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Safety Guidelines for the Practice of Swordsmanship

These safety guidelines come from my Recreate Historical Swordsmanship from Historical Sources Course and have been adapted from The Duellist's Companion, The Swordsman's Companion, and The Swordsman's Quick Guide part 1: The Seven Principles of Mastery. All of those books are included as downloadable pdfs in the additional course material.

Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nothing without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.

Edward Whymper’s admonition, from Scrambles amongst the Alps, elegantly encapsulates the correct attitude to all potentially lethal activities. Substitute “practice swordsmanship” for “climb”, and there is the correct mindset for any swordsman, beginner or expert. Take it to heart before you start training with a partner.

When training with weapons you hold your partner's life in your hands. This is a sacred trust and must not be abused.

Disclaimer: I accept no responsibility of any kind for injuries you sustain while you are not under my direct personal supervision. During this course you will be taught how to create safe training drills, and I am certain that if you follow the instructions there is a very low likelihood of injury. But if I am not there in person to create and sustain a safe training environment, I cannot be held responsible for any accidents that may occur.

Principles

The basic principles of safe training are:

  1. Respect: for the Art, your training partners, the weapons, and yourself.
  2. Caution: assume everything is dangerous unless you have reason to believe otherwise.
  3. Know your limits. Just because it’s safe for somebody else, does not necessarily mean it’s safe for you. Never train or fence when you are tired, angry, or in any state of mind or body that makes accidents and injuries more likely.

Most groups that keep going for more than a year have a pretty good set of safety guidelines in place. Make sure you know what they are, and follow them.

My senior students routinely train with sharp swords, often with no protection. That’s not as dangerous as it sounds, when you remember that they have been training usually for 5+ years at that point, under my supervision.

Safety first: you cannot afford time off training for stupid injuries. Life’s too short. Whatever training you are doing must must must leave you healthier than you started it. You will not win Olympic gold medals this way, but you won’t end up a cripple either. The path to sporting glory is littered with the shattered bodies and minds of the unlucky many who broke themselves on the way. Don’t join them.

Every time I find myself teaching a group I don’t know, I tell them that the class will be successful from my point of view if everyone finishes class healthier than they started it. Most injuries in training occur either during tournament (highly competitive) freeplay, or are self-inflicted during things like warm-ups. In my school (and other classes) we have a zero tolerance policy on macho bullshit. If any exercise doesn’t suit you, for any reason, you can sit it out, or do some other exercise. If you are sitting it out, a good instructor will ask you why, and help you develop alternatives or work up to the exercise in easy stages, but will never pressure you to do something that might injure you.

This is also true of work-related injuries, like forearm problems from typing, or the ghastly effects of sitting all day. By avoiding the things that will hurt you, you will naturally seek out the things that are good for you. Hungry? Avoid sugar, avoid processed foods, and lo! there’s a fresh salmon salad. Tired? Sleep is better than barbiturates, no?

This requires good risk-assessment skills (I recommend Against the Gods, the Remarkable Story of Risk, by Peter Bernstein) and the courage to take risks that truly serve your overall aims. A safe life is not worth living, but foolish risk-taking will not make your life meaningful.

Try adopting these key habits:

  • Before any new activity, do a risk/reward calculation. How risky is it, and how
    rewarding?
  • Practice saying no to training suggestions: even safe ones. Most people do stupidly
    risky things due to peer pressure. Being able to say no to your peers is perhaps the most important skill in reducing injury rates. If this is hard, make it a habit to decline at least one suggestion every session, until it’s easy.

Equipment

Without doubt the single most important bit of safety equipment is good common sense. Fence according to the limits of your equipment, exercise control and respect the weapon at all times, and you will never have a serious injury. Minor bumps and bruises come with the territory.

There were some masters who believed that the safest course is to fence with sharp weapons and no protection. This is how it was often done in the past until the invention of fencing masks (though there are tournament records and declarations as early as the 14th century that record the use of blunt practice weapons; King Rene d’Anjou’s treatise of 1470 is perhaps the best source). Such masters are right in theory, in that freeplay with sharps is the best way for students to learn absolute respect for the weapon, and the importance of absolute control. There are a few contemporary masters with whom I will fence like this, and there is nothing like it for generating a perfect fencing approach. But try explaining that to the insurance companies, or in the event of a slip, the police or coroner. It was often said in the eighteenth century that you could tell a fencing master from his eye-patch and missing teeth. Never forget that even a blunt blade can break bones. When free fencing, or when practicing drills at speed, it is essential that you wear appropriate safety gear. You do this not for your own sake, though self-preservation does come into it, but for the bene t of your training partner. Your protection allows him to hit you safely.

Choosing protection is a very controversial subject. Too little, and you can end up badly hurt (even in practice). Too much, and you can’t fence properly. Firstly, it is important to establish what style of fencing you will be doing. If you are practising armoured combat, then buy the best fitting, best made armour that you can from an armourer who knows how you intend to use it and has seen what you want to do. This is the hardest style of fencing to appropriately regulate, because accurate technique requires you to go for the least armoured spots (throat, eyes, armpits, joints), but safety requirements obviously prohibit that.

As a general guideline, I recommend the following for most weapons.

