Kali – The Filipino Martial Art

Kali – The Filipino martial art

Kali – The Filipino martial art. Throughout Philippines history, the martial arts style Kali helped Filipinos defend themselves against invaders. It has also proven effective in knife and machete fights. The art has even been practiced by a variety of special forces units worldwide.

While Westerners refer to the Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) styles of stick and sword fighting as Kali, Filipinos refer to it as Eskrima (or Escrima). But one thing is certain: if you want to know how to use weapons to protect yourself and devastate an opponent, Kali is a very efficient way to go.

The History of Kali

Kali’s history is no different. However, it is generally believed that the native Filipino styles associated with it were started by various tribes to defend themselves. It is also quite possible that these styles originally emanated from or were strongly influenced by martial arts from other areas, such as India.

The history of almost any martial arts style is difficult to pin down because written records usually fail to accompany their beginnings.

Regardless, the documentation indicates that Filipino Martial Arts styles were used when the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in the 1500s and generally differed based on the tribe or area of origin. As was the case with many martial arts styles, the native practice of Kali or Eskrima was later hidden from the occupying Spaniards by disguising the practice in dances.

The presence of conflict in the Philippines has no doubt helped practitioners of Kali to find what truly worked in their art and discard much of what did not. In recent years, the practice has become more systemized, making it easier to learn.

During World War II, several American special operations groups stationed in the Philippines were introduced to the Filipino Martial Arts, leading to this style reaching America despite the fact that natives were reluctant to allow outsiders in on their fighting secrets.

Most recently, Kali practitioners in the Philippines have become somewhat focused on fighting without protection. Many died in the early phases of this movement, but more recently practitioners have begun to use hardwood sticks instead of knives to lessen fatalities. Further, the practice is now illegal in Filipino society, even if it is not unusual to find matches in parks and rural areas.

Characteristics of Kali

Kali focuses on the ability to transition from fighting with weapons to empty hands fluidly, as there is always the possibility of losing or being without a weapon. Though there are several systems of Eskrima/Kali in use today, most teach elements of weapons fighting, striking, grappling and throwing/ takedowns. More aggressive maneuvers like biting are also taught.

Kali practitioners believe that hand-to-hand combat moves are similar to those with weapons; thus, these skills are developed concurrently. Some of the popular combinations of weapons used are the single stick (solo baston), double stick (double baston), and sword/stick and dagger (espada). Along with this, the most frequently used training weapon is the rattan, a stick about the length of its wielder’s arm.

In the end, Kali practitioners are known for their lightning-fast movements and efficient footwork in wielding weapons.

Basic Goals of Kali Martial Arts

Kali is primarily a weapons-based style of fighting. Thus, it involves inflicting bad, often fatal damage to opponents with the use of weapons and empty hand techniques as quickly as possible.

Blade system Fighting

The philosophy behind blade fighting system is that you disable a threat by inflicting a lethal wound that will stop the aggressor who is intent on doing you or your family harm.

Soldiers and special forces units do not draw a blade to disable an opponent because this gives the enemy a chance to counterattack and still harm them.  If a blade is drawn in a fight for any reason, it will be used to kill the enemy with EVERY move.  Any other way would be a waste of energy and time if in a violent situation where saving lives is at stake.

Blade systems teach the martial artist to take the offensive.  Their mindset is fixed in training to seek lethal force on the enemy.  A blade system does not just train how to defend against a knife wielding assailant, but how to kill that assailant as quickly as you can. 

Some Kali fighting schools offer that if defense is the primary focus of a blade system, it is a waste of training and energy.  Some Kali schools teach immobilization methods by cutting tendons to disable an arm and even wrist locks in a potential confrontation.  This may not completely neutralize a lethal threat and even let your guard down if you accomplish a lock or disable an opponent’s limbs.  Although these fight methods may be taught if a target is to be captured alive.

