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The Influence of Spanish Swordsmanship on Filipino Martial Arts

Mamerto Adan is an engineer by profession, but a writer by night. He loves toys and knives. He also has a martial arts background.



In December 11, 2009, Arnis, a Filipino fighting method was declared as national sports. Though widely practiced in various school competitions, there is more to Arnis than just games. Many students might view Arnis the same way as any other event, but the Arnis being taught in schools is actually a watered-down version. The original form of Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) encompasses various weapons disciplines. Swords, clubs, knives, even empty hands (with grappling included) are part of its curriculum, though training methods might vary depending on styles or schools. Others might focus on sticks. Others are more blade oriented, while some has advanced level of empty hands training (in the cases of Yaw-yan and Sikaran).

Being a battlefield fighting method and dueling discipline, FMA’s level of realism is admired in the martial arts circle. Such reason made it a favorite in the military, law enforcement and civilian self-defense. FMA gained considerable following in the western nations, and at some point, it was compared with elements of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). And chances are, FMA carried a bit of Spanish Martial Arts.

The blurred history of FMA

A Filipino Kampilan.

A Filipino Kampilan.

People often pointed out that some FMA schools advertised their arts as pure Filipino origin. Being a precolonial fighting method is one of the selling points of some FMA schools, up to a point that varying histories of its origins were presented. In fact, there are even books claiming how FMA was used against Magellan’s forces in Mactan with great effects. Claims like Magellan was killed not by a sword, but by rattan stick also surfaced, sort of to demonstrate the power of FMA (although ratan sticks was never used during that period). And the Spanish conquered the nation though firearms, with their fighting styles as inferior.

The problem here, as critics suggested is that such claims were based not from historical facts but from national pride. Accounts of the Battle of Mactan told a different story, like how Magellan was killed by being bum-rushed, and the Spaniards were overwhelmed by superior numbers. Then, we have to consider that firearms back in those days were slow reloading, with the soldiers still trained to fight hand-to-hand.

But perhaps the biggest problem here is how FMA was sold as pure precolonial martial arts, with forms and techniques being unchanged since before the arrival of Spain. And to begin with, the origin of FMA was indeed blurred.

Possible Origin

Indonesian Silat.

Indonesian Silat.

As a whole, tracing the history of many Asian martial arts is always a challenge, with some being exaggerated through legends and myths. In the case of FMA, the fact that the Philippines never existed back then presents new sets of problems.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards, only individual precolonial kingdoms existed. These kingdoms are in constant wars with each other, giving rise to warrior society. Within these warring states were their own martial arts, and its separate histories. Hence, the precolonial martial arts histories may be unique to the ancient Visayans, Moros, Tagalogs and much more. But precolonial kingdoms had contacts with outside nations through trade. Exchanges of ideas and cultures happened, and so were knowledges of combats. The Indian martial arts Silambam, a stick-based discipline influenced the Indonesian Silat, which in turn influence various precolonial fighting styles. Others, like Chinese traders also contributed to the birth of our ancestors' martial arts. In fact, some locals still practice Kuntao, a localized Chinese martial art.

Indeed, the fighting skills of the ancient Filipino warriors were well noted by the Spaniards. But as Spain colonized the Philippines, they recruited with them local warriors in their militia.

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The Spanish Martial Arts

The conquistador morion.

The conquistador morion.

Local recruits being trained in the Spanish military received lessons in European swordsmanship. And from there, these newly learned skills were integrated to native fighting system, hence creating a stye of its own.

Native Filipinos also learned Spanish martial arts from the assigned friars.

Although clergymen were often loathed at present for being the instrument of colonization, one cannot deny that they also contributed to the welfares of the natives in many ways. And one of which was protection of the natives.

In the absence of effective defenses, priests often took arms, as in the case of various conflicts such as pirate attacks and the British invasion. They also trained citizen militia to put up resistance, and in the process exposing the people to Spanish weapons system.

But one might wonder what particular of style of swordsmanship influenced the FMA.

European Elements

Arnis in a competition.

Arnis in a competition.

Some sources suggested that the Spanish rapier and dagger system were included in FMA. But upon practice and observations of FMA techniques, one might find such notion as problematic. FMA weapon handlings are known for slashes, with fewer thrust, unlike the Spanish rapier system. FMA are also practiced in closer ranger, and with shorter weapons. Plus, the stances of the modern Espada y Daga (sword and dagger) of FMA differs greatly from the Spanish system. And historically, rapiers were civilian swords, and the weapons of the upper classes, and the Spaniards during the early years of colonization were coming from seafaring and military backgrounds. They favored the battlefield “cut and thrust” blades, and fought using the styles of sword masters, like Manciolino, Marozzo, Altoni, Agrippa, and Di Grassi and Carranza and de Narvaez.

Interestingly, the use of FMA in closer ranges and utilization of slashes suggested a relationship with the military Spanish swordsmanship. From here, we could say that the sword styles of soldiers and sailors, ideal in the cramped environment of ships during boarding operations had influences on FMA.


Some FMA masters and practitioners might not like the sound of their arts having traces of the colonizers. But history will have the final say, and yes it never cared about nationalism. Martial arts all over the world is ever evolving, and practitioners absorbed what they deemed are useful. In fact, the Korean martial arts Taekwondo has traces pf Karate. The same is true for FMA. Being influenced by Spanish weapons system never made it less Filipino . FMA is unique, being the result of Asian and Spanish systems being merged into one.


1. Clements, John (n.d.). "The Influence of Spanish Renaissance Swordsmanship on Filipino Martial Arts?" The Arma.

2. Mallari, Perry Gil (28 September 2009). "Possible Foreign Influences on the FMA." FMA Pulse.

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