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Fisticuffs by Mark Hatmaker

Fisticuffs, now there’s a word we’ve all heard. Conjures up images of old-timey bare-knucklers striking upright long-guard poses, while wearing tights and sporting waxed mustaches.

That image is exactly how the word has come to take its current form, as a synonym for boxing or an archaic word for a fistfight.

But...originally there was a bit more to it than that. To get to what that “more to it was” let’s first digress into the world of historical fashion.

Take a gander at woodcuts, paintings, lithographs or whatever medium moves you of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Look not for depictions of various royals and courtiers lounging and feasting and dallying. Look to images of soldiers, look for images of the working class. I want you to look at, surprise, men’s cuffs.

With the middle-class and the aristocracy, you will find frilled cuffs, lace cuffs, loose billowy-cuffs. If you look hard enough at the lower and working classes you will see that these men, more often than not, sport short sleeves, and if they are sleeved there is greater likelihood of tighter cuffs.


Well, because they are working men and loose billowy fabric will get in the way of manual labor, and/or impair one’s safety when working with moving parts—mills, turnstiles, and the like.

If we continue our contemplation of men’s cuffs we may begin to notice these self-same working men sporting varieties of leather cuffs, brass bracelets, and in some cases two or three bangles on each wrist.

Now, when we see this are we seeing fashion or utility?

A little of both. Leather or metal cuffs were a standard part of wear in many cultures and many nations. We see them in American frontier Western wear in the form of leather “cowboy cuffs” which were worn to protect the arms against brush, winding rope, branding irons, and like hazards. Cowboy cuffs were essentially for the forearms what chaps were to the legs.

It was for these same protective reasons that we see leather and metal cuffs appear in other societies from Catalonian shepherds, to herders in Sicily, to whalers off The Great Banks, to archers in Burgundy. Protection.

But, just as with the shoes that protect our feet, we don’t mind a little dash or splash of fashion to make our kicks more palatable to the eye.

Cowboy cuffs often sport intricate designs. Leather wristbands often have gorgeous engravings or at least an ornamental buckle or two, and metal bracelets or bangles provide glints of becoming light in their reflection.

OK, utility and fashion. Got it.

But what does this have to do with hurting people?

Have a look at studded leather wristbands, the kind you might picture in your minds-eye of a stereotypical biker. Now time-machine that studded wristband backwards to the Five Points Gangs of the 19th-century.

Look at the metal bracelets of some mercenary soldiers in Old Spain.

Look at the bangles on images of Gypsies in caravan.

Fashion, utility, and, as it turns out, augmentation of the human weapon.

We’ve already mentioned wristbands as protection in one martial pursuit, while engaging in day-to-day archery, but we also have more than a few mentions of the wrist-protection being vital in the numerous blade cultures before the widespread use of personal firearms. We must not forget that knife and sword dueling was quite rampant. Protecting the quite vulnerable wrist was vital.

When one has a look at the studded wristbands of some Five Points gang members, the “toughs” of the waterfronts of New Orleans, well, everywhere life was lived roughly, it is no stretch of the imagination that in rough and tumble down and dirty fighting all was being used, and indeed it was.

The reinforced wrist became quite active both as a defensive weapon, and as a striking weapon, an often used one at that, as it was a hand-saver. Let’s also not underestimate what a well-studded, or well-buckled wristband might add to our clinch and grappling game where everything was in.

We have begun re-introducing “fisticuffs” in the original sense into our Raw Rough and Tumble program but even if we choose not to integrate this old school bit of meanness we can at least view the word and the once fashionable wristband, cowboy cuffs, and bangles with appreciative martial eyes.


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