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Hunter B Armstrong: Hoplology


Hunter B. Armstrong

Hunter B Armstrong interviewed by
Mr. Hunter B. Armstrong is a man who has dedicated his life to hoplology. Training in karate since the early sixties, his personnal training has been primarily in the Koryu tradition of Shinkage Ryu Heiho. For years, Mr. Armstrong and his family lived in Japan, where he could further his understanding of martial arts.
He is a leading authority on martial arts and is currently the director of the International Hoplology Society (IHS), founded by late Donn. F. Draeger.

Hoplology is a word few of us come across in our training, I don't believe many people know what it is. Can you explain to us what Hoplology is?

The field I work in, hoplology, is the study of the evolution and development of human combative behavior and performance. While that certainly includes what are popularly called the "martial arts," hoplology is both much broader and deeper, covering the full spectrum of human combative endeavors. On a popular basis, the current usage of "martial arts" applies rather restrictively and inaccurately to virtually any Asian fighting art, and few if any Western, Mid-Eastern, African, etc. fighting arts. This, unfortunately, is just the start of the myriad inaccuracies and unfounded myths and legends endemic to the "martial arts." Over the years, in hoplology, we have found it best to attempt to maintain a discrete distance from the world of popular "martial arts" in order to remain as objective as possible. 
Hoplology is a term derived from Hoplos and Hoplites.
Hoplology is a term derived from Greek terms hoplos and hoplites

What do you mean by "martial arts"?

Hoplologically and linguistically "martial" refers to things military. In hoplological terms, "martial arts" refers to those systems that evolved or were designed for, of, and by battlefield combat.

What most people are actually referring to when they say "martial arts," are civilian fighting systems. The great majority of the popular "martial arts" are just such civilian systems. While some of these-kendo, European saber fencing, some military-based quanfa-are derived from battlefield combative systems, the great majority are derived from civilian self-defense systems. Even many of the systems that are derived from battlefield arts, such as kendo, have long since evolved away from their origins, into totally different end functions, and are no longer martial at all. 

Once used by Samurai, Kendo has become a recreational sport
photo courtesy of Aline Yuri Ieiri

Why is there so many styles and fighting systems around the world? Which one holds the ultimate truth?

Fighting systems, like speech patterns are idiosyncratic, and each will tend to match the characteristics of the individual performing it. In true fighting systems, the most important factors are the principles that are taught within the system which if learned, allows the individual to dominate in combative environments. The principles are essentially universal, and are as much psychological as they are biomechanical. However, each culture will manifest the principles' use and instruction in a different way. As well, the individuals within the culture who have the capacity to be teachers will put their own individual stamp upon the style of instruction and use of those universal principles. As a result, worldwide, we have a huge number of classical fighting systems for real combat, and an even larger number of systems that have evolved with neither the test of combat nor time.

As to the "best" martial art, that is that one that works when you need it. 

So basically, every culture on the world has its own way of fighting, but then , why do we only hear about Asian martial arts?

The main difference with Asian systems is that so many are still extant. This is as much due to an accident of history as anything else. It is very interesting to note that if you look into contemporary documents from different cultures around the period from roughly around 1400's through the 1700's, Western and Near Eastern cultures, as well as Asian cultures have a good deal of very similar material pertaining to martial (battlefield) arts. Using Europe as an example, the firearm came into ever widening and more effective use during that same period. At the same time Europe was going through an extremely violent period of warfare among numerous ethnic and cultural groups. Warfare, of course, is one of the biggest instigators of evolution in weapons and their systems, particularly when the combatants come from widely ranging cultural groups, such as was going on from in Europe through to the Near East. This environment demanded that weapons and systems change at a very rapid pace, to be survival effective. The more effecitve the firearm became, the less useful the cold weapon systems became. In the long run, the cold weapons systems simply could not compete against the battlefield use of firearms. These systems were less and less practiced, until they virtually ceased to exist, or were only maintained as indoor remnants of themselves (e.g., fencing). 

boy vs tank: No amount of martial arts training can help this young lad.
No amount of martial arts training can help this young lad.
photo from

In contrast, while firearms were used in Asia, it was not nearly on so wide a basis. The great majority of battlefield and civilian combat was waged with cold weapons from Japan through China and into India. Even after firearms became more predominant, due to varying cultural reasons-for example in China firearms were extremely rare among civilians even late into the 19th and 20th centuries; in Japan, the firearm was banned from non-Shogunate use from 1600 until the late 1800's-cold weapons and their systems of use were still the main option to the great majority of the population.

