The Chinese arsenal is full of strange weapons that defy explanation. There is an amazing array of strange and unusual weapons for every mood. Especially blades. There are so many ornate and bizarrely shaped bladed weapons it’s hard to keep track of. Many of these are first recorded in the 1800’s or later, so arguments to their antiquity are challenged. But, the fact of the matter is, they now populate a fair amount of real estate in the martial arts gestalt.
Of these weird and wild weapons, none inspires such awe and amazement as the Liujiao Dao 鹿角刀or the “Deer Horn Knives”. Literally, “Antler knives”, these are two semi-circular blades over lapped and gripped in the middle. They have inspired the imagination of many, appearing in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Forged in Fire, and as the inspiration for the Batl’eth of Star Trek fame.
But, where did these come from? What is their real use if they were used at all? Are they even really weapons in the first place?
Deer Horn Knives 鹿角刀 (Liujiao dao) are a small hand held weapon that is used in pairs most of the time in performance. It consists of two crescent shaped blades over lapping creating up to four “horns” or protruding blades at the extension of each circle past their intersection. The body of the crescent shapes form a handle and a knuckle bow for hand protection and striking.
As stated, these weapon can have two, three or four horns. In examples with four horns, there are two horns on the ulnar side of the hand (pinky) and two the radial side (thumb). The superior horn on the side of the thumb is often longer than the others. The inferior blade on the ulnar side is sometimes hooked forward in the same direction as the superior blade on the same side.
The weapon goes by many names including but not limited to, Sun and Moon Knives, Bagua Double Moons, Mandarin Duck Axes, Crescent moon knives. For simplicity, we will refer to them as Deer Horn Knives. The proper translation of the name is Antler Knives, but the popular name “Deer Horn” is much more recognizable. The weapon is almost exclusively practiced by the art of Baguazhang 八卦掌.
While the Deer Horn Knives proper are fairly recognizable and identified with Bagua, there are other weapons found throughout the Chinese arsenal that could be ancestors or at least related forms of the weapon. Other martial arts may use these weapons while some are used in the theatre and still others are found in religious ritual and art.
The first and most obvious suspect as an origin for the weapon is literal antler weapons. Antler weapons have been used by cultures the world over. Antler material is extremely tough and useful for weapons. Most are familiar with antler and bone being used in the handles of certain knives even to this day. So the material really has never gone out of style. There are several martial arts in China that use antler weapons. Often they are used in much the same way (visually at least) as the steel weapons of the same name. Even some schools of Bagua have decided to “return” to actual antlers.
Also a good culprit for the invention of the Deer Horn Knives is the Qiankun Quan 乾坤圈(Heaven and Earth Hoops) and Fenghuo Lun 風火輪 (Wind-fire wheels) and other hoop type weapons. These are also bizarre for most westerners to think of as weapons. They are not much more than a large steel or bronze hoop with an edge the goes around the entire outside. A one handed grip is usually included and often certain protrusions, and embellishments that can serve as extra cutting blades. It is interesting to note that the Deer Horn Knives are sometimes called “QianKun Dao”.
Ring Weapons are not uncommon in the East. The Indian chakram and vajra-mushti, are obvious examples. The Chakram is a light throwing weapon which are used by Sikh fighters. They come in various sizes and partitioners of the art work on using each size most efficiently. The Vajra-mushti is essentially a knuckle duster or pair of brass knuckles used in Indian wrestling and translates to “Thunder Fist”. While these weapons each have qualities that are similar to the deer horn knives, they are by themselves, very different.
Another name for the Deer Horn Knives is the “Mandarin Duck Axes”鴛鴦鉞 Yuan Yang Yue. This name is again applied to many different weapons, the invocation of the Mandarin Duck meaning “paired”. Mandarin Ducks are said to mate for life so the idiom is applied to almost any paired weapon set. There are many weapons that could be antecedents or inspirations for the Deer Horn Knives.
How do you even use these things?
The actual use of these weapons is again very mysterious. Many people claim that the weapon was invented to defeat specific kinds of weapon. Most people claim that the Deer Horn Knives were developed to defeat the sword (jian劍). There is a conspicuous absence of material that shows convincing applications of the weapon. Even today, books and videos are vague about how they were used and for what purpose. They focus on forms and routines and about the physical demands and benefits of practicing with them.
