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Tag: learning

Screen Capture from the Dagger Course: the four blows

Last week I talked about the importance of swordsmen learning dagger techniques, and I promised I'd explain how to integrate training the dagger material with the longsword material. This needs to be done at the level of syllabus design, as well as within specific training sessions or classes. Let's start with the syllabus.

NOTE: In this post I'll be referring to lots and lots of specific drills from my syllabus. It would get ridiculously long if I wrote them all out, or even embedded the relevant video at every step. But you can find all of this material online on video on the Armizare syllabus page.

My Armizare syllabus is divided into seven levels, the first four of which are considered ‘basic'. If we take a look at the first couple of levels you'll see that the dagger content is spread out, as is the sword. Level one, for instance, covers the following:

Mechanics and Conditioning:

  • Weight distribution on the feet
  • Tailbone Alignment
  • The basic guard position
  • The guard positions
  • Standing Step drill (aka push-hands)
  • Basic falling, solo
  • Stick avoidance drill
  • Understanding of safe training, control, and School etiquette


  • Fiore footwork: 4 steps: accrescere, discrescere, passare, tornare; 3 turns: volta stabile, meza volta, tutta volta
  • Four unarmed poste: longa, dente de zenghiaro, frontale, porta di ferro


  • The meaning of the terms remedy, counter-remedy and counter-counter-remedy
  • 4 lines of attack: mandritto, fendente, roverso, sotto.
  • First remedy master (against mandritto or fendente)First 7 plays of the First Master
  • Roverso disarm (third master, from Pisani-Dossi MS), from Third remedy master (against roverso or fendente)
  • Fendente disarm (fourth master)
  • Sottano disarm (ninth master)


  • Five of The 12 guards: Tutta porta di ferro, posta di donna (both sides), posta longa, posta frontale, dente di zenghiaro
  • Two of the Seven Blows: Fendente, Sottano
  • Sword handling drill up, down, around, around.
  • Cutting drill, part one only.
  • The salute
  • First drill
  • Second drill

As you can probably see, there is a minimum of learning large chunks of data (such as all seven blows of the sword), and an emphasis on teaching just enough new elements that the student can start working on applications. So they learn one blow of the dagger, and one defence against it, then the same defence against another blow, then another and another, before they learn all four blows of the dagger as a set to memorise. They also have sword handling drills, and two full-length sword drills. The difficulties they face learning the sword drills will make the dagger material in the next level very welcome; it will solve a problem for them.

In Level Two, they will find:

Mechanics and Conditioning

  • Forearm conditioning: Wrist and Forearm Exercises
  • Forearm massage: Self Massage
  • Basic Breathing exercises
  • Guard position analysis with pressure
  • Volta stabile and pass with pressure
  • The footwork combinations: 1) accressere fora di strada, passare alla traversa, 2) accressere, 3 passi, with tutta volta.
  • Able to competently warm up self


  • The Nine Masters One thing from each of the Nine Remedy Masters
  • Dagger disarm flowdrill
  • The 5 things: disarm, strike, lock, break, takedown
  • Five things from four lines


  • All of the Blows, including the Mezani, and the 5 Punte
  • All of The 12 guards
  • Sword handling drill 3: six grips
  • Exchange of thrust
  • Breaking the thrust
  • Four corners drill
  • First two plays of sword in one hand

Now that the base has been laid in level one, it's quite easy to build on it in level two. Incidentally, I'm sure that some Fiore scholars will be horrified to see the lack of abrazare so far; that is coming in the next level, at which point, as with the dagger material, it will actively solve a problem for the students, rather than be something they have to plod through to get to the shiny sword.

At this stage, the students have a complete set of basic techniques for the dagger; all nine remedy masters, and all five things that Fiore tells us we need to know (on f9v of the Getty Ms).