  1. An FIE standard fencing mask. This allows you to thrust at the face (a very common target), and generally attack the head. This does have three major caveats. Firstly, it leaves the back of the head open, and you must be very careful not to strike at this target. An added apron of thick leather affords some protection. Secondly, it does not protect the head and neck from the wrenching force of over-vigorous blows. It is vital that you and your opponent learn control before engaging in freeplay. Thirdly it is designed to protect the face from high-speed, light, flexible weapons, not slower, heavier, rigid ones. So continually check them for wear, and make absolutely sure that your weapons are properly bated.
  2. A steel or leather gorget, or stiff collar, to protect the throat. Points can slip under the bib of a mask and crush the larynx.
  3. (For women) a rigid plastic chest guard.
  4. A point-resistant fencing jacket rated at least 500 newtons. Sturdy, preferably padded and/or armoured gauntlets, which should extend at least four inches past the jacket cuff to prevent points sliding up your sleeve. I have twice had fingers broken through unpadded mail gloves, and now use a pair of fingered gauntlets from Jiri Krondak, which cost about 150€.
  5. A padded gambeson, or a plastron. If you are making one yourself, bear in mind that it should be thick enough to take the worst out of the impact of the blows, and prevent penetration from a thrust. All openings should be covered. The collar should be high enough that thrusts coming under the bib of the mask do not make contact with your throat. A plastron must wrap around the ribs, and properly cover the collar bones and shoulders. I usually wear a fencing jacket and plastron (as pictured).
  6. A box for men (called a “cup” in the US). You only forget this once.
  7. Rigid plastic protectors for the knees and
  8. For the elbows, of the sort worn by in-line skaters (worn under the
    clothes for that period look if you prefer), will save a lot of pain, and some injury.
  9. Footwear: on the matter of footwear, few practitioners agree. In the longsword treatises, there are no heavy boots, and certainly no built-up heels.  For a completely historical style, it is necessary to wear completely accurate period clothing at least occasionally, because it can affect the way you move. It does not matter much what you wear on your feet provided that you understand grounding, body-mechanics and footwork, but attaining that understanding is much easier barefoot or in very thin flat soles. Excessively grippy soles can lead to joint injury as you may stop too suddenly, or get stuck when you should be turning (particularly in falls at close quarters). The dangers of wearing too slippery soles are obvious. In the salle I usually wear medieval shoes or ‘barefoot’ shoes (aka five-fingers, or ‘toe shoes’), and recommend a thin, flat sole regardless.

The Sword

Training swords come in three main types. Authentic sharp reproductions, which are used for cutting practice and some pair work with advanced students, blunt swords that try to reproduce the handling characteristics of the sharps, and fencing swords that are designed to make fencing safer. These all have their pros and cons, and you should use the sword that’s right for your style and the kind of practice you will be doing.

It’s perfectly all right to use a wooden waster or something similar to start with, but do not imagine that there is any such thing as a safe training sword. Even modern sport fencing blades engineered for fencing sometimes break and puncture people, and anything heavy enough to reproduce the handling of a medieval or renaissance sidearm is going to be able to do damage.

For specific details on choosing a sword, please see Choosing a Sword, which is included in the additional material on this course.

Looking after your weapon is largely a matter of keeping it dry, clean, and free of stress risers (a stress riser is a weak point, usually a deep nick, which encourages the blade to fold at that point).

Occasional rubdowns with a moisture repellent oil and steel wool or scouring pad, followed by a coat of microcrystalline wax, should keep the blade and hilt clean (follow manufacturer’s recommendations if you have a gilt, blued or otherwise ornamented weapon). Do not be afraid to file down any large nicks, and file off any burrs: this is important from a safety perspective, as the blade is most likely to break at a nick, and burrs can be very sharp. The edges of a blunt weapon should always be kept smooth enough that you can run your bare hand hard up the edge and not get scratches or splinters. Even the toughest and most cherished sword will not survive repeated abuse: the best guarantor of longevity for your sword (and yourself) is correct technique.

Rules of Engagement

Once you have agreed to fence with someone, it is important to agree on rules of engagement. This is partly to ensure safety, and partly to create an environment in which you can learn. The two most simple rules are these:

  1. Confine permitted actionss to the safety limits of your protective gear
  2. Confine permitted actions to the technical range of the least trained combatant. In other words, do not allow face-thrusts when wearing open helms, or throws when one of you is not trained to fall safely. The rules can be adapted further to develop specifi aspects of technique: for instance, you may not allow any close quarters work at all, or even restrict allowable hits to one small target. The idea is to come to a clear, common -sense agreement before facing off. You are only ready for no-holds-barred, totally “authentic” fight simulation, when you can enter such a fight with your judgement unimpaired.

Following the rules of engagement will not make you soft, nor will it dull your edge if it comes to the real thing; rather it it will develop self-control.

These rules apply to all fencing:

  1. Agree on a mutually acceptable level of safety.
  2. Wear at least the minimum amount of safety gear commensurate with rule 1. Confine allowable technique to those within the limits of your equipment.
  3. Confine allowable technique to the technical ability of the least trained
    combatant.
  4. Appoint either an experienced student or one of the combatants to
    preside over the bout.
  5. Agree on allowable targets.
  6. Agree on what constitutes a “hit”.
  7. Agree on priority or scoring convention in the event of simultaneous hits. Usually it is better
    to allow a fatal blow before a minor wound, but simultaneous hits should be avoided whenever possible.
  8. Agree on the duration of the bout either in terms of hits, such as first to five, or in real time.
  9. Acknowledge all hits against yourself. This can be done by raising the left arm, or by stopping the bout with a salute, or by calling “Halt!” and telling your opponent where and how you think she hit you.
  10. Maintain self-command at all times.

Safe Training

In my experience most injuries are self-inflicted. It is far more common for students to hurt themselves by doing something they shouldn’t, than to hurt their training partners. Here are a few simple guidelines for joint safety, which should be followed during all training. I am using the lunge as an example of a stressful action, but these principles apply to any physical action.

  1. The knee must always bend in the line of the foot. Knees are hinges, with usually a little under 180° range of movement. The do not respond well to torque (power in rotation). So whenever you bend your knees, in any style for any reason, ensure that the line of your foot, the line of movement of your knee, and the line of movement of your weight, are parallel. This prevents twisting and thus injuries. This one simple rule, carefully followed, eliminates all knee problems other than those arising from impact or genetic disadvantage.
  2. Whenever performing any strenuous task (such as lunging, or lifting heavy objects), tighten your pelvic floor muscles (imagine you need to go to the bathroom, but are stuck in a queue). This supports the base of your spine, and helps with hip alignment.
  3. Joints have two forms of support: active and passive. Passive support refers mainly to the ligaments, which bind the joint capsule together. This is basically set, and can’t be trained. When training your joint strength, with exercises or stretching, avoid any action that strains the joint capsule. Any action that causes pain in the joint itself should be modified or avoided, as it may damage the soft tissues (ligaments, tendons, cartilage). These tissues have a very poor blood supply and hence heal very slowly.
  4. Active support refers to the muscles around the joint, and these can be strengthened by carefully straining the joint with small weights and rotations. To strengthen a joint you must stress these muscles, without endangering the ligaments. Any competent physiotherapist can show you a range of exercises for building up the active support around your knees, wrists and elbows, where we need it most.
  5. Rest is part of training. Your body needs time to recover, and is stimulated by the stress of exercise to grow stronger. However, the body is efficient, and will withdraw support from any muscle group that is not used, even if for only a few weeks. So regular training is absolutely crucial.

