Arnis, as a martial art, was spawned in Philippine soil. It was known in ancient Philippines as kali, an ancient Malayan word that implies a large bladed weapon longer than a knife. This art was practiced primarily for self-defense by the pre-Spanish Filipinos who were noted for their friendly nature and legendary hospitality.

The art of hand-to-hand combat has always been an integral part of the Filipino in his long, turbulent, and bloody history. By force of necessity and self-preservation he became an expert in fighting with his hands, either bare or with a stick and a bladed weapon. Even before the introduction of the bladed weapon, the early Filipinos were already a fighting people using the bow and arrow or the longbow. The primitive Negritos, coming from Central Asia during prehistoric times, were experts in these weapons.

Arnis de mano is the best known and the most systematic fighting art in the Philippines. It is a perfected art after a long historical development from the kali systems designed to train the student to defend himself against armed or unarmed attacks. Arnis, as it is commonly called, has also been known in other dialects as estacada among the Tagalog provinces and estoque or fraile in other regions.

As a fighting art, Arnis has three forms of play. They are the espada y daga ("sword and dagger") in which a long wooden sword and a short wooden dagger is used; the solo baston (single stick) in a single long muton or baston (wooden stick or rattan cane hardened by drying or heating) is used; and the sinawali, a native term applied because the intricate movements of the two muton resemble the weave of a sawali (criss-cross fashion), the bamboo splits weave pattern used in walling and matting.

The lives of Filipino heroes are linked with the awesome power of the martial art of Arnis. They triumphantly waged their heroic battles for freedom and liberty as a testimony of the power and effectiveness of Arnis. Their successful stand against their superiorly armed adversaries in mortal combat in the arena of battle is now held in immortal inviolability by history of the 16th century. Kali (Arnis) became so popular during the early days that it was known as the sport of kings and of the members of the royal blood. The first and foremost experts of the art were the rajah and maharlika of the Visayas and Tagalog regions, Amandakwa in Pangasinan, and Baruwang of the Cagayan Valley region.

The art was not confined to the elite alone. Ordinary Filipinos practiced kali not only for self-defense but also for entertainment. It was the most awaited entertainment feature in fiestas and other gatherings. Kali was a standard fighting technique in hand-to-hand combat of the Filipinos when they revolted against Spain. Using the itak or bolo the Katipuneros engaged the Spanish soldiers in savage skirmishes. History states that Bonifacio brandished a bolo, a standard weapon in kali in his famous "Cry of Balintawak." However, kali declined in popularity as early as 1596 when the Spanish authorities discouraged the practice of the art (it was eventually banned in 1764). The Spaniards must have considered the art lethal or dangerous since they decreed that natives found practicing kali would be consideredTulisanes or outlaws.

In 1637, the friars introduced the moro-moro, a socio-religious play dramatizing the triumph of the Christian Spaniards over the Muslim Moors of Granada, Spain. The play called for the use of fighting techniques using a sword or similar bladed weapon. With the introduction of the moro-moro, the Filipinos again had a chance to practice their art, thus interest in kaliwas revived. In the play, Spanish soldiers fighting for Christianity were supposed to wear arnes, a Spanish word for the English harness, the colorful trappings worn by medieval soldiers. From the word arnes came the present Arnis. In 1853, the word kali was completely replaced by Arnis.

Arnis today has experienced changes in the weapons used. Although the art still makes use of the itak or bolo now and then, it has relied considerably on the use of the cane as a self-defense weapon. This is not because the cane is less deadly than bladed weapons but mainly because in later years, Arnis is engaged in more as a sport. Much of the antiquated techniques of the old Arnis have been modernized to avoid injury to students. More importantly, discipline and other moral values are impressed upon the students to strengthen not only the body but the spirit as well.