How to Defend Yourself if you are Carrying Only a Small Switch in your Hand are Threatened by a Man with a Very Strong Stick

(Bill Gurstelle is guest blogging here on Boing Boing. He is the author of books including Backyard Ballistics, and the recently-published Absinthe and Flamethrowers. Follow him on Twitter: @wmgurst.)

[08-026] bartitsu.jpg
[Moriarity and I] tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of Bartitsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me. I slipped through his grip, and he with a horrible scream kicked madly for a few seconds and clawed the air with both his hands. But for all his efforts he could not get his balance, and over he went.
-- Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Empty House
Britain's most popular literary character of the late 19th century, Sherlock Holmes was well known for his towering intellect and need for constant mental stimulation. To satisfy his intellectual needs, he engaged in a number of trans-Golden Third activities including sword fighting, boxing, and stick fighting, as well as frequent recreational narcotic use.

Although better known for his reasoning ability than for his fighting skills, he was quite capable of defending himself when the chips were down. As the above quote suggests, the detective mastered a now little known but very effective fusion of British boxing techniques and Japanese martial arts called Bartitsu,. Bartitsu is a little known but ingenious self defense skill which I cover in my current book, Absinthe and Flamethrowers.

Bartitsu was invented by a British engineer named Edward Barton-Wright, who combined the martial arts skills he learned while building railways in Japan with the stick-and-sword fighting skills he mastered in Europe. Bartitsu drew heavily from French stick fighting techniques, English boxing, and Japanese jujitsu.) Upon his return to London from Japan in 1899, Barton-Wright set up a martial arts school to teach Bartitsu to Englishmen. Presumably that's how a Londoner such as Sherlock Holmes would have learned the technique. (FYI: There's a well done compilation of 1890s vintage Bartitsu instructions available on Amazon.)

Coming soon: a Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and (hopefully) Russell Crowe as Moriarty. From what I've heard, bartitsu fighting is featured.



  1. How to Defend Yourself if you are Carrying Only a Small Switch in your Hand are Threatened by a Man with a Very Strong Stick

    Carrying Only a Small Stick? and are Threatened?

  2. “Rah! Rah! Ree!
    Kick him in the knee!
    Rah! Rah! Rass!
    Kick him in the other knee!”

    Most fights have two losers- one losing worse than the other. My version of winning is not fighting.

  3. As a big fan of both Sherlock Holmes and Japanese martial arts, I must protest this outrage!

    If you read “The Adventure of the Empty House,” you will plainly see that the martial art Sherlock employed was “baritsu,” NOT “Bartitsu.”

    If you read the magazine referenced, you will see that the Englishman’s art was called “Bartisu,” NOT “Bartitsu.”

    This is clearly a cute little scam designed to sell books and movie tickets and to get the word “tit” into print, surreptitiously. FOR SHAME! I grab your ankle and jab a stick into your groin!

  4. Leave that groin alone. According to Wikipedia and, Bartitsu is the correct spelling. It was Conan Doyle who got it wrong. Feel free to blame the error on Doyle’s Victorian upbringing.

  5. Hmmm… Watched the trailer posted by W. James Au.
    Was the stick fighting really bartitsu? Looked a little like escrima to me. Or, do bartitsu and escrima both use the same basis?

    Still. Looks like an awesome movie. I’m going to see it when it comes out.

  6. @byronba

    According to the director, it’s bartitsu.

    If that flick is as good as the trailer makes it appear, Downey could be setting himself up for two franchises.

  7. From the trailers I had assumed that the brilliant Mark Strong (Stardust, RocknRolla) was playing Moriarity, but I have learned that I was wrong. He’s playing Lord Blackwood, who is based on “cultist/Satanist lord” Aleister Crowley (“due to Doyle’s own fascination with the occult”).

    According to Strong: “Moriarty’s in it, but you don’t really see him. I think he’s there because if the franchise carries on, there’s a possibility that he will appear in a larger guise.”