Looking at the weapon, we can extrapolate from some of its features to see what it is capable of in different scenarios. Modern versions of the weapon are fairly standardized with four points a knuckle-bar and a hand grip section. Its is usually assumed that every edge visible on the weapon is sharpened. I am unfortunately not knowledgeable about the historic pieces and if most of them were sharp or exactly how sharp they were. If I were to guess, I would say that sets of Deer Horn Knives that were used, if any exist, would have only as much as a chisel or axe edge rather than a razors edge. A fine edge on these blades, considering the amount of parrying one does, would severely shorten the life of the weapon.
Since there is very little literature on these weapons, I set about experimenting with them in various contexts and against various weapons. One complaint of the weapon and weapons like it is that one is in constant danger of hurting themselves more than the opponent. For these eventualities, we paid close attention to how easy they are to wield and how effective they are with people of different levels.
Use and effectiveness as a weapon
Over the years I have tried to put the Deer horn Knives through their paces and have found that it does have some advantages if one knows how to apply it. Before I explain what I feel are the strengths and best application of the weapon, I must reiterate that this is simply a hypothesis based on my own practical experience in free, protected sparring against uncooperative opponents. We have no way of knowing if these weapons were intended to be used this way, if they were used this way, or of they were really used that much at all. What follows are the things that the weapon seems to excel at by virtue of its design and things where it fails for the same reasons.
Handling the Weapon
The most common complaint about these blades is that they are more dangerous to you than your opponent. The danger of cutting yourself on these seems like an inherent risk. To discern if this is an actual danger, two things need to be looked at; the ease or difficulty one has wielding the weapons without touching themselves in a way that would allow for a cut, and how sharp does the weapon need to be.
Through all of my time using these in solo forms and sparring, I have never had a problem with hitting myself or delivering cuts to my own body accidentally. Even the points of the weapon don’t do much more than limit your movement in order to avoid them. So, even if these had a razor’s edge on them, (which I do not think is necessary for this weapon to be effective) the danger of cutting one’s self would seem to be limited to the non-combat time handling of the weapon (cleaning, transporting, concealing etc.).
Next, what types of attacking movements are most plausible with this weapon? Given the limitations , can one reasonably attack with cuts, thrusts, hooking actions, etc.?
The types of attacks that seem to be the most intuitive and the easiest to pull off are thrusts with the inside “long” blade (on most models), straight thrusts and smashes with the knuckle bar, and lastly, cuts with the various edges. Obviously, the weapons should be used in close, and this is where the various attacks show their quality.
The cuts and slashes that the sets and forms favor are less effective than the straight thrusting and circular parrying. Even if one was to get a good cut on the opponent at close range, it would have to be a critical target like an artery or other vessel as the curvature of the blade limits the depth one can expect to deliver with the edge. One finds that thrusting and poking are the most available and high percentage attacks with this weapon.
When in use, I generally use one of two grips on each blade. First, a regular “hammer grip” provides a good forward thrust with the knuckle bar. This is useful in catching and striking. The next one is a thumb grip with the thumb supporting the long “horn” of the weapon. This allows for more control and penetrating power from that long blade. If one tries to keep the hammer grip and thrust with the blade, the weapon tends to turn in the hand.
Against other weapons
I have tested these weapons with several different types of weapons. With each, there were different dynamics that occurred when they interacted. Often this was surprising, but the results do make sense in several contexts. Its not to say that this is the definitive answer to this question, it just represents the answers I have found through my own trial and error.
Against long weapons like sticks and spears, the weapon excels. It’s ability to catch, parry and clear incoming thrusts is surprisingly effective and easy to pull off. Since they are short and essentially wrap around our hand, any movement that moves these weapons can be applied to this purpose. With strikes and swings of the opponent, the knuckle bow and the fact that you have two of them can stop these blows from ever reaching you.
After catching or parrying the long weapon, the wielder of the Deer Horn Knives should close the distance as quickly as possible. As one goes in, one can strike and slice at the hands to attempt to disarm the opponent. Parries with the horns done by sweeping the incoming point to the side are incredibly effective, bringing the point very far off the line, creating an opening for entry and break the spearman’s rhythm.
