The French developed the walking stick into a formidable self-defense tool that became known as la canne. Learn how it was adopted into traditional savate training in the 1800s and has remained part of the kicking art ever since!

By the 19th century, the walking stick had become the hallmark of distinction, authority and strength. For the gentlemen of the era, it was not only an indispensable fashion accessory but also a source of confidence, security and nonverbal deterrence on the streets of Europe.


In its various designs and configurations, the walking stick was also valued at home, where it served as an objet d’art and an effective weapon against invaders.

Photo Courtesy of Cold Steel

The French developed the walking stick into a formidable self-defense tool that became known as la canne. Adopted into the traditional savate training halls of the 1800s, it’s remained by the side of the kicking art for more than 200 years.

The Birth of La Canne

Pierre Vigny was one of the most innovative masters of la canne. Born in France in 1869, he began training in savate, English boxing and fencing at a young age. During his teenage years, he often ventured from one academy to another, learning new martial arts techniques and testing his skills against anyone who’d pick up a sword, stick or pair of boxing gloves.

In 1886 he joined the army, where he served as the fencing master for the second regiment of the French artillery at Grenoble. After leaving the military in 1889, he moved to Geneva and opened a combat academy. During this period, he devoted several years to the perfection of his own method of la canne.

Pierre Vigny devised a system that could be described as a mixture of several indigenous European self-defense methods. Many of the passes, thrusts and wards resembled fighting techniques from German swordsmanship, and a collection of the foot skills were borrowed from savate and French boxing.

Upon receiving an offer from Edward W. Barton-Wright to assume the position of chief instructor at the Bartitsu School of Self-Defence, Pierre Vigny relocated to England in the late 1890s and introduced la canne and savate to the British. During his time there, he met and trained with two celebrated jujitsu instructors: Yukio Tani and S.K. Uyenishi.

From them, he acquired new martial arts techniques for his already efficient repertoire of self-defense skills, after which he formulated his method of personal combat, which included moves from wrestling, savate, jujitsu and sword dueling. The addition of the new techniques was deemed necessary because of the rise of hooliganism throughout England.

Perfecting La Canne

Pierre Vigny’s skill as a fighter and teacher attracted the attention of both the working class and the aristocracy. He served as a coach at the London Boxing Club and instructed at Aldershot Military School. Seeking better business opportunities, he moved to London, where he opened a school in 1903 under the patronage of Grand Duke Michael of Russia and became director and manager of the New School of Self-Defence and Fencing Academy.

Interestingly, his wife also taught there, offering ladies instruction in the use of the parasol and the steel-spiked umbrella.

The syllabus at the school catered to students who were interested in a variety of fighting arts. Even though he conducted classes in the fencing foil, sword, savate and self-defense from morning to night, la canne remained Pierre Vigny’s pet project. He taught courses that lasted 12 weeks, a length of time he believed was sufficient to give the average person the ability to handle almost any emergency.

Shunning the lighter assault canes that were popular in the academic training halls — Pierre Vigny referred to them as “chopsticks”—he believed that a true walking stick should be rigid and sturdy. Because of his dislike for the less-functional models, he had one produced to his own specifications.

Termed the “Vigny self-defense stick,” it was made from a medium-weight Malacca cane with a metal knob mounted on the end. The heavy ball served as the point of percussion, thus adding instant knockout effectiveness to the weapon.

La Canne Goes Global

By 1912 London held little interest for Pierre Vigny, so he returned to Geneva, where he managed the Academy of Sports and Defence for a number of years. He put the finishing touches on what is arguably the most complete and effective stick-fighting system ever devised. Several police, military and martial arts academies adopted his syllabus.

During the 1920s, Superintendent Henry G. Lang, an English officer of the Indian police, was required to search for a less-than-lethal equalizer to oppose the commonly carried lathi. While on leave, he traveled to Europe to learn the Vigny system, and upon his return to India, Henry G. Lang produced a syllabus that he documented in the now-classic book The “Walking Stick” Method of Self-Defence.

In 1941 Henry G. Lang’s manual was translated into Hebrew, and for a time, it was adopted into the kapap curriculum, later to be included as part of the training undertaken by an Israeli spec-ops unit known as Palmach. It’s estimated that up to 50,000 Israelis received training in the walking-stick method.

Pierre Vigny’s influence also reached the United States through jujitsu and fencing instructor Charles Yerkow. By the early 1940s, Charles Yerkow had written a series of books titled Modern Judo: The Complete Ju-Jutsu Library, which served as a supplemental manual for American hand-to-hand combat teams. The section on stick play is based on Henry G. Lang’s “Walking Stick” Method.

Today, practitioners of Vigny la canne are privileged to be able to tap into a system that’s time tested, versatile and still very workable on the street. Anyone looking for a backup to his or her unarmed skills would do well to consider it, for it’s as relevant now as it was 100 years ago.

About the Author: Craig Gemeiner is the founder of the Gemeiner Academy of European Combat Arts in Queensland, Australia. He serves as president of and technical director for the Australian Savate Federation Inc.

SUBSCRIBE TO BLACKBELT MAGAZINE TODAY!
Don't miss a single issue of the world largest magazine of martial arts.

Do you want to maximize your self defense skills? Learn the game of combat chess and most importantly the queen of all moves.

