Plastic shillelaghs. An overdue review…

If you have any interest in bataireacht, you must have run into one of these before, I’m talking about the Cold steel and United Cutlery polypropylene shillelaghs. These have been around for so long, that I can’t quite remember a time when they didn’t exist, even more so considering that, teaching bataireacht, I get questions about them more often than is probably safe for my mental health!

I haven’t been hiding my opinions about them. I already pointed out what a good shillelagh ought to be, and why shillelaghs are not oversized walking sticks, but I think I have to really tackle the elephant sized stick in the room…

If you wonder what a suitable shillelagh for Antrim Bata looks like, please read this previous article I wrote on choosing the perfect shillelagh.

Before I start, I want to say that I have no ill will towards any of the companies producing these sticks, and that my opinion is based on my knowledge of Antrim Bata, a traditional style of bataireacht, as well as extensive research in the history and practice of this martial art. They may work for other styles, and as I often say I do not intend to speak for them, but this is coming from one of the few styles of Irish stick fighting, which I guess should hold some weight when talking about our weapon of choice. So let’s begin!

The stats

I had the chance to handle these two models before in numerous occasions, but never felt the need to buy any, the reasons why will be found below. Nevertheless, I decided to buy an example of each to really be thorough in my evaluation and not rely entirely on memory. Each company produces variations on the theme, with longer and shorter batas, but I decided to talk about the standard ones that are more relevant to us.

Before presenting the stats, I have to say that it was quite difficult to find the exact information online. Some websites hugely misrepresent the weight of these sticks. I guess there might be some variation there, and the models may have changed over time, but you wouldn’t expect that from mass produced plastic sticks. I am also adding an actual blackthorn used for practice as well as what I consider to be an antique fighting shillelagh to really give some contrast.

Throughout the article, I will be using the terminology I came up with to refer to the parts of the bata. Here is a figure to help decipher those terms.

Cold Steel’s Irish Blackthorn Walking Stick

SourceWebsite dimensionsActual dimensionsModern shillelaghAntique shillelagh
Weight830 gr930 gr368 gr271 gr
Lenght94 cm96 cm94 cm90 cm
Dornno info3.8 cm2.3 cm2 cm
POBno info58 cm56 cm59 cm

United Cutlery Blackthorn Shillelagh Fighting Stick

SourceWebsite dimensionsActual dimensionsModern shillelaghAntique shillelagh
Weightno info639 gr368 gr271 gr
Lenght94 cm93 cm94 cm90 cm
Dorn« 1 1/8″ shaft diameter » (2.85 cm)3.1 cm2.3 cm2 cm
POBno info57 cm56 cm59 cm

The good

I believe those sticks are indeed incredibly tough, though not indestructible, especially in regards to the fake murlán that often ends up flying away if used for more vigorous training. It’s supposed to be standard in shape, so you do know what you are going to get (though as seen above, that doesn’t quite seem to be the case) and it can be cheaper to buy than a real Irish blackthorn stick, depending on where you live. It will also demand less maintenance than a wooden stick.

The weight can potentially make it a tool to train strength, but as I will discuss later on, this reason alone does not merit the purchase. The point of balance are surprisingly similar on both models, but were much too high above the dorn for me. This might be less of an issue with someone who has longer arms, as the dorn depends on the individual’s forearm length.

The bad

Where to begin? Well let’s start with the original plastic shillelagh, the Cold Steel blackthorn. This stick is ridiculously big and heavy. I mean cartoonishly so. Unfortunately, for some reason this became what people expect out of a shillelagh, even though the historical and practical realities of bataireacht show us something completely different.

Why is this a problem? First is the fact that most of it is dead weight. 900 grams may not seem like much if you are used to swords. A medieval arming sword maybe be around 1000 grams, a katana can be around 1200 and a large two handed sword would be around 2000. So what’s the problem?

I’ve said so before, but a club is balanced completely opposite a sword. The latter has most of the weight below the hand, while the other has it towards the top. If that was reversed, the sword would no longer be balanced for cutting and thrusting. The weight of a sword is also highly dependant on the fact that it is made mostly of steel, and what it needs to do and accomplish, which is completely different from a club. A bit like axes, which tend to be lighter than most swords of comparable length. That balance makes these types of forward weighted weapon able to produce more powerful strikes even at a much lower weight.

Warning, some graphic contents here. Do not try this at home. This is what a wooden club can do to someone wearing a steel helmet. Now imagine what it could do without it. Thanks to Ghena Luca for sharing this one.

Clubs are made to fracture bones, and they do so, mostly, with the mass that’s concentrated at the top. If you look at wooden cudgels used in other cultures, such as Zulu knobkerries, or all headed clubs in North America, the weight tends to be fairly similar to shillelaghs, around 300 to 600gr. This is really more than enough to seriously injure or kill someone. Why is that?

Update: I had written an attempt at a scientific explanation, but was told that my explanation was maybe too simple to explain something much more complicated. So rather than attempt something that’s a bit beyond me, and which would make this article way longer than it should be, I will refer to you two studies. The first is on the weight of tennis rackets in relation to the power of their strikes, and the other on baseball bats. Basically, as mass increases, power does, but only to a point. Past this point, it starts to decrease because, to reuse a conclusion from the second article, if you want more head speed and more mass, you have to put more energy into the swing and swing faster. There is simply a point where it’s impossible.

