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The Cane Self-Defense of Maitre d’Armes Justin Bonnafous

February 5, 2015

“Few persons who carry canes or umbrellas realize that they have at hand at once an effective and, in the hands of a skilled fencer, a formidable weapon for protection against assault. Even in the hands of a novice it may be so wielded as to stand off and subsequently subdue a “gang” of roughs when no other weapon, except possibly a revolver, would avail.”


Of interest to the student of self-defense is the short 1898 treatise of Justin Bonnafous, a fencing master who taught in the Philadelphia area during the late nineteenth century. Fencing masters of this period often offered instruction in the use of the stick or cane, including formal systems of La Canne or Royal Cane, as well as other practical self-defense techniques for use against criminals or toughs in “street” scenarios. We find an example of this in New York City as early as 1827, when a fencing professor named G. M. Coulon announced in the Evening Post:

“The manly foils and broadsword taught upon the most approved method by Mr. C. every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday…Self defence with a stick, against any ruffianly attack, taught in six lessons.”

Another advertisement from the same period, published in Boston by the fencing master William Tromelle of the Military School of Colonel Jr. Amelot De le Croix, explained in greater detail the benefits of cane instruction:

“The great advantages attendant upon this mode of defence, and the benefits arising from these lessons, where persons are exposed to the insults of disorderly and unprincipled men, as well as an attack by a desperate villain, must be a sufficient argument to attract the attention of most men. It is a fact generally credited by gentlemen who have a knowledge of this defence with a cane, that a person is capable of conquering an attack of six men (with the same weapons), if they should not have a knowledge of this play. And to substantiate this fact, we have been very credibly informed that a gentleman who was taught the Norman mode of Defence, in Boston, has obtained a considerable sum of money by overpowering and driving three as hardy and courageous men as could be obtained to combat against him. We further have the pleasure of asserting that gentlemen who have become acquainted with the Stick Fighting feel more than amply rewarded for all their time and money spent in learning.”(Columbian Centinel, Oct. 6, 1810)

Bonnafous’s short work also belongs to the category of “practical self-defense” for use in the street. It includes techniques to defend against knife-wielding thugs as well as multiple attackers, and utilizes both single and double-handed grips. It offers an interesting contrast to the more well-known Bartitsu (an English hybrid martial art that existed during the same period), and also provides a fascinating insight into the mind of a French-trained maitre d’armes of the nineteenth century.


The father of our subject, also named Justin Bonnafous, was a French army officer that had appeared in America sometime subsequent to 1859, when the following advertisement appeared in a Lowell, Massachusetts newspaper:


Soon after, Bonnafous became a well-known “sword master” at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland where he was teaching Union Civil War officers as early as 1861. Bonnafous senior can be seen offering his services in the following advertisement (the initial “G.” here is erroneous):


During the war, Bonnafous became associated with the Fencing and Sparring Club of Philadelphia, and would remain so for the remainder of his life:

In 1868, [the club] was fortunate in obtaining the services of Justin Bonnafous again as fencing master, and of Joseph Evans as boxing master…In 1883 Justin Bonnafous, Jr., son of the former teacher, assumed this position and still retains it. (The Club Men of Philadelphia, 1894)

Above: Gymnasium of the  Philadelphia Fencing and Sparring Club.

Above: Gymnasium of the Philadelphia Fencing and Sparring Club.

A decade later, just before the turn of the century, Justin Bonnafous, Jr., was running a fencing academy at No. 10 South 18th Street, Philadelphia.


“During my stay in Paris I witnessed the use of the stick in repelling attack on several occasions, and the user of it always came forth victorious from the melee…”



Above: Maitre d'Armes Mimiage

Maitre d’Armes Mimiague

At some point during the 1890s, Bonnafous visited Paris, where he trained at the famed Salle d’Armes Mimiague. A reporter visiting Bonnafous’ Philadelphia academy in 1899 noted,

“The single stick contest between Messrs. Bonnafous and Emonot was particularly interesting. The lightning-like rapidity with which these sticks were whirled about left no doubt that in skillful hands they would prove a formidable means of self defense.”

Indeed, one year prior, Maitre Bonnafous had authored his short treatise on self-defense with the cane, published in Volume 31 of Outing magazine, and accompanied by nine photographs.

Below, Bonnafous’s treatise is reprinted in full:




By Justin Bonnafous.


