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A quarterstaff is a medieval English weapon, consisting of a shaft of hardwood, sometimes with metal-reinforced tips. The name is also used for the fighting staves of other cultures, such as the Japanese bo, Chinese gùn, or French bâton.
The etymology of the weapon’s name is unknown, though many suggestions have been advanced, with little justification. Any connection to a unit of length called a staff is almost certainly spurious. One popular theory is that it comes from the way the staff is held: one hand at the center of the staff, and one hand halfway between the center and one end. However, this is probably a folk etymology, as this grip is not actually prescribed in early sources. Other theories link the term to the manner in which the wood is split from the tree, or to its length being equal to the wielder’s height plus another quarter. Because it can be employed as a less-than-lethal weapon, the name may also refer to the act of giving quarter (showing mercy, pity, or pardon to a defeated enemy).
The quarterstaff may be made from many kinds of wood, commonly ash, oak, hazel, or hawthorn. It may have metal spikes or caps at one or both ends; these are depicted or referred to in some Elizabethan and Jacobean sources. The length of the staff varies, typically ranging from 1.8 m to 2.7 m (6 to 9 feet); in addition, long staves of 3.6 to as much as 5.4 metres (12 to as much as 18 feet) were employed in Early Modern times. The weapon seems to have become shorter and lighter later in its history, though 3-meter staves (made of bamboo or ash) wood were still sometimes employed in Victorian England.
The quarterstaff is effectively a long two-handed club, although its weight distribution is generally even throughout its entire length (some forms did have weighted tips, however). It was used both to deliver crushing blows, and to thrust like a spear. The art of using the staff was closely related to that of other polearms, and it was often employed as a training weapon for the latter. Moves include many different forms of blocks, thrusts, strikes, and sweeps.
The staff, being a very simple weapon to manufacture, has a long history of use, and a wide cultural dispersion. The staff is a traditional weapon of many Asian martial arts. The quarterstaff proper was historically a common weapon in England, where it is featured in the Robin Hood legend as the favorite weapon of Little John. There are also many tools that can easily be used as or quickly converted to a staff.
The oldest surviving treatise describing staff combat dates from the 15th Century though George Silver describes its use as being similar to that of the two handed sword. During the 1500s quarterstaves were favoured as weapons by the London Masters of Defence and by the 1700s the weapon became popularly associated with gladiatorial prize playing. A modified version of quarterstaff fencing, employing bamboo or ash staves and protective equipment adapted from fencing, boxing and cricket was revived as a sport in some London fencing schools and at the Aldershot Military Training School during the later 1800s.
A simplified form of quarterstaff fencing and training was practiced by members of the international Boy Scouts movement during the early decades of the 20th century.
The use of the quarterstaff is among the variety of traditional European weapon styles that have been revived within the historical European martial arts movement.