Elementary School Traditional Korean Archery

During May, Sabeom-nim, Song-uk and I taught 11 classes in the elementary school next to our dojang. We taught traditional Korean archery (국궁) where every student got to let off at least two arrows and then did some basic work with bongs (곤봉).

Korean traditional archery ( 국궁) uses several types of bow, depending on the specific period on which it is modelled and I think that technically, ours is an asymmetrical reflex recurve bow. This type of bow isn’t unique to the Korean peninsula and most likely originated in Mongolia. It an ideal weapon on horseback. Englishmen, such as myself, seem to have been imbued with the idea that the our longbow is a vastly superior to other forms of bow with Agincourt exerting a powerful effect on our national psyche.

Despite its size and toy-like appearance, even a cheap, junior, Korean bow will power an arrow the length of a tennis court with enough froce for a non-sharp, round-headed point to embed itself in wood. Certainly, even with a junior bow, the arrow can be fired beyond the point at which you can accurately aim. I’ve never measured the distance I’ve managed to power an arrow with an adult bow but it was far enough away to make hitting the target, rather than the bullseye, the objective. And even at this relatively short distance, the arrows proximity to the bullseye is more luck than skill – at least in my case. The Korean bow is totally basic, no counter weights, sights and beginners are discouraged from wearing a thumb guard. The bowstring is drawn using the Mongolian draw method. It is also an interesting point that the bow is absent from Korean military treatise such as the Muyedobotongji and hence is not one of the ‘Royal’ weapons.

Korean traditional archery, Keom Mu Kwan

Sabeom-nim explaining the history of Korean archery

Korean traditional archery, Keom Mu Kwan

taking the strain


Korean traditional archery, Keom Mu Kwan

Practicing a ‘figure of eight’

Korean traditional archery, Keom Mu Kwan

Only two teachers were brave enough to have a go




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Korean Sword by Nick Elwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Metal Woldo Construction (월도)

Previously I wrote a post on constructing a wooden practice woldo (moon-blade – 월도, 月刀). Wol-do means ‘moon blade’ because the blade looks like almost half-moon. It has a long history in both Korea and China, where it is known as a guan-dao, and because it was a formidable weapon which took much strength to use, it often formed part of the testing requirements for promotion within the army. Indeed, high-ranking tests called for proficiency on a version weighing close to  a 100 pounds. The woldo appears in the Military Treatise, the Muyedobotongji (무예도보통지,藝武圖譜通志), published in 1795. Further, a similar Japanese weapon is the naginata. A small Korean weapon, with a narrower blade, known as the hyeop-do (협도- 挾刀), is also common in Korean classical martial arts.

The Japanese naginata

The Japanese naginata

The Korean hyeop-do (협도), similar to the chinese pu-dao

The Korean hyeop-do (협도), similar to the chinese pu-dao

In 14th-16th century Europe, a similar weapon was the glaive. Often, the woldo/guan-dao is mistakenly called a ‘halberd.’

Examples of European polearms similar to the woldo/guan-dao. The glaive is the closest.

Examples of European polearms similar to the woldo/guan-dao. The glaive is the closest.

While a wooden practice woldo is perfect for promoting muscle memory and learning the basics, the only way to truly learn the woldo is to practice with one which has a steel blade and which demands more of  your body. A heavier woldo gives a totally different experience from a wooden practice or even light metal version. With a light woldo (wooden or metal) it is the arms which power the weapon and often it is the arms which stops it. However, a heavy woldo demands much more use of waist and core muscles and once it is powered it quickly gathers a momentum. Stopping a heavy woldo in its track, as you can with a light one is not just easy, but not really the way to use the weapon. The woldo needs to travel to maximum extension, where it slows down and the rebound then used to initialize the next movement. Not only is the stance important, it needs to be strong and table enough to counter the pull of momentum, but the woldo’s weight and momentum are important tools which help control the weapon – the lighter weapon gives totally different experience.

