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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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During the Second World War, some tiny Pacific islands were suddenly strategically important, and inundated with Japanese or American service personnel and material. In the years following the war, islanders started dressing up like servicemen and doing parade ground drill with wooden rifles, carving headphones out of wood and sitting in control towers wearing them, lighting signal fires on the runways, and in short doing everything they could to bring the influx of material goods (“cargo”) back. You can read all about these “cargo cults” here.

Because they did not understand the underlying structures behind the sudden appearance of all this wealth, they simply copied the external behaviours that seemed to attract it. They mistook form for substance, and sure enough, the cargo planes did not come back.

Financial security: multiple income streams

A friend of mine recently went from being employed to being effectively a freelancer. We were discussing how having lots of separate income streams was actually much more secure than having just one, when she came up with the analogy for the way people can mistake the trappings of security (a big house, a smart car, a good job) with security itself. It’s a kind of cargo cult. And ironically, many of those trappings make us less secure. A mortgage (literally translated as “death grip”) is the very opposite of security. Your home is secured on the mortgage so the bank will lend you the money to buy it: the security is the bank’s not the borrower’s. And the bank will take your house if you fail to keep up the payments. This has happened to several friends of mine, in the UK and the USA, in the last recession. It is horrible.

Whenever a friend of mine gets laid off, my first reaction is to congratulate them. I have discovered that this can come across as me being an asshole, so I have learned to choke back the impulse to shake them by the hand, and offer condolences instead. But inside, my actual feeling is “you’re free!” Because while a job is no doubt one perfectly good way to spend much of your waking hours, and can pay well, and even at times be worth doing for its own sake, the one thing it absolutely cannot provide is security. No company, government, or any other employer lasts forever. Countries rise and fall, companies come and go, and if you rely on a single income stream, then your financial security has a single point of failure. It doesn’t matter if you have an iron-clad lifetime employment contract: if the company goes bust they stop paying you. There’s a saying in the military: “two is one, and one is none.” It refers to redundancy in any situation; you cannot rely on anything for which there is no backup in place.

The primary solution to this is to have more than one source of income. In my own case, my income derives from teaching in my school's various branches, royalties from my books, and seminars taught outside my school. I think three is a safe minimum. Any one of those streams could fail tomorrow, and we would still be able to pay the mortgage. Just. But none of them can fail instantly, because none of them rest on a single person or entity. My readers can fire me one at a time. But I have several thousand of these wonderful people. My branches and other groups can stop hiring me for seminars; but they are unlikely to do that all at once (more likely that some catastrophe would prevent me from being able to teach).

For most employed people though, running a side-business of any kind is problematic; if it’s within their field, there may be conflicts of interest, and if their job doesn’t give them much time to spare, then there may just not be time. Some friends of mine just do not want to run a business. Fair enough. So the approach then is to siphon off at least 50% of the income into income-generating assets. This theory is beautifully presented by one of my favourite bloggers, Mr Money Moustache. In brief; learn to live off 50% of your income (easy enough if you earn more than about 40k/year, something I have never done!), invest the rest in index funds, reinvest all the income from the funds, and keep doing that until the passive income from the assets reaches the point that it meets your current expenditure. Bingo, you’re secure. Or as Mr Money Moustache would put it, retired.

But…

Well, up to a point. Because the problem with money as a marker for security is that it is highly unreliable. When my family moved to Peru in 1986, my parents bought a new car, a Nissan Sunny, for 150,000 Inti. Three years later, a beer in a nightclub cost half a million. That’s an extreme example of inflation, but we all remember the recent bank crashes, pension fund fraud, and a host of other things that can strip you of all your savings in a heartbeat. War, for instance. The Soviets invaded Finland in living memory. The property I own here would become immediately worthless if that happened again, because I would grab my kids and run, leaving everything behind. Afghanistan in the 1970s was generally a safe nice place to be. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner has a lovely description of it. Some Europeans and Americans even retired there. Oops. Likewise Lebanon. Before the civil war, Beirut rivalled Monaco as a place for Europeans to footle off for a nice safe vacation. Less so since it tore itself apart. I don’t think it’s likely that Russia will invade Finland, nor that Europe will plunge into yet another maelstrom. But I’d be a fool to rest my sense of security on it.

