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By Pat Lisi, Southern Utah Vets Aid


All 5 branches of the military use “pugil sticks” for simulated bayonet training.  Instead of ‘fixing’ real bayonets to the barrel end of rifles and then pretending to skirmish, training that would certainly have severely ugly and bloody consequences, padded sticks are employed for these instructional sessions.


But, don’t let the heavy foam pads that grace the two ends of a pugil stick fool you; when you get hit by someone wielding a pugil stick in a proficient manner, plan on accepting the pain that is sure to accompany the blows. 


Pugil stick training goes back to the 30’s and was born in the United States Army.  However, soon after that the Marines, Navy and the Air Force, and even the Coast Guard, saw the value in providing realistic bayonet training by incorporating the famed pugil stick. 


Regardless of the branch of service almost all pugil sticks are built the same.  Over time, the sticks have been improved with lighter padding that actually absorbs more of the impact; with padded hand grips that protect the fingers and wrists of the combatants; and better head gear and groin protection are now part of modern day bayonet training by way of pugil sticks.


When I went through Marine Corps boot camp in 1968 is when I was first introduced to pugil stick fighting.  I thought I was pretty tough in high school until I met other adolescent young men in boot camp who were full of piss and vinegar like me and wanted to show off how hard-hitting and dangerous they could be.  We went at it very tenaciously and deliberately in the sand pits at MCRD San Diego, as you did not want to disappoint your drill instructor (DI) by losing a match against your opponent who was always from another platoon within your company of recruits.


The easiest way to lose a pugil stick fight (or any other fight for that matter) is to charge into the middle of the pit with eyes closed, and then swing the stick furiously in hopes of connecting with someone’s head.  The whole purpose of the training is to get used to the various terms and techniques that come with real fixed bayonet combat:  Like the thrusts, parries, horizontal and vertical butt strokes, lunges, slashes, etc.  If you go into the battle with eyes closed all you’re going to accomplished is to get yourself killed, and in boot camp losing your pugil matches meant spending time later on with your DI when all your fellow recruits were done training for the day.


Being a sort of ruffian back home I did very well with pugil stick fighting.  But in boot camp you also never want to really show off or brag about your conquests.  There is a limit to bravado you want to display to your DI.  In other words, if you think you’re pretty hot stuff the DI’s will simply increase the intensity of the challenge.  So, when I thrust my ‘bayonet’ into the stomach of my very first opponent in the sand pit that first day, and then followed up with a horizontal butt stroke to his head that knocked him to the ground, His drill instructor immediately sent Two more recruits armed with pugil sticks to come to their fallen comrade’s rescue!   I stood them off as long as I could but sooner or later I was outnumbered and outsticked, and I ended up along with a handful of other recruits in my herd getting a remedial ‘opportunity’ later on with our drill instructor, if you know what I mean.


Another training tool that accompanied the pugil stick was a short length of rubber hose, to simulate a K-bar or perhaps a bayonet that was not ‘fixed’ to the rifle but instead used as a hand-held weapon.  Again, there were actual moves and techniques taught by qualified self-defense instructors who all seemed to be heavily-belted martial arts experts.  I always thought the coolest move was to come up behind an enemy and, in one swift motion, wrap your empty hand around his mouth and jaw, tug his head your way, and then slip the point of the “knife” down into his throat (as opposed to slicing his throat from one side to the other). 


Sometimes during the course of a training day in the sand pits the DI’s would send a recruit into the center with a “knife” to face an opponent armed with a pugil stick (“bayonet mounted on a rifle”).  These were always exciting skirmishes and the guy with the pugil didn’t always win.  If the recruit with the rubber hose was fast enough and could get inside the others’ range, he could ‘tie up’ his attacker and make short work out of his attacker, and would taste victory.  Of course, there were also fights that matched up knife fighter against knife fighter; or two recruits with knives against one with a pugil stick, and so forth. 


You can get hurt hitting someone else with a pugil stick.  A buddy of mine from the same high school but a year older than me, Don “Butch” Nisius, who was a very muscular lad and pretty much one of the toughest guys on the entire east side of Madison, Wisconsin actually broke his own hand in boot camp by the force generated when he clubbed his opponent in the head with a horizontal butt stroke.  The break was bad enough to set him back in his recruit class as his hand and wrist were put in a cast.  He was on light duty for a month, at which time he resumed his recruit training, graduated, and then went on to Camp Pendleton/ Vietnam.


Pugil stick fighting is not reserved just for boot camp.  I know throughout the Marine Corps there are “field days” (tournaments) with lots of events to show physical prowess, including pugil stick competitions.  The matches are ferocious even though refereed, but very few injuries occur due to the protective nature of the equipment. 


Bayonet training was one of the most fun aspects of boot camp for me.  It proved to be a very humbling experience and made me realize that there is lots of work to be done before one moves on to real combat.  You simply cannot train enough, and pugil sticks have stood the test of time as a realistic and viable tool in the military.   


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