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From unarmed to armed: Fundamental differences in fighting with a weapon

By Maxime Chouinard – chief instructor for Antrim Bata

The idea for the present article came up following a couple of recent discussions and comments on Antrim Bata, as well as general observations I have made during the years. The more I have delved in the study of weapon martial arts, meaning those that involve weapons which significantly increase the reach of a combattant, the more I realized that there exists a disconnect in circles where the subject was inexistant or mostly adjacent to an empty hand art. I believe that the problem stems mainly from some fundamental differences in the strategies of armed vs unarmed fighting, and the assumption that what is true in one of those things will necessarily apply to the other. So I decided to write this article here to explain what those differences are, and how one should look at weapon martial arts when coming from an unarmed context.

Power and safety

Let’s first talk about something that may seem quite obvious to most, but judging by past discussion might not really be all that clear, even to people who are quite familiar with combat. A while ago, I noticed someone had posted a negative comment under one of our videos. I wouldn’t necessarily waste much time on those usually, except this one made a curious assumption.

The comment was directed at our criticism of needlessly heavy sticks for practice, but also sought to ridicule our use of protective masks. To put some context, we wear fencing masks (HEMA types) when sparring or when drilling with contact. For someone who has fought in boxing or MMA matches, the idea of getting hit on the head – at least by someone of relatively similar weight – may not be that frightening. A good blow could of course knock out someone, but most fighters can endure many hits to the head before being taken out of a fight. Deaths or even broken bones in such encounters are fairly rare. This is completely different with a solid melee weapon.

The consequences of getting hit on the head, even once, with a shillelagh may have grave consequences. Such a forward weighted weapon is a powerful force multiplier, and can, with surprising ease, fracture the cranium and even more easily the bones of the face. Let alone damage eyes and teeth, which could be irremediably lost even from an accidental hit. This is why we wear such masks, even with lighter training sticks, and other pieces of equipment like padded gloves, knees and elbow protectors. Because all of these targets can also easily be broken or put out of service with a powerful enough blow.

We also sometimes receive comments about the level of force shown in our sparring videos while training. While we do full contact stick fights, we also spend a lot of time slow sparring. This point is not necessarily that different from how many top fighters train in unarmed martial arts, where full force sparring is a relatively rare occurrence. First, because it lessens the chances of injury. A friend of mine who recently passed away had done judo his entire life, and trained with me for a while in BJJ. He took this up, as he said to me, because his years of judo had destroyed his legs, to the point where he could not go around without canes or with a wheelchair. Ground wrestling became one of his only options. If your aim is self defense, then a type of training making you unable to defend yourself should be a major concern and cause for reevaluating your training.

Secondly, doing slower sparring can actually teach you a lot, as you can get the chance to actually examine the strategies you or your partner use. It is also great for building confidence and avoid creating traumatic experiences for students that may very well make them overly defensive fighters.

In this video, Ramsey Dewey makes an excellent point about slow sparring and the importance of building confident fighters

Yet, it seems to me like people expect weapon sparring to always be more extreme. This may be due to the protective equipment being worn, which may give outsiders an impression that we can then easily go full force in sparring. That equipment is not there to increase the level of power we can throw at each other, but rather to protect from weapons that are themselves force multipliers. In short, we don’t wear protective gear so we can hit each other harder, we wear it because we already do!

we don’t wear protective gear so we can hit each other harder, we wear it because we already do!

Time and distance

This brings me to my second point: distance. When seeing us spar, people often comment on how we tend to keep a certain distance from our opponent instead of coming up close. This may appear strange to someone coming from an unarmed background, especially in our post UFC world, where grappling has taken such an important stage. I usually answer that we do have quite a few techniques for dealing with an opponent at a grappling range (almost half of our technical curriculum deals with close range), but the fact that we do not always go there is due to two main problems in attempting to close in with weapons, and the many advantages in attempting to work at a longer measure. One is reaction time, and the other is the lethality of certain weapons.

To better understand it, let’s look at some concepts of distance and time. We borrow some of George Silver expressions here when dealing with distance: time of the hand, time of the body and time of the foot. For Silver, those « times » are what we could call ‘measures », or « ranges », since he was working from an idea that time was determined by the distance an object had to move to. In modern physics, this is of course quite incorrect, but in our fighting context this is actually still very relevant!

Time of the hand (TOTH) is the fastest distance to fight from. It is the distance where all you need to do to hit your opponent is to extend your hand. No need to step or move anything else beyond your arm. Why is it the fastest? Because the hand is not only quicker than the rest of the body, it is also often quicker than the brain can react.

You will often see double hits happen with people staying too long in time of the hand, in good part because it is so difficult to react correctly in this measure.

