Weapon based martial arts were designed for then tested on the battlefield. But what have been the best weapon-based martial arts in the world throughout history and in the world today?
There have been quite literally hundreds of regional weapon-based martial arts. But some of the very best are Eskrima, Fencing, Kendo, Gatka, Krabi-Krabong, Kumdo, Mau Rakau, Nunchaku Do, Siljun Dobup and Kobudo.
No matter what part of the world you are talking about, weapon-based martial arts permeate almost all ancient culture and traditions. From South America to Europe, Africa to all the way to Asia. Weapons and weapon-based combat have been a staple of militaries since their inception.
Today many of the very same techniques are trained in non-military based environments. In the dojo’s and martial arts gyms of the world, many people still carry on the very same traditions of the past with honour and dedication.
In the article, we will take a closer look at the 10 very best weapon-based martial arts in the world today. In our tour de force we will travel around the globe to discover those hidden gems which are rarely talked about in mainstream martial arts circles.
From Chinese to Japanese martial arts weapons, on to those of the Pacific region and Europe. I look at a cross-section of these weapon-based fighting systems the thave stood the test of time. With many transforming from techniques designed for military use, into what today has become some of the most popular pastimes on the planet.
Eskrima – Philippines
The martial art of Eskrima originated in the Phillippines. It uses a range of weapons including sticks, some bladed weapons as well as those weapons that were to hand on the battlefield. The martial art also makes use of a range of grappling and ground fighting techniques which all tie in together alongside the weapons in its system.
Also referred to in Filipino as Arnis and Kali, the history dates back hundreds of years as some of the local tribes refined their stick fighting skills. And while the origin of the names is not quite clear, it is known that the name Eskrima is taken from a Spanish word “esgrima”, meaning fencing.
With records on fighting techniques dating back to 200 BC. Weapons and the wider practice of martial arts have played an integral role in the nation’s history. And where the Spanish colonial influence can be seen in the use of the European fencing term to name their very own martial art.
It is believed that it was, in fact, Spanish fencing which brought with it additional techniques, like the use of different angles of attack and two weapons, that being a sword and dagger. The Spanish colonisers would also attempt to ban all traditional martial arts in an attempt to stamp their culture on the nation. Forcing the Filipino’s to instead use rattan sticks.
This banning led Filipino martial artists to find new and different ways to use the sticks. Creating techniques which in the beginning mimicked the sword. But as they became more accustomed to how the sticks handled, they were able to use it in new and exciting ways.
These new techniques included using the rattan to block, check and parry, as well as slash and stab at their opponent. Marrying the use of the sticks with bladed weapons. They were able to form a whole new style which would all develop under the given name of Eskrima.
Fencing – Spain
Fencing as we know it today is as an Olympic sport. However, the history of fencing dates back to the time when swords became a weapon used in duels and self-defence. With many of the oldest books written on fencing originated in that country.
And while fencing in Spain somewhat died off and was later built and improved upon by the French and Italians. It was the Spanish who managed to export the martial art around the world, through their colonisation of countries.
It was the introduction of another weapon of war, gun powder. That would lead aid in the adaptation and development of improved swordsmanship. At the bullets could now pierce armour, it was discarded, leading to more freedom of movement. And the ability for the sword to then be used more skillfully.
Today fencing is a highly skilled sport, but it was initially taught in terms of military swordsmanship. The shift away from the military to sport happened during the 18th century. When Domenico Angelo established a fencing academy in Soho London. And set about teaching the aristocracy a more fashionable style of swordsmanship.
And while the move away from the military, training the citizenry for real combat was important. The art still played a vital role in the everyday lives of people. Along with that the health benefits of participating in sports fencing was very much emphasized.
The art consists of using three main weapons, those being the foil, epee and the sabre. With each of the weapons having its very own set of rules and strategies during competition.
The techniques used during competition can be loosely be broken down into two categories, those being offensive and defensive. These techniques can also be combined depending on the scenario itself.
And while today the use by the military is a thing of the past. The sport continues to remain strong and vibrant. A testament to the skill and fortitude of this endearing weapons based martial art.
Kendo – Japan
Kendo “The way of the sword” which today is the descendant of ancient Kenjutsu or swordsmanship. The swords today are constructed using bamboo or wood and are referred to as Shinai and Bokken.
In exercises developed over previous centuries were called Kata and are still used today but in a different form, owing to the use of the bamboo swords. The change to these alternate training tools came into effect during the early 17th century. Where changes in the application and improvements in armour came into effect.
Practitioners in the art are known as Kendoka or sometimes Kneshi, meaning swordsman. With the original concept behind it being a way to discipline the human character through the principles of Katana. Meaning the sword used in ancient Japan by its warrior Samurai.
