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Nunchaku:  Weapon as Movie Star

Dateline: 07/25/99

No other weapon is as ingrained into the modern martial arts consciousness as the nunchaku. At its simplest just two forearm-length sticks joined by a short length of cord, the nunchaku is possibly the most famous martial arts implement around.

The generic name for this sort of tool is flail--basically, any implement consisting of two sticks joined with a flexible cord or joint, used to beat the husks off grain kernels. Flails were used wherever grain is grown, and they were adapted to the ways people used them in their region. For example, European flails, used primarily on wheat, often had one stick much longer than the other, to allow a strong two-handed grip on the "handle" end, and an increased length of swing. The nunchaku's humble beginnings lie in the rice paddies of Okinawa, but Hollywood made the nunchaku a star.

Flails make effective weapons because of the flexible link between the two sticks. This articulation allows the impact end of the flail to accelerate faster than a rigid club, thus increasing the power at impact.

One reason the nunchaku is so effective is that with two sticks of equal length, each as long as the wielder's forearm, either end can be used as the "handle" or as the "impact" end--often in the same technique. This calls for some fancy moves and incredible coordination, leading to fantastic fight scenes in the movies.

And of course, one of the most fantastic martial artists ever was the first to use the nunchaku in a major motion picture. Bruce Lee first showed off his adept mastery of the nunchaku to western audiences in the movie Return of the Dragon. He also put the weapon to good use in Enter the Dragon and the final fight scenes of Game of Death.

Lee's incredible charisma and screen presence made him a star, and as people attempted to emulate their hero, the nunchaku became a star as well. Since the nunchaku's introduction on the movie screen in the 1970s, it's a rare martial arts movie that doesn't contain a nunchaku scene.

The nunchaku became so popular it was soon seen on the streets, on both sides of the law. Young toughs could be found toting a pair of "nunchucks", often homemade from lengths of dowel and clothesline. Merely possessing these "chocko sticks" didn't bestow mastery of the weapon, though. One veteran cop remembers encountering a young punk thusly: "...we just stood back at a safe distance until he beat himself senseless."

Many police training pundits in the '70s recommended replacing the traditional baton with nunchaku. Training included chokes using the connecting cord as well as pain compliance holds--basically squeezing a suspect's limb between the two sticks of the nunchaku. However, the extensive training required to become proficient and the likelihood of excessive force largely eliminated the nunchaku from police utility belts. [Later, another martial arts-inspired weapon, the tonfa-based side-handle baton, would prove its worth to law enforcement. But that's a subject for a future feature.] Recently, the doctrine of teaching compliance and control rather than striking has ressurected the concept of police nunchaku--rather than relying upon multiple strikes to subdue an opponent (as used by the Los Angeles police in apprehending Rodney King), officers can use more humane control techniques to cause a subject to surrender.

Today's laws have made nunchaku seldom seen on the streets. For example, California Penal Code Section 12020a explicitly states that possessing a nunchaku is "punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or in the state prison." Special allowances are made for legitimate martial arts practioners, who may study nunchaku as part of their training, and who may possess nunchaku in an official dojo (per Section 12020b3). As a result of these laws, it's often difficult to procure nunchaku in some locales, even for legitimate training.

Nunchaku training, due to the difficulty of wielding the weapon, demands exceptional skill, coordination, and awareness. Furthermore, the ability to judge distances and speeds is enhanced by the need to keep track of the "business end"--lest you hit yourself. Weapons training is commonly understood to improve empty-hand techniques; that's why, for example, the Filipino martial arts teach weapon techniques first--then empty-hand techniques. Nunchaku training has a proper place in the martial arts curriculum.

Despite the added restrictions of these modern times, nunchaku still reign as the stars of martial arts weaponry. And the weapon enjoys this star status worldwide, as can be seen by the international flavor of the links listed below:

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