So to come back to our plastic shillelaghs. I took the time to swing both of them at pads and at coconuts; which we use to test the power of our strikes. The result is that I could achieve more power with the real blackthorn stick (the one that I mention in the tables above) than I could with either of the plastic ones. Even though they weight twice or even three times as much! I simply could not get them to move anywhere as fast as the real one, which affected how much kinetic energy I could deliver. We also have to keep in mind that this added exertion meant that not only would I hit with less energy, I would also become tired much more quickly, which is an important factor in any fight. I replicated the same thing using thai pads which we use to practice strikes, and got the same results.

Now, why could I not get the same energy going? Because our style of stick fighting was not developed for the need to use such overweight weapons; and frankly few stick martial arts are! If a 300 or 400 grams stick does the job perfectly well, why would I need to use something that will slow me down and get me tired more quickly? I could swing these sticks to comparable speed if I swung them using our two handed grip, much like how you would swing a baseball bat, but this would deprive me of most of the advantages that come with our standard grip, namely the substantial protection that I get from the buta, the faster strikes I can make, the ability to rapidly switch my distance of engagement, and the ability of using my off hand to grab, strike and defend, which is tremendously useful in a stick fight.

And here lies the main issue:these sticks were never meant to be used for proper bataireacht, as I doubt the creators had seen much of it or consulted with anyone trained in it. Looking at the promotional videos, you see one thing over and over, which is the use of large baseball bat swings. This is how these sticks were designed to be used, and that’s fine, but they are unfortunately useless for anything to do with Antrim Bata. Could someone much stronger than I am swing them at reasonable speed? No doubt. But I think only a small minority of people would truly benefit from using something so heavy, as they would still be able to swing a lighter stick faster and for a longer time.

I’m gonna kick your ass!… After a few years of professional strong man training…

The diameters of the sticks are also problematic, at least for me, and contribute to the lower performance of both. In Antrim Bata, the fingers are used to help power and direct the strikes, and to do this they need to have some range of motion. If the stick is too large in the hand, that motion becomes increasingly limited and so the power generation, agility and precision of the strikes and parries suffer. Add to this that the grip becomes a lot less secure if you cannot wrap your fingers around it, as you risk being easily disarmed.

The Cold Steel was the worst offender here, not only because of the diameter but because of the strange elliptic shape of the grip, which forces the fingers open even more. It is, strangely enough, more comfortable to use if the murlán is switched to the side. Imagine using an axe or a hammer with the grip rotated 45 degrees and that’s pretty much what you have here. Was this a mistake during production?

The United Cutlery one is a bit more conservative, but I still think it is too large for most people, at least if my apparently exact average hand size is any good indicator. The UC also has an issue that is not as serious with the CS, which is the fact that the murlán has a fairly sizeable crook to it. The problem with crook shaped sticks is that it demands a near perfect alignement on each strikes. If I hit slightly with the side of the murlán, the crook now acts as a lever and forces the stick sideways, which makes it turn in the hand.

This is even worse with these two sticks, because of the size of the murlán, which makes it a lot easier to catch a target with the side. The size of the striking surface also dissipates the energy, which contributes to diminishing the power that is transferred to the target where a smaller one would focus it. This was especially noticed on the thai pads, where the real blackthorn managed to almost hit the arm through the thick padding. It is then preferable to have a stick that is as straight as possible, and with a round murlán of smaller dimension.

The ugly

To me the biggest issue here is the material. I understand to some degree how a plastic sword or knife is useful. It’s relatively safer and cheaper than a metal or wooden trainer. But a stick doesn’t have that issue. Sure, an authentic Irish shillelagh can be more expensive than these plastic ones, but as long as you have trees in your region of the world it is fairly easy to find alternatives made in more accessible woods.

One might say: « Yes, but I want an indestructible plastic stick, in case I ever need to use it. » Unless your daily job involves using a stick to defend yourself on a regular basis, a properly made hardwood shillelagh is very unlikely to break on you. And even then, I would think that a wooden stick used regularly would still endure years of hard use (as we can see for ourselves in actual training), and more importantly it would show you when it needs to be replaced by starting to fray, which a plastic stick won’t. The latter will most likely fail without warning.

You might also consider a heavier stick to build strength. While this is a traditional training method in Antrim Bata, I would again ask the question of why choosing an expensive plastic shillelagh when any big piece of wood would do just the same? In Antrim Bata, we would traditionally use table legs for this purpose, because why go to all the trouble of producing a real shillelagh if it’s never going to be hitting another stick?

Next, this is a bit personal, but I find these sticks to be really tacky… They look like cheap Halloween or St-Patrick’s props, and no one seeing them will be fooled in thinking that you are walking around with an actual blackthorn. I think there are far better options around for a nice looking walking stick if you ever feel the need to get one. The material itself adds a layer of « plastic paddyness » that we could really do without. Which brings me to my last point.

The traditional folklore around the woods used for bataireacht, whether you wish to believe in it or not, shows a certain deference to nature. It makes little sense to me, especially knowing what we know about pollution today, to go to all the troubles of acquiring sticks made with fossil fuels, which on top of that will take upwards of 450 years to decompose (and then probably stay around in other forms) once we discard them. While a wooden stick can be safely turned back to nature when it is no longer needed, a plastic one will stand on the growing trash heap that we are leaving for future generations. Let’s keep bataireacht alive for them, not our plastic wastes.

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