Nowadays Kendoka students are taught the range of techniques and movements in the Kata, which number from 1 up to 10. Using protective equipment they will actively spar against one another in what can be very loud matches. The reason for this being that the Kendoka’s will scream out loud with what is called a Kiai.
During active competition, the Kendoka are scored across a range of criteria including the accuracy of their strikes, did they misstep during a technique. How was the power in their strikes and was their accuracy and concentration on point.
While the modern martial art of Kendo is no longer a training regime for military combat. Its foundations are very much rooted in the act of killing by the sword. Something the modern-day Kendoka does not have to consider. But the skills required to do just that are still very much part of the ancient and skilful martial art.
Gatka – India
The martial art of Gatka originated in the country of India, but more precisely in the Punjab region. An ancient form of swordsmanship that has been battle-tested down through the centuries in the many Sikh wars. Today it is performed using wooden sticks which represent the sword.
With its origins in the 15th century, at the time the art form was called Shastar Vidyaa by its original Sikh creators. With the name having changed over time as it has become more westernised.
Handed down through generations by Sikh gurus. The techniques continue to be taught by Ustads or masters, who still train in the same theory and techniques. The theories involved culminate in the unification of body and mind known as Miri Piri. And so the martial art is deemed to be both a mental as well as a physical martial art.
Prior to its modern-day adaptation, Gatka used a variety of weapons including the talwar, tegh, khanda which were all swords. The chakram which was a circle-based weapon, along with a barcha or spear and bagh nakh, a metal claw.
During the British occupation of the region, the original weapon based martial art was outlawed. But following the uprising in 1857 which was crushed by the British with the aid of the Sikh’s. The laws around practising Gatka were relaxed. Allowing the ancient martial art to make a comeback, but this time with sticks representing the previous armoury of weapons used.
Today Gatka remains popular amongst Sikhs as well as others including the Tanoli and Gurjara communities, who are based in both India and Pakistan. It is widely recognised as a complete martial arts system that involves both mental and physical attributes in equal proportions using a wide variety of weapons.
Krabi-Krabong – Thailand
The martial is of Krabi-Krabong originated in Thailand, formerly known as Siam. But during these ancient and turbulent periods, war amongst neighbouring kingdoms was commonplace. Ad as a direct result, hand to hand weapon-based martial arts were developed.
In terms of Krabi-Krabong, it’s not known if it was developed to work in conjunction with Muay Boran (the ancient base for Muay Thai). Or whether these were developed separately. The name itself refers to the weapons used, those being the sword (krabi) and staff (krabong).
One of the defining characteristics of the martial art is the use of the double sword or Daab Song Mue. This technique meant that there was always one sword to defend and one to strike. And should one sword be broken during a battle, another was readily available to continue.
Should a soldier lose their weapon, it also made room for the use of unarmed tactics. Including throws, kicks, joint locks, holds and pressure points. These unarmed techniques were designed to incapacitate and kill the enemy without the need of a weapon. Meaning that Krabi-Krabong is not just a weapon-based martial art. But a complete fighting system for both armed and unarmed combats situations.
While having evolved over time, today there are some ancient weapons which can no longer be found in modern-day Thai culture. But within Krabi-Krabong there are entire dances built around these individual weapons. And today these very same dances make up the callisthenics used by the Thai military.
Kumdo – Korea
Kumdo is a Korean martial art which took elements from that of Kendo, the Japanese Way of the sword. With records dating back thousands of years, the use of a sword in everyday Korean life was commonplace. With the Korean’s at the time having territorial claims as far-flung as the Japanese main island.
In 1895 the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai or Greater Japan Martial Virtue Society was established in Kyoto Japan. And the training techniques they had implement back in the 17th century which included the use of bamboo swords. Then further expanded into and were accepted by those in Korea.
The reason for this clear alignment had to do with the fact that Kumdo was very much a derivative of Kendo. And so as the martial art evolved in Japan, these changes also affected how Kumdo would be practised in Korea including the introduction of the bamboo sword.
The weapon-based martial arts is very much steeped both in philosophy and the countries culture. Taking into consideration the current culture and history of the past. Kumdo seeks to build strong character among its practitioners, as this is seen as a requirement for a competitive spirit.
While Kumdo is seen as quite a recent adaptation in swordsmanship. The lineage of its origins takes its ethos from the “O-Gae” or “Five tenets” associated with the Silla kingdom (935 AD). These long with the more recently added tenets referred to as “the Four Poisons of Kumdo.” These are namely Surprise, Fear, Doubt and Confusion.
Regular training is required in order to master and control these natural human tendencies. And this along with the preferred state of emptiness being necessary to carry out the techniques involved, regardless of environmental surroundings, such as in the heat of battle.
Mau Rakau – New Zealand
Mau Rakau is a Maori weapon-based martial art. It compromises of using three main weapons which are the Mere, a bladed weapon in a teardrop shape, the Taiaha which is a short spear and Tewhatewha which is an axe-like weapon.
