The Whip as a Martial Arts Weapon

The Whip as a Martial Arts Weapon
Shutterstock.com / Anna Jurkovska
It is impossible to precisely say when and where was the whip started to be used as a weapon in human history and, more precisely, when and where did it start to be used as a martial arts weapon. The origins of this weapon are still being determined by many historians around the world. However, they all agree that the whip is a very old tool and perhaps even one of the oldest weapons in the history of mankind. Its history is several thousands of years old. During that time, its appearance, area of usage and the materials used to make it have often changed. It is very difficult to trace the different shapes it has taken on in daily life.

As a tools used by shepherds, it offered a non-replaceable help to people who took their cattle out on pastures. The reason lays in the sound it makes and its supersonic speed. The whip makes a relatively loud blast which scares cattle so shepherds use it to control its movement. By using the whip, one didn't need to hit the cattle anymore, it was enough for it to hear the sound of the blast and to obey its owner's command. Today, cattle-breeders still use it to hold the animals in one place. Thanks to the whip, wild horses, buffaloes, camels and, later on, tigers, lions and elephants were tamed. The whip became very popular among nomads and steppe tribes.

So, as a tool and soon as a weapon, it was first used well before our era by a nomadic tribe in Asia. Sometimes they even attributed it with magic powers. The whip is often mentioned in many legends and stories by various nomadic tribes. According to those legends, it is now known that numerous Tatar-Mongolian tribes skillfully used it as a weapon. For example, we now know that in the 2nd century B.C., the Chinese have often fought against Kirgistan and have been acquainted with the power of their whips. Apart from nomadic tribes, the people of ancient Assyria also actively used the whip. And so, it became a mandatory accessory for all warriors – horsemen. Soon its usage spread to other countries in their proximity, e.g. Africa and Europe and, later on, to the Americas, Australia etc.

The whip was very popular during the Ancient times. One of its earliest mentions can be found in the work of the Roman historian Herodotus, Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus and Polyaenus who told the story of the Scythians (an Iranian tribe) that returned home after a long war and were forced to fight their own slaves and family members. They won thanks to their knowledge of how to skillfully use a whip.

Whipping was a special punishment that, in the beginning, applied only to prisoners of war and slaves in ancient Rome. Later on, whipping was oftentimes used among Roman legions in order to establish discipline. Apart from that, the whip has a religious significance and was an unchanged attribute of ancient Roman gods. Also, various Roman commanders used it to decorate their chariots during war celebrations. One of the greatest conquerors in history and the most prominent barbaric leader, Attila the Hun (ruled from 434 to 453 A.D.), mastered the use of a whip. After he wrecked the town of Aquileia in 453 A.D., raided Northern Italy and fought the Roman Empire, he gained the nickname "God's Whip" (lat. flagellum Dei).

whip martial arts

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The usage of the whip was wide-spread around the globe and even ancient Egyptian frescoes show people holding whips in their hands. It is a historical fact that the Egyptians even punished their slaves by using a whip. Ancient Greek writings also tell us some interesting facts about the whip. Apart from using them for punishing their slaves, the Greek noticed how the Scythians mastered the technique so they employed them to keep order in their streets. So, if necessary, a few Scythians could quickly scatter away a crowd of people from the streets of Greek cities by only using their whips. Ancient Scythians called the whip "danu" or "don" which was an old word for a river. However, the ancient Greek used the word "mastigo" or "mastix".

Whipping has been known as a punishment method since the dawn of times. For example, the Persian ruler Xerxes I (ruled from 486 to 465 B.C.) angrily decided to whip the sea with 300 blows because heavy sea sank his wooden bridges (part of the legend of 300 Spartans). The ancient Persians used the term "chabouk" or "chabuk" for a whip. The whip is also mentioned in the Bible as a means of punishment as well as a weapon. Jesus Christ himself expelled greedy merchants out of the temple in Jerusalem by whipping them. However, later on, ancient Romans whipped Jesus. They called it by its Latin name - "flagrum" or "flagelum".

Flagrum was a specially designed whip with which one could tear off parts of the convict's skin or flesh. The Roman whip consisted of a shorter handle with 2 or 3 straps of beef skin or regular rope. The straps weren't particularly long so one had to come relatively close to the victim, in contrast to the whips used on animals which were significantly longer. What distinguished the Roman flagrum from other whips were the metal accessories, i.e. the "knots" on its ends and along the leather straps. Such accessories were made out of metals, usually bronze, zink or iron and sometimes even out of bone. They were put in equal gaps along the straps.