The second woldo profiled, is live and one which I have both cut and practiced with. Surprisingly, it weights in at 2.6 kgs (5lbs 11oz).  Most of that weight is focused on the blade with very little counter balance in the butt. I have no ideas how one trains with a 25 pound woldo. 2.6 kg totally knackers me and takes a lot of effort to wield – and I’m 6’6″. However, my Sabeom can throw the same weapon around like a tooth pick has a vastly smaller physique. However, I have trained with a guan-do weighing 3kg (6lb 9 oz); the weapon was more balanced with a much less weight in the blade and much more weight in the butt. I suspect that equal weight distribution might make the weapon easier to handle – but this is only an idea, I’m not certain.

woldo, Classical Korean Weapons, gojeon muye

Metal practice woldo (adult size)
Approx 2m in length

woldo, Korean traditional martial arts,

Blade architecture

woldo, Korean classical martial arts, woldo

The guard, slightly flimsy


The following dimension, only marginally different, are from that of a ‘live blade.’ It will be noticed that the ‘live blade’ has a far superior guard and a sleeve has been added at the base of the blade along with some visible, extra welding. The former example would be just as suitable for a ‘live’ weapon.

woldo, moon blade, Korean classical martial arts,

One of my dojang’s ‘live’ woldo (moon-blades)

woldo, moon-blade, Korean classical martial arts

Blade dimensions. Only the side opposite the hooks is sharpened

woldo, moon blade, Korean classical martial arts

The guard

woldo, moon blade, Korean classical martial arts

The butt

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Korean Sword by Nick Elwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


Go-jeon Gumdo – Ssang Su Do (쌍수도)

Ssang Su do (쌍수도) is the Double Hand Sword form. ‘Ssang’, a term appearing frequently in Go-jeon gumdo, means ‘double’ or ‘twin.’ It refers here to the large, double-handed sword which is today, generally performed with a standard jin-keom (진검) or Japanese style katana. In hanja, Ssang Su Do is written: 雙手 刀. Like most of Go-jeon Gumdo, the sword forms come from the Muyedobotongji.

Ssang Su Do is one of my favourite forms basically because it easily reduced to a diagrammatic scheme. This one doesn’t deviate at all from it single axis. Hence it is easy to remember. In performance, I often use a small ‘mnemonic’ to remember the order – twirl, eight, cricket. The form can be divided into 3 sections: part one ends with a downward piercing stab on which there is the first kihap. The sword is ‘cleaned off’ to the rear and then ‘twirled’ inwards. so the back of the sword lies against your spine.

Downward pierce in Admiral's Sword Form

Downward pierce in Ssang Su Do

Masters Kim and Kwon (red) midway through Ssang Su Do

The sword has been ‘twirled’ inward

Shortly after this position there is a sequence of upwards figure 8 deflections (‘eight) which carry this part through to  a piercing thrust which is accompanied by a kihap and stamp. The form continues into another downward piercing stab, this time leading into a left-hand (and then double hand), anti-clockwise swing of the blade which almost resembles a strike with a cricket bat. I use the ‘mnemonic’  to help prevent myself ‘jumping ahead’ as the downward piercing stab is repeated three times.

Care needs to be taken not to let movements degenerate into minimal ones. Occasionally, one should check that movements are large. There is a tendency to ‘shorten’ many techniques or at least that’s what I do.

Ssang Su Do

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Korean Sword by Nick Elwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Traditional Korean Weaponry Associations

Master Ha Tae-Uk, 5th dan

Master Yu Seung-kyu (유승규), 5th dan

There are some 24 weapons associated with traditional Korean martial arts, often referred to as ‘royal weapons’ because they appear in the military treatise known as the ‘Muyaedobotongji’ (무예도보통지 – 武藝圖譜通志). The treatise was commissioned in 1791 by King Jeongjo and published in 1795, The MYDBTJ basically introduced 6 new weapons to the 18 outlined in an earlier work, the Muyaeshinbo (무에신보) which was published in 1759. The 6 new weapons introduced by the MYDBTJ were simply infantry weapons modified for cavalry. The Muyaeshinbo (1759) was a further development  of several earlier texts.

Throughtout Korea numerous groups are dedicated to the study of  such texts. In a sense they are very similar to historical re-enactment groups that exist in Europe except that members are usually highly trained, professional martial artists and are proficient not just in Korean (Hangeul), but hanja. Hanja are the 1800 Chinese characters used in the Korean language and taught in Korean middle and high schools (though not all Koreans are proficient). Though there have been three English translations of the MYDBTJ, as with any text, something is always lost through translation and indeed many of the descriptive phrases used in the original text do not easily translate into English. I have not read the English translations but I’d imagine for a competent translation the translator would not only need to be a native Korean speaker, but fluent in hanja as well as a competent academic military/martial art historian, extremely competent in English and to do the text justice probably also needs to be a martial artist.

