How to Fight with a Staff or Bo!

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: Self-defense
4 Feb 2009


We have all seen Kung Fu and Karate masters fight many attackers with a staff but have you ever questioned the effectiveness of a staff? I took a look on youtube and found lots of advice on how to use a staff and I will share a couple of these videos but keep in mind that most of these methods come from katas. Will the staff or bo really work in a fight? Maybe! It depends on how you use it. I’ll explain.


I will explore the differences in kata (forms) and kumite (sparring-fighting) with a staff. I will evaluate the effectiveness of the staff techniques through the filter of – would this work in a real self-defense situation? I will talk about some of the claims made on one of the videos from Fight Science. I will close with self-defense applications of the staff against armed and unarmed attackers and how I would use a staff/bo in a fight. Here is a video of some Shaolin monks demonstrating a staff fight.




Did you noticed that the monks seemingly fought two-on-one and they could not hit the side of a barn? This was the idea as it was play staff fighting. Impressive display of short half-circle strikes with the bo but no one really got an advantage – that was the point – just a display for the tourists. Now this next video is more from the medieval times – a display of a quarterstaff bout.



Did you notice that they wore protective padding? Also the hands got hit and there were no circular types of staff swinging that looks so cool in the movies. In this bout between Staff Paul and Tall Dave there seemed to be more thrusts that got in. Did you also notice that the guys were not fighting next to each other unless they were in a clinch? Did you also notice they did not kick or punch one another?


So far you have had a sample of some Kung Fu bo three-person kata and some medieval quarterstaff kumite/sparring. Did you notice one looked really pretty and the other one was slow and more realistic? Perhaps you do not agree with me. I will try to explain why the staff fighting you see in karate movies would not work in real life unless they were totally inept. The last video is a little longer but it holds most of the fallacies that I am speaking of including blocking arrows with the staff. :)



I would like to say that while I think much of this video is fiction – I do believe the makers of the Fight Science series generally know what they are doing. No disrespect but I have serious disagreements with many of statements made in this video. I think they missed the mark with this video and bought into the whole kata-fighting would work in real life, train of thought. I will attempt to enlighten you by breaking this video down.


This video starts out by asking what would you do if you needed more distance. Then the first fighting is in close range with long range strikes. I was wondering why they were trying to miss each other? Surly either the guy or gal could have struck the other fighting so close? This is my first critique. In karate sparring without weapons we are taught to watch the critical distance (the distance one can hit or kick from) so it stands to reason that if one if using a staff – that distance increases! So the video is starting out not very realistic.


Next sequence the guy starts spinning the bo. There is no application of staff fighting that I can think of by spinning the staff. Sure it looks pretty but you cannot striking anyone with it and you don’t really have a good grip to then strike from the spinning.


Then the guy started doing these short strikes – side to side and up and down. All of these would work at close range but are problematic. What am I talking about? The thumb is the weak part of the hand. You can easily do one of these half-strikes with the thumb not in line with the staff but the next strike from the opposite direction will probably have the staff lying on the thumb. That is bad because you will hurt your thumb if you strike hard (I’ve learned the hard way striking my bag with the staff).


Poppycock you might be thinking? Your instructor probably told you to let the staff lay in the crease between the thumb and forefinger when they are pressed against one another? True that will work to a point and has the advantage of not getting the hand hit if the opponents staff happens to slide down the staff – but it is very slow and one could not do these rapid half-strikes and constantly change hand position.


My next comment is by swinging the bo staff around if he actually hit something – it would not swing through but probably rebound back (unless it is grabbed baseball bat style). When I first tried to practice with my staff on my bag – I figured out that for every action there is a reaction. Good to actually practice hitting something first and not try to be so flashy – flashy does not work anyway in my opinion.


Finally the guy says something I agree with, you can use the staff to thrust and block! In my view thrusting is one of the main attacks! I don’t hold much with blocking as in hand to hand fighting – if you spend time blocking, it is just a matter of time before you are hit. It is better to block if you have the chance before you get hit but it is a losing strategy normally.


