Tag Archives: weapon reference

Q&A: The Quarterstaff

Exactly how effective is a Quarterstaff as a weapon? How much body strength would a young adult female require to wield one? And, if it isn’t that effective, do you know of any similar weapons?

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Let’s just say there’s a reason the Little John of Robin Hood legend carries a quarterstaff.

The quarterstaff is a godly weapon that is the gateway for an entire family of weapons (in some Chinese schools, all weapons), and your female protagonist is going to need endurance far more than strength to wield it for prolonged periods. The basic strike patterns of the staff can be translated into… almost all weapons. This includes: all polearms, the sword, chain weapons like the whip chain/meteor hammer, the great axe/great sword, techniques like half-handing with swords, the list goes on.

The quarterstaff is: Welcome to Weapons, Beginner’s 101. How to use a weapon with a weapon that will not whip around and kill you.

This isn’t to say the quarterstaff isn’t dangerous compared to the others. It is very dangerous, especially in the right hands. However, it’s also the “safest” weapon to learn on which makes it the weapon you get to fuck up on and make mistakes with while you learn about how much contact vibration sucks. This is the weapon were the difference is bruised and broken fingers versus no fingers. Make no mistake, your fingers are target number one for even the most well-meaning training partner. You will hurt your fingers in staff training. It will be your fault because you failed to hold the staff at the right angle, and your opponent’s staff slid right down and… smack.

This is a necessary lesson, without it you’ll never realize how easy it would be for someone to cut your goddamn hand off. Or, how your own failure in technique helped them do it.

You don’t need to be strong to wield a staff, you need to physically be able to hold onto it for prolonged periods. When you strike something, whether this is your opponent’s body or their staff, the weapon will vibrate. Those shock waves will go through your hands, up your arms, and into your body. The harder you strike, the stronger the rebound. You get this with hand to hand too, but the effect is weaker. You can gain greater momentum with the staff, the weapon moves fast, and hits hard on impact. It’s like hitting a steel bell, over and over and over again. You are taking the force of your own strikes into your body, in addition to your opponent’s, when the two collide. You don’t need physical strength, you need endurance. You need to learn how to drive past resistance, how to keep going when your arms want to fall off, and how to mitigate that force through your technique.

There is no better weapon to learn this on than the staff. The weapon you don’t have to worry about keeping sharp, and which will teach you about how someone can deliver the full force of god into you even when you’ve successfully blocked their technique. Best of all? It’s cheap and easy to replace when you break it.

The concept of body-building levels of physical upper body strength being necessary for martial combat is a misconception pushed by video games, pencil & paper RPGs like DnD, and misunderstanding the incredibly heavy parade swords/display weapons versus the weapons used in combat. You’re going to get exhausted enough in prolonged melee without trying to swing around a weapon that weighs thirty to forty pounds. Power from a staff comes from momentum, generated by leverage, and the fact a combat staff is a very sturdy/solid piece of wood.

So, the short answer is: children can wield staves.

Your character’s staff is going to weigh a couple pounds at most. She’s going to need to worry more about having the space to wield her staff depending on location versus being able to pick it up. The skills learned hold up both for using other polearms like the spear, and can be passed on to other weapons like the sword and chain weapons depending on style. The quarterstaff has an advantage over swords in terms of reach (it’s longer), and the staff is one of the best weapons for fighting off multiple opponents. This is due both to the staff’s length and the fact you can transition between wielding from the front to the back and from the middle. It can be upgraded into a spear, which is the king of anti-cavalry weapons, and warfare in general. Also, the staff is an excellent weapon for self-defense. Did I mention you can kill people with it? You can. You can kill your enemies without putting a metal spike on the end, the metal spike just makes it even easier; with more penetration against armored opponents. The techniques flow from one right into the next, the building blocks in your ascension to a whole new world.

You may be wondering about what I mean when I say blocking hard hits is technique. Any idiot can swing a staff, but a trained warrior strikes well and with no wasted motion. That technical aptitude is the difference between high school bully hard and killing blow hard. This is the difference between a several minute long fight, a twenty-five second fight, one that lasts seven seconds, and a half second. This is the same truth for defense. Just like with a strong attack, a strong defense begins with the position of the feet. People like to think fighting is all about the upper body because the upper body is easy to understand, but you don’t want to be the person who skips leg day. Martial combat is about balance, it’s about using force to destabilize your opponent and creating the necessary openings for attack. Poor defense begins in footwork, with bad stances, and a weak base.

