This guide details the kinds of batons that police use, how they employ them, what kind of damage they can do with them, and some of the ways that demonstrators have historically protected themselves against baton attacks.
This is the fourth article in a series, following our guides to helmets, gas masks and goggles, and body armor. The contributors have spent countless hours gathering experience, data, and anecdotes and speaking to professionals in these fields. We will be updating this document on an ongoing basis as more information comes in. If you can offer suggestions or corrections, please contact us.
Cops often hit people with batons. Looking at footage, you’d think that the prospect of doing so is what gets them out of bed in the morning. Historically, batons are the bread and butter of policing to such an extent that the baton is often referred to as the officer’s “badge of office”—though lately, Tasers have supplanted batons as their go-to weapon.
Instructional videos and pamphlets give the false impression that police are martial arts masters who carefully study all the ways to injure people with big wooden sticks. If you go to demonstrations, though, you generally see the same few moves over and over. They swing wildly at people they already have on the ground. They jab people with the end of the baton, often without provocation. They hit people with wild overhand swings, often in the head—although in theory, they’re not supposed to do that unless they’ve been authorized to employ lethal force. They put one hand on each end of the stick, hold it horizontally at chest level, and shove people back while grunting “move”—often regardless of whether the people they are shoving are able to move and regardless of whether they were already moving.
Fundamentally, batons are compliance tools. They’re not specifically designed to kill or injure people, though they are capable of doing so. They are designed to hurt people in order to force them to comply with an officer’s command. Of course, police often continue to use them after a subject has complied, just to emphasize the power relation between the subject of the state and the mercenaries it employs.
Not everyone loves batons. Some officers don’t carry batons unless ordered to do so by their department. One ex-cop on YouTube points out that the overlap of the Venn diagram of “effectiveness” and “legality” is very small indeed. However, police are rarely held to any standard of legality. Batons are often the primary means by which police seek to control space in close quarters, especially against demonstrators.
During protests, police use batons to accomplish a wide range of tasks. There are baton charges in which large numbers of police charge, swinging and shoving, to disperse a crowd and incite fear. Officers use batons to clear a path for a snatch squad to enter a crowd to carry out arrests. Officers use batons to advance a police line, shoving people to keep them moving, often while pepper-spraying them for good measure. Officers use batons to injure people once they have them immobilized on the ground, out of pure vengefulness or cruelty.
There is a misconception that batons are only used against individuals who are not complying with police orders. In fact, police employ them against anyone they suspect might hinder them from accomplishing whatever their goal is, regardless of whether the target is breaking any laws or failing to comply with their orders.
Police use-of-force guidelines generally dictate that using a baton to strike major nerve centers on extremities is “intermediate force,” while striking someone on the head, neck, or clavicle is “deadly force.”
This is the cover illustration from a 1967 law enforcement training manual published by the FBI and the United States Department of Justice. This is how the authorities want police to see themselves.
Types of Baton
We’ll look at three types of batons: the fixed-length baton (or “straight stick,” including the riot baton), the collapsible baton, and the side-handled baton.
A riot baton is a style of “straight stick” baton. The most common example is 36” long and 1.25” in diameter, made of polycarbonate or hardwood—usually hickory, but sometimes cherry, ash, or another wood. Some police are adopting thicker sticks, such as a 1.5” diameter baton, to apply more force. If you hold a 1.25” baton and a 1.5” baton in your hands, the difference in weight and girth is greater than you might have anticipated.
The thicker sticks are not inherently better weapons, but they are sturdier. We put sticks of both thicknesses into the hands of an experienced stick fighter, who was able to break the 1.25” baton against plywood shields but not the 1.5” batons. This person applied substantially more force than the average officer would be able to bring to bear.
Wooden batons are either clear-coated or painted black. Polycarbonate sticks are black. Riot sticks come with a variety of grips, such as rings or grooves carved into one or both ends, or a crisscrossed “knurling” grip. Some of these grips are designed to offer better retention if the baton is pulled, while others are intended to offer better retention in the case of twisting motions. Most come with a simple leather thong for retention. A well-trained officer is supposed to hold the thong in such a way that he can let go if the stick is grabbed and pulled into a crowd, but many cops hold them incorrectly, in such a way that if the baton is pulled, the officer will come with it whether he wants to or not. Polycarbonate sticks deliver more impact than wooden sticks but are substantially more expensive. Some police complain that polycarbonate sticks can warp in the summer or shatter in the winter.
