The Oldest Gym in America?

This gymnasium was part of architect W.W. Boyington’s original design for the Hegeler Carus Mansion, which is located at 1307 7th St, La Salle, Illinois.  Spanning the basement and ground levels and dating to the year 1876, the unique design and fittings of this room may represent the oldest surviving example of a private gymnasium in the United States.

Original blueprint of the ground floor and basement of the Hegeler Carus Mansion, including the gymnasium.

The Hegeler Carus gym is also believed to be a uniquely preserved example of a 19th-century Turnverein (gymnastics association) turnhall.

“Turnvater Jahn”

The German Turnverein (“gymnastics association”) was founded in the early 19th century as a confluence of the patriotic and athletic ideals of Freidrich Ludwig Jahn.  Born in the year 1778, Jahn, who became known as the Turnvater (roughly, “Gymfather”), was deeply involved in the struggle to liberate Germany from the tyranny of Napoleon I of France.  He believed that the union of physical confidence, strength and skill with nationalistic fervor would both equip and motivate German youths to defend their homeland against invaders. In this, he was inspired by the classical Greek and Roman traditions of education, which stressed a balanced approach to physical, intellectual and ethical development.

In 1811 Jahn opened his first Turnplatz, or outdoor gymnasium, training some five hundred young men and boys in physical culture.  Although encouraging a spirit of challenging play, Jahn was also known as a strict disciplinarian who insisted upon good manners as well as the perfection of form in physical exercises.   When King Frederick William III of Prussia issued a call to arms on March 17, 1813, Jahn and his Turners were among the first to respond, and their fitness and discipline were proved battle-worthy.  

After Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Jahn became dissatisfied with the new German political regime, and spoke forthrightly in favor of the German people being awarded a constitution.  His Turnverein movement grew in strength, fervency and influence and by 1818 the German government began to perceive the Turners as a subversive organization.  Following the assassination of journalist August von Kotzbue by student radical Karl Sand, who belonged to an organization that had ties to the Turners, the authorities responded by closing Turnverein gymnasia. Later that year, Jahn was arrested on charges of high treason.  He was confined for two years and suffered persecution from the authorities upon his release.  Despite Jahn’s largely retiring from the political arena to pursue a life of scholarship, this persecution continued until 1840, when Frederick William IV ascended to the throne.

The prohibition against the Turners was repealed in 1842 and numerous new clubs were formed, holding to Turnvater Jahn’s ideals of athletic prowess and nationalistic politics.  However, the government remained indifferent to the popular demand for a German constitution and for greater democratic freedom.  Public frustration finally boiled over into open revolution in 1848.  This conflict divided the Turners into two camps: the conservatives, favoring a constitutional monarchy as well as athletic and social programs, formed by the Deutscher Turnerbund, and the more politically radical Demokratischer Turnerbund, under Friedrich Hecker and Gustave Struve.

During this same eventful year, Friedrich Jahn was again thrust into public prominence as an elected representative of the National German Parliament.  However, Jahn’s politics, vitally relevant in defying Napoleon’s tyranny, were now out of step with the more aggressive ideals of many of his followers, and he found himself estranged from the greater part of the movement that he had founded.  Withdrawing from the Turners, embittered and misunderstood, Jahn died in Freiburg on October the 15th, 1852.

The “Forty-Eighters

The 1848 revolution had failed.  A large number of prominent revolutionaries, many of them highly educated, socially progressive professionals, left Germany in an attempt to help establish more democratic societies in the New World.  Many emigrated to the United States of America and to Canada.  Among them were former leaders of the Demokratischer Turnerbund, who quickly established new Turner societies in their new countries, where they became known as the Forty-Eighters.

The first American Turner society was the Cincinnati Turngemeinde, founded by Friedrich Heckler on November 21, 1848.  A number of similar clubs were formed over the next several years, uniting as the Turnerbund or National Turner Association during 1850-51.  Although there were no legal barriers to the establishment of Turner clubs, the Forty-Eighters did meet with substantial opposition at the social level from the anti-immigrant Native American Party, better remembered today as the Know-Nothing Party, from their practice of demanding that members claim to “know nothing” when questioned about Party activities.  As visible representatives of German culture in the United States, the Turners were often harrassed by Know-Nothing Party affiliates.

Despite external harassment and internal political difficulties, the Turnerbund continued to grow and staged a series of successful Turnfests (gymnastics festivals) throughout the country.

However, the heated argument between the Northern and Southern states regarding the issue of slavery was quickly reaching a crisis point.  The pro-democratic Turners largely aligned with the anti-slavery movement and this led in turn to an increase in clashes with the Know-Nothing Party.  One turnfest in Cincinnati was invaded by Know-Nothing affiliates and the ensuing riot resembled a battle.  The Turners were well trained in self- defense and were victorious, but some of them were arrested and charged with assault with intent to kill; these charges were eventually dropped.

At a Turnerbund convention in 1855, the majority of Turners officially stood against slavery and thereafter Turner groups frequently served as bodyguards for Abolitionist speakers.  Meanwhile, however, the political and organizational disputes between regional Turner societies led to the factionalization of the movement.  

In 1860 the Executive Committee of the Turnerbund urged all members to support Abraham Lincoln’s bid for presidency.  After his electoral victory, the Turners were thrust into more violent clashes with pro-slavery and anti-immigrant groups; civil war was just around the corner.