Time of the body (TOTB) comes next. This is a distance where I need to move not only my hand but also my upper body in order to reach my opponent. The distance to cover is not only greater this time, but also the parts of the body I need to move are slower, at least for most humans! The hand may still move fast, but it can’t arrive until my body has finished moving.

This fencer is able to hit the wrist by slightly bending his body forward.

Time of the foot (TOTF) is the last, and also the slowest of the three. Here, I need to move the hand, the body and the foot (though the body may sometimes simply follow the foot, depending on the technique). Moving all this mass takes time, and also means that I am starting at a longer distance to begin with.

Both of these kendoka are in itto ma, a time of the foot equivalent. Either of them would need to step in order to strike.

Now, you may say: « If TOTH is the quickest, then I’ll always fight from there! That’s a no brainer! » That may very well be true if your opponent has a much shorter reach than you have, but if you think about it; sure you can hit your opponent so quickly he may not have time to defend, but that is only good if your opponent never returns the favor! Your opponent can also attack you just as easily, and both of you may decide to do it at the same time, not realizing quickly enough that an attack is being launched. For that reason, most weapon arts will tend to stay longer in TOTF, and only move closer when one is very confident in their strategy or has no other choice.

If this is not enough to convince you, or you would rather watch someone getting slapped in the face than read my diatribe (said like that, that does sound more fun), then watch this explanation by Roland Warzecha.

Fighting in time of the hand or the body in empty hand striking arts is not quite as detrimental for one major reason: physical endurance. A boxer can more easily fight in such a distance because he has fewer targets to worry about. He will not get thrown to the ground, since grappling has been banned from boxing for the last 130 years, he will not get kicked below the belt, as this was banned 400 years ago at least, and more importantly he will not get stabbed with a knife or hit with a club!

Indeed, the boxer needs to worry first and foremost about their head- though really only certain areas of it- and to a certain degree their torso. Trained boxers can very safely get hit in many parts of their anatomy during a match, and by covering their head well they can stay in time of the hand without risking too much. They are more or less armored up, and this protection allows them to move closer.

Such a strategy would be almost impossible to pull off with knives, swords of clubs. One could not protect all his vital parts as easily as Mayweather does here without a set of armor.

This is also somewhat true in kickboxing, where the fighters will tend to fight at a distance where they can kick without having to take much of a step. In MMA, the distance of engagement is usually longer, in big part because the fighter now has to care about things like double leg takedowns. He cannot keep his guard as high in order to counter those attempts, and so he needs to set a bit more distance in order to have the opportunity to respond to attacks that may come at many different targets.

This range gives a chance to see strikes coming, which in turn allows lowering the guard in order to quickly counter takedown attempts.

This is not to say that everyone fights like Mike Tyson. There are several successful out-fighters like Mohammed Ali, or Floyd Mayweather who will spend more time in TOTF, but all of them also spend considerable amount of time trading blows in TOTH. Because all of these fighters can usually afford to get hit or grappled, often multiple times. It is quite rare that a fight will end on the first punch or kick landed, or even the first takedown. The stakes are much higher when a dangerous weapon is introduced.

With a stick like a shillelagh my head is of course still a prime target, but there are now many more parts of my body that I need to seriously worry about. A strike to my kneecap may force me to the ground, a strike to my hand may disarm me, a broken ribcage may have serious consequences, and a single blow to the head may often be all it takes to knock me out or worse. Not only that, but my opponent (or opponents) may decide to bring me to the ground. I cannot afford to absorb hits, and I must then be very cautious. This is why time of the foot is the most common fighting distance, because it gives me time to defend against a large variety of attacks that may all be equally threatening.

This victim from the Tollense Valley battle site shows blunt force trauma believed to be from a club similar to a shillelagh.


Now that we’ve explored distance, let’s talk about a very closely related subject (pun intended), the notion of tempo. Here, a tempo designates a complete action. Swinging my stick to attack takes a tempo to complete. If my opponent is roughly as fast and skilled as I am, they can then raise their stick to block the attack. They used that space of time it took for me to attack in order to make their parry. Now, this is where it gets interesting.

Here, I have attacked Callum’s outside face, which he blocked with an outside parry. Both our actions took an entire tempo to complete, and we are now ready to take another action. Only Callum is in an advantageous place to attack quickly, while I need to recover first.

In order to do something else, either of us will need to take another tempo. I could stay there and throw another attack, but I have two issues. First, I will need to move my stick around to attack again, or move closer in order to grapple, disarm or punch. All of these actions will take a full tempo to happen. Meanwhile, my opponent also gets to act in this tempo. If I am lucky, they will stay there and do nothing, and this may happen with neophytes who are quite shy or inattentive, but a good fighter, or even an agressive beginner, will take that opportunity to do something since they are in a better position to strike quickly than I am.

