It is no secret that the weapon of choice developed over time in response to advances in protective gear, not to mention the tools themselves evolved for the same reason. Japanese tanto were essentially point-driven can openers meant to pry a downed enemy out of their armor on the battlefield, while the karambit is a short, slicing implement meant to dismember a lightly clothed opponent in the tropics. It's why we see blunt force weapons become prevalent in Medieval Europe with the implementation of plate armor, since swords are not meant to slice through steel. It's all about finding the right tool for the job, based on the equipment of the enemy you're fighting.
Just as weapons evolve, entire fighting systems develop for the same reasons. For example, one of the easiest ways to tell an art meant for warriors from one developed by civilians is the emphasis on either grappling or striking. Warrior arts generally operate under the assumption their opponent is armored, and thus striking them is not nearly as effective as throwing them to the ground or attacking the joints, since by design they must be the least protected areas in order to articulate. Systems designed for civilian self defense do not have that consideration and can develop an extensive striking repertoire. But let's go into even more detail...
If something like the way you sit can influence a martial art, what about clothing and armor? I mentioned how the assumption of an armored opponent changes the strategy and what techniques are most effective. In order for a warrior to be able to move, the armor cannot be one solid piece of metal. The joints must be able to move freely, making them vulnerable targets for manipulation and destruction. This holds true across the globe, and we see standing grappling techniques that attack the joints appear in every warrior culture from Europe to Japan. Just take a look at this 16th century European drawing and compare it to the technique demonstrated by Saito sensei:
Now, remember how I mentioned that even the smallest details can influence the way one fights? Take a look at this bareknuckle boxing stance. The low guard and fists pointing towards the opponent is a staple of this type of fighting. Looking at this from a modern boxing perspective, why isn't he keeping his hands up? Did boxers back then not understand the significance of protecting one's head? A guard position is meant to protect the areas most likely to be attacked. Anyone who has punched another person in the face knows that it hurts your hand, and without proper conditioning you run the risk of breaking your hand more than doing damage to your opponent. In the era of bareknuckle boxing, head shots were not as common for the same reason. Therefore, the fighter pictured above is protecting the most targeted areas. That's not to say no one ever got punched in the face in bareknuckle boxing, just that head hunters were not as common. We don't start to see the high guard of modern boxing until the advent of large gloves and hand wraps to protect the fighter's hands. Ironically (or not so much), the hand position in the bareknuckle stance looks a lot like the sport karate stance:
Now, the relationship between Western boxing and modern karate is a rather interesting one. Jesse Enkamp made a detailed video on the subject (click here), so I won't go into it too much here. Essentially, with the popularity of boxing across the globe after the 1921 Jack Dempsey fight against George Carpentier, the Japanese felt they needed their own form of pugilism which just so happened to coincide with the introduction of Karate to the mainland from Okinawa. Therefore, there was pressure from the Japanese government to transform it into a form of kickboxing rather than the warrior art it was initially developed to be. There are also theories that the Japanese refused to accept it in its original form as it too closely resembled Jujutsu.
Unfortunately, the idea of Karate as a grappling art has been lost among mainstream practitioners due to the popularity of modern sport karate. Thankfully, practitioners such as Jesse Enkamp, Iain Abernethy and Patrick McCarthy are working to bring awareness and reignite the study of joint manipulation, throwing techniques and takedowns as part of true Karate, using the blueprint of kata as the gateway to such material.
I plan to make this the first in a series of articles describing how fighting systems were developed and what clues you can use to decipher their intended use. If an art focuses heavily on striking, it's likely the art was designed for civilians (either for sport or self defense). If the emphasis is on standing grappling, you're probably looking at a system designed to fight an armored opponent. Understanding the context an art was created for is essential if one plans to adapt it for modern survival. It helps you understand the arts strengths and limitations. Every art is effective for the context it was designed for, but sometimes trying to modify it for the environment you are likely to find yourself in is like fitting a square peg through a round hole.