The Purpose of Tang Soo Do Karate Weapons

In part 9 of my series on the purpose of Tang Soo Do training, I will be going over the purpose of karate weapons training. Specifically, how this aspect of Tang Soo Do training fits into the global self-defense system.  

When I talk about weapons, I am talking about the following: Bong (staff), Dan Gum (knife), Jang Gum (sword), and Jipangyi (cane).  These are the weapons that I have trained in during my Tang Soo Do career.  I have trained in other weapons but have not seen them as a part of standardized Tang Soo Do curriculum.  

Student practicing karate weapons with bong (staff)
Student practicing karate weapons with bong (staff)

The focus of this post will not be the techniques used in weapons ho sin sul (self-defense) but rather all other aspects of weapons training done in Tang Soo Do (essentially just forms).  I will touch briefly on some of my views regarding weapons ho sin sul towards the end of the article.

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Based on what I have heard and read, weapons were not generally taught initially to students in Moo Duk Kwan.  Weapons training was limited to Ko Dan Ja, high ranking black belts.  Some of the other schools, such as Ji Do Kwan, did however train in weapons.  

Since I was not around during this time, I cannot say for sure the origins of weapons training in Tang Soo Do.  I have heard different things from different sources.  In this post, I will attempt to piece together what I think makes most sense from what I’ve heard. I will also interject my own opinions and theories from time to time.

What I have noticed is that weapons training is very dependent on individual organization and studio.  Most weapons training is very limited in scope, generally almost exclusively forms only.  Most weapons forms are relatively modern. They were created within the last 30 years or so. This is in stark contrast to the many empty hand forms that go back hundreds of years.

Student practicing karate weapons with stick
Student practicing karate weapons with stick

I feel that there are 2 primary reasons why some Tang Soo Do organizations/studios train in weapons: business and culture.

When martial arts started to become popular in the 70s and 80s, commercial studios began being successful and full-time careers for aspiring instructors was now viable.  In order to keep up with the Japanese and Okinawan karate schools that were doing the cool ninja turtle weapons training, Tang Soo Do studios needed to do the same.  Not having a standard curriculum, many instructors and organizations created their own.  Later in the 80s and 90s, competitions became more popular and cooler XMA weapons tricks were being done.  Again, to keep up and not lose students to other studios, weapons needed to be incorporated into to Tang Soo Do.  Not doing weapons was bad for business.

The other primary reason I feel we train in weapons is cultural.  The two weapons I have seen, and trained in personally, during my Tang Soo Do career are the staff (bong) and the sword (jang gum).  These two weapons have Korean cultural significance and are represented in the Moo Yae Dobo Tongji, the first complete Korean martial arts text.  There is a history behind these weapons that stem from the same source that our empty hand techniques come from.  Since Tang Soo Do is an art, learning these cultural aspects are important.

While the two topics I mentioned above are the primary reasons weapons training was added, I feel there are also some other benefits to training in weapons in Tang Soo Do.  I call these benefits rather than purposes or reasons because, honestly, weapons training does not significantly impact the overall effectiveness of Tang Soo Do from a self-defense standpoint.

Karate Weapons Help Body Control/Coordination/Focus

 It is hard enough doing many of the empty hand techniques in Tang Soo Do.  Doing techniques with a weapon such as a staff or sword requires more coordination and focus than doing techniques empty handed.  When you think about a weapon being an extension of the body, it becomes increasingly more difficult to control the entire body, including the weapon.

Basic Technique Improvement 

When you do a technique such as a kick or maintaining a stance with a weapon in your hand, it is easy to focus on the weapon only and neglect the other parts.  Adding a weapon can indicate a lacking in other areas of your Tang Soo Do training.

Boredom/Fun 

Let’s face it, doing the same thing over and over again can get boring.  Especially when you have kids in class, asking them to do basic techniques repeatedly is a losing battle.  This could be considered a subset of the business reason, but I thought I would mention it by itself.  Keeping students interested and engaged will keep them from quitting which, by definition, is good for business.

Student practicing karate weapons with sword
Student practicing karate weapons with sword

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned anything about being able to use these weapons for self-defense.  The Tang Soo Do weapons training I have seen and participated in are not applicable in any way to the ability to defend yourself.  Very early in my training, I was told that one of the reasons we train with the staff is because we could use it for a weapon if needed.  We could use a stick, bat, etc. if one is around and be able to use it.  Sorry, no.  The limited scope of training does not give me confidence that it could provide someone the ability to use it properly.

You may also think, these weapons are not used today so we are therefore learning to use them the way they were hundreds of years ago.  Again, sorry, but no.  I can guarantee that the weapons techniques we learn in weapons forms are not applicable.  For instance, holding a staff at the center would greatly limit its effectiveness.  One of the advantages of a staff is its range so why would you hold at the center rather than towards the end?  As for a sword, most students have never cut anything with a sword and based on what I’ve seen in their forms, would not be able to cut anything.

I would like to touch briefly on weapons self-defense commonly done in Tang Soo Do and express some opinions I have.  First of all, the self-defense techniques I have seen taught and documented are very limited, typically only a handful of techniques.  Also, of these few, only knife attacks are done.  If we truly want to provide students with proper weapons self-defense techniques, we need to include other common weapons such as sticks and guns as well as provide many more techniques.

That being said, I feel teaching only a very few weapons self-defense techniques is irresponsible.  Giving someone only a little bit of knowledge in a potentially lethal area like knife self-defense is dangerous.

I also feel it is irresponsible to teach knife, gun, and stick techniques to kids.  Teaching them how to use weapons (such as in a knife form) that they may come across is also dangerous.  Even if weapons are relegated to only black belts, there are many Tang Soo Do black belts that are 11-12 years old and sometimes even younger.

Karate student practicing with sai
Karate student practicing with sai

In my opinion, weapons self-defense as well as using weapons that kids encounter, such as knives, in forms should be for adults only.  I have no problem with kids learning bong (staff), jang gum (sword, as long as it is not a real blade), or some of the other weapons I have mentioned.

Despite my ranting and opinions, I feel weapons training in Tang Soo Do is beneficial.  I just think that there needs to be a little more understanding and context.  I also don’t think there should be much emphasis on them.  Afterall, the words Tang Soo Do translate to “The Way of Chinese Empty Hand.”

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