The English Quarterstaff- Also known as the short staff or tip staff.
Of the Quarterstaff George Silver wrote…
“The Short staffe is the best weapon against all manner of weapons.”- From Paradoxes of Defence 1699
Zachary Wylde reflected this just over 100 years later in 1711 when he wrote the following…
“For a man that rightly understands it, may bid defiance and laugh at any other weapon.” – From English Master of Defence
There is a misconception when people talk about the English Quarterstaff. Sadly this is mainly due to the legacy left from movies and TV shows alike when it comes to portraying the use of the English Quarterstaff. The English quarterstaff is usually shown being used in the ‘Half staff’ position such as when Robin Hood meets Little John while crossing the river. Half staffing is fun and looks great when used in a theatrical sense. This is not to say that you can not use a staff in this manner however once a person starts to understand the advantages of the quarterstaff it then becomes easy to see that by half staffing you are simple giving away all your tactical advantage and placing yourself in danger of being sorely hurt or killed.
In Paradoxes of Defence, Silver explains how to find the perfect length of a quarterstaff for a person’s own individual stature. This length usually works out between 8 to 9 feet depending on if you have a small or large stature. Once you have your quarterstaff then you need to learn how to use it and first and foremost how to hold it. This is not done via the half-staff principle but by holding the rear hand about 12 inches in from the butt end of the staff. The forward hand is then placed a comfortable distance forward from the rear hand to allow the staff to be wielded with ease. You will find that if you marked the staff in to quarters that with this hand position the first quarter mark would now be roughly in-between you hands thus you will be holding the staff at the quarter. Although we train using the grip described by Silver it should be pointed out that other masters have suggested holding the staff in various slightly differing ways. Many people have conjectured where the English quarterstaff takes its name. We may never know the exact reason but holding at the quarter position may be one possible answer.
By holding the quarterstaff thus you can keep your opponent at distance. By using slipping (moving your hands along the staff) you can draw them in and give them a false sense of distance. The 12” reserve behind your rear hand is already there, waiting to be utilised in this way. As it has no head like a billhook for example the quarterstaff does not suffer from over swing nor can it be trapped and locked down and once you add the traditional iron shod tips to it (one slightly heavier on the butt end to help with balance) the tip staff or if you like military quarterstaff becomes the most deadly and effective weapon you are likely to come across.
However going back to the half staff position (holding the staff at an equal distance from the centre) and using a staff that is usually portrayed as being between 6 and 7 feet in length you will now find that by holding the staff in this manner will only leave you around 2 feet of staff at each end (the distance from your hand to the tip on both sides) this means that when in fight your hands will always be at close distance from you opponent. If your opponent were to be fighting you with a single sword, their blade length would be around 33 inches long and they would therefore have the advantage, as your distance is easily broken.
This does not mean however that the ‘half staff’ position should not be used for certain wards and counters however what a practitioner of the quarterstaff needs to remember at all times when half staffing is that they have momentarily lost their advantage of distance and that especially their hands are at close distance to their opponent and at great risk of hurt.
Zachary Wylde goes on to write this about the half-staff position when used to defend against a vertical downward blow to the head…
“Slip your hands along the staff, then both ends of your staff will be upon a level, your hands two foot distance from each other, your arms extended, holding your staff half a foot higher than your head, being upon a full body, I call this the level guard, but I don’t like it. Indeed, if the opposer makes a down right pitch at you, you are safe; but if he shou’d strike sliding along the staff, tis ten to one but he may disoblige your knuckles.”
Although many countries both Eastern and Western have used staff weapons of varying lengths, the quarterstaff is renowned as being a true English weapon of superiority. And nowhere is this emphasised better than in the story of Richard Peeke an English sailor whom was captured by the Spanish in the early 17th century. His Spanish captors decided to test his skill at arms to gauge what sort of resistance the Spaniards would expect to encounter during their intended invasion of England. Peeke fought first with rapier and dagger and bested a Spanish champion. Having their pride bruised, his captors asked how many Spaniard he would be willing to face at the same time. Peeke replied “any number under six” as long as he was armed with a weapon from his own country called a ‘Quarter-staffe’. The Spaniards fashioned him one by removing the head from another pole arm and Peeke was forced to fight three rapier men at once. Suffice to say he left one of his opponent’s dead and the other two seriously wounded. His captors being so impressed by his skill released him and gave him safe passage back to England.