A Review of “Bartitsu: Historical Self-Defence with a Walking Stick”

Here follows a review of the new English-language edition of the instructional DVD Bartitsu: Historical Self-Defence with a Walking Stick According to Pierre Vigny, which was originally released with German-language captions and narration.  The DVD features instructor Alex Kiermayer assisted by Christoph Reinberger and was produced by Agilitas.tv, a company that has previously produced a number of instructional HEMA DVDs.

Mr. Kiermayer and Mr. Reinberger are dressed in the simple white shirt, suspenders and dark pants ensembles that frequently stand in for Victorian/Edwardian attire in Bartitsu exhibitions.  Their demonstrations take place in a large, distraction-free studio space and are well-covered with a truly impressive range of camera angles, including some high overhead shots as well as well-placed closeups.  The technical presentations are methodical and crystal clear and the DVD itself is well-produced, including the new English narration.  Some of the phrasing is a little awkward, possibly because of the necessary translation from German, but this is no way detracts from the value of the DVD as a training resource.

Also, the chapter select feature very efficiently allows the viewer to refer not only to particular chapters but also to technical sub-sections within those chapters.

Chapter 1: Theory first covers the general history of Bartitsu’s rise and fall at the turn of the 20th century and then offers a special focus on Pierre Vigny and his stick fighting method.  These sections are well-illustrated and very highly accurate.  It’s worth noting that recent (largely subsequent to the video’s original production) discoveries about the so-called “secret style of boxing”, a.k.a. “Bartitsu boxing”, have enabled us to make educated deductions about exactly how it differed from the orthodox boxing/savate practiced circa 1900.

The next section presents a variety of knob-handled and crook-handled sticks, noting their relative pros and cons for both self-defence and training purposes.

In Chapter 2: Basics, the various guard positions are clearly described and demonstrated, including the orthodox front (“right”) and rear (“left”) guards and double-handed guard variants.  Gripping the stick is addressed, including the important but seldom-addressed matter of shifting into a fighting stance from the ordinary walking-stick grip position.  The fundamentals of body mechanics via stance and footwork are also methodically detailed in this section.

Mr. Kiermayer also includes several lowered guards, which are shown as positions of invitation (but not defined as guards per se) in the canonical material.  This section then develops into a series of exercises which serve triple duty as as warm-ups, conditioning training and dexterity drills.  These include moulinets and many techniques of passing the cane from one grip to the other, emphasising the crucial ambidexterity of Vigny stick fighting.

Chapter 3: Attacks begins with a simple demonstration of preferred targets including the face and head, solar plexus, elbow, hand, knee/shin, etc.  Effective use is made of graphics, as red circles are superimposed over the key areas of Mr. Reinberger’s anatomy.

The next section deals with striking mechanics, beginning with “snapping” strikes from the sabre grip (i.e., strikes made primarily from the wrist with the thumb extended along the shaft for extra support and precision, although the point is correctly made that this type of grip is not actually advocated by the Vigny style, which defers to the “hammer” grip instead).  “Sweeping” strikes are described as the “bread and butter of la canne Vigny”, requiring a larger preparation but offering much greater power; these are further developing into the characteristic “fanning” strikes of the Vigny system.

Mr. Kiermayer also introduces a simple numbering system for the sake of convenience in training, comparable with the traditions of numbered positions in fencing (“cut to tierce”, etc.) and numbered angles of attack in the Filipino martial arts.  This was alluded to in E.W. Barton-Wright’s Self Defence with a Walking Stick articles, which included a few references to fencing numbers. Although there is no evidence of a consistent number system being emphasised within the canonical style, it’s a useful tool for training purposes.

A range of striking exercises includes simple standing and lunging attacks employing various dynamics and drills in which the training partner spontaneously presents a striking target at various angles and positions.  This section also includes logical extrapolations from the canonical material, such as strikes in which the sections of the cane held between (or extending beyond) the hands in the double-handed grip are used as striking weapons at close quarters.

