The Filipino Balisong Knife

By | 2018-05-08T00:49:58+00:00 March 9th, 2010|FMA Corner|

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In the movies, the Filipino balisong knife was once dubbed “the nunchaku of the 1980s.” If the 1970s was the era of the nunchaku (popularized by Bruce Lee in his films), the 1980s belonged to the balisong. Jeff Imada, in his book “The Balisong Manual,” published in 1984 wrote, “Backed by top quality, wide exposure, the balisong will undoubtedly rival the nunchaku in popularity for action film sequences.

Imada, who is among the most respected stunt choreographer in the United States today, is a student of Dan Inosanto. It was through the effort of Imada and Inosanto that the balisong knife made its debut in Hollywood. Inosanto appeared as a balisong-wielding villain in Burt Reynolds 1981 film “Sharkey’s Machine.”

Then Came the Tactical Folder

Before Sal Glessner of the knife company SpiderCo designed the tactical folder during the early 1980s, the Filipino balisong was the popular choice among martial artists who want a folding knife that can be deployed instantly with one hand. In knife jargon, the balisong is considered a non-typical folder.

Among individuals whose primary concern is a knife that can be opened quickly with one hand, the tactical folder became the more popular choice over the balisong. The popularity of the tactical folder is hinged on two primary factors: it can be opened comfortably with one hand via the thumb stud on the blade; and it is very secure and comfortable to carry because of its pocket clip.


A Philippine-made balisong

Knife with a Flash

But beyond the issue of practicality, there are other reasons why a serious practitioner of knife combat should study the balisong. The first reason is because training with the balisong demands more skill. In their book “Pananandata: The Guide to Balisong Openings,” father and son Amante Mariñas Sr. and Amante Mariñas Jr. wrote, “How many ways can you open a switchblade? One.

How many ways can you bare the blade of a boot knife? One. Draw it from its scabbard. How many ways can you open a lock back? Two; either with an energetic flick or with a push with the thumb. How many ways can you open a Spanish navaja? One: using both hands and with great difficulty. How many ways can you open a balisong? We have discovered 169 ways.”

A simple opening technique of the balisong could rival the speed of opening of either a switchblade or a tactical folder. The two authors wrote that based on their research, the fastest opening of the balisong was clocked at 0.16 seconds. Despite this fact, Mariñas Sr. and Mariñas Jr. cautioned that under combat stress, the simplest of the balisong openings may seem impossible to complete and there is even a possibility of the user dropping his knife.

While the number and complexity of balisong openings may daunt some would-be balisong owners, the truth is there are three schools of thought on the balisong as explained by Mariñas Sr. and Mariñas Jr. in their book.

The two authors wrote, “One school includes those who practice the openings racing against the clock. Another school includes older, wiser men who advocate opening the balisong, deliberately, like peeling a banana. There is yet another school that does not care about it.”

The Balisong as a Fighting Knife

The real art of the balisong begins after it was opened.

It should be clear to the student of the balisong that while the fancy openings develop certain combat attributes like reflex and dexterity, these things does not constitute knife fighting. The various opening techniques merely link the gap between the draw and the actual use of the balisong.

The strength of the structure of the balisong is at par if not greater than the locking mechanisms of other folding knives. The two handles that sheathe the blade when the balisong is closed forms a single sturdy handle when the balisong is open.

Hand crafted Philippine balisongs are known for their tips that can pierce a one-peso coin. Coin piercing is the traditional way of testing the strength of a balisong.

Despite the popularity of the tactical folder, I still encounter once in while security professionals that carry a balisong as a back up weapon. One bodyguard I met in Batangas province (the home of the balisong) carried one as a back up to his 1911 .45 pistol. He preferred a balisong with a simple design explaining that he doesn’t want anything that would snag on his clothing when he draw the knife.

A Fine Weapon To Own

The etymology of the name balisong was believed to have originated from “baling sungay,” which in the Tagalog dialect means “broken horn.” The trademark of traditional Philippine-made balisongs is a handle that has inserts made of carabao horn.

There are currently two types of balisong constructions: sandwich construction and channel construction. The latter, which is a product of modern technology, is characterized by handles that were formed from one piece of material.

Sandwich construction, which is the way traditional Philippine balisongs are made involves assembling layers that are pinned and screwed together. Premium native Filipino balisongs have blades that were forge out of discarded giant ball bearings that explain its coin-piercing strength.

The Balisong’s Place of Origin

In recent years, there were some debates regarding the true place of origin of the balisong. One faction claims that the balisong really originated in France citing a technical drawing of a balisong that appeared in the book “Le Perret” that was published in 1710.

The copy of the book is displayed at The Museum of Thiers, in Thiers, France. Banking on the said evidence, this faction theorized that the balisong was invented in Europe and eventually came to be used in Spain then brought to the Philippines by the Spaniards.

This hypothesis clearly discounted the possibility that it could be the other way around – the Spaniards picking up the balisong from the Filipinos and bringing the knife to Europe where its design was copied. There are evidences indicating that Filipino seafarers have traveled the world long before Spain colonized the Philippines.

It is interesting to note that the guide of Ferdinand Magellan named Enrique de Malacca was believed to be a Filipino. Completely assuming that the balisong is of European origin is belittling the capabilities of the pre-colonial bladesmiths of the Philippines to produce such a knife with ingenious design.

A good counterargument to this assumption is the fact that the Spaniards were so impressed with the metallurgical skills of Filipino blacksmiths that they commissioned Panday Pira (1483 to 1576) to open their first artillery foundry in the Philippines.

Panday Pira was credited for inventing the lantaka, a portable cannon that could be swiveled at any angle during battle. Historical accounts of foreigners visiting the Philippines through the centuries have also attested that the Mindanao kris equals the temper of the Toledo blade.