Allow me to intercept those who would object to the title of this article. I'm not claiming that there's a secret move, shortcut or hack that will give you the edge in any fight. Even if there was an ultimate weapon or strategy, you likely would avoid it because you
Keep Reading Show less

Looking to buy some weights to gain some strength?

Looking at Dumbbell, Kettlebells or Weighted bar? How about an all in one that won't just save you some good amount of money but also space? Look no further, we bring you the GRIPBELL!

Let's face it, when we do want to work on some strength building, we don't want to go around shopping for 20 different weight equipment things. That would just not want us to even do any sort of strength training. But what if we only needed a few, a few that can do the things we want without having 20 things lay around? That's where the GRIPBELL comes in. Let me clarify with you first, these are not some heavy duty, muscle exploding weights, they are for building the level of strength we as martial artists want without going crazy and insane in bulk sizing!

Keep Reading Show less

Many different types of "blocks" are taught in most martial arts school. We are taught high blocks, low blocks, middle blocks, knife hand blocks, etc. Some schools will also teach how to use the legs to block an attack, as well.

The purpose of this writing is to possibly open some minds to the possibilities of going outside the box and considering alternatives to the basics.

Blocking is taught as a way of protecting oneself from harm. Truly, we don't "block" anything, as a non-martial artist would think of it. What we call "blocking" is more of a redirection of an opponent's attack, or even a counterstrike against the opponent's attacking limb.

To block something would mean to put something, like your arm, leg or other body part directly in front of the attack. That would certainly hurt and possibly cause some damage. The goal should be to move the attack out of the way in order to prevent injury and provide a way to fight back. For example, many schools teach blocks as a limb moving toward the strike such as a circular high block.

The movement required for a block might have other uses, if you keep an open mind. The blocking techniques can also be used as attack techniques. For example, your "low block" may be used as a striking technique against the outer thigh of the attacker. Your high block might be used as a strike to the jaw. The set up for a block can be used as a deflection, as well as the actual block.

Doing a block or a series of blocks will most likely not end an attack. A block needs to be followed by a counterattack. While the block is usually taught as a separate technique in order to learn it correctly, it should also be used in combination with a counter.

The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know. Intensive books can and have be written about basic techniques. With this writing, I am hoping to create interest in exploring the additional possibilities for what we have been taught and what we teach others.

About Grand Master Stevens

GM Stevens has been training in taekwondo for 47 years under the tutelage of the late legendary Grand Master Richard Chun. He holds an 8th degree black belt and is certified in the USA and in Korea. Grand Master Stevens is a member of the Board of Directors of the prestigious Richard Chun TaeKwonDo World Headquarters organization. He has been very active in his community and has been a volunteer with the Glen Rock Volunteer Ambulance Corps for over 11 years. He is a certified member of C.E.R.T. (Community Emergency Response Team).

Gary Stevens Taekwondo is located at 175 Rock Road in Glen Rock, New Jersey.

For more information: call (201) 670-7263, email: StevensTKD@aol.com or go to www.StevensTaeKwonDo.com

Having partners at or above your skill level is important for improving in your martial arts training. At some point, however, you will probably find yourself with a shortage of skilled partners, especially if you are an instructor.

This can happen for any number of reasons: students can move away, change their work schedules, start a family, etc., and just like that, you find that you're the highest-ranked student, or sole instructor, in your gym or dojo. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. In fact, if you take advantage of it, even working exclusively with lower-ranking classmates or students can improve your skills.

I used to host a twice-a-week training session at my dojo where I invited mostly black belts from other schools (as well as a few of my advanced students) to come and run drills. It was a blast. These were tough two- to three-hour sessions where I got to work with fighters of all different sizes, speeds, and technique preferences. My sparring improved dramatically over the next few months, and I don't think I've ever been in better shape. But unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. And as the old saying goes, "You gotta work with what ya got." So, make it hard on yourself.

I like to set handicaps when fighting my students. Specifically, I focus on forcing myself to work on improving my weak areas. Is you right leg weaker than the left? Then only kick with the right leg when sparring your students. Not much of an inside fighter? Don't kick at all. Training with partners of lesser skill not only helps you improve your weak points but gives them an opportunity to improve as well by working on strategy. It's also great for building their confidence. It can also be a low-cost opportunity to test new techniques and combinations, which benefits you as well.

In grappling, just like sparring, there is little benefit to wrapping lower ranking classmates into pretzels over and over, for them or you. Instead, let your partner put you in a bad situation. Let them get the mount; help them sink in that choke or armbar. If you start standing, such as in judo, allow your partner to get the superior grip before attempting a throw. This way you will get comfortable working out of a weaker position and your less-experienced partner can perfect their technique (and get experience using multiple techniques, if you get out of their first one).

You might think that giving advantages like these to students who may be far beneath your skill level is much of a challenge. Trust me, you'll reconsider that sentiment when you wind up sparring a 6'5" novice with zero control over his strength after deciding to only use your weak leg, or have a 250-pound green belt lying across your diaphragm trying to get an armlock after you let them get the pin. Remember, this is exactly what you signed up for: a challenge.

If you find yourself at the top of the heap without partners who are sufficiently challenging, there is no need to despair. Use it as a low-stress opportunity to improve your weaknesses and develop avenues to help your less experienced classmates and students to grow. You may even be surprised. One day they might present more of a challenge than you ever imagined!
Don’t miss a thing Subscribe to Our Newsletter