TRThursday: Teddy’s Single-Stick Fighting in the White House


adam%20lindsay%20gordon“No game was ever yet worth a rap,
For a rational man to play,
Into which no accident, no mishap,
Could possibly find its way.” – Adam Lindsay Gordon, Australian Poet, 1833-1870

Shortly after taking the office of U.S. President, Roosevelt was nearly killed in a carriage accident. His left shin was injured and eventually needed an operation which left the president wheelchair bound for quite some time. While his strength was waning, his appetite was increasing and he began to put on a good deal of weight. Once the leg was healed, however, he turned to exercises which would have been considered both dangerous and unusual for a man in his forties and all the more strange for the leader of the United States. Many are familiar with his Jiu-jitsu, which is still around and regularly practiced, but you may not be familiar with the art of Single-stick fighting.


“What the ordinary Englishman wants is a game with which he may fill up the hours during which he cannot play cricket and need not work; a game in which he may exercise those muscles with which good mother Nature meant him to earn his living, but which custom has condemned to rust, while the brain wears out; a game in which he may hurt some one else, is extremely likely to be hurt himself, and is certain to earn an appetite for dinner.” –  Broad-sword and Single-stick, 1860

Single-stick (or Singlestick) is similar to fencing exercises. Rather than using a flexible rapier or a stiff kendo stick, a tough and shorter stick with a leather hand-guard is used. While this particular exercise has long been out of fashion, the goal was both for exercise and also to develop adroitness in hand-to-hand combat where swords or clubs were used.

Single-stick outfit

An early version of the single-stick outfit.

Single Stick Fighting Guard

A true single-stick fighter always has a powerful moustache.

Whacked the President with a Single-Stick

“He seemingly takes as much joy in receiving blows as in giving them. When he used to play at single-sticks with General Wood, the latter, remembering that his opponent was President, refrained from hitting him at first, but at last, warming up to the work, would crack him without mercy, for Wood is the President’s superior in this exercise. As soon as the blows began to rain upon his body, Mr. Roosevelt would leap about, I am credibly informed, “fairly shrieking with delight…A good crack with a single-stick hurts, but it is probable that the President gets so much sheer physical joy out of a contest of this kind that he is unconscious of the pain” – Roosevelt’s French fencing instructor on Teddy Roosevelt

It was Major General Leonard Wood that frequently went to blows with Roosevelt. Wood and Roosevelt had a long-standing friendship. Wood was acting Colonel of the Rough Riders and subsequently the Military-Governor of Cuba. Once Cuban occupation was over, Wood returned to the States and under the command of his friend and Commander-in-Chief.

The papers frequently wrote of bruises on Teddy’s hands and head:

Article on Roosevelt and Woods

Final Thoughts

It comes as no surprise that TR rarely obeyed the rules of single-stick. When Wood got in a good lick, Roosevelt would go all-in, jumping on furniture, pounding away with his stick like a club, and enjoying the exercise immensely. I look forward to exploring single-stick exercises and hope to do an article — and who knows, perhaps a video — on the practice. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it making a long-overdue comeback!

More on Single-sticks

I pulled a good deal of this article from the following sources and they are interesting reads.

Victorian Fencing Society on Single-sticks

The Broad-swords and Single-sticks Book from 1860

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