  8. I kept explaining to friends who’d seen the trailer that Holmes doing martial arts wasn’t that weird since he was supposedly an expert in jiujitsu. But according to Wikipedia, that was actually a change from the original British editions that featured “baritsu” because the American editors found the original word “too esoteric.”

    Amusingly enough, in the awesome movie “Murder by Decree” (with Christopher Plummer and James Mason as Holmes and Watson), Holmes employs a weighted scarf which is supposedly derived from Thuggee weaponry.

    (Bonus trivia: “Murder by Decree” was directed by Bob Clark, who also did “Black Christmas,” “Porky’s,” and “Christmas Story.”)


    Wow a Canadian movie available on DVD and in print, no less! Will wonders ever cease?

    Actually, looks pretty good, I’ll probably get it, thanks!

  10. Pah!Gammon and spinach,mere bagatelle.When I was in Para 1 they introduced us to Kung-froot-fu.I earned my vermillion belt for defeating my opponent,who attacked with an aubergine and over-
    ripe persimmon,by countering with a banana[honed in Jamaica].He,Sgt J.Cleese,recovered and went on
    to write’The Life of Brian’ and invent Spam ,the
    edible kind.He was in later years accused of being a plagiarist but defeated the suit because
    his council was able to prove that only very poor
    people plagiarized.That’s the truth.

  11. @15:

    Happy to help. “Decree” is very enjoyable, particularly if you’ve read “From Hell” lately. Also recommend “Seven Percent Solution” and Billy Wilder’s flawed-but-interesting “Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.”

    Still, Jeremy Brett and the Granada series are my go-to for the best adaptation of the original Holmes stories.

  12. #18 TAKUAN-Now you’ve been and gorn and dunnit boyo.I’ll spot you two ecky thumps and a mongolian
    cucumber,’gainst my petrified haggis[a family heirloom]and two shallots marinated in iguana spittle.I will conjure up Gruffudd ap Llywelyn and
    my mucker refs and you will eat the leek
    Sir J Falstaff can be your second,quake, munchkin your time has come-Cofiwch Dryweryn–Cymru la.

  13. Tak- he’s frothing at the mumbly mouth, cursing in a language only he and his late twin understood.
    I think he’s mad. Better stay away from Plum for a while…

  14. arrr! the Eye O the Hovis ‘ll pertect me frum yer nefarious coals-licking, oxen-stealing wee haggis! I’d naught to do wi tha bludddy reservoir- as if ah’d be drinking water!! Prepare to meet ma intestine!

  15. Jjasper: I have to say, adding a “fu” at the end spoils rather than improves the joke.
    The word being riffed on is “bartitsu” by itself, and just saying “”Bartitsu: not to be confused with Baristu, the art of coffee fighting” would have been sufficient without muddying the waters by tacking on the somewhat tired contemporary schtick of making mundane skills into special ones by adding “fu” to the end of them.

  16. @Byronba,

    Bartitsu per se did not include double-stick fighting and has no connection to the Filipino style. Bartitsu stick fighting was based on the Vigny style of Swiss/French canne fencing, albeit heavily adapted for self defence.

    The S.H. movie fight choreographer (Richard Ryan, who also did the very cool fight scenes in “Troy”) *did* use historical Bartitsu as inspiration, but the movie fight choreography is not expected to exactly represent historical Bartitsu.

  17. So, Ed Ked, you’re saying that calling it “Spoon-Fu” doesn’t make spoon fighting a legitimate martial art?
    It’s just as well. It never did catch on much, the Olympic committee laughed at us, and lately we’ve been forced to carry plastic spoons when we travel.