If your stances are bad, you halve your delivered force. If your stances are bad, a mediocre blow will break your defense. You can’t spread the incoming force or keep your balance when you’re hit. You’ll take the whole blow in your arms, rather than supporting your arms with your legs, your chest, and your core. When your defense breaks, the follow-up blow is what gets you. People who stumble after one hit? Bad stance. Too shallow, too deep, feet too close together, feet too far apart. The really skilled martial artists start manipulating the triangle, moving your feet to destabilize your opponent on the strike translates into foundational strategy. When this happens, you can’t transition that force into the earth where it belongs and take the brunt of it instead. Whether you can take the blow is dependent on where your feet are, not on the upper body strength of your opponent.

We’re talking about the importance of legs because, when it comes to weapons, writers often get confused and think the importance lies in the weapon itself rather than the person who wields it. After all, 90% of arm wrestling is getting your opponent’s arm on a vector where they can no longer resist. You think it’s about physical strength, but its really all properly applied pressure and angles. Physics, geometry, the “talent” which gets boosted to mystic levels is usually a person who has a phenomenally good grasp of their own body and being able to quickly apply what they see.

We mystify what we don’t understand. You can one hand a staff, from the back end, which is really how you thrust with it. Your other hand is just for guidance. You can spin a wushu staff around your neck, honestly. (I know someone’s going, “I don’t get how that works.” Don’t worry, that’s not a combat move. The neck spin is just a trick move that comes from playing around with speed, spins, and the weapon’s balance point.) The staff is a weapon that can be devastatingly quick in the right hands. It has incredible mobility, switching from high/low to low/high in a few simple motions. When it really gets going, you can hear it whizzing in the air.

If you want to write good fights with staves, you actually need to study staff work. You need an idea of how they move, and how people use/used them. Medieval staff work is going to be more useful to you if you want the quarterstaff. I recommend starting with someone like Lindybeige and moving on to how to videos on YouTube like Hroarr‘s quarterstaff series (keep in mind this is one school of Renaissance quarterstaff), before jumping straight to Sze-Man Tsang in The Iron Monkey. However, if you need confirmation that a 13 year old girl can wield a weapon much larger than themselves then, yes, watch this clip where she plays Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung. Also, if you’ve never seen the upper echelon of child performance martial artists in action… watch. This girl starred opposite Donnie Yen. She is a wushu champion who grew up to become a police officer. Unfortunately, you’re not going to get a lot of choreographed fight scenes outside of Wuxia, East Asian cinema, martial arts communities, and HEMA aficionados.

The Protector of the Small series by Tamora Pierce has a lot of focus on staves and staff work, with the glaive being the protagonist’s preferred weapon. However, keep in mind that Pierce draws heavily from Japanese staff forms and the naginata for her scenes rather than western weaponswork. You’re going to want to do your own HEMA research if the European quarterstaff is what you want versus the many other styles worldwide.

There’s a lot of variance with the staff, and a lot more information readily available for research than there was ten to twenty years ago. One of the things you’re going to want to make sure you do is steer away from the idea of one weapon fits all. Weapons are designed for specific uses and situations. Your character is always going to want to carry a backup sidearm, be it a sword or a dagger or something for the times when their staff is not going to help them or their enemy breaks past it. A true warrior is the master of many weapons because they know they must fight under many different circumstances.

If you haven’t had any exposure to staff combat before, you might be be surprised by it. The staff is a weapon that’s all about momentum and leverage, your favorite word from physics. It hits hard, it’s very quick in the right hands, and changes positions faster than you probably imagined. If you crafted an image in your head of a big, hefty, slow weapon then the quarterstaff is not for you. This is an underrated weapon, but still a gold standard for breaking bones, skulls, and, well, everything else.

Your teenager will find this weapon to be the perfect jumping off point not just for her travels, but also for training in other weapons. All weapon combat is about leverage. If you pay attention to the quarterstaff training videos you’ll find the echoes the techniques in longsword combat. Basically, it’s a great choice.

Check out this video from The Modern Rogue, and remember the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.”

-Michi

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My main characters are five 15 year old schoolgirls and I’m trying to think of medieval weapons that would fit them. All are reasonably fit, though one has a back issue, and two of the others are trained black belts in Tae Kwon Do. None have any formal weapons training and have minimal training time. Should I just give them all bows/arrows and be done with it or are there other options?

The funny thing about the bow, especially a medieval war bow, is that it takes a very long time to master. We’re talking years, here. It’s also heavily dependent on upper body strength, particularly in the back, arms, and shoulders. You need a heavier bow to deal with heavily armored targets which requires more strength and more practice drawing.

Here’s Matt Easton’s rant.

