The tonfa is a sleeper hit in the world of martial arts weapons training. It’s not quite as flashy as some of its counterparts, but once you start paying attention, its complex history and wide-ranging modern use begins to reveal itself.
Let’s take a closer look at the history, techniques, and influence of the tonfa.
What is a tonfa?
Also known as tong fa, tuifa, the tonfa is a melee weapon (a weapon employed in close range hand-to-hand combat) that is wielded in pairs. It is currently used in a variety of martial arts practices for both striking and blocking techniques.
Although the exact look and measurements will depend on the specific weapons you’re using, the general tonfa design features a stick that’s slightly longer than the average human forearm and a small perpendicular handle placed approximately a third of the length down. Traditional tonfas are made from wood, but foam and plastic models are available for beginners.
Where did the tonfa originate?
Like many martial arts weapons origin stories, the tonfa’s history is a matter of some debate. We know that it comes from somewhere in Asia and was a practical daily tool that was adapted for use in martial arts. But there are multiple theories about the exact location and the purposes of the tool.
Some historians believe that the tonfa was a wooden handle from a millstone that was first employed for self-defence purposes in Okinawa. Others theorize that tonfas were crutches that were adapted for battle in either China or Indonesia, based on the fact that the name for the weapon means crutch in both Chinese and Malay. It’s also possible that both theories are true and that similar looking tools were being used for similar purposes in multiple locations and eventually combined to become what we recognize as tonfas.
Whatever the case, what we do know for sure is that tonfas were used in ancient Okinawan martial arts practices, and that those techniques provided some of the foundations for how we use tonfas today.
Which martial arts use the tonfa?
Tonfas are most commonly associated with Karate and Okinawan Kobudo. But you can find tonfa techniques and training in a wide variety of martial arts and related practices, including Japanese Jujitsu and self-defence training.
How do you use the tonfa?
The tonfa’s primary purpose in most martial arts training is to enhance offensive and defensive measures that involve the forearms. When you grip the handle in your palm and hold the length of the tonfa against your arm it can add extra power to your strikes and blocks — and protect your arm from attacks in the process.
But tonfas have a few other applications, too. You can use the portion of the tonfa that extends beyond your elbow for powerful strikes and blunt attacks. If you switch your grip so that the stick portion is facing away from your arm and toward your opponent, you can also use tonfas to defend against attacks from other weapons like the bo. You can even use tonfas to immobilize your opponent’s weapon and disarm them.
Where else can you see the tonfa?
Tonfas are like the character actors of martial arts weapons. Even if you can’t name them, you’ve probably seen them everywhere. Tonfas are a popular choice for video games including editions of the Castlevania, Mortal Kombat, Soulcalibur, Mega Man, Tekken, and Yakuza franchises. In the film and television world, tonfas have made appearances in the Star Trek, Star Wars, Mortal Kombat, Power Ranges, and Marvel universes, among many others. They can also be found in a wide variety of comic books, manga, and anime series.
Tonfa: Great for performing kata, these rounded tonfas are made of quality hardwood and taper at the ends. Available in 4 different lengths and 2 colors. Sold in pairs. $34.95 USD.
Round Natural Tonfa: Made of quality beechwood, these tonfas are rounded with tapered ends and a natural finish. Available in 4 sizes. Sold in pairs. $44.95 USD. Also available with a black finish. $44.95 USD.
Square Natural Tonfa: Made of quality beechwood with a natural finish, these tonfas are squared and taper at the ends. Available in 3 different lengths. $59.99 USD.
Foam Covered Tonfa: Ideal for practicing your drills and techniques, these 20” tonfas are foam covered with a comfortable grip. Sold in pairs. $39.95 USD.
Black Foam Tonfa: Also great for drill and technique practice, these black foam covered tonfas come in three sizes. Sold in pairs. $44.95 USD.
ProForce® Polypropylene Tonfa: Made from polycarbonated plastic, these 23.5” tonfas are shatter proof and will last a lifetime. $39.95 USD.