If you can’t lunge without warming up, don’t lunge except in carefully controlled drills. Warming up is essential before pushing the boundaries of what your body can do.

 

If you find this advice sensible and useful, please feel free to share it as widely as you like!

If you would like these guidelines as a handy PDF, then drop your email in the box below and I'll send it to you.

 

Your free safety guidelines, in a handy pdf!

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One of the most common questions I get asked is this: “there are no HMA clubs near me. What should I do?”, and my answer is always the same: “start one”. So the next question is “how do I do that?”

The most difficult part of starting a HMA club is deciding to do so. Once the decision has been made, the rest is not so hard.

I’ve been involved in starting many groups, from the Dawn Duellists’ Society in 1994, to the British Federation for Historical Swordplay in 1999,  The School of European Swordsmanship in 2001, and literally dozens of satellite clubs since then, so I have some ideas on the subject, as you might imagine.

Let’s begin with some general principles (this is extracted from an article published in Teaching and Interpreting Historical Swordsmanship in 2005):

“Starting a group is not as hard as it may seem, it just requires determination, and some basic social skills. The obstacles vary so widely in different countries and cultures that it is very hard to advise on the specifics, but I use a set of basic principles to run my school, which are applicable to any group (summarised in these terms by Mike Stillwell).

  • Group purpose: every group must have a purpose, clearly stated. “The study and practice of historical swordsmanship” covers most, but you may wish to narrow the focus.
  • Group needs: every group has specific needs, which must be met for the group to flourish. Typically they include financial health, sufficient membership, and the specific means to achieve the purpose, such as weapons, treatises and a place to practice.
  • Individual needs: every group is comprised of individuals, who will leave if their needs are not met. Such needs include sharing in the common purpose; assistance for beginners, and the various social needs that we all share. Most practitioners prefer a group where they feel welcome and needed, to one where they are looked on with suspicion until they have “proved” themselves. Even the most inexperienced beginner should be recognised as a vital part of the group: without such beginners, the Art, and the group, have no future.

A group will succeed if all the above needs are met, and kept in balance. Once the needs of any one individual (including the illustrious founder) take precedence, the group is doomed. Likewise, any group decision, whether made by the individual in charge, by a committee, or by the whole group, should be arrived at based on how well it serves the three needs. Individuals whose needs are met by the group will stay, and enable the group needs to be met, which enables the group purpose to be met. Of course, many individuals will fall by the wayside when they discover that their needs are not met by a group with that purpose; this is normal, so expect attrition. Also there are some individuals who feel a need to take over any group they join; this is not a problem provided that the group purpose and needs are served by their ascendancy. Just beware of political infighting, and establish the aims of the group clearly enough to prevent slippage. “

Now we have established the principles, let’s get into the specifics. You want to start a HMA club: what’s the first step?

1) Find a friend who'll have a go at swords. One friend is good; two is better. What, you’ve got three interested friends? Then this will be easy…

2) Be honest with yourself and your co-founders about your interests, and agree on exactly what, at this stage, the club is going to do. Establish in clear and exact terms the group purpose. For example “we are going to train for HMA tournaments in Longsword and take part in as many as we can”. Or “we are going to recreate Meyer’s swordsmanship from his book”. Or “we are Jedi and will train accordingly”. Look for the sources and help you might need. For groups wanting to “recreate Fiore’s art of arms”, you could use my books, syllabus and so on; but if you want to study Liechtenauer, then those won’t be much help. Many of my branches started out as “we will train from this book by this Windsor fellow” and grew from there. Choose, a book, a syllabus, a historical source, even a youtube channel, whatever suits your purpose, and say “we'll do this and only this”. It is much better to add things later, once the group is established, than to start out trying to please everyone. To begin with, focus on one thing, and make it absolutely clear what that thing is.

The key question at this stage is ‘does being part of this club actually meet my individual needs?’ If you wanted a club so you could learn to teach 18th century smallsword, and nobody in this club wants to do smallsword (they’re all obsessed with polearms), then start a different club and be clearer about your goals. It is perfectly okay, normal even, for the founders to start the club to scratch their own itch. Start the club you’d want to join.

3) Meet regularly. Once a week minimum, at the same time and in the same place. Depending on the weather and local laws, you could meet in a park, or (as the DDS did for years) train in a courtyard outside a pub in the centre of Edinburgh. You don’t need money for this; there is lots of free spaces most places, if you just look. When you start out, you will be ignorant and unskilled. That is okay!! Everybody starts at zero. But you have SO much more help available than I did in 1992, and I turned out alright. So you will probably do even better.

Fencing with Scott Wilson in Holyrood Park, February 2001.

4) Advertise in any free medium (twitter, facebook, etc). for like-minded people in your neighbourhood. If you’re training in a public space, then be ready for curious people of all ages and types to come up and talk to you. Be very clear about what you are trying to do, so Viking re-enactors won’t come along and be disappointed by your sword and buckler club, or vice-versa. Being specific means that people can see in advance whether the club is likely to meet their individual needs.

5) When you have 6-10 people coming regularly, it’s time to establish a formal club. Start collecting fees. Price it at the cost of a night out per month, minimum. Eg. in the UK, perhaps 25 quid. In Finland, maybe 30 euros. This is essential. One of the biggest mistakes beginner clubs make is to not gather fees, and they do this mostly because they don’t feel they are providing a service that is worth paying for. But you are not selling a service (unless you are setting up a professional school, which I am not covering here), you’re gathering the resources the club needs to meet its goals. Members who don’t want to pay are not going to help meet the group needs.

What is the money for? To help accomplish the group purpose. You can use for whatever helps pursue the purpose, such as to pay for a teacher, buy club equipment, send your most active class leaders to events they can’t afford to go to on their own, pay for a better venue; the list is endless. My point is that clubs that have money can pursue their purpose much more easily than those that don’t. I advise having members use a ‘set it and forget it’ direct debit or paypal regular payment; it’s much more effective than manually collecting dues.

6) At this stage you will need to register a non-profit organisation. This is usually quite easy to do, if you don’t mind filling in forms. Use whatever umbrella organisations are available. University students can start a University society to get access to University facilities. Your local sports fencing club might let you set up a sub-group within their umbrella (as, for instance, my branch in Oulu, Finland, did). If there is a suitable umbrella available, consider joining it. Be careful that doing so does not interfere with your group purpose, though. If joining an umbrella organisation means giving up your core purpose, or unacceptable changes to equipment or rules, then don’t do it.