In reality, the MYDBTJ is fragmentary because only the apex of techniques are recorded. Page after page of sequence drawings where one technique leads to another but how it is arrived at, how it was chambered, whether movements are predominantly linear or circular, how the hips are used and countless other subtleties, all of which comprise the style are either missing or vague. Anyone who has tried to transfer forms or techniques to paper, using a few diagrams or photos will appreciate not just how precise language has to be, but how a few weeks later the text can be disorienting. Reducing movement or music to photos/pictures and text is fraut with problems. Much of the essence of a style, especially in terms of aesthetics, exists in the cracks between the apex of one movement and the emergence of another of another.

Because the heart/guts of the MYDBTJ forms and techniques are missing, any interpretation is an assumption and no one group or individual can claim any authority or ownership. Personally, this is what makes the MYDBTJ so interesting. With so many groups of enthusiasts in Korea, and abroad researching, debating, and experimenting with the manuscripts and their techniques, the study of traditional Korean weaponry, horsemanship and unarmed fighting,  has to be one of the most dynamic, innovative martial arts currently available. While so many styles have been petrified by dogma and extreme reverence to the point any experimentation or modification of the ordained canon of catechisms is deemed sacrilegious, the MYDBTJ is a source of reflection and research for various groups/styles and individuals.  How better one art is than another depends on the reasons an individual has for wanting to learn and styles which have become petrified, usually because of politics (power and economic gain) can still be beautiful, enlightening, effective and provide an ennobling path (‘do’). While attempts have been made to claim ownership of the MYDBTJ, there are still countless groups/styles experimenting with the manuscripts and for which is it a major point of reference.

I avoid any controversy surrounding Haedong Gumdo, Daehan Haidong Kumdo or that aimed at discrediting either Korea or Japan. I spent many years studying taekwon-do when it was divided between traditional taekwon-do and sport taekwondo. It took me a long time to accept that both have their own strengths, weaknesses and beauty and both appeal to different individuals. The same can be said of different Korean sword styles as well as Japanese and Korean styles.  Practice, for health, entertainment, as a lifestyle or sport are all more important than armchair critique and negative criticism.

My dojang in Daegu is affiliated to, 24 Ban Mu Yae, (24 반무예), a group practicing all elements of the MYDBTJ, including the Korean cavalry skills (ma-sang, 마상) and the Go Cheon Mu Yae (고전무예).

Look in the sidebar under Associations for links to  traditional Korean weapons associations and federations.

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Korean Sword by Nick Elwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Moon Blade Form – Wol-Do (월도)

traditional Korean weapons, moon blade, wol-do

The Korean ‘moon blade’ (월도 – 月刀)

The wol-do (월도) is a traditional Korean pole weapon similar in design to the Chinese Guan Dao. In hanja (Chinese characters borrowed from Chinese and appearing in Korean),  wol-do is written ‘月刀,’ basically, ‘moon blade.’  The wol-do is usually larger than the guan dao though both Chinese and Korean versions exhibit great variation. In both countries, proficiency in the ‘moon blade‘ was a means of gaining promotion in the military and often, the higher the rank sought, the heavier and larger the blade.

In the Muyedobotongji, 무예도보통지 (c 1795), the wol-do is cited as having a 6″4′ handle and a blade of 2″. It was a popular weapon of the Hwarang during the Shilla period. However, the weapon is cited earlier and appears in the Muyejebo (무예재보), published in 1749, where it was an infantry weapon. When the Muyedobotongji was published in 1795, an addition was the use of the ‘moon blade‘ as a cavalry weapon (masang wol-do – 마상월도, 馬上月刀).

Numerous groups, such as ’24 ban-mu-ye’ (24반무예) have studied and continue to study the ancient texts in attempts to recreate the forms and individual techniques involved in the use of the wol-do and other weapons. However, doing so requires not just proficiency in Korean martial arts (musado – 무사도) but proficiency in hanja – the script used for much of the text.  My teacher has studied in one such group and had to hone his hanja skills in order to understand the ‘instructions.’ Koreans study hanja in school and are supposed to be able to read around 1800 characters, but for many their ability is limited and indeed my hanja is better than some of my Korean friends. The significance and influence of hanja is very much similar to that of Latin or Greek in Europe. Groups will then research the practicality of movements, testing techniques and subsequently meet to discuss their merits. For this reason, Korean wol-do as well as other traditional weapons forms, exhibit some variation.

