La canne de combat (combat cane) is a combat sport based on the use of a cane, a medium-length walking stick.
Flashy, isn’t it? It looks original, quick and athletic, but you cannot truly understand what happens and why unless you know the rules of the sport. This is not just a fight with sticks!
I took up la canne three years ago, as I had a club near me and I wanted to know what it was like. It is something of an historical martial art in a sense, as it is derived from older stick fighting techniques, and this ties into my interest in HEMA. Although I had initial reservations about the very sportive, artificial approach, I kept doing it as an enjoyable physical activity with many benefits to my understanding and performance of martial techniques, as well as health in general!
I am not a competitor, and not completely sure of every rules. This post describes the rules that I know of and how original they are. La canne is not just the study of the short cane as shown here; for example bâton (staff) techniques are also taught, as well as double canne (one in each hand!) and canne chausson (canne with kicks thrown into the mix), but none of these are practiced in full opposition as la canne de combat can be. They are also less widespread, so I choose to focus on the competitive practice here.
A brief history
Although stick fighting is probably as old as humanity, this particular form is traced back to the 19th century France, when the cane was an indispensable fashion accessory doubling as a fairly powerful self-defence weapon. Some fencing and boxing teachers naturally came to including its method of use in their instruction. Notable written sources on this practice include Leboucher’s Théorie pour apprendre à tirer la canne (1843), Larribeau’s Nouvelle théorie du jeu de la canne (1856) and later Charlemont’s L’art de la boxe française et de la canne (1899) and Émile André’s Manuel de boxe et de canne (1904). The latter includes the rules of a championship held in Paris in 1903!
The world wars dealt a heavy blow to la canne. Many instructors fell as soldiers, and the societal and fashion changes drove the cane into irrelevance as a self-defence weapon. It never went entirely extinct though. In the 1960s, Maurice Sarry created a personnal version which he intended to become a full-blown competition sport acceptable in a modern context. He created the Comité National de Canne et Bâton (National commitee of cane and staff) in 1975 and published a reference book in 1978, now sadly very hard to find. The sport grew from his impulse and it is this version that is most widely practiced in France and abroad. The links with savate (the French form of boxing) are still tight; Maurice Sarry was a savateur himself, and la canne is part of the savate federation.
- The weapon
- The weapon used in competition is a slightly tapered wooden stick, cut from chestnut. It is 95cm long and weighs between 100 and 125g. Some training weapons are a bit heavier, up to 200g for those meant primarily for solo drills. The canne is absolutely plain, with no knobs or ferrules whatsoever. The weapons are actually pretty safe because of their light weight, irrespective of the other sportive regulations on their use, and by my estimate you would be hard pressed to deal a significant injury with these if you were using them in earnest. Actual fighting cannes were heavier, and in 1899 weights between 325g and 525g were in use.
- Competitors don some protective gear. The main piece is a fencing mask that protects the face, with aditionnal cushionning on the sides, top and back of the head. Light gloves are the second most useful piece (they are rather overlays as well, no rigid protections, no separate fingers and no palms to keep the fine contact and control of the weapon. Nunchaku gloves are often used). A cup and breast protector are used in competition. The other parts, a padded vest and trousers, are rather for comfort than for safety in my opinion, as they protect areas that are not likely to be injured, just repeteadly bruised in a competitive context. Safety gear is not really standardised, with many people making their own and few industrial providers. People are however attached to a visual identity, using bright colors and padded cloth.
- Fighting area
- All the fighting takes place within a circle, 6 meters in diameter.
Structure of the play
- Continuous play
- In la canne, there is no halt called except obviously when one of the fighters is not respecting the rules or a dangerous situation occurs, or when a weapon is lost. The exchange of blows is supposed to be continuous, similar to what is done in boxing. This is done to encourage combinations of blows and resilience after being hit, both of which make sense for fighting with relatively light sticks, as a single hit cannot reliably be considered a fight-ender. Victory is decided on points after several rounds.
- In order for the play to remain readable and give some incentive to parry, a convention is followed, basically stating that when the opponent has started a blow you have to parry it or void it before throwing a strike of your own. Without this convention bouts would quickly degenerate into a flurry of strikes from both sides as the gear ensures that there is no consequence to being hit.
The strikes in la canne are tightly limited. This is an aspect that may not be obvious to the casual observer, but which has a great impact on how the bouts play out.
- Limited techniques
- Thrusts are not allowed anywhere. Only horizontal and vertical descending strikes are allowed, with two main horizontal strikes (latéral extérieur and latéral croisé), two vertical strikes (brisé and croisé tête) and two rarer low horizontal strikes (enlevé and croisé bas). All strikes are one-handed, but changing the weapon from one hand to the other is allowed.
- Limited targets
- The only valid targets are: top of the head, sides of the head, flanks (meaning between the lower chest and the hips, roughly), and lower legs below the knees.