This pattern of interleaving dagger and sword (as well as abrazare, spear, and so on) continues throughout the syllabus, though the dagger material is essentially complete by level four. It would be remiss of me not to mention the section of the manuscript that explicitly ties the dagger and sword sections together: the defences of the dagger against a sword attack, and the defences of the sword in the scabbard against a dagger attack. We do cover these in the syllabus, but much later than you would otherwise expect, because the defence of the dagger against the sword requires a) both partners to be able to attack safely with the sword and b) both partners to be able to do a pretty tricky technique. They will usually get there in level four when learning the Syllabus Form, which begins with the defence of the sword against the dagger.

Integrating dagger into the class:

In a well-taught class there is a coherent reason for including every item that is taught. It could simply be ‘you're working on this level, and you need to know this new thing'. That is, if you like, the most basic level of teaching: filling gaps in the students knowledge. For this, you must have a syllabus, and the students must be able to track their progress along the path laid out in the syllabus.

At the next level, there is teaching a single idea across different contexts. For example, in our second drill with the longsword, we have a ligadura mezana at step three (the counter-remedy). This first occurs at time 0.13 in this video.

The counter-counter-remedy first occurs at 0.20, and is the 15th play of the zogho stretto (as referred to in last week's post). Most students find this particularly difficult against an enthusiastically applied ligadura. If I'll be teaching second drill, I'll adjust the whole structure of the class to lead up to it. Let me take you through what that would look like, and run you through the usual structure for a 90 minute evening class in my salles at the same time:


Warm-up (10 min or so). This will emphasise shoulder mobility, to prepare for the locks.

Four guards drill, other footwork drills: 5-10 minutes. Possibly include the standing step drill, and work the ligadura and its counter into that.

Dagger (10-30 minutes): starting with first play first master (disarm), then on to the third and fourth plays (ligadura mezana and its counter). This will be taught from scratch, or revised, depending on the level of the class, and may go on to tactical applications, or executing the plays in more complex environments (such as the dagger disarm flowdrill) if the students are ready for it.

Longsword (rest of the time; usually 30-40 minutes):

Sword handling first: sword handling drills, and/or cutting drill, and/or farfalla di ferro. This may be 5 minutes if sword handling is not usually a critical point of failure in the target (in this example, second drill), or 15 or 20 minutes if it is (e.g. when teaching the punta falsa).

Then second drill, step by step, for the remainder of the class. Assuming that the class is ready for the whole drill, then steps one and two should be pretty solid already, so most of the time will go on working on steps three (ligadura) and four (its counter).

So in this example, we are using the dagger plays as a lead-in to teaching the same basic actions with the sword.

At the next level of teaching, once these basic technical issues are fundamentally resolved, then we can start using the dagger material for training tactical principles, and attributes such as speed, timing, and grounding. For instance, working on counter-remedies. One major difference between knightly combat and modern self defence is that knightly combat is not usually concerned with self defence. It's a military art, for soldiers whose main job is to kill people for social or political reasons. So we have multiple examples of the dagger attacker *overcoming the defender*. By modern standards, this is murder, plain and simple, especially as that defender is often unarmed! (This is one of the examples I use to hammer home to beginners the idea that this is nothing like modern, politically correct, or self-defence-oriented martial arts.) Teaching a student to attack, flow around the defender's response, and strike (many times) is easier with a dagger than a sword. The basic tactical structure of any fencing sequence can be reproduced with the dagger, so you can teach the structure with the easier-to-control weapon, and then move on to applying the same principles with the longsword.

I should point out at this stage that it is *perfectly correct* to simply start at the beginning of the manuscript and work your way through from abrazare, to dagger, to sword, to armour, to polearms, and on to mounted combat. It works just fine. But Fiore certainly did not write his book as a training manual for 21st century computer programmers, nurses, lorry drivers or university students. He wrote it as a complete representation of his art, for a 15th century nobleman who was also an experienced warrior. It should come as no surprise that the ideal pedagogical structure for the average student that comes to my classes is a bit different to the ordering that Fiore gives us.