Be careful that you understand the rules around what a non-profit organisation can and cannot do. I can’t advise you on the law in your country, but in general, you can hire a teacher (but the employee cannot usually be part of the governing board). You cannot use the funds to pay for your personal sword collection. You will also probably have to  file annual accounts and a list of members. This is not too much work if there are many hands helping; maybe one person handles the paperwork; another handles finding new members; a few others run regular classes. At this stage the thing to watch out for is that the individual needs of the people doing all the work are being met. Some kind of compensation for their efforts is appropriate (such as not having to pay dues, or subsidised attendance at an event, or a guarantee of never having to clean the training space, or something). The last thing you want is for the essential administration to not get done because the poor bugger doing it has been snowed under mounds of paper and can’t get to class, so quits. Look after your officers, they deserve it.

And there you have it. It’s really not so hard. It is a lot of work though, but that’s true of almost everything worthwhile.

I wrote this blog post in response to this survey; it was one of the most commonly expressed frustrations. Feel free to take the survey yourself- who knows, I might answer your question!

If you need help learning to teach, you might find this post useful.

If you need help recreating a historical swordsmanship style from a historical source, you might find this course useful.

Your free safety guidelines, in a handy pdf!

Sign up here to join Guy’s mailing list and get a free guide taken from the Recreate Historical Swordsmanship from Historical Sources Course. You can unsubscribe at any time. Please check our privacy policy for details of what we will do with your data. The short version: send you emails about interesting stuff, and nothing else.

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Boldness is a key virtue in swordsmanship. Perhaps the key virtue. Under the Lion on the famous segno page, Fiore wrote “Piu de mi leone non porta core ardito. Por di bataglia fazo a zaschun invito”. Nobody has a bolder heart than I, the Lion. I call everyone to battle.

It is a key virtue, and one which can be trained for. I cover it in breadth and depth in my book Swordfighting, but didn’t include there the specific exercises we use in class to begin the study of boldness. In the women’s class I lead in Seattle recently, the participants explicitly requested boldness as a topic, so I took them through the following sequence. This was a longsword class in which most of the participants were relatively inexperienced, so these exercises were done relatively slowly.
The first step, always, is decide what you’re working on. In this case, boldness. So the only thing that matters (other than “everyone finishes class healthier than they started it”) is whether you are embodying that virtue in the constraints of the drill. It’s ok for technique and other things to suffer.
The flinch is the enemy. Your body’s instinctive jerking away from threat needs to be brought under control. For many people, simply having their personal space invaded is enough to make them flinch, but to train martial arts effectively, you have to get comfortable with people getting right up in your face. So we began with the standing step drill, in which two players face each other square on in a wide stance, touch wrists, and then try to make the other player take a step. Move a foot, you lose.

This involves pushing and being pushed, some arm locks, and once the first level is comfortable, you can introduce things like gentle face-slaps. Anything that does not threaten your position can be ignored, so it’s remarkable how quickly incidental contact, that would have created a flinch before, becomes something the players can simply choose not react to. It also gets everyone playing together in a useful way. The next level is to allow one step, in either attack or defence; you lose when you make a second foot movement.
This drill is all about standing your ground, grounding, tactics, misdirection, wrestling, locks, throws… it’s a very good way to get beginners into the game. It also caused a lot of hilarity in the class, which in the circumstances was a good thing; it broke the ice, and made being brave easier. I also covered what to do if you are much bigger and stronger, or more experienced: take it to the very edge of your balance, and play from there.
After this, we did some basic sword handling, so I could assess the level of the class as a whole, and then we got started with step one of first drill: defender on guard in tutta porta di ferro, the attacker strikes a mandritto fendente (controlled, of course) to the head. The defender does nothing.

That is hard. Don’t blink. Don’t flinch. Don’t even change your breathing. Stare over the attacker’s shoulder and do absolutely nothing as the blade touches your mask. We also do this exercise with no masks and no contact. It’s harder, for most people. The exercise should be done at the rate that maintains the difficulty for the defender, so long as that doesn’t take the attacker past the point where they can properly control their strike.
Now we have identified the problem, flinching, we have to set up exercises in which it will happen naturally, allowing you to practise preventing it, in circumstances of ever increasing complexity. Remain calm and dispassionate. It’s really better to get hit in training than to practise flinching, because every time you flinch, you are ingraining that response in your nervous system.
Once you can remain impassive against the attack, you can defend against it with much better precision, so from here, move on to the second step of the drill; actually defending yourself. Now it’s the attacker’s turn to be impassive about being struck.
Boldness is also about moving forwards against the threat. In the Lonin loft they have two car tyres hanging from the ceiling, which act as pells and striking targets, so from here we moved on to hitting the tyres: approaching boldly, striking hard and moving away under cover. This was fun, and should be trained regularly, not least to make you aware of just how hard you can hit.
We then went back to the pair drills, and worked on the attacker’s bold entry. During this time, I prepped one of the students, and then gave orders for the class to go as hard and fast as they could, with no masks, to really hit each other. A dangerous, stupid, thing to do with a class at this level. But the teacher was telling them to… and the student I had prepared beforehand said, quietly but firmly, “no”. I said “what the hell do you mean, no?”, and she replied “no, it’s too dangerous.”
It takes boldness to stand up to authority figures when they are not acting in your best interests, and as with all necessary skills, it can and should be trained for. Roleplaying the scenario can really help. So what the class saw was one of their own (boldly) saying no to a dangerous exercise, in defiance of my authority. That was probably much harder, required more boldness, than simply not flinching when a friend gently approached with a sword.
Training for boldness only works if the situation is one in which it is hard to be bold, but you can just manage it. It is especially important to emphasise that success is defined only by whether you manage to act in a way that demonstrates the virtue of boldness according to the scenario of the drill. No other factors are important. This is the key to successful training. In weightlifting, you either lift the weight the prescribed distance, or you don’t. Success is easy to define. When training for virtues, success is more difficult to pin down, which is why I like controlling the flinch as the starting point; it’s the easiest way to check on physical courage. We can take this out into the wider world too; let’s say you have difficulty talking to strangers, so you set yourself a task of asking one stranger for directions every day on your way to work. It doesn’t matter if you stammer, or if you forget what they tell you, or if they are rude, or any other thing; you did it if you went up to someone you don’t know and asked. Success is making the attempt.