The carrying of a cane, or walking-stick, is so much a fashion and is such a universal and ancient practice, that it would almost seem to be the survival of an instinct implanted by the habit or necessity of carrying some more substantial club for self-defence. The game of single-stick was formerly well known and practiced, and it is surprising that whilst all other branches of sport in and out of doors, have their conspicuous positions in the world of athletics, the art of single-stick up to the present date is so little understood in this country.

Single-stick practice has indeed fared even worse than the foil. Canes are carried just as much as ever by the sterner sex, but in the main they are merely carried as mute companions. The usefulness of the cane as a weapon is overlooked.


In view of these facts, I am prompted to write upon the subject and explain, as clearly as it is possible to do in writing, what a trustworthy friend a walking-stick becomes in the hands of one who knows how to use it.

Few persons who carry canes or umbrellas realize that they have at hand at once an effective and, in the hands of a skilled fencer, a formidable weapon for protection against assault.

Even in the hands of a novice it may be so wielded as to stand off and subsequently subdue a “gang” of roughs when no other weapon, except possibly a revolver, would avail.


The principal advantages of the cane are these: First, your opponent is kept at a distance, and therefore you get a free opportunity to defend yourself against the attacks of others. Next, your weapon is always “loaded” and is equally effective at long or short range. Last, but not least, there is no law against carrying a cane, while most stringent regulations govern that of revolvers.

During my stay in Paris I witnessed the use of the stick in repelling attack on several occasions, and the user of it always came forth victorious from the melee. In Europe the use of the singlestick is cultivated both for itself and as a preliminary training for sabre fencing, as the use of the latter heavier weapon requires that the wrist should be trained to withstand the strain. It is also a compulsory exercise in the army.


Now to explain how the cane is to be used for self-defence. Although it is not possible to attain as much proficiency in its use without the aid of a competent instructor, as with that aid, nevertheless by close inspection of the illustrations herewith published it will be possible to learn the method of delivering the cuts, and, by practice, become fairly adept.

The most formidable of the cuts used are the two head cuts (see Figures 1 and 9). For the right and left face and the shin cut, see Figure 8. The point thrust is most effective in close quarters (see Figure 3), as it attacks the “solar plexus” of recent pugilistic notoriety, and no matter how powerful a man may be it is a “knock-out ” blow.


Let us suppose one is attacked by three thugs. Turning your attention to the nearest you play for the head, if possible, but if that is too well guarded resort to the shin cut (as in Figure 8), using all the force that you can command. If properly delivered that means “one man out.” In the meantime your other assailants will probably rush at you front and rear; then is the time to call into play the point and butt thrusts (see Figures 5 and 3). Should, however, one of the opponents try, by bending down, to get under your cane, either use an upper cut or a blow on back of the neck (see Figure 6). Should he straighten himself plant your point for the stomach —all this can be done in an instant.


If an assailant comes at you armed with a knife or razor, cut for the arm, and, on his dropping it, proceed with treatment as before (see Figures 5 and 9). The thrust for the eye is sometimes used, but should only be resorted to as an extreme measure, for it might prove fatal.

There is no reason why a lady should not cultivate the use of the stick, for while it is giving her a healthy and invigorating exercise, it is training her in a means of protecting herself in case of emergency.

As to the cane it should be of thoroughly seasoned, straight grained hickory, tapered like a billiard cue, about one and a half inches at the butt, down to three-fourths of an inch at the point. The butt should be surmounted by a knob of silver or other heavy metal, and the point protected by a heavy ferrule. Under no circumstances should a crook handle be used, as it is apt to become entangled in the clothing at the critical moment, and in such melees every second counts.


In conclusion, let it be said that it is not the intention of this article to prove that, so armed, one is invincible, but that, if used with precision, the cane outranks any other weapon, with the exception noted, as a means of protection.

It. might be well to say also, in the event of an encounter, see that, if possible, you have a clear space on all sides so that you may have ample opportunity, by quick advances, retreats, and side-steps most advantageous, to wield your weapon.


Another point of great value is to maintain a safe distance from the assailants by executing retreats, advances, and side-steps to the right and left according to their position when attacking. Do not forget that all movements must be executed with rapidity and precision. This is where the knowledge of handling your cane comes in.

Play for the face when the opportunity offers, but always employ the point thrust for the stomach, and the cut for the shin. After you have punished one or two out of a crowd, the rest will often take to their heels.


In delivering the cuts make sure that your cane is in the proper position in order that the blow will have the necessary amount of force to prove effective. (See Figures 1 and 2.)

Finally, my advice is, keep out of quarrels if possible, but if the encounter is inevitable keep constantly moving, not only your body but the stick, and remember, the first blow very often decides the outcome of the battle.

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