Such punishment was applied on criminals, slaves, war prisoners as well as on political and religious opponents. Whipping was used as a means to extort confessions from convicts.

Additionally, whipping forced convicts to obey. For example, it could secure the submissiveness to the orders of soldiers as well as sailors. During the battle of Waterloo, the British army started punishing its sailors. They usually used a form of a multi-layered whip with several straps called cat o'nine tails. Officers believed that, only with strict discipline and fear from not performing their commands, they would keep their sailors prepared and obedient to their orders. In line with the officers' needs, a form of a short whip-stick was later developed and it has a simple name – "military whip". Even today, whipping is performed as a common punishment. It is usually applied for breaking a religious law.

The history of nomadic tribes that are practicing animal husbandry is tightly connected to the appearance of the whip. Every steppe warrior had his own whip which many steppe tribes called "arapnik" (a long hunting whip). However, they also used other names, e.g. Kalmykia used the word "mala"; the Tatars used the word "kamcha" (for a shorter and thinner whip) and the Kozaks had the word "nagayka" (for two types of whip). The Kozaks believed that the whip's owner has a special power. The also used it as a magical object with which they could mark their harvest in order to increase the fertility of the land.

Apart from that, many ancient peoples trusted that, with a soft blow of the whip, the women's and men's fertility can be contributed to. Those peoples who lived in the steppes used the whip to control their herds and horses as well as a hunting weapon and as a weapon in close combat. Many steppe tribes, e.g. the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz, the Mongolians, socialized during various holidays and performed friendly whip fights called "the naked fight". In remembrance to this tradition and to the great Mongolian commander Genghis Khan, an equestrian monument in which he holds a golden whip in his hand was built in Tsonjin Boldog in Mongolia.

It is known that the shepherds of many European countries skillfully used the whip during the Middle Ages. Also, the whip reached its greatest popularity during the Middles Ages when every rider in Europe had his own copy. A remarkable skill in the usage of the whip was shown by the horsemen of Medieval Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Russia, Poland and, in combat, the Croats and the Hungarians demonstrated their mastery during the Thirty Years' War. Many individuals used their long braids as a whip in Medieval China and they even weaved iron beads into them.

Chain Whip


History writes that even the Romani people were, as a nomadic tribe, especially well-known for their militant usage of the whip. Among the Turkish tribes, various equestrian competitions with the usage of the whip were a popular source of entertainment. Up until the 20th century, equestrian competitions in which opponents used the whip were held in Kyrgyzstan. The whip was a tool thanks to which they would knock each other off their saddles. In present day Poland, in a town called Siuda Baba, fights with a whip are still a part of their folk customs.

After America was discovered, the pastoral whip migrated to different places where it was still used for its predetermined purpose and many other types of whips that served as a martial weapon travelled with it. And so, the whip settled as a martial weapon and was very soon used across America, from Alaska in the North to Argentina in the South. Also, the whip rapidly spread to the Australian land where it was also used as a martial weapon. We will mention some of the most popular types of whips that were utilized both as a tool as well as a martial weapon.

One of the most popular whips is definitely the one called "stockwhip" (or "stock whip"), sometimes even called "bullwhip" which was used in Australia. A whip of that sort was up to 3 meters long, whereas the bullwhip was up to 5 meters long. An Australian called Steve Jefferys became popular thanks to his knowledge of using such a whip. Other well-known whips come from the same country- "drafting whip" or "cattle drafter". These types of whips and their usage was coined by a man called George Wolnough, also known as the "Tenterfield Saddler". Also, a type of whip called "bullock" is also widespread and it was used by Australian livestock feeders (bullocky).

A type of a stockwhip called "rose" was used in the territory of Canada and, according to some sources, it emmerged in 1880. An American farmer called Jack Liao became popular thanks to his knowledge of its usage. A variety of such a whip began to be used at the beginning of the 20th century somewhere around Ontario and it was called "raman". Other cowboys from Florida (Floridian cowboys) also became popular because of its usage. Apart from these two mentioned types, other whips that were up to 1,5 meters long, such as "signalwhips", i.e. "snakewhips" were also quite popular. A somewhat longer variety of a snakewhip, up to 3,5 meters long, called the "blacksnake" was used in Montana and Wyoming.