Let me finish off by saying that the way I solve this problem is not the only way; it's just what seems to work best in my experience. And it's worth mentioning that the exact approach I take in any class is actually student-led; I almost invariably ask the students present in my classes what they are interested in learning, and teach them that. For instance, I'll be in Auckland, New Zealand, teaching a seminar in November 4th and 5th (you can find out the details  here: if you're in the neighbourhood do come; I'd love to see you there). The organisers have specifically requested that I spend a day on the dagger, and then a day on the sword; that's fine by me!

Some useful resources:

The Syllabus wiki:

You could check out The Medieval Dagger book. You can even get it in German!

And yes, I even have a course on it. But before you dash off to buy it, remember that I’ll be launching it with a hefty discount to my email list in a week or so, so it might be a good idea to sign up below in anticipation of that happy event.


They say travel is all about having new experiences. Well… having a week to fill between my Seattle and Vancouver seminars, I thought I’d take the opportunity to get back in the saddle. My friend Jen Landels (she of Pulp Literature fame, and as yet the only guest blogger on this site) runs the Academie Duello mounted combat program. Yes, they have a mounted combat program. Oh my. She has been inviting me ‘out to the barn’ every time we’ve met, and I finally took her up on it.
We began with a little archery practice, on foot, just to get familiar with the specific way of shooting from horseback.
Then the riding began. It’s been a full decade since I last rode but the basic balance was there, and the lovely, stoical Flavia didn’t mind my jouncing about on her back too much. At least, she never shook me off.
After quite a while of simply getting used to being back on a horse, Jen had me do some interesting mounted warm-ups, basically learning to reach and stretch and do things with my back and arms, without affecting my seat. Because you tell the horse what to do with your arse and feet.
Once that was established, I had a go shooting from horseback, just at a walk, and with Jen leading the horse the first couple of rounds.

Note the back arm.

It was awesome. I am now 99% Mongolian, honest.

Then the swords came out.
I should mention that these are nylon wasters. Yup, you read that right. As I’ve written before, plastic swords are for children. But also for novice mounted combatants *to avoid hurting the horse*. Because (as Jen put it) the horses didn’t ask for it.
We went through a couple of Fiore’s plays, and then I asked her to run me through the things she would normally cover in a beginner’s class. We did some simple attacks and counters, first with me staying still and her coming towards me, and then with us both moving forwards. She then left the beginners course behind, and we did some gentle freeplay.

Word to the wise: do NOT let Jen get behind you. She’ll slice you up like salami.
It was a wonderful way to spend a morning- if you ever get the chance to try it, do! Jen is a great instructor, and there is just nothing like having a horse under you.

I have just created a syllabus for creating a syllabus. You read that right. The end product of my Recreate Historical Swordsmanship from Historical Sources course is a complete syllabus for the style of swordsmanship that you are researching. You can see the spiffy video intro here:

I created this course because many people have difficulty approaching the academic side of HEMA; the original sources can seem daunting, and figuring out how to approach them and develop a live training system from their pages is a major challenge for anyone. The course provides the assistance that beginner researchers need to help them get  a working syllabus out of a fencing manual.

I have been creating syllabi for a long time; the seed of the current Swordschool syllabus was planted in a seminar I taught in Turku in 2001. I followed my instinct and in the course of the day, came up with five core drills. The only one of them that has survived almost intact is the current “Second Drill”. I won’t embarrass myself by describing the rest. They were state of the art in 2001, but in those days historical swordsmanship was developing faster than computer technology. We have come a long way.

While I have created many syllabi, I have never taught syllabus creation as a specific skill before so this has been mind-meltingly hard to pin down. I cracked it when I realised that I needed to define the end-point first, and then create the structure that would lead students to it. This part of the course is in three sections: Create the Cornerstone, Build the Foundation, and Construct the Syllabus. You begin by reducing the material to one key drill, then expand that to a small set of easily memorised drills, then use them as a framework for building the rest of the system. The three sections of the course should have been written in reverse order. As it happens, I began with the first section “Create the Cornerstone”. It covers how drills should be designed, what they are for, and how to figure out which elements of your system should be included in the most foundational drill in your system. But the next stage “Build the Foundation” had me stumped for a long time. I know how to do it, I’ve done it many times. But I couldn’t figure out how to explain it. Then it came to me: start with the end. So I wrote up how to create an entire syllabus (in “Construct your Syllabus”), and then worked back from there to explain how to create the foundation of that syllabus.