  18. #26 EDKED ‘fu’ is entirely appropriate in the use of martial arts.Check out Lao Tzu. Of course in the vernacular of the common herd it has another context,but you are too refined to be aware of that? TROOFSEEKER-good advice numbnuts,me no mumble but me do go to the Mumbles for winkles and whelks,wit a dash of vinegar,when I am not engaged in hexing such as thee–do you feel a wee twinge in the scrotum? Wait munchkin,it will happen!Mock the Wiz at your peril, pay the price.
    TAKUAN-It will take more than whole wheat bread to
    protect you,but I forgive you ‘cos at least you
    are aware of our valley -your intestine?Um,most of us normals have intestines, that would explain
    your comments,er E.T?

  19. @thunderfuck – Yup, “baristsu” not Bartitisu for Holmes apparently.

    FYI I have an article about Baritsu/Bartitsu and the Barton-Wright/Sherlock Holmes connection (as well as other aspects of the art and it’s cultural impact) in the forthcoming issue of SteamPunk Magazine.

    Nice to see Bartitsu getting a bit more attention anyway and hopefully the Guy Ritchie film won’t anger the Holmes purists too much (I think it looks like good fun anyway).

  20. @EdKed, isn’t “muddying the waters” more or less a Barista’s job description?

  21. Just don’t confess to being English around Plum. Welsh or Scottish or both, admitting you’re English is, well, incendiary.

  22. #32 @ RAINES COHEN..only if you imbibe at Starbucks,for a real deal,roll up the rim at Tim

  23. Nobody else has mentioned the amusing fact that, since the story in which Holmes employed his “Baritsu” moves was set in flashback, Holmes was written as knowing the martial art years before it was actually invented. :)

    It’s really interesting to consider that the influence of Bartitsu did not just extend to Sherlock Holmes.

    Here’s an excerpt from the script I wrote for my Arsène Lupin podcasts on “The Biblio File,” over on

    The Japanese martial art of jujutsu, literally “the Way of Softness,” was originally developed in feudal Japan as a way for samurai to defend themselves against armed and armored opponents in situations where the samurai could not be armed themselves. It remained relatively unknown outside of Japan until the very end of the 19th century. To note, it’s pronounced jujutsu now, due to a more modern understanding of the Japanese language, but back when [the Arsène Lupin stories were] written, it was pronounced jiu-jitsu.

    In 1898, Edward William Barton-Wright returned to England from Japan, where he had been building railways as a vocation and studying jiu-jitsu as an avocation, and founded a club to teach a modified form of jiu-jitsu, blending with it elements from boxing, stick-fighting, savate, and other martial arts. He called this hybrid style Bartitsu, proving that, whatever his other flaws might have been, Barton-Wright did not number among them an excess of modesty. The club only lasted about five years, but practitioners of it would go on to found schools and form styles of their own.

    One interesting thing about the Bartitsu Club is that from the very beginning, it admitted and trained women, since it was understood they would need to defend themselves as much as or even more than men. After the demise of the club, one celebrated Bartitsu instructor was not only female, she trained and sometimes hid suffragette activists. You can find out more about it at But Bartitsu was just the beginning; the whole idea sparked off a huge martial-arts fad all across Europe, with many schools founded by either Bartitsu trainees or other people who went to the far east and learned directly from the source. If you thought the Bruce Lee/Jackie Chan craze was big, well, this revolutionized all of society.

    You may wonder what this turn-of-the-century martial arts fad has to do with Arsène Lupin, but I’m coming to that. First, one more Bartitsu fact. In The Adventure of the Empty House, a Sherlock Holmes tale written in 1903, Holmes escapes Moriarty’s clutches using “Baritsu, or Japanese wrestling.” The fact that Conan Doyle either accidentally or intentionally left out a ‘t,’ and that the story was set several years before Bartitsu was even invented, have served to confuse Holmesian scholars ever since.

