Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Does "gentlemanly conduct" bias your practice?

"They utterly ignore the rules and customs of gentlemanly fencing, and betake themselves to mere fighting of a nature scarcely creditable to a Whitechapel rough" - Alfred Hutton, Cold Steel pg 43

The rules and customs of "Gentlemanly" fencing as outlined in Hutton and presumably ubiquitous in later fencing treatises has been hugely influential for setting HEMA custom. The format of entering measure, touching blades/saluting, then taking one step back and adopting a guard before starting an exercise or bout is deeply ingrained in many fencers practice and is clearly visible in historical fencing culture, particularly at tournaments. 

"To ENGAGE. Having performed the salute, cross the blades, and tap them smartly together twice; then draw back the left foot so as to be out of distance, and come to guard." - Alfred Hutton, Cold Steel pg 42

However I wonder if many people consciously consider the impact this is having on their practice? When you consider the era and system of combat from which this was born, it's often completely inappropriate practice for the system you are studying. 

For example using this practice for technique from Meyer's or I.33 results in outcomes that look little like the treatise. That's because systems, like Meyer, require an assertive opening phase of combat that doesn't work within a passive "gentlemanly" paradigm. From a Meyer perspective specifically (and from the perspective of more aggressive systems in general) there are big problems with:

1. Starting bouts and exercises within what is relatively close measure
2. Starting within static "settled" guard positions

If your system is largely defensive, i.e. involves waiting in a particular guard position or cautiously entering measure with half steps until you can bind, then Hutton's system makes great sense. However if you're trying to enact assertive attacking philosophies driving through dynamic "covering" guard positions they do not work well from this start position.

"When you want to fence with someone on the fencing floor...do not place yourself in your guard immediately, so that the adversary does not see right away what kind of guard you have, but go at him with several steps, until you are almost upon him, and then you can set yourself in a guard, which pleases you." - Halle in Saxony, Short though Clear Description treating of Fencing on the Thrust and Cut (1661)

The solution is simple: rather than starting within measure ensure that your default is to start all your exercises and bouts from completely out of measure and without an initial guard position. If your system is assertive this allows you to launch an aggressive attack, if it is defensive you can plod to within measure and adopt your static guard.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Attack & defend drill

Attack & Defend Drill

Partner up, find measure so that you require one step to strike your partner. Taking a short step forwards (i.e. a lunge) strike at your opponent who will defend with the appropriate parry. Defender can either remain still or withdraw the front foot when they parry. For this drill follow this cutting pattern using flicks to start with:

Cut 1: crown strike (starting from your right but ending straight down)
Cut 2: diagonal strike from your top right
Cut 3: horizontal strike from your right
Cut 4: under strike from your right
Cut 5: under strike from your left
Cut 6: horizontal strike from your left
Cut 7: crown strike (starting from your left but ending straight down)

In this drill you take turns and you both follow this pattern so it ends up looking like this:
1.    Person1 lunges and performs crown strike, person2 parries through high guard
2.    Person2 then lunges and performs crown strike, person1 recovers into high guard
3.    Person1 lunges and performs diagonal strike, person2 recovers and parries through high or low guard
4.    Person2 lunges and performs diagonal strike, person1 recovers and parries through high or low guard

This drill encourages people to train with all the cuts, trains people to parry as a part of their recovery, drills measure and is significantly better than having doing solo cutting drills. It’s important that participants are actually in measure and landing their cuts so that if participants are not parrying currently they get struck.

It is also very, very important to highlight that unless you are doing 19th century historical fencing within the rules and customs of that time, however that this turn taking approach is just a strength and muscle memory trainer not something that you would expect to reflect a real bout.

There are many, many variations depending on what technique you wish to drill, such as:

1.    Perform the same cuts with moulinets
2.    Perform the same cut lines but with the false or flat edges
3.    Intersperse the cuts with thrusts so that it goes, for example: crown strike, parry, high thrust, parry, diagonal strike, parry, low thrust, parry etc.
4.    Change the footwork so that one partner is advancing with every cut while the other is retreating with every parry
5.    Change the type of parry, for example if you are working on beating you can parry with a beat rather than a static parry.
6.  Random strike, number all the strikes from 1-4 (or 7 if you're doing both inside and out) and get someone to call out the number. This introduces a random element.
7. Practicing with your off hand it's a great way to build ambidexterity 

Longsword variation

To make this drill work well with longsword it's best alternate between inside and outside strikes, striking from the left and then the right changing the lead foot each time.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Offensive v's defensive in Historical Fencing

"[be] ready to receive any Throw that he shall think fit to give; but wait not for it, it being safer to attack than be attacked" - Thomas Page, The Use of the Broadsword, 1746 page 46

"Avoid, if possible, making the first attack against any adversary, more especially a stranger, it being advantageous to act on the defensive" - 
Alfred Hutton, Cold Steel page 42

In historical fencing there is obviously a spectrum between systems that favour offensive actions and systems that favour defensive actions. Much like the discussion between the merits of the point and the edge it is not a case of one approach being objectively wrong and the other objectively right but about subjective personal preference. They are both just different flavours in the rich soup of historical fencing.