The guy just demoed the downward, upward and side to side strikes. Remember they would not really work many times and your thumbs would get injured but might be ok if the fight ended right there.


Ok now the guy is spinning the staff that in ancient times would have blocked arrows. I guess he must have read this in a book or saw this in a movie somewhere but I would not want to try that. Say it could work… don’t you think he would get tired eventually and then the archers would fire? Let me just say this is more movie stuff and enough said.


I agree with the barrier statement as the staff is long and one can keep the distance between your attacker defensively or offensively.


Ok the spear and staff people are starting to fight. They are right next to each other. If you pause the video you can see at most points of this fight – either one could thrust the staff or spear and connect. Why are they fighting so close other than to demonstrate those short – half strikes that don’t work very well? Again as I said before – this is mostly for forms and people confuse it with something that would really work.


Now the guy is twirling the staff again to avoid the spear thrust. What? if the spear got caught by the twirling staff – most likely the staff would be jarred out of the guys hands and the next thrust of the spear would decide the fight.


I have also noticed that the guy is dodging the spear with his food and head? If the spear gal was using inital movement, she would have stabed the guy with every thrust of the spear if he was within her critical distance! No one can safely dodge a properly thrown strike if he or she is inside of the distance. Only in the movies do you see people able to move out of the way like this. I will grant you it is possible to move out of the way inside the distance if the attacker telegraphs the move. But why build a strategy hoping the other fighter does not know what he is doing?


So what do I think would work? Firstly my chief critique of weapons fighting is most people will not throw a punch or kick if their opponent is open of it but rather just stick with the weapon. I think a weapon can be a good tool but fighting is fighting. If I was fighting a guy with a staff – I would keep my distance and try to thrust and some long strikes (pulling back quickly) until I saw the other guy make a mistake. I would also go for the knees and shins.


If I was fighting many unarmed attackers and I had a staff – look out as I would be able to long strikes (really bombs) and they would never get close to me. I would not do the short-half-circle strikes but rather the thrusts and bombs to their shins and head – whatever they were open for at the moment.


In closing please do not think I am saying that karate and kung fu staff/bo fighting would not work – rather I am saying karate and kung fu staff/bo katas would not really be the best application in a fight. I would go with the quarterstaff type of fighting or the longer strikes without any twirls in the bo videos.


I almost had to use my staff a couple of months back on a rottweiler. If the dog had not backed down I would have thrown bombs to keep him off. I don’t really think he would have respected my twirling ability. :)



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6 Responses to “How to Fight with a Staff or Bo!”

  1. ominus Says:

    i think you ‘re right.quick and well-controlled moves are the best without all the flashy part……

  2. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Ominus,
    Flashy looks good but what matters is what works. I’m not even sure why people like flashy, for instance flying kicks to break boards have no application I can think of unless you do not have any idea of how to fight.
    In the real world if someone did a running, flying kick at me, I would just time it and step aside, hit him on the way by. :)