The course also covers choosing a source to work from, analysing its context, analysing the source, developing a basic interpretation, fencing theory, and a ton of other material.

I know some novelists who always start with the last scene of the novel, so they know where the book is going. Others who start from the first scene, and have no idea where they’re going, and yet others who plan the whole book out scene by scene and don’t write a line until they have the whole structure. I think that the students on this course will probably have the same mix of personalities as my writer friends— it strikes me as a universal human phenomenon. Clearly, when it comes to creating this course, I’m a start at the beginning, switch to the end, and then fill in the middle sort of person! I also used a completely new (to me) technique: I shot a first draft of the video, sent it off for transcription, then edited the transcription into a script for the video that ended up being published. It seems to work by  engaging parts of my mind I'd had trouble bringing to bear on the problem.

You can see the course curriculum here (scroll down); a lot of it is free to access, so take a look!


I just uninstalled the Facebook app off my phone.

Shock! Horror! How could  I do such a thing?

Well, yesterday I gave a class to some students on a professional writing course at the University of Suffolk here in Ipswich. The topic was time management, and my advice boiled down to the following key points:

  1. Distinguish between ‘urgent' and ‘important'. Most things that come in appear urgent but are not important. Many things that are important (like writing the next book) do not feel urgent. Prioritise the important over the urgent.
  2. Create assets. Assets are anything that add value to your life. Value in this case is usually either money, or reputation, or both.  A book is an asset if it boosts your reputation, or makes money, or both. (My first book The Swordsman's Companion made me precisely no money between 2004 when it was published and 2013 when I self-published it. But it put me on the map as a swordsmanship instructor.) In the case of the students present their degree would be an asset, as would a blog they maintain, or work they do that can go in a portfolio to show clients. Facebook status updates? Not assets.
  3. Put first things first. Try to get some work done on an asset before checking email or anything else. Your inbox is everyone else's agenda. Your assets are your agenda.

On Monday morning this week I followed my own advice to perfection. I got up and did my meditation, had breakfast with the kids and walked them to school, then came home and produced the final videos for my Footwork course (which is now complete, with students enrolled and everything), and edited some videos for my Medieval Dagger course (which is also now complete). After about two and a half hours of full-on creative and productive work, my computer was tied up rendering video, so I took a break. I did some breathing training, took a shower and got properly dressed… And checked my emails for the first time that day. My creative intention had not had a chance to get derailed.

Back in 2006, in the days just after publishing The Duellist's Companion and right before my wedding, the server that hosted the school website and my emails broke. Five years of emails, my entire inbox, everything, gone in an instant. At a rather busy time in a self-employed person's life. But you know what? I can't think of a single bad thing that happened because of it. Not one. Everyone who mattered (such as my future wife) had other ways to get hold of me. Every important email got sent again by the person who hadn't gotten a reply yet. The wedding went off without a hitch (she showed up and said “I do”. Everything else is a blur). There are two takeaways from this. 1. Backups are important for your important work, but probably not so much for your emails. 2. Very few emails are truly important.

