Why I Practice Bartitsu

Self defence with a walking stick and its associated skills might seem like a strange choice. Convincing new students to join is sometimes difficult, but my personal story is as good as any sales pitch. So why do I practice and teach the Fighting Style of Sherlock Holmes?


First and foremost, I like that Bartitsu emphasizes personal protection in realistic scenarios. We use unarmed skills that are useful and direct. We put a medium-length stick in the hand for a weapon because that is a common tool (umbrella, pool cue, ski pole, axe, sabre).

In terms of tactics, we imagine what shape an attack may take whether the assailant is trained or untrained. What is likely to happen on the street?

We empower the student to take control of the violent situation, to act instead of waiting to react to every kind of attack. And that begins with awareness and avoidance.

I have studied martial arts that can only fight effectively against others doing the same art. While great for competing, it is not useful in real-world defence.

In short, the art of a martial art denotes beauty and mastery, but the skill is based on keeping yourself safe, and that must be our priority in training.

The Victorian Gentleman's Art

When I first found out there existed a particular way that Londoners practiced self-defence in the late 1800's, I was sold. Although I do not dress steampunk every day, I have owned top hats, long cloaks, walking sticks and I like wearing suits. Let's just say I have a fondness for the entire aesthetic of that time.

Most martial arts are extensions of the cultures in which they were invented or flourished. Karate and judo schools count in Japanese, you call your teacher Sifu in wing chun, and genuine pentjak silat asks you to wear the sarong.

At Academie Duello, students of Western martial arts of the knight and the renaissance connect with those cultural realities. And I connect with the culture of Bartitsu. I like using Indian clubs for strength training.

Fits With My Body and Training

I discovered long ago that my body is good for striking. I have long arms, and fairly good leg flexibility for kicks. As an athlete, I do better in sprints and bursts of energy, so that also fits with striking. Therefore, the punching of scientific boxing and the kicking of savate feel good for me.

I first started in Shotokan karate at the age of 6, then got bored with that and switched to judo at the age of 8. That was the selection offered at my local community centre. Later, I dabbled with Kyokushinkai karate and Uechi karate for a few months each when I realized I wanted more striking. After studying stage combat and learning many other martial arts to imitate on stage, I wanted to get back to real training. I found a wing chun school, and loved the theory that came along with the techniques.

In many ways, my Bartitsu is influenced strongly by my wing chun experience, just like Robert Downey Jr. in the Sherlock Holmes films.

Discovery, Invention and Research

I think one should be inspired as part of any artistic endeavour, and martial arts are no exception. Unfortunately, many martial arts admit no room for creativity or expression.

Bartitsu is currently being rediscovered and reinvented. That means that your discoveries about modifying a technique to work better for you is perfectly legitimate. Research into the core methods of boxing, savate, jujitsu and cane are all welcome additions, even if they are not part of the official syllabus. And if you invent a solution to a problem, or import one from a different art, it all helps us create the best fighting form for you.

Everything I Need

When you take a step back and ask "What should a fighting art include?" I think the obvious answer is:

  • Useful weapons (not speciality tools)
  • Unarmed techniques for striking effectively
  • Other unarmed techniques when striking is not optimal
  • Tactics and philosophy to link movement with goals

From that perspective, many martial arts fit the bill, but others obviously fall short. That's not to say that a pure striking art is a waste of time, but that it will feel incomplete. It may also give a false sense of security in dangerous situations.

Bartitsu has these elements, and where there are gaps you are encouraged to fill them with historical and useful addendums. Bartitsu started as a combination art, and those combinations were chosen because they each fill a need for the fighter.


Right for You?

I think my reasons are not unique, and if you agree with anything above, perhaps Bartitsu is right for you. But it's not for everyone. Let me know why or why not.

One good way to begin is with our Umbrella Self-Defence workshop, four hours of practical combat with the Vancouver accoutrement of choice. Sign up at AcademieDuello.com or 604-568-9907.


Head of Stage Combat at Academie Duello and certified Instructor with Fight Directors Canada. Head of Bartitsu at Academie Duello, the longest continuously running Bartitsu program in the world.
Read more from David McCormick.