Sunday, 7 September 2014

How to effectively train the Master Strikes

To teach the master strikes it is important to keep in mind one truth: the strike itself isn't masterful it is how it is done that is masterful. Therefore to teach them you cannot remove them from the context but must use the context of the fight to show how awesome they are. 

I created this loose play to provide context within which to train the strikes:

1.    Participants separate completely out of measure
2.    Patient adopts a position with their sword
3.    Agent steps through a guard to strike the strongest opening (they may make only one action to strike but they can vary the line in mid strike depending on the Patients reaction)
4.    Patient can parry the strike (they may make one action to parry) but must do so at the correct moment or the Agent will redirect and land the strike
5.    When the Agent touches the Patient the Patient can make one offensive action with one step, the Agent must withdraw out of measure

This is run at ¾ speed and it doesn't stop for actions, so if the patient doesn't adopt a suitable parry the agent simply completes their initial action to complete their kill and withdraw. Participants take turns being Agent and Patient.

This leaves a lot of scope for the participants but with this basic rule set:

·       The agent gets to practice correctly interpreting openings, either directly or attempting misleading signals to the patient to confuse them into parrying incorrectly. It also strongly encourages withdrawing effectively
·       The patients gets to experiment how their opening stance determines the agents actions, understanding when/where to parry without parrying too soon, and how to swiftly counter attack to catch someone who is slow at withdrawing

Once this is down pat and everyone is doing good technique introduce the first Master Strike, I like to start with the Wrath. Practice bio-mechanically what the action is and then add the following new rule:

1.    Both Agent and Patient can use the Wrath strike (the Agent for their one attacking action the Patient for their counter action)

With some suggestions about how it is to be used:

1.    Don’t do it every time, it will only work “masterfully” with the properly alignment of factors
2.    Experiment with each other and the different partners for when this action works best and against whom

Then let the loose play run, changing partners regularly and “gaming” the strike in the appropriate context. Then add the next strike, then the next etc until all the strikes are in play. The Patient will have Five masterful counterattacks at their disposal, the Agent still holds the initiative by the rules but has to both assert themselves and be careful in reading their opponent.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Kit review: Oil v's Wax

Sword care and rust protection isn't a subject I've really given much attention. I don't have a big foundation of information and most people I know don't really have much to say on the subject. For example the first sword group I was in their recommendation was to soak your weapon in salt water, let it rust up all over and then clean down from top to bottom leaving the sword "naturally blackened." Personally I could never bring myself to do this.

My entire sword maintenance routine consisted of cleaning my steel after ever training session with WD40 (or its equivalents), sandpapering off any rust spots as they appeared and leaving it at that. It has done me surprisingly well but my older swords tend to be spotted with rust where I've missed a cleaning session or left the swords for a period. I'm now aware that while WD40 is great for cleaning it does little for long term protection because it evaporates and is hydroscopic, i.e. attracts water. Great quality for cleaning, lousy quality for protecting between uses.

So I've been on the hunt for something good to look after my steel with. In the main the choice seems to be come down to wax or oil, to find out what is good I've bought one of each and what follows are the results of my comparison.

For the oil, I followed a tip off from a friend that bike chain oil was really good for sword care, I got a can of Castrol motorbike chain oil. As my friend put it the theory here is that motorbike chain oil:

1. Will have a higher viscosity being designed to stay on a motorcycle chain with minimal throw off. If it can do that, it can stay on a sword pretty easily
2. Because it's designed for use on a chain it's not designed to be hygroscopic but to repel water

For the wax, I've bought a tin of Renaissance Wax which seems to be the product of choice by most suppliers of sword gear. As a product specifically designed for preserving I was expecting big things.


Pros: super easy application just spray and spread. Easy to ensure the steel is fully covered including all the awkward places around the hit furniture, oil also seems to flow to fill in any gaps that forms due to bumps and scrapes. Finger prints don't seem to get through this and a bit of casual handling doesn't seem to affect it at all. I've used it on my sharps and had a round or two of plastic water bottle bashing with great results with the water beading up and rolling off very easily. Even after wiping down the blades afterward there was a good layer of oil left. Finally, this oil was cheap $7 for a can that'll probably last me forever.

Cons: it's super sticky attracting dust and lint really easily. However on the plus side it's pretty easy to spray with de-greaser cleaning the dirt off and then re-greasing.


Pros: it's still pretty easy to get this on your blade, not as super easy as oil and it does take more work to get a good covering, however it's not bad. Have to do a bit of work to get it into the awkward places. It definitely attracts less dirt than oil though it does accumulate it over time. It's pretty much bullet proof in terms of protection, 100%. Once it's on, it's on and it doesn't come off meaning the protection is excellent. It's also a plus that this can be applied to preserve the leather on the sword.

Cons: Once it's on, it's on. So I've found that while it takes a while to get dirty it's much harder to get that dirt off. I've found the best thing to do is simply rub the whole thing down with a cloth and apply more wax. It doesn't seem to get as clean and a de-greasing but it's acceptable. Finally, the wax is actually pretty expensive, $25 for 65ml. Will have to see how far this takes me.

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 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.