What is safety?

So what is safety? Mostly, an illusion. You can lose everything, including your life, during your next heartbeat. Life is dangerous: everybody who tries it dies eventually. So step one in non-cargo-cult security is to make friends with risk. Everything is risky; if something feels completely safe, you’re wrong. Then learn to evaluate the real risk, as opposed to the perceived risk. Which is more dangerous: driving a car or eating candy?

Driving your car is very, very dangerous. About 36,000 Americans were killed in car crashes in 2012 (source). Eating too much sugar is much more dangerous. In 2010, according to the American Diabetes Association, 69,000 died from diabetes, with a further 234,000 whose death certificates credit diabetes as a contributing factor (source). In 2010, there were 25.8 million diabetic Americans. Only 1.25 million of those had type 1 (which is not caused by lifestyle). Type 2 diabetes is caused almost entirely by abuse of sugar. There are other factors, but in short, you can’t get Type 2 diabetes from a diet with no fast carbs. Here is a documentary that is worth a look.

I digress somewhat; my point is that human beings are very bad at assessing risk, and treat as safe things that are dangerous (eg sugar) and treat as dangerous things that are safe (letting your kids walk home from school). One very good book on this topic is Against the Gods, the Remarkable Story of Riskby Peter L. Bernstein. Read it!

So what's the answer?

So the question then is what is real security? I refer you back to this post. Love is vastly more reliable than money. I know for a sure and certain fact that no matter what happens to me or my wife, my kids will neither starve nor be homeless, because somebody among my family or friends would take them in. That may seem obvious to you, but at root, this is what security means: the freedom from watching your children starve. Those friends of mine who lost their homes? They had a couple of shitty hard years, absolutely. But their children didn’t spend a single night in the open or a single day hungry. Because they had friends, sources of income other than the jobs they lost, family to take them in until they got their feet under them again, and so on.

So here are my recommendations for actual security:

  1. Spend time connecting with the people you care about. If the shit hits the fan, they’ll be there for you.
  2. Diversify your income. Have more than one stream.
  3. Build up income-generating assets. An assets is something that generate income; your home is not an asset, unless you rent it out.
  4. And most importantly: understand and be ok with the fact that it could all collapse in an instant, life is inherently unsafe. If you feel completely safe, you’re wrong.
  5. Get some perspective. What, really, are the chances of you starving to death?

I anticipate that this post will ruffle some feathers, because people don't like to be told that their sense of security is based on illusion, or that they are not managing their money very intelligently (I have friends who have earned 150k or more per year for the last 10 years and still owe money to the bank. That is baffling to me). I'm sorry if I've hurt your feelings. But comforting illusions cause more trouble than they are worth, and it's always better to see what's really there.

 

Your free safety guidelines, in a handy pdf!

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Grace saved for weeks and bought this knife…

Ten days after I first arrived in Finland, back in 1994, I met a girl. Not very long after that I met her mother Kexy, a civil servant who was a serious horsewoman, and had hunted with her father when she was younger. Rosy, the girl, told me that her mum was nervous about meeting me; most Finns are pretty shy. She also told me what had happened the first time she had brought a boy home. It wasn’t planned; they were passing her home and just popped in to pick up a book. There was Kexy, sat at the kitchen table, cleaning a 9mm semi-automatic pistol.

You can imagine the effect on the boy.

I recently posted a link to this article on my Facebook profile, and it gathered quite a lot of comments, mostly from people who seem to agree with the basic premise, and some who are very much of the “I’ve got a gun and a shovel” school of parenting.

This lead me to think a bit more about the issue.

I totally understand the visceral satisfaction of the idea of being able to murder anyone who hurts your child. I remember walking through the park near my home with my 3-month old firstborn in her pram. A young man on a motorbike (which aren’t allowed in this park) came blasting by. If I’d had a gun, I would probably have shot him. The black rage that came over me at his daring to put my baby at risk was so deep, so fundamental, that only smashing the person’s face through the back of their head would have assuaged it in the moment.

