A Filipino martial that focuses on armed combat with a stick, a sword, or a machete, eskrima is characterized by its battle-proven techniques. It is also known as “escrima,” “kali”-particularly in the United States and Europe-and “amis de mano” (meaning “harness of the hand” in Spanish).

Although many eskrima schools can trace their lineage back to different tribes and regions of the Philippines, little is known of the art’s origins because it was passed on in an oral tradition.

Some people suggest it was influenced by early Indian and Malay martial arts, as well as by Silat from the Malay Archipelago. What is known, however, is that the Spanish conquistadors, after arriving in the Philippines in the 16th century, engaged in skirmishes with tribesmen who used indigenous weapons and techniques.

Order out of chaos

During the country’s conflict-wrought history, martial arts developed into highly efficient systems, and recent systemization of the arts has enabled them to be passed on to students in an easily absorbable curriculum. The art is also taught to Filipino military organizations.

Eskrima has many different forms and most emphasize weapons-based training followed by empty-hand movements. The stick is the most common weapon. Students initially train with a padded stick and also a slightly thicker wooden training stick.

Then they train with a rattan cane, which is about 2 ft (0.6 m) in length and which has been fire-hardened and varnished; employed swiftly, it can easily crack a coconut with a flick of the wrist. Students also train with blades-the most common weapon employed in street crime in the Philippines.

Keeping it simple

Eskrima is taught en masse and in a simplified manner. Flashy and spectacular movements are often refined during sparring matches, in which practitioners wear padded body armor, helmets, and hand mitts. However, while simplicity is favored for teaching purposes, the system also has a deeper and more complex methodology that can take decades to master.

Experienced practitioners can fight with either weapons or with empty hands. The system uses any method that might work in a fight, and includes hand and foot strikes, some grappling and throwing moves, biting, and gouging. Practitioners may also include gouging, punching, throwing, or shoving when using weapons.

Common training techniques include the use of the solo stick, double stick, sword and stick, or stick and dagger (known as “espada y daga”). Some systems specialize in other weapons, such as the whip, staff, and a projectile-based weapon that resembles a 9 in (23 cm) nail.

It is common to see the latter being thrown into bamboo trees as a way of developing accuracy. When used in combat it is unlikely to kill, but it will distract an opponent long enough to either escape or to draw another weapon.

Diverse beginnings

Eskrima is practiced as a sport in some parts of the Philippines, although there is little standardization of rules. Traditional practitioners claim the set of rules promoted by the World Eskrima Kali Arnis Federation-in which practitioners fight according to a 10-point system-tends to overemphasize offensive techniques rather than deflective and defensive ones.

Critics also point out the disorganized appearance of the fights, with participants bashing each other as quickly as they can with a stick, as opposed to applying good, solid techniques.

Varying techniques

In combat, a player must study his body alignment in relation to his opponent and ensure that the tip of the weapon strikes vulnerable spots of an opponent’s body. In competition, however, points are more likely to be awarded for reasonably effective touches.

Weapons are considered to be an extension of the body, and footwork generally follows a triangular pattern. Thus, when a participant moves in any direction, his two feet always occupy the two corners of an imaginary triangle on the floor.

If he steps forward, he steps onto the triangle’s imaginary third corner so that no leg ever crosses the other at any time. This ensures a degree of stability and allows the player to use good leverage in his techniques and throw physical force from the ground into his hand or weapon.