A popular, but shorter type of whip that was approx. 50 cm long should also be mentioned. It was used by riders around the world and it is known by the term "horse whip" or "riding whip". Such a whip was called a "crop" in England. A similar variety of a longer and lighter whip was used in India under the term "sjambok" or "litupa". A sort of whip that was used in driving different stagecoaches and carriages, the "buggy whip", was also known by the name "horsewhip". One of the most popular manufacturers of these types of whips in the world was located in Westfield, Massachusetts.

Naturally, different European countries had different names for a whip so, for example, in German it is called "peitsche", in France it is "fouet", in Italy "frusta" and in Spain it is called "latigo". Apart from Germany, other countries including Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Poland, Hungary and some provinces in Italy, use the German term "karbatsche or "korbatsch" for a longer and heavier whip.

Different types of whips are known in Africa and their names originate from the Persian term for a whip – "chabouk" or "chabuk". So, for example, the word "cambuk" is used in Central Africa, "sambok" in South Africa and "chabuk" in Bengali. In Congo, the Portuguese term "chicote" is prevalent, whereas in Somalia it is "shaabuug". In certain parts of North Africa, especially in Egypt, the whip is known under the Arabic word "kurbash".

During the First Russian Revolution in 1905, the whip first appeared in Russia and it was brought by the Kozaks who were especially prominent in their usage of a whip called "nagayka". The word comes from an ancient Aryan word "naga" which, in Aryan, means "snake". Before, two types of whip were used: one that was shorter – "kuban" (approx. 1,5 meters long) and a longer version – "don" (2 meters long). Today, only a variety of a longer modern whip is used (from 2 to 2,5 meters).

As a kind of an answer to the Mongolian, Tatar and, especially, the Kozak whip, a whip made of chains was designed in China around 1900 A.D. It was made of nine connected chain parts, i.e. a chain whip. It was usually around 2 meters long and known under the name "qilinbian" (麒麟鞭) or "jiujiebian" (heavier than 1,5 and up to 2 kg). It was designed to be used in martial arts. The chain whip is used even today in many Chinese martial arts demonstrations and it is popular among martial arts fans around the world. Apart from China, it also became well- known in the US during the second half of the 20th century. In India, a long and flexible type of swords were made for martial arts usage and they had a function similar to the whip. They were called "urumi" or "chutuval surul patal".

The Basic Technique for the Usage of the Whip in Martial Arts

The main components of the whip are its handle, its body, i.e. the long strap and the end which is called the braid or the lash. The body of the whips is comprised of slim leather strings which are intertwined and are narrowing towards its end to which a short band is tied. To this belt, a braid usually made out of horse hair or a synthetic material is connected. The handle of a regular shepherd's whip was oftentimes made out of a harder and more elastic wood (e.g. oak, beech, hornbeam, ebonite) around which leather braids were made. In order to braid a whip, one usually used moist raw beef skins because it was one of the most durable materials.

One usually needs to use 8 leather straps to braid a whip. However, to "strengthen" it, i.e. make it tighter, heavier and stronger, a whip will need 10, 12 or even 14 leather straps. The oldest braiding technique was the so-called "snake". When braided in this style, a whip takes the pattern of snake skins. A whip that consists of several leather straps will be better and it will be more difficult to braid. One of the most frequent braiding methods was the so-called "serpentine", "chessboard" and squid. Narrow leather straps that are intertwined and shaped in a ring will or won't have a center. The whip braiding technique is very similar to braiding hair. The only difference is that you will need from 6 to 8 leather straps and so the final shape will resemble reptile shells.

If the leather is too hard for braiding, it should be softened by stepping over it and crumpling it. In order to produce whips, various parts of animals are used. For example, in order to make the handle, in Europe, a bull's reproductive organ is used, whereas, in North Africa, the same organ is taken from the African buffalo and sometimes even rhinoceros. A dry reproductive organ together with its ureter is sufficiently long, elastic and tough and, so, it guaranteed a lasting usage and high quality. In Australia, besides beef skins, they sometimes used kangaroo skins in order to make whips (kangaroo whip).

A braid made of horse hair or a synthetic material is put at the end of the whip and some other metal accessories can be added as well, e.g. a bullet shell, some sharpened metal object, a sharpened bone or metal (steel) beads. Thanks to those accessories, the hit that the whip gives is somewhat faster, stronger and certainly more dangerous. The advantages of this type of whip is a stronger and destructive hit which makes it usable only for hunting or fighting purposes. The main disadvantage is its lack of flexibility. Regular braids (lashes) can turn out to be more flexible, but their hit is much weaker. This is why this disadvantage is compensated with a small weight (a small bead) at the top of the braid.

