Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Some guidelines for interpretation

"this art is difficult to describe in a way that can be understood well" - Giovanni dall’Agocchie

1. Always give the text benefit of the doubt

Tempting though it is to have an easy resolution but when reading a passage that I don't understand or I think "god, that's awful" I do not go "they have clearly made a mistake what they meant was":

1. step with the other foot,
2. strike to the other side
3. strike on this, better line
4. they've clearly missed out an action
or, or, or...

I've learnt from experience that this is bullshit and every time I've done this all I've actually done is ended up inventing my own technique. Invariably I've then either discovered my invention later in the work but described clearly and in a different context (therefore clearly not the technique described earlier) or discovered something in the text that expands upon the wording that makes the authors actual words and intention make more sense.

2. Ensure you are doing what they actually say

This is closely coupled with the rule 1: always follow exactly what the author is saying. If there's a problem, break down the action into it's parts to ensure you are doing what they are actually saying not what you presume or anticipate they are saying.

3. In reality most blows count as blows

Often when interpreting the discussion comes up that "it can't be right because that blow wouldn't actually do any damage" or variations on this theme. I understand that it's tempting to get away from sword tag and the idea that a tap counts the same as a fully committed blow. However from sharp cutting I feel like I can say:

A well designed sword + properly sharpened  + experience in cutting + hitting an exposed target* = not requiring a massive action to cause a significant cut

Generally speaking with the right sword I can do a reasonable cut just by letting the blade fall from a high guard to a mezzo or long-point position. By reasonable I mean 1cm or 2cm depth into a thickly rolled newspaper target. If I actually engage my wrist and arm and/or add some draw into that I can make it more substantial again.

Another way to "judge" whether a blow counts or not is to follow this process:

1. when someone says to me "that can't be right because that blow wouldn't do any damage"
2. Then offer to take your sharp out and see if they'd be happy to receive that blow.
3. If they'd rather not then it probably counts.

I think it is pretty safe assumption that pretty much any blow with a sharp sword to the face or the hands of your opponent will have a serious effect on their ability to continue fighting.

*neck, hand and perhaps wrist and forearm. Torso if only wearing a shirt.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Resolutions for 2015

Do this every year, probably more consistently than my training...

1. Don't forget my basic technique: every year I go on about the basics, every year I stop drilling and every year I lament how rusty I am. If nothing else I'm going to leave 2015 with lightning fast cuts and parries. Therefore I shall have basic cut and parry drill at every session

2. Seriously study Bolognese fencing: From what I've read Meyer's Dussack and Rapier is stupendously similar to Bolognese School. Whichever way that goes it seems the same stuff so perhaps my focus should be 1570's rather than specifically Meyer. Either way, I should educate myself.

3. Get great posture: even if I'm fence crap I can at least look good while I'm doing it. Seems to work for 90% of the HEMA "professionals" out there so I might as well get on it. I've got exercises from World War II, that should sort it out.

4. Get better at wrestling: many bad fencers seem to compensate by grappling (or rather scuffling) rather than fencing. It strikes me that I could, with some simple effort, get better at this and punish them for this. That would make me happy.

5. Stop messing around, spend some good cash and get one good longsword and sidesword that I'm completely happy with. (extremely unlikely).

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

HEMA games

I've spoken about this before but I feel that one of the key pillars of successful swordsmanship is developing a good mental attitude. Being relaxed and adopting a playful mindset allows you apply your knowledge gained from study and drilling to successful sparring.

Like with strength or technique there is training you can do to develop this. Training for a good mental attitude is partly about training to reduce stress and reducing the likelihood that you will freeze under pressure. It is also partly about encouraging you to understand the linkages between techniques, how to apply the technique in different situations and how a technique fits into the bigger strategic picture.

So, what's a solution? Games.

Here's a list of some that I like to use with descriptions (I'll keep updating this list as I come up with new games):

Slappy facey / tag - based on a childhood game from my upbringing in Scotland, slappy facey in it's natural form is literally walking up to someone without warning and slapping them in the face while shouting "slappy facey" usually followed by much hilarity. Translated into a fencing game "slappy facey" is just a version of tag (tig if you're from Scotland or New Zealand...) but where you designate a body part as the target (knee, shoulder or top of the head) and then you must tag other people with your hand while protecting your target.

Usually I run this as an all against all warm up with no point scoring because this means that after "hitting" your target you have to withdraw to avoid their counter attack. Generally it devolves into a great fast moving warm up with emphasis on spacial awareness (sneak attacks are the best) and ensuring that your attack actually lands (stance/posture) while defending against counter attacks.

Finger fencing - basically this is a tag based game but where you use two fingers to represent your sword. In this you can only score with the two fingers of your right hand (or left obviously if you're left handed). You can usually score by touching anywhere on the body with this game but you can designate target area to up the skill level.

You can run this as all against all for warm up or as 1 - 1 for more fencing style game. A variation on this is to use a glove in lieu of an actual weapon, thereby slapping your opponent with the glove to count a hit. This is a great game because you can run it with very free and easy with minimal protection.

