I think it is best to start with a simple disclaimer: you really can not learn any kind of hand to hand fighting skill from an article… especially one without pictures. If you really want to learn martial skills (I think “martial arts” is a terrible translation) then you need to seek out competent instruction and apply yourself to your lessons. There are a million pieces of advice on the Internet, even on this site, concerning how to pick a style or school but the simple fact is that you are limited to what is affordably offered in your area. Visit the available schools (and instructors) to find one where you feel physically, psychologically and financially comfortable. Even if “Fist X” is demonstrably the greatest fighting style ever it will not help you if the nearest school is 750 miles away or the fees are more than you make! Nor will “Fist X” help you if can attend classes but do not put in the effort necessary… receipts for karate lessons may get you a black belt but they will not win a fight!
All that being said, I know there are many people looking for something to give them an edge in hand to hand combat who do not have the time, resources or interest necessary to undertake a serious study of martial skills. There are literally catalogs full of self defense items aimed at this group and many of them are highly effective (but many of them are cheap pieces of garbage, too). The problem is that more and more places bar you from carrying any of these items. Sporting events, casinos and concert venues, for example, regularly run all attendees through metal detectors. They won’t let you bring in your lucky penknife with it’s dull 1.5 inch blade, much less your canister of tear gas, collapsible baton, pressure point keychain, TASER and double-edged boot knife! Yet we have all read stories of fans being beaten at games, robberies in parking lots and more. Therefore a self defense item needs to be not only effective and fairly easy to use but permissible to carry at all times. Instead of turning to the latest high-tech self defense gizmo I recommend returning to one of the oldest: the cane.
The cane and its cousin the walking stick have been used as weapons by almost every culture at one time or another. From the Blackthorn shillelaghs of the Irish clans and the Japanese jo staff, our ancestors saw the advantage of carrying a nice, stout club… whether or not you actually needed the assistance walking. Around the turn of the last century when urbanization saw an increase in crime coupled with a decrease in the legality of carrying weapons, several manuals and gyms appeared touting the cane or umbrella as a convenient, legal weapon. In fact, Sherlock Holmes was even supposed to be a student of Bartitsu, the hybrid Asian-European fighting system that included fencing with walking sticks. Canes and walking sticks are still readily available and readily accepted because they are still needed by so many people. What about umbrellas? Most are just too flimsy to effectively use, although in a pinch they can be treated as a hook handled cane.
Canes are not viewed as weapons and as such can be carried almost anywhere. I have used one on and off since high school and I have never had anyone question my need to carry a cane. It sometimes even gets me moved up in lines! It is important, of course, that you actually walk with your cane, even if you are not supporting your weight with it. If you are questioned remember that many people do not constantly need walking assistance and carry a cane for use on stairs or hills, when they begin to tire or just in case their knee suddenly “goes out.” The cane’s ability to hide in plain sight makes it the ultimate concealed self defense device but it comes with a possible drawback. Given the predatory nature of criminals and thugs, it is quite possible that your walking stick will make you look like the weak member of the herd. It is quite possible that walking with a cane will actually draw trouble to you. I have personally never had this happen but it is definitely worth considering before you decide to carry a cane.
In this article we will only be able to touch upon the most basic fighting technique and for our purposes there is little practical difference between a walking stick and a cane. You will be striking with the “head” of either so walking sticks are a bit easier to use because you never have to worry about the angle of the head while striking. When using a cane there is a specific spot you will want to use to make contact (where the handle, whether curved or straight, meets the shaft of the cane, but more on that later). Both canes and walking sticks are easy to find and available for any budget. For advanced fighters, the cane offers the ability to hook your opponent with the handle and walking sticks allow smoother transitions between various grips but these are not things you should try without some serious training.
Canes have the advantage of being very, very cheap and easy to find. Almost every drugstore, discount mart and grocery store will have inexpensive aluminum canes for sale. Last time I took a shopping trip with my wife I saw them at five stores, including a large gas station! These cheap models are actually a great option for self defense; just avoid the ones that fold up completely to store in purses and the ones with a four-pronged foot at the base. Select a straight-shafted cane with a single point of adjustment; it does not matter if it has a curved or straight handle. These canes are typically less than $20 new (and often closer to $10) but they are almost always available at thrift shops for a dollar or two. Even if you want to buy something a bit nicer, I suggest picking up one of the cheap canes as a practice piece and to help you determine the appropriate length of cane or walking stick for your body. They also are easy to store in your car or truck so they make a great back up to a more expensive cane.