The Turners in the Civil War

As they had when King Frederick William III had declared war against Napoleon, the Turners were among the first to enlist for battle.  In regions where German immigrants were most populous, entire Union companies were recruited from Turner ranks.  Some twenty-four Turner regiments went on to play important parts in the conflict, although the exodus of athletes and organizers into the armed services inevitably weakened the Turnerbund’s cultural and athletic base.  However, regional groups continued to organize turnfests and a Turnerbund convention in Washington on April 3, 1865 served to heal many of the rifts that had opened in the movement during the pre-War years.  

The defeat of the Confederacy at Gettysburg co-incided with the re-unification and re-invigoration of the Turnerbund, which was also bolstered by a new wave of German immigrants.  The relative post-War prosperity of the North, combined with the energy and enthusiasm of the newcomers, many of whom were already trained Turners, saw the American Turnerbund enter an unprecedented period of growth.  During the following decade, old turnhalls (gymnasia and social clubs) were revived or rebuilt and new ones were established.

The Hegeler Carus Mansion Turnhall

Among the new generation of Turnhalls was that built in the LaSalle, Illinois mansion of German-American industrialist Edward C. Hegeler, in 1876.  A partner in the Matthiessen Hegeler Zinc Company, Hegeler had a large family and had architect W.W. Boyington design a private turnhall in the mansion’s basement.  

The Hegeler Carus turnhall was converted into a storeroom during the early 20th century and most of the exercise equipment was stored away in the adjacent basement space, where it remained until 2008, when physical culture historian Tony Wolf paid a visit to the mansion. Recognizing the potentially unique historical significance of the turnhall, he approached the Hegeler Carus Foundation with an offer to locate, identify and reassemble the equipment.

The exterior of the Hegeler Carus Mansion today.

During a family reunion and seminar series arranged by the Hegeler Carus Foundation, Wolf was given the opportunity to search the storage spaces and discovered several key items of exercise apparatus in various states of disassembly. Close examination of the gym’s fittings offered concrete clues as to how and where some of them had originally been arranged.

In 2009 Tony Wolf was appointed to the Advisory Board of the Hegeler Carus Foundation, with special responsibility for the turnhall and its preservation.

Special Features

The Hegeler Carus turnhall is supported by an architecturally unique parabolic arch made of solid brick.  
An adjustable climbing ladder supported by two wall frames.
A large collection of wooden dumbbells and Indian clubs
An early motorized exercycle, probably added to the gym during the 1940s.
“Roman rings” suspended from the ceiling
A climbing pole used by the famous Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki during his early 1890s residence at the mansion.
A horizontal gymnastics pole and support beam
A wall mounted pulley-weight exercising machine
A “teeter ladder”; rare even during the 19th century, this is believed to be a unique surviving example of this type of exercise device.

The mansion’s sports and exercise apparatus collection also includes antique wooden stilts, skis, two extremely early basketball hoops and a set of skittles. Towards extending the turnhall’s collection, the Hegeler Carus trust has also purchased an antique pommel horse and a wooden bowling set.

Tony Wolf also discovered a copy of the book Hausgymnastik für Mädchen und Frauen (“Home Gymnastics for Girls and Women”), written by E. Angerstein and G. Eckler in 1888, on one of the mansion’s bookshelves.  This book includes instructions and illustrations of many of the types of exercise to be performed on the apparatus housed within the Hegeler Carus mansion turnhall.

The Hegeler Carus Turnhall Today

Once reassembled, the turnhall became a highlight of the regular tours of the mansion operated by the Hegeler Carus Foundation. For a time visitors were able to enter the gym space and examine the equipment, but unfortunately one over-eager patron accidentally pulled the climbing pole from its display moorings, and so now viewings are only available from the stairs and landing. Occasional exceptions can be made by arrangement, as when Tony Wolf demonstrated some of the equipment to a group of Bartitsu enthusiasts in connection with the 2nd annual Bartitsu School of Arms event in September of 2012.

In 2013 the adjustable ladder was damaged by vandals attempting to break into the mansion through one of the basement windows, but luckily the building’s alarms repelled them before any further damage could be done.

At present the gym remains a unique example of a 19th century turnverein-style turnhall and it is believed to be the oldest private gym in the USA, if not the world. While light preservation is carried out as required, long-term plans include the full professional restoration of the gym and its equipment; however, that will be a massively expensive undertaking, as the entire mansion is slowly restored to its former glory.

In the meantime, prospective visitors are welcome to tour the mansion.

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“Speculations on the Slungshot”

A recent search through the archives revealed this long-forgotten, 2007-vintage article speculating on the martial use of the Monkey’s Fist or slungshot, a weapon associated with ruffians (especially sailors on shore-leave) rather than with ladies and gentlemen. The article was originally produced for the now-moribund Historical Maritime Combat Association.

Vague memory suggests that the article was intended to be illustrated with technical photographs, but that never happened, so feel free to use your imagination.

Speculations on the Slungshot

by Tony Wolf

When HMCA co-founder John Lennox asked me to look into the use of the Monkey’s Fist slungshot as a weapon, my first response was, “it’s a heavy knot – you clobber people with it.”  

Subsequent explorations into the history of this nasty little weapon have shed precious little more light. If any Jack Tar or scurvy sea-dog ever wrote a manual on this subject, that document has not survived unto the present day. The bulk of this article is, therefore, based on my own experiments with the weapon rather than upon any historical precedent or model.  