    Meanwhile, over in France, the emerging bourgois middle class was having a big problem. They didn’t really know how to defend themselves, and in fact had been culturally conditioned to try to avoid physical confrontations. Unfortunately for them, they had become the preferred prey for street gangs of lower-class ruffians, called “apaches” after the perceived bloodthirstiness of the American Indian tribe. These apaches often carried weapons, in particular a nasty little folding combo revolver, dagger, and knuckle-duster that was easily concealed in a pocket—but since carrying weapons was against the law, the law-abiding citizen was left without a way to defend himself. Enter Jiu-Jitsu.

    I now quote from Page 228 of The Dreyfus Affair and the Crisis of French Manhood, by Christopher E. Forth, as found on Google Books:

    The arrival in Paris of Ré-Nié, the only European teacher of jiu-jitsu, caused quite a sensation, especially when in 1905 he defeated the noted fencer, boxer, and bodybuilder Georges Dubois in twenty-six seconds (the actual engagement lasted all of six seconds). As one stunned journalist put it, “The representative of the French method [of boxing] did not even exist before the representative of jiu-jitsu.” Through the training center that Ré-Nié soon established, jiu-jitsu represented a perfect opportunity for weaker men to defend themselves against attacks by street thugs, becoming so popular that the chief of police even enrolled seven of his men in the program. Jiu-jitsu was touted as a marvelous way to give men confidence in the streets. “Messieurs les apaches had better abandon their activities, because it seems that after twenty or thirty lessons in jiu-jitsu, a man with below average muscular force easily throws a colossus like [the wrestler Paul] Pons or Apollo [Louis Uni] to the ground.” The effects of these techniques on one’s opponent, “un apache, some evildoer,” were described in delicious detail: “If your aggressor throws a fist at you, jiu-jitsu possesses the infallible means to fracture his forearm; if he kicks, the leg is broken; if he grabs you around the body, he is dead.” All men (not to mention a fair number of women) could benefit from such skills, rather on the street or the battlefield: “[O]n the day that the French soldier is initiated into the secrets of jiujitsu, no one will be able to withstand him.”

    That defeated boxer, Georges Dubois, went on to study, teach, and write about jiu-jitsu himself, by the way.

  24. fwiw, ‘jutsu,’ refers to life or death combat, while ‘do’ refers to the ‘way.’ Thus, the combat oriented jiu-jutsu was turned into the modern sport jiu-do, or judo, by removing the lethal techniques, and turning the goal towards physical fitness and self-improvement.

  25. @ Robotech Master:

    Excellent summary, thank you. There’s actually a direct connection between Re-Nie (whose real name was Ernest Regnier) and Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Club, via Yukio Tani, who was both Barton-Wright’s “star” jiujitsu instructor and who trained Regnier as well.

    French physical culture guru Edmond Desbonnet recalled having visited the Bartitsu Club during a trip to London and being impressed (and thrown) by Tani. He sponsored Regnier, who was a talented but down-on-his-luck Parisian wrestler, to travel to London and train with Tani, who by that time had left the Bartitsu Club and set up his own dojo.

    After Regnier defeated Georges Dubois, Desbonnet set up a jiujitsu salon in his physical culture gymnasium and hired Regnier to teach classes there. They both made quite a lot of money in the short term, as the salon attracted a very wealthy clientele, but the fad passed quickly.

    Incidentally, the only other French student at Tani’s London dojo during that period was a writer and longterm student of French “antagonistics” named Jean Joseph Renaud. Renaud went on to write a truly excellent book on self defence entitled “La Defence dans la Rue” (1912), which (just like Bartitsu) presented a method of cross-training between jiujitsu, boxing, savate and stick fighting.

  26. Baritsu, presumably? Not that it matters, Doyle obviously coined the word however it’s spelled.

  27. #40 TROOFSEEKER.Strewth!sorry whacker I thought you was a wimmen,dinnae fass yersel,ya sleekit wee maudy,I telt yez,soon enough ye’ll get itchy in your fundamental orifice[that’s the wimmen hex]can’t be reversed -THEN- you’re in for it!And it it wont be hemorrhoids.The only comfortable cure is to soak a Hovis,the LOAF,oaf in a pint of warm Glenfiddich with pinch of nutmeg,wrap it in cheesecloth,squeeze to remove liquid, drink the scotch and sit on the Hovis pudding for at least an hour.Don’t blame me TAKUAN made me do it!