The riot baton is used to strike people, jab people, and shove people. Broadly speaking, police use batons to strike people who are resistant or combative, while they use batons to shove people who are in their way, approach too closely, embarrass them, or look like they can be intimidated into leaving an area. They jab people for both of these purposes. In crowded environments, police are trained to fight with one hand on each end of the stick, for weapon retention.
Officers think about weapon retention in crowd situations quite a bit. Their training focuses on this. They are afraid that someone might grab the baton and use it to control the officer.
It would be hard to overstate the role of riot batons in intimidation. Police wield large sticks when they want to look scary; in some cases, they employ wooden batons to contrast with their uniforms, with the intention of inspiring fear. They hold them in two hands in police lines to look unapproachable. They use them unpredictably in order to keep people on edge.
The chief difference between the riot baton and the traditional fixed-length baton is that the latter is 26” or shorter. Many departments employ tapered sticks for everyday use, with a wider striking surface at one end and a smaller, more controllable handle. These provide greater leverage for striking blows. Learning to distinguish between these types of batons can help demonstrators figure out what tactics police are considering: if they are wielding the longer riot batons, they expect to employ more violence.
More and more police departments are using extendable batons as the everyday carry baton on their service belt. These batons are also called collapsible batons, or ASPs after the brand ASP. Extendable batons usually measure between 16”-31” with 16”, 21”, and 26” being the most common lengths. Most of them are made of steel, while some lighter-weight models use an aluminum alloy. The grip can be foam or plastic, or use some other texturing. Closed, they’re roughly the size and shape of a small lightsaber and they look a bit like one on a belt. Cops open them by flicking them and letting centrifugal force slide the segments into place. Most are held open by the friction of each steel segment against the next and can only be closed by slamming the tip onto concrete or some other hard surface. Some newer models have a push button lock that makes them easier to close and more effective for jabbing as well as swinging. One of the other reasons that police are moving to the push button lock is that a baton that is closed on concrete will quickly end up with a roughed up tip, which will occasionally cut those who are struck by the baton.
Police complain about extendable batons breaking when they are used to beat people all day—at unruly demonstrations, for example—and many cops who make heavy use of their batons treat them as disposable. Police literature explicitly mentions the intimidation factor involved in opening an extendable baton as an advantage of the weapon.
Extendable batons are somewhat common for civilians interested in self-defense. We’ve seen them most commonly among those who are in violence-prone situations and prefer not to defend themselves with bladed weapons or firearms. Their legality varies from state to state.
These are straight batons with a short handle protruding from the side about six inches up from the base. This is the Western adaptation of the tonfa, a Japanese weapon—though the tonfa wielder usually employs two of them. Side-handled batons are considered a more “defensive” weapon; they became common after the bad media exposure resulting from all the police violence against civil rights protestors in the 1960s.
Cops can hold these batons by the side handle, so the length of the baton runs down the forearm to the elbow. This position is used for blocking blows and executing pain compliance holds. They can also hold them at the base, so the side handle serves as a sort of a hilt that could stop counter-strikes. Most famously, these batons were carried by the Los Angeles Police Department and employed in the widely viewed assault on Rodney King in 1991. That episode shows that this “defensive” baton is just another stick, used the way police have always used blunt impact weapons, and its reputation as “defensive” is just a matter of branding.
A police officer employing a side-handled baton to attack demonstrators during the protests against the beating of Rodney King.
While side-handled batons are not designed to use the side handle as the point of impact, many of us have seen police hold them by the end opposite the handle and swing them like hammers. This concentrates more of the weapon’s force at a single point, inflicting worse injuries.
Over the past two decades, side-handled batons have fallen out of favor as the everyday carry batons for police in the United States, replaced by extendable batons. Many cops disagree with this transition; some still choose to carry their beloved “PR24”—a generic name for a side-handled baton named after the standard Monadnock PR-24 baton, which is 24 inches long and made of polycarbonate.