For the sake of setting the ground rules, though, we can say categorically that a slungshot typically features a small but heavy ball, or several balls, often made of lead, enclosed in a macramé “Monkey’s Fist” knot and attached to a cord, leather or hemp rope lanyard.  Their original, non-martial purpose was to load lines, to facilitate casting said lines on board ship, between two ships, from dockside to a ship or vice-versa. From this utilitarian function they naturally found use as improvised weapons, favored especially by sailors during the 19th century, and have been described by one writer as “a sort of unspiked, pocket-sized version of the medieval morning star.”

Unlike most of the weapons of the HMCA, the slungshot seems to have been associated not so much with combat aboard ship as with street-fights in dock towns.  It’s not difficult to imagine the crimp-gangs of the day using slungshots to subdue their victims, who might wake up as headachy, involuntary conscripts on a slow haul to Shanghai.  From thence the lore of the weapon spread quickly to street gangsters, and the slungshot gained infamy both as a melee weapon and as a mugging implement.  It is in from the police and court reports and popular fiction of the 1800s that we receive most of our scant knowledge of the weapon and its historical use.  

The final evolution of the slungshot appears to have been as a weapon associated with the indigent population of the Great Depression, and to this day, the craft of tying Monkey’s Fist lanyards, partly as symbols of solidarity, is associated as much with the hobo sub-culture as with traditional sailor-craft.

The quest for specific historical information is hampered by the fact that “slungshot” is a slang term of imprecise meaning.  The nature of the weapon is broadly agreed upon as a heavy weight at the end of a short, somewhat flexible handle, but within that frame of reference also fall weapons such as the “life preserver” – a whalebone cosh tipped with a lead ball, favoured by middle-class Victorian Londoners as a last line of defense against “garroters” – and saps (typically, cylindrical leather or canvas bags, the business end weighted with sand or lead shot).  

For that matter, there are surviving examples of what appear to be Monkey’s Fist slungshot weapons, featuring the archetypal “weight-in-a-knot” at the end of a heavily braded rope handle; home-made “life preservers” sans the expensive whalebone.  

So, we can assume (and I have) that to the lusty sea-dogs of the 1800s, their assorted enemies, victims and the lawmakers of the time, a slungshot was understood to be a nasty weight at the end of a flexible or semi-flexible handle.  For purposes of this R&D project, I’ve assumed that the “classic” Monkey’s Fist is, specifically, a weight at the end of a short rope lanyard.

Onward, though; how was the weapon actually used in close combat?

You clobber people with it.

The majority of non-fictional, newspaper references to the slungshot as a weapon speak of victims being incapacitated by a blow, or blows to the head:

“The row first began in a scuffle between Lieut. Fulton and Mike Green. Then Jim T.  struck Green a blow from a slungshot on his head and cut it badly …”

“One of them hit me over the head with a slungshot, and then they started shooting at me.”

“After driving a little way, Thresher struck the farmer on his head with a slungshot.”


During my research  I was delighted to come across a passage in the estimable Herbert Asbury’s “Gangs of New York”, which I shall reproduce here.  The story goes that Mike McGloin, then a captain of the Five Points gang known as the Whyos, had murdered saloon owner Louis Hanier:

Hanier protested when he came across McGloin robbing his till, and the indignant gangster promptly killed him with a slungshot.  Said McGloin the day after the murder; ‘A guy ain’t tough until he has knocked his man out!’”

In fact, criminal records show that the murder weapon was actually a 38. caliber pistol rather than a slungshot, but Asbury was not inclined to let the facts ruin a good tale.

A later member of the Whyos, Piker Ryan, evidently took McGloin’s tough-guy dogma to heart and offered the following services:

Punching $2 

Both eyes blacked $4 

Nose and jaw broke $10 

Jacked out $15 

Ear chawed off $15 

Leg or arm broke $19 

Shot in the leg $19 

Stab $25 

Doing the big job $100 and up

Incidentally, the name of the Whyo gang was onomatopoeic; their battle-cry sounded like “Why-oh!”, perhaps connecting them to the Irish faction fighters of the same period and earlier, who were known for their battle-cry of “Whirroo!” But I digress.

In the slungshot we find a curious combination of melee weapon and mugging weapon.  No matter which way you’re going to use it, though, the first issue is where to store the damned thing until it’s time to bring it into action.

Carrying and concealment

Let’s assume that we’ve made port in San Francisco.  The year is 1858 and you’ve been at sea for the past three months.  In anticipation of painting the bad old town red, you take a moment to retrieve your favorite slungshot (the one with the fancy macramé work and the big old lead surprise in the middle).

So as not to attract any attention until the time is ripe for it, you need an unobtrusive carry method.  There are basically three options for concealing the slungshot prior to use.  The first is simply to stow it in a trouser or vest pocket – nice and secure, but you don’t want to be fumbling for your weapon if trouble finds you unexpectedly.

A better quick-draw option is to employ the fist-wrap grip (see below) and load the weights and the rest of the lanyard up your sleeve.  From this position you can simply unbutton (or, faster, rip open) your cuff and the slungshot will be ready for instant deployment.

The third and best option if you’re planning on starting the fracas rather than waiting for it to come to you is to fist-wrap grip the lanyard loop and conceal the rest of the cord and the weights in the palm of your closed hand.

Using the weapon

Based on a hoplological analysis of the weapon itself, it’s safe to say that – aside from its potential as a projectile weapon, which is beyond the scope of this essay – the slungshot has three primary functions. It may be used as a flail, a fist-load, and a garrote. Of these three, documentary evidence and common-sense suggest that the first was the most common.

Gripping the lanyard for flailing

Here much depends on the type of slungshot you have to hand, and I will assume that yours is like most of mine, featuring an open loop at the non-business end.  This loop is wide enough to comfortably slip your wrist through it, which is a valid way to secure the weapon, but there are other methods.