If you prefer a non-adjustable cane many wood and synthetic options are available. Several fighting systems teach cane techniques so there are “fighting canes” available. They are often made of rattan or hardwood and almost always come with a curved handle (or hasp). These can get expensive, but they are typically solid and dependable. I would suggest, however, avoiding anything that is marked as a fighting cane or carries “martial arts” symbols. The advantage of the cane as a self defense device is that it does not look like a weapon; advertising that it is a weapon is literally a potential liability! Also be sure to avoid anything with a knife or sword hidden in the cane. They are concealed weapons so they open up a world of potential legal trouble. Worse yet, in my 20+ years of cane fighting I have yet to see one that is not a poorly-constructed piece of garbage.
If a walking stick is more appealing to you then you will probably need to resort to Internet shopping. There may be stores that offer walking sticks in your area (my favorite cigar shop always has a few on hand and I am sure that Irish-theme gift shops will have some expensive options, too) but there probably is not a section in your local Yellow Pages listing them! If you are able to shop in the real world for a walking stick, look for a solid stick that will not flex and if it has a metal or decorative headpiece, make sure it is attached well. After all, that is going to be your point of impact. If you are handy then you can always make your own; sometimes woodworking shops even have kits available. When shopping online a good place to start your search is Cold Steel (the knife company). They have a few options and a range of prices. I myself regularly use their African Walking Stick, a durable, synthetic piece fashioned after the fighting sticks used by the Zulu. They also make a synthetic shillelagh and traditional straight walking sticks.
Some canes and walking sticks have wrist straps attached. When you are walking with your stick never, ever use the wrist strap! You may want to cut them off but I usually keep them intact. I sometimes put a small metal bead on the wrist strap. Even though that bead does not pack much of a punch it gives me a few extra inches by acting as a little whip. Honestly, I find the real advantage of the wrist strap comes when pulling my cane off the floor or out from under the car seat. If you choose to use one of those cheap metal canes you may find that the handle has a plastic plug (usually where the wrist strap attaches) which constantly falls out. You can just throw it away if you do not want the wrist strap or you can glue the plug into the handle. Before you do that, however, you may want to shoot some glue and marbles, sand or metal shot into the handle and position the cane so the mixture settles in the striking point (I’ll explain where that is in a minute) for a little extra weight. Be warned, though: some municipalities may still have laws on the books prohibiting weighted canes that date back to the turn of the last century.
If you choose a walking stick then your striking point, that is the part you want to land on your target, is simply the head of the stick. Simply put: the part you hit with is the part you hold. Canes are a bit more complicated but not much. There are two common styles of cane handles in the cheap adjustable models, the inverted J and the 7, and each has its own striking point. For the inverted J (a cane with a rounded handle like grampa used) the striking point is where the handle meets the shaft. I know that this may seem like the exact opposite of where you should hit but it isn’t. Striking with the point where the handle meets the shaft allows you to take advantage of the weight of the handle, virtually eliminates the possibility of cracking the handle with a blow and minimizes the chance of getting tangled up with your target. If your cane has the 7 style handle then your striking point is where the hand grip meets the short length of the cane that is at a 45 degree angle. Some canes have an L shaped handle, usually with enough handgrip on one side of the shaft for just one finger to grip. In these cases the striking point is the edge of the handgrip on that short side. I have seen a few, very few, metal canes that have a triangular handle with a hand grip parallel to the floor (kind of like a spade handle) and 45 degree angles on each side that meet the shaft. If you have one of those then you can hit with either side of the hand grip.
If you actually need a cane’s assistance to walk, use it in the hand your doctor has instructed. Otherwise, I suggest using your cane or walking stick with your inferior hand. That is, if you are right handed, use your left hand to walk with your cane. This keeps your dominant hand free to use keys, write, drink beer or whatever it is you do when out and about. It also allows you to smoothly (and very quickly) transfer your cane to a fighting stance. You will find that by twisting your wrist you can move your palm from facing down (on the handle of the cane or head of the walking stick) to facing your other hand. This will lift the bottom of your stick up to your dominate hand. Grasp the stick about one hand’s length from the bottom and then let go with your inferior hand. You are now ready to wield your cane. If you have to use your dominant hand to grip your cane while walking you can transfer it into a fighting position by making a sharp upward motion with your hand while letting go of the cane. Basically, you are just tossing it straight up! The key is to catch the bottom end of the cane (again, about one hand’s length from the bottom) while it is in the air. This takes a bit of work to get the timing down right, so if you have to walk with the cane in your dominant hand be sure to practice (and well away from your television, spouse or anything else fragile and valuable).