Your free safety guidelines, in a handy pdf!

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Spring is in the air, the grass is pushing up under the snow, and books are making their way from my dusty hard drive and out into the world.

Ok, in Finland, spring is nowhere to be seen. My kids are going ice-skating and everyone I know has a cold. Bear with me. I have another book out, and it makes me giddy.

I'm spending most of this week fulfilling the promises made in my last Indiegogo campaign, for Advanced Longsword. That means doing battle with Lightning Source's arcane and wilfully inefficient “short run” printing interface, manually creating over 250 book orders so that the backers of the campaign will get their books in the post in a couple of weeks. I am also manually packing and shipping a boxful of The Medieval Dagger books. This is all, on the surface, very tedious, BUT it is actually really nice to feel that moment of personal connection with every backer, even as superficially as when I input their address into a web form.

Backers of Audatia should already know that WE HAVE SHIPPED THE FINAL PACKS: Liechtenauer and the Patron are done, shipped, and that marathon of a campaign is now 100% fulfilled. It only took about two years longer than expected. But it is a load off my mind. Crowdfunding is all about transparency, value, and keeping your promises.

And somehow in the middle of all this, I managed to edit together and publish The Swordsman's Quick Guide part 5: How to Teach a Basic ClassThis booklet is 10,000 words long, enough to cover the really important stuff, like safety, writing class plans, making corrections, and so on. The purpose of it is simple: to give inexperienced instructors confidence. If you've read it, do let me know what you think!

Your free safety guidelines, in a handy pdf!

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Training montages are common in swashbucklery movies and TV shows; you know the sort of thing, where the young student is trained by the old master. As you may imagine, these are usually my favourite bits. But they often seem to revolve around the “master” humiliating and defeating the student, which is hardly good training.

The Mask of Zorro has some interesting scenes of Antonio Banderas being trained by Anthony Hopkins. I am particularly taken with the doing push-ups over candles (thought Antonio’s abdominal support needs work) while the master rests his feet on the students’ back, but the bullwhip? Definitely very dodgy indeed.

http://youtu.be/-mcUPY0RMdU

But at least, at the end,:ANTONIO DISARMS ANTHONY! Hurrah!

Now onto my main point:

The Game of Thrones is a great series. With shows based on books, I almost invariably prefer the book, but in this case, I waded through the first volume, and when most of the best characters were killed at the end of it, I decided I couldn’t be bothered with the next one. Why spend all that time getting to know people if they are just going to get slaughtered? No such trouble with GoT on TV; it moves too fast for the investment of time in a character to feel like a waste when they are inevitably betrayed to their deaths.

But Syrio Forel. Oh dear. In the book (volume one, A Game of Thrones, p 225 in my mass-market paperback), Arya’s first lesson is described like so:

“Now you will try to strike me”.

Arya tried to strike him. She tried for four hours, until every muscle in her body was sore and aching, while Syrio Forel clicked his teeth together and told her what to do.

The next day their real work began.

Hmm. Where to start. Skill development being retarded by physical exhaustion? or by constant failure? Ho hum. The TV show is pretty faithful to the book here, with the notable exception of Syrio’s hair (absent on the page, bouffant on screen).

You can see this scene here:

This seems to me to be perhaps the teaching style least likely to ever generate a good swordsman. Here’s why:

1) Arya’s actions never succeed. Not once do we see her actually succeed in doing anything more than parry. She is practising to fail; practising stuff that does not work.

2) Syrio’s actions almost always succeed. Whatever Arya does, he pulls off some new trick she hasn’t seen before, and hits her (or at least presents the point). Whatever she does, she loses. So the style she is learning clearly (in her subconscious mind at least) does not work!

To Syrio’s credit, he doesn’t brutalise his student (a very common occurrence in martial arts circles, where inexperienced, insecure, or just plain vicious instructors seem to think that the way to earn their students’ respect is to beat the crap out of them: my advice, leave immediately and don't come back!), and Arya certainly seems to love the training; we see her practising outside class time, and she often grins when he does some cool trick. But it should be him grinning when she does some cool trick!

So hark ye to the rule of Guy: an individual lesson should be geared such that if the student is doing what they are supposed to do, then it should succeed. If not, they get hit (gently). Develop the selective pressure such that to keep succeeding, they have to do it better and better.  Improvement is natural, automatic, and fast.

When giving an individual lesson, I tend to get hit about five times more than I hit. Because I adjust the pressure accordingly; the student is always at the very edge of what they can do; pushing the envelope, making mistakes, but usually succeeding. (See here for more detail; and credit where it’s due; I learned this explicitly on the British Academy of Fencing coaching course I went on in 2010.)

There is one reason (in fiction; none in real life) for the master to beat up the student: when they first meet, the master may, for good story reasons, need to establish incontrovertibly that they have something to teach. The brash young hero needs taking down a peg or two, to get them into a more receptive frame of mind. Fair enough. But that ain’t the training, that’s the introduction. The lesson itself should, must, be all about the student’s development.

Game of Thrones fans interested in how longswords should be used, might enjoy both my Longsword curriculum (online with lots of free videos) and my latest book, The Medieval Longsword.

So, there you have it. Can you think of any worse fencing masters on the page, the stage, or the screen? And should I do a post on “Guy's favourite training montages”?

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Beginner you are not, hmmm? image from www.freepik.com
Beginner you are not, hmmm?

Beginners are the future of any martial art. And lucky too: the best learning environment is when you are the least knowledgeable person in the room. Anyone you train with can teach you something. It is more difficult to keep learning when you are surrounded by relative beginners, and this post is about how to do it. When I moved to Finland in 2001, I was by a mile the most experienced practitioner of European swordsmanship in the country. Literally everyone I crossed longswords with knew less about them than I did. This could easily have lead to stagnation, but I managed to keep learning by:

  • Cross-training 3-4 times a week with other martial arts, one-on-one with senior instructors; basically trading classes. The potential for contaminating my interpretation was huge, but the upside was I developed a lot as a martial artist.
  • Travelling a lot to international events, paying for it by teaching classes there. I treated these trips mostly as recruitment: when I saw an instructor I thought I and my students could learn from, I hired them over to teach seminars. We average about 3 such seminars a year (in the last 9 months alone, Stefan Dieke, Paul Wagner, and Jörg Bellinghausen have all taught here).
  • Learning how to train usefully with beginners.

