Tonfa are wooden clubs with round handles affixed to one side, about 1/3 of the way from the end. Tonfajustu, the art of using the tonfa a self-defense tool, is one of the hallmarks of kobudō.
Tonfa originated as millstone handles, though there is some evidence that similar weapons existed throughout Asia, based on forearm crutches. Tonfa were extremely popular among US police and security forces in the 1980’s until the mid-1990’s, when they were replaced by easier-to-carry telescoping batons. Because of this, tonfa are commonly known as nightsticks, side-handle batons, stop-handle batons, or as a PR-24. (As the story goes, policemen didn’t know what to call their new weapons, so they used the catalog item number as a placeholder name.)
Historically, tonfa were wielded in pairs. This is because the most prevalent weapons of that era (i.e., the katana and various polearms) were two-handed weapons, which are vulnerable to Kūsankū movements. In general, one tonfa is used to block, parry, or trap an opponent’s weapons while the other tonfa counterattacks. Alternately, the tonfa can be flipped and held from the other end, using the handle as a hook to trap or parry weapons. Since the handle is secured to the shaft by a single wooden pin, it is not recommended to directly block with the crook of the handle.
Tonfa are simple weapons, which can be used by students of any skill level. We typically reserve the tonfa for advanced students, but only because we feel that it's more important for beginner, novice, and intermediate students to focus on developing skills with the bō and sai.
We will not make an in-depth or rigorous study of tonfajutsu; we will only explain how the tonfa is used within Goshin-Jutsu Karatedō; that is, our system’s forms for this weapon. Our weapons training serves as a supplement and teaching aid to our empty-hands training, and it primarily consists of practicing the and analyzing the bunkai for the following kata:
For more information on tonfajutsu, please consult Fumio Demura's Karate Weapons of Self-Defense: The Complete Edition, or a used copy of his earlier book, Tonfa: Karate Weapon of Self-Defense. (Though this might seem like a cop-out, no one can do a decent job of teaching tonfajutsu without blatantly plagiarizing that book in some way.)
Tips on selecting tonfa
Tonfa are easily obtained; they are a standard item in martial arts supply stores, websites, and catalogs. The no-frills base-model tonfa will suit your needs; avoid any bladed licensed movie replicas or anything with the “mall ninja” aesthetic. The tonfa must cover the entire forearm. Ideally, the body of the tonfa extends past the elbow, to add extra power to rear and outside elbow strikes. To prevent the tonfa from sliding off your forearm, they should be shaped such that your forearm rests on a flat edge.
Tonfa should be made of a quality hardwood, like oak or cherry, to offer resistance against bladed weapons or polearms.