There is very little
that will stop a fight faster than a sap to the top of a
shoulder or the side of the head. Getting hit on the
shoulder feels like when the linebacker got a clear shot
to you without you seeing it coming, your whole arm goes
In addition to guns and nightsticks, policemen of older
times were issued blackjacks to be used as a means to
render an uncooperative arrestee unconscious. This was
done by a blow to the head, usually in the temple area
above the arrestee's ear.
Two types of blackjack were discussed, the slapjack
(also known as the beavertail jack)which is flat in
cross-section and has a plain leather handle, and the
convoy, which was round in cross-section and had a
spring-loaded handle covered in leather.
The round body blackjack has the ability to crush bones
(hands, cranium, facial structure) with relative ease.
The striking force of even a light black jack is greatly
enhanced by the spring handle.
The flat sap is very versatile too. Besides being easier
to conceal, it will allow a strike with the flat part
which can range from stunning to instant KO, depending
on place struck and size and weight of sap. The side
edge can be used to target large muscle groups ( thighs,
biceps, pecs, etc) or it can be used to break bones
(high force concentration over a small area).
Policeman can use it to knock on doors, or to smack a
bar to wake up a passed out drunk. A sap is also
great protection against dog attacks, where a nightstick
or ASP is not really practical.
Advantage of the slapjack was that it fit more
comfortably into a uniform pocket, and fits in a boot or
the waist band of one's pants and goes unnoticed until
you haul it out. Disadvantage of the slapjack is that it
would break the skin and lead to a bloody wound if the
blow wasn't made with the flat sides of the jack.
Advantages of the convoy (round billy) were that it was less likely to
break the skin of an arrestee. Disadvantages were that
it cost a bit more and tended to fray the pants pocket
more quickly than the slapjack, and was more
uncomfortable to wear.
Skill was needed to place a blow that would render the
subject unconscious. In a fight situation this was
rarely possible, so arrestees ended up with bruises on
face and shoulders from ineffective usage of blackjacks.
Occasional deaths from blackjack misuse also occurred.
Most police organizations don't issue them anymore,
having switched to gas (mace, pepper spray) and tasers. Most
departments are getting in step with the times, and are
doing away with saps, blackjacks, or any other kind of
These impact weapons are a rarity in
law enforcement these days, with many agencies
nationwide getting rid of them over the years in
response to allegations of police brutality and
lawsuits. Other large police departments concluded
the weapons weren't effective and banned them in favor
But, you can talk to the cops who can still carry the
sap or nunchaku, and they will swear by the power and
effectiveness of the tools if used correctly.
Sheriff's Sgt. Dave Brown said he always had his trusty
sap hidden away in his pants pocket when he was on
In a combat situation when someone on drugs is fighting
you and has one hand around your flashlight, it's nice
to be able to take your left hand and reach back to get
your sap if you had to,” said Brown, who is now a
detective sergeant at the Ramona substation.
He still slips a 6-to 8-inch-long sap into his pocket on
those rare days when he puts a uniform on for a patrol
Chris Cross, who trains recruits at San Diego's regional
law enforcement academy, said saps are supposed to be
used in response to assaultive behavior at close range.
Deputies are taught to aim at areas with large muscle,
such as a thigh, and to avoid if at all possible the
head, neck, spine, kidneys and groin.
“When you swing one of those things, there's a lot of
force following behind it,” said Vista sheriff's Sgt.
Mark Varnau. “But I think they are used rather
judiciously.” The Sheriff's Department could not
provide data showing how often saps or nunchakus are
used against suspects, but spokesman Capt. Glenn Revell
said they are used “infrequently.” There have been
no use-of-force complaints regarding either weapon for
at least the past year, Revell said.
Saps, sometimes called slappers or slapjacks, are a
throwback to the old-school police image portrayed in
the pulp crime novels and gumshoe movies of the 1940s
and '50s. Also popular on-screen and in real life
were blackjacks, which are similar to a sap but more
clublike, with a rounded end. But, by as early as
the 1970s, the sap and blackjack began to lose its place
in law enforcement as police agencies tried to soften
their tough-guy image.
Departments investigated reports that their officers hit
suspects in the face or head with saps or blackjacks and
the suspects complained. National City police did
away with saps in the mid-1990s.
“They're just too easy to use and that's the reality of
why most agencies have done away with them,” said
National City police Capt. Manny Rodriguez. He
acknowledged, however, that sheriff's deputies who often
patrol rural areas alone are in a different role than
“For officer safety, you probably want them to have more
tools,” Rodriguez said. “If you're a deputy sheriff in
Jamul and you need cover, you might wait 20 minutes
until someone can drive over to help you.”
Brown agreed, saying veteran deputies who are
comfortable with the sap have hung onto it, especially
when patrolling the backcountry. “At 2 a.m. on
some lonely road, you're going to want a sap,” Brown
said. “I'm very partial to the sap. They'd have to peel
it from my fingers.”
Veteran law enforcement officers across the country
still reminisce in online forums about the days when
they were allowed to use saps and blackjacks, saying the
weapons eventually fell prey to an era of political
“I still don't know why my 'thumper' isn't (politically
correct) anymore,” one cop lamented in his online post.
“I mean, if you can use a metal stick, then why can't
you use a sap? You sure hit a lot fewer officers on the
backswing with a sap!”
Even with saps gone from most police departments,
uniform makers have continued to sew sap pockets into
the side of officers' pants. Officers find that
it's the perfect place to stick their flashlights.
The other weapon that a few in law enforcement still
carry is the police nunchaku, which was developed by a
Colorado cop in the 1980s. San Diego was the first
big-city police department to try them out, and a
handful of its officers still carry them two decades
later, along with sheriff's deputies and Carlsbad
officers. The nunchakus are used for control
holds, such as squeezing a suspect's arm or leg between
the two sticks. Or sometimes, taking out the
unexpected weapon is enough of an attention-getter.
“When someone pulls those out and knows what they're
doing with them, people take notice,” said Carlsbad
police Lt. Bill Rowland. Rowland used to carry the
nunchaku while on patrol when it was more popular, but
he said he didn't use it much. Like most officers,
Rowland ended up dumping it for a baton because of the
constant training that it took to stay proficient in the
martial arts tool.
The weapon came under fire in 1989 after San Diego
police used them to arrest anti-abortion protesters
outside of clinics. The demonstrators
unsuccessfully sued the city in federal court for $5
The way Carlsbad police Chief Tom Zoll sees it, saps and
nunchakus are just another option in the range of
less-than-lethal weapons officers can carry, along with
Tasers, pepper spray and batons.
“We used to have nothing or our firearm. We needed more
tools in between,” said Zoll, who came from the
Sheriff's Department. “Now officers carry a
variety of tools with them to keep from going lethal.”