Whenever I talk like this, people jump up and down about how critical their rapid email responses are to keeping their jobs. My answer is in the form of a book: Deep Work by Cal Newport. To sum up, firstly, your job probably doesn't genuinely value your rapid response, they just expect it. Most knowledge workers don't put “I respond fast to email” on their CVs. You can train your co-workers off treating email like instant messaging. Sure, I'm in an unusual position, but Cal is not- he's a Computer Science professor, with all the admin crap that goes with that, so read his book and take his word for it. But you might find my contact page instructive in setting expectations. I'll save you clicking and quote:

Hi! You can email me, which I prefer, or find me online on FacebookLinkedInGoodreads, and Twitter, or if you like, try this spiffy form. Whichever you choose, please bear in mind that I don’t have a secretary, but I do have family, students, books to write and a school to run. This means that I think I’m doing pretty well if I answer your email within three working days, and any social media message within seven. After that time has expired, and there is still no response, try emailing again!

Then, when I reply to someone's email in two days, their expectations are exceeded and we're all happy.

Secondly, do you really want a job in which your primary value is not doing deep creative work, but simply reacting to emails? Really?

Getting and staying out of a reactive mindset is critically important to getting serious work done. Reactivity is not creative. Sure, creative work is often done in reaction to something; protest art, for instance, but the process of creating that art is not reactive, and a wise artist doesn't let anyone see their work until the first draft is done.

This goes to one of the most important ideas for living a worthwhile life: expanding your circle of control. Mr Money Moustache (one of my favourite bloggers) has written an excellent article on this here, but let me summarise it for you. You should spend your attention only on the things you can directly affect. By doing so, you become better able to affect the things you care about. Moaning about politics is a classic beginner's mistake. Writing to your congressman or MP, voting, organising or taking part in protests, standing for office, are all much more effective responses. If you're not planning on doing any of those things, then you shouldn't burn any mental effort on thinking about it. And moaning about the weather? Come on. The weather doesn't care. Either wear the appropriate clothing, or choose to do something else. By paying attention to the things you can affect, you become much more effective and your circle of control grows. Expending effort worrying about things you cannot affect takes away from those things that you can, and you become less effective, and your circle of control will shrink.

What has all this to do with Facebook? Well, 99% of the stuff in my Facebook feed I skip over. Of the 1% I react to, 99% is not stuff that I can directly affect. This is incredibly inefficient. But this morning I found I had checked my email and my Facebook feed before doing my breathing practice or working on an asset. And yet I had just the day before spent an hour being an ‘expert' and preaching to these students about putting first things first.

The thing is, Facebook is staffed by hundreds of people who are way cleverer than me, and whose paychecks depend entirely on making the site sticky. They need our eyeballs on those ads or they are out of a job. They are naturally very, very good at getting and keeping our attention. The only way to win is not to play. Getting off the scroll-scroll-click dopamine drip is very likely to enable me to increase the value I put into the world. Of course I will keep my Facebook profile and pages- they are a useful aspect of my business and personal life, great for organising parties, keeping up with far-flung friends, and all of that. But by increasing the barrier to entry (taking it off the phone), I will only be able to get on Facebook on my work machine, which means after I've done some useful work (because, you know, self-discipline and all that. Lack discipline? Use an app such as Freedom that prevents you getting onto the internet altogether, or blocks certain sites until a time you set).

This is the great thing about teaching. You teach that which you most need to learn, and by being forced to set a good example to your students (because who wants to be a hypocrite?) you get better at the things you care about.

Right, that's 1300 words of creative writing done. What next? Should I open up Scrivener and get to work on the next book? Or dash on over to Facebook and see who's been getting up to mischief?

“If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything!”

Truer words were never spoken, certainly not by Count Rugen anyway.*

Way back in the dawn of time when I began training martial arts, I was enraptured by the idea of martial arts training being a balance between breaking people and fixing them, by the notion of the martial artist as a healer as well as a warrior. This is one of the reasons I was drawn to T’ai Chi; it is usually associated with healthy practice. And it’s why I was so taken by Tai Shin Mun kung fu (you can read more about that here). I literally owe my career to the not-so-tender ministrations of their instructor, Num, who fixed my wrists for me back in 2000.