Maintaining measure game - probably a standard with variations throughout all HEMA clubs, this is the one I use: two fencers face off and find measure by extending their arm and touching the other person's chest. Once they are in measure one person moves off and the other tries to follow maintaining the measure. At some point the instructor calls out "halt" and they check their measure, if the "follower" has been successful then they should still be in measure. You can liven this up by upping the speed and introducing an spacial awareness element by suggesting that the person leading tries to maneuver the follower into objects such as other fencers or walls.

Obviously a good game for developing a sense of measure, it also helps people to internalise their footwork.

Drop glove - using the rules of the maintaining measure game both people move and maintain measure, however one person is holding a glove and when they chose to drop it the other has to catch it with a lunge before it hits the ground! The glove dropper can increase the difficulty by being progressively more uncooperative in when they chose to drop the glove.

Good for measure, footwork and reaction.

Cudgels - I keep the rules for this simple. You use "safer" weapons such as foam swords, nylon wasters or Dussacks which means you generally need minimum protective gear. You find measure against your opponent while adopting a right foot forward stance. Once both players are "measured" then the back foot (the left) is now fixed. They can still move the right foot as much as they wish, which allows them to move out of measure. The only blow that counts is a head blow. Both parties go until a head blow is landed then the looser comes off and the winner stays on. I try and encourage a really fast turn around of participants.

This is good for working on middle work technique, working the openings, stance and leaning. Also it builds fitness and stamina but also benefits building a good mindset by getting people used to fencing under pressure and being hit on the mask.

Fencing cricket - simple little game: throw a tennis ball and the other person has to hit it with their weapon. You can make it more complicated by having different colors of balls which you assign a different action, such as: yellow = vertical cut, blue = diagonal cut, green = horizontal cut.

Improves reflexes and also helps encourage accuracy, it's not as easy as you might think to hit even a tennis ball sized target. Of course to make it really difficult you can always add in thrusts.

Catch if you can - both participants will need sparring level of protection (Mask, gloves and padding) and I would recommend saver sparring weapons. You will also need a reasonable amount of space for this.

The idea is that the patient will do anything possible to avoid engagement, they will use all footwork possible to fall back to just out of measure (though they are not allowed to simply run away). The agent is trying to strike the patient and can use any technique to do so. The patient is allowed to parry but not counter attack (at this point) but is expected primarily to lean, slip and evade blows with body movement rather than sword contact. After a reasonable amount of time you swap roles.

The point of this game is that at some point in a real sparring match you want to go on the offensive against a retreating opponent. Often opponents will simply fall back before you rather than engage and very little drill or technique is actually useful in this situation. Having the ability to rapidly chase someone down and force them to engage or rapidly counter attack is a very useful skill.

Random weapon sparring - have a selection of "safer" weapons such as federschwert wooden/synthetic longswords, dussacks, plastic daggers, bucklers, light quarter staff etc. Have two contestants. Have them face away from each other and select random weapon combinations. At the command of "go" they turn, grab whichever weapons have been provided and spar. The first to a head blow wins. Immediately cycle the pair off and put a new pair up. The pair that have just come off get to select the random weapons for the new pair. Keep going until everyone is exhausted or bored.

Improves reflexes and adaptability. Encourages people to be creative while facing often radically different measures and protective capabilities. Helps people to relax in normal sparring.

Random attack and defend - everyone kit up and form a ring with one person in the ring. Assign each person around the ring a number. When that number is called they step in and perform one attack on the person in the ring. The person in the ring defends the attack. To up the ante you can get the defender to perform a counter attack and you can call multiple numbers to attack at once.

Okay for improving reflexes, adaptability and training them to react well in stressful situations. It's really, really good for improving spacial awareness encouraging people to think in 360 degrees.

Loose play - it's also worth mentioning that any loose play is great when approached as a game and this is a great thing to do to encourage people to adopt a easy, relaxed mental attitude in sparring.

I like to build up the "game" by starting with an opening scenario and then adding "new rules." It's amazing how quickly you can build really complex scenarios that strongly resemble plays from the treatises. For example, it could look like this:

1. The opening scenario is that one person attacks through a guard in onset, the defender makes a response and then the attacker changes mid-stroke to counter the response. Once complete the attacker withdraws.
2. New rule: the defender can parry the attackers blow
3. New rule: the attacker can take a further action (they get two "attacks")
4. New rule: The defender can have a further parry (they get two parries)
5. New rule: after the first attack the defender counts to two and then can do anything they like. However they can't move. So the attacker has to hit and withdraw.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Simple ideas to improve freeplay 1: Speed

“The Art of Defence does not, in fact, so much consist in your own strength of position, as in effecting a decidedly quick movement in that direction where your opponent has the least means of resistance” – Angelo 1845 Infantry Sword Exercises

"Every wrestling must consist of three things. The first one is skill, the second one is speed, and the third one is the proper application of strength. Keep in mind that the best of them is speed as it prevents your opponent from countering you." Otto Jud

I, like most people I imagine, historically have done a lot of my training at half speed. Partly this is to train mechanically correct actions but partly this is habit, it's much easier to get everything just so at half speed. The reality is that this must skew my training as badly as other bad habits, by repeating my actions at slow speed I'm learning to respond at this slow speed.

