La Canne: Savate’s Walking-Stick Weapon Art

La Canne Walking StickBy 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.

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.

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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 …

Savate: From the Back Alleys of France to the Martial Arts World

Savate master Salem Assli in Black Belt magazine. Most martial artists know that savate is the official fighting art of France, but beyond that, they would probably be hard-pressed to recite any details about the style. That’s unfortunate because it possesses a long and distinguished history that makes it a valuable addition to the world of martial arts. The following is an easy-to-digest list of facts and is designed to enlighten all martial artists about the history, rules and techniques of this dynamic form of fighting. If it inspires a few to sign up for lessons, so much the better.

A Brief History of Savate

  • The roots of savate are unclear, but some scholars believe they can be traced all the way back to the legendary Greek fighting art of pankration.
  • More recent records indicate that it sprouted from various street-fighting systems used in France during the late 17th century.
  • Boxe francaise, an alternative name for savate, was founded in 1838 by Charles Lecour.
  • Before that, two fighting arts were popular in France: la savate and le chausson. The former was a system of street fighting that used all parts of the body for striking, while the latter was regarded as a milder system and the ancestor of the sport of boxe francaise. Both taught self-defense techniques.
  • After losing a friendly sparring match with English boxer Owen Swift, Charles Lecour was inspired to combine le chausson with English boxing.
  • Charles Lecour’s loss led to tremendous technical changes in savate that spanned decades. It was finally codified as a ring sport in Joseph Charlemont’s L’Art de la Boxe Fra Francaise.
  • Although the teachings of Joseph Charlemont have remained definitive, they are still open to modification. All changes must be approved by the executive committee of the French and International Federation of Boxe Francaise Savate and Related Disciplines.

Savate as a Martial Art

  • Despite its grace and beauty, savate is an effective method of self-defense.
  • It has been described as fencing with the hands and feet.
  • Kicking, punching, grappling, wrestling and weapons training were once parts of savate. Today, the system includes only empty-hand techniques delivered while standing or jumping. The other skills are taught separately under different names.
  • The official moniker for modern practitioners of the art is savateur or tireur (French for “shooter”).
  • During training, savateurs wear shoes that are specially designed for kicking. In fact, shoes are regarded as the primary weapons of a fighter and can be deadly on the street. In France, it is said that practicing savate without shoes is like playing tennis without a racquet.
  • All savate strikes are the result of scientific study and more than a century and a half of ring experience.
  • In Western boxing, punches are thrown so quickly and from such short distances that beginners rarely have enough time to deflect the blows correctly. That often results in the game of parry, escape, counter and attack being reserved only for advanced students. In savate, even though the feet are fast and powerful, the distances are much greater. That enables the average practitioner to successfully employ offensive and defensive moves without fear of injury. The student can more easily develop self-control and confidence.

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  • The savateur strives to attack with combinations and frequently invents strategies that involve feints and real strikes. He is forced to anticipate and adapt to changes in distance and speed while demonstrating his awareness of timing and space — all while using the sophisticated footwork for which the art is renowned.

Savate Competition and Techniques

  • Savate competitions are held under two sets of rules: “assault” and “total combat.” In an assault match, participants may wear protective pads — headgear and shinguards, for example. Thus, the risk of injury is reduced. In a total-combat match, they enjoy a full-contact ring experience similar to what is found in Western boxing. Knockouts are often seen.
  • The fist savate techniques are similar to those of boxing. The main ones are the jab, cross, hook and uppercut. The foot techniques of savate fall into four categories: low shin, side, roundhouse and reverse. Variations include kicks executed with the lead leg and the rear leg, as well as spinning, jumping and cross-stepping methods. An experienced savateur can combine those four punches and four types of kicks to form thousands of combinations.
  • Kicks can target an opponent’s legs, body or head. One of the savateur’s favorite methods of attack is to deliver a low kick followed by a roundhouse to the body with the tip of the shoe. Kicking with the tip of the shoe can be devastating. Over the years, it has knocked down more than a few experienced kickboxers.

Savate: The French Manly Art of Self-Defense (Part 2)

In Part 2 of this classic Black Belt article from 1967, J. Delcourt, founder of the French Federation of Karate and Associated Disciplines, describes the techniques, training, power-generation methods, rank structure and competition rules used in the French fighting art of savate.

“French boxing is a kind of fencing, but with the feet and fists,” says one savate expert. “It aims to develop the beauty of the style and of the gesture, the aesthetics of the movements, and the pleasure of practicing a manly sport.” And like karate, the avowed aims of the masters of the art are to also develop the physical and spiritual qualities of man.

There are several other similarities to karate. For instance, outdoor training is very popular with savate enthusiasts. They like to run through the woods, especially through bushes and thorns, to practice lifting their legs high.

