Monday, January 28, 2013

ARTICLES: Craig Gemeiner - Open Hands (striking with open hands essay)

This essay provides a brief explanation of the open hand hits pertaining to the older la savate and Defense Dans La Rue systems.

“Even if the hand is used for war like purposes, it is in ninety- nine cases out of every one hundred used with the fingers open”

- E.B.Michell, English boxing professor and author, 1889. 

By the late 1700s, Frenchmen were settling arguments by using a Parisian form of boot fighting which came to called la savate. A colloquial word meaning shoe la savate was often associated with the delivery of the “Coup De Grace” or “finishing blow” in a street confrontation. Renowned as a simple but brutally effective system of street combat its emphasis was not to engage the opponent for long periods of time, but to terminate the confrontation in the quickest possible way.

Michel Pisseux, a product of this early savate system, was born in 1794 and raised in La Courtille considered at the time one of the roughest areas of Paris . As a young man Pisseux would frequent various fighting districts to observe and catalogue the most practical strikes used by the street brawler’s of the era.
Realizing that the more natural use of the open hand as a weapon for both attack and defense along with the street kicking skills was an inseparable foundation for many street fighters, Pisseux would adopt these same techniques into his own personal system of savate. The influence of these open hand skills was reflected in Michel’s “La savate guard” (picture –1). Resembling the passive guards made popular by today’s reality based fighting systems the hands were held open in front of the body in a non-aggressive posture, the enemy was never sure if the savateur would make an attack or stand down.

Open Hands_pic1

Although we do not know who Michel’s instructor was, or if he even had one, we do know that by the 1820s he had opened his own salle where he provided tuition in several French combat disciplines. These disciplines including la savate, la canne and baton, his clientele would come to include such aristocrats as Lord Seymour and the Duke of Orleans.

Grouping his savate skills into 15 divisions of la canne and 15 divisions of street kicking techniques Pisseux’s approach to savate would later be documented in a small booklet entitled “La Art De La Savate et De La Canne”.

Several of the names used to describe the hand techniques of la savate are idiomatic expressions that have all but faded into obscurity. The word musette meaning “horses feed bag” is perhaps savate’s most powerful of all open hand strikes. Delivered in an upward or linear trajectory the palm of the hand was used to strike the adversary’s chin, nose or – “feedbag”. When thrown from Pisseux’s la savate guard the musette traveled below the opponent’s visuals often catching him totally unaware.

 Open Hands_pic2  Open Hands_pic3

The use of the fingers to attack the adversary’s eyes could be used simultaneously with a variety of open hand blows, and required little power to produce disabling results.

 Open Hands_pic4

La Baffe means to “clout” someone across the face, head or neck. This blow was delivered with the palm of the hand in a horizontal or oblique plan. The hand configuration used when throwing la baffe consisted of  a broad or flattened palm , which covers a wider area of impact.

A variation of la baffe was a backhand strike called – ‘le revers de baffe. Often delivered in a horizontal or oblique plan, the neck could be targeted to create a brachial stun. A quick back hand flick to the eyes was enough to cause pain and obscure the adversary’ visuals opening him up to more substantial blows. Should the hands be positioned into the front or side trouser pockets a backhand slap to the groin was also possible.
A ploy favored by the French Apaches was to lull the intended victim into a false sense of security with idle talk while holding both hands in their front pockets. From this position the hoodlum would suddenly attack with a backhand slap up into the face. This was followed immediately with a head but into the groin or stomach region and a double leg pick up, dumping the victim onto his back.

Open Hands_pic5 

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Tranche, meaning to chop, is an effective edge of hand blow taken from Jiu-jitsu and adopted into the French –“ Defense Dan’s La Rue” systems during the early 1900s.

Delivered along multiple trajectories many practitioners favored the traditional hand configuration with the fingers adducted and the thumb extended out to the side. Perhaps the most versatile of all open hand hits, la tranche could strike various targets from a multitude of positions either on its own or in conjunction with other hand techniques.

Open Hands_pic7 

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For those who may deem open hand techniques as unusual, primitive or even crude it should be taken into consideration that few people are able to use the fist naturally without prior training. Even with extensive training hand blows using the knuckles are prone to damage when impacting hard skeletal structures such as the cranium or mandible.

While some may argue that by specifically targeting soft tissue areas one can reduce the likelihood of such damage. However  it can also be argued that when placed in adrenaline induced confrontations such fine skill accuracy is limited at best. Unlike a bare knuckle punch the use of the open hand to strike with is unlikely to collapse and suffer major injury at the point of impact.

La Savate instructors like Michel Pisseux knew that open hand blows were tried and true methods, and to this very day there principles remain tactically correct for use in personal combat.

Charlemont J . L’ Art De La Boxe Boxe “>Francaise Et De La Canne. Paris : A ‘L ‘ Academie De Boxe ,24, Rue Des Martyrs 1899.

Traite De Canne, Boxe et Baton Theorie Et Exercices. Paris : Delarue, Libraire – Editeur.

Formation La Savate. Paris : FFBFS DA 1998.

Roubaud. E. & De Lolme and Wallace. A French and English Dictionary, compiled from the best authorities of both languages. Paris , London , New York & Melbourne : Cassel & Company , Limited 1900.

Dubois Georges. Comment Se Defendre. Paris : Bibliotheque Sportive Nilsson 1916.

E.B. Michell, Armstrong Walter , Pollock H. Walter, Grove C. F and Camille Prevost , Maitre D’Armes. Fencing ,Boxing Wrestling. London : Spottiswoode and CO 1889.


This essay "Open Hands" is by Craig Gemeiner © 2004. My deepest gratitude to Craig Gemeiner for his kind permission in reposting his essay to my site. Contents cannot be copied, republished or transmitted without prior consent from him. Copied from

Craig Gemeiner specializes in the study of traditional Western fighting arts, particularly Savate and its associated disciplines, and adapting them to modern use. He is one of few instructors in the world teaching ‘Defense dans la Rue’ , a system of self-defense developed in Paris during the late 1800s and has given seminars in Australia, Japan, USA, New Zealand and Italy. For an expanded background on his background, please check out:
and his various sites below:



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