However both approaches do advocate fencing “securely” which means covering/protecting yourself while you act. I've not seen any treatise that advocates attacking without any concern for your defence whatsoever. It is certainly bad practice to pursue offensive actions without training to cover yourself from your opponents defensive actions. This is the essence of “guard” positions which are ubiquitous to all treatises.   

The difference is not whether you guard yourself or not but about how you use the guards. While a superficial read of treatises like Meyer might suggest that you get stuck in without concern for your safety:

"note that when you wish to fight with someone, then see that you are the first to be in place so that you can act in a timely manner in your intended piece, then you shall forcefully continue against him with cuts that he cannot send himself into a guard or piece. But rather you shall show that you will rush over him with sudden stepping before he realizes it."  - Meyer, (1560) 10r

What he is actually advocating is not using “settled” defensive guarded positions but rather using guards dynamically to cover yourself while being aggressive:

“However this rhyme teaches you that it is always better to not settle into a guard. It guards you not at all, to show someone with your guard”- Meyer, (1560) 111

Or another example of this from Thomas Page:

"Advance briskly up to your Adversary under the Cover of an Outside, and Throwing an Inside but not home, receive an Outside, just sufficient to open your Adversary's Play” - Thomas Page, The Use of the Broadsword, 1746 page 38

Sunday, 10 August 2014


Oh dear

Epic example of someone who is very skilled at individual actions/techniques but who doesn't understand how to get into measure to use them. If I was to give a HEMA lesson from the above vid it would be to consider the guy doing Capoeira as someone who usually trains by starting the bout within measure skipping the entire onset phase and as a result doesn't really know how to safely get into measure. While the MMA guy, clearly, is someone who perceives this and then does the boxing equivalent of a Wrath strike :)

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The wards and opening a fight using I.33

“It is to be noted, how in general all fencers, or all men holding a sword in hand, even if ignorant in the art of fencing, use these seven wards” – i.33 1r (1)

I was running an introduction to i.33 session at the weekend and at the end I got the usual comment from an experienced fencer, always something along the lines of:

“That was really good; I’d always viewed i.33 as something of a novelty. Interesting technique but just not practical in a fight”

Again, this is a symptom of how many people view and understand treatises as a series of snap shots to be viewed, taught and understood as standalone exercises rather than as a series of examples of a larger coherent system that must be grasped not only from the treatise but from practical application of the treatise.

I've been to many i.33 workshops where the plays are simply regurgitated for the audience without context or understanding of the wider system. The result, particularly with the i.33 treatise, is pretty but unworkable. You learn that from a bind you can do x, y or z fancy move. Typically all exercises start well within measure and often from half-shield. A play ends up with two people rushing each other with the second person to die being awarded “victory.” When used in free play attempts to use the technique are quickly abandoned because it’s easier and safer to kill people before they enter a bind. The end result: interesting but not practical.

I've been there, the guy who has just picked up a sword and buckler for the first time smashes the “experienced” fencer because he ignores bringing the hands into a half shield position, doesn’t seek the bind and just hammers away from measure.

So what’s gone wrong?

Using knowledge from later treatises we can see that i.33 almost completely glosses over the onset phase of the fight. There are only hints of how you are supposed to get into measure and into the half-shield bind that it favours.

From looking at the “wards” and from the hints in the plays this is what I think is missing, which when implemented suddenly makes the rest of the system practical. I think the “wards” are used like Meyer’s “guard” positions, as decision points that you pass through during your opening attack. They are noteworthy because they are the best time for you to change your action in the face of your opponent making a response, which is vital to avoiding double kills and keeping your measure.

1.    So, when out of measure you adopt no ward or position that gives hint of your intention
2.    When you wish to attack you spring forwards into long measure and into a ward, pausing for a heartbeat to ascertain your opponents response
3.    If they fail to effectively guard against your action then you complete your action with another smaller spring to adjust the measure depending on their response (not necessarily forwards, you want to keep your cutting distance) while bringing your hands together to deal the blow and protect your sword hand from defensive moves, leaning into the action to keep your body as far away as possible.
4.    You then immediately “flee” to avoid any injuries from wild defensive flailing.