French boxing is practiced amid an atmosphere of aristocracy and good manners, and with a chivalrous spirit as the aim. With those ideals, the French savate practitioner, like his counterpart in the Japanese martial arts, doesn’t emphasize the physical at the expense of other aspects. The practice of the art is the important thing, not just the pure physical perfection of it.


Savate in recent years has continued to develop. Fist techniques have been introduced more and more of late. The classical posture used to be stiff and static, but now movements are becoming more fluid thanks to the introduction of English boxing techniques.

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The stance is interesting and contrasts with that used in both Japanese and English styles of boxing. The upper body remains upright because French boxers never move into a crouch position, believing that it doesn’t make for efficiency in their style of kicking. They practice with their supporting leg stretched out, while the karate stylist will often bend this leg to get as low as possible.

The French kicking position is a beautiful thing to see. The fundamental principle is to have the supporting leg straight, the chest arched and the head upright. The whole body is then flung at the opponent like a bullet. Another important element is to use one arm as a counterweight and hold the other ready to protect against an opponent’s attack. This is the reason there are those marvelous postures of French boxing, with one arm flung to the rear while the leg kicks forward.

The kicks are classified as high, medium or low. Like karate, there are front kicks, side kicks and even jumping kicks. But usually one foot is placed flat on the ground and the kick delivered with the other. The kicking foot is shot out like a piston and returned swiftly in preparation for another attack. The body is arched far back to avoid a retaliatory kick from an opponent.


“Everything depends upon the legs, the stance and how you shift your weight,” says Bernard Plasait, a top teacher and two-time featherweight savate champion of France. He’s the son of a well-to-do manufacturer and is a versatile athlete, being skilled in skiing and the art of cane fighting, which is usually taught along with savate. He’s also a flying enthusiast and pilots his own plane.

“Power, speed and impact are most important, Bernard Plasait says. “French boxing can be fought from either side, with the guard on the right or left. We also employ all sorts of combinations and counterblows, feints and stop-kicks.”

One of Bernard Plasait’s favorite techniques is the side kick. He explains: “First, the kick is thrown from the side. The balance is established by the speed, with the forward arm protecting you, the chest outward, the head erect, the leg tensed straight and the body on the same plane. To maintain balance, the body must be in a circle around the vertical plane, with the kicking leg still with the heel on the ground. In delivering the kick, the leg shoots out and returns immediately. The power is due to the speed with which the kick is delivered and is augmented by the balance of the whole body.”


French boxers go through vigorous workout sessions, in which they exercise a great deal. Training to strengthen the abdominal muscles, so necessary for executing the arched-back positions, is important. But power training with weights is never engaged in. A typical session at the gym begins with warm-up exercises, followed by individual workouts and training (like kihon in karate). Then they engage in shadowboxing on four sides, emphasizing quick position changes, rhythm and about-faces. Many of those last exercises look similar to those of karate. This series of exercises is called forme in …

Savate: The French Manly Art of Self-Defense

This article appeared in the March 1967 issue of Black Belt. For a more modern look at savate, along with its connection to Bruce Lee’s jeet kune do, pick up a copy of the April/May 2013 issue.

After years of troubles and decline, French savate is making something of a comeback. This famous foot-fighting art, the only one of its kind ever developed outside the Orient, almost passed out of existence after most of its top masters were killed on the front lines during World War I.

The number of practitioners of the pure form of this elegant art has dwindled to only several thousand in recent years. But today’s devotees are a dedicated band, and they are spearheading a new drive to spread the art, which is rated by many as second only to karate in combat effectiveness.

The savate men and women are being aided by the fact that a new upsurge of interest in this native French art is sweeping the country. National pride has been awakened, and programs are now being undertaken to try to save this unique art and make of it an officially recognized national self-defense system in France. The government is doing its part. Plans are under way to make savate instruction available in schools in all parts of the country. Even the country’s Japanese martial arts groups are lending a helping hand. They have welcomed savate followers into their ranks and set up a separate savate department within the French Federation of Judo and Associated Arts, the country’s official organization for all the martial arts.

Fascinating History

If it seems strange to others that savate should find itself at this late date in its development as part of a Japanese martial arts group, it doesn’t seem so to its followers. For this art has had a strange and fascinating history since it got started around the end of the Napoleonic era a century and a half ago.

The development of savate stands in marked contrast, for instance, to what was happening in England at about the same time during the 19th century. To an Englishman — and to anyone in the English-speaking world — the “manly art of self-defense” is automatically considered to be the art of boxing. That’s because of a titled English nobleman, the Marquess of Queensbury, who more than a century ago formulated the famous set of rules that lifted boxing up from a brawling, roughhouse pursuit and made of fisticuffs a system of unarmed self-defense “fit for a gentleman.”