As I have already said, you really can not learn fighting skills from an article. Therefore, I am only going to cover one very basic strike with canes and sticks. Yes; we’ll cover only one easy to explain and understand basic strike, but it can be delivered a few ways (so you can think of it as two or three different strikes if it makes you feel better). Simply put, think of your cane as a giant hammer. Swinging it as you would a hammer you can deliver powerful downward vertical strikes, horizontal strikes that move from your inferior side towards your dominant side and angled strikes at about 45 degrees. The blows should be delivered firmly and retracted quickly. This is a critical concept: hit fast but bring your weapon back into your ready position even faster. Do not let your cane linger after strikes… you really do not want to get into a tug of war over your stick with an opponent. For maximum power, your elbow and shoulder should both move as you strike but your wrist should remain rigid. If you have an old punching bag you can practice striking it.
I like having students beat on an old tire raised up to chest level or a 2/3 full 2 liter bottle hanging from a tree to get used to striking with a cane. If you don’t have any experience with melee weapons you are probably going to be shocked at how much you feel the strikes in your palm and forearm so it is important to build up a tolerance to striking with the cane. You do not want to experience the shock of striking something with your cane for the first time when you actually have to use it for defense. As a general rule you want to keep from overextending your arm. When your arm is extended it is in a weaker position (and slower to react). This leaves you vulnerable to having your weapon tangled or taken. Try to avoid raising your hand above your head or lowering it below your belt to keep from overextending. Also do not “reach” to try to land a blow. I always teach: “If no one is close enough to hit, don’t hit no one!” If you absolutely must hit at opponent who may be out of range then step towards them and strike, do not extend your arm or lean forward to bridge the gap. Finally, never fully straighten your elbow (that is just asking for trouble of the broken arm variety).
In the movies, when someone wields a cane or walking stick they are usually fencing with it. That is awesome if you know how to fence… but if you don’t then stick with the hammer/club approach. When those movie heroes do use their canes like a club, as I suggest, they are always blasting people in the hands with pinpoint accuracy to make opponents drop their weapons. Don’t do that either! Seriously, if you had a gun would you try to shoot weapons out of your enemy’s hand, Lone Ranger style? Of course not! You aim for the biggest part of the target that is in your line of sight. We’ll do the same thing with the cane, except we will aim for the biggest target in the path of the cane’s swing.
Picture someone standing in front of you or look at yourself in the mirror. As mentioned above there are three basic angles to make hammer strikes: horizontal, vertical and 45 degree. All three of these angles find a target in the area between your opponent’s head and shoulder making this area your prime target zone. Conveniently, as a shoulder is found on either side of the head you can reach this target zone no matter which hand you use. As you picture your opponent, imagine how the blows neatly fall into place. Horizontal blows go to the temple, vertical blows hammer into the collarbone while the 45 degree angled blows should be aimed where the neck meets a shoulder. If your aim is off with these strikes chances are you will still land a blow, which is a real advantage! If a shot aimed at the collarbone slams into the top of your opponent’s head or that temple shot cranks them in the jaw or ear, it’s probably close enough! You will find that it is fairly easy to one of the angles to another…. straight down, retract back to your ready position, straight across, retract, 45 degree angle, retract and so forth.
In a perfect world we wouldn’t have to worry about our personal self defense. In a slightly less perfect world we would all have the time, inclination, opportunity and physical ability to learn a solid hand to hand fighting system. In the world we live in, I’d argue that it makes good sense to carry some type of self defense aid that will not keep you from going about your daily business. For me, I believe the best aid to be a club that masks itself as a medical necessity: the cane or walking stick. I hope that this article has been informative, but once again I would like to urge all readers to try to find some formal training with a qualified instructor. I hope that you have learned something that will help keep you safe even if I haven’t inspired you to seek instruction, but I pray that you are never in a position to need self defense skills.