The Punching Bags of Pugilism

Journal of Manly Arts
Aug 2001

By Keith Myers
Copyright © 2001 Keith Myers. All rights reserved.

Striking a bag of some sort has long been associated with boxing.   When asked to think of a boxing gym today, most people will picture a warehouse-like space with a roped boxing ring in the center and an array of heavy bags and speed bags hanging along the walls.   Lots of people have an image of a grunting, sweating fighter pounding on a bag that seems to be nearly as big as himself.  But why do it, and where did this all start?  One of the clearest answers to the question "why" comes from Edmund Price, writing in 1867:

Striking the bag is a very important acquisition to training.  It teaches a person to stand erect, how to balance himself, and to acquire that graceful and easy motion of delivery, without which no one could by any possibility be termed a scientific boxer.

The "Heavy Bag"

John Heenan, when training for his famous fight with Tom Sayers, is said to have utilized one of the  first heavy bags.  This was in 1860, and it consisted of a sandbag weighing 30 pounds.   Seven years later, Edmund Price, in his book "Science of Self Defense", recommended against the use of sand and described the heavy bag in the following way:

Let the student provide himself with a bag about three feet long, with a capacity of two bushels; fasten a stick across the top of it so as each end will project over the side of the bag, to which ends attach a couple of ropes fastened to a beam.  The bag should be suspended in such a manner that the bottom of it will reach down about twelve inches below the level of the chin.

He goes on to say that instead of sand, one should use ¾ bushel of oats and fill the remainder with hay.   This must have been a fairly standard practice, because Price's instructions where repeated verbatim in another manual published by Richard Fox in 1889.

Other descriptions of the heavy bag come from Ed James writing in 1878, and Billy Edwards writing in 1888.   James, in his book "The Complete Handbook of Boxing and Wrestling", says:

A striking bag, fifteen to twenty pounds weight, suspended from above so as to reach about as low as your chest, may be used with great advantage for learning to balance, as well as for hitting out.

Similarly Edwards, writing in "Art of Boxing and Manual of Training", notes:

There are three different kinds of bags in use, of which the first is the heavy, weighing from ten to twenty pounds, swung from the ceiling by a strong rope, and covered by a thick wrapper of chamois-skin or soft kid, the inner stuffing being made of horse-hair.

As you can see, the large fifty to one hundred pound bags used in boxing today were not what was originally known as a "heavy bag."   "Heavy" seems to be a relative term.  These early heavy bags weighed only between ten to twenty pounds.   It is difficult to say when the heavier "heavy bag" came into  use, but there is a photograph of  Jack Dempsey from approximately 1920 training with a larger modern-looking heavy bag in the background.

The heavier the bag, the more likely you are to injure your hands when punching it.   These early pugilists were training before the use of tight hand-wraps and padded bag gloves.  They also saw value in a bag that was mobile and required the use of foot-work and body movement to "chase" it around while hitting.  Edwards describes a method for using the bag that would not work well at all with the large bags in today's gyms:

The method of its use is this: give it a good swing to start it (for it should never be struck while motionless), then follow it rapidly about, hitting it smartly and straight from the shoulder with the fists. Never hit the heavy bag as it is coming to you, as that would be very apt to dislocate the wrist, but catch it as it swings away from you, and drive it away at a tangent.

While boxing and the heavy bag are an inseparable pairing in most people's minds, it is
interesting to note another comment made by Edwards:

The heavy bag is not greatly in vogue, even among professionals, and may be dispensed with by amateurs.

So if the heavy bag was not as important to pugilists of the past as it is to modern boxers, just what were they using the most?

The "Punching Ball"

barn scene with heavy bagThis is likely the predecessor to the well-known "speed bag" used today.   It eventually evolved directly into the "double-end bag."   Mike Donovan claimed credit for its invention.   In his 1893 work "The Science of Boxing", Donovan describes the process as follows:

Sixteen years ago (1877) I brought it into use.   I began by using an old-fashioned round rubber foot-ball with a canvas cover for arm exercise....when the idea came to me of swinging it from the ceiling.

