The Combative System of Pierre Vigny,
Master of La Canne
By Ralph Grasso
This article first appeared in Hammerterz Forum – The international Journal of Western Swordplay Traditions -1998 . Republished here on La canne Vigny Home Page with Ralph Grasso’s permission.
At the turn of the century, a western European stick fighting method was enjoying the same degree of popularity as Filipino arnis or eskrima are these days. La Canne could be taught as a competitive sport, or as a method of self-defence, or as a combination of both. There were numerous local and regional variants of the system in its early days, involving different striking patterns and body movements.
Many of these depended on the respective teacher’s background and other combative systems, such as foil, saber, broadsword, even epee play, frequently being supplemented with techniques taken from Savate- la boxe francaise, wrestling – even ballet!
In the last decade of the 19th century, one La Canne instructor gained notoriety for his system’s combative effectiveness. His name was Pierre Vigny.
Little is known about his life. The little we know is derived mainly from a (nowadays rather rare) manual adapted and published by Superintendent of Agency Police in Kathiwar, Lang for the police constabularies of India.
Lang had studied Vigny’s system in Europe and taught it to numerous Indian policemen and instructors until it became the standard system for Indian police stick fighting, replacing lathi and salambam in the process.
Vigny developed his system from the cutting methods of saber and broadsword, combined with his hands-on experience of hostile encounters with the Apaches – the notorious street thugs of Paris. He writes that during these encounters, he was able to ward off and defeat several street Apaches using only his lightweight umbrella in a sword-like fashion.
For La Canne, Vigny also prefers a lightweight cane with a heavier end to use as a striking tool – if the cane was made from Malacca or ash root with a natural thickening or branch knot at the end. The reason for his choice of a lightweight weapon, he wanted all blows to come from a whipping turn of the wrist, and believed that only a certain weight was required to hit if you attacked body parts that are particularly vulnerable. Vigny also held that good speed generated power.
Vigny’s system did not include the numerous spins and acrobatic manoeuvres used in the modern sport of La Canne. The footwork and body positions of his system varied, depending on the particular technique he was using. Patterns resemble those of prize fighting and fencing.
At the turn of the century, Vigny emigrated to New Orleans, where his system became quite popular. Teddy Roosevelt reportedly was tutored in the Vigny system.
Here are a few of his fundamental techniques:
The Front Head Guard
This is the most popular of the six basic guard positions. Resembling the hanging guard of contemporary broadsword and Schlager systems, this positions could be executed with the right leg in front or back.
Gripping the stick about six inches up the thin end, get a good balance; hold the stick. Maintain this grip always. At first the thumb will have a tendency to rest on the stick (saber grip) but do not allow it. This tendency will be overcome after a little practice. Next, bring the right hand with straight-arm well up and back over the shoulder, stick sloping down with the point a little to the left of and on level with your eyes. The right foot should be forward, body well balanced and weight on the back leg.
Any head or face blow that is received on this sloping guard will slide down and off the guard giving you the change to respond with a quick reply.
Reply Head Cut
After using the front guard and letting the opponent’s stick slide off your guard, swing the end of your stick downwards to brush your left hip in a circular motion to the rear. The cut finishes off on your opponent’s crown of head with your hand-held high and arm fully extended, palm of hand up, your body sideways and raised on your toes. The end of your stick will finish up below the level of you hand, stick sloping downward with every chance of the end getting home over your opponent’s guard. This blow is mostly effected by the turning of your wrist.
If your head cut is blocked or if you want to create a combination reply, merely turn your wrist and your stick travels backwards over the course it came, in an upper cut fashion, to your opponent’s body, hand or chin. This you will be able to accomplish like a flash after a little practice – mostly all wrist work, hence the speed. Lang writes about the system’s application in India: “This writer has taught strong supporters of both lathi and cudgel play, who were experts in their use. They commenced their course of instruction with little faith in the use of the cane, but long before they completed their course, they had entirely changed their opinion, and departed, after their course, renouncing forever their former unwieldy weapons.”
Ralph Grasso is a martial arts practitioner based in NY. He is currently researching the Vigny style of cane fighting and looking for other researchers interested in helping to recreate the Vigny method from the surviving sources.