In addition, it showcases the use of the “short end” of the cane as a dagger-type thrusting weapon at close quarters, which was referred to by numerous observers of Vigny’s Bartitsu demonstrations and also by Captain Laing in his 1902 article.  Curiously, however, this section does not include examples of attacks in which the stick is held with both hands at one end.

Tha Attacks chapter closes with a series of sample combination exercises – each one finishing with the characteristic “attack while moving back into guard” tactic – and a demonstration of freestyle striking against a hanging car tire target.

Chapter 4: Defences opens with the basic parries of classical canne fencing, named after the fencing convention of numbered hand positions.   Although there is some commonality with the Vigny style, classical canne also includes types of defences that are categorically not part of Vigny’s method, including parries in the tierce and quarte guards (in which the point of impact between the sticks is above the defender’s stick-wielding hand) and low parries against leg attacks.

The classical canne parries are also demonstrated via three-count parry/riposte drills and then via a more elaborate drill adapted from one of Henry Angelo’s early 19th century cutlass exercises.  Again, the latter includes defences which are not part of Vigny’s system, and so while these techniques and drills are of academic interest for the sake of comparison between historical styles, they run the risk of confusing beginners who may be following the exercises step by step, because they will then have to be “forgotten” when the focus shifts back to the Vigny style.

The classical canne section is followed by an examination of Vigny’s single-handed hanging guards, which are directly relevant to the practice of Bartitsu stick fighting.  Again, the progression from isolated technique into defence/riposte drills is shown effectively, and there’s a useful graphic that superimposes “after-images” of the defence positions as Mr. Kiermayer runs through the sequence of five basic parries.

The “stick up” variants that follow, however, again contradict the basic defensive premise of the Vigny style, and the inclusion of these parries in the context of a Vigny-style instructional DVD is regrettable. These techniques were not featured in any of the historical Vigny sources, and in fact were actively argued against – the logic being that hanging guards better protect the weapon-wielding hand, resulting in the range of high guard positions that fundamentally characterise the style.

Although lowered guard stances are featured in the Bartitsu canon, they are exclusively used as positions of invitation (to bait the opponent into attacking an apparently exposed target), with any subsequent parry action being executed from a high or hanging guard.  That said, if – in the heat of a sparring match, for example – a fighter is caught momentarily unawares while in a low guard, he or she may be forced to perform a parry in 3 or 4 out of expedience.

The next section involves the use of double-handed blocks, which do not appear in the circa 1900 material but which are present in H.G. Lang’s 1923 book Self-Defence with a Walking Stick. It’s possible that these were among the techniques Lang interpolated into the Vigny style from the Caribbean bois method.

We then move through several variations of the canonical “guard by distance”, in which the defender invites an attack to a deliberately exposed target in order to slip the attack and riposte.  The first variant is curious in that the defender invites a mid-level attack to his elbow and then counters to the attacker’s weapon-wielding hand, which requires a rather awkward, slightly upward-angled strike leaving little room for error.  The equivalent canonical technique involves a low/mid-level invitation to attack the defender’s hand and the counter is performed to the attacker’s head, allowing for a more powerful and unobstructed riposte.

The Defences chapter continues with a progression of partnered attack/riposte drills, many of which are strongly reminiscent of the drills described in Captain F.C. Laing’s 1902 article The Bartitsu Method of Self Defence.  These exercises gradually introduce greater complexity and degrees of “aliveness” by requiring one or both partners to react to spontaneous, rather than pre-arranged attacks.

There follows a section on using the double-handed cane grip to ward off unarmed attacks, including straight right and left punches and both front and roundhouse kicks, and then a useful study of release techniques against seizure to the cane-wielding defender’s weapon or clothing.  This latter classification is notably lacking in the canonical material and the release defences presented here are martially plausible.