This post is about the last on that list. We have a beginners course starting next week, so Tuesday’s basic class focused on how the students can train effectively with the new students when they arrive. I will summarise the approach here, for students about to work with beginners, then describe the class step-by-step as a potential class plan for instructors facing this issue.

1.    Be a perfect model. The rule of beginners is this: show it to them right a thousand times, and they will eventually copy it correctly. Show it to them wrong once, and they will copy it perfectly first time. I mean no disrespect. This is just true, and I’ve never seen a beginner for whom it wasn’t. So having beginners around demands that your every action is as perfect as you can make it. No pressure then.
2.    Work at your own level. One of the things beginners have to learn eventually is the terminology of the art. So on the beginners course we do things like call out the names of the steps (accrescere, discrescere, passare, tornare, etc.) and they have to do the named step. For more experienced students in the same class this could be unimaginably tedious, but should not be: they are expected to work at their own level. So while they are all doing the same thing, some are working on remembering the terms; some working on perfecting its mechanics; and some are working through possible applications, from power generation, to avoidance, to specific plays.
3.    Use the randomiser. In pair drills, the beginner will naturally get parts of it wrong. Excellent. A genuine randomiser! The attack may be too strong, too far away, too close, in the wrong line, anything. Your job is to effortlessly and spontaneously adapt the drill to the specific conditions of the attack you get, not the one you expected. This demands 100% focus on what is happening. When it is your turn to do what they just attempted, you have to demonstrate it perfectly according to the drill, of course. Your training alternates between 100% perfect tactical choices in real time, and 100% perfect mechanics in your own time. Sounds like 100% perfect training, no?

You should also note the following:
•    The attack is never “wrong”: you get hit only if you fail to defend.
•    Your correction of the attack will be much more convincing if it comes after the attack has failed, than if you just got hit.
•    Coach by modelling, not explaining. Beginners are not stupid, they are just not-yet-skilled. They need opportunities to practise, not a lecture.
•    This kind of training demands 100% focus on the specifics of the attack that you get, not the one you expect.
•    When training with beginners, you have an opportunity to go deep, making a few actions better. But you have less chance to go wide, using a broader range of actions (because this will bewilder the already overwhelmed beginner). When paired with more experienced students, you could take the chance to go wide if it doesn’t conflict with the overall class goals.

So relish the influx of new perfection-demanding random action generators, and relish the fact that in a decade or two, they may well be vastly better at this than you are now. But they will always remember and be grateful for the help you gave them when they were starting out. You may be helping to train the next Bruce Lee, or Aldo Nadi, or even Fiore dei Liberi.

If you find this useful, please share it with your friends!

***
The Class:
We began by setting the goal of the class: to teach the students present how to train usefully with the beginners. Usefully for the beginners too, but specifically usefully for themselves. I explained briefly the three principles above, and then we applied them. This class followed the normal structure: warm-up, footwork/mechanics, dagger, longsword handling, longsword pair drills.

Warm-up
I had the students warm themselves up, structuring the 12 or so minutes according to their own current needs. For some this was the first time they had done that. This got them into the right state of mind: using familiar structures and content, but customising them to their own needs.

Footwork
We then did the basic footwork terminology drill: I called out the names of the steps and turns and they have to do the named action. Then I had them tell me what they should be working on during that drill. Some needed practice at remembering the terms; some were working on perfecting its mechanics; and some were working through the applications.We then did the stick exercise, so they had to use the steps spontaneously.

Dagger
We started as usual with the first play of the first master, and modelled what you should do if the attacker is either too stiff (execute the play perfectly: it works just fine), or too hesitant to strike (ignore the attack, until they learn to actually strike the mask).
18th1stmaster

We also covered the 18th play, what you should do if they are really really stiff.

This should be accompanied by a quick verbal correction, and you modelling the attack for them.

Longsword handling, solo drills
Here we distinguished between a beginners course class, and a general basic class to which beginners can attend. (In my School, all beginners are entitled and encouraged to attend all basic classes.) On the beginners course, you should stick exactly to the drill that has been set, so that the only thing the beginners see is the thing they are supposed to do. So do that thing very, very well. It’s an opportunity to work on the basics. The constraint will highlight things to practise. This lead to the following immortal line:
“All of your problems, in the salle and out of it, stem from imperfect basics.”
In normal class, students are at liberty to train the exact drill as set, or any more basic form, or any more advanced form, unless they are specifically instructed otherwise. I expect students to train at their own level.

Longsword pair drills
We had been working on the stretto form of first drill the previous week, so we took it up again. (For those not in my school: first drill begins with an attack that is parried; the stretto version begins with an attack that is counterattacked into. Let me point out here that it is not the counterattack that determines largo or stretto, it’s the nature of the crossing of the blades: for a fuller discussion and examples see the wiki.) This allowed me to point out that the “basic” version is actually mechanically more complex than the “more advanced” version. The reason for learning the first one first is that it is tactically more basic, and easier to keep in mind. First parry, then strike. Parrying and striking all in one go is harder for most people (not all) to grasp. So we then looked at these two drills as:
•    Parry against the attack (first drill, largo form)
•    Attack against the attack (first drill, stretto form)
•    Which begged the question: what happens when a parry is parried?
Which is what happens all the time with beginners learning this drill. They attack as they are supposed to, but as you start to parry, they instinctively change their motion to put their sword in the way of yours. This leads to the two swords bound together, usually near the points, and suddenly the defender’s continuation as set in the drill makes no sense.
Of course, this type of bind is shown in the treatise: the first master of the zogho largo.

1stMasterZL So we looked at the book, and executed his plays as a response to a poor attack. And then used the attack as a means to draw out the defender’s sword to where it could be bound, and practised the same actions but with different intent. The attacker could bind the sword and take advantage of the crossing generated, or the defender, perceiving the change in the attack in time, could take advantage of the fact that the attack was no longer coming towards them, and execute the plays. This made the point that the difference between beginner’s mistake and advanced technique is often more about why you do it, than it is about how.
We completed this study with the variation on first drill that leads to the third play of the master of zogho largo crossed at the middle of the swords, where his scholar grabs the blade and strikes.

