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This is kinda a tangent of my benefits of training to fight multiple attackers question.

Although I have some opinions of my own, my experience with weapons training is currently very limited, so I wanted to get a wider set of opinions.

A lot of traditional martial art weapons are rather dated since the invention of the rifle/gunpowder-based weapons/warfare.

  • What benefits exist from learning to use (or what does one learn from training with) weapons that generally have no practical/realistic use in modern times - such as staff, spear, longsword, chain whip, etc. I recognize 'practical' is perhaps debatable, but for the purpose of this question, I assume most people don't regularly carry a staff/sword/spear along with them for self defense (or attack, I suppose...), and that these weapons are generally not used on a regular basis for anything other than training. I am trying to distinguish these weapons from other weapons such as knives that might actually be used in modern times, but this notion is certainly debatable, and I would be interested in hearing opinions on this. I ask this question primarily with respect to martial arts that cover open hand techniques, as well as weapons techniques/forms, and not just one or the other.
  • What does weapons training contribute to one's overall martial arts growth? Is there any carryover to sparring (no weapons), striking/blocking techniques (no weapons), etc? Should it be part of a martial arts curriculum (high level, school styles and individual goals/preferences aside) - why or why not?
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Cool factor. Nuff said –  Mark Gabriel Aug 20 at 3:51

8 Answers 8

  1. Application of force. A weapon is a force multiplier. It lets you do more damage to your opponent, with less effort and exertion, in a shorter period of time, while exposing you to less danger of damage yourself. Having trained with weapons can help you in a self defense situation. This is particularly true if you have trained in weapons that can be simulated by everyday objects, and thus close at hand. Don't have a staff? A broom will do. No sword? An umbrella. No Eskrima sticks? Your mini-umbrella. No rope-dart handy? Use your belt. Et cetera.

  2. Defense. Some weapons (e.g. staff, Eskrima sticks, tonfa, sai) also have a large defensive component; they can be as much used to defend you from harm as to inflict it. And some weapons systems include directly defensive elements such as helmets, shields, and armor. In self-defense situations, the ability to use weapons defensively can help protect you from harm while you to get to safety and/or call for help. As with the offensive use of weapons, the ability to use everyday items is very helpful. No shield? Use a trashcan lid, cooking pot lid, cooking pot, or sofa cushion. No staff? Use a mop or umbrella. Et cetera.

    (You could argue that all weapons--specifically, the threat of their use--can have a defensive role. But if the threat of a gun or knife say is ignored, they have modest or little defensive value. You can use them to "defang the snake", but that is primarily offensive, in the sense of "a strong offense is the best defense." See point 1, "Application of force.")

  3. Self Development. Being mentally and physically centered is one of the great benfits of any martial arts training. Weapons further this, making you concerned not only with the balance and positioning of yourself, but also an extension of yourself. This is one reason weapons are often taught as a "plus one"--only after you have acheived some competence with open-handed, unarmed technique. Some of the weapons forms in kung fu and tai chi, for instance, are quite difficult. "Eight Drunken Immortals," a Daoist jian (straight sword) form, requries signficant balanced extensions, spins, back bends, low postures, hand-to-hand passing of the weapon, and other challenging moves. "Tiger Tornado Broadsword" requires simultanous jumping and spinning with the sword. Working to be balanced and graceful, even in challenging postures or while in swift motion--it's great self-developmental training.

    Other arts such as Eskirma, Kali, and Arnis are fundamentally weapons-centered, and start with them Day One. Weapons are also used by many schools to lure in eager students, even young kids, who just can't wait to play with the foam swords and Nerf nunchaku. They too teach coordination and focus.

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Reasons to Study Weapons

I - improved coordination

Training with weapons improves your coordination in ways that only controlling something that you don't have nerve endings in can.

II - weapons of opportunity

It's not just a stick. It's also, potentially, a sword, or a baseball bat, or a lead pipe. By training with a stick, you're also training with anything cylindrical of roughly the same length. You'll have to make adjustments for weight/length/feel, but you'll be better equipped to fight with a pool cue if you've trained with a bokken than if you haven't.
The same principle applies, to some degree, to other weapons, though I can't think of any readily available analogs for soft weapons like a chain whip or nunchaku.