Donovan was so impressed with his invention that he goes on to declare:

I regard the punching-ball as the most valuable mechanical assistant to a fighter in training.  The most important thing is the punching-ball; practicing with it quickens the eyes, develops the hitting muscles, and makes a man a two-handed hitter.

Edwards seems to agree, calling it the "flying bag":

If you are in real earnest with the fun, you will have all you can do following it round and about.

James provides similar sentiments:

To acquire celerity of eye, hands, feet and head, suspend an inflated bladder, and hit, parry or dodge as it rebounds---it will keep you busy, and, although recommended by no other work, there is nothing to equal this sparring with the bladder for exercise or amusement.

Edwards gives the best description of its construction:

It is a large, inflated rubber bag pendant from the ceiling, if that be low enough to allow of your hitting it so that its return to your reach may be almost instantaneous.  If the ceiling be too high, hang it in some convenient corner of the room, so that you can drive it hard and rapidly against the two walls.

Doran, writing in his 1889 book "Doran's Science of Self-Defense" gives some good guidelines for its use:

In this exercise be careful not to fall into the error of driving the bag with the right hand and merely sticking out the left for the bag to strike against as it returns.  You can tell when you are hitting the bag correctly by the way it returns to you, if it is not struck fairly in the center it will jump upward as it goes from you, or away to one side in returning toward you.  So, endeavor to keep it going and returning straight.

punching ball Fitz working the ball)

The "Double-End Bag"

As noted above, the punching ball evolved directly into the double-end bag with the simple attachment of a rope to its bottom surface.   Returning once again to Edwards we find:

The third bag is the one most generally in use, because it does not require so much room to be set up, and less moving about getting after it.  It is an oval bag three or four times the size of a rugby football inflated with air, but instead of hanging loose it has a rope attached to the lower end securing it in a perpendicular position to the floor, as well as to the ceiling.  Sometimes the upper and lower fastenings are made of thick rubber bands, which, of course, give a more rapid rebound to it when struck.  The exercise with it is almost identical with that of the flying bag, but, as I said before, it does not run you round so much.

The "Wall Pad"

punching the double-enderThis apparatus is described only by Doran.  He uses it as the primary way to teach and practice his basic punching mechanics.   It is somewhat similar to the wall bags that are filled with beans or metal pellets and used for hand conditioning in many Chinese martial arts.   Doran describes it as follows:

Take a pad and place it upon the wall about five feet three inches from the floor, stand where you can hit it with your closed fist when your arm is fully extended, the opposite shoulder thrown well back and your side facing it.


wall padIt seems today that most people associate boxing with the heavy bag.  But we have seen in the pages of the historical period manuals that "heavy" is a relative term, and that the most popular type of "bag" in use was likely the punching ball.  The great champion Robert Fitzsimmons, writing in 1901 in his book "Physical Culture and Self-Defense", extols the virtues of punching the bag.  But the bag he describes is the punching ball.  The punching ball remains in modern boxing gyms only in the form of its descendant, the double-end bag.   The speed bag was likely inspired by the punching ball, but is a modern day apparatus.

 It is not difficult to train like the old pugilists.   Small commercially produced bags are still available that you can stuff yourself so they weigh in at approximately fifteen pounds.   A double-end bag can be purchased and set up, and its lower attachment released when you want to work it like a punching ball.   Start a punching session with bare fists, and when you reach the point that the skin is reddened and on the verge of bleeding, put on a pair of light leather work- or driving-gloves and continue on.   Eventually the skin will toughen to withstand the impact.   Leather or vinyl is less likely to abrade the knuckles than canvas.   So set up that basement gym and train like a pugilist!



  1. Donovan, Mike, The Science of Boxing, 1893
  2. Doran, Bart J., Doran's Science of Self-Defense, 1889
  3. Edwards, Billy, Art of Boxing and Manual of Training, 1888
  4. Fitzsimmons, Robert: Physical Culture and Self-Defense, 1901
  5. Fleischer, Nat and Sam Andre, An Illustrated History of Boxing, 1997 edition
  6. Fox, Richard K., Boxing, 1889
  7. James, Ed, The Complete Handbook of Boxing and Wrestling, 1878
  8. Price, Edmund, Science of Self-Defense, 1867
Aug 2001