Eskrima: A Filipino Art in Sticks and Knives


Known by many names – Arnis or Kali – Eskrima is a weapon-based Filipino martial art that involves the use of sticks, knives, and blades to combat. While most of the time, improvised weapon are used, hand-to-hand combat, grappling and joint locks are also a part of the martial art, although not as common. The word ‘Eskrima’ is the Filipino twist to the Spanish word esgrima, or fencing. 

Sticks and Knives
By Ninja (ninja) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How It Came To Be

There are is no written record of the exact time Eskrima came to be, however, there are many theories as to where and how it may have originated. There are some claims that it goes as far back as 200 B.C., since that was when the wavy bladed knife known as the Kris was recorded to have been first used. However, there are others that believe it can be traced back to Spain in the 15th century, considering the Philippines was largely influenced by the Spanish.

One of the earliest written records of observance of Filipino martial arts were recorded by the Spanish when first arriving to the Philippines in the 1500’s. It was noted that many of the Spanish invaders, led by Ferdinand Magellan battled with natives armed with sticks. During this period, many Spanish fell at the hands of the Filipino natives, leading to the ban of practice of Filipino martial arts of any kind.

However, despite the prohibition of carrying full-sized swords, the Filipino natives managed to improvise with what they had and in secret, developed techniques in handling rattan sticks and small knives. Due to the secrecy in practicing the clandestine art, many of the practitioners would pass down their teachings to their children, and were guised to the governing leaders as a type of dance.

Eskrima Kombat
Eskrima Kombat
By Leticia Barletta (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Blade Culture

Rather than guns, The Philippines maintains the culture of swordplay, using blades as a primary tool. In the modern day, many local Filipinos can be seen wielding a large blade – not necessarily to harm anyone, but merely as a tool to cut down fruits, meats, and grass.

When looking at every war in the history of the Philippines, countless accounts of the natives’ use of knives and blades to battle are told. During the Philippine-American War, many American servicemen were known to have been exposed to ruthless hackings and injuries caused by blade-wielding guerrilla Filipinos. Additionally, in World War II, many Filipinos are said to have battled the Japanese using solely their hands or blades.

As noted from a report from The Cincinnati Enquirer during the Battle of Manila,

“The Philippine native, like all the kindred Malay races, cannot do any fighting as a rule except at close quarters, slashing with his heavy knife. The weapon is called machete, or bolo, or kampilan, or parang, or kris. The plan of action is the same — to rush in unexpectedly and hack about swiftly, without the slightest attempt at self-preservation.”

eskrima Filipino knives
Filipino knives
By Ninja (ninja) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Present Day & Beyond

Due to its historically secretive development and generation-to-generation teachings between family members, Eskrima, for the longest time, did not maintain a set system for how to practice the art. Over the course of several decades, with a large influence from Spanish fencing, this Filipino battling style eventually gained some level of systemization.

It wasn’t until the recent years, in 2010, Eskrima gained recognition by being proclaimed as the National Martial Art and Sport of the Philippines. However, even in its officiation as both a sport and martial art, two systems are taught. One by the World Eskrima Kali Arnis Federation (WEKAF) and the other, Arnis Philippines (ARPI).

Eskrima - Newly Declared National Sport
Eskrima - Newly Declared National Sport
By Philippine Postal Corporation ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The former involves the use of live sticks and is based off a 10-point must system. Even though practitioners wear vests and helmet to protect themselves, the WEKAF system has led to some controversy due to its harsh results of broken bones and severe injuries. The ARPI system, however uses foam sticks and is considered safer.

Yet, due to the use of these padded sticks, the experience is seemingly less authentic to the actual martial art of Eskrima, since the sticks bend and break with enough contact sport. It is said to take away from the realism of what its actually like using Eskrima martial art.

Eskrima Tournament Safety Equipment
Eskrima Tournament Safety Equipment
By Carlos Nazareno (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
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