It would, of course, have been entirely inappropriate, and instead of taking my kids to the park, they’d be visiting me in prison. It’s hard being a good parent when you’re at home; it must be way harder parenting from jail.

If a person is threatening your child’s life, and killing them is the best way to stop it, then by all means, taking their life is justified. But the “gun and shovel” meme isn’t about that. It’s about how fathers want to protect their daughters, not from assault, or rape, or anything like that. We want to protect them from sex. Because we (most of us, I assume) remember what it was like to be a teenage boy, and how desperate we were to get into the knickers of the girls we went out with. It was, in the 80s at least, still a truism that girls had it, but didn’t want to give it; boys wanted it, and had to persuade them to give it up. “It” here being sex, of course. There was also a pretty universal assumption that girls didn’t want sex, and so would only do it basically as a favour to the boy, or under some kind of coercion from the relatively benign but still horrible ‘he won’t love me if I don’t’ to worse forms of influence like drink and drugs.

So let’s unpack some of these assumptions.

1) Girls don’t want sex. This is just not true in most cases. Indeed, for centuries it was believed that women wanted sex MORE than men did.  So let’s move on.

2) Whether the girl has sex or not is up to her father or her boyfriend. NO! NO! NO! It is, or should be, up to the people doing it: her and her boyfriend, assuming they are both of legal age. Of course, good parenting includes educating kids to understand the possible consequences of sex, both good and bad. But the core problem here is that in the gun and shovel scenario, the father and the boyfriend have agency, but the girl does not. So whether the woman has sex or not is down to an agreement between these two males. This was normal in the Stone Age, but it is an utterly disgusting pattern of thought in this day and age.

3) Sex = assault. Umm, no. So long as there is informed consent all round, sex does not equal assault. So while murdering a rapist has a certain appeal, murdering your daughter’s boyfriend should not. And if the daughter in question consented freely, then while it may be appropriate to counsel her against it if you think it’s not in her best interests, the boyfriend is innocent in this.

4) In the case of a woman being assaulted or coerced by a man, you should focus on the man… You see it in films and tv shows all the time; when a woman is hurt by somebody, her husband/brother/father/whoever doesn’t stay by her to help her get better; he charges off to wreak his revenge. As if it’s him who has been hurt. But the loving thing to do is to attend to the woman, not race off after the assailant; and only go after the son of a bitch if that’s what the person sinned against wants you to do. 

So what is my plan, with my two daughters?

1) Sex education. That’s number one. If they know what they are doing, then they can grant or withhold informed consent.

2) Self-esteem. I want my kids to feel that they do not have to do anything to ingratiate themselves with anyone, or do anything they don’t want to. They can say no. If they have been brought up in an environment in which their desires, opinions, and consent matters, they are that much less likely to put up with abuse of any kind.

3) Self defence. Bad stuff does happen, but my kids will know at least the basics of how to spot bad situations before they kick off, and have the wit to walk away in time. I’ll teach them physical skills if they are interested, but by themselves, those skills are useless if you’re not willing to use them.

4) Support. They should know that no matter what happens, I (and my wife of course) will support them. That ranges from picking them up from a party at 3am, no questions asked, so they don’t get in a car with a drunk driver, to helping them get through whatever bad things happen to them. They should also know that Daddy isn’t going to shoot anyone unless they specifically ask him to, and he agrees it’s a good idea.

5) Patience. They will bring home all sorts of potential partners, I imagine. Some I’ll like more than others. But the only fair way to judge any of them is “how do they treat my child?” However much I might want one, I don’t get a veto on who my daughter finds attractive. While they are minors I do get to establish curfews, bounds, that sort of thing; where they go, when, and with whom. But if I’ve done my job even half right, they will tend to make decent choices in the end. And if they do come home having been hurt in some way, I hope I’ll have the discipline to do what they need me to do to make them feel better, not what I would want to do to make myself feel better.

The best “meeting the boyfriend” scenario I’ve ever heard though came from my friend Jherek Swanger. I met him in Seattle in 2004, along with his utterly adorable 3-year old daughter. She loved fencing, and would go and get her little mask and a sword and challenge people to fight her. Because all of her daddy’s friends were swordfighters. My own kids were some years away in the future, but I asked him what he was going to do when she started bringing boys home.

