Fighting arts: Nightstick twirling

Shillelagh law was all the rage.

The Irish, at least in the popular imagination, are a people of the cudgel. I don’t know how many battles are still fought with shillelaghs in the streets of Dublin – precious few, I expect – but the blackthorn club looms large in the American imagination. What is it that the Boston Celtics leprechaun is leaning on? A shillelagh. What is it that the Fighting 69th of the United States Army National Guard carry in parades? Shillelaghs. What is it that early Irish police officers in New York are supposed to have sent home for to replace the standard issue nightstick? Shillelaghs, shillelaghs, shillelaghs.

But we’re not here to discuss Irish martial arts (in this instance called “bataireacht”), but to discuss Irish-American fighting arts. And so, rather than discuss the shillelaghs, let us discuss the nightstick. Specifically, I want to discuss a particular nightstick art, one that very near was lost, and one that could use reviving. I speak, of course, of nightstick twirling.
But first, let’s establish our bona fides. We will be discussing the nightstick as an Irish-American weapon because, in any city where there was a substantial Irish-American population, Irish-Americans flooded the police departments. The best example of this is New York, where, in 1900, the five out of every six policemen were Irish-American. Another example would be Baltimore, which likewise had a largely Irish police force at its start, and I mention Baltimore because this is where nightclub twirling became an art form.

Let us get our terms right. The nightstick is actually one of two sticks once carried by the police; there was a shorter day stick intended for daylight hours. Baltimore evolved their own version of the nightstick (and generally only used them at night), and came up with their own name for the baton: espantoon, which is probably a corrupted version the word for a British pole weapon, the spontoon. For the most part, it looks like the sort of billy club you typically associate with the police – a 24”-26” wooden club with a smooth, rounded end and a barrel end that looks like a grip, attached to the wrist by a leather strap. But the officers in the Baltimore police department modified the strap, elongating it to about the length of the stick itself, and jointed the strap with a swivel that allows for long and complex spinning tricks.

Baltimore police would twirl their batons for a few reasons, enumerated on the Baltimore Police City History website. Firstly, officers would often call to each other by striking their batons on the ground or walls; the straps allowed them to do this even at a distance. Secondly, the twirling discouraged people from coming too close. Thirdly, it communicated that the officer was skilled in wielding his nightstick, offering the same visual spectacle that gun twirling served in Wild West movies.
There was a time when the Baltimore Police Department was stripped of its espantoons, between the years 1994 and 2000, when Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier took over the force. He disapproved of the nightsticks, and saw them as a tool of intimidation, and so he replaced them with a streamlined baton and training in a California-based martial arts school called Koga. Many officers rebelled and simply went out and purchased their own espantoons, and when Frazier’s tenure ended, the classic Baltimore nightstick made an official return, although the department did not mandate its use.
The Baltimore Police City History website also offers some introductory suggestions for how to twirl the espantoon, although with repeatedly providing us with the extremely helpful advice that the barrel end, although it looks like the handle, is actually the striking end, and that the ball on the barrel is especially useful when striking pressure points or nerve clusters. They also quote an officer saying the best use of the espantoon is to rap people on the shins, which usually gets them moving pretty quickly.

Patrolman M. J. Madigan demonstrates the side-swing

But we’re here to discuss spinning, and here are a few basics:

The forward flip: “The policeman holds the free end of the thong and the free end of the slick, then releases the end of the stick as he swings his arm forward. The stick swings out, pivots where the thong is fixed to the handle, does a complete turn and slaps back into the patrolman’s hand”
The backward flip, or outside loop: Exactly the same as the forward flip, “with the patrolman catching the end of the club, palm down, behind his back.”
The side-swing: “The patrolman gives the club a full turn, this time laterally from a curbstone position.”
The overhand: “Nothing more than another side-swing with the thong passing over the back of the hand in the starting position unwinding as the maneuver is completed.”
The recover: The policeman dangles his nightstick by the strap, spinning it. Then, “with the club in a fast twirl, snaps his wrist expertly and the club straightens out to an upright position, where the policeman seizes it.”
The spin: “The policeman simply increases the speed of the twirl until the club takes on the appearance of a spoked wheel in a horizontal position.”
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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.

4 Comments

  1. My father was a Baltimore police officer from 1947 or 48 until 1961 when he moved us all out to Arizona. He walked a beat in Baltimore for many years and was very proficient at twirling his nightstick. I recently inherited his stick but it no longer has a strap for twirling. The strap for twirling a nightstick is not the same as the wriststrap on modern composite material sticks. Any idea where I might be able to find a strap or instructions on how to build one out of strip leather?

  2. Would be nice if someone could add a little more detail to the above instructions, perhaps even a video? It is getting to be a lost art and would be a shame to lose it.

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