This is the background behind my obsession with mechanics and correct movement. Not so much for martial efficiency, though it certainly does that, but more because I want to be able to train until I die (sometime in my early 100s). I am blessed with a crap skeleton, which creaks and breaks and sends lances of agony up my spine if I fail to keep up my practice, or if I practice just a little bit wrong. Blessed because it has forced me to learn absolutely correct movement, which has in turn allowed me to share that knowledge with my students, freeing many of them from long-term pain, and undoing, or at least halting, the damage caused by poor mechanics.

I cannot abide the idea of anyone who needs this knowledge not having free access to it, certainly not for such a poor reason as lack of funds, so I have extracted the essentials from my footwork course, shot some extra footage, and put together a short ‘keep my knees working forever’ course. The course is 100% free and without strings attached. I want you to be healthy. Go, be healthy.

I am also planning a weapons-handling course, which will include forearm conditioning and maintenance. I’ll release the essential health component of that course free too, so you can keep your arms working properly despite the depredations of computers and couches.

It was my birthday yesterday, and I intended to launch this then (I approve of the Hobbit custom of giving presents on your birthday), but I was sadly too busy opening presents, drinking wine, and generally having fun, so it's an early Christmas present instead.

*if you don't know who Count Rugen is, you very badly need to drop what you're doing and watch the Princess Bride. See here:


Grace and Katriina cooking

Teaching is, and often should be, a stealth activity. Let me take a charming example: my kids learning to cook.
Cooking is one of the most important skills a human being should have. If you can cook, you can exert some control over your diet. Your diet represents probably 40% of your long-term physical health (with exercise and sleep being the other 60%). If you can’t cook, you are at the mercy of family, friends, restaurants and corporations for what you can eat. The first two in that list probably have your best interests at heart. The other two? Not so much. So it’s essential parenting to make sure your kids can cook.
The key ingredients in cookery are:
1) Recipes. You can use other people’s or invent your own, but you do need some kind of blueprint.
2) Ingredients. You must be able to find and select the ingredients that are right for your recipe.
3) Cooking techniques: chopping, boiling, frying, baking etc.
To this end, we let our kids watch shows like Great British Bake Off, YouTube channels like Tania Burr, Nerdy Nummies and so on, because children copy what they see, and while this does tend to encourage some odd habits and turns of phrase (some baking is always done in an American accent in our house), it also leads to exchanges like this:
“Daddy, I want to make a [insert name of vile sugary thing here]”
“Ok, make a shopping list”.
The child then gets a piece of paper, and writes out the ingredients (see how we sneak in some writing practice there?), and we go to the shops. In the shop, we find the ingredients. The kids have to read the labels, and make sure they have enough of everything (for which they need arithmetic). We then buy it, go home, and get to work. Of course, boring old daddy doesn’t like watching the video in the kitchen; oh no, the instructions need writing out too! (“I don’t want flour on my mobile phone…”)
And then we follow the instructions, make the triple-caramel-quad-choc-sprinkle-covered diabetic extravaganza, and eat it, to all-round delight.
The point is, by letting them follow their own interests, we create a momentum in the direction of ‘command of diet’. Now all we have to do is to gently steer that momentum in a healthier direction: “we can only eat that after dinner. So what shall we have for dinner?”; “kids who come shopping get to choose what we eat”; that sort of thing.
All of this is why my elder daughter can bake pizza from scratch, makes a mean chicken pie, and has very strong opinions about “store-bought” pastry. My younger daughter is less interested, and so less skilled, but it’s still perfectly normal for her to choose something she wants to make, and set about establishing the recipe, choosing the ingredients, and making it, commandeering whatever help she needs in the process.

