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, they use improvised weapon, hand-to-hand combat, grappling and joint locks, although not as common. The word ‘Eskrima’ is the Filipino twist to the Spanish word esgrima, or fencing.
There 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. Some claims that it goes as far back as 200 B.C., when the wavy bladed knife known as first used. However, others believe they can track it back to Spain in the 15th century, considering the Spanish influenced the Philippines.
The Spanish recorded one of the earliest written records of observance of Filipino martial arts in the 1500’s. Many of the Spanish invaders battled with natives armed with sticks. They fell at the hands of the Filipino natives, leading to the ban of practice of Filipino martial arts.
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 practitioners would pass down their teachings to their children.
Rather than guns, the Philippines maintains the culture of swordplay, using blades as a primary tool. In modern day, many local Filipinos use a large blade as a tool to cut down fruits, meats, and grass.
Looking at every war in the history of the Philippines, countless accounts of the natives’ use of knives and blades to battle. During the Philippine-American War, many American servicemen had been exposed to ruthless hackings and injuries caused by blade-wielding guerrilla Filipinos. Additionally, in World War II, many Filipinos had 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. They call the weapon 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.”
Due to its historically secretive development, Eskrima, did not maintain a set system for how to practice the art. With a large influence from Spanish fencing over decades, this Filipino battling style eventually gained some level of systemization.
In 2010, Eskrima finally 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, they teach two systems. One by the World Eskrima Kali Arnis Federation (WEKAF) and the other, Arnis Philippines (ARPI).
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 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.