Baton (law enforcement)

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Old police baton

A truncheon or baton (also called a cosh, billystick, billy club, nightstick, sap, blackjack, stick) is essentially a club of less than arm's length made of wood, rubber, plastic or metal. They are carried for forced compliance and self-defense by law-enforcement officers, correctional staff, security-industry employees and (less often) military personnel. Other uses for truncheons and batons include crowd control or the dispersal of belligerent or non-compliant people.

A truncheon or baton may be used to strike, jab, block, bludgeon and aid in the application of armlocks. The usual striking or bludgeoning action is not produced by a simple and direct hit, as with an ordinary blunt object, but rather by bringing the arm sharply down while allowing the truncheon to pivot nearly freely forward and downward, so moving its tip much faster than its handle - effectively a slingshot action, only without releasing. Sometimes, they also are employed as weapons by criminals and other law-breakers because of their easy concealment. As a consequence, they are illegal for non-authorized civilian use in many jurisdictions around the world. They have a common role to play, too, in the rescuing of trapped individuals—for instance, people caught in blazing cars or buildings—by smashing windows or even doors.


19th-century police truncheons in the Edinburgh Police Centre Museum
A modern wooden baton

In the Victorian era, police in London carried truncheons about one-foot long called billy clubs. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this name is first recorded in 1848 in American English as slang for a burglars' crowbar. The meaning "policeman's club" is first recorded 1856. The truncheon acted as the policeman's 'Warrant Card' as the Royal Crest attached to it indicated the policeman's authority. This was always removed when the equipment left official service (often with the person who used it). Earlier on the word was used in vulgar Latin (bastο - a stick helping walking,[1] from basta - hold).

The Victorian original has since developed into the several varieties available today. The typical truncheon is a straight stick made from wood or a synthetic material, approximately 1.25 inches (32 mm) in diameter and 18–36 inches (460–910 mm) long, with a fluted handle to aid in gripping. Truncheons are often ornamented with their organizations' coats of arms. Longer truncheons are called "riot batons" because of their use in riot control.

Truncheons probably developed as a marriage between the club or military mace and the staff of office/sceptre[citation needed].

Straight batons of rubber have a softer impact. Some of the kinetic energy bends and compresses the rubber and bounces off when the object is struck. The Russian police standard-issue baton is rubber, except in places such as Siberia, cold enough that the rubber can become brittle and break if struck.

The traffic baton is red to make it more visible as a signaling aid in directing traffic. In Russia traffic batons are striped in black and white for the same reason.

Until the mid-1990s, British police officers carried traditional wooden truncheons of a sort that had changed little from Victorian times. After the early 1990s, forces replaced truncheons with side-handle and collapsible batons for all but ceremonial duties.

The NYPD used to use two kinds of batons depending on the time. The one for daytime was called a day-stick and was 11 inches in length. Another baton, that was used at night, was 26 inches long and called a night-stick, which is the origin of the word "nightstick". The night-stick was longer so it could provide extra protection which was thought to be necessary at night.[2]

Target areas[edit]

Before the 1970s, the most common use of the police baton was to simply "brain" suspects (strike their heads with a full-force overhand motion) in order to stun them or knock them unconscious via cerebral concussion, similar to the pre-baton practice of buffaloing with the barrel of a revolver. However, this practice was both unreliable and periodically lethal: resistance to cerebral concussion varies widely between individuals, and the difference in force between that required to concuss a suspect into non-resistance and that which would fracture their skull tends to be narrow and unpredictable.

As such, civil lawsuits and claims of police brutality resulted in revised training for officers. In modern police training, it is not permitted to hit the skull, sternum, spine, or groin unless such an attack is unavoidable and conducted in defense of life. The primary targets now are large nerve clusters, such as the common peroneal nerve in the mid-thigh and large, easily targetable muscle groups, such as the quadriceps or biceps. The approved method of swinging the baton has also changed, with the full-force "bludgeoning" strike being proscribed in non-life critical circumstances and replaced with a lighter sidearm "whipping" motion in which only the tip of the baton actually strikes the target.

Taken together, these changes are intended to produce compliance via transitory neurapraxia (temporary muscle pain, spasm and paralysis due to nerve injury) instead of the bone fractures and cerebral concussion which characterized their earlier use.

Comparison with other weapons[edit]

Hand-held impact weapons have some advantages over newer less lethal weapons. Batons are less expensive than Tasers to buy or to use, and carry none of the risk of cross-contamination of OC aerosol canisters (pepper spray) in confined areas. Tasers and OC canisters have limited ammunition, whereas batons use none.

