Who can punch the softest?

Weston, of facetious memory, having borrowed on note the sum of five pounds, and failing in payment, the gentlman who had lent the money took occasion to talk of it in a public coffee-house, which caused Weston to send him a challenge.

Being in the field, the gentleman, a little tender in point of courage, offered him the note to make it up, to which our hero readily consented, and had the note delivered.

“But now,” said the gentleman, “if we should return without fighting, our companions will laugh at us; therefore let us give one another a slight scratch and say we wounded each other.”

“With all my heart,” says Weston; “come, I’ll wound you first.”

So drawing his sword, he whipped it through the fleshy part of his antagonist’s arm, till he brought the very tears into his eyes. This done, and the wound tied up with a handkerchief, “Come,” said the gentleman, “where shall I wound you?”

Weston, putting himself in a posture of defence, replied, “Where you can, sir; where you can.”

The Field of Honor (1884)

Quarterstaff vs. Rapiers: Peeke’s Three to One

The tale of Richard Peeke, an English sailor captured during a raid on Spanish coastal towns in 1625, was popular during his own time, but showed renewed interest during the Victorian era for Peeke’s display of manly virtue. Today, the tale is often told honoring the efficacy of the traditional quarterstaff, which, common weapon though it may have been, was adroitly used by Peeke against three Spanish swordsmen wielding rapiers and daggers.

Agrippa rapier daggerCamillo Aggrippa: Trattato di Scientia d’Arme (1553)

A rapier, and especially a rapier and dagger, could quickly ruin anyone’s day. A three to four foot length of steel with a sharp point and two cutting edges, not to mention the supporting dagger for parrying and stabbing, could leave a combatant leaking blood quicker than one can say “en garde.”

However, the humble quarterstaff was deadly in its own right, and a favorite of the contemporaneous English Masters of Defence, such as George Silver and Joseph Swetnam. Both, in fact, would likely have been pleased but not surprised at Peeke’s exploits.

Silver, calling it the short staffe, said a single staff wielder “has advantage against two sword and daggers, or two rapiers, poniards and gauntlets [because] the distance appertaining to the staff man, either to keep or break, stands upon the moving of one large space always at the most, both for his offense or safety [whereas] the other two…have always four paces at the least; therein they fall too great in number with their feet, and too short in distance to offend the staff man.”

Silver goes on to elucidate how, because of the superior reach of the staff, the two swordsmen must circle at the rate of twenty feet for every foot of pivot the staff man takes, and gives the principles for effective use against two swordsman.

Swetnam high guardThe Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence
Joseph Swetnam (1617)

Swetnam liked the staff over other pole weapons because it was not as top-heavy, and therefore it could be used to feint against a hook or halberd, whose response “will so over-carrie him by reason of the weight, that hee cannot command him nimbly backe againe.”

Ultimately, Swetnam counts skill more important than choice of weapon: “yet I must needes confesse, there is great oddes in the Staffe, if the Staffe-man bee verie skillful, but otherwise the Rapier and Dagger hath the oddes being furnished with skill.”

Note the hand positioning in the Swetnam woodcut: butt and quarter up, rather than the equal thirds portrayed in Robin Hood movies; the thirds positioning is half-staffing and came into vogue primarily as a safe bouting method and as stage technique. Swetnam mentions the half-staffe in passing, but finds that the hands “are in danger of every blow that cometh.”

Richard Peeke’s Tale

Peeke’s tale is fascinating as a vignette of the larger events surrounding his own experience. For a century surrounding Peeke’s exploits, Spain and England were rivals, friends, or enemies depending upon the economic and political climate of any one time; part of this period is referred to as the undeclared Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604). In the back-and-forth, the Spanish Armada had attacked England in 1588 and was beaten back by English fireships and devastated by North Atlantic storms (during this period of sail, storms and disease accounted for a much greater number of deaths than enemy action).

The port of Cadiz in Spain was a favorite target of the English, as it was home port for Spain’s treasure fleet, and periodic raids on the port often disrupted Spain’s economy.

Peeke had just returned from another sea voyage, wherein an English force sought out Algeria-based pirates preying on English merchant ships. Barbary privateers, operating out of Algiers, preyed on Christian and other non-Islamic shipping. The Barbary pirates enslaved captured sailors and passengers and often raided coastal towns capturing slaves to be sold in North Africa. Between 1609 and 1616, at least 466 British vessels were captured. England’s King James I sent a punitive expedition to Algiers in 1621, which fired some Algierian ships in port, failed to follow up its advantage, then was driven away. It returned back to England with all its ships and a loss of only 8 men, but little gain for its leaders or sailors. In retaliation, Barbary pirates captured the cargo and crew from 35 English merchant ships over the following months.

