Balisongs and Martial Arts

Valor Cutlery used to ink the words "Ninja" and "Samurai Warrior" onto some of their balisongs. Taylor cutlery used to sell a pair of balisongs in a charming sort of presentation box emblazoned "Ninja Dueling Set." All of this despite the fact that no traditional ninja or samurai probably ever saw a balisong.

Images of dragons and tigers and other symbols and images often associated with martial arts are also common on balisongs and their packaging and marketing.

(click on the picture for a higher-resolution image)

In the movies, balisongs are just about always carried by some sort of martial artist villain, often oriental.

As far as I know, there is no real tradition of balisongs in most martial arts.

Balisongs are actually a part of traditional Filipino Combative Arts (variously called Kali, Arnis, etc.). They have been part of the Filipino arts over a hundred years. The Filipino Combative Arts have long included edged weapons including swords, machetes, and knives.

When you live in a country where getting from one place to another often means hacking your way through jungle, a machete is just an everyday tool. Furthermore, because of their relationship with Spain, the Philippines had ready access to good metal tools. Not surprisingly, those everyday tools found their way into the martial arts of that culture. And the balisong fits in quite well.

Balisongs did enjoy some popularity among other martial artists in many arts in America in the mid-1980s.

The association of balisongs and most other martial arts is really a modern American thing. It's really just marketing hype created in the mid-1980s to lend some sort of exotic image of mystery and intrigue to these knifes.

The first balisongs mass-produced and commonly offered in America where made by Hemming Brothers Cutlery in about 1910 and sold under the name of "Woodsman." They were not intended as exotic weapons for martial artists but as handy knives for campers and fishermen.


Waltco Corporation followed shortly with their version sold as "The Saf-T-Sheath Knife." Not a deadly knife for a ninja, but a safe knife for everyday use.

The fact is that once you open it, a balisong becomes a nice fixed-blade knife. What you do with it is up to you. If you want to spread cream cheese on your bagel, it'll work fine for that (I do so frequently). And if you want to fight with it, well, it'll work well for that too.

It doesn't matter what system or style of fighting you choose to use. If you have a system or style for fighting with a fixed-blade knife, once locked open, a balisong will probably fit into it just fine. (There are exceptions for systems that rely on special features such as exaggerated hilts on knives, but I don't want to argue about it.) It doesn't matter what your system or style is called, where it comes from, what its history is, etc. If it uses a fixed-blade knife, then you can probably practice it with an open balisong.

It's the opening that differentiates the balisong. But, opening a balisong has very little to do with fighting with it. Once you get past the simplist of opening techniques, balisong manipulation quickly becomes an art unto itself, a non-combative art. Despite what you sometimes see in the movies, in an actual fight a skilled artist will not waste a lot of time and risk a mistake by trying some sort of showy opening.

Several years ago, I got to see the US Army Rifle Drill Team in action. Those guys are almost as good with their rifles as I am with my balisongs. They flip and spin and twirl those things all while marching and all perfectly synchronized. It's impressive to watch. But, it has no combative application at all. If those guys are ever sent off to war, they would not defeat the enemy with their skillful twirls. They would have to take aim and shoot.

I'm told that, in fact, most of these guys are actually not very good shots at all. They spend their time twirling and flipping their rifles, not shooting them. You don't have to be a good shot to be on the Army Rifle Drill Team and travel all over the country appearing in parades and at various events wowing the crowds with your impressive rifle handling. (In fact, while they appear real in every way, the rifles this team uses are deliberately incapable of firing and are, in fact, actually weighted differently than real rifles.)

Among the many Olympic sports are several rifle marksmanship events. While I'm not sure, it would not surprise me if the winners of those events can not handle their rifles quite like the Army Drill Team members can.

Twirling and shooting are two separate skills. Certainly, a person who wants to can learn both. But, you don't have to know how to twirl in order to shoot and shoot well, and you don't have to know how to shoot to twirl and twirl well.

Likewise, knife fighting and balisong manipulation are two different arts. You don't have to be a martial artist or a knife fighter to study and practice balisong manipulation and to get darn good at it, even to be the best at it.

You don't have to be a very accomplished balisong artist to use one combatively and you don't have to be a great balisong artist to be a successful knife fighter either. The two skills are separate.

Many people, even "martial artists," find the whole notion of edged weapons, of knife fighting, just a little bit to -- shall we say -- "aggressive." But, balisong manipulation doesn't have to be about fighting. Balisong manipulation is an art unto itself. Deep at its roots, it may have come from martial arts and fighting, but today's balisong artist have taken it well beyond those origins.

Recently, I had a wonderful opportunity to attend a performance of Saltimbanco by Cirque Du Soleil. While I was certainly entertained by the performance and, indeed, awed by the many feats these artists performed, I couldn't help but notice how much of what they do has combative, i.e. martial, origins.