III - historical preservation

Whether or not this is important to you is another matter, but many people choose to practice with historical weapons, a category which many martial arts weapons fall into, because they want to preserve, or in some cases, reconstruct, historical weapons practices. This can be because the weapon belongs to a martial art they've already invested time into. It can also be because of cultural heritage.

IV - "My hand is my sword"

That's a karate saying, based on the idea that, since they didn't have weapons, they would use their hands as their weapons. This reason actually relates, in a way, to reason II, in that a weapon can serve as an analog for an empty-handed technique. For example, in Kali, we structure our strikes by angles. Angle 1, for instance, is an inward-moving strike to the side of the head/neck. This can be expressed either with a stick, or with the hand as an inward chop to the neck. Whether or not you do Kali/Escrima/FMA, you will learn angles by learning weapons. It can be easier to learn angles with weapons, because the angles will necessarily be larger, and therefore easier to see.

V - defense against weapons

Even if you have no desire to learn weapons, because you believe you won't use them, there still exists a possibility that someone will try to use a weapon against you. Learning how to use a weapon will give you a better understanding of the way that weapon moves, and therefore the best way to evade that weapon or disarm it.

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What do you want out of your training?

Should it part of a martial arts curriculum is almost impossible to answer, especially without knowing what exactly you want out of your training. As Marc MacYoung explains, there are 5 broad categories you can break out the goals of martial arts into.

Self-defense is one of them, but as he also explains martial arts are probably not the best source of self defense in the modern era (what is the best way to defend yourself is a very complicated question depending on your circumstances that he and other experts address in numerous books and throughout his blog).

In short, it is probably not a great idea to study weapons you are not likely have access to if your goals is to prepare for self defense.

On the other hand, if you want to be part of a long tradition, improve your health, enjoy tournaments, or demonstrations then training with weapons is every bit as good as any of the other martial arts. That one comes down to a question of personal taste and what is available in your area.

Will it improve your abilities in other martial arts?

The short answer is yes, but then so will any other cross training you do.

Some martial arts, Eskrima for instance, consciously tie the armed and unarmed versions together so those will clearly carry over.

Outside of those, I do not have any expertise and cannot find any solid reference offhand. My strong suspicion is that they will help you in the sense that any cross training in any other art or sport will help. They will help develop your body in different ways than an unarmed martial art would. But I strongly suspect the direct carry over beyond cross training will be small, and it will certainly be less effective than simply training more in your chosen unarmed art would be.

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I was primarily thinking of martial arts that have weapons and no weapons as part of their training, and not martial arts with its sole focus on weapons. I'll clarify that in my post. –  harmlessdragon Aug 19 at 18:49
    
I actually don't think it changes my answer much. If the art in question deliberately ties in the armed and unarmed techniques together (Eskrima/Kali does this) then the crossovers will be obvious and explicitly taught. Otherwise, training with weapons is cross-training (even if under the same umbrella of style) with all the benefits of cross-training but probably not overly much else. –  TimothyAWiseman Aug 19 at 18:58

Context and understanding

If you're working from an art that dates back to melee weaponry, then what that weapon training does for you is open up context to a lot of the movements you've been doing empty handed.

Things like footwork, angles, range, the way in which you generate force, often were built entirely around a few primary weapons, the environment in which people fought, and the kinds of battles they got into.

For example, I study a style of silat that's nearly all short blades - we have a lot of flanking footwork and good amount of wrist play in our movements - short blades work well for fast attacks and changing angles. There's styles of eskrima where you keep the wrist locked - and that's because they're intending to fight with the sticks as sticks (and not stand-ins for other weapons) or machetes - and the heavier weight means you need to keep the grip more solid or lose your weapon.

You'll find yourself looking at some forms you do and things will make more sense - "Oh, horse stance with this form actually makes sense, if you have a spear AND you are on a horse..."

This also lets you figure out which things you're going to keep, to change, or let go, or simply adapt to your immediate needs. It also lets you better understand movements when you see other arts - a lot of "useless" movements are just carry-overs from weapons and situations that no longer apply.

Learning to use weapons in general

Using unusual weapons gives you a feel for weapons in general - ranging, weight, balance, how to generate force, how to hold your grip.

This becomes very useful for improvised weapons you may find or need to use in the moment - weapons 'teach' you how to use them, and in the same sense, you can get better at feeling for optimal grip points on objects, which things make better weapons, angles that will work for it, etc.