Peeke gained little from his adventure in Algiers, but promptly signed on for a raid on Cadiz that set sail October 8, 1625; that raid being another campaign that suffered from a lack of leadership. The fleet, around 100 ships carrying some 10,000 soldiers, arrived at Cadiz on October 22, 1625. After a fierce attack by the Dutch ships and a few English, the fort at Puntal surrendered once the Earl of Essex landed his troops.

I seeing him make speedily and fiercely at me with his drawn weapon, suddenly whipped out mine, wrapping my cloak about mine arm. Five or six skirmishes we had; and for a pretty while, fought off and on.

On October 24th, while the soldiers landed to march to the bridge to the mainland to block the supply route, Peeke went ashore and, finding some fellow English with oranges and lemons, resolved to pick some himself. While on his sojourn, he was spotted by the Spanish and attacked by a noble on horseback:

He survives the encounter by whipping his cloak at the horses eyes, causing the horse to shy, whereupon Peeke drags off the Spaniard who begs for mercy. Unfortunately for Peeke, a group of Spanish musketeers shows up and he is taken prisoner.

Meanwhile, the attacking English marched toward the bridge of Suazzo, which connects the island to the mainland, but failed to bring food or water ashore. Therefore, upon camping in an abandoned house with a wine cellar along the march, the small army turned into a drunken mob, disobeying orders to desist, arguing, and even firing shots at one another. Eventually the commander ordered the men to return to the ships and they went in search of a rich Spanish fleet arriving from the West Indes; the Spanish fleet was never found and the commander ordered the fleet to return to England three weeks later after running out of supplies at sea.

Peek discusses his capture, but it was when he was dragged into the town of Xerez before his Spanish noble captors that his famous exploits occurred. During the course of an open interrogation, a bystander comments that Englishmen are hens; Peeke replies that if the English are hens, then the Spanish are chickens. Peeke is then offered a duel with a Spaniard at rapier and dagger:

After we had played some reasonable good time, I disarmed him, as thus. I caught his rapier betwixt the bars of my poniard and there held it, till I closed with him; and tripping up his heels, I took his weapons out of his hands.
Agrippa heelCamillo Aggrippa: Trattato di Scientia d’Arme (1553)

After that display, he is asked if he dares fight another, and initially begs off, concerned about the easily offended Spanish nature. However, upon being pushed to bout, he acknowledges that he’ll fight all comers if allowed the use of a quarterstaff.

Ever practical in the 17th century, a Spaniard removed the screw holding the head on a halberd and Peeke was armed with the quarterstaff substitute. To Peeke’s advantage, the butt end had either an iron spike or metal ferrule.

A first Spaniard steps up for the challenge, says Peeke, “then a second, armed as before, presents himself. I demanded, ‘If there would come no more?’ The Dukes asked, ‘How many I desired?’ I told them, ‘Any number under six.’”

After some brief exchanges (“the rapier men traversed their ground; I, mine. Dangerous thrusts were put in, and with dangerous hazard avoided. Shouts echoed to heaven to encourage the Spaniards”) Peeke landed a blow to the head of one of the swordsmen with the metal butt end of his staff. The woodcut from the cover (see below) shows the status at that point, with the fallen swordsman at bottom right, and Peeke at center facing the two remaining Spaniards with rapier and daggers.

Peeke made short work of the remaining two swordsmen: “within a few bouts after, to disarm the other two; causing the one of them to fly into the army of soldiers then present, and the other for refuge fled behind the bench” and awaited his fate from the nobles.

Rather than being killed, Peeke was rewarded for his bravery, being freed and eventually presented to the king. Upon his return to England, Peeke published the tract below that contains the account of his adventures. Shortly after, the play Dick of Devonshire was penned based on Peeke’s exploits.

Click on woodcut below to read Peeke’s Three to One (1626)

Note:for ease of reading, the original typography and spelling is not retained; this was transcribed from a Victorian source

Peeke cover

Myth: Canes Required Carry Permits

You may have never happened across this particular myth, and I just saw it for the first time myself, but a number of sites that discuss the history of the cane perpetuate a myth that around the early 18th century, licenses were required to carry canes in England.