I’ve got it all worked out. I’ll be sitting on the porch sharpening a longsword with a stone. Schrrrripp! I’ll look at him and say: “So, you want to take my daughter out, huh?” Schrrrripp! 

Um… yes sir”

“You’re not planning on doing anything with her, are you?” Schrrrripp!

“Um, no sir. Really. I’ll just take her to the movies and bring her right back”

“Really? You don’t want to do anything else?” Schrrrripp!

“No! No, I wouldn’t even think about it”.

“Really? What are you, a eunuch?”

Your free safety guidelines, in a handy pdf!

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Thanks to my latest posts, about Lucca and Florence, my Finnish friends are now thinking “right, we’ve seen the last of the English git. He ain’t never coming back”. But hold, not so fast. I have moved countries many times in my life (England ’73-78; Argentina ’78-80; England ’80; Botswana ’81-86; Peru ’86-92; Scotland ’92-94; Finland ’95-6; Scotland ’97-2001; Finland 2001-present) which has left me with no real sense of home being a place. Home is people, and, to a lesser extent, some elements of culture. So the idea, and even the process, of moving to another country doesn’t faze me at all. But it has also made me think that it would be nice for my kids to see something of the world, but to always know where home is.

[If you are interested in what my family was doing in Africa and South America while I was growing up, go read my Dad's new memoir, More Sherlock Holmes than James HerriotI haven't read it yet (it only just came out) but I know it does include baby cheetahs, angry rhinos, and me and my sister playing with a rabid dog.]

When I moved to Finland in 2001, everybody asked “Why Finland?” They still do. It’s probably the question I am asked most often. Even while teaching seminars, in foreign lands, I sometimes get asked it in class. It’s that odd a choice, apparently.

Nobody, not one person, has asked “why Italy?” They ask “how did you manage it”. (See here for the answer.) Because Italy is a normal choice. The advantages are obvious. Gorgeous architecture? Check. Great wine? Check. Great food? Check. Fabulous bloody everything? Check. And it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

But Finland? The last decade or so has seen a major improvement in Finland’s international perception; people think “good schools” or “clean environment” or something like that. But apart from the wretched bloody snow, and the way the entire population seems to be shifted towards the silent end of the gregariousness spectrum, here are some much-under-appreciated elements.

1) The Tax Office. Yes, really. Customer service in Finland as a whole sucks. But the Tax Office staff, unless you are obviously trying to defraud the people of Finland, are extraordinarily helpful, and will go out of their way to make the quite transparent tax system even clearer. And unless you are making serious great gobs of cash, the healthcare, daycare, public order, public transport, and other taxpayer-funded benefits, far outweigh the somewhat higher taxes than you might pay somewhere else.

2) Fairness and transparency. The system seems to be pretty fair all round. Sure, it’s hard to get really rich (but that’s true anywhere); but it is very easy to start a business (and there’s plenty of government help to do so), and you have to be making way more money than I ever have before you start paying seriously high taxes. Sure, there’s some corruption, but it tends to only exist at the higher levels of finance (where it exists everywhere); knowing how to deniably offer a bribe is no part of the basic education here.

3) Kids walk to school at age 7. On their own. No problem. That is really true, and totally unlike any other country I know, other than possibly Sweden or Norway.

I could add to this list decent plumbing, properly insulated houses, free daycare, no traffic, decent cycle paths and pedestrian routes (my elder daughter and I tried walking from Lucca to Torre, about 10k. We ended up walking along a dyke for much of the journey, and not quite making it (much to her fury) as there was literally nowhere for people to walk or cycle except on the road with the Italian drivers. It was just too dangerous.). Really, people, Finland is lovely.

I miss mountains. I miss really proper old buildings and castles and such. But I can travel to see those, and even live among them for a while as I am now doing. But I have no plans to give up transparency, stability, and my kids walking to school, in an education system that seems to work.

So relax, peeps. I am not seriously planning on relocating. Yet….

