The martial art Escrima from the Philippines has a long history. Initially developed as a martial art for the Filipino military, Escrima was banned under Spanish rule. After the rule, the martial art flourished again and enjoys great popularity today

In the following we would like to shed light on the origin of Escrima and which influences the sport was subjected to.


The origin of the word

The name Escrima comes from the Spanish word “esgrima”, which means “fight” or “skirmish “. However, Escrima is also known under the name “Arnis” as a short form for “Arnis de Mano”. Translated, this means “art or protection of the hand,” however, it means a Filipino self-defense system that uses sticks, sharp blades, and other weapons. Weaponless techniques are of secondary importance in this martial art.

In addition, there is another, even older name for the Filipino martial arts: “Kali“. It is composed of two words of a special dialect spoken on a Philippine archipelago: “Ka” stands for “hand” and “Li” for movements, so that “Kali” can be translated as “movements of the hand“.

Beginnings of the Martial Art Escrima & Suppression

The history of the Filipino martial art is long and varied. Its roots go back more than 500 years. Also called “Arnis de Mano” at the time, the martial art was taught in schools alongside writing, reading, religion and Sanskrit. Children who attended the warrior class also had to learn the martial art as a form of military training.

In 1521, the Philippines came under Spanish rule. The Spaniards found it very difficult to impose their will on the inhabitants, because they were so proficient with their machetes, sticks and daggers that these weapons not infrequently had a lethal effect. It was only through the use of firearms that the Spaniards established some order. By the 18th century, the Spanish had a firm grip on the Philippines and it was strictly forbidden to teach or perform “Arnis de Mano” from that point on. In addition, machetes and daggers were no longer allowed to be carried. These measures were intended to civilize the hot-blooded inhabitants of the Philippines.

Escrima becomes a secret art

As a result, “Arnis de Mano” became a secret art and could only be practiced in secret. Some time later, the martial art was no longer recognized by the Spaniards, because it reappeared on the scene as a dance to a folk music. The movements were now performed dance-like and without weapons. This dance even met with the approval of the Spaniards, which is why it was allowed to show it during public ceremonies. Therefore, the real “Arnis de Mano” was not extinct. During revolts it was shown again and again that there were still enough people who mastered the martial art.

Furthermore, the Filipinos adopted the Spanish art of fighting with daggers and swords. From this they developed the “espada y daga”, a fighting system with dagger and sword techniques, which they adopted into their own martial arts. From generation to generation, these numerous regionally very different fighting styles were preserved under the name “Arnis de Mano” and were handed down through the centuries.

The return of Escrima in the 20th century

With the year 1898 also the end of the Spanish rule had come and the Americans took over the power on the Philippines. The Arnis ban was now lifted. Friendly competitions were again allowed to be shown publicly on holidays. However, the doors of the Arnis teachers remained closed and Escrima still remained a secret art.

Finally, when World War II began, the Japanese invaded the Philippines. Many Filipinos fought in guerrilla units alongside the Americans at that time. Many of them owed their lives to Escrima training because it was the only way they could win in numerous hand-to-hand battles. The official fighting weapon at that time was the machete, with which the Filipinos had already gained a lot of experience over a long period of time during training, so that they were well armed in real combat.

Today’s spread of Escrima

After the end of the war, many Filipinos moved to the United States. The knowledge of the martial art Escrima they took with them, of course. Most of the emigrants found a new home in California and Hawaii. In California, they were drawn mainly to Stockton, so Escrima made its entrance into American martial arts there. Many famous Escrimadores like Dentoy Revillar, Angel Cabales, John Latosa, Leo Giron and Max Sarmiento lived there.

However, the rediscovery of Escrima is primarily due to Bruce Lee. He introduced the use of Filipino sticks in movies like “Game of Death” and “Enter the Dragon,” bringing the somewhat forgotten martial art of Escrima back into the public eye. Bruce Lee had learned the martial art from Dan Inosanto, a Filipino-American who saw the light of day in 1937 in Stockton, California. Dan Inosanto, on the other hand, had learned from many Escrima masters such as Leo Giron and Ben Largusa.