There are variations on the theme, but the way I first heard it was in the context that a license was required to carry the cane because of its status as a weapon. This simply did not jibe with my impression of the Georgian era. In fact, I had recently seen a Victorian illustration that satirized the overabundance of the gentleman’s walking cane and the difficulty it caused when navigating afoot. H. G. Walters similarly described the danger of the ever-present but inattentive cane flourishers:

The man who has a habit of carrying his walking-stick horizontally under his arm, so that when he whisks round, which be constantly does to look behind him or stare in shop windows, it hits anybody near him, is, equally with him who swings it round and round, an enemy of the human race.

I also knew that by 1900, it was reported that any man in London above the rank of a “coster” (a fruit, fish, meat seller; anyone selling from a cart) carried a cane. Holliday, Robert C. The Walking-Stick Papers. NY: 1918. Again, this made it difficult to account the licensing idea, although these were all later occurrences.

Therefore, with skepticism in hand, I sailed into the seas of the internet tubes to discover the mythical headlands of the cane license. I was initially chagrined to find that no less a source than wikipedia mentioned the 18th century licensing requirements as well as the difficulty of procuring such as license:

It is apparently the case that a license was required to carry a cane in London during the 18th century[citation needed], possibly because of the use as a weapon, in essence a fighting stick.The process that was needed to gain this license was very long and it had been known to take a long time to finish the process; thus, most people at the time did not gain the license.

I will admit, I was taken aback upon reading that passage. However, I found it heartening that a wikipedia editor must have been, if not skeptical, at least concerned that there was no citation for the proposition. Therefore I pressed on and found that common 18th century cane licensing story repeated on a number of walking cane sites. Here’s the most detailed account I could discover, which even includes language from a supposed cane license (site name withheld to protect the foolish):

In 1702, the men of London were required to have a license in order to carry a walking stick or cane. It was considered a privilege to walk with a cane therefore they were required to have a licence. Without a license they were excluded from the privilege. One example of a cane license reads:

You are hereby required to permit the bearer of this cane to pass and repasts through the streets of London, or anyplace within ten miles of it, without theft or molestation: Provided that he does not walk with it under his arm, brandish it in the air, or hang it on a button, in which case it shall be forfeited, and I hereby declare it forfeited to anyone who shall think it safe to take it from him.
– Signed________. (Source: Lester and Goerke Accessories of Dress, Peoria, IL. The Manual Arts Press.)

I assume whoever posted that never read through and finished the last sentence. However, at least now I had a source and a quote. Accessories of Dress by Lester and [O]erke (2004) is on Google books, although the relevant passage is not part of the preview. The quote was easy enough to attribute, though, and you can see it referenced in Carolyn Beckingham’s Is Fashion a Right? (2005) or a reprint of the quoted essay that followed a century after the original.

It turns out, somewhat comically, that the essay was originally published in the Tatler in December 1709 as a humorous critique of popular fashion, i.e., the 18th century fashion police were criticizing cane carriers who were too free or negligent with their canes when out in public. The license was attributed to “Isaac Bickerstaff,” who was comprised of a group of essayists, including Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, who satirized fashion, among other things, under the name Isaac Bickerstaff. Apparently no less a satirist than Jonathan Swift started the Bickerstaff persona to mess with John Partridge. Steele, upon starting up the Tatler, included “Isaac Bickerstaff” on board as an editor.

Later that same December, Bickerstaff “outlawed” the new puffy petticoat fashions he thought made woman appear pregnant. It is ironic that the myth declaring that licenses were once required to carry a cane in Britain is derived from a 300 year-old version of a Mr. Blackwell fashion critique.

For a general history of the walking cane, see Man and His Walking Stick by H. G. Walters (1898).

Reach Out and Zap Someone

Reach Out and Zap Someone: The Patent History of Electric Stun Weapons


Zaap…zaaap-clack-clack-clack…zaaap. Just the sound and spark of an electric weapon triggers something from childhood that makes you step back when you see and hear the electricity arc through the air between the leads. The two most common forms of today’s electric “stun” technology, both of which can take advantage of that reaction, are the stun gun and the taser. [N1]. The early antecedents of both of these devices can be found in the records of the United States Patent Office and a review of the patent record shows that the development of electroshock devices was first aimed at incapacitating animals before later being extended to humans.

