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. 


It's a good purchase and, from what I've seen, is the best forearm protection on the market. 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, but otherwise this is a great bit of kit.

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.

6 practical steps to better training

As a follow on to my new years solutions, specifically: "Recognize that you often get the best results from a series of small changes. These incremental gains often led to profound collective effects."
  • Sort out your health and nutrition 
Getting sick takes time out from your training schedule and disrupts your flow. Likewise not being bursting with energy will lead to low intensity "talkfests" rather than real training. Find out what combination of  foodstuffs gives you the healthiest most energetic you and then stick with it.
  • Take the drama out of your life
Most of the most successful people I know lead low drama lives. Many are in long term stable relationships with careers in steady low fuss jobs. Basically they've structured their lives to allow them regular, predictable training sessions with minimal effort.  
  • Ignore the bullshit
Ration the internet, cap your involvement with club administration and focus on the training. The "bullshit", i.e. anything related to training that is not actually training rapidly takes over so maintain stern limits. 
  • Make space for training outside of your club
Training once or twice a week isn't going to cut it. Even 15-20 minutes of  training every day will make all the difference. Setup a pell in your garden and hit it every night.
  • Sort your gear out once and for all
Stop messing around getting the cheapest possible gear. Buy well, buy once and then forget about your gear and focus on your training.
  • Have an idea what the finished product looks like
Video your sparring and then compare it to your mental picture of what you're trying to achieve. Do they look the same? No, then change it!

Sunday, 16 February 2014

What does success look like?

This picture shared on FB by a friend of mine cracked me up.

What I particularly love is how the different sub-genres within "HEMA" have their own little names :)

Anyhow, on a related topic, I've been having one of my regular reassessments of my training and specifically around the goals of my training.

What got me thinking was a comment during a chance discussion with a new acquaintance. The gist of it was that they quit training with one school over practicality: the instructor held that training would be no advantage over someone untrained pulled off the street because their untrained behaviour was too unpredictable.

I found this idea quite alien because all my theory and study is centered around the idea that I am not learning a specific style that can only work when matched against another person using the same style, but is about learning principles based on factors that are consistent between all human beings. In short, in my "system" because I would understand that my opponent is likely to be “unpredictable” I can adjust my fencing accordingly to compensate. I'm learning to be adaptive because I understand the theory. Much like the difference between learning to read and play music by rote and learning to creatively play music, to jam.

This, I think, is at the heart of what I want to achieve: to learn to "effectively” sword fight is to fight creatively. Not necessarily with a specific weapon or limited within the content of a single treatise but in general, to learn the general principles behind swordsmanship, behind the treatises to become an “effective” swordsman.

I think there is often a lot of smoke around what being effective with a sword is but in a nutshell most people would agree that you are effective with a sword when you can hit your opponent without being struck by your opponent in return.

Of course some blows are better than others but if you can consistently hit your opponent without response then you are doing it right.

I also do a fair bit of cutting with sharp swords and favour steel blunts over synthetic, this I think puts me a toe hold into the practical rather than sporting camp.

Now, as you might have noticed this doesn't necessarily have anything to do with historical European martial arts. Which is fine by me. I'm into HEMA for practical reasons rather than sentimental reasons: because I think it's the best tool to achieve my goal of sword based effectiveness.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Inspirational quote for today

“To hear the internet tell it, you need to engage in epic quantities of lung-exploding, shirt-drenching, chest-pounding vigorous exercise in order to reap the health benefits of a fitness program. It can be pretty daunting, seeing impossibly chiseled people on TV executing feats of great athleticism and skill…I remember seeing those commercials and thinking ‘well gosh, there’s no way I could do that. If that’s what I have to do to be fit and healthy, I don’t really even see the point in trying."

"Of course, I eventually realized that what I was seeing on TV and reading on the internet was pretty extreme, and that I didn't need to go to such lengths to improve my health. But it took me some time to reach that realization. The amount of exercise necessary to experience health benefits is actually fairly moderate and doable.”

I feel this is true for fencing. A simple exercise program of 20-30 minutes exercise 3-4 times a week has worked wonders for me and while I might not be stacked like Conan it's amazing how much it improves your fencing. 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

New years resolutions

Act your way into a new way of thinking and being. You can't discover yourself simply through introspection. Reflection and analysis are important but are often excuses for inaction. Refine your thoughts based on action, not continued analysis.

Recognize that you often get the best results from a series of small changes. These incremental gains often led to profound collective effects. 

If you can't fully visualise the final destination don't wait to start the journey. Pick the first way point and start the journey. Then constantly review and, if necessary, re-orient yourself.

Find people who are what you want to be and who can provide the support we all need. This is not someone who keeps you as you are but stretches your thought and action .

Recognize that change may be continuous but in practice it happens in a series of bursts. Use the windows for change to best advantage. Take a series of breaks throughout the year and then before your routine reasserts itself take the chance to see things differently.