Twenty-five years after the Rodney King uprising of 1992, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer fondles his side-handled baton as he recalls how police behavior contributed to the unrest.
We have not found many studies on the lethality of police batons, but it’s no secret that hitting people in the head with sticks can often kill them. Most of the information we were able to find was published in the UK. This is not surprising: their police often do not carry firearms, instead injuring or killing people the old-fashioned way, by bludgeoning them.
According to one doctor, a large number of baton injuries are fractures of the forearm resulting when a person raises an arm to protect their face. Blows to the head and, to a lesser degree, the chest are far more dangerous than blows to limbs, however, as these can cause internal brain bleeding, concussions, and fractures.
Broken ribs are common in situations in which police are swinging from the side into the target’s torso. Some of us have seen people end up with fractured hands and wrists from trying to catch baton blows. Two-handed stabbing strikes targeting the diaphragm can cause loss of breath; combined with shock and stress, these can make people lose consciousness or vomit.
Defending Yourself from Batons
To avoid sustaining bludgeoning damage in melee range, you have three basic options.
- You can stay out of melee range.
- You can prevent your opponent from seeing you clearly enough to strike you effectively.
- You can protect yourself and others from the blows directly, most likely via some sort of barrier.
Police use violence for at least two purposes: to control space—dispersing us, herding us, preventing us from reaching our destination—and to subdue individuals. Sometimes, the simplest solution is to run away from a cop with a stick: to stay out of melee range by retreating. In other cases, the consequences of this approach are not worth it. You may not wish to abandon other demonstrators. You may not wish to abandon the objective that brought you out into the street in the first place. You may not wish to positively reinforce the assumption that all it takes to keep people in a condition of fearful servility is to brandish sticks at them every once in a while.
So another way to stay out of melee range is to compel the police to retreat, or at least keep them from closing the ground between you. Historically, protestors have accomplished this by using projectiles of their own—bottles, rocks, paint bombs, and the like. This can be effective, but its efficacy and advisability is situational—it depends on the objectives of the police and the factors limiting what they can do. Police in the United States are better equipped and less likely to back down than police in many other countries, which is one of the reasons demonstrators rarely employ this strategy here unless the stakes are high. When everything is on the line, however, people sometimes summon up the courage to do unbelievable things.
Another solution to this problem is to build barricades. To serve their purpose, barricades have to be suited to blocking the particular threat that they are intended to address; obstructing vehicles and hindering officers on foot are two very different objectives. Historically, some demonstrators have made barricades more difficult to pass or dismantle by setting fire to them; but once a barricade is burning, it will eventually consume itself, unless there is an unlimited supply of fuel. Common-sense fire safety measures apply; so may local laws. Even if it doesn’t impede foot traffic, the right kind of barricade might give officers something else to focus on, which is another way to keep them at a distance. As long as the situation is unpredictable and they have to keep an eye out in all directions for new developments, they may choose not to engage in a way that would leave their backs open.
The second strategy is to prevent police from being able to see you clearly enough to hit you accurately. Protesters have employed shields, umbrellas, smoke bombs, and sometimes even fire extinguishers to this end. We’ve seen protestors carry banners that are so tall that they block the view of officers on the other side—though even if you add eyeholes, these will also prevent most protestors from seeing what the police are doing, too. Police hate not being able to see what’s going on; this can cause them to step back and regroup, but it can also provoke them to escalate senselessly. If they can’t see clearly, officers may simply strike at random—which may not be an improvement.
December 2020: Demonstrators in Portland employ a fire extinguisher and projectiles to compel the withdrawal of police who had arrived to carry out a violent eviction.
Finally, if nothing else serves, there is the possibility of protecting directly against baton blows. This usually involves armor, shields, mobile barricades, reinforced banners, or other barriers. Armor designed to protect against bludgeoning impact is generally designed with a “shell/soft” framework: a hard shell disperses the impact of the blow across a greater surface area, while soft padding absorbs that impact. Nowadays the shell is usually some kind of plastic, though steel was used traditionally and wood may serve in some cases; likewise, the soft layer is usually comprised of foam, though in the past, padded clothing might have served. If you are considering wearing any sort of armor, start by thinking about a helmet. The more normalized wearing helmets becomes, the harder it will be for police to target individuals for choosing to protect themselves.
