This quote is from Morinobu Itoman’s 1934 book “The Study of Karate Techniques” (as translated by Mario McKenna):
“The forehead is used to strike when the opponent is close to you, or when he has grabbed your arm or sleeve. It can be used to strike the opponent’s face, including the nose, mouth and ears, or the neck or chest. Of course it is preferable to use your hands and feet for attacking and defending. However, if you are unable to use them, the head can be used with powerful results.”
He then goes on to say that the top of the head, the side of the head, and the back for the head can be used in the same way.
The headbutt is referred to in other texts too of course (karate and judo), and we explicitly see it in kata such as Kururunfa. However, it would be fair to say the headbutt is not practised as much as other striking techniques. There are probably two main reason for this:
1, People considering it “violent” and “uncouth”.
2, The fact it is banned in most combat sports i.e. boxing, karate, mainstream mma, etc. (which undoubtedly contributes to point 1).
Despite the fact it is far less effective than a punch, the UK Sentencing Guidelines for Assault (“Assault Definitive Guideline 2011”) list it as an “Aggravating factor indicating higher culpability”:
“Use of weapon or weapon equivalent (for example, shod foot, headbutting, use of acid, use of animal)”
Of course, this is looking at people convicted of assault (people who have acted illegally) and not people who have employed self-defence (who have acted legally and therefore would not be guilty of assault). However, it does show that the legal system in the UK sees headbutting as belonging in the same category as setting a dog on someone, using a weapon, or throwing acid at them! This is obviously ridiculous because a headbutt is way more innocuous than those things; both in terms of potential for physical injury and psychological trauma.
It would seem to me, that whoever has written these guidelines has a very “Queensbury rules” view of violence and has hence put the headbutt in way more serious company than it really deserves i.e. it is considered an “unsporting” and “violent method” that would only be employed by truly dangerous people (who need locked up for longer). Again, this takes us back to points 1 and 2 above.
So one thing we do need to consider with headbutts is that they are deemed “violent” by the general public and the legal system. While this is invariably down to false ideas and assumptions about the method, it’s still something that needs considered when factoring in the likely view of judges, jurors, law enforcement and witnesses if we use the headbutt in self-defence. The law on self-defence should not see this being an issue if you truly have acted “honestly and instinctively” in the face of a what you honestly believed to be a threat. We must also remember that UK law states it is unreasonable to expect people to “judge to a nicety the level of force used”. However, laws – no matter how perfect on paper – are put into effect by we fallible humans and hence there is the possibility that the cultural view of the headbutt could predispose people to think in a detrimental way about you and your actions.
Away from the cultural view of the headbutt, the inescapable fact is that it is a far weaker technique that a punch. However, the headbutt does have uses in self-defence when it is not possible to strike or create space in any other way.
In our dojo we allow the headbutt in sparring. This not only so we can use it when needed, but so we are aware of the potential for the enemy to use it too. They are very hard to control, so we just move the head to within 4 or 5 inches of the target to indicate the potential for it to land. We also make use of it in pad-drills (as shown in the two videos below) and competence with the headbutt is a grading requirement.
So what are your thoughts on the headbutting? It definitely a prescribed part of the karate tool kit, but do you make use of it in training? If not, why not? Do you have any thoughts on the cultural perceptions of the headbutt? Is sport the origin of these perceptions? How does the law view headbutts in other parts of the world? If you do train headbutts, in what way do you train them?
All the best,