Batons are higher on the use of force continuum than many other less-lethal weapons, as they are more likely to cause lasting or fatal injuries. Like Tasers and OC, batons are referred to as "less-lethal" rather than "non-lethal". These items are not designed to be fatal, but they can be: allergic reaction to pepper spray, blood clots from baton strikes, and heart stoppage after being shocked by a Taser.

Baton designs[edit]

Batons in common use by police around the world include many different designs, such as fixed-length straight batons, blackjacks, fixed-length side-handle batons, collapsible straight batons, and other more exotic variations. All types have their advantages and disadvantages.

The design and popularity of specific types of baton have evolved over the years and are influenced by a variety of factors. These include inherent compromises in the dual (and competing) goals of control effectiveness and safety (for both officer and subject).


LAPD riot officers with straightsticks during a protest in Los Angeles.

A straight, fixed-length baton (also commonly referred to as a "straightstick") is the oldest and simplest police baton design, known as far back as ancient Egypt.[3] It consists of little more than a long cylinder with a molded, turned or wrapped grip, usually with a slightly thicker or tapering shaft and rounded tip. They are often made of hardwood, but in modern times are available in other materials such as aluminium, acrylic, and dense plastics and rubber. They range in size from short clubs less than a foot in length to long 36-inch (91 cm) "riot batons" commonly used in civil disturbances or by officers mounted on horseback.

Straightsticks tend to be heavier and have more weight concentrated in the striking end than other designs. This makes them less maneuverable, but theoretically would deliver more kinetic energy on impact. Most agencies have replaced the straightstick with other batons because of inconvenience to carry, and a desire for their officers to look less threatening to the community they serve. Despite having been replaced by side-handle and expandable batons in many (if not most) law enforcement agencies, it remains in use by many major departments in the US, such as the Baltimore, Denver, Sacramento, Long Beach, Santa Ana, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Riverside Police Departments, and are used by NYPD Auxiliary Police officers, as well as many Military Police forces around the world.


A sap is a flat-profiled, leather-covered lead rod, fitted with a spring handle.[4] It is also the name for a weapon of similar design (also called a slapper, slap jack or beavertail sap). A sap has a flat profile as opposed to a cylindrical profile of a blackjack, and spreads its impact out over a broader area, making it less likely to break bone. It was primarily used for head strikes, intended to stun an opponent or render them unconscious.


Two blackjacks and a hinged club on display at Bedford Museum

A blackjack (American English), or cosh (British English), is a small, easily concealed club consisting of a leather-wrapped lead weight attached to the end of a leather-wrapped coil spring or rigid shaft, with a lanyard or strap on the end opposite the weight.[5]

Materials other than lead and leather are sometimes used to construct these weapons, but the design principle (a soft covering over a dense weighted core) stays the same. Some [6] were weighted with a heavy lead ball wrapped in woven or plaited sailor's line (marline or codline) and then varnished over. Some carefully made examples were likely to have been used by a boatswain or ship's master-at-arms or ship's mate as a badge of office and discipline-enforcer.

This weapon works by creating kinetic energy in the dense core, via the spring handle, during the swing. When directed at the head, it works by concussing the brain without cutting the scalp. This is meant to stun or knock out the subject, although head strikes from blackjacks are regularly fatal.

Blackjacks were popular among law enforcement for a time due to their low profile, small size, and their suitability for knocking a suspect unconscious. Coshes have also been used by the military for example by Special Forces such as the British Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. Currently, however, they are all but prohibited in most municipalities due to liability issues stemming from their potential lethality when used as a compliance device. A blackjack is sometimes wrongly referred to as a sap; the weapon actually called a sap is covered above.

"Blackjack" is also American English slang referring to an improvised weapon composed of a heavy object placed inside a sock. The same improvised weapon is referred to in British English slang as a "slungshot" or a "cosh."

The word "cosh" is sometimes used loosely for any blunt instrument.

Side-handle baton[edit]

A pair of tonfa

Side-handle batons (sometimes referred to as T-batons or Nightsticks) are batons with a short side handle at a right angle to the shaft, about six inches from one end. The main shaft is typically 61 centimetres (24 in) in length. They are derived from the tonfa, an Okinawan kobudō weapon, and are used with a similar technique (although Tonfas are usually used in pairs, whereas side-handle batons are not). The best-known example is the Monadnock PR-24, which has become a genericized trademark within the law enforcement and security communities for this type of product.