Head injuries are serious business, and repeated concussions can be exponentially dangerous. Even if you feel all right after experiencing a head injury, the risk of sustaining subsequent blows to the head increases significantly. People in the streets who suffer a blow to the head should consider themselves at heightened risk for up to a week afterward; a second concussion following an unhealed first concussion can lead to death. Consider avoiding danger for a week.
Sports armor is readily available from secondhand stores. By and large, it is designed for protecting against the same kind of impact police batons can inflict. Hockey and lacrosse pads are available used; they’re light, low-profile, and are designed to maximize mobility while protecting vital areas. Soccer shin guards can also serve as forearm guards. Being struck by a baton is never a good experience, but armor can mean the difference between a broken arm and a hairline fracture. Choose where to focus on protecting according to your threat model: knees are common targets for less-lethal munitions, groins are vulnerable areas, forearms are often used to block baton blows, the chest and abdomen are often vulnerable to jabs from batons or blows from impact munitions. The more you want to be able to stay on the front lines regardless of what happens, the more you should consider what kinds of armor will protect you.
Historically, some movements have employed “padded bloc” techniques to defend crowds against police violence—building incredible costumes out of foam, inner tubes and other inflatable swim devices, and whatever other large soft things they can access. This severely limits individuals’ mobility, but it may hinder police from breaking up a crowd. It can also create striking optics. The most famous example of this approach is the Tute Bianche in Italy.
Shields can be somewhat more flexible, tactically speaking. A person with a shield can often protect the people on either side of them as well. A group of people with shields can form a shield wall, which is much more effective than a lone shield.
Mobile barricades are effectively multi-user shields carried by several people. These can be especially useful at the front, sides, or rear of a crowd to provide cover and prevent police from easily attacking or dispersing the participants. A simple example would be a large piece of plywood with multiple handles or a single long handle bar along the back. In a pinch, demonstrators have improvised mobile barricades out of ladders and other freely available objects—for example, at the 2010 protests against the Olympics in Vancouver. We’ve seen other mobile barricades constructed from see-through steel grating or roofing stretched across wooden frames. We’ve seen them with stands on the back so that they can stand freely on their own when set down.
To make a reinforced banner, take a vinyl or fabric banner and line it with wood, plastic, or another hard material. Reinforcement is useful simply to make banners easier to carry, but they can also be used tactically to defend the edge of a crowd.
PVC pipe is easy to purchase, but breaks easily upon impact. As a means of reinforcing banners, it has repeatedly failed, perhaps most famously in Washington DC in 2005 during protests against the second inauguration of the second President George Bush. If you’re in a hurry, green bamboo may serve—it’s surprisingly light and flexible enough to be somewhat resilient against blows.
Mind you, armor, helmets, shields, mobile barricades, reinforced banners, and other protective gear can make you stand out—and it’s rarely a good thing to stand out at a demonstration. There is no airtight protest scheme, no tactic that is guaranteed to work, no gear that solves every problem or is ideal for every situation. Think about what you want to accomplish and how the police might try to prevent you from accomplishing it. Be pragmatic. Mobility, speed, initiative, the element of surprise, and the sense to quit while you’re ahead will usually serve you better in the streets than any item of equipment could—so make sure your gear doesn’t impede or distract you from making the most of any of those.
To understand police tactics and mindsets, it can be helpful to peruse their training manuals:
- Technique and Use of the Police Baton—A classic from 1967.
- FM 3-19.15—This served as the foundation for all crowd control training manuals released since and the basis for domestic police training.
- Excited Delirium—A do-it-yourself protestor’s guide to ‘less-lethal’ police weaponry from 2008.
- Bodyhammer, a zine that appeared shortly after the turn of the century exploring helmets, body armor, shields and shield walls, and an array of defensive tactics and formations.