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But in France, the emphasis on defense shifted from the hands to the feet. It was around 1820 that the system that later developed into savate got started in Marseilles among the dockhands of that port city. It wasn’t long afterward that the new foot-fighting system showed up in Paris, where it quickly became the favorite combat form of the French underworld — at that time, one of the toughest in the world.

Unlikely Beginning

It was from this unlikely beginning that savate rose to become the self-defense system of French aristocrats, who were its most enthusiastic devotees. In so doing, the earlier, rougher system of savate underwent a number of changes. No longer were clumsy kicks and thrusts tolerated. The system became far more refined. In fact, it took on many customs typically associated with the French.

It was an elegant form of self-defense that the aristocrats made of savate. Aesthetics became as important as the effectiveness of the system itself. And so great emphasis was placed on the beauty and rhythm of the movements. Savate took on all the elegance of ballet and the grace of fencing, while retaining the deadliness of an alley fight.

It was this aristocratic insistence on grace and beauty that gave savate a reputation among the uninformed in other countries — most noticeably in the United States — of being something of a “sissified” pastime. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Japanese karate experts who are familiar with savate, and who have found a number of points of comparison between the kicks of their own art and those of savate, have pronounced the French art as being second only to karate as a fighting system.

Early Teachers

Some of the early teachers of savate were colorful characters. One of the first was a man known to us now only as Michael, who was nicknamed “Le Pisseux.” He studied the foot-fighting system of Marseilles called “la savate” and codified the kicks into a new system he called the “art of savate.” He opened a school in La Courtille, where such famous aristocrats as the Duke …

Dr. Mark Cheng’s Top 10 Martial Arts for Self-Defense

Almost every day at Black Belt, we’re asked the same question: “What’s the best martial art for self-defense?” To find out the answer, we asked Dr. Mark Cheng, an expert in Chinese medicine and martial arts.

“I chose the following arts because of my personal experience with them,” Dr. Mark Cheng says. “While I’m sure there are plenty of other arts, systems and schools that teach outstanding self-defense, I can’t recommend them on reputation alone. It’s the actual physical experience that makes styles recommendable in my eyes.”

Muay Boran

“It’s 100-percent application from the get-go. As Col. Nattapong Buayam taught me, its simple, brutal responses make it an outstanding choice in ‘shortcut’ streetwise self-defense. It’s the forefather of the ring sport of muay Thai.

Combat Shuai Chiao

“Nothing hits harder than the ground, and combat shuai chiao capitalizes on that debilitating impact. Unlike many systems that teach throws only from a pre-established grip, it uses high-amplitude throws against the full range of unarmed and armed attacks.”

Wing Chun

“Developed as a streamlined system of self-defense for smaller, weaker practitioners, it’s one of the best-known Chinese systems, and it was the basis of Bruce Lee’s jeet kune do. Wing chun earned its reputation as a street-fighting art in the mid- to late 20th century in Hong Kong.”

Sil Lum Fut Ga

“An archetypal system of southern kung fu, it’s part beauty and part brutality. Using open-hand strikes that can break the skin, along with deft kicks delivered to unlikely targets, it’s the perfect blend of artistry, culture and fearsome fighting techniques.”

Inosanto Kali

“The Filipino system taught by Black Belt Hall of Famer Dan Inosanto is far more than just the sticks and knives that the casual observer sees. Including every possible weapon and range of combat, Inosanto’s system is one of the most sought-after and imitated arts in the world when it comes to practical self-defense.”

Jeet Kune Do

“Made famous by its founder, Bruce Lee, it places heavy emphasis on streetwise dirty fighting that employs any and every means to achieve victory. Biting, eye gouging and all sorts of techniques and tactics go beyond the usual fare taught in most traditional arts.”

Krabi Krabong

“While some would argue that this ancient Thai weapons art has no place in a discussion of modern self-defense, I beg to differ. By training the practitioner to respond reflexively to a variety of weapons in countless ranges with both armed and unarmed defenses and counterattacks, it ranks toward the top for battlefield self-defense.”

Hwa Rang Do

“This comprehensive Korean art encompasses more techniques in just its joint-manipulation section than some systems have in toto. While that breadth makes the learning process rather arduous, it also develops superb combative attributes in all ranges.”


“The French kickboxing art makes it a point to use the tip of the shoe in street and ring combat. Not just another form of sportive kickboxing, it’s superb at developing a mastery of the standing range.”

Target Focus Training

“Former Navy SEAL candidate Tim Larkin created a system that ignores stylistic boundaries and focuses on a three-part goal: penetrate, rotate, injure. Its unique training methods allow everyone from the hardened combat vet to the stay-at-home mom access to its benefits.”

Disagree with our picks? Let us know your choices in the comments field.

(For more insights on the top martial arts for self-defense, check out the complete series in the August and September issues of Black Belt magazine. To contact Dr. Mark Cheng, go to