Grace baked this Pavlova ‘just because'. We helped put it in and out of the oven, but otherwise were not needed…

The major downside is we eat far more crap than we otherwise would- it plays hell with my low-fast-carb diet. But it’s worth it in the long run because whatever diet my kids choose to follow as adults, they will be able to make from scratch, and control exactly what goes into it. I hope they’ll choose wisely, but whether they do or not, at least they will have the choice.
I take the same attitude towards teaching swordsmanship. It’s not for me to sneer at a student who secretly wants to be an elf, or even an ewok. Whatever brings them to the sword is inherently good. It’s then up to me to gently steer that momentum in a more rewarding direction. This is why I’m not upset in the least by the tournament scene, and why I begin all my classes by asking the students what they want. Sure, sometimes they ask for things that are bad for them, so I redirect things a little but make it clear that it’s the closest I can get them to the goal they set. It would be fundamentally counter-productive to shut them down or bring their enthusiasm to a sudden stop.
This reminds me of steering a boat (as I did on my trip to Guernsey in September). When the boat was stationary (also known as ‘dead in the water’), I couldn’t steer it at all; but when it was under way it took only the gentlest touch to guide it right or left. Sometimes, a wave would hit and bash the ship off-course. Then I let it go, and when the crisis passed a moment later, another gentle touch brought it back to the mark.

I've been thinking a lot about teaching over the last dozen years or so, and have put together an online course to help historical martial arts instructors teach better. You can find it here:

Speaking as a teacher, there is nothing more satisfying than finding out that your students have used your material to materially improve their lives in some way, be that as simple as getting better at swordsmanship, or as complex as re-evaluating the entire course of their life. I believe in giving credit where it’s due, and this post is my way of letting someone who has influenced and helped me know about it.

One of the key habits that has lead to my producing so much stuff is that when I hear a good idea, I tend to act on it immediately. Another key habit is I actively look for good ideas to act on, and in the last few years, one of the most rewarding sources of these ideas has been the inestimable Joanna Penn, thriller writer and self-publishing guru. It started when I bought her book How to Market a Book which does exactly what it says on the tin. From the book, I arrived at her podcast, one of half a dozen I listen to regularly. This is an amazing resource for any self-publishing writer, and indeed writers of any kind. There’s something there for everyone. But to the specifics:

By following her advice in How to Market a Book about making friends with influential people, I actually ended up on her podcast talking about swords! This was a nerve-wracking experience for me, being well outside my comfort zone, but has lead to several other opportunities to get my name and work in front of a wider audience. Also, the rest of the advice in that book has been really useful in increasing my book sales directly.

Thanks to the January episode with Ankur Nagpal, of, I got the idea to create online courses. I have three up and running now, and more in the pipeline.

Last year I got the idea to write a series of non-fiction shorts, which became The Swordsman's Quick Guide, which is now at 7 episodes and counting. I can’t find the podcast episode that planted that seed, but it was definitely one of Joanna’s.

Thanks to several episodes about or mentioning virtual assistants, I’ve hired one myself, Kate Tilton, who is bringing order to my virtual galaxy.

Thanks to a webinar she did with Nick Stephenson, I have grown my mailing list from about 1200 to over 6000. Specific tactics included making volume one of The Swordsman's Quick Guide free, and including an ad in it for volume 2, also free if you sign up. That by itself added 500 people in a month. Also thanks to Nick, I’ve switched from Mailchimp to Convertkit, and am actually making use of my mailing list.

So if you have any aspirations to write for a living, or you just want a lot of good ideas in one convenient place, go buy all her non-fiction stuff, and go listen to all 220+ episodes of her podcast. That should keep you busy!

And if you’ve enjoyed any of the things I’ve done thanks to Joanna putting the idea in my head, give credit where it’s due!

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.


SQG7 Breathing Cover

Everybody breathes, but some do it better than others. Breathing training is the foundation of my martial practice, and as with everything else I do, I'm happy to teach it to you. The topic for the latest instalment of The Swordsman's Quick Guide  was chosen by my student Cecilia Äijälä, and she picked Breathing Training. I was delighted when she did so, because it forced me to get on and write up my training methods.

This book comes in three packages:

1.The Book, with Video

This package includes:

  • the book in epub, pdf and kindle format with links to the videos,
  • plus a separate download of all the video clips to teach you the exercises,
  • plus an embedded epub with the video clips built in.
  • It also includes a £10 discount voucher for the course.