chinese traditional weapons

The Chinese guan-dao is similar to the Korean wol-do

The Korean wol-do form, of which I only know of one deriving from original texts (though there may be another), differs significantly from Chinese Kung-fu style forms. It is much less dramatic, less ‘flashy’ and the individual moves all have instantly recognizable practicalities. The awe of Korean traditional weapons lies in their battle field application rather than individual artistic beauty and for this reason they can appear quite boring practiced by a single person. The immensely long na-seong for example, a branch-like spear with thorny off-shoots, has no appeal on its own.  Long pole weapons such as the wol-do, need to be experienced as prescribed in texts, as battle field weapons used in cohorts or ‘squadrons.’  When the wol-do is displayed as part of a group, its power and effect can be better appreciated.

traditional Korean weapons, moon-blade, wol-do

Masters Kwon and Kim performing with the moon blade

The wol-do, like the chin-keom (진검 – Korean sword with a live blade), is also used in cutting demonstrations, most especially of straw (짚단). Indeed, we have a ‘live’ wol-do in my dojang and I am eagerly awaiting being able to wield it. For practice purposes, we use wooden wol-do.

One of the most widespread Korean cultural images concerning the Wol-do, and frequently appearing in comic books and animations, is that of the blade held behind the back with a fist or open palm extended. Indeed, this stance appears in a number of weapon forms.

Monday is my long pole training day and I began learning the wol-do form several weeks ago. In 35 degree heat and in the middle of the monsoon season with extremely high humidity, wielding a wol-do hasn’t been easy. It requires space and a safe environment in which to practice. Back at my Korean apartment, I manage some practice on the roof with a wisteria long pole but this is a poor substitute because it is simply too light. Slowly however, the form is coming together.

My ‘video notes’ on the wol-do (훨도) form from the Muyedobotongji

The video is useful for stringing the moves together, and as I begin to appreciate the finer points of the form, I’ll make new posts.


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The Korean Flag-Spear Form – Ki-Ch’ang (기창 – 旗槍 )

Korean traditional weapons, flag-spear, muyedobotongji

working through spear techniques on my roof top

Monday is spear training day. There are several types of spear, of varying lengths. In particular, I’ve been learning with the Flag Spear Form which is part of the syllabus for dan grades. The flag spear, known as Ki-Ch’ang (기창 – 旗 槍) was traditionally 2.7 meters (9 foot) long and with a 23cm (9 inch), flattened blade similar to that of the Japanese Yari. The use of the ki ch’ang is sited in the Korean martial art treatise commissioned in 1791 and known as the Muyedobotongji (무예도보통지 – 武藝圖譜通志). Indeed, the form I’m learning is based on the one depicted in this treatise.

Because of the length of the spears, we train in the nearby park. This is an interesting experience as it attracts a few onlookers some of whom just stop and stare for a few moments, while others sit and watch. They are mostly elderly but occasionally there is a group of kindergarten kids who pass by the spot where we train.

I once spent a week in China and every morning I went to the park to train. The park was packed with people, mostly older, practicing a wide range of styles mostly Tai Chi based and with numerous weapons – including the fan. I was in Guangzhou (Canton), staying in a hotel on Shamian Island which is on the Pearl River, nobody paid the slightest attention to those training in martial arts, or the ball room dancing that was also a popular form of exercise.

In all my time in Korea, I have never seen an adult, either in a school or outside, training in a martial art and the only adults who do practice are instructors.

fan form, martial arts, China

a hand fan form by the Pearl River

China, martial arts, sword

Early morning ritual (China 1998)

martial arts, China,

You couldn’t get a more bizarre combination of sports – ball room dancing and sword ‘fighting’. (China 1998)

At first we practiced with what was in fact a lengthy rattan pole which was flexible. However, we very quickly moved onto a spear with a real, steel point, and the following week, a pennant was added. The spears are made of a light metal and are in sections which connect. The traditional Korean spear has a wooden shaft and a flattened point which is sharpened in exactly the same manner as the swords and a number of techniques involve turning the blade sideways and then swooping the spear, using momentum from the hip, in a wide arc in order to slash opponents. On such techniques the pennant makes an impressive swish which gives a sense of power to the arc.

Traditional Korean weapons, flag-spear,

flattened blade and pennant amidst an armoury of swords and bows

Each week I learn about ten movements of the pattern which I then practice on my roof in the morning or evening. At first I was using a short ‘bo’ type pole of much less than 2 meters and it was problematic because holding it in the right place towards its base, meant there was only three inches of shaft to use as a spear. My teacher has since lent me one of the rattan poles and the feel is much better.

Here is a video outlying the basics of the Korean flag-spear form as cited in the MYDBTJ. I put the video together in 2012 and I need to make some amendments. The flag-spear is taught From 1st dan and is part of the 2nd dan grading curriculum. For the 2nd dan grading the techniques are announced (‘chanted’).

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