The bo is one of the most popular and widely utilized kobudo implements. It's length and dynamics have made it a mainstay on the tournament circuit. However, using the bo for combative purposes is a unique challenge and much of the flair used in forms gets abandoned in a hurry.
Odo Seikichi Sensei with Dennis Branchaud
There's a reason almost every ancient culture developed a polearm style weapon: it's simple and effective. The long range allows the user to stay at a relatively safe distance while impacting the opponent. The dual wooden ends allow for devastating combinations of blows, blocks, and sweeps.
Of course, as with any weapon, the inherent strengths of the bo provide gaps for weakness. At close range the bo becomes unwieldy and loses it's primary arc of power. The lack of a cutting edge, while allowing for lighter weight, also reduces the ability to cut through clothing, armor, and flesh.
One of the real "secrets" to learning how to use the bo effectively (ie maximizing strength while minimizing weakness) is to find balance in mobility.
Depending on who you watch the bo can be a very linear and poky weapon or a sweeping, twirling, arcing weapon. Too much of either is a bad thing and provides the opponent with obvious "suki", or gaps in mindset and posture.
Let's look closer at the two imbalanced extremes of bo usage.
The bo can be a dazzling, elegant instrument of artistic expression. It can spin so fast that the eye can no longer trace the ends. Some mythology states that the bo could be spun so fast that it could block arrows. In a static environment with careful planning….that might be true. But in a combative environment such excess motion and dependence on fine motor skills would tire the user and put them at risk.
Wasted motion is an indulgance that bo combatants can't afford. Extreme spinning of the bo or transitioning from end to end may feel productive, but in actuality it provides a large series of gaps for skilled opponents to capitalize on.
Think about it this way: when sparring, bouncing lightly on your toes makes you feel lighter and more mobile. However, it also allows a skilled opponent to gauge your timing and maneuverability. You might not automatically lose because of it, but you certainly don't give yourself an advantage.
Excessive bo spinning and manipulating is the same way. When spinning, the hands are committed to a certain pattern. The pace and pattern of that movement can act as a predictable cue. While it's true that some spinning can leave the opponent guessing as to where an attack might come from, there are far more drawbacks than gains when relying too much upon it.
In my experience, bo "spinners" tend to spin just until the action gap gets close. They then regrasp the bo and assume a more predictable posture. The moment in between spinning and regaining posture is a highly exploitable gap. Even if they don't conclude the spinning, the rhythm of the spin is easily disturbed, and thus once again provides an opening.
The opposite of wasted motion is just as dangerous. Static immobility manifests in styles that are overly dependent on linear movement. In these situations bo thrusting and strikes are often accompanied by long stances with emphasis on power in each strike. The problem with this method is that the inherent liveliness of the bo, that unpredictable nature, is lost.
Taking advantage of the bo's full length and dual edges requires smooth, consistent action without a lot of starting and stopping. Striking with the front end, stepping, and then striking with the back end is far too lengthy a process when it comes to weapons combat. Furthermore, keeping the bo in an immovable posture is a great way to get a piece of it cut off against an edged weapon or struck out of your grasping front hand.
Static users often need to shorten their stance and lighten their grip. Too frequently these individuals clamp onto the weapon the way they might grasp the safety bar on a roller coaster, holding on for dear life. The bo should be held firmly but gently. Sword practitioners will be familiar with this advice.
Striking a Balance
The methods described above probably seem diametrically opposite, leaving little room for actual success with the weapon. In truth, a little bit of both when used in the right context can maximize effectiveness.
A few fundamental factors need to be in place at all times:
- The feet should be available, light, and naturally spaced to enhance mobility. This means avoiding deep, static stances except during moments of hard impact when the whole body is transmitting force, but then quickly returning to natural stance.
- Awareness of centerline control should be maintained no matter which posture the bo is in.
- Distance should be maintained as much as possible to stay within the ideal striking range of the bo while minimizing the opponent's effective striking range.
By using proper fundamentals the bo can strike, retract, swing, retract, extend, pull back, all in a continuous arc while the feet make slight distance adjustments. In a moment's notice the bo can snap into a centerline posture and create linear techniques to overwhelm an unsuspecting opponent, and at will revert back into fluid strikes from unpredictable angles.
The great thing about working with the bo in a combative manner is that frivolous and unwieldy techniques will be quickly revealed as dangerously ineffective.
I recommend finding someone who is skilled with a shinai and allowing him/her to strike at you with speed and freedom. You'll quickly learn the sensation of failure as fancy tactics turn into desperate backpeddling while bamboo whips passed your head.
Should you waste too much motion you'll rarely find yourself in prime position to capitalize on openings. Should you be too static you'll find your bo quickly knocked off centerline and your distance encroached upon.
Aim for smooth, consistent balance and your opponents will start to wonder if perhaps they should study the bo as well!