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Training with Tonfas

Posted Sep 14 2009 9:56am
I have decided to start my kobudo training with the tonfas. I have chosen the tonfas partly because I have already had a little go with them and have some idea of what they are like to handle and partly because I can directly see their relationship to many karate techniques that I already know, such as blocks and strikes.

In my usual way I decided that before my next lesson I would find out a bit more about what training with tonfas involved and where this weapon originally came from. First, here's some video of a tonfakata from YouTube:

There seems to a bit of confusion as to the origins of the tonfa. Some sources suggest that tonfas were used as weapons in China and Indonesia way before they were used in Okinawa. However the 'favoured' history, and my preferred one, is that the tonfa was a farm implement, derived from the grinding handle of a millstone, that could be quickly detached and used as a weapon. When weapons were banned in Okinawa during the 15 th - 17 th centuries and the Okinawans were often under siege by the the Samurai or Western travellers, the beleaguered peasants developed many farm implements into secret weapons, including the tonfa.

I love the idea that that these poor peasants, living in poverty and constant fear of attack, would suddenly jump out of the fields with various farming implements and fight off their attackers with their secretly developed weapon's techniques. I bet that took them by surprise!

Presumably the tonfa would have originally been a single weapon - I assume a millstone only needs one grinding handle! When it became a twinned weapon I don't know.

So what can you do with a tonfa? Clearly it lends itself to some formidable blocking. If I'd been holding a tonfa last week when I blocked by partner's kick I wouldn't still be nursing a big bruise on my forearm.

The tonfa's original use as a grinding handle means that its design, with a side handle, makes it ideal for performing rotating strikes. Twirling the tonfa around at great speed adds a lot of power to a strike. It can also be used to block or parry another weapon and the blunt ends used to thrust or strike.

By using the long part of the shaft in conjunction with the side handle, the tonfa can be used for arm locks or to control an opponent. We tried a technique where the tonfa was held by the long shaft, the side handle hooked around the back of the attacker's neck and the hand holding the tonfa then slid up the shaft until the neck was sandwiched between the side handle and the hand in a vice like grip. The free hand could then do a palm heel strike into the face. Nasty!

From a defensive point of view, when holding the side handle, the shaft protects the forearm and hand from blows, and the knob can protect the thumb. By holding both ends of the shaft, the tonfa can ward off blows and when holding the shaft, the side handle can function as a hook to catch blows or weapons.

Other attacks include using it like a hammer by holding the long shaft and striking with the side handle or using it as a club by holding it the other way around.

It sounds like a very versatile weapon! So what specific skills do you need to be able to use the tonfa effectively? The fundamental skills that needs to be learned is to be able to switch from different grips very quickly and to be able to rotate the tonfa at speed.

Obviously the tonfa is not a legal weapon to carry around (unless you're the police) so what advantages will tonfa training give me?

Hopefully it will improve my karate skills by:

  • speeding up reflexes and manual dexterity

  • conditioning me for the impact from other weapons

  • Develop my timing and distance

  • Strengthen and improve my blocks and stances

  • Develop my coordination and ability to defend from all angles and with both hands

Do you have any tips for tonfa training? I would be particularly interested in tips on what to look for when buying a pair of tonfas.

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