Strength Training

To be sure, we're talking more light weight/high rep endurance training for your muscles, but it's still weight, usually applied with your arms extended, giving your shoulders and back muscles some extra training. Done over an extended session, you get long term tendon loading which thickens tendons and helps stabilize joints.

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I'm mainly interested in unarmed combat, but still highly value practice with weapons. Firstly, defending unarmed against a weapon forces you to do things you might not bother trying if the opponent wasn't armed that will never-the-less engender heightened reactions and awareness; honed reading of your opponent's posture, inertia/momentum, awareness and potential movements; improved mobility, distancing and trapping skills, speed, footwork... so many things that help you in actual fights with or without weapons. Secondly, only by studying the weapon can you know if your opponent's using it skillfully and what other vulnerabilities you might have that they're not exploiting, and of course if you want to give them a chance to defend you need to know how to attack.

When you defend unarmed against a weapon, it can necessitate different defensive actions. For example, you might be used to defending against any sideways low attacks by raising a shin, but if there's an incoming blade you've got to move. Against a sword you'll want to focus on moving in the instant that the attacker commits to their attack, sliding out of the arc of the blade, closing quickly enough to "trap" preventing the strike reaching you, or retreating just beyond range for a moment then closing the gap to strike. Your awareness, anticipation and reactions, timing, lack of telegraphing, footwork, balance etc. must all be superb to pull it off consistently. Having such a high bar and focused exercise as defence against a sword provides excellent feedback for improving your skills in those areas.

Similarly, defending against a knife introduces new challenges - for example, you might not be able to outer-forearm block the hand holding the knife in your habitual manner as the attacker can pull back and cut across your blocking arm. You might not have realised that you tend to ignore hand attacks to the stomach as an anticipated punch there doesn't hurt you anyway, but with the knife you have to block and/or move. Defending against the knife encourages you to learn skills like blending/harmonising your blocks to the movement the attacker's arm, "sensitivity" in the wing-chun / tai-chi sense, then that ability leads into practical joint locking and destabilising techniques.

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I suppose I hold a different view of what is a weapon. The real weapon is the gray matter between the ears of the opponent before one. That is what can harm or kill one. Guns, blades, and sticks are merely tools.

Switching back to referring to tools as weapons.

Training with weapons has several advantages.

  • Assuming the art transitions the techniques to empty hands, it teaches one to be able to fight whether there is something in one's hands or not.
  • Weapons can be very unintuitive. If the average person unfamiliar with weapons is told to pick up a stick and hit an opponent, chances are good they will attempt to strike the opponent in the head, they will telegraph their intent, and they will attempt to strike with the middle part of the stick so as to maximize their chances of connecting. I once saw a master from a different art, who is an absolutely ferocious warrior and great teacher, pick up a stick for the first time in a sparring match. No one could touch him, but the stick actually appeared to be a hindrance for him.
  • Learn the offensive value of ordinary items. Weapons can be divided up into several broad categories: stabbing, slashing, impact, projectile, etc. Even items with no offensive value, like an empty ketchup bottle, can serve as a distraction.
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A lot of traditional martial art weapons are rather dated since the invention of the rifle/gunpowder-based weapons/warfare.

  • Most people don't fight on the battlefield
  • Most people don't fight people armed with a gun

[...] weapons that generally have no practical/realistic use in modern times [...]

  • Many people carry umbrellas (or can carry a cane and get away with it)
  • There are weapons all around you, from a pen to a rolled-up magazine to a belt to...

Should it be part of a martial arts curriculum?

That's an opinion question, and depends entirely on the school, its goals, and its students' goals.

Yes, it should. If you don't train with weapons you probably won't see them even if they're right in front of you. I'd rather fight a person with a banana in my hand than nothing at all; if nothing else it's going towards his/her eyes as preparation for something horrible.

The more you know the more options you have, across the board.

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The benefit of weapon training is that they develop fine motor skills and coordination.

  • The Nunchaku's are great for learning coordination between your hands.
  • The staff (bo) is great for teaching you hand-eye coordination as well as getting all your major muscle groups to work in harmony.
  • The Bolo or Bokken teaches you to move with grace and speed
  • That funny rope and knife thingy teaches you agility and presence of mind because it will injure you just as quickly as it will your opponent if you don't concentrate.
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