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Parry this! A review of the Smallsword Symposium

Last weekend I attended the excellent Smallsword Symposium. I am unusual amongst HEMA instructors in that I do lots of different styles; Armizare, of course, but also I.33 sword and buckler, Capoferro rapier, and even the glorious smallsword. The smallsword was my first historical fencing love, way back in the early nineties, and the first treatise I found and distributed was Donald McBane's Expert Swordman's Companion in the National Library of Scotland. My first two books, The Swordsman's Companion and The Duellist's Companion  were named in its honour.

Anyhow, I digress. The point is, smallsword is bliss, and much under-appreciated in the HEMA world, so it was an especial pleasure to attend an event given over wholly to its elegant viciousness. The event was well run, and well attended, with people coming from Norway, Canada, Germany and even Ipswich, as well as the local contingent from (mostly) the Black Boar Swordsmanship School, which organised the symposium. The Black Boar was founded by two ex-DDS members, Phil Crawley and Ian Macintyre, who I had a hand in training back in the bad old days. My (fencing) kids are all growed up! And having kids of their own…

The format of the event was interesting; just two tracks, beginning with a very basic introductory class for newbies, well taught by Sue Kirk, with a more advanced ‘let's get cracking with a bunch of skills training' class run by Phil running at the same time. This got everybody off on the right foot, and paved the way for the classes that followed. These were mostly ‘have a go at this cool new system' type classes, such as Tobias Zimmerman's survey of Schmidt, and Ragnhild Esbenson's survey of McBane. There were also a few concept classes, such as Milo Thurston teaching proprioception using blindfolds, Martin Dougherty (author of several swordy books) teaching attention to technical detail, and my own ‘how to find and fix any technical problem' class.*

The event included a tournament, and I must say it was amazingly well organised. Simply, the contestants are randomly split into four pools and told to establish a winner in 90 minutes by whatever means they agree on. Absolutely no top-down requirements, just tell us who won. Then the four finalists fence off in pairs. The two losers fight for third place, the two winners for first and second. It worked incredibly well, and I saw some lovely smallsword fencing.

One additional highlight for me was meeting Marco Danelli, the swordmaker. I have often been asked about his swords, and have had to reply ‘they look nice in the pictures but I've never handled one'. Now I can say “dear god, buy one!” No wonder he has a two-year waiting list. I also got to see a couple of Andrew Feest's swords, though sadly not Andrew himself, and oh my, they were both extremely pretty and handled delightfully. Mm-mmm, swordmaking is alive and well in Brighton, I can assure you.

All in all, an excellent weekend, and I look forward to coming back next year. On the Monday we went to Glasgow to handle antique swords, but that's a story for another blog post. One of the swords had HORNS! Stay tuned…

*For the benefit of those that were there (or even those that weren't), let me briefly summarise my class:

  1. Run a diagnostic, find the weakest link. E.g. I'm vulnerable to attacks below the sword arm.
  2. Fix the weakest link, using the method below.
  3. Run the diagnostic again.

The method for fixing the weakest link goes like this:

  1. Distinguish between technical and tactical problems. Technical = I did the right thing but it failed. Tactical = I did the wrong thing. This was a technical class so this process is for technical problems.
  2. Model the problem: recreate it with a partner.
  3. Slow it down until you can get the action right.
  4. Gradually increase the pressure/complexity/difficulty until it starts to fail.
  5. Train it at the level where it works 8-9 times out of 10. 10 out of 10, increase pressure; 7 or less, reduce pressure.
  6. If you can't get it to work, then analyse it in terms of a) timing b) measure c) grounding/structure d) flow/movement. The weakness will be in there.

This class was largely unfamiliar with grounding so we covered that in some detail, with the net result that most of them shifted the way they hold their swords. Success!

In the last 15 minutes we looked at applying the process to tactical problems. It's not much different, it just requires selecting the correct action. For example, learning to identify a feint.

  1. Model the problem: recreate it with a partner.
  2. Slow it down until you can use the correct action (in the case of a feint, a second parry).
  3. Gradually increase the pressure/complexity/difficulty until it starts to fail. Complexity is created by the ‘coach' in the drill either feinting or doing a real attack, forcing you to adapt your actions to theirs.
  4. Train it at the level where it works 8-9 times out of 10. 10 out of 10, increase pressure; 7 or less, reduce pressure


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