It can be held by:

Side-handle batons are made in both fixed and collapsible models, and may be constructed from a range of materials including wood, poly-carbonate, epoxy, aluminum, or combination of materials.

Some side-handle batons are one-piece in design; the side-handle component and primary shaft are permanently fused together during manufacturing. One-piece designs are potentially stronger in design than two-piece designs, and have no risk of having a locking screw loosen from its threads.

Other side-handle batons are two-piece in design (common among cheaper makes); the side-handle component is screwed into the primary shaft. The side handle may be removed from the shaft by the end-user, converting the side-handle into a straight baton. Also, some two-piece designs function as a pivot two swing the side-handle baton in an arc without loosening the grip, thereby increasing the speed and damage inflicted.

The advantages of a side-handle baton over a straight baton are numerous:

Side-handle batons have a few disadvantages:

Side-handle batons have been involved in high-profile incidents of alleged police brutality, such as in New Zealand's 1981 Springbok Tour[7][8] and the Rodney King beating.

Expandable baton[edit]

ASP 21-inch (53 cm) expandable baton in expanded and collapsed state.
Swedish riot police with expandable baton.

An expandable baton (also referred to variously as a collapsible baton, telescopic [or telescoping] baton, tactical baton, spring cosh, ASP, Extendable, or extendo [slang]) is typically composed of a cylindrical outer shaft containing telescoping inner shafts (typically 2 or 3, depending on the design) that lock into each other when expanded. The shafts are usually made of steel, but lightweight baton models may have their shafts made from other materials such as aluminium alloy.

Expandable batons may have a solid tip at the outer end of the innermost shaft; the purpose of the solid tip is to maximize the power of a strike when the baton is used as an impact weapon.

Expandable batons are made in both straight and side-handle configurations, but are considerably more common in the straight configuration.

The best-known example of the straight expandable baton is the ASP (Armament Systems and Procedures) Baton, which has become a genericized trademark within the law enforcement and security communities for this type of product.

Depending on the holster or scabbard design, it may be possible to carry an expandable baton in either collapsed or expanded position, which would be helpful if an officer needed to holster an expanded baton and it was not possible or convenient to collapse it at the time.

An expandable baton is opened by being swung in a forceful manner while collapsed, using inertia to extend and lock the segments by friction. Some mechanical-lock versions can also be opened by simply pulling the segments apart. Depending on the design, expandable batons may be collapsed either by being brought down (inverted) on a hard surface, or by depressing a button lock and manually collapsing the shafts.

Additionally, the baton, in collapsed configuration, may be used as a control device against non-compliant subjects in conjunction with pain-compliance control techniques, such as to remove a driver refusing to exit his or her vehicle. It can be used as a large kubotan.


The advantages of a collapsible baton over a fixed baton are numerous:


However, expandable batons are not without some disadvantages:

Stun baton[edit]

Main article: Electroshock weapon

Stun batons are an unusual modern variation designed to administer an electric shock in order to incapacitate the target. They consist of an insulated handle and guard, and a rigid shaft usually a foot or more in length for delivering a shock. Many designs function like an elongated stun gun or a cattle prod, requiring the tip to be held against the target and then manually triggering a shock by a switch in the handle. Some more sophisticated designs carry a charge along the shaft's entire surface, administering a shock on contact. This later design is especially useful in preventing the officer from having his weapon grabbed and taken away by an assailant.

Most batons of this design were not intended to be used as impact weapons and will break if used in this way, though a few were built to withstand occasional lighter impacts. They are rarely issued to patrol officers in modern times due to their price and the other associated problems with electroshock weapons.

Improvised impact weapons[edit]

A homemade blackjack can be made using several techniques. Putting a bar of soap, rocks or some wet sand in a sock, then tying off the end makes a blackjack out of common items.

Some non-purpose-built items have been used by law enforcement over the centuries as impact weapons. Examples are:


Although the Kel-Lite in the 1970s appears to have been the third flashlight designed specifically to be useful as an emergency defensive weapon,[9] the best-known example is the D-cell Maglite, still in use by some law enforcement and security personnel.

Use of such flashlights as a club or baton is generally officially discouraged by the manufacturers and law enforcement officials, but its use is an option. As with all police weapons, there have been many allegations of misuse, such as in the Malice Green beating in Detroit. However, it should be noted that the use of flashlights as improvised impact weapons is subject to the same use of force regulations as the use of purpose-designed impact weapons like batons.