This type of application had a historical precedent. The Guo Rang 鉤鑲 is a type of buckler used in the Han dynasty. It seems to have been popular in duels and other type of small scale fighting. The device is simply a square or oblong buckler with two slightly hooked protrusions from the top and bottom. It is depicted, at least in some sources, as being used to parry and trap long weapons like sticks and halberds. So, this idea has been around a long time. Could the guo rang be the ancestor to all of these strange weapons that we see today? A topic for another time.
Where I find the weapon to be almost useless is against bladed hilt weapons. Jian, dao, and other forms of blades make short work of the little Deer Horns. The advantage against long weapons is that one can get in close where the pole arm is less effective. That range is not less effective for most swords or sabers. It is an easy matter for the sword to simply cut around the Deer Horn Knives and attack the hand or simply move them out of the way and attack the head or torso.
Jian are far too nimble for these weapons to be much use against them. The tip can be retracted and repositioned faster than the Deer Horn Knives can react. The relatively short length of the jian make much of the trapping techniques ineffective. In close, the double edged jian is able to reach targets that the Knives simply cannot protect in time. The jian is simply too agile at both long and close ranges.
Dao pose a similar challenge. They are short and therefore very adept at quick attacks at short range. Precisely the type of attack that the Deer Horn knives have a problem with. With Dao, however, the slashing and quick cutting is the issue. The Deer Horn Knives are not very big and cannot cover a very large area at any one time. This leaves them susceptible to cuts and slashes to the flanks as well as the upper arm and neck.
The actual wounds and damage that these weapons would inflict has to, for the time being, be left to conjecture. But, it is not difficult to see how very dangerous these weapons could potentially be. The penetrating power of the blades cannot be overstated. They are short curved points that can serve as an excellent can opener against armor. The position of the blades makes it very easy to stab at the flanks and rib cage, and the blades are long enough to puncture a lung. The areas not covered by armor, like the armpit and neck, are also very easy to get at with these weapons.
Now, I stated before that it is not a difficult matter to keep the points and edges away from you while using the Deer Horns. One very interesting thing that we have stumbled upon recently is that they are very difficult to disarm. The position of the blades, their curvature, and the size of the weapon make it very easy to poke at the hand of and other wise dissuade the opponent from grabbing on to your hand or the weapon. If the blades are sharp, it can also cut someone who tried to grab at the hand or wrist. But even here, the blades do not have to be sharp to stab the hand enough to get them to let go.
The Deer Horn Knives are a fascinating weapon. They appear in the 1800’s and are almost exclusive to one martial art for most of that time. They do not seem to exist in theatre, the military, or even weapon manufacturer’s catalogs. They have many names and have many stories told about them. We have no real written record of these weapon or their use until sometime in the 20th century. Yet, they still enjoy a great amount of popularity among martial artists today.
Because of the lack of history we have on the weapon, any answers we give about the use of the Deer Horn Knives are gong to be conjecture. Through experimentation I have found out some interesting things about what they at good at doing and what they re not so good at doing. But, the question of how were they used in the past is guess work. They seem to be very good with long weapons and not so great with shorter weapons. They are easy to use, allowing people of little experience to use them intuitively to a certain extent. They would not need to be very sharp so they do not have to pose a threat to the wielder. These types of weapons can be likened to bucklers. They are primarily parrying devices that have been given some teeth for attack.
But again, this is how we are using them today, in our contexts and with our ways of training and understanding. We may not be as adept at the weapon as people in the past or even some today. What we have tried to limit our selves to is the feature of the weapon it’s self. I will fully admit that in the hands of a skilled person, even a butter knife is a deadly weapon. Even with the many features the weapon has, there are still many questions left unanswered.
In the future I plan to go into the techniques and mechanics of using these weapons. But, it is useful to place them in their proper place in history by understanding that much of what we know about them amounts to little more than folklore. There are lots of stories of their use and invention, but not much in to the actual mechanics of weapon to weapon encounters. With new sparring weapons and gear, we will be able to really see if one could use these weapons effectively today. But that is for a later time.