American Stick-Fighting: Hell comes to Frog Town

It’s all well and good reading the foreign imports of fencing and fighting manuals published in the United States in the 19th century. Especially the one or two stick and staff fighting books.

But the Yanks knew their way around a stick all by their lonesome.

Dashiell Hammett includes a great fight scene in his 1924 short story “Nightmare Town”…

Adventurer Steve Threefall, loaded like a field howitzer and caked in desert dust, blows into the new soda niter mining town of Izzard. His carry-on item is a black walking stick… “It was thick and made of ebony, but heavy even for that wood, with a balanced weight that hinted at loaded ferrule and knob. Except for a space the breadth of a man’s hand in its middle, the stick was roughened, cut, and notched with the marks of hard use—marks that much careful polishing had failed to remove or conceal. The unscarred handsbreadth was of a softer black than the rest—as soft a black as the knob—as if it had known much contact with a human palm.”

So far so good. Until…

Strolling thus, a dark doorway suddenly vomited men upon them.

Steve rocked back against a building front from a blow on his head, arms were round him, the burning edge of a knife blade ran down his left arm. He chopped his black stick up into a body, freeing himself from encircling grip. He used the moment’s respite this gave him to change his grasp on the stick; so that he held it now horizontal, his right hand grasping its middle, its lower half flat against his forearm, its upper half extending to the left.

He put his left side against the wall, and the black stick became a whirling black arm of the night. The knob darted down at a man’s head. The man threw an arm to fend the blow. Spinning back on its axis, the stick reversed—the ferruled end darted up under warding arm, hit jawbone with a click, and no sooner struck than slid forward, jabbing deep into throat. The owner of that jaw and throat turned his broad, thick-featured face to the sky, went backward out of the fight, and was lost to sight beneath the curbing.

Lower half of stick against forearm once again, Steve whirled in time to take the impact of a blackjack-swinging arm upon it. The stick spun sidewise with thud of knob on temple—spun back with loaded ferrule that missed opposite temple only because the first blow had brought its target down on knees. Steve saw suddenly that Kamp had gone down. He spun his stick and battered a passage to the thin man, kicked a head that bent over the prone, thin form, straddled it; and the ebony stick whirled swifter in his hand—spun as quarterstaves once spun in Sherwood Forest. Spun to the clicking tune of wood on bone, on metal weapons; to the duller rhythm of wood on flesh. Spun never in full circles, but always in short arcs—one end’s recovery from a blow adding velocity to the other’s stroke. Where an instant ago knob had swished from left to right, now weighted ferrule struck from right to left—struck under upthrown arms over lowthrown arms—put into space a forty-inch sphere, whose radii were whirling black flails.

Behind his stick that had become a living part of him, Steve Threefall knew happiness—that rare happiness which only the expert ever finds—the joy in doing a thing that he can do supremely well. Blows he took—blows that shook him, staggered him—but he scarcely noticed them.  His whole consciousness was in his right arm and the stick it spun. A revolver, tossed from a smashed hand, exploded ten feet over his head, a knife tinkled like a bell on the brick sidewalk, a man screamed as a stricken horse screams.

As abruptly as it had started, the fight stopped. Feet thudded away, forms vanished into the more complete darkness of a side street; and Steve was standing alone—alone except for the man stretched out between his feet and the other man who lay still in the gutter.

Here’s some more inspiration:

7 responses to “American Stick-Fighting: Hell comes to Frog Town

  1. James J. W. White

    Where can I buy one?

  2. Interesting. The description of holding the stick in the centre sounds very similar to the Irish stick methods.

  3. I agree with you Mr. Marwood. Certainly Hammett seems to have been inspired by traditional Irish bata, whether or not he himself had any direct experience with the weapon. If in your research you come across any reference to Hammett ever studying the weapon personally, I should be interested to know. In like manner, if I come across any reference to such I shall do the same.

  4. I’m guessing that during the 1920s, the distinctive shillelagh fighting grip would still have struck a faint chord in pop-culture consciousness. At least some of Hammett’s readers might have been familiar with the writings of Longhurst, Allanson-Winn, Carleton et al.

  5. Maxime Chouinard

    This shares too many commonalities with Irish stick to be a simple coincidence. The author also describes the fight very thoroughly, and seems to have a good understanding of the dynamics at play: “Spun never in full circles, but always in short arcs—one end’s recovery from a blow adding velocity to the other’s stroke.” In 1924 many people still knew how to use those sticks, I met an Irish historian here in Quebec about 4 years ago, she was in her late 80’s and told me that her father knew how to use the stick, without even knowing anything about online literature or even seeing what my group did, she displayed a classic Irish grip. Hammett was a private detective for a while, who worked a lot around union strikes, a place where you would tend to see people using sticks. He also served in WW1, so there could have been many occasions for him to learn a thing or two. Whether he experimented it himself after seeing or reading something, or actually learned it from someone is left to the imagination.

  6. This is pretty neat! This is some fairly detailed stuff here…he could easily be describing my very own blackthorn. The only place not roughed up from use is where I hold it and that is worn smooth. Very cool stuff, thanks for digging this up and posting Chris!

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