Whips in Combat


Extract from The New Bullwhip Book

Most of the whips that are cracked today evolved just for making a noise, to herd cattle or perhaps to control sled dogs. They are not intended to hit anything or anyone, except in emergency. If you use a whip to hit livestock, you run the risk of doing too much damage, breaking bones or leaving open wounds that may get infected. There is one type of whip that has a more sordid history, though, and that is the short blacksnake. Part whip and part blackjack, it is a vicious street fighting weapon.

A blackjack (also called a cosh outside the US) is small club with a flexible handle and a lead weight on the end, usually with a leather cover. A light tap on the skull with one of these is enough to render the victim unconscious, and a full force hit will break bones. In many jurisdictions it is illegal to carry one.

Some time, probably in the early 19th century, a canny whip maker had the bright idea of loading the handle of a short snakewhip with lead shot and selling it for use as a blackjack. While there might be a law against carrying a blackjack, there was no law against walking around with a whip rolled up in your pocket. Often these whips will have some fancy plaiting beginning a three or four inches (75mm. to 100mm.) into the thong. This is to give a better grip when the whip is reversed and used as a club. If the whip is grasped a bit further down the thong, then the handle can be swung like a nunchuck, too.

Blacksnakes have attracted the attention of luminaries from Mark Twain to Russ Meyer. In The Galaxy, December 1870, Mark Twain wrote:

How well I remember my grandmother’s asking me not to use tobacco, good old soul! She said, “You’re at it again, are you, you whelp? Now, don’t ever let me catch you chewing tobacco before breakfast again, or I lay I’ll black snake you within an inch of your life! I have never touched it at that hour of the morning from that time to the present day.

A century later, Russ Meyers movie Black Snake: The Whip told the story of a slave revolt on a Caribbean island. Instead of Meyers usual exploitation of female anatomy, this film used the crack of the whip for its shock appeal.

A whip is at its most dangerous at the moment it cracks, and it is usually fully extended when this happens. For a short whip the danger zone is between four and six feet (1.2m. to 1.8m.) from the whip handler. If you are facing an opponent with a short whip in a fight, you have two options. You can run away, or you can move closer and attempt to punch, kick or grapple with the whip handler. If you are closer than four feet (1.2m), you are too close to be easily hit by the cracking end of a whip, but watch out for a quick flip or a switch to the other hand to turn that whip into a blackjack.

Short whip fighters will usually retreat from someone who tries to grapple with them, while dealing quick stinging blows aimed at both sides of the head and torso. When a blow connects and the pain distracts the opponent, the whip handler can then reverse the whip and use the handle for a disabling blow.

The best cracks to use for short whip fighting are variations of the sidearm and overhand flick. A whip handler should avoid moves like the forward crack, which have a long setup and thus telegraph her intentions to an opponent. Strokes may alternate from the left and right hand sides or stay on the same side of the body. In either case, the follow through from one stroke must be the setup for the next. The whip should be continually moving in ever changing unpredictable vertical and diagonal planes. Moves in a pure horizontal plane should be avoided unless the whip is very stiff, as the follow through may wrap around and hit the whip handler on the back. Even if the whip is not travelling fast enough to be painful at this point it takes too long to reverse the motion and bring the whip back to fighting mode, and it is quite undignified.

The basic exercises you should practice if you want to defend yourself with a short whip are the continuous overhand flick on both sides of your body, and the X pattern. Then, by switching from one pattern to another and varying angles and timing you can create an intimidating defensive screen of fast moving leather.

One way that a whip fighter can prevent someone moving inside the danger zone is to use a knife in the other hand. Whip and knife techniques are taught in Filipino martial arts such as Kali. One form of whip traditionally used was the buntot pagi or tail of a stingray! The poison was left in the sting making this a particularly vicious weapon.

A weapon called the sjambok originated in Southern Africa, and is now widely available. Its similar to a whip in that it is a flexible tapered hand weapon between about three to five feet (0.9m to 1.5m.) in length. However, the sjambok is not flexible enough to crack and does not have a popper. It is only intended as a weapon, and is carried by South African police for riot control, instead of the nightstick or truncheon we are familiar with in the US. Originally they were made from a single strip of thick hippopotamus, elephant or rhino hide, rounded by rolling between steel plates and tapered from a little over one inch (25mm.) in diameter down to three eighths of an inch (9mm.). These days cheap but effective plastic versions are common and can be found for a few dollars on Ebay. The hippo versions sometimes turn up there too, selling for fifty dollars or more. Being more rigid than a genuine whip they are easier to control, and thus require less training to use effectively.