A whip that has some metal accessories at its end or its braids (lashes) most often also has attached pieces of cloth (straps of fabric) that are usually of a lighter color. The cloth is placed so that the user can see where a certain hit of the whip ends. The blow is so fast that the human eye cannot see or perceive it. While the hit is taking place, it can develop supersonic speed at which the braid makes a very loud snap. This is used to scare livestock, horses, wild animals and even people. For this reason, the cloth is placed at the whip's ending, just as a blade is placed at the end of a chain whip (qilinbian).

Blows made by a whip that are accompanied by a loud snap are very amusing for the spectators. Such hits are called whipcrackers or, simply, "cracking" or "cracked". Although these whip hits are very attractive, they do not have any special purpose in martial arts, i.e. they cannot be utilized or don't bring a special benefit in whip fights. In many countries around the world, one can find many persons who are skillful in these kinds of whipcrackers. They call them "Goabischnaizer" in Germany and these types of professionals that cultivate the whipcracking tradition can be found in Hungary (a skill called "Baranta"), Switzerland, Austria, Croatia, Poland, Russia, Australia etc.

Still, the popular opinion that these hits during a fight are the best a whip can give as well as the most useful ones is a total misconception. It is true that one can hold a whip is his stronger hand, but this is when its efficacy is much lower. A whip should be held in one's stronger hand (right-handed people holding it in their right hand) only when you are chasing cattle, controlling a carriage, taming animals or performing a hit that includes a snap (whipcracking). In other words, a whip should be held in one's weaker hand (right-handed people holding it in their left hand), while using your stronger hand (right hand) to hold another weapon. Right-handed people should use their right (stronger) hand only when holding a chain whip- qilinbian which serves as an individual weapon and is not to be combined as a weapon and paired with other weapons. This is also its main weakness compared to other types of whips.

Together with the help of a whip, it is possible to give a forceful hit (rarely a fatal one) which can shake and surprise the opponent pretty badly. Taking into consideration that the technique of fighting with a whip can produce around 10 different hits, the basic technique comes down to only a couple of strokes.

One of the basic hits is the so-called "slap", a punch that is performed under a 90 degree angle according to the hitting surface and, along the same path, the tip of the whip travels back. The second hit is the so-called "delayed slap" which is thought to be one of the basic and most efficient hits during combat. This type of hit will not only punch, i.e. slap the opponent. It will also draw the whip sharply back and its tip will break or tear the hitting surface.

A hit with waves is a blow in which the whip makes waves during the swing. A hit with a relapse is a swing where, during the last phase, it punches the shoulder and is not burdened to trace back the tip of the whip, i.e. the braid. The hand, however, stays in front. The purpose of this kind of hit is that the braid (the top of the whip) wraps around the opponent's arm, leg or weapon.

The whip falls into the category of soft and long weapons and, as a martial arts weapon, it was used since ancient times in combination with other weapons. It was usually combined with shorter and harder items. For example, we can list a couple of shorter weapons with which it is usually paired: a shorter stick, sabre, machete, mace, a shorter battle axe, dagger (e.g. a martial arts technique from The Philippines called "latigo y daga") etc. In such a combination, the whip's blows avert the opponent's attention from defending the place where he will be hit, i.e. his stronger (right) side and, so, it unconsciously creates room for the shorter weapon to make a hit along his unprotected, weaker side.

A fighter who is armed in such a manner, i.e. he has a whip and another shorter weapon, presents a very dangerous threat to everyone and even the most skillful martial arts masters will have a hard time defending themselves. Thanks to a whip, one can create attacks where the opponent will stumble or be left unarmed. In order to completely avoid an attack with a whip, one should be extremely skillful. This is why some martial arts masters as well as certain historians often unfairly classify the whip as an exotic weapon.

The whip enjoys a lot of attention even today, from being used by film heroes such as Indiana Jones, Catwoman or Zorro to other various persons and sportsmen. We can say that today, in many parts of the world, there are numerous people who still use the whip. To clarify, those people use the whip to move cattle and make its distinctive sound (whipcracker) and this way they entertain their audience. There are also those who simultaneously use and crack two whips. Some individuals hit certain objects with a whip or spin it around their bodies. Unfortunately, true connoisseurs and whip experts are very rare today and can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

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