What is Arnis?

It’s the national martial art and sport of the Philippines, featured in Hollywood blockbusters and used by the US military. So, what is arnis? And what is eskrima? Read on to find out.

5 August 2022

To see arnis in action, one need look no further than Hollywood blockbuster, The Bourne Identity. Less than 15 minutes in, Jason Bourne fights off a knife attack with a pen, giving an excellent demonstration of the martial art. And Bourne is not the only one to appreciate the techniques of this form of combat. It is said to have been integrated into both US and Russian military training. So, what is arnis?

Arnis is the national martial art and sport of the Philippines. It’s best known for its use of weapons such as sticks and knives, but also trains users in unarmed combat as well as ways to disarm opponents. But what does arnis mean in practice? What are the rules of the sport? And how does that differ from the art? We’ll explore all this, beginning with the origins of arnis, before diving deep into the practices and principles of this increasingly popular activity.

What Is Arnis?

Woman practising the art of Arnis (Photo: Image Source via Getty Images)

Arnis is one of a group of combat arts originating in the Philippines, known together as the Filipino Martial Arts (FMAs). Arnis is renowned for its use of weapons, including blades, bolo and spears, but particularly sticks or “bastons”. Such bastons are made of wood or rattan and can be used singularly, but more commonly in pairs with one for attack and the other for defence.

However, arnis is not solely practised with weapons. Indeed, arnis is unique amongst martial arts in that students begin learning using weapons and then progress to learn its unarmed forms, which include grappling and striking.

Arnis distinguishes itself from many other martial arts in its pragmatism. Rather than a holistic, spiritual focus, it is all defending oneself in the most efficient, practical way possible. As part of this, arnis teaches students how to improvise everyday items into effective weapons, so they can grab whatever is at hand. In this way, it has often been compared to krav maga.

What is the History of Arnis?

Children practicing the art (Photo: NOEL CELIS via Getty Images)

Answering the question “what is the history of arnis” is not clearcut. Having been passed down by word of mouth, the history of arnis is relatively unknown, although it’s believed to have developed as a form of hunting as well as combat between warring tribes. The first known written mention of it was in 1521, following the defeat – and death – of Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan at the hands of Filipino national hero Lapulapu. Certainly the accounts of battle which took place at Cebu, near Mactan Island at the time mention locals fighting with spears and other weapons against the more modern Spanish weaponry. Back then, the martial art was called pangamut.

However, under colonial rule, practice of arnis was banned on penalty of death. So instead, it is believed the indigenous people hid their training as dances and switched from bladed weapons to sticks or canes. Known as baston, they were often made from rattan or bahi or kamagong woods. The traditions and fighting techniques were passed down, but every community had their own versions of it. This disparate development has made the quest of discovering “what is arnis” a tricky one.

The 20th century saw a revival of arnis. On 24 March 1979, the First National Arnis Championships were held in Cebu City and 1988 marked the first such championship held in the US. Then, in 1998, arnis gained a governing body in the form of the World Eskrima Kali Arnis Federation (WEKAF). Finally, in 2009, Arnis was declared as the National Martial Art and Sport of the Philippines under Republic Act 9850.

What is the Other Name of Arnis?

An Escrima stick, used in the self defense martial art, Escrima (Photo: Tom Wilde via Getty Images)

Having developed in many different Filipino communities and been suppressed during Spanish rule, arnis split off in many directions and respects. One such respect is its very name. Legend has it there are as many names and styles of arnis as there are islands of the Philippines. Thus, the answer to “what is the other name of arnis” is, there are many. The name arnis is itself shortened from the Spanish “arnis de mano” or “hand harness”. Other names include kali, pananandata, garrote and eskrima.

What is Eskrima?

So, what is eskrima? Eskrima is often used interchangeably with arnis, although some see it as a variation on the combat art. It is from another Spanish word, this time the equivalent of fencing or “esgrima”. This Spanish influence extends to the techniques of arnis or eskrima as well, where elements of fencing are incorporated.

What is Arnis as a Sport?

Martial artist kicking with escrima fighting sticks (Photo: Gerville via Getty Images)

Over recent decades, efforts have been made to develop arnis as a competitive sport as well as a martial art. This, along with the answer to “what is the history of arnis”, are two reasons why it’s so hard to provide a comprehensive description. However, with the rules becoming ever clearer and governance increasingly bedded in, it’s becoming easier to answer the question: what is arnis as a sport?

There are two types of arnis competitions. The first, anyo, focuses on the art of arnis, with competitors being judged on the quality of their choreographed demonstrations. Leban, meanwhile, sees two opponents face off on a mat using one or two sticks, with points awarded for the competitor who executes the most hits to their opponent’s legitimate target areas. These include the head and hands, but exclude the groin, temple and neck. Defensive moves are also rewarded. Each match is made up of three rounds lasting a minute each, with thirty seconds of rest in between.

And that’s it. The answer to “what is arnis” as well as “what is eskrima”. From “what is the history of arnis” to “what is the other name of arnis” and its new place on the global martial arts competitive landscape.


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