The disadvantage with the wrist-loop grip is that in the unlikely event of an opponent grabbing the lanyard, he will easily be able to strip it from your grasp and thus, by hauling on the loop around your wrist, control your arm.  

The finger grip is best suited to very short slungshots. As with the wrist grip, it is not difficult for an enemy, upon grabbing a long lanyard, to yank it and thus control your arm; chances are that a strong yank would break your finger as well.

A more secure and powerful grip is what I have come to call the fist-wrap grip, mentioned above.

Using the fist-wrap grip facilitates flailing strikes and at least offers a fighting chance should it come to a tug-of-war between yourself and your opponent, in that it offers a bit more leverage and thus a moment to head-butt, punch with the free hand, kick, knee or gouge.

Layin’ yer man low

I’ve decided upon mid-1800s pugilism as a suitable base system for the slungshot, bearing in mind that it appears to have been much more a weapon of predation – a cheap shot, a surprise attack – than a dueling weapon per se.  

The work of Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836), the famous British champion prize-fighter, was extremely influential during his lifetime and for decades thereafter and serves as an excellent model in developing a systematic application for the Monkey’s Fist slungshot.  Although it is outside the brief of this article to present Mendoza’s method in detail, I’ll assume that you’re either already familiar with it, of that you’ll take the time to study his five Lessons, which are available online.

We will also make some reference to the “Simpler Method of Boxing” outlined by Donald Walker in his treatise “Defensive Exercises” (1840).  Walker borrows liberally from Mendoza at two removes, probably via the anonymous “Art and Practice of Boxing” and “The Modern Art of Boxing”.

Essentially, the system I’m proposing uses the offensive and defensive skills of 1800s pugilism, augmented and supplemented by various dirty tricks, to set up your coup de grace(s) with the Monkey’s Fist slungshot; or alternatively, we could look at this method as a complementary system designed to employ the slungshot according to the basic principles of bare-knuckle boxing.  Given the widespread popularity of boxing during the 1800s, it seems not unreasonable to assume that a sailor armed with a slungshot and left to his own devices might base his fighting strategy to some extent on that of pugilism – but London Prize Ring Rules be damned, this is Barbary Coast street fighting!

Though your fists, and by extension, the slungshot, may be your primary weapons,  you will do well to remember the utility of head-butts, shoulder-checks, swift knees into the fork or the belly; even biting, gouging and hair-pulling if needed to get the job done. You might care to read Elliot Gorn’s excellent essay, “Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch” for a sense of the prevailing attitudes and tactical possibilities of no-holds-barred fighting during this era.

The Yoyo Punch – an opening gambit and lesson in the tactics/ethics of the slungshot

Your stalwart crew has come across party of rival bravos and you’ve been elected to kick things off.  Approach the biggest, burliest blackguard and, after a few pleasantries to get him off his guard, clobber him with the yoyo punch.  

The only trick to this move, which is basically the only “thrusting”, linear attack that’s practical with a slungshot, lies in timing your release of the weight(s).  Obviously, you must open your hand at the beginning of the punch and snap it firmly closed or risk losing both your weapon and some measure of self esteem.  

If your victim thinks you’re foolish enough to have launched a right lead-off punch out of distance and raises his hands while leaning back according to Mendoza’s precepts, he will be unpleasantly surprised to discover that your reach is much greater than at first appears.

No matter whether or not this opening gambit strikes home, immediately follow up;  advance on your victim, check his shoulder (or, better, punch to the face with a left lead-off) and continue to rain down overhand rounding blows with your slungshot.  One good crack across the noggin, or behind his ear, will settle his hash for good and all.

Obviously, the Yoyo Punch is best considered as a fight-starter (an, if all goes well, a fight finisher) but the most natural, powerful and versatile attack with the slungshot is the “rounding blow” or roundhouse.

Rounding blows, or the roundhouse sling

The physical dynamics of throwing a solid rounding blow in boxing transfer quite directly to those of flailing with a slungshot, and in fact, some of the following techniques could be described as “boxing at a distance”, which is not a bad way to think about this method as a whole.

That said, “rounding blows” or roundhouse punches per se were not generally favored by scientific pugilists during the 1800s, who much preferred linear, thrusting punches.  There are several very valid reasons for this preference, including the basic geometric advantage of the straight line over the (semi)circle and the fact that the close-quarters range, at which most modern boxers throw their hooks – the contemporary equivalent of the rounding blow – was largely given over to wrestling throws in old-school pugilism.

The chopper (see below) was considered to be a special case and some argument was made to the effect that it could not really be considered to be a rounding blow at all.

So, we’ll listen attentively to Mendoza, Walker et al when it comes to the dynamics of the straight punch and consider for ourselves the dynamics of the roundhouse strike, or “sling”, with the slungshot.

The Shanghai Sling

I use this term to refer not to particular technique, but rather to the “feel” of performing effective roundhouse and chopping attacks with the slungshot.  

The most natural sling is probably to swing the weapon with a straight or nearly-straight arm and you can generate some serious force that way, but at the cost of cover and time and at the risk of sacrificing accuracy for power.  A good Shanghai sling is closer to the action of cracking a whip; one stays relaxed until just before the moment of impact and the real power of the movement comes from shifting your body weight from one foot to the other.

