The garote is a hardwood fighting stick popular among old-school escrimadors. Often fashioned flat like a sword, the garote is obviously a battle stick meant for duels and live encounters.
The term “garote” which refer to the stick as a weapon is Spanish in origin.
Alhough there are many varieties of hardwoods in the Philippines, there is but one unwritten rule in picking the right kind for making a garote and that is the wood must be dense enough to stop a bolo hack. Among the escrimadors of yore, it is a sign of great skill and courage to defeat a bolo-wielding assailant with a stick.
Within escrima circles, a debate is always imminent on how the hardwood garote would measure up against the lighter rattan stick when used in a real fight.
The most obvious advantage of rattan over hardwood is its light weight, which means the wielder can swing his stick with greater speed and deliver more hits per second. Another advantage of rattan is that its flexible fibers help dissipate impact, preventing the direct transfer of force to the wielder’s hand during force-to-force blocking.
The nature of the material that a weapon is made of profoundly affects the way it absorbs force. On this, I want to use an example outside of stick fighting. The problem of absorbing force was one of the main reasons why polymer is used in the construction of modern lightweight handguns. Polymer’s inherent elasticity compresses and distributes recoil energy better than steel.
While the light weight and flexibility of the rattan stick bring the advantages of greater speed and better shock absorption, these two attributes also cast doubt on the stopping power of the weapon. Rattan is capable of inflicting serious damage when it hit soft tissue areas like the eyes and the throat but is no match to its hardwood counterpart when bone-splintering impact that could penetrate a layer of flesh is called for.
When stick meets flesh and bone, rattan reacts differently from a hardwood garote. In an episode of the cable TV program Time Warp featuring some members of the Dog Brothers, one scene showed Nick Papadakis took a direct hit of the stick on his forearm during a sparring match.
In the slow-motion replay, it was incredible to watch the rattan stick bending on Pappadakis’ forearm on impact. In this case, the flexibility of the rattan prevented the weapon from inflicting serious damage on the target.
On the other hand, the hardwood garote though capable of cracking a skull with one stroke could prove unwieldy because of its weight. The heavy garote is best used for follow-through strikes not snapping hits. Dan Inosanto, in his classic book the Filipino Martial Arts offers profound insight on the movement dynamics of heavy weapons to which the garote belongs, he wrote, “The long arc is a simple elliptical swing that keeps about the same diameter from beginning to end.
In combat, the long arc occurs most frequently with the long and/or heavy weapon. The elliptical path of an especially heavy weapon may elongate even more as the weight and the centrifugal force of the moving weapon unbends the arm.”
Even if an escrimador is not keen on fighting real duels, practicing with a heavy garote will bring load of benefits among them strength and power development (rattan would feel incredibly light after some practice with a garote), weapon control as well as stroking finesse.
There are no rigid rules in gripping the garote. I’ve seen a film clip of one old Filipino master gripping the garote “dos manos” style or with two hands for ease of manipulation, his staple technique being the figure eight motion.
In practice, the escrimador may develop bad habits in compensating for the weight of the garote (if he’s used to wielding the light rattan stick) or he may learn to refine his body mechanics in order to control the weapon. Simply put, only two results are available: either you learn to control the garote or let the garote control you.
Filipino master Amante Mariñas in his biography published in Mark Wiley’s Filipino Martial Culture, narrates of his experience training with a heavy stick, “If you want to become good you must practice, practice, practice,” asserts Mariñas. “At one time, I did 20,000 strikes in one day.
It took me six hours. The next day my arm was tired but I didn’t stop practicing. I developed arnis elbow because I was using an anahaw stick which weighed about one kilogram. Swinging was easy but jabbing was difficult with the heavy stick.”
In ending, I would like to postulate that the use of the heavy hardwood stick has an older roots and was not a later development in the Filipino martial arts. Certain kind of armors may have prompted pre-colonial Filipino warriors to use impact weapons instead of bladed weapons.
A knife thrust or slash on an armor of tough animal hide, kamagong or kapok strips may prove ineffective but a blow with a heavy hardwood stick can still shatter bones beneath such protectants.