3rdplay2ZLBecause those that know might be about to angulate around the parry, or parry the riposte, while beginners might just be a bit stiff. So the attack could go one of three ways (bind the parry, proceed as in the basic form, angulate), and the defender was expected to effortlessly execute the proper response. And to think: beginners will give you all that variation, at genuinely random intervals, without even being asked to or trained! How fantastically useful is that?
We concluded the class, of course, with first drill, basic form, no variations, every action perfect. Because you have to show it to them right a thousand times…

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Is this a dagger I see before me?
Is this a dagger I see before me?

It has been my experience that beginners feel they have learned something when they get to try a new technique. But experienced students of the art feel they have learned something when they have identified and corrected a flaw in their skills. This is normal, and in both cases, the student is correct. It can seem daunting to a beginner to look at our basic syllabus, and realise just how much new material there is to learn, but it can also be frustrating to a more advanced student to feel that they have done it all before so there is nothing “new” to be learned. Both states of mind are unproductive, and both have at their root a lack of understanding as to what the syllabus is for. So I shall explain.

I guess most of my readers know that I used to work as a cabinet maker, and I still do woodwork as a hobby. So let me offer an analogy for the syllabus problem above, based on woodwork.

The purpose of the syllabus, from breathing exercises to pair drills, from push-ups to freeplay, is simply this: it is a toolkit with which you can craft, from the raw material of yourself, the swordsman you aspire to become.

Once a drill or exercise is sufficiently well learned that it does not require effort to recall, it becomes available to you as a tool. So we equip our beginners with a very basic toolkit, just as someone taking up woodwork might buy a set-square, a saw, a plane and a chisel. Until the drill is in memory, it is effectively useless. When it has been absorbed, it becomes a working tool. We then apply these tools to the business of making swordsmen.

As the student develops, they will acquire new tools, either of a whole new type (hello, G clamp) or a variation on one already owned (such as a plough plane). The process of learning new drills is analogous to the process of buying new tools; lots of fun, and for some people (tool collectors), the whole point of the exercise. But owning tools is not craftsmanship. Knowing how to keep them sharp and put them to use, is. I am an avid tool collector in both fields: I have some woodworking tools I will probably never use, and I have some drills from other arts, and from the early days of my career, that I take out and polish every now and then, but will never actually apply to the business of my improvement as a swordsman.

One of the hallmarks of a craftsman is that they not only have the right tools, but for any given job they will unerringly select the right tool from the rack. And if the job requires a tool they don’t have, then they will buy it or make it. Every cabinet maker has a stock of self-made jigs and tools that they knocked up to get a particular job done. So in swordsmanship, understanding the problem you are trying to fix means you instinctively know what tool you need. And if you don’t have it, you either create it, or buy it (which for my students equals “ask Guy”).

It is also critical to understand your material. Just as a cabinet maker knows that ash is the best material for drawer sides, and beech is stable and cheap, but vulnerable to woodworm; so the student must know their own physical, mental and spiritual strengths and weaknesses. These will determine what kind of swordsman you should create out of yourself, and the tools you will need to do it. Swordsmen are fantastically lucky in that the Art does not require a specific body type. Sure, there are some obvious advantages to being tall and thin if you are a rapier fencer, but the best rapierist I ever trained was neither. But to ignore, in this example, her height would have been stupid. Instead we made her size an integral part of her style. And I have watched her skewer tall skinny blokes more than once.

A student who has a well-earned sense of satisfaction because they now “know” the punta falsa, is in a similar position to the beginner woodworker who has saved up enough money to buy a shiny tool that they have no clue how to use properly. It is a necessary and laudable first step on the way to craftsmanship. If you were to come along to one of our advanced classes, you would see that same drill being put to use in various contexts to expose flaws and correct them. One drill can have many uses, of course: it could be diagnostic, or represent the tactical hierarchy of the system, or be for power-generation, something else, or all of the above. I discuss this in some detail in my dagger book.

So, here are some questions for you:

  • Do you know the proper uses to all the tools you have?
  • Do you have all the tools you need for your current craftsmanship needs?
  • Do you keep them shiny, sharp and accurate so they can be called on when needed?
  • Do you deliberately select the best tool for job in hand?

If your answer to any of these questions is “no”, then see me before, during or after class and we will fix it!

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I have been working for the last nine months on creating a teaching tool for students of Fiore's art: a card game called Audatia. The game has been designed from the ground up as a way to make the abstract elements of Fiore's system, such as the terminology and the overall tactical structure, easier to learn. I know next to nothing about designing games, so of course I hired a professional, and as readers of this blog should know by now, I didn't do it all by myself. I have been working as part of a team, and my job is to keep the game faithful to the Art it is intended to serve.

Over the weekend we took the game to the gamers, by setting up playtesting at Ropecon. We were supposed to be on for two hours a day, over the three days, but three of us were at it non-stop for an average of 5 hours a day. Folk were queueing up to have a go, and many came back for more. It was fantastic. We learned a lot about what we had got right, and more importantly, what we had got wrong.

The best negative review we got was from an ex-student of mine, who said: “it's too realistic. You might as well just pick up a sword and fight.” Not an error I intend to fix.

It also proved itself as a teaching tool; the players, usually with no swordsmanship experience, quickly learned what an opponent in tutta porta di ferro could do, and what their best option was if when the blades meet you are in the zogho stretto. If tutta porta di ferro and zogho stretto are all Greek to you, then you need this game!

In class last night, a student asked a question about the uses of posta breve based on her experience playing the game at Ropecon; a question that might never have occurred to her if she had not played. That gave me the theme for the class, during which I realised that the game needed a tweak to make its representation of the guard more accurate. So the game proved its use as a teaching tool, and not only that, it set up a virtuous cycle of learning and development.

We have clearly hit some kind of a nerve, as we have been storming ahead on our indigogo project, having raised over 7,000 euros in under 7 days. If you haven't backed us yet, please do so now!

So, Audatia matters because:

1) it will help students of the Art of Arms pick up the theory side of things more quickly, encouraging them to engage with the system more closely, and helping to drive our understanding of this system forward.

2) it will draw new scholars into the Art, folk who play the game may well take up the practice of swordsmanship.