Targets and angles of attack

The right-handed roundhouse sling may be delivered to a variety of targets but the left temple, cheekbone, eye-socket, skull behind the ear and the left side of the neck (carotid artery/vagus nerve) are best.  Frankly, though, unless you have extraordinary accuracy against a moving target in the heat of battle, it’s kind of a crap-shoot as to what you actually hit.  The up-side is that any unimpeded strike with a slungshot to the head, face or neck will hurt like the dickens.

The angle of attack will vary depending on all sorts of factors, not all of them within your control, but the most instinctive and powerful roundhouse slings with the slungshot will be overhand or forehand slings, coming in on angles between 1-3 o’clock.

In a pinch, you could also deal an overhand roundhouse to the lead thigh to hamper your enemy’s movement, but I would not rely on that.

The roundhouse sling in practice

Assume the classic Mendoza pugilism stance.

But wait – look closer.

With the lanyard stretched between your fists, a right handed fist grip on the loop and the weight concealed in your left hand, you’re now in the approved Slungshot Ready Stance!

In practice, you can adopt either the classic Mendoza position or the slightly modified boxing stance proposed by Walker. Either way, we’re now assuming that you are a slungshot fighter opposed to an unarmed man, or at least, someone who is not actually holding a weapon at this moment.

If you’re lucky, your opponent won’t even notice the lanyard and will take you for a moon-calf to offer such a sporting pose.  If you’re VERY lucky he will take you up on the assumed challenge and square off with his fists raised, rather than drawing a cutlass.

For the moment, ostensibly at least, apply the science of fisticuffs.  Spar for an opening, keeping a strong but pliant guard and making such use of the left lead-off as you can, either as a feint or in earnest should the moment present itself.  Guard, evade, etc. exactly as per the instructions offered by Mendoza, Walker or whomsoever is your favoured pugilistic master.

Now, if you have diligently rehearsed your Shanghai Sling – rehearsed it to an almost fanciful degree, but then what else is there to do aboard ship – you may care to risk a snapping shot to your enemy’s lead hand.  If you strike home then you will certainly weaken his resolve.  If you over-reach your aim, easily done in the heat of the moment and against a moving target, you may simply miss, or wrap your lanyard harmlessly around his wrist.  In such a case, it’s important to follow through immediately with a chopper (see below), a left hand to the nose or jaw, a swift boot to the knee or shin, then either closing to grapple or continuing to hammer away high and low.  Leave the wrist-locks and such alone.

The same tactic and attack may be applied to targets about the left side of your enemy’s head and neck., but in these cases it is well to proceed the roundhouse sling with a feint or actual punch – a left lead to the face or mark works well – in order to cover the moment that you release the weight from your right fist.  In these cases the timing is not so much “1,2” as ‘ba-BANG”.

Hit or miss, follow this with another left hand, if the distance is suitable, or just check and push the enemy’s head, chest or shoulder to set them up for another roundhouse sling with the slungshot.  If the distance is better, you can always hit him in the face or neck with your right fist in preparation for a follow-up with the slungshot.  Repeat as needed/desired.

The Right-handed Upper Cut

The right-handed uppercut is a roundhouse sling at a steep upward angle, between 3-6 o’clock, aimed at the underside of the opponent’s jaw.  It’s a devastating strike but a very small target; personally, I would not risk everything on this strike.

Rebounding and cutting across

A right-handed roundhouse that connects can result in the weight either rebounding directly away from the target or “cutting” across to the opposite side of the opponent’s body.  If it rebounds, you have the option of following through with another roundhouse as part of your general assault; if it cuts across you are left in a somewhat vulnerable position for a moment, your right hand having crossed the center-line between your body and that of your enemy.  This may be turned to your advantage via the Chopper.

The Chopper

The Chopper is essentially the reverse of a roundhouse; it is a back-handed flailing strike on the angles between 7-11 o’clock.  Targets are the same as for the roundhouse as well, but likewise reversed (the opponent’s right temple, right side of the neck, etc.)  Now, likewise, a chopper that misses or glances off its intended target sets you up for a roundhouse, and so we go. A continuous sequence of high>low or low>high roundhouse slings and choppers describes a figure-8 pattern.

If we examine Walker’s “simplified guard position” we can see that it sets the defender nicely to counter with a chopper.  This method is especially effective if your opponent does not realize that you have a slungshot stretched between your fists.

Incidentally, I do not recommend the tactic of swinging or twirling the slungshot in figure-8s or circles while out of distance; it can be intimidating but a confident or simply lucky enemy might time their attack to take advantage of the “away” swing.

Elbow, hip, back and shoulder slings

This variation on the Shanghai Sling dynamic assumes that the weight of your slungshot is dangling down behind your back or behind a thigh, shoulder or elbow.  There are basically two reasons for you to be in the position; 1) you’re applying a “come hither” variation of the arms-folded position as a preparation to performing a sucker-punch, or during the heat of the action you’ve missed your target  and your slungshot has wrapped back around part of your own body.  

Do your best to avoid hitting yourself in the back of the head or between the legs (this is another good argument against twirling the slungshot like Bruce Lee’s nunchaku).

However, assuming that you do find your weapon in one of these sub-optimal positions, you can make use of the Shanghai Sling dynamic to bring it back into play.  Again, think of this as a contained whole-body rotation, an undulation or “shimmy” if you like, supported by the strength of your arm but not dependent upon it.

Let’s assume that you’ve missed a roundhouse sling and that the weight has wrapped around your left shoulder.  “Shimmy” to the right, shrugging and slightly rolling your left hip and shoulder in a clockwise circle and lifting/flicking your left elbow to generate and direct the return shot, which will, of course, be a chopper aimed at the right side of your opponent’s head or neck.