For example, it's amazing to watch the acrobats perform their Chinese Pole routines. But, the original purpose of the art of Chinese Poles was to get over your enemy's walls. All of the wonderful acrobatics was just a way for the soldiers to entertain themselves and impress others when they were training. In combat, they won't pause to perform all of their fancy tricks. In combat, they would just scramble to get over the wall. Learning and practicing the fancy tricks gave them great skill and confidence to go over the wall quickly even in a stressful combat situation. (You can see the combative application of Chinese Poles in the classic James Bond thriller Octopussy when a troupe of circus acrobats infiltrates the villain's walled residence by Chinese Poles.)

The Russian Swing was originally a way to cross a trench or even a river. The fancy acrobatics is something added by soldiers bored with their drills. In combat, they wouldn't bother with all of the showmanship. But, practicing the acrobatics improved their skills and confidence.

Boleadoras are certainly a Spanish weapon. You can see them used as such in the recent movie Zoro. Boleadoras are a weapon not to much unlike balisongs in that the Cirque Du Soleil performes have taken the manipulation of the boleadoras to an art. In combat, you wouldn't bother with the fancy manipulations. But, learning and practicing them is fun, entertaining, and gives the artist greater skill and confidence with the boleadoras which could be valuable in combat.

That's the whole point. The performers and artist of Cirque Du Soleil don't stop at the combative application of what they do. Just climbing a pole will not get you onto the cast of Curque Du Soleil. They've taken these originally combative things and elevated them well above mundane combat and into true art.

A martial artist takes a slightly different view. By learning and practicing the artistic manipulation of a weapon, he seeks to improve his skill and confidence with that weapon.

Balisong artists do the same thing. Artistic balisong manipulation is not about combat. It is an art unto itself. If you want it to, that art can improve skill and confidence for combative applications.

Notice, please, that on this web site there is very little discussion of martial arts; in fact, this article is it. This is not a martial arts web site. This is a balisong web site. And that's two different things. You don't need to talk about martial arts to talk about balisongs.

So, if you're not a martial artist, if you have no interest in martial arts, if you have no interest in the combative application of a balisong, don't be discouraged. You can still be a balisong artist. You can, in fact, be the best balisong artist if you want to. You can take the balisong in the "Cirque Du Soleil" direction.

Were it not for the fact that balisong manipulation is a bit to small to present to an audience of several thousand, it would not surprise me if Cirque Du Soleil would incorporate it. It's just the sort of thing they like. On the other hand, if you generally entertain smaller crowds and find a Russian swing difficult to fit in your pocket, the the balisong may be perfect for you. (In fact, I have it on good authority that during their recent stay in Portland, some of the Cirque Du Soleil performers purchased balisongs from a local dealer.)

Balisong manipulation and martial arts are two different things. The connection between them is mostly made-up marketing hype.



Now, if you are a martial artist and your interest in martial arts has kindled an interest in balisongs, that's great. As I said above, the balisong can be incorporated into just about any blade art that uses a conventional fixed-blade knife. The opening and closing manipulation techniques create a lot of interesting potential.

A closed balisong makes a great punch weight and also a great striking weapon. It fits especially well into the Filipino "gunting" techniques. Other arts have similar techniques. A closed balisong is really good for nerve strikes. A closed balisong can also be used to reinforce joint locks. And, it's good for applying pressure too. So, there's a whole list of things for you to explore with a closed balisong.

Some martial artists like to talk about the potential use of an unlocked balisong as a flailing weapon. I'm not very excited about that myself, but you're certainly welcome to explore it and see how it might fit into your system.

Pinching between the handles is another potential use of the balisong that some martial artists may wish to explore.

Sometimes, people talk about the "intimidation factor" of an elaborate balisong opening. It may work against some opponents, but don't count on it. Here in Oregon, it would give your opponent license and time to draw a gun and shoot you. One of the general guidelines in Filpino-style knife fighting is: don't let your opponent see your knife until it's to late. So, I don't think that the idea of intimidating an opponent with a fancy balisong opening came from the Philippines; it's probably another American invention.

While the balisong is, perhaps, a little obsolete in light of many of the fine "tactical folders" available today, it is still a fine, fast knife and, therefore, a deadly weapon in skilled hands.  It's a versatile tool with a lot of potential. How you package the balisong into your art will be your own creation.



I, myself, study Filipino combative arts, Arnis, under Guru Kurtis Goodwin at API Combative Arts in Portland, Oregon. If you live in the Portland area and are interested in Filipino combative arts and especially edged-weapons training, I suggest you give Guru Goodwin a call and inquire about classes at API. Guru Goodwin teaches other arts as well. Refer to Guru's website for an up-to-date list of all classes currently offered. Please mention that you found out about API on my site. I get ten less push-ups for every referral. (Guru does not welcome "walk-ins". You have to call ahead for an interview and appointment.)