Basically, perceptions about the D&D Ranger along with Film/TV have caused a problem when looking at the body types or strength quota associated with archery. In particular, medieval war archery. The hunting bow and the war bow are different. While someone certainly could kill another human with the hunting bow, the draw weight is such that it will have a much more difficult time penetrating armor. This includes the padded armor made from cloth. War bows have a draw weight of around 60-70 pounds. The famous English or Welsh longbow was notorious for it’s difficulty and weighed in somewhere around 100-180 pounds.

TheMiddleAges.net’s entry on the Welsh longbow. The Wikipedia entry.

Besides that, bows (and all weapons) require a great deal of care. You can’t just hide a wooden bow unprotected in a log for six weeks, come back and expect it to be useable. It must be oiled regularly to maintain it’s flexibility. It must be unstrung between engagements and restrung before the next one, thus requiring a fair amount preparation time. The must also be carefully wrapped when traveling to protect it from the elements. This is before we get into the required type of arrows, (heavier with a heavier head), and the difficulty in acquiring them. Which, if your characters are schoolgirls, may have a problem convincing the local fletcher on why they need bodkins rather than broadheads.

Regardless of how they get presented in fiction, the bow is not any easier to master than a sword. Your characters are better off with crossbows. However, it should be noted that the crossbows fire much more slowly and take more time between shots. They can be learned quickly, within a few months, rather than the years. They’ll still need to learn how to care for it and shoot it though.

Taekwondo black belts come in a few flavors which heavily depends on the system employed by their school and who trained them. Given how young they are, I’d peg them at starting their training between 5 and 8 with their black belt testing between 12 and 14. The average recreational martial arts student takes about 4-5 years to reach their first black belt rank. Sometimes you get the outlier earlies between 8 and 10, but a lot of programs institute a specialty curriculum for the really littles. (Our school had a special class for “Little Turtles”, which were for kids between 4-6 that had their own belt ranks and camouflage belts with colored stripes to denote their rank in the system before they were introduced into the regular white belt class. I think it ran white to red.)

If they tested at 12 then they were probably preparing for their second degree test at 15, if they tested at thirteen then they were moving up on training crunch time, and if they tested at 14 then they’re still about a year off their second degree test.

Worth remembering that recreational martial arts are still recreational. They offer up some good skills and are helpful for self-defense, but they’re not on par with trained professionals and they’re still going to need to adjust to the psychological effects of combat. I’d give at least one of them the rudest awakening. You can probably get away with giving them the quarterstaff because they should’ve had some training on the bo staff. The two aren’t comparable, they’ll be used to training on the rattan staff. Quarterstaves are actually heavier, thicker, and made of oak rather than bamboo. They are very solid and can do a great deal of damage. The range will also lend an advantage over enemies wielding swords.

I’d think about daggers, crossbows, cudgels, quarterstaves, and other varieties of low end but easily acquired equipment that don’t take as much time to learn. If you’re willing to have them take the time to learn and depending on the time period/country/rules at play, then it’s possible one might find someone willing to teach them the sword and buckler. It wouldn’t be a weapon with a shorter hilt that was primarily wielded one handed like an arming sword rather than the longsword.

-Michi

References:

I’d go through Matt Easton’s Youtube Channel for ideas.

Wiketenaur is a library of European 0martial/weapon treatises collected by HEMA. It’s helpful if you know what you’re looking for and are willing to slog through Medieval and Renaissance language.

You can also check out Skallagrim’s page.

(via http://www.youtube.com/attribution_link?a=9_t6jCPSL_FsXuWJV8YbDg&u=/watch?v=O8RWLxlzTiM&feature=share)

These two are from the Academy of Historical Fencing and they are sparring with a spear versus a sword and buckler. The sword is a light blade, but here’s a good example of European spear combat. Notice, they hold the end of the weapon to extend it’s reach and maximize the momentum with quick bursts.

Hello New Followers!

We passed 1,500 today which is pretty much one of the best presents we could have during this very difficult and stressful time. So, thank you! We’re still not in any kind of financial state to be doing giveaways, but here is are some resources for those of you interested in working with swords and European forms of fighting:

Samantha Swords: A practitioner of European forms of Martial Arts, she recently became Champion of the Longsword at the Harcourt Park Invitational Jousting Tournament. She seems like a good resource for you blade minded people.

I picked this one up off one of her asks: Wikitaneur run by the Historical European Martial Arts Alliance. These folks are looking to ressurect some of the extinct European forms of combat. This is their library of European manuscripts detailing some of those forms. Could be worth a look.

Hope that helps!

-Michi