The same dynamic can be applied to wraps around your forearms, thighs, etc. and can be used to generate blindside attacks at close range.  Needless to say, you are also making such use of left-handed punches, head-butts, etc. as you can.

These body-contact slings are comparable to some techniques found in Asian martial arts that make use of chain weapons.  As a general guide, any strike beginning from a wrap on your right side will be a roundhouse sling, and any strike beginning from a wrap on your left side will be a chopper.  Experiment and try not to beat yourself up too badly.

Wrapping strikes

Both roundhouse slings and choppers may, by accident or design, be parried by the opponent’s guard.  In such instances the flexibility of the lanyard may be your ally; while the enemy may successfully seek to block or deflect your hand or forearm, especially if he is unaware of the slungshot and assumes that you’re simply boxing with him, the weight will still continue on its path.  Even a partially-deflected blow to the head or neck with a slungshot will not improve his day.  However, a wrapping sling in which the weight connects with the enemy’s shoulder or the broad of his back is unlikely to be anything more than a bruising annoyance.

Again referring to Walker’s “simplified method of boxing”, we can easily see how his right-handed parry against a “rallying” opponent who advances throwing alternate left and right punches, might be augmented if the defender was armed with a slungshot and skilled at wrapping.  The chopper for the win!

Palming and fist loading

By concealing the weight(s) of the slungshot in your left hand, in the manner of a magician “palming” a prop, you have also created a fist load; the extra weight and rigidity will strengthen your fist.  If opportune, you may elect to execute a left lead-off punch as a precursor to deploying the weight in a roundhouse sling, but be aware that the “load” also increases the chances of the punch injuring your own hand, especially in striking a hard target such as the skull or jaw.

Another way to use the palmed weight to your advantage, at somewhat less risk to your knuckles, is to slap or thrust so as to hit your enemy in the face with the weight itself, held in your open left palm, with the lanyard stretched between the bases of your left thumb and fore-finger.  Obviously, the thrust is preferable if you are commencing your attack from in front of your opponent.The dynamics of the open-hand thrust are essentially the same as the left lead-off punch, and the open-hand slap is likewise identical in most particulars to a left-handed roundhouse punch.  

One neat trick if you want to take a man completely off his guard – perhaps you’re a crimper and your quota is light – would be to engage him in friendly conversation, with your arms folded across your chest.  Of course, you are palming the weight in your left hand, the lanyard between the bases of the thumb and forefinger, the loop about your concealed right hand in a fist-wrap.  At the right moment, thrust the weight into his face, then keep shoving his face back with your left palm and simultaneously follow through with a roundhouse or overhand sling, aiming for the temple or the left side of his neck.

Closing to grips: garroting and lanyard throws

Although I would not advocate actively seeking close-quarters combat (body-to-body contact) because it eliminates the range advantage of the slungshot, the fight may well close to this range anyway and it pays to have a battle-plan in place.

You may have thrown a left or right lead-off punch only to miss, or have the punch deflected by your enemy’s guard; conversely, you may have deflected your opponent’s right or left punch.  In either case, there may come a moment when your lanyard, stretched between both fists, is against your enemy’s neck. At such a moment, it may be more expedient to employ a lanyard garrote and/or a throw, than to break contact in order to strike again.

The old dictum, “control the head and the body will follow”, is our guide here.  The pressure of the lanyard against the throat or either side of the neck exerts a tremendously powerful leverage advantage, and combined with the pain factor of having a narrow cord tightened around or pressed across these sensitive areas, it is not difficult to bring the enemy off his balance.  Any of the wrestling throws typically illustrated in 1800s boxing manuals may be augmented by the use of the lanyard stretched between the hands as a garotte.

Note that your goal may not, in fact, be to throw him bodily to the ground, nor to apply a choke per se; it may be sufficient to simply lever him into a position of disadvantage, exploiting his vulnerability to finish the maneuver with a swift knee, punch, head-butt or flailing strike with the slungshot.

The slungshot as an off-hand weapon

Frederick G. Ford and Nathaniel H. Watson had a fight on Saturday night, March 21, 1860.  Watson was struck by Ford with a ‘slungshot’ and then wounded with a bowie knife; he died March 24.  Ford left town immediately after the fight.

  • Semi-Weekly Standard, March 28, 1860.

We don’t know whether Mr. Ford was actually wielding his Bowie and slungshot at the same time, but it’s worth considering the use of the slungshot as a backup weapon, held in the non-dominant hand.  All of the previous advice re. targets and dynamics still applies here, and obviously it pays to become as familiar with left-handed slungshot fighting as with the right-handed version.

The only significant difference, apart from the obvious issue of which hand is holding the slungshot, is the presence of the Bowie knife, boarding axe, belaying pin or whatever you happen to be holding in your dominant hand.  This means that you cannot apply the boxing style of Mendoza to the slungshot, because you can’t grasp the weight in your dominant hand.  In such a case your use of the slungshot is reduced to first principles;  roundhouse and chopping strikes aimed at the enemy’s weapon-bearing hand, head and neck.

Making a real slungshot

I can do no better than to point the reader towards

You can load the knot with any large ball bearing (pinballs work well), a round stone or ball-shaped lead fishing weight. Note that whatever sort of weight you use, it must be perfectly round; a cylindrical or other odd-shaped weight will not be held by the Monkey’s Fist knot.