I want this book

2.The Book with Audio and Video

This package includes:

  • the book in epub, pdf and kindle format with links to the videos,
  • plus a separate download of all the video clips to teach you the exercises,
  • plus an embedded epub with the video clips built in,
  • plus the audiobook,
  • plus mp3 recordings of the instructions for the individual exercises,
  • plus two bonus exercises (video).
  • It also includes a £25 discount voucher for the course.

I want this one!

3. The Breathing Course

The course is a carefully designed progression of exercises, spread out over six weeks (you can pace it as you wish, and do it faster or slower). Each week begins with a lesson, in which you will learn the exercises for the week. The week then continues with a shorter practice session, which you repeat ideally every day for the next six days. In the final week, you will learn how to create 5 minute, ten minute, and twenty minute practice routines, so that you will always be able to find time to do some practice.

The course material  includes everything in the other two packages, so all of the book, audio, and video files. The course is available now, but the lesson and practice routine videos are not completed yet. Week one is ready, and all of the book with all of its audio and video material too. Weeks 2-4 have been shot, and I'm editing them right now. The rest of the course material will be uploaded by October 1st.

I released this to my email list yesterday (they get just about everything first!) with a healthy 50% discount. If you would like the same treatment, you can sign up to my list below, and I'll send you the same discount links. These links expire on Friday 9th September, so if you're interested, now's your best chance to save a packet.


I'm a Luddite, it’s true. I resist the march of technological progress because I think that most new technologies aren't labour saving life enhancing devices at all. I was saying this back in the ‘80s when people were extolling the new ‘desktop publishing' thing. “What used to take two weeks can now be done in a single day!” they cried. “Great” I replied. “Do you get the rest of the fortnight off?”

No. What happens, every time, is that as capacity increases, expectations rise, and so you end up with an increase in productivity and more work being done for the same pay. Not fair, and not helpful, except to those who own the fruits of your labour.

But, and this is a very big BUT (I like big buts), there are areas where all this new-fangled gadgetry does actually help people. HEMA would barely exist without the internet, because it is such a niche interest that finding fellow enthusiasts was very hard before the web came along. And for those of us trying to make a living serving those enthusiasts, I think it would be impossible without things like print-on-demand technology, easy-to-use web building tools, and communications of all sorts. I have students in Chile who can send me videos of themselves doing my Longsword Syllabus Form for me to comment on and help them improve. Fantastic.

This is a screen capture not a video link because the video is set to “Unlisted”. Chaps, if it's ok to share it, let me know…

I've also come round to the idea that while the actual use of force (responding to pressure in the bind, that sort of thing) cannot really be taught over the net, there is a place for online courses to help self-study. Lots of people use my Syllabus Wiki in various ways to help them learn, but I am taking a great big step right now and am plunging into creating online courses. The first one is now live, and you can see it here.

I'm using the Teachable platform, because it seems to be the best in class for what I need it to do; unlike Udemy, for instance, I can directly control things like pricing, and tracking student progress.

Another major benefit of the internet is that I can reach vastly more people virtually than I ever could in person. And some of those people are excited by the work I’m doing and want to help. My School and I have benefitted enormously over the years from people volunteering their skills to help. Ilkka Hartikainen shooting the photos and laying out two of my books, for instance. Jari Juslin shooting the photos for the last three. And when I arrived in Ipswich, Curtis Fee (of The Barebones Company) showing up to help unload the lorry for another instance. And when I mentioned the projects I was working on, well, turns out he has a bunch of useful professional skills, which he has applied to making the online school interface vastly more beautiful than it was.
Isn’t this pretty?

It's an exciting time to be teaching swordsmanship, that's for sure. Right now my head is simply buzzing with ideas for other courses that I can create to teach online. Breathing. Meditation. Mechanics. Dagger. Longsword. Imagine if when students finally find a group they can join, or start one themselves, and they already have decent fundamentals in place. Wow.

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