Large wooden sticks are probably one of man’s earliest weapons and have been used for combat since the days of the caveman. It allows you to attack at range, deliver deadly blows as well as block incoming blows.
In more modern times, fighting with wooden sticks has become more finessed. Methods of fashioning and shaping a fighting staff have improved and there are martial artists of different styles who specialise in fighting with wooden poles. Perhaps the most well known of these weapons is the quarterstaff and the bo staff.
In the article, I look to compare the quarterstaff vs bo staff.
What is a quarterstaff?
The quarterstaff is a simple wooden pole that was widely used as a weapon in Europe from around 1550 to the end of the 1800s. They typically measure from 6 to 9 feet long, 1.5 inches in diameter, and are usually made out of a hardwood like Ash.
Whilst it may look like a big stick, a quarterstaff is actually shaped and cut out of the trunk of a tree. They are not simply a conveniently shaped branches that has had its side shoots trimmed off.
Being fashioned out of the trunk of the tree allows the surface of the pole to be smooth meaning the hands can easily slide up and down its length in order to change grip for different strikes and blocks.
It also means that the wood is much more solid if it’s come from the trunk of the tree as opposed to one of its branches. If the quarterstaff is made from a branch, it will be very flexible and is likely to just bounce off when it strikes an opponent.
To make them even more deadly, they sometimes had a metal tip or small spike added to the end.
Normally, the length of the pole is determined by how tall the user is. The length of the quarterstaff is calculated by placing your open hand upright on your head as you’re standing up. The staff length should equal the distance from the ground to the person’s fingertips.
The quarterstaff famously featured in the stories of the English legend of Robin Hood.
Quarterstaffs were very much used by the traveling man. They could be used as a walking stick or cane to make the journey easier. If attacked by bandits the pole then became a useful self defense weapon to fend off an attack. Walking with a pole is also much more discreet than carrying a long sword or other bladed weapon in public and safer to train with as well.
Certainly a quarterstaff would be more than a match for shorter weapons such as a knife.
Why is it called a quarterstaff?
There seem to be a number of theories:
The first relates to how it’s held: with the lower hand a quarter of the way down the pole with the other hand positioned about 1 – 1.5 feet above it.
However, there are multiple hand spacings that can be utilised: some involve placing the hands further towards the bottom of the pole, some further towards the top. This therefore, perhaps seems like an unlikely explanation.
An alternative is to do with how it’s made. Each quarterstaff is made from the trunk of a tree but it’s not the centre of the tree that’s used. If it was, then the pole would warp out of shape and crack as the wood seasoned.
Rather, the trunk is cut in half lengthways with an axe. Each half trunk is then cut in two again. From each quarter, one pole can be made. This method limits the amount of warping that takes place.
The quarterstaff can be used in a number of striking movements.
The staff can be raised and swung downwards to the head, shoulders or upper arms.
It can also be swung more horizontally aiming at the side of the body and legs.
The quarterstaff could also be used as a thrusting weapon, like a spear. The uppermost hand is released at the same time as the forward leg lunges forward. The arm still holding the pole is thrust forward, propelling the tip of the pole into the attacker’s body or head.
The fighting style and staff technique can be varied by using different hand positions. Holding the staff toward the lower end results in a spear grip, allowing the fighter a greater range. The following diagram from Mair’s 1540 fight book shows two grip variations.
At around this time in England, the quarterstaff became something of a national symbol.
It later became the foundation of bayonet fighting systems.
What is a bo staff?
The bo is a wooden staff that’s used as a martial arts weapon in Okinawa, a small island off mainland Japan. They are typically about 71 inches long, 1.25 inches thick and made from a hardwood such as red oak. Some staffs are made out of rattan, a type of wood, which is softer and can be used for practise purposes.
Various martial arts, such as kung fu, reached Okinawa from mainland China via its close trading links. Many Japanese martial arts have been influenced in this way. This included fighting with a wooden staff which evolved into what is today the martial art called Bōjutsu. Elements of Bōjutsu have been incorporated into Karate. Karate practitioners even perform a Bo kata.
The bo staff’s popularity on the island increased when in 1477, Emperor Sho Shin banned all weapons. Owning a sword was outlawed. A further weapons ban was put in place in 1609 when a Samurai clan invaded the island.
With weaponry banned, the islanders often looked to simple farming implements that could be used as weapons to defend themselves. The bo is thought to have developed from a long stick (tenbin) used by farmers to transport baskets or buckets of grain, crops, or water etc.
Bo Staff Technique
The bo stick is very much regarded as an “extension of one’s limbs” and many of its striking techniques look like empty-handed fighting movements.
The bo is usually held with each hand positioned so that it divides the staff equally into thirds. It’s rather like you’d hold a two bladed paddle if you went canoeing.
The right hand typically faces away from the body, with the left palm facing towards the body. This allows the bo to rotate but also, if both hands were facing away, then a hard downward strike to the centre of the pole would force it out of the holder’s grip. Having one upturned hand prevents this.
Enabling the staff to rotate allows you to spin the bo. This not only keep attackers from getting too close but it also looks pretty cool. It takes a great deal of training to get to this standard.
Holding the staff in this way enable a number of Bo techniques to be performed. The bo staff can be rotated downwards for strikes to the head, upwards for strikes to the groin and lower body, and sideways for attacks to the sides of the opponent.
The bo can also be thrust forward in a powerful straight attack into the opponent’s head or body, like a spear.
Handled in the right way, a martial arts Bo staff, with its combination of swinging attacks and thrusts, is a pretty lethal weapon.
Summary: Quarterstaff vs Bo Staff
The Quarterstaff and Bo staff originated in different parts of the world. Their use as weapons over the centuries led to the development of formalised combat techniques and, in the case of the Bo, this resulted in the creation of a martial art – Bōjutsu.
Each is capable of swinging and thrusting strikes as well as blocking incoming counter blows, acting like a shield.
Whilst each could appear as an innocent walking aid or farming tool, in trained hands they could be deadly weapons.