PLEASE NOTE that actually carrying (or even owning) a real slungshot is illegal in most places!  Save this item for private, full-contact training against inanimate and very tough targets, and watch out for the re-bound effect.  In fact, it’s best to wear face and head protection (see below) while training with a fully-weighted slungshot.

Making a slungshot for partner-contact training

Here I am assuming that you want to be able to hit a training partner with a slungshot and still be friends at the end of the day.

The easiest way to go if you’re keen to get started immediately is to place a soft weight – a soft rubber ball or hackey-sack will do – in the toe of a long sock or several pairs of stockings.  Tie a knot at the toe end to secure the weight and tie a comfortable loop at the other end.

A slightly more elaborate but more durable and professional-looking training slungshot can be made with the following items;

Soft, solid rubber ball (i.e, not a hollow ball – somewhere between the size of a golf ball and the size of a tennis ball is best).

Large screwdriver

2’ length of polypropylene (plastic) rope

Steel washer with a hole big enough to fit the end of the rope through it


Step 1:  Core a hole straight through the ball with the screwdriver.  You will probably need to shove and twist the screwdriver through the ball a number of times to clear the way, because the rubber will tend to yield and split rather than breaking off.

Step 2: Use the screwdriver to push one end of the rope all the way through the hole, so that the end protrudes by about 1”.  This can be a bit fiddly but is entirely achievable.

Step 3: Place the washer over the protruding end of the rope, flat to the surface of the ball

Step 4: Fray the protruding end of the rope.

Step 5: Use the lighter to melt the frayed end of the rope into a semi-solid mass.

Step 6: Press the semi-solid mass against a smooth, hard, cool surface for about 10 seconds, to form a hard plastic “plug”.

Step 7: Tie the other end of the rope into a loop that will fit comfortably around your wrist.

An alternative and simpler method is to use a tennis ball rather than a rubber ball, the only drawback being that a tennis ball is rather larger than a typical slungshot weight.

Some pet-stores sell dog toys (tennis balls connected to short lengths of rope) that closely mimic the shape and form of training slungshots, and it may be worth stopping by your local store if you don’t want to make your own.  

Pass by any of these toys that feature a very hard rubber ball rather than a hollow tennis ball; the hard rubber will hit harder than you want to for purposes of safe training. You may need to tie another short length of rope to the toy to be able to use it in the manner suggested in this article.

The total length of the slungshot should be such that you can comfortably hold the weight in your left hand and the loop in a fist-grip with your right hand while assuming the Mendoza boxing stance.

Armor for slungshot training

Your training partner will require protection.  I would suggest either a lacrosse or hockey helmet and face-screen, a motorcycle helmet or a fencing mask with a leather, foam or plastic screen protecting the rear of the head and neck.  Also wear a gorget or modern sports neck-protector, padded hockey gloves and a groin shield.

Obviously, it is also worth protecting your own hands, particularly if you are training in pugilism-style attacks and counters against a partner wearing a helmet.  Again, hockey gloves will save wear and tear on your knuckles.

Pain tolerance being a very personal thing, it’s worth noting that even a soft rubber ball on the end of a lanyard can bruise and will sting.  Also, the rope may cause friction-burns if it is lashed across bare skin, so feel free to augment these armoring requirements as you see fit.  A fencing jacket, for example, offers much better protection than a t-shirt; padded hockey shorts may be worn to protect the thighs, etc.  By the same token, if you plan on augmenting your slungshot training with contact shin-kicks, knees to the groin, kidney punches, etc. then you will obviously need more elaborate armor;  baseball or hockey knee/shin guards, a martial arts or motocross torso protector and so-on.

A “slungshot” for real self defense …

… can be improvised out of a strong leather belt with a sturdy brass buckle.  This has been a favorite weapon of street gangsters for at least the past hundred and fifty years – the infamous “Scuttler” gangs of Victorian-era Manchester were known for their proficiency at belt-fighting.

Other options for modern-day improvised slungshots include a bunch of keys on the end of a parachute cord or leather lanyard, etc. – use your imagination – but again, bear in mind that these items are (justifiably) considered to be deadly weapons and are banned in most places.


Other than the rehearsal of some of the individual “tricks’ presented herein, preferably against a suitably padded opponent, I can again point the would-be shungshoteer towards Mendoza’s Five Lessons – particularly Lessons Four and Five, which deal with “riposts”.  Run through these sequences with slungshot in hand; the potential benefits of augmenting Mendozan pugilism with a Monkey’s Fist will quickly become apparent.

The left-hand punch as per Mendoza’s instructions may be performed either using the slungshot weight as a fist-load; as an open-handed thrust, driving the weight into the opponent’s face (with some adjustment for distance); or simply as a punch, assuming that the slungshot weight is hanging free.

A few examples, some suggested follow-through attacks indicated in bold print:

Lesson 4


Master’s left strikes at your face.
Parry with your right fore-arm; and return at his face with your left, which he catches in his open hand; overhand roundhouse with the slungshot to left side of his face

His right strikes at your face.
Parry with your left fore-arm, and return at his face with your right ditto; roundhouse blow with the slungshot; cut through and follow up with a chopper.

Lesson 5


The Scholar strikes 1, 2, beginning with the left. Master parries with his left, and riposts with his left at your face.
Parry this ripost by catching the wrist with your left fist, and striking a back-handed blow across his face with your left hand; then a roundhouse blow with the slungshot to left side of his face, then a chopper, etc.

1 at the face, and 2 at the stomach, beginning with your left.
This he will stop with his left, and ripost 1, 2, at your face, beginning with his left. Parry with your left, and return 1, 2 at his face; in this case, 2 could be a roundhouse blow with the slungshot, or a straight punch with the right fist followed by a roundhouse blow with the slungshot; follow through with knee.

