Benefits of ‘canne de combat’

In a previous post I have described the rules of canne de combat. Here I want to write briefly about the benefits I have seen from this practice and how applicable to less formal, more martial contexts it could actually be.

As a physical exercise with a martial undertone, I find canne de combat quite splendid.

The whole ruleset and light weapon makes it a very safe affair. I have never even sparred with protections on, not being a competitor. The vast majority of sparring during training sessions took place like that in the club I trained with, only competitors trained sometimes with the full gear on. It is somewhat frightening at the beginning, but the technical limitations make it fairly easy to control your strikes. Canne de combat is therefore, to my knowledge, the only combat sport with weapons in which you can freeplay pretty much full speed without any safety gear, enjoying your full range of motion and perception, without ending up bruised too seriously or risking a finger break. This has the additional benefit of considerably lowering the barrier to entry, as you don’t need to invest in anything barring club membership. Having your own weapons is nice but they are very cheap and the clubs tend to provide some. You can basically start to train on your own with a 5 euros investment!

Canne de combat is an incredible cardio exercise. Our training bouts routinely last 3 minutes or so, and remember that there is no halt and reset, just some natural breaks occuring. Every strike is a full body motion, and you have to lunge quite a bit. With the strikes being so limited, you have to use multiple misdirections and feints before landing one blow, all the while remaining light on your feet, ready to adjust your distance, lunge or slip a leg. This is a great workout! Since it happens while fighting someone and trying to find openings and read intents, it is also not boring at all. After an hour of that you will be tired for sure! Being safe is part of what makes it such a great workout, because at no point will you have to step back after taking a painful hit. You can really do it as much as you want, or can.

It will make you nimble on your feet, as you have to be able to move in all directions in the fighting area. Jumps and spins, albeit not compulsory, are often trained and contribute to the footwork benefit. Note that unlike sport fencing, the footwork is not predominantly back and forth and much lateral motion occurs. The footwork is also better suited to cutting motions, of course, since that is all you are allowed to do. This sport works wonder on range of motion in most joints, especially the shoulder and hips (with the rotations of the body and the lunges). You will learn how to make quick coordinated full-body rotations which is a good ability to have, especially if you are interested in cutting or striking weapons. It forces to relax and not rely on just the wrist to throw cuts. It will develop both sides of the body equally if you care for it, since you can switch hands at will. My left hand is still far less useful than my right, though!

When I first started this practice, I was thinking ‘Well, I won’t ever be able to land a touch if I have to make such a big wind-up, but at least I should be able to parry everything’. As it turns out, good cannistes use changes of rythm and various twirling misdirections to great effect, and parrying is not such an easy task! Practicing canne de combat will have benefits for the understanding of feints, as it demonstrates that you can feint and hit without depending on very tight motions. It will also make you better at parrying, at least the valid blows, but they cover a great part of the body anyway. It is quite enlightening to see how quick these full body motions can be. It really drives home that there are things you cannot experience at low speed. It makes it clear that wide strikes are not necessarily a problem as long as you do them at the right time from the right position, and can certainly be quick enough!

The fact that there are so few basic attacks means that anything you do has to be a combination. Canne de combat will train you in delivering a succession of blows with varrying tempo from all directions, all the while ready to parry the ripostes and keep going. This is particularly good! Many people tend to commit to a quick attack or counter, then pause even if no hit happened just to assess the situation. A good canniste should not be doing this, and will carry that ability over to any weapon. The continuous bouting format will also encourage you to keep going after you have hit, or have been hit.

Doing this competitive sport, you learn to actually apply your strikes against a resisting opponent, and being so safe, you can gather a lot of experience quickly without accumulating damage.

Although I do consider canne de combat as a valuable exercise, it is very much defined as a combat sport nowadays with limited applicablity to a more martial encounter with fewer limitations, although this is perhaps not emphasized sufficiently. Some novices seem to have the misapprehension that canne de combat gives you everything you need for a stick fight. I think they would be sorely disappointed!