  3. TheGreenGuy Says:

    Every time I “twirl” my staff its is not meant to be flashy for it is a hit and a block at the same time and also it is for gathering “flow” (momentum) as the momentum is gathered in fight my flow will eventually come to a interruption such as a stop, hit, or a change of flow. If it comes to a stop it is because I need to do a full reverse witch is a something that is generally avoided as not to stop, waste energy, and leave myself open to attack the more flow I have going the less vulnerable I am to attack a bo staff is like a huge shield if you use it right. If I make a hit rather it be someone blocking/hitting me or me them, when the hit happens the flows energy is transferred to them and back at me (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) when that happens I use the energy that is transferred back at me to “bounce” back for the regain of flow for another attack, block, or charge of flow. Then I might need to use a “change of flow” witch is the change of direction, angle, and energy. If I use a change of flow one of two things can happen. Lets say I want to change my flow to the opposite direction that it is flowing at depending how I do it I can ether gain flow or lose it, it is preferable that I spin it in a way to increase my flow but depending on my position I might not be able to increase the charge of flow sometimes you must decrease it in order to increase your hits and whatnot. The more you practice with a bo the more you will understand what I am saying. Just remember when using flow there is always a heaver more energy charge side to your weapon. As far as the hand hold gos I have had almost no problem using a bo between my thumb and finger it is good to keep your full hand on it but your range of motion will be flawed. The more you use your staff in that way the stronger you hands in that area and all will eventually stop feeling pain just like anything you wanna get stronger work it out. The more you use the concept of flow the better you will be able to control it try getting somewhere with your staff and spinning as fast and a hard as you can once you can control flow your hitting power will greatly increase and so will your overall skill. Eventually if you work at it you will see it as the intricate high speed chess game it really is. If you get good enough its almost as if time slows as you do it… its very calming… until it smacks you in the face! lol A trick I have is using a heavy bo I use a non tapered heavy metal pole also because I’m sick of broken bo staffs. I am self taut no training. And as far as blocking arrows sounds… I will go try it sometime! And these videos are demonstrations to the public ( maybe excluding the SCA video) are not combat guides. Therefore I don’t think you should take it part like one. “No one can safely dodge a properly thrown strike if he or she is inside of the distance” How would you go about explaining that statement? “Say it could work… don’t you think he would get tired eventually and then the archers would fire? ” I don’t think the guy meant a bo staff spin was meant to block a onslaught of arrows and if he did I would like to see it, I dislike showy people like that every time I think of em I think of em getting shot Indiana Jones style lol. Also I wanted ta say in know way am I saying that you should always spin your staff, I am just saying it is okay to do so and can be beneficial, to me its a part of bo just as stances and strikes are.

    Anyhow I like your site it looks like you put allot of work into it.

    Catcha later.


  4. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Josh!

    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to some of my statements about the staff. I have used the staff mostly for kata but of late I have taken to “shadow boxing” and bag work with the staff.

    Let me first say is I like the staff as a martial arts weapon. I think it is a medium range weapon that would work against a lot of attackers as well as animals.

    My view point is from traditional karate forms and self-defense techniques transitioning to fighting – it does not work so well. Kata especially were created to demonstrate a view point of a style of martial arts and not generally supposed to be applicable to fighting.

    Would I try to use a part of a kata in fighting? – Probably not although one probably could. I have the same view point for self-defense techniques (although one should be able to use these for self-defense). Pretty much anything developed to be pretty or flashy has no place in fighting.

    On the positive side of your comments the spinning of staff from side to side can be useful as you say so the opponent will not know where the attack is coming from but spinning for spinning’s sake does not make much sense to me.

    As I said – I do not like the short half strikes with the staff much. I view an attacker is too close if one is using a staff. I’d rather be fighting from the outside where the wide gripped staff would be out of range.

    I will grant that the half strikes would work – I just don’t like that method and if an opponent was good at initial movement – he or she could counter easier at the close range with a punch or kick – negating the power of the staff at close range.

    I do not think that a weak grip or weak strike that can hurt yourself, should be used in fighting. One example from the karate world is a ridge hand. The ridge hand can be thrown wide swinging style or punched past the head and hooked back. The wide swinging style of ridge hand works fine in point karate fighting but if thrown hard – hurts ones own elbow! That is probably why you do not see that strike in full contact but rather hooks or elbows.

    Hitting a target hard (even if one can strengthen ones weak point) is still exposing a weak point in a real fight. I would not do that.

    While I think your argument of using the flow and energy makes sense – again I do not want to get into a close range with a medium range weapon. I’ll grant you that is a personal preference. That is similar to a boxer liking inside versus outside fighting – both work but different fighters have their preference.