  28. 29, I’m familiar with the joke, I was saying that cramming the two jokes together made it less funny, not more.
    30, the same, plus your first point is irrelevant to the point I was making.

  29. Wizard of Prune,
    Who you callin’ ‘wacker’? Lucky guess. But ‘Numbnuts’? Far from it! They’re burning like sulfur! Sitting in a tub of ice cold eel oil with a cod in me bunghole is helping tho.
    By the way, last time I went to the Mumbles for winkles and whelks there was a wretch of a git passed out below the dartboards. He was a scruffy old toad with a purple pointy hat who had wet himself. Anyone we know? Huh?

  30. “Origins

    Jujutsu was first developed by the Samurai. The term “jÅ«jutsu” was not coined until the 17th century, after which time it became a blanket term for a wide variety of grappling-related disciplines. Prior to that time, these skills had names such as “short sword grappling” (小具足腰之廻, kogusoku koshi no mawari?), “grappling” (組討 or 組打, kumiuchi?), “body art” (体術, taijutsu?), “softness” (柔 or å’Œ, yawara?), “art of harmony” (和術, wajutsu, yawarajutsu?), “catching hand” (捕手, torite?), and even the “way of softness” (柔道, jÅ«dō?) (as early as 1724, almost two centuries before Kano Jigoro founded the modern art of Kodokan Judo).[2]

  31. #43 Troofseeker:That “git’ must have been Merlin’s
    doppleganger.Merl elected to move from his liminal
    existence to a more corporeal entity.During his
    transmogrification,in that state we know as the
    crossover,he was infected by the Dreaded Lurgie
    passed on to him by a Transylvanian toad-man who
    is dubbed Zog and who is indeed incontinent.What
    you witnessed was the B-TAB syndrome.The entity
    you saw couldn’t be Merlin he was weaned on mead
    and poteen,never gets blotto.You poor soul you saw
    Zog!but how did he get my purple frustum?Only the
    zombies of Anglo-Saxon blood can see the dreaded Zog and survive…oh,OH! don’t tell me you’re a…

  32. Only half, on my father’s side.
    As a youth, my family wandered at night from one small Carpathian village to another, surviving on the blood, brains and entrails of sheep mostly, sometimes dog or weasel.
    My father was a pacifist at heart. He learned spoon-fu in Antwerp, from a chef who beat him soundly with a ladel for stealing fish heads. Seeing us hungry children, the kind chef Zogovich took us in and taught us self defense. With his help, Father opened a Spoon-fu dojo, but when news that a crippled old lady beat us all up and stole all our spoons, business dropped off.
    I Can’t get the cod out.

  33. For what it’s worth, those of Barton-Wright’s techniques that I’ve tried actually do work. I’ve used them with a light bamboo against various sticks and fencing blades (including a schlager).

    They are particularly effective when armed with a light stick and the opponent is using the Irish shillelagh style of fighting that puts the hand near the middle of a heavy cudgel.

    Less effective against the American bar-fighting style of flailing away wildly at everything in reach with a table leg held near the foot – but still useable if you are nimble on your feet, or have very fast hands.

  34. Wait- a ‘schlager’ is a fencing blade?! So the phrase ‘mein schlager ist gershtunken’ has nothing to do with a limp willie?

  35. The stick fighting in the trailer looks like filipino kali/escrima.


    “satanist lord” …lol

    IO PAN!


  36. “Schlager” means “beater” in German, I believe.

    A schlager is a real sword, about the same heft as a US marine dress sword, with a bated tip. You thrust ONLY with it, it’s heavy enough to really kill someone if you hack with it.

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