The tactics of Bartitsu kickboxing

Above: Bartitsu Club instructor Pierre Vigny (left) demonstrates a simultaneous guard and counter technique.

E.W. Barton-Wright was fulsome in his praise of boxing, which was virtually synonymous with the idea of “self defence” in London at the turn of the 20th century. In introducing his radical cross-training concept of Bartitsu, however, he was also careful to point out that even “manly and efficacious” British fisticuffs might not be enough to cope with a determined street attacker who didn’t play by the rules:

If one gets into a row and plays the game in the recognised style of English fair play – with fists – the opponent will very likely rush in and close, in order to avoid a blow.

“Black and White Budget” magazine, December 1900

Circa 1900, many boxers still employed the so-called “milling” guard, as seen in this exhibition bout between champions Jim Jeffries and Bob Fitzsimmons:

The mill – referred to by pugilist and author R.G. Allanson-Winn as a “cycloidal action” – involved continually rotating the fists in vertical circles,  which served to keep the arms limber and to disguise the timing of the punch.

Barton-Wright continued:

Then comes the moment for wrestling in the secret Japanese way. Instantly the unwary one is caught and thrown so violently that he is placed hors de combat, without even sufficient strength left to retire unassisted from the field. – Ibid

Taken at face value, these comments suggest a specific tactic; that the forewarned but unarmed Bartitsu-trained defender would adopt a boxing guard and spar specifically in order to “sucker” their adversary into close quarters.  Once at close quarters, the defender would deploy jiujitsu as a sort of secret weapon – a reasonable proposition at a time when Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Club was literally the only place in the Western world where a student could learn Japanese unarmed combat.

In fact, both of Barton-Wright’s “boxing” scenarios in the Black and White Budget article proposed that an unarmed fight might begin with fisticuffs, but would end with jiujitsu:

Again, should it happen that the assailant is a better boxer than oneself, the knowledge of Japanese wrestling will enable one to close and throw him without any risk of getting hurt oneself. – Ibid.

While acknowledging that kicking and countering kicks were important aspects of self defence training, he then asserted that:

Another branch of Bartitsu is that in which the feet and hands are both employed, which is an adaptation of boxing and Savate. The guards are done in a slightly different style from boxing, being much more numerous as well. The use of the feet is also done quite differently from the French Savate. This latter … is quite useless as a means of self-defence when done in the way Frenchmen employ it.– Ibid.

He followed with another revealing comment on the subject of kicking in self defence:

Mr. Barton-Wright does not profess to teach his pupils how to kick each other, but merely to know how to be able to return kicks with interest should one be attacked in this manner. – Ibid.

Later, an article in the Pall Mall Gazette also mentioned that the kicking methods taught at the Bartitsu Club were “somewhat different from the accepted French method.”

In considering Barton-Wright’s comments on savate, it’s worth recalling the traditional Anglo-French rivalry and the middle-class London cultural bias against kicking in self defence as being “un-English”.  This may have been an especially sore point in the wake of the infamous savate vs. boxing match between Charles Charlemont and Jerry Driscoll, which had taken place just as Barton-Wright arrived back in London from Japan.

It’s likely that B-W deliberately de-emphasised the kicking content of Bartitsu and distanced it from the French method in his articles and lectures as a gesture towards nationalistic sentiment and social respectability. Similarly, he may have been attempting to score points by suggesting that the Bartitsu Club was promoting a “new, improved” (even an Anglicised) version of savate.

In any case, it’s evident that neither Barton-Wright himself nor Bartitsu Club instructor Pierre Vigny had much time for the stylised, light-contact assaut style that had then become popular in French academies:

Several months later, in a lecture for the Japan Society of London, Barton-Wright explained that:

Under Bartitsu is included boxing, or the use of the fist as a hitting medium, the use of the feet both in an offensive and defensive sense, the use of the walking stick as a means of self-defence. Judo and jujitsu, which (are) secret styles of Japanese wrestling, (I) would call close play as applied to self-defence.