3) it will help bridge the gap between those who get why swords are cool and those who don't. If you're addicted to swords, you can use this game to help communicate why to your friends outside our sub-culture.

4) it is one more way in which those who have no idea that European martial arts exist can find out about them.

5) it will, if it does well, go some way to counteract the appalling misogyny in gaming culture today. We intend to create female character decks, because there were some fearsome women warriors in the middle ages. (I'll be blogging about this in detail soon.) And guess what: they will be wearing armour that would effectively defend them against deadly weapons, not pander to the prurience of little boys.

I think that's five excellent reasons, don't you?

 

 

 

 

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This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of this beginner’s course. Unusually for me I actually wrote out a class plan in advance. I wondered whether given what we had covered before, we could get through the first seven plays of the first master of dagger, and to the end of second drill. I also wanted to emphasise the ligadura mezana and its counter (the third and fourth plays of the first master), and of course make sure that the longsword cutting drill part one was in place. And even more unusually, I stuck to the plan. Here it is in all its glory:

bcplan

We began with the salute and the usual warmup, in which I was sure to include kicking squats and falling, and then to the four guards drill. I then had the beginners on their own (so, the non-beginners stepped back) go through the four steps and the three turns: the steps were fine, but the turns were somewhat lacking, so we reviewed them in detail. Then with everyone together they practiced their footwork, while I put the stick in play.

I then demonstrated the first and second and the third and fourth plays of the first master of the dagger; then the third and fourth and the fifth and sixth; then the fifth and sixth and the seventh. Having thus surveyed all seven as a series, I asked them to choose the one technique they did not want to practice and practice that. It’s a pretty reliable guide to what you should be practising: the thing you dread is the thing you need.

They had already seen the flowdrill before, but I had them do the three disarms alone, then tie them together into the drill. Having worked the drill for little bit I had them choose to either practice the part they found most difficult, or break the flow. They self-selected with a remarkably accurate view of which group their skills placed them in, and tending to stick to the base rather than try the more difficult.

Then we all reviewed the third and fourth plays as we would need them to complete second drill. This took us to 18.50, and we took our swords and practised part one of the cutting drill. We then went through all four steps of first drill, then studied step three, then step four, in isolation. This took us to 19.10, and parts one and two of second drill. I then taught them step three, where the attacker yields to the parry, enters in and wraps the defender in a ligadura mezana and strikes with the pommel. Then step four, the counter to that, which is mechanically almost identical to the fourth play of the first master of the dagger. I demonstrated the action first with the dagger, so in its most familiar context, and then with the sword.

We finished with a drill in which the attacker throws eight mandritti fendenti, against which the defender alternates parrying from tutta porta di ferro, as in first drill, and then dente di zenghiaro, as in second drill. We concluded with my telling them that I hoped they would all continue to train, as indeed this course has been a pleasure to teach.

I will absorb all this for a while, then use the data from these two courses to summarise the key elements of how I think a beginner’s course should go, and highlight where and why these courses differed. Stay tuned!

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I should warn you, reading this, that my experiments in the land of data entry have shifted to a new phase. I am boldly going into Star Trek territory, and dictating this to the computer. This experiment has yielded some astonishingly weird results, including one mini shit-storm on Facebook, but it is very interesting (to me anyway) to have to think clearly about what I’m going to say, to articulate clearly each and every word, and to speak the punctuation. It does change several things, not least speed, and word-choice. Typing is somehow more formal. Anyway, on with the course review…

This week’s beginners course class, the seventh out of eight, was oddly attended, with relatively few beginners, and relatively many more experienced students. We started with the warmup of course, including squat push-ups, then went on to solo falling practice, before the four guards drill. After this we looked at the mechanics of the takedown, starting with one student standing in posta longa, and the other making the takedown from there. We looked at the idea of the takedown being to create a situation in which your partner must take a step to keep their balance, but you have arranged things such that they cannot step. We also looked at creating a spiral twist in the back, by pulling the right hip and pushing the left shoulder, and vice-versa. From here we went into a gentle and cooperative version of the seventh play of the first master of the dagger, emphasising falling without using your hands. The image I used was of using your left hand to grab an imaginary dagger from the thrower’s belt and stab him in the femoral artery with it.

We then looked at this play of the first master, using both hands to break the attacker’s arm. This went very well, so we went swiftly on to the sixth play, which counters it, by grabbing the blade of the dagger with the left hand and jamming it in the defenders right elbow. We then went to the Book and saw the first seven plays of the first master of the dagger in order: disarm, counter, lock, counter, break, counter, takedown. We then looked at memorisation strategies for keeping these seven plays in memory. After which we reviewed the flowdrill and i had them break the flow with the third, fifth, or seventh play of the first master. This was a step too far for most, but I think it got the idea of how the terminology is used and why it is useful to have these plays in memory. As I have said many times before: you remember that which you are ready to learn. If you can’t remember it, you can’t study it.

From here we took up swords and went through part one of the cutting drill. Again. This time though, I pointed out the relationship between the mandritto fendente from posta di donna, and the guard tutta porta di ferro, to the one long sword pair drill that they know, First Drill.

As last week we took a moment to look at the guards tutta porta di ferro, and dente di zenghiaro, (I don’t believe it, the dictation engine recognised both those guard’s names!) and then resumed the cutting drill. After a few more rounds of that, we began pair practice. I pointed out that the primary defensive movements in medieval combat are beating the enemies weapon up or down. In first drill we beat it up. We then did steps one and two. After they had practice that for a while, I described Fiore’s hierarchy of four Masters or Kings, and then we did steps one to 3, pointing out the remedy and the counter-remedy. After working on that pommel strike for a little bit we added step four, the counter-counter-remedy. This was revision from last week.

We had just enough time at the end (about 8 minutes) to have a look at what might happen if you ended up trying to defend from the “wrong side”: i.e. From dente di zenghiaro. So I demonstrated the whole of second drill, and they had a go at steps one and two.

Attentive readers of this blog will have noted that we are covering a lot more material in this beginner’s course than in the previous one. This is mostly an artefact of the smaller number of beginners in a given class, and the larger number of more experienced students available to pair up with them. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that these beginner’s have an excellent record of attending Thursday’s basic class, and staying behind for free training to practice. I have been using that time to work with many of them on individual issues such as pre-existing knee problems, and on the various aspects of the training they may be having difficulty with, such as falling, or sword handling.

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