How to Use a Bo for Self Defense

By Levi Potter | Ultimate Bo

Mar 15

Can you actually protect yourself with a bo (staff)? How could I use a walking stick, pipe, broom handle, or any other long stick to defend myself from an assailant? This is the definitive guide for using a bo for self defense.

Integrating the Bo into Your Self-Defense Plan

EDC stands for Every Day Carry and includes all the objects you carry with you on a daily basis. You’ve probably seen some outlandish examples such as this:

Just in case your backup gun stops working.

Yeah, right.

It probably looks like this (plus pocket lint):

There’s no way a vending machine’s accepting that dollar.

People try to shove something in their pockets in attempts to prepare for every possible situation, and while there is something to be said for preparedness, your pockets can only prepare you for so much.  You’ll notice that there are no bo staves in either of those photos, and that is because the key to being prepared for any situation lies in the mind, not the pocket.

Speaking specifically of self-defense there are two things you absolutely need to be able to defend yourself, awareness and knowledge:

  1. Awareness is your perception and familiarity of your surroundings. It’s knowing that a few not-so-classy looking guys dressed in sweats just walked into the McDonald’s where you are eating lunch. It is knowing that the car behind you has been following you since you turned out of your parking lot at work. It’s you walking down the street and noticing the two people walking in the opposite direction, towards you. This is not paranoid, it’s just being aware. The difference between being aware and being paranoid is how you react to this information. If you think everyone is out to get you, you’re paranoid; if you realize they are capable of doing so and prepare yourself mentally for such an event, you are simply aware. Awareness is always knowing what’s around you, especially with respect to people, and acting accordingly. “Acting accordingly” can mean many things, but in most cases, it probably means doing nothing. The chances of something bad happening to you is slim. However, extricating yourself from a potentially bad situation can turn slim into astronomically low. My point is, being aware and acting accordingly can save you from a lot of trouble, but in case that doesn’t work, we have everything from stick fighting to concealed carry.
  2. Knowledge is used in conjunction with awareness, but it is also necessary if your awareness did not prevent the situation you’re in. Knowledge in this case means knowing what to do with the information you gained from your awareness. This is where the staff comes in. Or rather, this is where awareness comes in (again). Noticing your non-human surroundings is also a very important part of your awareness, as objects around you and your position with respect to others could prevent a bad situation from turning into a worse one. Know what’s around you so you can use it to your advantage.

For the rest of this article, it is implied that “situation” means any situation in which you or whoever you are with believe yourselves to be in physical danger. Also, I am not a lawyer or legal counsel. The information provided here is not meant to protect you legally, only physically. Speak to a criminal defense lawyer or someone of similar qualifications and knowledge for specifics. That being said, let’s get into how to use a bo for self-defense.

As I mentioned before, being aware of your surroundings is key in self-defense. Since you probably won’t be carrying a bo with you, you’ll need to find one. And asking to find a bo while you’re getting mugged isn’t a good idea. This means you’ll need to know what’s around you and as soon as even an inkling of a self-defense situation occurs, you must evaluate what you can use to your advantage. Now when I say evaluate what you can use, I don’t mean you have to think of some great ball contraption, more like “Oh look, a ladder. In case someone chases after me I can push it over.” There is no cheat or trick to being aware in this manner. You just practice looking around your position and thinking of what could be used to your advantage in a self-defense situation. I could spend all day describing different situations and courses of action, but let’s go ahead and assume you found your way into a bad situation and all you have is a staff or staff like object. Objects that can be used as a staff include:

  • bo staves
  • brooms
  • pipes
  • mops
  • rakes
  • shovels
  • dowels
  • long sticks
  • canes
  • spears (this should be your preference, but other objects will do)

You get the idea. Anything with enough length to put distance between you and your attacker as well as enough room to grip both hands. Also note whatever object you choose doesn’t have to be balanced, as long as it fulfills the previous requirements.

What to Do With Your Staff

Now that you have your staff, let’s look at how you use it:

Step #1: Run away. Seriously. If you have time to find a staff like object you can probably run away. And as much as I would love to see someone challenge me to a bo duel, running away is almost always a safer and more tactically sound answer.