The solution is simple, ensure my training profile has 10 or so reps of the action at slow speed and then ramp up the speed. The theory is that the first set of rep you aim for "full speed" and with practice this will quickly become your middle speed rather than your true full speed. If you then aim to increase this you will move your average to a higher and higher speed.

The challenge will be creating drills that allow me to learn speed within a context involving an opponent as there is little point learning to be fast against thin air. 

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Binding: in a nutshell

Good concise summary of "binding". Though of course Meyer has a few more techniques in his trick bag this is pretty good as an overview.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

What are the worst swords for HEMA?

"never overlay thy selfe with a heavy weapon, for nimblenesse of bodie, and nimblenesse of weapon are two chief helpes for thy advantage" - Swetnam, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence
Recently I was debating online about the "worst" weapons to use as wasters. Many people (particularly of the Old Guard or re-enactment background) hold the opinion that synthetics are awful. I don't entirely disagree. However they are not in my opinion the worst wasters. In fact they're not even near the bottom of the list.

For me the worst waster is the metal crowbar. It's the "heavy fighting" or "re-enactment" style blade with a solid 3mm edge, 2-3 kg in weight, rusty in places with burs and flakes of steel from previous engagements. Yes, they are made of metal and are therefore materially slightly closer material to the originals however:

1. Because they are super heavy they skew your training because you have to ridiculously pull your blows to avoid injuring your opponents. Or you don't care and no one wants to fight you because you always end up injuring your opponents
2. Yes they might have rounded point but because they have relatively little blade flex it means there is little practical difference between them and a sharp sword on the thrust, therefore you have to skew your technique by doing things like breaking your arm when you thrust or heavily pulling your thrusts to light taps.
2. They skew your training because you need to get into full robocop style padding, this is unarmored fighting people!
3. They require a much higher level of strength to make and recover from the necessarily explosive moves, this is a barrier many people never get over and instead they tire quickly forming lazy guards and wild uncontrolled blows
4. They handle nothing like a real sword, (often 50%, 100% or more the weight of the originals) with a blade profile that is nothing like a sharp weapon. They also tend to have heavily overweight pommels and hilt furniture to help make recovery easier which changes the "feel" of the weapon etc
5. They are very expensive, which is a real barrier to new people taking up the Art (even if they don't mind all the injuries) which also means that the most beat up swords, and least safe swords, stay in circulation indefinitely as "beginner" weapons!

The second worst waster is the wood waster.

1. Depending on materials these can also be pretty heavy, a solid oak waster is like being beaten with pick ax handle OR they can be light and they will almost certainly break under regular use
2. As they get used the wood on the blade starts to splinter and these splinters are worse than burs on drawing cuts. Then they break
3. There is no flex in the blade which means that when the enthusiastic newbie lunges you get all 70kg of their weight behind the point of the sword when it hits you. Not pleasant. So you end up skewing your training by breaking your arm when you thrust.
4. They handle nothing like a sharp weapon. Goes without saying.
5. They are however, affordable so they don't put off newbies

When looked at like this the synthetic doesn't look so bad:

1. They are relatively light and most people can work up the strength to handle them safely
2. Because they can be handled safely most people are happy with lighter or no body armour
3. They don't splinter or burr up
4. They don't break
5. The blade flexes well
6. They cut nothing like a real sword but because they are closer in weight and they don't have massive heavily hilt furniture they cut more like a real sword than the above weapons
7. They are affordable so they don't put off newbies

Of course the best options are feders or unsharpened steel swords but when compared to the other options I feel synthetics don't come out too bad, they are mid table rather than bottom of the table.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Training to improve sword cutting 1

Until now cutting has sort of been a novelty thing for me, I had a sharp sword and I occasionally got it out and cut up stuff. I've recently got more interested in it mainly because cutting with the sword is part of the Art I've neglected. For me the current attractions are:

1. cutting is a skill based activity that once learnt is largely retained and doesn't suffer unduly from week long bouts of absence due to work
2. it's largely a body mechanics activity rather than a strength/fitness training activity
3. after 10 years of training it's nice to do something a bit different
4. unlike training for tournament progress can be readily measured in direct achievement, i.e. you either can or you can't make certain cuts

To improve upon my cutting I've been putting together ideas for skills and progression perhaps with the idea of creating a program which could be taught in my club.

As I can see it there are a few different skill sets:

1. Learning to complete all the cuts: true/false, different lines and different types (wrist, elbow, shoulder)
2. Learning to complete cuts against targets of different toughness/resistance (plastic bottles, cardboard, rolled newspaper, rolled carpet, bamboo etc)
3. Learning to land multiple cuts on a single target
4. Learning to hitting multiple targets in quick succession
5. Sharpening, learning to put on a great edge perhaps experimenting with different bevels and sword profiles