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The first play of the dagger, from the Getty MS.
The first play of the dagger, from the Getty MS.

The real thing is the only bullshit-free scenario in martial arts. If you’re an MMA fighter, that’s the ring on fight night. If you’re a soldier, that’s being in the presence of the enemy. And if you are a swordsman, that is someone trying to take your head off with a blade. But the real thing must be prepared for, so we have drills, exercises and training. Problems only arise when we mistake one scenario (a training drill) for another (the real thing). To properly understand any drill, you must have a clear idea of exactly how it deviates from reality. I call this spotting the bullshit.

Let us take a simple example, a drill that is usually included in day one of our Fiore beginners’ course: the basic execution of Fiore’s first play of the dagger. This technique is a disarm, done against the common overhand blow.

In its basic set-up, the drill goes like this:

“Both players start left foot forwards, hands down, in a proper guard position. This is very artificial, and is intended only to create a consistent starting point for beginners.

Disarm and counter

  1. Attacker and defender both in porta di ferro, left foot forwards.
  2. Attacker passes to strike with a fendente. Aim it at the mask!
  3. Defender intercepts attacker’s wrist with his left hand and
  4. Turns it to the left, creating a leverage disarm with the dagger against the back of his wrist.
  5. Defender collects dagger and strikes”

(Quoted from Mastering the Art of Arms vol 1: the Medieval Dagger page 51)

There is nothing wrong with this, as a starting point. But it has at least the following dollops of bullshit in it:

  1. The attacker is not trying to kill you.
  2. The weapon is not sharp.
  3. The roles are pre-set, attacker and defender.
  4. You can’t run away or call the cops.
  5. You have to wait for the attack.
  6. You are wearing protective gear, that will allow the attacker to make contact, but would not work against a real dagger (we tried this with a mask on a dummy: the mask failed against all medieval weaponry).
  7. The line of the attack is pre-selected.
  8. Your defence is pre-selected.
  9. The attacker is not allowed to counter or continue.
  10. The attack is done with little force.
  11. The attack is done slowly.

I am sure that you can think of other dollops, but 11 is enough to be going on with. So, how do we deal with this? How can we eliminate the bullshit without killing students?

To start with, number one cannot be trained outside of the real scenario. Don’t even try. It is this one element that really makes the difference between those that have done it for real and those that haven’t. (I haven’t and don’t intend to.) Regarding combat sports, you haven’t done it till you’ve been in the ring or competed in a serious tournament. Fortunately, those are much more survivable environments, so anybody who trains seriously enough can get there and do that art “for real”. This is one of the big attractions of combat sports I think: the real environment is available. I will never forget my first fencing competition. It was an eye-opener, to say the least!

So, if my drill above is so full of bullshit, why do we do it?

It does:

  1. Teach core mechanical principles, such as grounding, finding lines of weakness, etc.
  2. Teach core tactical principles, such as control the weapon before you strike; timing, and control of distance.
  3. Given the source of our art, it gives beginners a chance to reconstruct a technique from the book.

It is a perfectly good starting point. Just as a child learning to read sounding out the individual letters and creating the words is not really reading yet, we don’t say that they should just recognise the words straight away. This level of practice is a necessary step on the way to expertise.

But be aware that this drill does NOT:

  1. Teach a survival skill.
  2. Teach situational awareness.
  3. Teach decision making or judgement.
  4. Teach the ability to execute the action under pressure.

But given our list of eleven dollops of bullshit, we can map a route through training to systematically eliminate each of them in turn (except for the first). By applying the “who moves first” multiplier, for instance, we can eliminate point 5, so the “defender” is not required to wait, but can enter or move away, gaining some control. By allowing degrees of freedom for one or other student, we can eliminate 7, 8 and/or 9. By applying the rule of c’s you can increase the intensity in a systematic way, so eliminating 10 and 11.*

It is very important not to eliminate all the bullshit all at once. Especially when eliminating no. 2 by practising with sharps, you should absolutely keep all sorts of other bullshit present to avoid serious injury.