Development of the Stun Gun

Electricity was written about as early as 6oo B.C.E. when philosopher Thales of Miletus found that amber, after being rubbed by wool, would attract feathers, thereby resulting in a practical demonstration of static electricity. By 46 C.E., Roman physician Scribonus Largus introduced the electrical powers of fish into clinical medicine as a cure for headache and gout. However, it was not until electricity was first “bottled” in the 18th century that large numbers of electrical experiments (and mistakes) with humans and animals arose.

One of the earliest experimenters, Petrus Musschenbroek, is a candidate for discoverer of the Leyden jar (he was from Leiden, Netherlands), which is a device used to store static electricity by separating differently charged ions. It behaves similarly to a capacitor in that it stores a built-up charge and releases it quickly. When touching the wrong part of a charged Leyden jar in 1746, and consequently completing a circuit, Musschenbroek may have been the first to experience what countless electricians, unsupervised children, and stun-gunned subjects would eventually experience in more recent centuries: “Suddenly I received in my right hand a shock of such violence that my whole body was shaken as by a lightning stroke…the arm and body were affected in a manner more terrible than I can express. In a word, I believed that I was done for.” Musschenbroek had just received a really strong electrical shock, one of the first man-made electrical discharges powerful enough to be frightening. Even more fascinating is that the charge was created purely through static electricity: typically, a large wool pad was spun on a glass globe to store a charge inside a connected Leyden jar.

Musschenbroek’s discovery led to the first crude stun guns: the same century a number of European demonstrators with charged Leyden jars ran around killing birds and other animals under the guise of “scientific demonstrations.” Except for proof of lethal effect, these demonstrations added little to the body of knowledge regarding the interaction of animals and electricity. However, in a series of experiments starting around 1780, Luigi Galvani, at the University of Bologna, found that the electric current delivered by a Leyden jar or a rotating static electricity generator would cause the contraction of muscles in the legs of dead frogs and other animals when applied to the muscle or to the nerve. The following illustration shows, among other things, frog legs with leads attached on the left, a static electricity generator middle left, and a Leyden jar on the far right.



Whereas Musschenbroek’s experiments led the way in showing that pain and possibly death could result from exposure to electricity, Galvani’s frog experiments became the basis to later show that nerves could be directly stimulated, and eventually to show that electricity could be used to incapacitate humans.

In the meantime, the manual generation of electricity was limited to static electricity generators until Michael Faraday invented the dynamo in 1831. In a dynamo, electromotive force is developed in a conductor when it is moved through a magnetic field. Of course, a hand-cranked dynamo hardly leads to the development of a practical handheld self-defense device. For that, the development of a practical battery was required. In 1800, Alessandro Volta had created the first chemical battery, a voltic pile constructed of different metals and brine. Even so, the first commercially viable battery design was not produced until 1886, when Carl Gassner patented the carbon-zinc dry cell. Gassner’s basic concept is still used in many modern batteries.

Once all the elements were in place, it was only a short time before the first electrical shock device was developed. In 1890, inventor John Burton, of Wichita, Kansas, patented the “Electric Prod Pole,” or electric cattle prod. Burton envisioned the device as helping direct cattle without piercing the valuable hides like common non-electric cattle prods.

The patent had two basic designs, one powered by battery (Figure 1) and one by an internal dynamo (Figure 2). The design is simple, but the important elements are already in place. In Figure 1, the prod is simply a battery, a coil of wound wire, and two positive and negative prongs. A battery by itself would have too little voltage to overcome the non-conductivity of an animal’s hide (resistance). It appears that the coil would act to step up the voltage enough so that the current could flow through an animal’s hide and cause a localized shock. In 1915, a patent was issued for a similar battery operated design that appeared to do little more than provide a new method to hold the cap on and add an on/off switch (an important safety feature).




Burton’s dynamo design, on the other hand, produced its own electricity by pushing the prod against the animal, which collapsed the handle a short distance. Doing so would then activate the ratchets at F and G (Figure 2) causing the S-prime shaft to rotate. The shaft rotated the armature through the magnets N and S, creating a current. It seems unlikely that the dynamo, through such a meager application of mechanical movement, could create enough current to cause the desired effect, especially without a coil such as used in Figure 1 to step up the voltage to overcome the resistance of the animal’s hide.

