Blackthorn is by far the best material you can get, as its solidity to lightness ratio is one of the best on the planet. The drawbacks are the price, as traditional stick demand more time to make, and their limited use for safe sparring.
Modern sticks can be made of many different materials. For now, there is no artificial stick that really fits the bill, but many wooden ones that will. Rattan is also very suitable for training and sparring, keeping in mind all that I just outlined. One good aspect is the fact that a lot of companies making these sticks make them according to a certain standard, so you know exactly what you are going to get. Which is great if that standard happens to fit you!
One thing to remember when dealing with different materials is what your training partner uses. Always try to match the material to what is being used in your group. If you buy a lignum vitae stick and end up destroying everyone else’s training tools because they are made of ash, don’t expect to become the most popular kid in your class. Certain hardwoods are also unsuitable for martial arts practice. The list prepared by sensei Ellis Amdur, although aimed at Japanese martial arts, is one of the best references on the subject.
Whether you go the traditional or modern way, what you want is to get as many specs as possible. Ask what is the total weight, the length, the diameter at the grip, the point of balance and if the stick is made of one solid piece of wood or separate parts. All of this information will help you determine if the stick is right for you, but nothing replaces the actual act of handling it.
1- Start light
2- Tapering is great
3- Learn your ideal dimensions
4- Ask for the specs
I hope this was helpful!