    I’ll spin the staff to take out some ankles or change some position but as I will not fight too close – I’m more of a poker and swing the staff as I retreat to a better position. That would negate any spinning to a point until I had to commit myself. I really hope to never face another staff fighter so I do not have to test my tactics. That is the cool think about self-defense in a martial art – you use existing fighting methods and translate them into a weapon as needed.

    Sorry I’m getting wordy but one more concept and I’ll close. Bruce Lee and Joe Lewis taught initial movement and bridging the gap techniques that translate well in to most fighting methods. A was of looking at this concept is if you understand distance of a weapon – all you have to do is stay outside of striking range or be striking… trying to block an attack with a staff is any wiser than trying to block a punch or knife thrust… all losing propositions if the guy was inside your distance.

    You see I do not fight any different whatever the rules or if it includes weapons. To me fighting is fighting is fighting. The concepts are the same.

    I really do have a lot of respect for you Josh as you have determined that you do not need formal training to work out how to use a weapon effectively. I believe that too… you have created a metal staff that is durable and actually practice it on the bag. I think the main difference between our positions are the distance of the fight maybe. I just don’t like to fight close in… So I don’t need to spin the staff as I used to do when performing staff katas. By the way the staff is a wonderful weapon to train with for kata and fighting.

    By the way – take my comments with a grain of salt – everyone has to work out their own variances of their fighting style. This will change over time and if someone (like me) disagrees with a position – that does not mean I’m right – just that I may have a different approach and cannot thing out of my own tunnel vision. :)

    Thanks again for your comments!

  5. William Vigil Says:

    Hey John,

    I’m a combat instructor in California and I suggest you make a few padded combat staves and get to work with a partner. They are easy to make for under $10 each and all the materials are at your local home improvement store:
    3/4″ thick walled PVC pipe
    5/8″ or 1/2″ foam pipe insulation
    roll of Gorilla Tape or duct tape

    Make sure the ends are properly padded. They are heavy enough to strike with, but are light enough and have enough give not to break fingers or cut skin. A mouthpiece and cup are suggested, but some of my students want head gear.

    I have been working this way for 10+ years and I can honestly tell you from FIGHTING

  6. William Vigil Says:


    Full contact fighting with weapons changes everything. Yes, the half circles are not powerful enough to stop your opponent. They are used as blocks, pushes, and feints (often with intent) to open up opportunities to cut your opponent down. Remember: The staff is an impact weapon, a long bludgeon. The jab is effective but only to the face/throat/solar plexus/groin because there’s not enough power in it.

    The trick is to treat the staff as an extension of your hands and develop skull shattering power by sliding your grip, striking with the body, and DELIVERING. Every fighter I’ve shown this concept to gets a big grin on his/her face. I’ve busted so many sticks this way that I now train with a 2″ thick fire hardened rattan staff with the skin still on. Heavy ehough to bust cinderblocks with a thrust or half-circle strike; a power move shatters them. Beyond this simple way to overpower nearly any other weapon (the spear being the most obvious exception), there are the ‘endless staff’ techniques whereby you can launch a barrage of strikes from virtually any angle in continuous succession. This you would have to see. It’s just a simple slip of the hands but it makes the staff one of the best weapons in my arsenal.

    So in one sense I agree with you; what the Shaolin monks (and many of my kung fu brothers) call staff fighting is a pretty form. I decided long ago that only practical application would allow my students to understand each weapon and its tactics.

    As for the spinning, it’s virtually useless in combat unless you have trained to redirect the circles into strikes. And by the way the guy who spins it in front of him nearly always loses his stick (and the fight) when I jab into the circle and disrupt his motion.

    But spinning is the entry to understanding balance and power. Learn to spin from the center first, but then choose a place further down to one end so it is a little heavier on one end. See the power you generate now? Anyway, I could go on and on.

    Keep up the good work, but don’t sit at your computer imagining what you might do; just make a couple of sticks and start hitting each other.