However, running away isn’t always a possibility. It could be because of your health, who you’re with, where you are (which should have been prevented by awareness), and maybe a combination of all three. If escaping is not possible, follow these steps:

(Next) Step #1: Grip your staff (the staff or staff-like object you happen to have will be referred to as staff). To do this, we will engage in what we call in combat bo a long grip.

One palm in, one palm facing out.

With the staff pointing forward, place your back hand palm facing down near the end of the staff about a fist-length’s away from the end. Place your front hand facing palm-up about one to two feet up the staff – the exact distance will depend on what object you have and your physique. Your hands should be close enough to where you are not restricting range of motion, but far enough away to maintain control. You should point your staff towards your opponent’s abdomen or chest, in what is called a middle guard. For your edification, grips refer to how your hands are positioned with respect to the staff, while guards refer to how the staff is positioned with respect to your body.

Notice how my arms are bent; this allows for quicker and more powerful striking.

Step #2: Next (or rather, simultaneously with step 1), you need a solid stance. The fighting stance in combat bo varies from person to person, but you should have a wide stance, angled shoulders, and proper footwork. To get into a stance, look at which of your hands is facing up (assuming you are holding the staff). This is your dominant hand. Your dominant hand side will be your front leg. So, if you are holding the bo with your right hand facing up, the right hand will be your dominant hand and your proper stance would involve the right foot being forward (closer to your opponent). Take your back foot and place it 2-4 feet back from the forward foot, and about 1 foot to the side. The reason for such a large range is purely due to flexibility and leg length. Your front foot should point forward, and the back foot should be at about a 45-degree angle. Angle your shoulders away from your opponent (about 45 degrees as well) and distribute your weight evenly between your legs. The point of a good stance is to be able to maintain balance, ensure mobility, and strike from a tactically advantaged position

Rather than copying my stance, use it as a rough template to determine where you have comfort and balance.

Let’s take a moment to consider what advantages the staff and other weapons offer in a self-defense situation. As far as needing to hurt someone, there are three major characteristics that make a weapon or an attack effective: distance, timing, and power (pressure is a more scientifically accurate term). Concealed carry is such a popular means of self-defense because it dominates all of these categories. It has far more distance than any melee weapon does, is most certainly faster, and is more powerful in many cases (because such a great force is distributed over a small area, there is a great amount of pressure). I feel like you should know this, but don’t bring a staff to a gun fight. However, compared to other melee weapons, the bo dominates. It has a greater distance than any other weapons you are likely to encounter (besides firearms), some of its attacks are very quick, and it can be incredibly powerful. Distance is the most important out of the previously mentioned characteristics for one simple reason: you can’t hit what you can’t reach. Thus, the staff can beat the sword, nunchaku, kali, and every other shorter-ranged weapon (with proper training). The gist is, use your range.

When I mention staff-based combat, your first thoughts might be of Donatello or Darth Maul. The truth is, one simple technique dominates staff self-defense, and that is the thrust. The thrust is not only lightning fast, but disruptive and downright dangerous when you use it correctly.

The Front Thrust

There are a few types of thrusts, but the one we will focus on is the two-handed forward thrust, or, simply, front thrust. Before we go over how to thrust, we need to know why we are executing this technique and how it works to our advantage. We are maintaining distance and stunning our opponent for two possible follow-ups: escaping (if possible) or striking more.

To execute the front thrust, start with your arms bent and the staff close in to your midsection in the stance and grip mentioned earlier. Extend your arms toward your target (which will be lower abdomen or above collar bone level, discussed later), making sure the bo is following its own path (i.e. no lateral movement). Right before your arms reach their full range of motion, rotate both wrists to where your front palm is facing away from your dominant side (I am in a right hand-dominant grip, so my front palm is rotated fully to the left). Quickly retract your arms back to their starting position. Making sure both the extension and retraction are quick reduces the chance that your opponent can block/take the staff, and it also allows you to deliver another strike with less delay.

Step 1: Arms are bent and ready to strike.
Step 2: Start extending the arms with the staff traveling in a straight line.
Step 3: Finish extending the arm and rotate the wrists right before your range of motion ends. Notice the approximately 90-degree rotation of the wrists – it allows for more continuous motion and less strain on your joints.
The front thrust, from long grip.