The attractiveness of the Asian systems to so many Westerners now is their promise of "magic." Everybody wants a secret, magical method of achieving whatever their ends. In fighting, a secret or mysterious fighting system seems to promise mystical methods of defeating an opponent. Asian systems are often linked to secret energies (qi, ki, prana, etc.) that purport to enable the practitioner to perform incredible feats in combat. The truth that capability is based on hard work in training is too mundane. It's much easier to sell magic. 

shaolin_monks increadible feats can be attributed to hard work.
Shaolin monks incredible feats should be attributed to hard work
photo from

As to the true differences between Asian systems and Western, other than cultural idiosyncracies, there is really very little difference. Empty-hand systems tend to be divided (unrealistically, mind you) into striking/kicking systems, grappling systems, and joint-locking systems (actually a sub-category of grappling). You can find these variants throughout the world and throughout the technological range of societies, from nomadic pastoralist groups to subsistence farming villages to industrialized cities. And they're all very similar: there are only so many ways a human body can throw an effective punch or kick; there are only so many ways a wrist or elbow can be locked; and there are only so many ways the body can seized in a grappling hold. And everyone of these ways has been discovered by a wide variety of different societies. This truth holds as well for the use of weapons: the effectiveness of blades in cutting, points in penetrating, clubs in crushing, etc. is limited, and the best means of doing any of them was discovered long ago in many different places. 

Are the Asians the only ones that have fixed set of movements refered as "forms" or "kata"?

Many cultures use what we call "pre-arranged movement patterns" (PMP) for training. In many cultures that have developed specific fighting systems PMP are often the main means of training for those systems that are aimed at mortal combat (battlefield systems, law enforcement, civilian self-defense, etc.). Sport combat systems, on the other hand, while they might have portions of their training in pre-arranged formats, will tend to stress more free-play - sparring, fencing, randori, kumite, etc.

Pre-arranged Movement Patters, are the most functional means of training weapon movements for realistic application. The Romans used PMP for training their soldiers with the gladius and scutum (sword and shield); the Greeks used PMP as well, likely in the form of what is sometimes referred to as hoplomachia or warrior dance. Zulu spear and stick fighting also utilize PMP. In the development of European fencing, before it became completely sporterized, PMP were extensively used, particularly in the Spanish schools. 

National_Geographic_Pre-arranged combat codified
Murals at beni hasan of ancient Egypt showing grappling

What do you see in the future of martial arts?

As with any other cultural artifact, fighting arts follow the processes of social darwinism. Their functions will evolve to suit the needs/desires of those using them; and, of course, their forms will alter to suit those functions. Currently, the majority of the pop martial arts have functions that have more to do with entertainment and recreation than use in combat. However, there are less well-known systems of combat that have evolved for combat and are still being used for combat, and are still evolving to suit the changing environments of our age. 

In regards to fighting arts for mortal combat, as long as humans engage in combat of one type or another, systems of combat will develop and evolve to meet the needs of humans in combat. Systems that aren't survival adaptive, for whatever reason, will die natural deaths. 

Similarly, those systems aimed at other than lethal combat have different evolutionary pressures to respond to. We have seen large changes in the pop martial arts since they started becoming popular in the West, and those changes will continue. 

To learn more about Mr. Armstrong and Hoplology, check out International Hoplology Society

For more work from Aline Yuri Ieiri please visit
Last Updated on Tuesday, 16 March 2010 21:04  

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