- Proper impact
- The canne must contact the target with the last fourth towards the tip, it must be aligned with the arm, and the arm straight. This normally maximizes the potential damage. Strikes that slide on the target, often because there is a bend at the wrist, are called ‘sabré‘ and are not valid. At the same time, strikes must be controlled; dealing too powerful blows is cause for a warning. The blows must have potential behind them, but little actual power.
- Proper wind-up
- All strikes must include a fairly wide wind-up motion. This is meant to reflect the need to power the strikes with the whole body. In the current sport, the proper wind-up mostly takes the form of a wide arc of nearly 180° done with the arm straight, from pointing back to pointing forward on the target.
- Lunges to low targets
- Any attack to the lower legs has to be done with a lunging motion. Depending on the circumstances it can be a standard forward lunge or a backward lunge, that is, with the front leg straight and the back bending. Contrary to fencing, lunges are not done primarily to advance into measure and you often see the fighters just dropping down to a lunging position. The purpose is rather to gain maximum reach for the strike by lowering the torso (a principle which I believe is also taught by Meyer).
In order to illustrate a valid strike more thoroughly here is a video showing the latéral extérieur slowly. Please browse the channel for more videos of the other strikes! Note the big wind-up:
All told, when you combine the limitations on targets and techniques, there is a grand total of ten possible strikes you can make:
- 2 vertical to the top of the head: brisé (from your outside) and croisé tête (from your inside)
- 2 horizontal to the side of the head: latéral extérieur (from your outside) and latéral croisé (from your inside)
- 2 horizontal to the flank: latéral extérieur (from your outside) and latéral croisé (from your inside)
- 4 horizontal to the lower leg: latéral extérieur and enlevé (from your outside) and latéral croisé and croisé bas (from your inside)
Originality of the rules
La canne de combat has similarities with both kendo and sport fencing. Having a very light, therefore safer training weapon is a choice common to all three. The strongly limited strikes and targets reminds me of kendo, and contributes greatly to the safety of the training. The convention of exchanges is closer to the priority rules in foil, for example. The continuous action makes perfect sense from the perspective of a light blunt weapon. It seems plausible to me that it came into effect when the sport got closer to savate during the 1970s renaissance; some earlier rulesets were closer to fencing with breaks after valid hits. Interestingly most beginners default to the latter mode in training, and sometimes it is a struggle to not stop!
Taken together these rules have well known effects. The very light weapon makes some actions a lot easier. The limitations on targets means you learn an incomplete defense in some respect, with hand defense being especially neglected. Having to deal only with horizontal and vertical strikes is also a bit unrealistic, as most people intuitively throw diagonal strikes. The convention makes the action more readable and adds some realism, because it forces fighters to at least try to parry, but it masks a rampant problem of double hits. The rule protects you in situations where you would be vulnerable in real-life.
The big originality is the compulsory wind-up. I am unaware of a similar rule in any combat sport. It is justified by some as being a way to add power to the strikes, but although this is the root of the rule, the current sportive implementation has the opposite effect. The strikes as they are done are actually very inefficient in many respects. They are easier to see coming, and you waste a lot of energy swinging the whole straight arm around. The rotations around the wrist and elbow are underused, which makes the energy transfer suboptimal. If you look at Charlemont’s form, you will see strikes that are also done with a big wind-up, but which are a lot more efficient and would strike much harder. Note how the arms are straightened entirely only at the impact, putting all of their muscles and joints in play during the arc.
The modern wind-up has three positive effects. It turns every strike into a full-body exercise; the movement of legs, hips and torso are pretty much what they would have to be even for more powerful strikes. It also makes the pacing of the fight a bit slower, as it would be if weapons of serious weight were used. With the lighter safe weapons, it would be easy to make very quick flicks of from the wrist which would be fairly weak but too fast to properly parry, and the rule discourages that. For this reason, this wind up is what makes it viable to do so many spins: if you set them up right they do not take that much more time compared to a simpler feint and are relatively safe. Finally, it makes the strikes easier to control, contributing to safety.
The compulsory lunge on low attacks is also original, and has some of the same effect on bout dynamics as the prescribed wind-up. It slows down the attacks to the legs and makes them more costly, forcing you to set them up more carefully. It is notable that attacks to the leg are still one of the best way to score in my experience, and I suppose that if there were less constraints on their use it would make defence that much harder. Specifically, feints to the head level that strike the legs, or the converse, would be much more difficult to read. From a martial perspective, you do not want to encourage leg blows too much, because without the protection afforded by the convention they are quite risky, as the head is very exposed.
The rules enforce the tempo of a fight with heavy weapons, while using a very light simulator. They are fairly interesting in that regard, and differ from sport fencing and kendo in which the pacing can be much quicker than with actual weapons. The basic compromise in la canne is that you give away mechanical efficiency to preserve the tactical flow of the bout.
With the rules being what they are, fighters pretty much have to fight the way they do, and this is not a form that happens because it is especially efficient in the competitive context. This is something that must be kept in mind when watching la canne bouts; the sport is very constrained and somewhat artificial, quite far from a ‘real fight’.
That being said it is a great exercise, and with some modifications can still be turned into a viable martial art. I will explore this further in future posts!