Sgt. Kevin Orcutt figures his nunchaku just may have saved his life. The Thornton, Colo., police officer was patrolling a shopping center one night in 1988 when he heard an alarm and saw a man run out of a store. When Orcutt caught up with the burglary suspect, he managed to get a cuff on one of the man's wrists. But he couldn't get a grip on his other arm; the suspect kept struggling wildly. Finally, Orcutt whipped out his nunchaku, wrapped it around the cuffed wrist, twisted it and pinned the man to the ground. The fight went right out of him. "It turned out he had a pair of scissors in his boot," says Orcutt. "But he couldn't get to them."

Essentially two 12-inch sticks bound together by a short, double nylon cord, the nunchaku (pronounced nun-cha-koo) obtained prominence in America in the '70s, when kung fu fighter Bruce Lee wielded it with furious grace in his cult-classic movies. Now it's in different hands. Thanks to Orcutt, 33, who has designed his own version, 50 police departments in nine states use this ancient martial-arts weapon to maintain law and order.

Cops love the nunchaku, which they believe gives them a less violent alternative to the gun or the nightstick. "It's very good for restraint," says Officer Lynda Thomas of the La Mesa, Calif., Police Department. "I feel safer and much more capable with it." Indeed police find that the weapon delivers maximum control with minimal effort. Wrapped around a wrist or an arm and tightened when the suspect resists, the device produces disabling pain; "imagine an earache," says one person, "only a thousand times worse." Not surprisingly, people in the nunchaku's grip tend to cooperate. But not everyone shares the lawmen's delight with the weapon. In San Diego and Los Angeles, where nunchakus have been used to break up antiabortion rallies, protesters have charged the police with brutality. Earlier this year, 30 demonstrators filed suit in L.A. Superior Court seeking compensation for injuries, including a broken arm, at the hands of police armed with the device.

Orcutt is amazed by the clamor against his nunchaku. "I'm not some lunatic who's come out with something that's going to cripple people," he says. "What police have needed for hundreds of years is a more effective way to restrain someone so a scuffle doesn't get out of hand—so the suspect doesn't get whacked with a nightstick, or get you down and hurt you or break free, grab your gun and shoot."

A Navy brat whose father served on nuclear submarines, Orcutt grew up in Colorado, Connecticut and Virginia. As a kid, he was a Bruce Lee fan. But he didn't delve into the martial arts himself until 1974, when he apprenticed to a former judo champion. "When I took my black belt test," he says, "I had to choose a weapon. I chose the nunchaku."

In 1981, after graduating from police academy and joining the force in the Denver suburb of Thornton, Orcutt designed a nunchaku for personal use on the beat. Within two years every cop in Thornton was carrying the Orcutt Police Nunchaku (OPN)—and Kevin was in business. But selling the OPN to police chiefs in other cities wasn't easy. Orcutt had to explain that his nunchaku was different from Bruce Lee's: Made of plastic rather than wood, it is used primarily to restrain, not to strike. In 1987 Laguna Beach, Calif., outfitted its entire department with the OPN. Next came Costa Mesa, then San Diego. The 8,000-member LAPD is considering joining the fold.

More widespread use of the nunchaku, however, may be derailed by angry anti-abortion activists. In San Diego, protester Nancy Scofield, who was demonstrating inside an abortion clinic last year and refused to leave, is asking for $1.5 million in damages in the wake of her run-in with a nunchaku. Scofield says that she experienced a "hot searing pain" when the device was applied to her wrists and that one of her arms was twisted so severely that "some days I can barely lift a coffee cup."

Ultimately nunchakus may continue to be used by police, but not on protesters. Orcutt, who employs his father and brother in manufacturing the $47.95 devices—and who concedes he makes as much selling OPNs as he does walking the beat—refuses to become involved in that aspect of the debate. But he warns that without the nunchaku police will be forced to return to more primitive—and more dangerous-weapons. "The [OPN] can be killed with enough fear," he says. "But what will you go back to? Years of taking a baton and beating people to a bloody pulp? The nunchaku just restrains people and gets them under control. Isn't that what we want?"

—William Plummer, Robin Micheli in Thornton

  • Contributors:
  • Robin Micheli.