In 1939, Hansen and Cough had patented a prod with only superficial differences from earlier battery-powered designs, the main difference being an extension that could be added to the end of the prod to better reach cattle in a pen. Then in July 1940, Leon Paul Mongan patented a combination flashlight/cattle prod for those moving cattle before daybreak or after dusk. Internally, the battery-operated device sent current to a vibrator that converted the direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC). The current was then stepped up through a transformer to high voltage AC and went to the terminal contact points. A capacitor limited the amount of arcing between the contacts. The contacts, partially retractable, completed the circuit when pressed against an animal. The previous month, Ernest Jefferson had also obtained a patent for a safer prod with a pair of spring tension terminals that had to be pushed in against the hide of the animal for the device to operate.

Due to refinements through the years, the 1940s cattle prods began taking an internal form similar to modern stun guns. Not only were the internals similar, but some models even outwardly resembled modern stun batons:


However, it was well before the 1940s when inventions began to appear that applied electroshock technology to humans. By 1912, the idea of using a portable electric device for self-defense and law enforcement had appeared. In an amazing, as well as an amazingly hazardous, invention, Jeremiah Creedon of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania patented a set of “Electric Gloves” to be used in “subduing unruly persons” and “resisting attacks.” The device consisted of a pair of gloves with leads connected by wires to a belt on which a battery and an induction coil were mounted. While the method of application differed, the design was basically the same as used in the cattle prod. In either design, the relatively low voltage (compared to modern stun guns) means that the effect would probably be limited to localized pain where the contacts touched the subject, rather than incapacitation.



German inventor Franz Lollert came up with a similar device in 1926, although slightly less cumbersome. He hoped it would “give to every person carrying something equivalent to a training in jiu-jitsu.” Notably, Lollert supposedly had a demonstration model that he used with some success. He even had interest from the German police in purchasing the device. Here is Lollert posing with his invention:



An almost identical device was patented in 1933 that added another coil and substituted a different design for the contacts in the gloves. Its appearance was very similar to the original 1912 device and the inventor, like Lollert before him, was active in marketing the device to police forces. Cirilo Hernandez Diaz was a Cuban inventor who worked in Latin America as a construction superintendent for an American company. He used the induction coil from a Model T Ford to step up the voltage to around 1,500 volts and reduce the amperage to a level that would not burn anyone touched by the gloves.

While most of the previous devices included an induction coil, Diaz was the first to articulate an important safety and efficacy principle behind electric stun weaponry: the need to increase the voltage and reduce the amperage from the battery source. High voltage passes through poorer conductors, such as hide, skin, or clothing, better than low voltage. If the power source remains the same, stepping up the voltage will also reduce the amperage produced, which is an important point, since most adults will go into ventricular fibrillation at currents around .1 amperes.


Diaz pitched the gloves as a method to quell rioters and subdue individuals resisting arrest. After a demonstration to the New York City police in 1935, Diaz then demonstrated the device to reporters by “subduing unsuspecting entrants to the office of the inventor.” (New York Times, June 23, 1935). No mention was made whether any of the surprise subjects later punched the inventor in the nose. According to Diaz, then deputy police commissioner Martin Meany requested a price quotation on quantities of the device. If the procurement was ever made, it doesn’t appear that the use of the gloves by the police ever became widespread.

While the designs were moving in the right direction by the 1940s, it took the development of the taser in the late 1960s/early 1970s to spawn commercial sales of the handheld stun gun. In the meantime, law enforcement adopted cattle prods for use during the early 1960s civil rights protests. In conjunction with fire hoses and wooden batons, law enforcement utilized cattle prods to painfully shock protesters and suppress marches. The similarity between stun batons and cattle prods has led many critics to decry any law enforcement use of stun batons as an attack with cattle prods. Considering the shared development history, such charges may be wrong in fact, but not in principle: stun guns and cattle prods are a question of differing voltages more than any other factors. The low voltage of the prod is intended to cause localized pain, whereas the higher voltage of the stun gun is intended to overwhelm the human nervous system and cause temporary incapacitation.

That flurry of activity in the 1970s brought a resurgence of interest in wearable devices such as the electric gloves. A 1982 patent was issued for a lightweight harness worn on the hand that allowed current to flow through contacts located at the end of the index finger. It was probably just a coincidence that E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was also released in 1982, because the patent application was made in the late 1970s.



