At the turn of the century, a western European stick fighting system was enjoying the same degree of popularity as Eastern martial arts are today: The French system of La Canne ('The Cane')could be taught as a competitive sport, as a method of self-defence, or as a combination of both. There are numerous local and regional variants of the system in its early days, involving different striking patterns and body movements.

Many of these depended upon the respective teacher’s background and other combative systems, such as foil, sabre, broadsword (even epee play) frequently being supplemented with techniques taken from French boxing, wrestling and even ballet. In the last decades of the 19th century, one La Canne instructor gained notoriety for his system’s combative effectiveness. His name was Pierre Vigny. Little is known about his life. That which we know is derived mainly from a (very rare) manual adapted and published by the Superintendent of Agency Police in Kathiwar, Lang, for the police constabularies of India. Lang had studied Vigny’s system in Europe and taught it to numerous Indian policemen and instructors until it became the standard system for Indian police stick fighting, displaying lathi and Salambam in the process. Vigny developed his system from the cutting methods of sabre and broadsword, combined with his hands, from the notorious street thugs of Paris and encounters with hostile Apaches. He writes that during these encounters, he was able to ward off and defeat several Apaches using only his lightweight umbrella in a sword-like fashion. In La Canne, Vigny prefers a lightweight cane with a heavier end to use as a striking tool – if the cane was made from Malacca or ash root with a natural thickening or branch knot at the end. The rationale for his choice of a lightweight weapon: He wished all blows to come from a whipping turn of the wrist, believing that only a certain weight was required to hit if you attacked body parts that are particularly vulnerable. He thus held that good speed generated power. Vigny’s system did not include the numerous spins and acrobatic manoeuvres used in the modern sport of La Canne, nor did he advocate shifting the stick from one hand to the other in combat. The footwork and body positions of his system varied, depending on the particular technique he was using. Patterns resemble those of prizefighting and fencing. At the turn of the century, Vigny immigrated to New Orleans, where his system became rather popular. It is rumoured that Teddy Roosevelt was tutored in the Vigny system.

Several fundamental techniques:
  • The Front Head Guard
    This is the most popular of the six basic guard positions. Resembling the hanging guard of contemporary short-sword and Schlager systems, the positions could be executed with the right leg in front or back.

    Gripping the stick about six inches up the thin end, one must have a good balance. At first the thumb will have a tendency to rest on the stick (something of a sabre grip) but do not allow it. This tendency will be overcome after a little practice. The practitioner should bring the right hand with straight arm well up and back over the shoulder, the stick sloping down with the point slightly to the left of, and on level with, one’s eyes. The right foot should be forward, body well balanced and weight on the back leg. Any head or face blow that is received on this sloping guard will slide down and off-line, giving one the change to respond with a quick riposte.

  • Reply Head Cut
    After using the front guard and letting the opponent’s stick slide off one’s guard, swing the end of the stick downwards to brush one’s left hip in a circular motion to the rear. The cut finishes off on the crown of the opponent’s head with the hand held high and arm fully extended, palm up, the body sideways and raised on the toes. The end of the stick will finish below the level of the hand. The stick should thus be sloping downward with every likelihood of the end hitting home on the opponent’s guard. This blow is mostly effected by the turning of the wrist.

  • Uppercut
    If one’s head cut is parried or if one desires to create a combination riposte, merely turn the wrist and the stick travels backwards over the course it came, in an uppercut fashion, to the opponent’s body, hand or chin (much of this is similar to the concept of the eight key cuts of any cutting-sword). This should be accomplished rapidly after little practice – merely the time of the hand, hence the speed.

Lang wrote much about the system’s application in India:
This writer has taught strong supporters of both lathi and cudgel play, who were experts in their use. They commenced their course of instruction with little faith in the use of the cane, but long before they completed their course, they had entirely changed their opinion, and departed, after their course, renouncing forever their former unwieldy weapons.

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