So, by carefully considering all the ways in which a set drill is not a real fight, you can design variations to the basic version to systematically clean up some of the bullshit. You will need lots of different drills, each with a different bullshit profile, to make sure that you are training in all of the attributes of the “real” technique. (For more on customising drills, see Mindful Practice).

Just for fun, and to see if you are paying attention, I have inserted one deliberate dollop of bullshit in this post: a deliberately misleading statement made for pedagogical purposes. Can you spot it?

* The “Rule of Cs” (abridged from Mastering the Art of Arms vol 1: the Medieval Dagger p136) every drill is first worked through with the players:

  • Cooperating in creating correct choreography

This is means exactly what it says: the students are just co-operating in going through the motions of the technique.

Once that is easy, increase the difficulty by increasing intensity, or introducing a degree of freedom (e.g. is the attacker might vary the line of attack), with one player adjusting the difficulty for the other to learn at their most efficient rate- if it works all the time, ramp it up- if it fails more than twice in ten reps, ease off a bit. This is called:

  • Coaching correct actions

Finally, the players each try within reason to make the drill work for them. When coaching, the attacker would try to make sure the defender can usually counter him; when competing, you just try to make your action work. This can be dangerous if it gets out of hand, so be careful, and wear full protection just in case. In practice, the more experienced scholar should get most of the hits, without departing from the drill. This is fine, and gives a good indication of whether your training regime is working. So,

  • Compete.

 

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Swordsmanship practice is inherently dangerous. The study of risk has been developed to the nth degree over the last five hundred years or so. For an excellent overview, see Against the Gods, the remarkable story of risk, by Peter Bernstein. (Thanks to my friend Lenard Voelker for sending me a copy!). The assessment of risk may be described as assigning probabilities to events that have not yet occurred. If they have happened before, then we can see how many times over a given period, and use that data to evaluate the likelihood of it happening again. For example, if it has snowed at Christmas 20 times in the last 100 years, you can state with some confidence that there is about a 1 in 5 chance of it happening again this year. But many of the events we fear have no measurable risk- either because they have not happened (yet), or we have an insufficient pool of data to draw meaningful probabilities from. So they are uncertain, but have no definite probability. This distinction was drawn by Milton Keynes (and explained by Niall Ferguson on p 343 of his book The Ascent of Money).

The risk we all fear is a training accident leading to serious injury or death. In the wider world of swordsmanship practice, all of the serious accidents (which I define as requiring hospitalisation) have occurred in either competitive freeplay, or outside the bounds of a formal school (such as on the re-enactment field). So while we know that there is a possibility of such accidents occurring in the salle, they have no definable risk as the incidence is so low. They are instead uncertain. Given the thousands of hours spent in swordsmanship training worldwide every year, and how few accidents occur, it is reasonable to assign a low probability of serious injury or death. Assuming that we do not relax our safety standards in response to this, then we can assure prospective scholars of the art that “this is dangerous, but pretty safe”.

Cars are also pretty safe these days. Airbags, crumple zones, safety glass, seat belts, all reduce the likelihood of serious injury or death in the case of a collision. But they do nothing to prevent collisions in the first place, and encourage a false sense of security. Cocooned in hi-tech armour, we ride invulnerable to our deaths. I think a shiny steel spike sticking out of the steering wheel to impale the driver at the merest fender-bender would do wonders to improve road safety.
When a risky activity becomes safer, human beings tend to consume that risk. Safer cars are driven faster. Better healthcare encourages unhealthy lifestyles. The Munich taxi experiment described here is an excellent example. Given better brakes, drivers went faster. So protective equipment in swordsmanship offers the comforting illusion of safety. Given good protective equipment we take more risks. Yes, armour works. But tell that to the French knights at Agincourt.
So, a balanced approach to swordsmanship training requires at least some time spent face to face with the naked possibility of your own death. A sharp sword, aimed at your unprotected face, in careful pair drills with a trusted, highly trained partner under competent supervision. There is nothing like a sharp steel point inches from your eyes to cut through the illusory safety of a fencing mask.
My favourite quote on this comes from Viggiani’s Lo Schermo (1575) (as translated by Jherek Swanger: note he does not translate “spada da marra”, which is a kind of blunt steel practice sword):