The Speed Strike

Another strike you may use if your opponent has a weapon is a speed strike. The speed strike is very similar to the thrust, except the goal is a lateral striking motion with the cylindrical face of the staff. To execute, perform the first steps of the front thrust, except aim about 6 inches above your desired target (which will be hands or elbows in this case). Right before your arms reach full extension, push down [towards the target] and rotate with your front hand, while simultaneously pulling towards your body and twisting with your back hand.

The speed strike in action.

NOTE: the speed strike may not be possible or advantageous depending on the staff-like object you possess. A speed strike executed with a very unbalanced object such as a shovel or a very laterally-weak object may break the staff or be awkward in a way that costs you tactically. This is why thrusts are a go-to movement, because they do not stress the staff laterally and the balance of the object does not affect it greatly.

We should also consider that our opponent just might try to hit us even after we thrust and strike at them. This isn’t going to be as common with shorter-ranged attacks, such as with an opponent attacking unarmed or with a short knife or other object. However, more range-worthy objects like bats and machetes have significant range, and they could hit you before you hit them. The most surefire way to defend against ranged attacks (assuming it is ranged, because you should be in your long grip with the staff pointed forward) is by dodging. Dodging maintains distance and is less risky. With blocking, your hands can get hit, you can get hit if you don’t block with enough resistance, your staff could break, or your staff could somehow tangle with your opponent’s weapon. With dodging, you get out of the way and then continue with your striking. My recommendation would be to maintain distance and if you see an attack starting up, throw a few thrusts to the abdomen, face, or groin (or other good targets) and it is doubtful your opponent will continue with the attack, or with any attacks at all. However, we already managed to get into a self-defense situation in which giving up valuables didn’t work, we were able to pick up a staff, and our opponent continues to attack us, so one more improbable event won’t kill us. Anyway, remember to always try to keep the staff between you and your opponent, and use distance to your advantage.

You should be able to hit anyone with a shorter-range weapon before they hit you, because they must first close the distance.

Now that we have a few strikes and a method of defending in our arsenal, let’s get back to dealing with our opponent. Remember, we just picked up a staff-like object that we found in our environment and we got in our proper grip, guard, and stance.

What you do next is solely situation-dependent. You will need to determine what level of force you are willing to use to keep you and whoever you are with safe. My personal belief is that If you are alone, attack with enough intensity so that you can escape, whether that be simply fighting your way to a door or disabling your opponent enough for them not to chase after you; and if you are unable to run away, fight until your opponent can’t. What weapon your opponent has, if any, is also very important. If a threatening, unarmed person approaches you and you take it upon yourself to beat them senseless with a stick, you will go to jail. As I mentioned before, I’m no lawyer, but I think your attorney would have a hard time convincing the jury that you were in real danger if you inflicted such damage. However, the situation totally changes if your opponent, instead of being unarmed, pulls a knife on you. Now if you grab a broom and stop the threat, you are not in such a legally dicey situation. What I’m saying is, use your best judgement, or better yet, an expert’s best judgement, on how far is too far when it comes to defending yourself.

Specific Self Defense Scenarios

Specific scenarios require specific responses, but there are some concepts in staff self-defense that span across all of them:

  • Uses the staff’s distance. Keeping a stick between you and your opponent is better than keeping nothing between you, especially when getting poked with that stick can crush your trachea.
  • Strike early, strike often. Being on the offensive means you don’t have to worry about defending as much. Offense is the best defense.
  • Use thrusts and other low-movement lateral strikes frequently. Thrusts and speed strikes (described earlier) and back/backfist strikes (not described earlier, but basically the reverse of speed strikes) are very fast, quite disruptive, non-telegraphing, and hard to block. (Telegraphing is a word describing the visual aspect of a setup for a strike. Pulling the bo back slightly for a thrust is a small telegraph, while swinging it back for a baseball bat swing-type strike would be a larger telegraph, easier to see, and thus, defend.)
  • Use your words. Just because you feel threatened enough to pick up a staff-like object and get in a proper position doesn’t mean you can’t deescalate the situation with your words. If you are confident enough to pick up an object and act like you know how to use it, your opponent might just back off.