Kali knife fighting techniques teach defense by going on the offensive.  When using a knife for self-defense, the attacking side of a blade fight is taught non-linear angles, hand switches, lines of cutting, half-beat attacks; all of these so that the attacker himself would recognize parry techniques and counter attacks to defend himself. 

A person armed with a bladed weapon is never hesitant to use a drawn knife for lethal combat, to kill the enemy the fastest way without getting injured.

For civilian self-defense, one CANNOT initiate the same mindset because the law penalizes the killer unless certain circumstances are in play where there is no other recourse but to take the life of an assailant with your self-defense weapon to save your own life or the life of a loved one in danger. 

This is why self-defense schools allow parrying techniques for civilian trained Kali martial artist.  But for military special forces, offensive methods are the techniques trained.

Stick Fighting versus Blade Fighting Systems

The angle of attack is different for sticks and with blades. Stick fighters aim for bony body parts to inflict the most damage: hand knuckles, elbows, the jaw, shoulders and the sides of the temple. 

Kali blade fighters aim for vital targets that will bleed the opponent to death: the neck area with carotid arteries, the thigh area with femoral arteries, the space above your stomach to stab into the heart for the abdominal aorta.

Sticks are wielded in a slashing attack and a powerful hit is essential.  Blade attacks do not require as much forceful effort, but speed and pinpoint accurate targeting is the focus.  Blade slashes do not stop an opponent cold except for few key targets in the human body.  Blade slash wounds may look horrific but are mostly superficial and cutting attacks should only be part of a blade fighting system and not its primary attack component.

Blade thrusts and a good knowledge of the human anatomy enable Kali trained soldiers to defend themselves better in hand to hand survival combat, even when outnumbered by overconfident enemies.

Slash attacks are only part of the Kali knife fighting system. Using knowledge and understanding of human anatomy special forces soldiers know where a slash will work vs. a thrust. Targets that are more superficial on the human body such as the carotid artery would be appropriate to slash for lethal entry. 

Fighting with a blade is not trained as movement patterns similar to traditional martial arts.  A knife fighter is a thinking fighter, looking at his opponent’s weak points in real time for the killing blow.  Knife fighters do not even lock or take down an opponent manually before striking with the blade.  A special forces soldier trained in a blade system always leads with the blade to maim and kill.

Civilian Use of Self-defense

It is possible for a civilian to train in a Kali fighting school for blade fighting systems.  Since acquiring a gun is cost prohibitive for the average citizen, knowing how to fight using the traditional Filipino knife fighting martial arts can give someone an edge in armed conflict, when defending his home against more than one assailant.

Of course, someone training in any blade system should only use a blade in an extreme situation.  

Robbers breaking into his home, or some looters trying to steal his household’s food supply.  All of these scenarios may readily happen when law and order break down when the supply and power grid are indefinitely cut off.  

We’ve already seen the ugly side of desperation when the storm surge hit Leyte’s coastal communities in 2013 and food supplies were not immediately available to the victims of the disaster.  Riots and looting, rapes and robbery in urban areas.  People who were smart to prepare for such disasters should be able to protect even a modest supply of emergency rations and their own families if that extreme situation ever occurred again and law enforcement becomes helpless to stop hungry and angry, impatient mobs from breaking the law.


Blade training is important for you as a survival self-defense option. There is a real world need for people in a life or death situation, to defend themselves capably.  Whether you live in an urban zone, or in an isolated homestead out in the country.

It could come down to this; you might not have the luxury of help if and when attacked, you might be literally fighting for your life, Kali training might just be what you need to survive. Kali – The Filipino martial art.

Author: Nigel Taylor

I`m Nigel Taylor – originally from England – owner of The Backyard Gym in Round Rock Texas. We specialize in personal training, kickboxing cardio and self-defense. With over 25 years experience as a personal trainer, I know what works! From weight loss to bulking up to toning up, I can help you get your desired look and achieve your fitness goals. I can also offer you the privacy of a 100% private personal training studio in which to enjoy and get the most out of your workouts.