Photos by Jake Brosnan

The concepts shown here are for illustrative purposes only. Seek professional training from a reputable instructor before attempting any techniques discussed or shown in this story.

Sticks and stones may break your bones… period. Imagine a cataclysmic scenario — there's been a criminal or terrorist attack during your vacation, and you've been forced to flee into the wilderness before making your way to a safe zone. Or an electromagnetic pulse or act of God has put emergency services out of commission while you're away from home, and opportunist looters are on the street. Maybe it's something simpler — you've encountered trouble while out on a camping trip with your family.

Whatever the case, so long as there are branches, trees, timber, or bamboo-type grasses around, there will always be an effective weapon waiting to be recognized and formed.

Nature's Weapons

It's not much of a stretch to assume that a stick was likely the first weapon wielded by mankind. Even apes can be found smacking each other (and other animals) with them in the wild. The number of cultures that developed intricate fighting systems or martial arts throughout history to enhance their ability to defend and attack with sticks is staggering. These systems extend much further than East Asia, where most people typically associate martial arts of this kind.


As a young man growing up in New Zealand, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to train in an age-old martial art developed by the native Maori people called Mau Rakau or “art of the wooden weapon.” The primary focus of this art is a medium-length wooden staff called Taiaha, which is typically 5 to 6 feet long. I also had the opportunity over two decades ago to spend two years living in the Philippines, where I discovered and began studying a Filipino martial art commonly called Kali.

Those familiar with the Filipino martial arts are aware that their training methodology starts with sticks and blades, as opposed to the initial empty-hand focus of most other martial arts. The arts that hail from areas of the Philippines where the Spanish once exercised greater control seem to put more focus on sticks, as their Spaniard overlords prohibited the practice of fighting arts with blades during much of their 300-year colonization.

The likes of Bruce Lee and Ed Parker found the Filipino stick fighting arts so effective that they not only trained in them, but assimilated elements of these arts into the fighting systems they developed during their lifetimes.


When procuring a good branch or piece of wood to form into a weapon, there are two categories that you can generally put stick weapons into, each with advantages and disadvantages: one-handed and two-handed weapons. Although long staffs can be found in some of their arts, the Filipinos found that the ideal length for a fighting stick was around 24 to 31 inches in length.

Much shorter than that and the stick begins to lose the torque that can be harnessed with a good one-arm swing. Much longer than that and the stick starts to become unwieldy as a one-handed weapon, requiring the use of two hands. For the purposes of this article we're going to focus on the strengths of using a stick that can be manipulated with one or two hands for survival.

It's very possible in a pinch that the old adage beggars can't be choosers may very well apply when choosing a branch or piece of wood to become your survival stick. For defensive purposes, any rigid stick you can hold and swing is better than empty hands. But if you are in an area where sticks are plentiful, you may be able to choose and shape your own ideal survival stick. So what should you look for when hand-crafting one of these implements?

What to Look for

The first step will be finding a stick that's as straight as possible, with a circumference that is close to matching your hand size. When gripping the stick, you will want the tip of your thumb to reach somewhere between the tip of the index finger and the first knuckle of the same finger. Wood can come in a variety of weights and densities. A heavier stick will be slower and more cumbersome to wield, while a lighter stick will transfer less kinetic energy on impact. Just imagine the chances of stopping a threat with a balsa wood staff.

You'll want to find some middle ground -— this will be different for everyone based on your size and strength. It's very possible that you'll need to remove twigs or other protrusions from a smaller branch. If a simple knife is available to utilize, you can shape your ideal stick from a larger stronger branch or piece of wood. The last thing to decide is the length. Again, people come in all shapes and sizes and so should your custom survival sticks.

As a good measuring reference, stretch your arm out directly to the side and place the stick in your armpit parallel to your arm. A good stick length will measure from the armpit to about the tip of your fingers or just a little beyond. At this length you can typically wield it with one hand comfortably, or can also put two hands on it for additional power if necessary. If you have a pocketknife and want to enhance the defensive capabilities of your stick, try sharpening the end of your stick into a point that can be used for thrusting.

As you train to use your stick defensively, keep it simple. Regardless of the grip you use, downward 45-degree-angled strikes from right and left in a figure-eight motion can be used offensively and defensively. Centerline thrusts can also be used preemptively or as quick counterattacks.

These three attacks are all you really need to build a solid foundation. If you have time to train you can get more elaborate than that in steady progressions, or seek out the instruction of a good Filipino martial arts instructor. At a fundamental level of defense, if you want to be able to stick it to 'em, it's best to stick to the basics.

DEFENSE SEQUENCE 1: One-Handed Combination


1. Defending against a shorter weapon such as a knife, keep your distance and use your reach to your advantage.

2. Aim to attack the weapon-bearing limb. This allows you to maintain the maximum distance possible while disrupting the assailant's ability to cause you harm.


3. Wind up for a follow-up strike. With a backhand strike, you can push to your wrist with your support hand to add power.


4. Aim for areas that have the highest probability of neutralizing the threat, as is reasonably necessary.


5. As necessary, follow backhand power strikes with forehand power strikes for economy of motion.


6. Continue targeting vital areas.



1. Hold the weapon in the rifle grip, with support hand forward of the strong hand.


2. Quick straight-line thrusts can be used to preempt an attack.


3. Use the forward end of the stick to parry an attack downward while positioning yourself to the outside line.


4. Quickly change the support hand to the baseball bat grip while winding up for the coup de gras.


5. Hit a home run to finish the fight.

DEFENSE SEQUENCE 3: Double-Over Grip


1. Hold the stick in a kayak paddle grip, hands about shoulder-width apart.


2. Use the end to strike inward, parrying the straight-line jab.


3. Repeat on the other side to the straight-line cross.


4. Use the center of the stick between your hands to deliver a power strike to the jaw line.


5. If the assailant is taller than you, pull down to their collarbone area to bring them down a little. Reach over the top of your stick and behind their neck with your left hand. Grab the stick on the other side, leaving the stick under your left armpit.


6. Control their arm with your free hand, and pull backward on their neck with the stick. Keeping the space small where their neck is will sink a choke in.


7. Pivot your left leg back, go down to your left knee and pull them backward down to the ground.


8. If the choke doesn't sink in fast enough, deliver a few strikes to disrupt any attempted counterattack.

About the Author


Jared Wihongi is a 16-year veteran law enforcement officer with considerable time serving in the SWAT community, a specialist in close-quarter combatives, and one of a handful of master-level instructors of the Filipino combat art Pekiti-Tirsia Kali. Moreover, Wihongi has more than a decade of experience instructing armed forces around the globe. He's the tactical consultant and frontman for Browning's Black Label line of knives. Learn more about him at

Pros and Cons of a One-Handed Survival Stick


  • Hand-free transport, it can easily be packed in a ruck or slung sword-style on your hip.
  • Non-cumbersome. Less likely to be snagging on branches or walls as your move from A to B.
  • Second hand can be free to grab, defend, attack, hold other equipment or wield a second weapon.
  • Easier and less clumsy to wield with little practice.
  • It's harder to enter inside the effective range of a shorter stick and better suited to close quarters.


  • Longer weapons give you a greater standoff distance. This is a good thing in an open space environment.
  • The power of a two-handed swing can be … you guessed it, about twice as strong as a one-handed swing.

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