Following the steps of this process is essential to avoid the age old problem of two opponents simply running into each other and ending up faux wrestling. If your opponent advances as you advance, then you immediately respond in step three by withdrawing to maintain measure while making your action.

It also reduces the near certainty of double kills by explicitly taking into account what your opponent is doing rather than simply launching in and hoping you've guess their intention correctly.

By following this process if you initiate an attack it’s much, much easier to steer the fight into a bind and thereby follow up with all the technique from the treatise. Because, what happens 9 times out of 10 is that your opponent will react to your opening ward with a counter attack, at which point you clear their counter attack with half shield and hey presto, we’re in the opening bind!

The most vital part of making this work however is doing it at speed, if you follow the “old school” model of fencing with people politely stepping into measure, assuming guards and counter guards etc then you do not get the same results. Instead you either encourage a double kill as both parties pick an opening at will and then attack at the same time or you encourage one person to endlessly withdraw from attacks seeking to follow after. 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Kit review: SPES Forearm and Elbow Protectors V.2

"The forearm protectors help to lessen the threat of injury during frequent historical fencing training. Additionally this model has elbow protection. Made of sturdy fabric and super-hard profiled plastic inserts, gives you high level of protection during fight. The elbow protection, an extension of the forearm protector, is specially shaped to provide the most protection for the elbows possible without impeding movement." 

Ordering review

I ordered these from the HEMA Shop rather than directly from SPES. This had the main advantage that I could pay with credit card rather than bank transfer. The HEMA Shop has an automated messaging service that does a really good job communicating the status of your order. Postage was reasonably priced and arrived within a week from the UK.


These provide significantly better levels of protection than simple motocross/skateboarding arm protectors, particularly the fact that they wrap completely around the arm to protect the inside of the forearm. This is especially good for longsword.

The plastic inserts are heavy duty and can take punishment. I was initially a little worried that because they are strips with gabs between that blows could land in the gaps, but in action this doesn't happen.

The elasticated velcro of the straps allows you to secure them to your arms providing a close but flexible fit. The straps are also generously long allowing the guard to accommodate a wide variety of padding underneath.

The elbow cups can be detached from the guards with Velcro, which is a nice touch.


The elbow cup is designed to be worn with a bulky padded garment and doesn't sit brilliantly on a bare arm or over a thin fencing jacket. One of my hopes when purchasing this was that it would help eliminate the need for wearing a bulky padded garment. This, plus my HEMA plastron would provide good protection on the high frequency hitting areas without needing the bulk of a padded garment. It isn't working out brilliantly in this regard.

It also doesn't interact well with Absolute Force gauntlets, I'm thinking about cutting these back and working out a way to Velcro attach these better.

Significantly more expensive than simple arm protectors, these cost almost $100 including postage compared to $10-$20 for cheap protectors.

Compared to simple arm protectors they are heavier and bulkier but not unreasonably so and they have little impact on movement. 


They are great at what they do, no fault with that, however I'm going to have to modify them to make them an item of kit that's get out my kit bag often. On the elbow guard I'm thinking of adding some kind of sock that you push your arm through to better attach it to a bare elbow. 

Friday, 11 April 2014

Defining myself as a Historical Fencer

1. Holistic - I believe that a system of combat that allows you to effectively fight in real life cannot be written within the pages of a book, it is simply too complicated to cover every possible variable. Therefore treatises are best viewed as sources of clues to a bigger picture, giving typical but by no means exhaustive examples of overarching principles. Our job as students is to train in the specific examples but always to be looking at how they fit into the system as a whole.

2. Literalist - I believe that the treatises should be viewed as practical instruction manuals that can be understood literally and without special esoteric knowledge.

3. Dynamic - I judge the success of an interpretation by it's practical application rather than as an abstract and speculative form. I value doing over talking.

4. Mostly monogamous - In general I tend to focus in one time period and treatise.

5. Sportive realist - I believe that what I am practicing for is for sport rather than earnest. Within the context of sporting play, I believe rule-sets should try to encourage realism as far as can be allowed.

6. Athletic - I believe physical conditioning for it's own sake improves my fencing.

7. Cutting enthusiast - I believe that cutting with sharps gives interesting insights, particularly where it can help inform realism.

8. Egalitarian - I believe knowledge and ability is best advanced in collaboration between peers rather than a hierarchical system.

9. Uncertain - I believe that it is best to maintain an element of doubt in what I believe so that I can be open to better ways of doing things.