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The Tonfa In Law Enforcement

by Steven J. Kaplan

The tonfa is known by many names, almost all dependent upon which Okinawan dialect is used. Translated into law-enforcement terminology, the weapon is most commonly known as the side-handled baton, or the PR24. As a brief background, the weapon began as a farming tool in Okinawa, as far back as the 15th century. It evolved into an implement where a small handle protruded at a right angle from the longer base, a few inches from one end. The transition from farm tool to weapon was a result of Japan's invasion of Okinawa, and the subsequent outlawing of weapons. The tonfa was one of many tools used by farmers which was developed into a weapon for protection, and a complete system utilizing the weapon ultimately followed. From this history, the tonfa became one of the traditional weapons of Okinawan martial arts, and spread to other countries.

In martial arts, the weapon is usually made of oak, a hard wood, with grains running straight up and down rather than at an angle. This prevents breakage on impact with a powerful blow from another weapon. The base should extend approximately one inch past the elbow when the handle is grasped, and the hand itself should fit around the handle without excess room at the top or bottom. The handle is round, and the handle's top extends slightly to prevent the hand from sliding off. Blocks, strikes, and thrusts are included in the tonfa's use, with many strikes delivered in a circular motion. The weapon may be used singly, but is commonly used in pairs, particularly in kata. In the hands of a skilled martial arts practitioner, the tonfa is a devastatingly deadly weapon able to counter the strikes of nearly every other (non-firearm) weapon. Much training is needed to properly perform the often intricate and dangerous techniques of the weapon. Control is vital, and as such, the weapon is never tossed from hand to hand, or flipped in the manner a cheerleader would manipulate a baton. 

How does this centuries old weapon fit into police tactics? A few decades ago, the tonfa was modified as to size, and it became the side-handled baton. Plastic or aluminum replaced the wood, and some companies extended the handle, and offered expanding varieties. Since police departments began using them, and training with them was given, some departments ultimately discontinued their use, feeling the training time required was excessive, and/or it no longer met their needs. The question then arises as to whether the tonfa, by any name, is a weapon which should be included in law-enforcement?


In the opinion of this writer, as a martial artist and police tactics instructor for over forty years, I believe it was and continues to be a mistake to have this weapon as part of a police tactics program. The reasons for this statement are many. To begin with, this weapon was not traditionally taught in the martial arts until one reached Black Belt level. The potential for injuries from practice to the user alone was/is great, many of the techniques are complex, and it takes a very long time to learn the proper control necessary for the execution and implementation of the various movements. Given the fact that law-enforcement officers cannot hope to have this level of competency with the minimal amount of time they are afforded for training, some techniques were modified to the point where they may be dangerous to both officer and assailant.

Coupled with this, I have seen, both in person and in training videos, law-enforcement officers as well as experienced martial arts Black Belts use the tonfa in ways which are impressively flashy, but are foolish, impractical, and downright dangerous if used in real-life situations. Examples of these "techniques" are the tossing of the weapon from one hand to another, using the weapon to "balance" the hand holding and aiming a firearm, rolling the weapon over the wrist to change grips, all of which increase the odds of losing the weapon, and serving no useful purpose whatsoever. Rather than deflecting the blow of another weapon, accompanied with taisabaki, techniques are taught to absorb the power of the incoming strikes, since the weapon "can take it". Further, the weapon cannot be used in the deadly striking manner it was intended, for many obvious reasons. An officer cannot be expected to defensively block repeated blows, or to disarm an assailant by merely striking the attacking weapon.

In conclusion, given the complexity of the weapon's techniques, the time involved to properly learn and execute them, the possible lethal result to an assailant, and the teaching of techniques which can be dangerous to the officer him/herself, the use of the tonfa in law-enforcement does not seem like a wise decision.

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