Let’s look at five self-defense scenarios and how you would use the staff in each:

Scenario #1 – Unarmed. The key to fighting an unarmed opponent is thrusting quickly to multiple targets. Execute thrusts starting with the abdomen as a target. Do no more than a few to each target, or your opponent may catch on, quite literally. Throw a few thrusts to the abdomen, which will likely fold your opponent some, allowing head shots to be more easily executed. Given at least one of these landed and inflicted some pain, you can try to escape and then call the police if your opponent seems to have backed down. If they haven’t, continue attacking until they have stopped, alternating targets frequently. Remember, beating some unarmed guy half to death doesn’t look good to a jury, so keep yourself safe but don’t go overboard. You can strike to the legs and arms and it will be painful, but they are smaller targets and harder to hit, so use with caution.

Scenario #2 – Bladed Weapon. Fighting someone with a bladed weapon, such as a knife or machete, takes your chance of survival down from facing someone unarmed. Significantly. You should really try to escape before you fight anyone, but especially someone possessing an object that makes it easier for them to kill you. If you can’t run away, your focus is now on the weapon, since it, through your opponent, can harm you the most. This is where you will utilize your speed strike. Speed strike to whichever hand holds the weapon, or either hand if both hands are on the weapon. Strike fast, strike hard, and repeat. Once your opponent drops the weapon, it is no longer your focus. It will not jump up and cut you, and your opponent will not be able to get it if you keep attacking. Now you conduct yourself like you would for an unarmed opponent, except without the restraint. Do whatever it takes to keep yourself safe, because you must assume your opponent just tried to kill you. That doesn’t mean you can’t still run away and call the police, it means the safety of yourself and your companions is the first priority.

Speed striking an attacker’s hand that is holding a bladed weapon.
It is okay to repeat strikes to the hand in this case. The only way your opponent could grab the staff is if they dropped the weapon, which is good for us anyway.

Scenario #3 – Blunt Weapon. A blunt weapon, such as a baseball bat or pipe, is not a good thing to fight against, but it is marginally better than fighting someone with a bladed weapon. Think of it this way – would you rather have someone hit you as hard as they can with a bat, or with a machete? Now that you’re done cringing, it’s important to bring up the previously mentioned point that you have the distance advantage. Keep that staff-like object between you and your opponent. How you handle yourself against someone with a blunt weapon is situation-dependent. If you are able to, you can thrust to alternating targets, but this may not be possible because of your opponent’s range. If you strike, they may be able to strike you. In this case, speed strike to the hands or to the weapon. You can use disruptive strikes like this to open up other targets for the thrust. Your goal here is to stop whoever is attacking you. Getting hit in the groin, throat, or nose with a broom stick would probably draw my hands to the location I feel the most pain and would probably involve me dropping my weapon. Use pain to your advantage and have the same mindset as with the bladed weapon attack, don’t stop until you are safe from this person.

Scenario #4 – Firearms. I can’t think of a situation in which a person armed with a staff would want to disarm a person with a firearm using their staff. I have a pretty fast thrust, but not faster than someone moving their index finger a fraction of an inch. I hope this goes without saying, but don’t engage a person with a gun. Remember, the staff or similar object has the advantage in distance and possibly speed and power, but the firearm dominates them all. Words are your greatest weapon here

Scenario #5 – Shield Block. Let’s say you already have a staff like object. You could be sweeping, raking, or walking along with a walking stick. If you see a possible threat, you can simply hold the staff with one end on the ground in front of you

Notice how my hand is raised in a non-aggressive way.

This is our unofficial guard stance. We are ready to defend ourselves, but if we go to our normal stance that will likely escalate the situation and prompt your opponent to fight. Remember, we want to deescalate the situation. If your opponent decides to attack with a blunt or bladed object, or unarmed, a shield block can protect you from any of these, although it works best for blunt strikes. To execute a shield block, leave one end of the staff on the ground and use it as an anchor point. With your hand gripping the staff, push it in the direction from which the strike is coming, or to the side your shoulders are facing if it is a thrusting strike. Simultaneously move your body in the non-blocking direction so you don’t get hit.

Shield block to the “live side” (the exposed/interior side of my body).
Shield block to the “dead side” (the outside of my body).

From here, grab the staff with the free hand, below the already gripping hand, and lift up the bottom end of the staff into your opponent. The target can vary because of the variety of strikes your opponent can attempt, but a good target would be the groin. This type of upward strike is very powerful because of the full-body and levering motion of the staff.