Another electric glove was patented in 1983, then in 1992 came a terrifying set of electric trousers or chaps designed to discourage livestock from crowding human feeders. This in turn led to a November 2005 patent for a women’s electric jacket. The jacket has on/off controls in the sleeve and, once activated, a visible electric arc on the shoulder to scare off aggressors. The inventors are cognizant of the devices weaknesses, warning against activating the device in wet conditions as well as the danger of exposing non-insulated body parts to it, such as the legs or head. [N3]. Those warnings are clearly ones that could be applied to all the wearable devices generally. Considering the patent history of these devices, it is interesting that the electric jacket inventors recommend against using the jacket for protection against animals because of their different physiology. Of course, an electric jacket only seems half-suited for defense against most animals anyway, being a passive device with large gaps in coverage and vulnerable to puncture

Development of Projectile Stun Devices

Another weakness of both handheld stun guns and wearable devices is obviously one of range. The user must not only gain contact with the subject, but must remain in contact for a few seconds for full effect. If the subject is armed, larger, stronger, or even just sufficiently motivated, the user could still sustain injury. The TASER attempted to solve that problem by delivering a charge to subjects several body lengths away. The T.A.S.E.R. name is an acronym derived from the fictional Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle. The inventor, John H. (“Jack”) Cover, is generally described as a former physicist or engineer that worked on the Apollo space program. In the late 1960s, Cover began development of a non-lethal projectile method of subject apprehension. By the mid 1970s, Cover had developed the TASER, a device that fired projectiles from a handheld device using gunpowder as a propellant. The barbed projectiles were designed to attach to a subject’s clothing or penetrate the skin. Two wires trailed from the device to the projectiles and delivered 50,000 volts of electricity to the subject. Although the device was shown being used in the 1976 Clint Eastwood film “The Enforcer,” the taser proved difficult to market; gunpowder propellants meant the device was strictly regulated as a firearm.

Cover’s experiments continued and his subsequent development of a compressed nitrogen gas propellant allowed for greater marketability. However, because of some well-advertised failures of the device (think of the 1991 beating of Rodney King, where King was able to remove the attached wires) commercial success for the Cover design remained elusive. The failure rate against motivated and/or drugged subjects remained high. It was not until 1994 that the first commercial success was achieved with the development of an improved taser version by Taser International, Inc. In the ensuing years, and particularly after refinements made in 1999, Taser International, Inc. sold hundreds of thousands of tasers worldwide. That success has led to criticism from groups such as Amnesty International regarding the safety record of the taser. Another area of contention has been sales of the taser to countries known to practice torture. Electroshock devices have long been favored as instruments of torture because they can cause excruciating pain and do not leave marks on the victims. [N2].

In the original taser patent application, Cover references a number of previous patents that led to his invention. Again, these early patents are aimed at incapacitating animals rather than humans. One interesting device, and the oldest of those listed, is an 1852 patent for an electric whaling harpoon. The principle is similar to that of the taser: a power source is connected by a conducting wire to a barbed electrode that sticks into the subject. Of course, this is well before a mass-produced battery was developed, so the electricity was generated by a hand-cranked dynamo. Another difference is that only a single electrode and wire was used, so the bottom of the boat was covered with copper for the return current to flow back through the water. The inventor, Christian Heineken of Bremen, Germany, planned to manufacture electric harpoons and dynamos in Baltimore, Maryland, but the device never took off commercially. As if whaling was not a dangerous enough profession to begin with, the mixture of a strong electrical source, an electrocuted whale, and the high seas could not have been very safe.


Apparently most whalers agreed that the device was either too dangerous or just unworkable. The electric harpoon had been tested on the Bremen whaleship Averick Heneken in 1851 and possibly the Amethyst out of New Bedford in 1854-59, but Heineken’s device never found favor with whalers. The New Bedford Whaling Museum possesses what it believes may be the only electric Heneken harpoon to survive.

By the 1860s, the explosive harpoon came into use and is still used in modern whaling. Electric wires inside whaling lines were tried in the 20th century, but they were used to trigger the explosive harpoon rather than electrocution. However, Japan does use electric lances today, in addition to rifles, to kill whales that have been harpooned.

Cover also referenced a 1957 Thomas D. Ryan patent covering a handful of projectile weapons that carried an electroshock device within the projectiles’ heads. Shown below, from left to right, are an arrow, a lance, a fencing foil, and a spear.