… etc.

Frankly, if you’re reading this article than the variations and permutations of possible counter-attacks, etc. will probably already be second nature to you, so I invite you to experiment and have some fun!

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“The League” Doffs its Bowler to Bartitsu

Back in 2015, the popular comedy series The League skewered/paid tribute to Bartitsu in its episode titled “Draft of Innocence”.

Better seven years late than never, here are the two short Bartitsu scenes featured in the show.

For context, the first scene introduces Bartitsu via dinner party conversation with the insufferable “sapiosexual” couple Andre and Meegan (inspiring instant and deep scorn among their friends). In the second scene, however, Andre – “kung fool” and “Tae Kwon Douche” though he may well be – saves everyone from a group of (justifiably) angry Chinese restaurant workers via his surprisingly effective mastery of the New Art of Self Defence.

Note that the second scene features some mildly risqué humour.

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Self-Defence Shoes (1955)

As reported in some American newspapers during September of 1955, an Italian shoemaker was producing “self-defence shoes” for women tired of being harrassed in the streets of Rome.

Although probably created more as a promotional stunt than as a serious self-defence aid, the shoes came equipped with sharp steel prongs or spurs at the toe, heel and at the bottom of the high heel. They would certainly have been better than nothing had the wearer occasion to kick in her own defence (though straight rather than fashionably curved prongs might have been even more effective).

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“Bartitsu: the Gentleman’s Martial Art”

Martial artist Niimi Satoshi offers an idiosyncratic interpretation of both armed and unarmed (neo-)Bartitsu in the first section of this video by Budo Channel Japan.

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“Vigny’s la Canne, Boxing and the Olympics”

Pierre Vigny, role-playing as “the Hooligan” and bearing his signature ball-handled cane, receives a thrust from his wife and fellow self-defence instructor, Marguerite.

Our old colleague Maxime Chouinard has published some original research – a rarity, at present – on Pierre Vigny and his arts of self-defence. The article Vigny’s la Canne, Boxing and the Olympics does sterling service by offering an alternative translation for the 1912 Revue Olympique report on the Vigny style (which, as is noted correctly, was originally translated and published in the Bartitsu Compendium, and which received a revised and annotated translation here in 2018), also identifying the author as none other than modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin!

The article also includes a translation of Vigny’s obituary, as it appeared in Le Journal de Genève of September 23rd, 1943. Here’s an excerpt:

Pierre Vigny, a sportsman of conviction from the start, passed away in Nyon at the age of 77. With him disappears a master who had set a goal of developing ever more defense sports, a branch which is currently abandoned. Maybe we are wrong to forsake self-defence. He himself declared that it is much easier to defend oneself with a stick than a knife or a revolver. He made a point of putting in their place ten adversaries with his method. Pierre (unreadable) as he had very much studied sports such as la canne, fencing, French and English boxing, and jiu-jitsu. But he really excelled in the art of la canne and had perfectioned the French method as to make it much more effective.

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Another Update re. The Bartitsu Compendium, Volume III

The third volume of the Compendium is currently being compiled, following the publications of Volume I in 2005 and Volume II in 2008.

Vol. III opens with a 166-page retrospective on the life and times of Edward Barton-Wright and the rise and fall of his Bartitsu School of Arms in Soho at the turn of the 20th century. This section represents the first truly comprehensive telling of the “Bartitsu story” in a long-form narrative format, drawing from twenty years of intensive research.

A curated Anthology section compiles the best and most interesting articles published on (now between 2008-2019, plus a selection of new articles on subjects of diverse interest to Bartitsu aficionados.

Section 3, “Techniques and Tactics” reveals exactly how Bartitsu combined and distinguished itself from the other antagonistics of its era, via a combination of hard-won historical data and the practical experience of the modern revival movement.

The final section offers a look back at the first twenty years of the Bartitsu revival, including the art’s influence on pop-culture and the activities of the Bartitsu Society as a grassroots, open-source martial arts association.

Stay tuned for further details as the Bartitsu Compendium, Volume III nears publication!

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Bartitsu vs. Wing Chun in “Ip Man: The Awakening”

Set during the turbulent 1930s, this new feature film pits a young Ip Man (Tse Miu) against a British human trafficking ring, including one villain who employs Bartitsu.

Edward Barton-Wright’s “New Art of Self Defence” has influenced fight choreography in feature films before – notably in the Sherlock Holmes duology starring Robert Downey, Jr. and in the Kingsman series – and was both displayed and name-checked in an episode of The League TV series. This scene is, however, the first time the art has been simultaneously shown and described in a feature film, and it’s not a bad representation from a stylistic point of view. The villain demonstrates a blend of each of the source arts of boxing, savate, jujutsu and stick fighting before meeting his just desserts at the Wing Chun-trained hands (and pole) of the unbeatable Ip Man.

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Umbrella-Fu in “In from the Cold”

In this scene from the action series In from the Cold, undercover spy/assassin Anya Petrova (a.k.a. Jenny Franklin/The Whisper, played by actress Margarita Levieva) breaks character to deliver an umbrella beatdown on an array of enemy agents. Alert viewers will note that she employs a couple of classic Bartitsu techniques …

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Physical Culture Historians

This YouTube channel offers a wide range of well-produced short documentaries, lectures, instructional videos and equipment demonstrations in connection with the grand tradition of 19th and early 20th century physical culture.

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