After you execute the upward strike, there are variety of methods you could use to attack your opponent, depending on your proficiency with the staff and how your opponent is attacking you. However, let’s keep it simple and reclaim our long grip. If you used your right hand on the staff during the shield block and finished the upward strike, let go with the right hand, rotate the staff forward, and re-grip with your right hand near the back of the staff again (as explained in the long grip). From here, refer to Situations 1-3 on how to best address your opponent.

Shield blocking to the live side, and then returning to your guard.
Shield blocking to the live side, and then returning to your guard.

We should always do as much as possible to avoid a physical confrontation, even if that means giving up all your valuables. We should avoid any sort of fight, but if you find yourself in one where your opponent has threatened the life of yourself, your friends, or your loved ones, do whatever it takes to defend yourself. Stop the threat at all costs, using whatever you can to your advantage.

Being able to use your environment to your advantage is greatly beneficial not only practically speaking, but legally as well. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you are carrying the weapon you use to defend yourself, whether it be gun, knife, or pen, the prosecutor will make the case that you wanted and planned to injure or kill whoever attacked you. This is not to say improvised weapons, such as a staff-like object, should be preferred to, say, a concealed firearm, but there are some advantages present.

Now it’s Time to Practice & Build Muscle Memory

Now that you’ve read and hopefully followed along with how you can defend yourself with a staff, you’re an expert!

Actually, you’re not much closer to doing any of these techniques in a real situation than you were before. What you need to do now is practice. A lot. And I don’t just mean practice the techniques, I mean practice being aware. Practice running through self-defense scenarios. Practice it all, because you won’t have time to think in a real situation: your body will do what it knows, and it is your job to make sure your body knows what to do. So instead of leaving you to practice on your own, you have your very own practice plan! Follow this plan and you will be well on your way to being ready to defend yourself with a bo staff as well as the mind.

Ready to learn even more bo techniques? Join the world’s largest and most comprehensive online course with the Global Martial Arts University. Ultimate Bo is an officially recognized martial arts style, where you learn all aspects of the staff, including traditional techniques and self defense, while earning real rank at home.

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(7) comments

Paul Hornbogen March 15, 2019

Great atriclr. Keep up the good work.

Sensei Ali March 16, 2019

Well presented and thanks for your efforts. Looking forward to reading more articles like this from you.

Thita March 16, 2019

Great article. Lots of food for thought here. I will probably come back and go through each section again. The pictures and videos are also helpful. Really well done!

Fred Claus April 4, 2019

Are there specifics that to be a bo staff, or is it just any long stick? I have a walking stick that is about 6 feet tall, can that be used as a bo staff?

    Michael Hodge April 17, 2019

    Just a long stick, your walking stick can be used as a bo!

Jerry Gregory April 4, 2020

I have a question instead of a comment. I wanted to know how many swordsmen, with moderate ability, could an expert, in the Bo, hold at bay? I know there are many variations and positioning of opponents it makes it difficult to make this determination, I was just looking for an educated guess. I am currently writing a novel and one of my characters is using a bo staff and I would consider him very much an expert. Thank you in advance. 🙂

    Levi Potter April 7, 2020

    Great question Jerry! The staff has an advantage over the sword in one major area, and that is distance. Being able to hit someone before they hit you is obviously an incredible step-up from exchanging blows. That, being said, an expert bojutsuka (practitioner of Bojutsu) could probably hold one person at bay effectively. All two opponents would have to do is split up, and even with the bo practitioner indexing (lining up) his or her opponents, it is immensely difficult to actually fight two people, even if they don’t know what they are doing. It seems it is inherent to the multiple attackers not to be lined up with respect to their opponent. In simpler words, attackers spread out. I have done 2-on-1 and 3-on-1 sparring before, and it’s an extremely physically demanding process basically trying to reduce the number of times you get hit (which is a lot).
    Now, all this is assuming you have continuous attacks. Things would change if the bo practitioner had, say, a spear. With such a weapon, one would be able to remove opponents from the fight, and because of the range of the bojutsuka’s weapon, do it without getting hit themselves. However, that’s not really holding them at bay.
    It’s awesome you are putting so much research into your novel! Please shoot me an email at if you have any other questions, I’d be happy to answer them.

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