Peace officers may often choose to use such flashlights because they are viewed primarily as illumination devices; thus, if a peace officer carries one in his hands during nighttime encounters with potentially violent subjects, it would be less likely to escalate the situation (by making the subject feel threatened) than if the officer were to be equipped with a baton or pepper spray canister instead. This permits the officer to appear less threatening while having an impact weapon in hand and ready for instantaneous action, should the situation indeed turn violent.

Characteristic of a flashlight used as a baton or club is the grip employed. Flashlights are commonly held with the bulb end pointing from the thumb side of the hand, such that it is pointing outward from the body when held palm upward. When wielded as a club, the bulb end points inward when the hand is palm upward, and the grip is closely choked to the bulb end.

Another advantage to using a flashlight as a club is that in poorly lit situations it can be used to initially dazzle the eyes of an opponent. Law enforcement officers often deliberately shine flashlight beams into the eyes of suspects at night to cause temporary night-blindness as a preemptive defensive measure, whether or not the individual is likely to behave violently.


Batons are legal for sworn law enforcement and military in most countries around the world. However, the legality of civilian carry for purpose-built batons varies greatly by country, and by local jurisdictions.

In the United States, legality is determined by the laws of the individual states. Some such as Vermont or Arizona allow for legal carry in the absence of unlawful behavior or criminal intent. Others such as California have general prohibitions against the carrying of all "club" weapons by non-law enforcement. Such jurisdictions will sometimes make exceptions for persons employed as security guards or bodyguards, will provide for permits to be obtained for legal carry, or make exceptions for persons who complete an appropriate training course.[10][11]

In the UK, batons are considered to be offensive weapons (as they are "made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person"), which prohibits their possession in a public place under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953.[12] In addition, manufacturing, selling, lending and importing fixed[13] and telescopic[14] batons are all prohibited under section 141 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988.[15]

In Canada, there is no specific law that prohibits batons; except for spring-loaded batons, which are defined as a prohibited weapon under a regulation entitled 'Regulations Prescribing Certain Firearms and other Weapons, Components and Parts of Weapons, Accessories, Cartridge Magazines, Ammunition and Projectiles as Prohibited or Restricted' (also capable of being referred to by its registration number: SOR 98-462). However, it is a crime under section 90 of the Criminal Code of Canada to carry any weapon, including a baton, in a concealed fashion.

In Sweden, all types of batons can be owned but not carried in public spaces by private citizens according to law (1988:254).

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Brunisholz, Corey. "NYPD History". Retrieved 22 March 2012. 
  3. ^ Thorpe, Nick; James, Peter (1995). Ancient inventions. New York City: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-40102-6. 
  4. ^ Campbell, Robert K.; Jack Lewis; David Steele (2007). "Chapter 3: From Billy Clubs to Pepperballs". The Gun Digest Book of Assault Weapons. Gun Digest. p. 42. ISBN 0-89689-498-3. Back in the days when head blows were standard procedure, some officers preferred a sap or blackjack to the wood baton. The sap was a leather-covered flat or round piece of lead with a spring handle, although it could contain lead shot rather than a solid piece of metal. 
  5. ^ Farwell, Byron (2001). The Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-century Land Warfare: An Illustrated World View. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 109. ISBN 0-393-04770-9. A weapon with a short shaft and weighted end used as a bludgeon. 
  6. ^ Nautical Antiques
  7. ^ Gregory, Angela (6 May 2005). "Meurant's Red Squad baton up for sale". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 23 September 2008. 
  8. ^ "Police Baton (Minto Bar) for sale". Trade Me. 25 May 2005. Archived from the original on 18 September 2008. Retrieved 23 September 2008. 
  9. ^ Jess W. Gundy (9 August 2001). "Flashlights and Liability Reduction for Law Enforcement". The Educator. Retrieved 23 September 2008. 
  10. ^ "California Penal Code Section 12000-12003". FindLaw. Retrieved 23 September 2008. 
  11. ^ "California Penal Code Section 12020-12040". FindLaw. Archived from the original on 16 September 2008. Retrieved 23 September 2008. 
  12. ^ section 1, Prevention of Crime Act 1953
  13. ^ section 3, The Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons)(Amendment) Order 2004
  14. ^, Schedule to The Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order 1988
  15. ^ section 141, Criminal Justice Act 1988

External links[edit]