Chapter 5: Additional Techniques and Tactics introduces a number of the canonical sequences originally presented in Barton-Wright’s articles and in Lang’s 1923 book, especially those representing the fusion of Vigny’s cane style with Barton-Wright’s jiujitsu.  It’s pointed out that Barton-Wright particularly recommended this type of technique when faced by an opponent armed with a heavier and stronger weapon.

Many of these techniques are presented with slight “neo-Bartitsu” variations, which are then extrapolated into a series of purely neo-Bartitsu close-combat cane takedowns.  Some discussion or demonstration of how to best train these techniques, particularly against a non-cooperative opponent, would have been useful.  In combination, however, this section illustrates the important point that the Vigny style includes a range of close-combat locking and takedown options.

The final section in Chapter 5 usefully introduces a series of basic unarmed combat techniques, with particular attention to using straight punches and low kicks in combination with the leverage-based releases covered in Chapter 4 to assist in releasing your cane if it’s seized by the opponent.  It’s mentioned that a planned future DVD will focus on unarmed Bartitsu.

Chapter 6: Applications offers a series of self-defence scenarios as examples of how the previously-learned material might be applied in practice.  These include the common-or-garden double-handed lapel grab, a single-handed lapel grip and punch with the free hand, a double-handed shove that pushes the defender to the floor, knife attacks, etc.   As the “attacker”, Mr. Reinberger wears body protection for a number of these sequences, allowing Mr. Kiermayer to demonstrate some of the impact force that would be applied in a real attack situation.

Most of the example defences are logical and realistic extrapolations of the Vigny system as it was practiced at the Bartitsu Club circa 1901, combining basic savate and jiujitsu with the use of the cane; though again, some more discussion of training practices allowing for spontaneity and active resistance would have been helpful.

Finally, Chapter 7: Free Fencing offers a demonstration of several bouts of light freestyle sparring in the Vigny style.  Gratifyingly, both Mr. Kiermayer and Mr. Reinberger demonstrate fluid shifting between a wide variety of guard positions and active ambidexterity in their attack and defence techniques, and there are several points where the fights continue at close quarters (although no actual locks nor takedowns are shown in this section).


In conclusion, Bartitsu: Historical Self-Defence with a Walking Stick According to Pierre Vigny is an excellent new training resource for Bartitsu revivalists.  In the sense that each rendition of the style has added novel elements – from the blending of stickfighting and jiujitsu at the original Bartitsu Club, to the incorporation of African/Caribbean techniques by H.G. Lang in the 1920s – most of the innovations introduced here are both stylistically logical and martially plausible.  The only serious criticism is, again, that the inclusion of certain classical canne parries will serve to confuse beginners and to dilute the canonical style.

The expanded range of double-handed cane techniques and the inclusion of release techniques are particularly valuable, serving to “fill in the gaps” left by the scenario-based canonical sequences from Barton-Wright’s articles. In many ways, Mr. Kiermayer’s DVD is in the spirit of Captain Laing’s 1902 essay on Bartitsu self-defence, which likewise offered a systematic progression of technical drills.

The English-language edition of Bartitsu: Historical Self-Defence with a Walking Stick According to Pierre Vigny is currently available from this website.  It will soon also be available on DVD from the Freelance Academy Press and then as a series of streaming downloads via Vimeo.

2 thoughts on “A Review of “Bartitsu: Historical Self-Defence with a Walking Stick””

  1. Hello,
    I would love to buy a copy of Historical Self-Defence with a Walking Stick according to Pierre Vigny. But it is in German. Would you be able to help me. I’ve been looking for something like this for a long time.
    Thanks,
    Eric Bauer

  2. Hi Eric,

    as stated in this article, the new edition of the DVD is narrated in English. You can currently buy it from the German-language website linked to in the article – you may need to use Google Translate to complete the transaction – or wait until the DVD becomes available via the Freelance Academy Press website. Subsequently it will also become available via Vimeo as a paid streaming download. We’ll post new notifications as and when the Freelance and Vimeo options go into effect.

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