This isn’t my only problem, because while I attack I cannot defend myself at the same time; unless I have a shield or some other parrying weapon. This is made even worse by the fact that I am now in TOTH, where my opponent can attack extremely quickly, possibly more so than I can even defend as my stick cannot possibly cover every openings.

I could try to close in, but unless my opponent is backed up to a wall they can also very easily take a step back or to the side, bringing me back to their TOTH as they hit me mercilessly. As a result, the usual safe reaction will be – after a parried attack- to move back to the time of the foot and defend.

This is one option though, and I could also attempt to do a counterattack, or a single tempo action. That is, attempt to both defend and attack at the same time. I could parry the strike with the buta, and by extending my arm simultaneously, strike my opponent in the head. I could also choose to crash in by blocking the strike while launching myself in a strong leap forward in the hope of breaking the distance and allowing myself to enter into infighting. This is the solution of choice in most weapon arts, since the opponent will hopefully be busy attacking and moving closer to me as I move towards them.

Here, I parried Callum’s strike with the buta, and by extending my arm forward I am using the push against my stick to strike back. Had I misjudged the strike, and that it came lower, or straight down, I would get hit.

The problem with either of those strategies is that they demand a very high degree of commitment. If I block and strike, I still need to spend a whole tempo doing so. If I misjudged the attack, I may very well get hit in the process. The same with the crashing in. If I block in the wrong place, or move too early, I will simply present a perfect target for my opponent’s stick as I am plunging headlong into it. I have to be able to predict perfectly where and when the strike will come, and this is immensely difficult to pull off against skilled opponents, and may only really be possible against neophytes.

Here, I blocked Andrew’s strike as I took a great step forward and punched him. I could have also used this tempo to grapple, though the size difference makes this a very hazardous strategy.

Multiple opponents

There is another context which is not often trained in unarmed martial arts, and even in most armed ones, which is the presence of multiple opponents. This is especially relevant in the historical context of bataireacht, when faction fights were especially popular. You could very well get to fight in group against another, but also become outnumbered or encircled, a scenario that is still reasonably likely today. In this situation, all the points we talked about become vitally important to consider.

When I am fighting a single unarmed opponent, and that I am confident enough in my grappling skills, it is not a great issue to enter into grappling range as I only need to focus my energy and capacities against one person. This is not the case the moment that another opponent enters the fight, and even more so with a weapon.

One major issue with prolonged grappling in a group fight situation

When you grab someone, they also grab you. What is meant here is that if I grab an opponent my movements are now severely limited, as I am now tied to where this opponent goes. Not only that, but the arms I am using to grapple can now only be used to fight this person. Unless I somehow manage to free one arm – while keeping my first opponent in check – I cannot effectively attack or defend against anyone else. Unless I have the advantage of numbers on my side this is effectively the best of time for an opponent to begin striking me. Remember that a single strike may be all they need if they are armed. My only hope here is that I can very quickly disable my grappling opponent, which, if you know anything about grappling, is quite unlikely with a skilled adversary.

Grappling multiple opponents is perhaps a feat best left in kung fu cinema

Staying outside of that distance has an advantage in the way that I now have a chance to move away from an attack, position myself somewhere safer, and/or defend or attack different opponents.

This Portuguese Jogo do Pau demonstration shows a very similar technique to one of Antrim bata’s. It is designed to deal with an encirclement. The attention is never spent on only one opponent, but rather on maintaining them all at bay through wide circular attacks and constant motion. It is a difficult situation, where the hope is to allow for an escape, or buy enough time for help to arrive. This type of technique is present in almost all of European staff traditions, and show up even with other weapons.

Fighting multiple unarmed opponents is already a superhuman feat, but if they are armed then every single hit has the potential to effectively put me out of combat. This is why distance is my greatest ally in such a situation.

To conclude, melee weapons like shillelaghs are great force multipliers, making almost impossible the idea of taking multiple blows to vital areas. In that context, I must make sure that I control distance carefully, by being aware of my own reach and that of my opponent. The closer we get, the less time I will have to react to attacks, and the more chances I have of making costly mistakes. So while fighting back and forth at a relatively long distance may see strange for people coming from unarmed martial arts, it is almost universally the strategy of choice in weapon based martial arts for the reasons I just outlined.

I hope this article helped to demystify the way we practice Antrim Bata. If you are interested in learning more, please do follow this blog, check our channel on Youtube, and I hope to see you in class!

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