The term itself is quite broad and means to bear a weapon and was taught in the Whare-tū-taua or House or school of war. Today’s adaptation of martial art draws upon elements of building respect and self-discipline. The emphasis now is on maintaining proper form and discipline.
The Maori people have been known for their fearsomeness in battle and their martial art using quite rudimentary weapons very much reflects their fighting heritage.
Even today their sports we get to see a glimpse into that past through the use of the pre-game Haka. The Haka is a war dance which was performed before going into battle. While there are opposing views on its origins, today it very much forms the base of the Maori fighting spirit in sports.
Nunchaku Do – Holland
Today Nunchaku Do is a sport which focuses on the use of the deadly Nunchaku or Nunchuck. This version is not the same as the original use for the Nunchuk which was part of the Kobudo training regime.
The weapon itself originated on the islands of Okinawa in Japan. Commonly constructed from two small poles of wood which are connected by a metal chain. The use was most often seen in Karate and was not originally a weapon at all. It was in fact used to thresh rice after the harvest.
It would later find favour in the realm of martial arts. Being used as a tool to train students in improving speed and had to eye coordination. It would go on to be highly popularised by Kung Fu master and martial arts legend Bruce Lee.
The sport of Nunchaku Do begins by teaching the basic blocks and strikes for kata and Kumite/sparring. Combatants engage in matches where they try to score points on one another, using an array of techniques on one another. Along with wearing padded protective equipment that helps prevent injury.
The grading system in the sport is similar in many ways to other martial arts in terms of grading. As the students work their way firstly through Kyu then on to Dan grades. Skilled practitioners are able to snatch the Nunchuk from their opponent using their own during a match, in the ultimate winning technique.
Siljun Dobup – Korea
Siljun Dobup is a form of swordsmanship based on mixture Korean and Japanese traditions. The ultimate goal in this martial art is the controlling of the mind. Putting one’s self in a potentially life-threatening situation, when faced with a sword.
With a strong focus on ki, flexibility, breathing, and control of strength. All of these elements contribute to the development of skills for the Katana. Siljun Dobup begins form a standing position, which is different from other forms of iaido that are often practised from a kneeling position.
With a strong lineage that brings together Japanese koryu Toyama-ryu and especially Nakumura-ryu, along with Korean sword forms Chosun Sebup and Bonguk Geombup. Beginners start off with a wooden sword, moving their way up to a blunted metal sword, before finally progressing to a shinken or sharpened steel sword.
The desired final state when partaking in the weapon based martial art of Siljun Dobup should be that of the body and mind becoming one. With five ascending stages of training that are Jee (earth), Pung (wind), Hwa (fire), Soo (water) and Cheon (sky).
Letting go of the self, becoming like water as Bruce Lee famously said. Discovering freedom of the mind during the battle and filling ourselves with energy and drive. You need to accept that you are master of your own mind with everything being free and in harmony.
Kobudo – Okinawa
Developed on the Okinawan islands of Japan, Kobudo meaning old martial art, focuses on the what were the traditional Okinawan weapons of the Bo or staff, Tonfa or wooden batton, the Sai a three-pronged weapon and Nunchaku which is two usually wooden batons connected using a chain or rope.
Often taught in conjunction with Karate, today these weapons are primarily used in displays and weapons Katas. With the term can also include weapons training which involves the use of horses. And so it can be very much seen as an umbrella term which covers many aspects of weapon based training.
The system is very much focused on three main priorities that are morals, discipline and aesthetic form. And as the term covers so many various weapons focused martial arts. Today many of those that previously fell under its name has now been lost of forgotten.
These included the use of hidden weapons along with the use of medicines and magic. Throughout time, the reasoning behind some of the movements has also been lost, even to those who are masters in the crafts.
While many of the modern martial arts seek to balance both physical and mental training techniques. Kobudo does not focus on sports-related training or competition.
Weapon based martial arts is as unique and diverse as unarmed combat based styles. It appears as though every nation around the world that has experienced war and struggle has inbuilt into their culture their own forms which can vary greatly from region to region.
In today’s modern world for some, it may appear as though these art forms are somewhat outdated, a relic of the past. But I do think that one thing is clear from the practitioners and that is the application of what they learn, both physically and mentally in the dojo. And how it is then applied to their everyday lives.
These martial arts give their students a single point of focus and inherent confidence in their personal abilities. This self-belief and self-assurance does then seep into the other cervices of life and helps lead you in a better direction with a clear head and a drive to push forward.
Martial arts in all it’s forms brings positivity into a person life and can very much help in changing a person’s overall outlook on where they are and where they want to be. And based on these truths, I can only recommend that you find martial arts weapons training near you or even without, just find the right place for you. And make the most of this journey that you are on.