The Tonfa is one of the classic "Poor Farmer's" weapons which became very common in Japan during the era of the Shogunate, a repressive feudal system which began around 1100 AD and lasted for 700 years. As with most of the enduring martial arts, the study of weapons such as the Tonfa was born of necessity. Japanese nobility forbade anyone not of noble blood (i.e. the commoners, over 95% of the population), to bear arms of any sort. This law allowed for the occasional abuse of power on the part of the Samurai, the noble warrior class. Some practitioners of the "Poor Farmer's" weaponry arts took up the practice in order to protect themselves from the transgressions of the armed, noble class. Others were revolutionaries bent on overthrowing the Shogunate.
Whatever their motivation was, the developers of weapons like the Tonfa were forced by the laws of the land into utter secrecy. This meant they had to hide both the development and the practice of their weaponry, which led to some truly incredible feats of creative disguise and ingenuity. The Tonfa is a perfect example of this ingenuity: it was originally taken from the handles of grindstones. One of the most common crops on the Feudal Japanese manors was wheat, so naturally the grindstone was a very common tool. Consequently, the average Samurai would take no special notice of a commoner dressed as a skilled engineer or handyman carrying a pair of grindstone handles. All the Samurai would see would be a lowly handyman going to fix a grindstone, right up to the point where the "handyman" flips the "handles" out and they become hardened, perfectly balanced 18-inch extensions of his arms.
The Tonfa was originally developed on the small island of Okinawa to the south of the Japanese mainland. It was probably conceived early in the Shogunate era, perhaps around 1200 AD. The Tonfa made a perfect blunt weapon for the Okinawan farmers, because it was small enough to be concealed under robes. The wooden handle it was derived from had to be heavy and well balanced to be put to use with a heavy grindstone without snapping, and yet smooth and easy to grip in order to be turned quickly.
Tonfas are traditionally wielded in matched pairs, one in each hand. The starting grip for a Tonfa is to place the short handle in one's fist, with the long arm resting against the heel of one's hand and back along the bottom of the forearm. This grip provides a sort of armor or brace along one's forearms, and also provides reinforcement for elbow strikes, forearm strikes, and punches. From this position the long arm of the Tonfa can be swung out to make extended, swinging strikes. From the position of holding the long arm out, one can also make quick, powerful thrusts. Skilful Tonfa wielders will also from time to time flip the weapon over and grip it by the base of the long arm. This turns the handle into a hook or claw that can be used for powerful strikes, or to grab the opponent or his weapon.
The Tonfas tend to be used for close-quarters fighting; they are fare more often tucked against the arm as first described above than extended. Even extended, the Tonfa only has a reach of roughly one and a half the length of one's arm.
Some non-traditional western enhancements to the basic Tonfa design include the use of aluminum instead of wood, making a Tonfa lighter, more maneuverable, and far more durable. Also, the integration of a pivoting or ratcheting handle greatly improves the speed with which a Tonfa can be swung.
More Blunt Weapons