The electroshock mechanism in these is the simplest of designs, hearkening back to the earliest devices: there is a battery source, a coil, an arming switch and the two electrodes embedded in the bladed portions of the weapons. Ryan’s patent application, submitted in the midst of the Cold War, shows a certain 007 flavor: in Ryan’s opinion, these inventions would be perfect for modern warfare’s “commando-type attacks” where stealth and surprise were paramount considerations. A secondary application was in allowing hunters a way to quickly drop their prey even if struck a non-mortal injury with the projectile. The fencing foil shown is described as a piercing weapon, so the intent appears to be for combative use of the foil rather than in simply electrifying a training or sporting weapon. In contrast, at least one manufacturer today is offering an electrified training knife to increase the realism, or at least the concentration level, of training knife sparring. [N4].

As can be seen, many of the fundamental concepts behind the taser were in existence long before the device came about. The commercial development of the taser led the way for the current market glut on personal electroshock devices. The patent field relating to stun weaponry aimed at human subjects expanded rapidly in the 1960s and continues to develop at a furious rate today. In addition to the large number of handheld stun guns currently available, the taser now faces competition from at least one other manufacturer of a similar projectile electroshock device. General electroshock devices are so popular today that a current fad is the “taser parties” taking the place of yesterday’s “tupperware parties.”

Patent records also show a number of different designs for less-lethal electrical-based weaponry that may one day lead to the development of devices based on different technologies, such as electrical devices using liquid, liquid metal, or laser discharge as conduction media, bullets containing charges or gaining charges in flight through piezoelectric action, and too many other methods to address here. If the patent history has shown anything, it is clear that the future will hold new and interesting methods of zapping both people and animals.

N1. TASER is a registered trademark of Taser International, Inc.

N2. For a history of electric torture devices, see Electricity: The Global History of a Torture Technology by Darius Rejali at http://academic.reed.edu/poli_sci/faculty/rejali/rejali/articles/History_of_Electric_Torture.htm

N3. For more on the device, see http://www.no-contact.com/

N4. Official marketing for the “Shock Knife” appears to focus more on law enforcement than martial arts applications: http://www.shocknife.com/index.html. However, the shocknife is certainly being introduced into the martial arts world; the Dog Brothers use them for their knife sparring and this author was recently able to experience one at a martial arts seminar. My take is that the sound and sight is intimidating when triggered, and it does feels a bit like being cut as it is drawn across the skin, but it is not particularly painful.

Knife Fighting Instruction

MacHeath had a jackknife, which he kept out of sight, and used almost poetically if Bobby Darin’s description is any indication. Jim Croce gave Bad Bad Leroy Brown a .32 gun in his pocket for fun and a razor in his shoe, and he didn’t specify what Big Jim Walker carried, but a knife sounds a safe bet.

Leroy Brown, after his encounter, looked like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone, whereas for Jim, after the cutting was done, only the soles of his feet were not covered in blood. Specifically, he was cut in about 100 places and shot in a couple more.

Knife fighting has long been a romantic concept, bound with ideas of honor and masculinity. After all, there’s heavy symbolism in stabbing the flesh of another with a phallic shaped instrument. As an expression of dominance, it places the recipient in the female role by definition. Makes you wonder what the hell Jim Bowie was overcompensating for.

From where did all this lyrical romanticism derive? Maybe it was because knife fighting is an evolution of the code duello, i.e., an extension to the knife rather than sword. Or maybe it is just a class issue, after all, legendary fighters are usually of common stock, which is not surprising considering that the people relating the tales often had a class tradition of using knives to settle disputes of honor. See the cites at the end for a couple examples.

If you’ve gotten the impression that I dislike knife fighting, well, you’re both right and wrong. I don’t ever want to be in a knife fight, and of the dozens of schools or seminars I’ve been to that have taught knife skills, I don’t especially care for the way any of them train for knife encounters.

In real life, the recipient may not even know he or she is being stabbed until the encounter is over. With the adrenaline pumping, many participants have engaged in fistfights only to figure out after it was all over that the other fella brought a knife to a fistfight and the sneaky son of a bitch didn’t advertise the fact. Another point is that the targets are almost always the abdomen or head, both of which I’d like to keep intact. For more detail on knife encounter studies check out James LaFond’s book. LaFond is another local who enjoys whacking people with sticks.

