Although the names and methods have evolved, Billy clubs have remained the same and have come to represent police officers all over the world. The billy club, a wooden or synthetic bludgeon that can reduce someone’s enthusiasm for breaking the law, has traditionally been used by police when using non-lethal force. Despite the fact that the object has gone by other names, including nightstick, baton, mace, and truncheon, “billy club” seems to have stuck. Truncheon is a more specific term for billy club, which comes from the French bâton and the Italian bastone, meaning stick. Thus it may be referred to as the policing truncheon, a baton, or sometimes just a stick.
But from where did the name ‘Billy Club’ originate? There are a few potential explanations provided by history.
Early police history with the Billy Club
Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel established the first police force in London in 1829. He advocated “policing by consent”—gaining the public’s respect and cooperation rather than imposing his will through fear—as the foundation for a modern police force. Except for the billy club, the early police officers’ signature weapon, the new police force would be unarmed. Depending on the officer’s preferences and physical attributes, Billy clubs came in a variety of lengths. Historically, they could be as short as 14 inches for use in close quarters and as long as 36 inches for use during riots or by law enforcement officers mounted on horses.
Potential criminals may be deterred from committing crimes by seeing officers spinning their sticks, or those in need of assistance may be able to identify officers more easily. A patrolman could use the stick to call for assistance by rapping it against a pipe or the ground. The billy club can be used to defend against blows or to help an officer restrain a suspect in a physical altercation. It didn’t cause any harm to the hands in a striking exchange when used offensively. American cities like New York and Boston soon adopted the use of the billy club. Some officers added symbols, coats of arms, or their initials to their billy clubs.
In the early 1800s, Yale University students in New Haven, Connecticut chose a “senior bully,” or college captain, who was given the “bully club,” a ceremonial stick that denoted their place in the school’s hierarchy. According to lore at Yale, a student once engaged a sailor in combat, taking the sailor’s weapon in the process. The student’s bully club, which he had taken control of, became a school tradition as he was praised for standing his ground against a tough seafarer. The billy club has adopted regional characteristics in some places. The espantoon, so named after the spontoons carried by Roman legionnaires, is a long stick that Baltimore police use. In 1999, defensive batons known as PR-24s with a side handle were introduced in New York City. The use of clubs as a whole has decreased recently as Tasers and pepper spray and other non-lethal weapons have gained popularity. Billy club proponents argue that in some circumstances, using the billy club to attack the perpetrator’s bony prominences and nerve clusters is preferable to using force.
Robert Peel’s police culture and the versatility of the billy club prevented British law enforcement from using firearms frequently until the mid-1990s.
Billy clubs are used as a global symbol of police
Many of the billy clubs from the Victorian era are one-of-a-kind items due to the various sizes and individual ornamentation. The staffs were elaborately embellished with emblems like a royal crown and scepter, different coats of arms, and occasionally the owner of the billy club’s initials.
The practice of adorning a billy club, truncheon, or baton was brought to America. In New York, officers were given batons by police officers under their command made of exquisitely carved wood and ivory. These specific items are primarily ceremonial and are not used in combat.The ceremonial practice was adopted and carried out in the Chicago Police Department in 1893 when every new police officer was given a baton by the sergeants or lieutenants under his command during ceremonies or in other public gatherings, police officers carry ceremonial truncheons as symbols of their authority.
Sometime in the 19th century, a large club in Baltimore known as the espantoon came to be known as an officer’s “Badge of Authority.” Local law enforcement personnel were well-known for spinning their distinctive batons, which became a distinctive aspect of the department’s culture. Although police commissioner Thomas C. Frazier outlawed espantoons in 1994 because they were “too intimidating,” they were reinstated in 2000 after he was replaced due to popular demand.
Billy clubs as a less deadly alternative weapon
Billy clubs are less-deadly weapons to control crowds in dangerous situations. The first London police officers were given billy clubs as a self-defense weapon, but these weapons can still be very physically harmful in the hands of a skilled officer—especially when striking vulnerable areas like the head, spine, or groin. As a striking tool, a baton offers many benefits. Most importantly, it protects the hands, which are vulnerable to injury while boxing, and can be used defensively to fend off blows from blunt and sharp objects. Today’s officers are taught to disable offenders by striking nerve clusters and bony prominences in the limbs and torso rather than striking to inflict a concussion if they must strike with their batons.
A straight baton can also be used to restrain a suspect, order them to move in a specific direction, or control a resisting offender’s limbs, according to several instructions in an FBI tactical manual titled “Technique and Use of the Police Baton.”
The billy club has regional influences in some places. In Baltimore, police use a long stick known as an espantoon, which was inspired by the spontoons used by Roman legionnaires. In 1999, defensive batons with a side handle known as PR-24s were introduced in New York City. The use of clubs has generally decreased in recent years as other non-lethal weapons like Tasers and pepper spray have gained popularity. Billy club proponents assert that in some circumstances, attacking a perpetrator’s bony prominences and nerve clusters is preferable to drawing a weapon.
Whatever name it goes by, the club will probably continue to be a regular haunt for law enforcement officers for a very long time.