Besides rocks, one of the most basic of all weapons throughout mankind’s history across most cultures has been the long wooden stick. This makes sense since sticks were always readily available in the forests or could be easily made. The Asian martial arts took the long wooden staff into an art form as many martial art styles include the long staff in their systems. Some styles even have traditional weapons forms or katas featuring the long staff. Some systems of martial arts train with weapons such as the staff through practical techniques only without the use of set forms.
Unlike many martial art weapons such as swords, knives, kamas and sais which are short range, staffs are long range weapons with superior reach. This enables the user to attack and defend from a distance which can be frustrating from the point of view of an opponent who has a short range weapon. Long range weapons are also useful in keeping multiple opponents out of reach too. Of course, long weapons such as the staff cannot be easily concealed like short range weapons so they can be cumbersome to carry around.
One of the most popular martial arts weapons from the Japanese karate styles is the bo. Even today, the bo is usually the first weapon taught at karate schools and is the most common weapon seen at tournaments. The bo staff comes in different variations. There are heavy bo staffs which resemble thick poles which are considered more traditional and there are lighter versions which are tapered at both ends. There are also multi-sided bo staffs such as octagonal but these are much less common than the usual round, circular versions.
Although there are one handed swings, most bo techniques involve both hands holding the weapon. Various strikes and blocks can be performed with either end of the bo as well as the sides and middle. Bo users take advantage of the entire weapon as techniques can be executed with any part of the bo. For the majority of techniques involving the bo, the user holds the staff near the middle with both ends protruding out equally. Traditionally, the lead hand (furthest away from the body) has been the right hand.
Contemporary weapons forms competitions have caused the bo to evolve where competitors now use extremely lightweight bo’s and some even have reflective finishes giving a more flashy visual appearance when the user is performing a bo form. Unlike traditional bo forms, contemporary creative open forms with the bo involve more complex spins and even tosses. Some martial artists do not consider some of the modern bo forms observed in the competition circuits to be true weapons forms as some competitors emphasize too much baton-like twirling action rather than actual combative techniques. It could very well be a matter of personal taste. This is why in most of the large open martial arts tournaments, weapons divisions are split into traditional and creative.
Chinese kung fu styles also utilize the long staff although there are some differences in techniques when compared to Japanese karate styles. Instead of holding the weapon in the middle most of the time like a bo is held, Chinese staffs are usually held near one end which has the effect of elongating the weapon even more. Taditionally, the lead hand is the left hand with the right holding the bottom end of the staff. However, there are techniques which involve switching sides as well as using the bottom end to strike too. In addition to strikes executed while holding the weapon with both hands, there are more single handed techniques with Chinese staffs than with Japanese bo staffs. Like their empty hand kung fu forms, Chinese staff forms have more circular, swinging techniques than in Japanese karate styles.
Contemporary wushu forms use a much lighter weapon than in traditional kung fu staff forms. Wushu stylists also use staffs or cudgels that are made of a unique white wax wood from trees that are grown only in China. Staffs made of this type of wood are not made with precision like Japanese bo’s. The wushu staffs are naturally tapered with a thicker bottom and thinner top. The white wax wood is extremely resilient as users of this type of Chinese staff perform techniques which involve smashing the entire weapon on the floor at full force.
Korean kuk sul won also has the long staff in their system and the techniques used are like a blend of Chinese and Japanese moves. Although all martial arts styles that utilize weaponry have more complex and possibly more impressive looking weapons, the long staff has remained to be a favorite for many martial artists.