I have seen a shot loaded snake whip for self-defense. It has with two metal rings at the handle end, which allow it to be fastened round your waist and used as a belt. Note that unless you have spent a number of hours practicing the use of a whip, pepper spray is likely to provide a more effective form of defense, if it is legal in your jurisdiction. The other advantage of pepper spray is that when you take it out to use it, your pants dont fall down.

Longer whips can be used as weapons, but they require a different set of techniques. As well as striking, the whip can be used to wrap a body or limb and disarm an opponent or pull them off balance. A wrap aimed at about knee height followed by a sharp tug on the whip will bring most people to their knees.

It takes an appreciable amount of time to set up and crack a long whip, and the danger zone is further away from the whip handler. An opponent who judges the timing correctly can avoid the blow and then step inside the whip handlers danger zone before he has time to set up another crack. At this point the whip handler has several options.

As with a short whip, a knife can be held in the other hand to discourage a close approach, or the handle of the whip can be used as a club. However, the extra length of the thong allows additional moves. The handle can be thrown or swung while holding on to the thong. Many techniques used in Kung Fu for a weapon called the rope dart can be used with a reversed whip. If you’ve never seen a rope dart, look out for the movie Shanghai Noon where Jackie Chan improvises one out of a lariat and a horseshoe.

The length and rigidity of a bullwhip or cow whip handle allow it to be used as you would a stick, to block blows with other weapons, or to hit and thrust. There’s another possibility, too. If the whip handler can flip a loop of the thong over the opponents head, pulling on the thong and pushing with the handle held horizontally will result in a chokehold, or if done forcefully can crush a windpipe. (Chokeholds can be extremely dangerous. Do not attempt to practice them without coaching from an experienced martial arts master.)

A loop of the whip can be used in other ways. If the thong is doubled back and held in the same hand as the handle it can deliver a powerful blow, extending the reach of an arm. If an opponent tries to kick, it can be hooked around an incoming leg and used to pull him off balance.

Overall, though, in spite of the emotional and artistic appeal long whips are not the most effective weapons for self-defense. I asked a black belt friend of mine who also cracks whips if she would rather face an opponent with or without a whip in her hand. She responded:

Having something to hand is always nice – I’d rather hit hard things like skulls with something other than a fragile hand. And it would be helpful in making a safe getaway – being able to back off and keep him at a distance would be helpful (or at least it would if my aim were better). I can think of ways I’d could use a bullwhip to, for example, remove a knife from a hand. But would I, as a choice? Probably only in limited situations – like someone with a knife standing just outside my kicking range, where I could hit the hand with the butt end (hiding the swing with my body – the perfect set-up is needed) or with the end, and do a wrap. I think using the bullwhip is like jujitsu rather than karate – in karate, you have a few dozen techniques, most of which can be used in pretty much any situation. In jujitsu you have hundreds of techniques, each applicable to only particular set-ups and attacks.

The sound of a whip crack will grab the attention of a room full of people, and the whip can then be used as a threat to control a group, especially if a long whip is cracked over their heads. However, the sound can also be mistaken for that of a gun. A friend of mine was cracking his whip in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco one day, when a police officer came over and asked him to stop because he kept mistaking it for gunfire and it was making him jumpy. Its not healthy to be around nervous cops, so my friend postponed his practice session for another day.

Whipmaker Gayle Nemeth, from Queensland, Australia, is promoting the sport of full contact whip fighting. Contestants wear long heavy coats and fencing masks, and whack away at each other with stock whips. Points are scored for a clean strike to the head only, so the object of the game is to avoid or block your opponents blows, while setting up a clean hit yourself. Gayles sparring partner, Angie Mooney says:

Even though you are protected the sound of the whips hitting is frightening and you can’t help flinching as the whip cracks around you! It’s amazing!

Perhaps the most amusing method for self-defense using a whip goes as follows. First do your most impressive and stylish multiple crack routine to keep your attacker at bay. Then pretend to accidentally drop your whip. Now stand back and watch while your attacker picks up your whip and injures himself with it!

2 Responses to Whips in Combat

  1. LOAP says:

    I am still a beginner with the bullwhip, but I have discovered how easy it is to tangle an opponent with the thong of the whip and use the handle as a means to apply pressure under the nose (which is a sensative spot). It is easy (at least for me as it comes instinctive) to dodge a punch or kick, grab the limb, and tangle the person with their own limb, so I figured it is possible to do the same with the bullwhip. I haven’t tried it out yet, but I thought it was just an interesting hypothesis to throw out for your opinions.

  2. Poose says:

    Thanks. I was just deciding whether my dual snake whips were worthy of the title of “personal defence weapons” and you nailed it in one.

    I wish I could find a dojo that could train me-guess I’m in the thin air here, and must train myself.

    Again, Thank you.

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