One of the problems is that pretty much any knife defense is intrinsically false. Scenario training is great, but if you’re training scenarios, you know you are about to be attacked, and you know the knife is potentially a part of the attack at some point. For example, these guys (I saw this link on the blog I mention below, you really only need to watch the first encounter to get the point) do a great job of showing just how tough a committed attack can be to defend, but even so they know the attack is coming and they are also limited as to how and what targets they can attack safely.

Knife on knife sparring, which I have participated in to no end and still quite enjoy, is so ludicrous as to make me wonder if I’m going to break out into song and dance with the Jets and Sharks. The idea that a realistic knife scenario is two people starting with similar weapons yards apart and then fencing makes me wonder who thinks these things up.

I do think it is illuminating that one of my instructor’s who knew him well used to quote Dan Inosanto on the subject of the knife disarms we were taught in FMA. The gist was that he did not recommend them; if you couldn’t get out of the situation, the disarms were the last line of defense, the first being something along the lines of a beer mug, chair, or other improvised weapon. The point of the disarms was that at least it was something to fall back on if your day suddenly got really bad, and at least it gave you something to train.

In that same vein, I did stumble across a promising blog on knife self defense the other day. There is not a lot of content yet, but of the content I read there, I liked. For example, here’s a bit about the “best knife defense”:

When you compare the best knife defense, well hands down, I would recommend using the following, listed by the best ways and if you have the cash.

  • firearm
  • taser
  • long metal stick
  • garbage can lid
  • a chair

As you can well imagine, I was intrigued by such a sensible response.

Here’s the link to the blog that that quote came from: Simple Knife Defense

Here are the articles I mentioned earlier:


Thomas W. Gallant, “Honor, Masculinity, and Ritual Knife Fighting in Nineteenth-Century Greece,” American Historical Review, Vol 105, No. 2 ( April 2000).

Pieter Spierenburg, “Knife Fighting and Popular Codes of Honor in Early Modern Amsterdam,” in Spierenburg, ed., Men and Violence: Gender, Honor and Rituals in Modern Europe and America (Columbus, Ohio, 1998).

Paper Bludgeon: the Millwall Brick

The other day I read a post on Boing Boing about constructing the Millwall Brick, which is the first I had heard of it. The Millwall (or Chelsea) Brick is an improvised weapon constructed out of rolled and folded newspaper.

The history behind the Milwall Brick is that football (soccer) hooligans, frisked at the gates, were limited in the types of weapons they could smuggle into the matches. The innocuous newspaper allowed them a quickly accessible weapon at their disposal should the fistic festivities kick off.

Instructions for making one can be found here, but the photo sequence they show pretty much covers it:

Millwall brick assembly

Now, I’m all for improvised weapons, but this looks almost like more trouble than it’s worth. It seems to me a rolled-up magazine used as a thrusting weapon would be far more useful, not to mention quicker to implement.

Then again, the South Londoners know what they’re about when it comes to football violence, so I guess I need to make one and do a couple test whacks with it to really understand it. At first glance, it just looks too short to do anything worthwhile. Maybe that’s part of the fun: you can have a less-lethal weapon that will save your fists in a punch up and not land you in the chokey for attempted murder.

“You say the defendant then viciously attacked you with a newspaper? The defense rests, your honor.”

Bartitsu: An Eclectic Edwardian Martial Art

I was involved with this project, but it was the indefatigable Tony Wolf that took the editorial reins and turned a bunch of list talk into the amazing piece of publishing that became The Bartitsu Compendium. Instead of rehashing it all here, let me quote from the sale site:

The Bartitsu Compendium is a complete guide to the history, theory and practice of Bartitsu, an eclectic martial art founded by E.W. Barton-Wright in the year 1899. Bartitsu was a combination of four of the most effective self defence methods known at the time – jiujitsu, boxing, savate and stick fighting. The Compendium features over two hundred and seventy pages of original essays, rare vintage reprints and never-before-seen translations, illustrated with hundreds of fascinating photographs and sketches.

A lot of time, effort, and money went into primary research, obtaining rare original copies for quality scans, and authoring new material for this compendium. But probably the greatest thing about the project is that all the proceeds go towards purchasing a suitable gravesite memorial for E. W. Barton-Wright, buried in a pauper’s grave in the 1950s.

Therefore you can feel good about purchasing your copy here or by clicking on the book cover above.

Related links:

Bartitsu Forum– talk about all things bartitsu

Bartitsu.org– a comprehensive resource including seminar updates