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Right from the beginning, a large part of the study of Filipino stick fighting is devoted to the understanding of movement concepts. It is for this reason that the majority of systems of arnis, escrima and kali begin its training with a numbering system.
The numbering system, as its name implies is simply a way of assigning a number to a particular angle of attack. It’s a convenient way to label the different strikes so a student can remember them easily.
The most common numbering system employed by many styles contains 12-strikes though there are others that use more than or less than 12. An efficient numbering system covers the vertical, horizontal and diagonal movements of a stick or sword. As a mental guide, it is helpful for a beginning student to remember the addition sign (+), the multiplication sign (x) and a dot (.). The first two symbols represent slashes while the dot corresponds to thrusts.
I would like to compare the numbering system to the basic palette of an artist. From a set number of basic colors, an artist can produce so many hues and shades depending on his level of skill. It is the same thing with Filipino stick fighting; an expert using the 12-basic angles of attack can come up with a greater number of combinations than a novice.
Once the student has memorized the 12-strikes and acquired an acceptable degree of finesse in their delivery, he can begin experimenting with combinations. He can first explore the basic nature of movements and how it relates to his anatomy.
For example every strike has a corresponding opposite direction, so if you can do a downward diagonal strike (right-handed blow which is the common No.1 strike of many systems), you can do an upward diagonal strike.
It is also good to notice how the hand holding the weapon is pronated (rotation of the arm with palm facing down) or supinated (rotation of the arm with palm facing up) in each of the strikes. Delivery of strikes may also be labelled as forehand or backhand in orientation.
Another Filipino weaponry principle that is very useful is the one that says, “For every slash there is a thrust, and for every thrust there is a slash.” This basic principle is easy to understand and once applied to practice leads to the development of fluid combinations particularly in knife fighting.
Let’s see how this principle applies to a horizontal angle of attack. A horizontal slash from right to left at waist level (done with the right hand) is delivered with the arm supinated (palms up). At the end of the movement, the fighter must pronate his arm (palms down) to deliver the same diagonal strike in the opposite direction – left to right. But he can opt to insert a thrust at the end of each slash if he wants to.
In the first blow (horizontal slash from right to left), all he has to do is keep his arm supinated at the end of the movement and deliver a palm-up thrust with the weapon. After retracting the thrust, he pronates his arm and delivers the second blow (horizontal slash from left to right) followed by a palm-down thrust.
Observing how the end motion of each strike could transition into another angle of attack is the key to developing combinations. Filipino stick fighting movements are known for their fluidity so the linking of several strikes must be seamless.
List down the combinations you have developed (ex: 1-2-4-5, 3-4-1-2 etc.) for ease of review and as reference for creating more complex combinations in the future. In the same way that painters create small studies as preparation for bigger works, experimenting with striking combinations would lead a stick fighter to a deeper understanding of his art.
A study of the numbering system would benefit both novice and experienced practitioners alike. On this, Dan Inosanto, in his classic book, “The Filipino Martial Arts,” wrote, “A knowledge of these basic striking angles and how often they follow each other naturally gives the escrimador an almost psychic appearance in battle.”
What Inosanto means is that if a practitioner had known nearly all the possible combinations of these strikes then it would be easier for him to foretell during combat how his opponent would deliver them.
The numbering system is helpful not only in creating combinations but also in transitioning from weapon to weapon. Remember that the angles of attacks remain the same regardless of the weapon you’re using. A downward diagonal blow is a downward diagonal whether you’re using an escrima stick, a dagger, a tire iron or your fist.
Again, Inosanto admonished, “Relate to the angle of attack and not the weapon.” There may be some minor adjustments on the kind of movements you will use (ex: snapping, rebounding or follow-through) because of the nature of the weapon you are using but the angles of attacks remain the same.