There are an enormous variety of bladed weapons in the Philippines. In my article titled Evidence of pre-colonial Filipino Martial Arts, I mentioned that the immense assortment of knives and swords in the archipelago is a solid indicator that there once existed a pre-colonial Filipino martial art. For in design, function precedes form—the early Filipinos would not have made those so many bladed weapons unless they knew how to use them.
The purpose of this article as its title implies is to examine how the fundamental design of a knife or sword will affect the way it would be used in combat.
Single-edged or double-edged
Among Filipino blades, the most basic point of distinction is whether a particular knife or sword is single-edged (isang talim) or double-edged (magkabilaang talim). Single-edged swords are usually curved while those belonging to the double-edged variety are almost always straight.
Double-edged swords pose greater danger to the user hence their use requires a higher level of skill. To realize the inherent risk in the use of this weapon, just hold out a double-edged sword in front of you. Notice that while one edge is facing your opponent, the other edge is facing you as well.
This point is of particular importance to an escrimador who is exclusively practicing with sticks and is transitioning to bladed weapons training.
Some escrimadors have the habit of bouncing their sticks on the opposite arm (or other bodily parts) either to reposition for another strike or to arrest the momentum of the weapon after a forceful swing. This practice may still work safely with a single-edged sword but if the practitioner carried this habit while using a double-bladed sword, he will definitely cut himself. The safer way of regaining control at the end of a fast cutting motion is to use the palm of the non-weapon hand to catch the wrist of the hand holding the sword. The catching hand not only prevents the other edge from cutting the wielder but it can also aid the weapon-hand in generating more force in cutting or hacking.
The design of the sword will also affect the manner of cutting. A straight double-edged sword requires a linear drag while a single-edged curved sword elicits a shortened arc to cut.
One of the chapters in Dan Inosanto’s classic book The Filipino Martial Arts offers useful information on curved blades and their relation to movement and technique, it reads:
“Concave edge—1. Can reach around opponent’s block. 2. Cutting mainly occurs in (a) the side of the curve nearest your hand, (b) hacking in the center, (c) hooking or stabbing toward the end of the weapon.
Convex edge—1. Hits must be placed (a) near center of the blade or (b) slightly forward for cutting. Hence, treat it like a shorter bladed weapon. 2. Thrusts are out.”
With or without guard
The guard will also affect how a sword is used. A simple guard is located between the grip and the blade. It can be a small piece of flat metal sandwiched between the grip and the blade or in case of a saber, a cup covering the user’s hand.
The basic function of the guard is to prevent the user’s hand from sliding toward the blade during forceful thrusting. This is of particular importance in actual combat when the presence of sweat, blood or the elements like water, makes the grip slippery. Defensively, the guard protects the user’s hand from the opponent’s cuts and slashes hence the name.
A sword with a cup guard like the saber (some versions of the Bicolano minasbad have this feature) will nullify to a great extent the “defanging the snake” strategy of escrima which considers the weapon-hand of the enemy as a primary target.
On the other hand, an escrimador using a sword without a guard must exert extra care to protect his hand from his own blade or that of his opponent’s.
Blade curves and their effects to thrusting motions
Straight double-edged swords are most conducive to thrusting motions. This can be explained by a simple analysis of structure – a straight sword has its point in line with the handle resulting to a better center of balance and power when piercing through a target.
A minor curve or bend in the design of a blade will have minimal effect on its thrusting capabilities. But blades with extreme curves like the karit (sickle) and kerambit will force the user to rule out thrusts and instead resort to ripping and hooking motions.
An elucidation on the advantage of a straight sword over a curved sword or vice versa is beyond the scope of this article. Every escrimador has his reasons for favoring certain swords or knives. So long as he knows how design affects the basic functions of his weapon, he could use it to his maximum advantage.