There are a variety of approaches grouped under the umbrella canne défense that are meant to deal with the handling of a cane in a self-defence context. Unfortunately, in most cases these end up looking quite different from the techniques of canne de combat; some use specific features such as an arc or a pommel that are absent in the sport, some use a completely different grip, different lines for striking, different mechanics (not relying on a big wind-up for example). This is problematic for me, because it essentially argues against the practical value of the sport as a proper martial exercise: you’d have to basically relearn all the foundations.

Canne de combat teaches you how to use the cane from a distance as an impact weapon, delivering multiple strikes with good amplitude, and parrying what the opponent throws at you. These skills are valuable and should not be given up! The questions are, what is their tactical place, and how should the techniques themselves be adapted to an actual confrontation.

The sportive weapon and prescribed striking mechanic are not made to inflict damage to a target, quite the opposite. The weapon is too light and the mechanics are inefficient due to the focus on keeping the arm straight for most of the arc. The earlier cannistes, Charlemont for example, trained with full-weight weapons and used a big wind-up, but one made using all the articulations of the arm to swiftly transfer as much energy as possible to the business end of the weapon. These mechanical distortions from the martial origins are unavoidable; they are the price to pay for a safe sport. As Charlemont himself wrote:

We are forced to admit that we consider difficult, unwise even, to do a serious bout of cane, because the blows thrown regularly with a heavy cane and with full force can be excessively dangerous if they are not parried with skill and vigour.

Despite the padded cloth protecting the body, the mask covering the head, the shin guards and gloves shielding the legs, the hand and the forearm, a well delivered blow would almost certainly cause a serious accident.

Joseph Charlemont, L’art de la boxe française et de la canne

You just have to be aware of the difference and train accordingly. Throwing proper strikes with a full-weight weapon is not so difficult if you’re good at the sport, and you can practice this on static targets. You might want to also do some parrying drills to ensure that your grip and parries hold up against meaningful blows.

On the tactical plane, canne de combat has two big weaknesses in my opinion: lack of strikes to the hand, and no solution to prevent the collapse of distance.

Specific training to deliver and parry or avoid strikes to the weapon hand seems necessary. Old versions of cane fighting featured these of course, see for example this one from Larribeau:

A strike to the hand

An enlevé to the hand after a
parry, from Larribeau (1856)

Distance management is part of the combat sport, however it is a bit distorted as it relies on the fact that both fighters are trying to get to the same range, where they can throw proper extended strikes that impact with the last fourth of the cane. Using the cane as a fighting weapon, you would want to remain in that distance because that is where your weapon is most effective, but your opponent might not, especially if he has a shorter weapon or none at all. Your foe going away is a minor concern, but coming closer is definitely a problem. Basically you would need to know how to deal with someone closing distance either by preventing it or using it to your advantage. The chief method to maintain or establish distance with the cane would be various one-handed and two-handed thrusts. Although these are not as damaging as strikes with the blunt weapon, they are effective to push back an opponent or deter him from approaching. Close-up techniques using the cane as a wrestling aid to apply various locks and throws would also be valuable, but at that point having a good command of wrestling should probably be the training priority.

Neither of these are safe enough to be trained in the very competitive format of canne de combat. Hands are fragile and good protective gloves are costly or diminish dexterity. Thrusts with wooden sticks can hurt a lot or even break the stick which is also a safety concern. Wrestling has to be weighted against the strikes of the weapon which are intentionally made safe, and wrestling safely is a skill in itself. But specific exercises could be designed to get some at least some skills in these matters.

Having some training to deal with someone gripping your weapon would also be valuable. At least, be prepared for the eventuality and do not leave your weapon extended too far forward in a static position. In theory cannistes do not dwell there, as the rules make it both an improper parrying position and an invalid position to strike directly from.

For any combat sport, it is a valuable mental exercise to evaluate the martial applicability of what you learn. It forces you to identify precisely what skills are at the core of sport, ponder how you would have to manage a fight to make these skills preponderant, and wonder what other combat sports might provide a good supplement to these skills. The particular mix in canne de combat is a fairly interesting and original one. Then as now, someone proficient in canne, fencing, kick-boxing and wrestling is probably not someone you want to mess with!

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