The lethality and common usage of the nunchaku are myths of Hollywood. While nunchucks did exist, even as weapons in some cases, most of the historical martial artists of Okinawa and Japan wouldn’t have been caught dead trying to use these things in a real fight.
When you see a nunchaku expert spinning the sticks around, it looks like something that can hit with the impact of a staff at least. Some on YouTube have videoed themselves smashing pumpkins and melons, so the nunchaku might be a very efficient weapon next time our organic gardens come to life and try to take revenge for decades of watching us eat their friends. But force equals weight plus momentum, and they can’t actually swing these things faster than an escrima stick: a weapon of about the same size and weight.
Worse than that, every nunchaku impact against the opponent leaves the wielder open for just a moment. With an escrima stick or something similar, the martial artist can rear back and immediately hit the target again. With nunchucks, the martial artist had to take an extra moment to reverse the momentum. And even during the actual impact, the wielder of the nunchakus had to shield himself against his own weapon or else the recoil would cause it to hit him. Not very hard, but this would provide the sort of distraction that made all the difference in a fight.
The escrima stick could also more easily be used to block against a counter attack, simply holding it in front of the vulnerable area like a sword.
No doubt the nunchaku could be deadly in the right hands, but was sadly inefficient compared to almost any other weapon, including bare fists. But there’s no denying that martial artists have used nunchakus as early as the 1600s, so how did this start?
No one knows. At least not exactly, but theories are that the nunchaku evolved the same way as many other weapons: from farm and gardening equipment. The most popular theory is that it evolved from a rice flail, but this is probably wrong. To use something like nunchucks to flail rice, the farmer would have had to keep bending over. But other items more resembled modern nunchucks, such as horse bits people used in Okinawa.
Peasants in Okinawa were forbidden from carrying weapons, so they carried farm instruments. Not necessarily because they had revolution in mind, but to protect themselves against thugs and bandits. Village guards eventually started carrying nunchakus. These were items that could be used as locking devices to hold someone down or clamp onto someone’s neck until they stop fighting. Guards also started using them as signal devices, banging them together to send up an alert.
As time went on, nunchucks were picked up by the nobility. They enjoyed flashy martial arts but didn’t often have a reason to actually fight for their lives after the end of the Feudal Era.
The came Hollywood and the great Bruce Lee, who glamorized nunchucks and inspired new generations to master the nunchaku: a weapon that that takes much more time and training to master than an escrima while at the same time being less effective.