In order to ensure as far as it was possible immunity against injury in cowardly attacks or quarrels, (one) must understand boxing in order to thoroughly appreciate the danger and rapidity of a well-directed blow, and the particular parts of the body which were scientifically attacked. The same, of course, applied to the use of the foot or the stick … judo and jiujitsu are not designed as primary means of attack and defence against a boxer or a man who kicks you, but (are) only supposed to be used after coming to close quarters, and in order to get to close quarters, it is absolutely necessary to understand boxing and the use of the foot. – Barton-Wright, “Jiu jitsu and Judo: the Japanese Art of Self Defence from a British Athletic Point of View”, February 1901

This statement underscores the specifically defensive value of boxing and savate “in order to get to close quarters” against the types of attacks that might be anticipated from a London Hooligan.

Barton-Wright continued:

Directly one (sees) a man, one ought to know whether he (is) a man to go for at once, or whether he should be allowed to have first turn and afterwards come in one’s self. – Ibid

Finally, in a September, 1901 interview with the Pall Mall Gazette, Barton-Wright explained what he meant by “guards not at all like those taught in boxing schools”:

The fencing and boxing generally taught in schools-of-arms is too academic. Although it trains the eye to a certain extent, it is of little use except as a game played with persons who will observe the rules.

The amateur (boxer) is seldom taught how to hit really hard, which is what you must do in a row. Nor is he protected against the savate, which would certainly be used on him by foreign ruffians, or the cowardly kicks often given by the English Hooligan. A little knowledge of boxing is really rather a disadvantage to (the defender) if his assailant happens to be skilled at it, because (the assailant) will will know exactly how his victim is likely to hit and guard.

As to boxing, we have guards which are not at all like the guards taught in schools, and which will make the assailant hurt his own hand and arm very seriously.

In sum, the Bartitsu student must know how to hit really hard, how to counter kicks as well as punches and – significantly – how to fend off punches in such a way as to injure his opponent’s attacking limbs.  Percy Longhurst, in his book Jiujitsu and Other Methods of Self Defence, describes a version of this technique:

A man who makes wild round-arm swinging blows at your head may be severely checked by the point of your elbow, raised so that it catches him on the inside of his upper arm.

Barton-Wright continued:

So we teach a savate not at all like the French savate, but much more deadly, and which, if properly used, will smash the opponent’s ankle or even his ribs. Even if it be not used, it is very useful in teaching the pupil to keep his feet, which are almost as important in a scrimmage as his head.

The interviewer then described two of these unorthodox guards, as demonstrated by Pierre Vigny:

He has also a guard in boxing on which you will hurt your own arm without getting within his distance, while he can kick you on the chin, in the wind, or on the ankle.

As to the usual brutal kick of the London rough, his guard for it (not difficult to learn) will cause the rough to break his own leg, and the harder he kicks the worse it will be for him.

This is surely what was previously referred to as “returning kicks with interest”!

And, again, the Bartitsu practitioner would be expected to finish the fight with jiujitsu as a secret weapon or surprise attack:

My own experience is that the biggest man in a fight generally tries to close. By the grips or clutches I can teach, the biggest man can be seized and made powerless in a few seconds.

Mr. Barton-Wright himself shows you wrestling tricks, by which, by merely taking hold of a man’s hand, you have him at your mercy, and can throw him on the ground or lead him about as you wish, the principle being, apparently, that you set your muscles and joints against your opponent’s in such a way that the more he struggles, the more he hurts himself.

Thus emerges an overall strategy for the unarmed or disarmed Bartitsu practitioner, on the guiding theme of using the attacker’s force to his own detriment:

  1. Assume an orthodox c1900 boxing guard (upright stance, extended or milling guard with the fists)
  2. If the opponent attempts to break through your guard to grapple, admit them and counter with jiujitsu.
  3. If the opponent strikes, counter with limb destruction techniques; kick into their kicks or use your elbows and/or fists to strike into their punches, so that they harder they strike, the more they will be hurt.

Emerging from the mill, these “different and more numerous guards” employ the sharp, solid wedge of the elbow, rather than the gloves or forearms, to chop into or bar the attacking limb(s).  The defender might follow with boxing punches or atemi strikes as required, but these attacks would occur during a transition into the close quarters combat of jiujitsu.

The following video of Bartitsu training at the Chicago’s Forteza martial arts studio offers a selection of boxing drills, featuring the milling guard, destructive elbow blocks, closing to close quarters, light sparring and pad work:

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