ROD:… but now it is time that we begin to practice, before the hour grows later: take up your sword, Conte.
CON: How so, my sword? Isn’t it better to take one meant for practice?
ROD: Not now, because with those practice weapons it is not possible to acquire valor or prowess of the heart, nor ever to learn a perfect schermo. CON: I believe the former, but the latter I doubt. What is the reason, Rodomonte, that it is not possible to learn (so you say) a perfect schermo with that sort of weapon? Can’t you deliver the same blows with that, as with one which is edged?
ROD: I would not say now that you cannot do all those ways of striking, of warding, and of guards, with those weapons, and equally with these, but you will do them imperfectly with those, and most perfectly with these edged ones, because if (for example) you ward a thrust put to you by the enemy, beating aside his sword with a mandritto, so that that thrust did not face your breast, while playing with spada da marra, it will suffice you to beat it only a little, indeed, for you to learn the schermo; but if they were spade da filo, you would drive that mandritto with all of your strength in order to push well aside the enemy’s thrust. Behold that this would be a perfect blow, done with wisdom, and with promptness, unleashed with more length, and thrown with more force, that it would have been with those other arms. How will you fare, Conte, if you take perfect arms in your hand, and not stand with all your spirit, and with all your intent judgment?
[53R] CON: Yes, but it is a great danger to train with arms that puncture; if I were to make the slightest mistake, I could do enormous harm. Nonetheless we will indeed do as is more pleasing to you, because you will be on guard not to harm me, and I will be certain to parry, and I will pay constant attention to your point in order to know which blow may come forth from your hand, which is necessary in a good warrior.

This says it all!
You can download the whole book here:  and Jherek’s translation here.

In case it is not obvious from the small sample here, Rodomonte/Viggiani's student the Conte is clearly an accomplished swordsman already, there is no suggestion of equipping beginners with sharps. As Manciolino (an ardent proponent of using blunt steel swords, as am I) put it in Book Six of his Opera Nova (as translated by Tom Leoni, and available from here)

Manciolino begins book six of his Opera Nova thus:

“I now wish to show how wrong those are who insist that good swordsmanship can never proceed from practice with blunted weapons, but only from training with sharp swords. …

It is far preferable to learn to strike with bated blades then with sharp ones; and it would not be fair to arm untrained students with sharp swords or with other weapons that can inflict injury for the purpose of training new students to defend themselves.”

(with thanks to Ilkka Hartikainen for digging out and typing up the reference.)

Quite: “untrained students” find blunt steel sufficiently threatening that there is no need to make the swords sharp, and indeed it would be grossly irresponsible to do so. Highly trained and experienced students tend over time to take the blunt steel less and less seriously, and need to be reminded that swords are weapons. Likewise, the more armour you wear, the less vulnerable you are, and the less vulnerable you feel, which tends in most people to actually increase the risk of injury as this safety margin, and a bit more, is consumed.

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Disclaimer: this post should be read as a completely personal, utterly unscientific, non-practical, emotional, historical fundamentalist tirade against something I find offensive. On this matter I am unapologetically fanatical. You have been warned.

About eight years ago I was appalled to find, at a WMA event in America, the majority of practitioners using aluminium swords.  When I returned home I drew a line in the sand, by posting this on SFI, under the heading Aluminium Wasters: NO!

Aluminium wasters are becoming more and more popular as longsword training tools. Two main reasons are put forward for their use:

1) Price: at about $120–$150 they are half the price of steel blunts.

2) Safety: given their thicker edge and lower mass, they impart less energy to the target on impact, so are safer to fence with at high speed.

I find this development alarming, and not in the best interests of the Art of Swordsmanship. Here are my reasons:

1) Aluminium wasters are unhistorical. There is abundant record of the use of wooden wasters, and some extant examples of blunt steel training longswords, but (obviously) no aluminium swords were used in period. That said, I use protective equipment like fencing masks and hockey pads, which are equally unhistorical, but in my view have far less negative impact on how techniques may be executed.

2) They do not behave like steel swords. Their handling characteristics are totally different, they weigh less, the heft is just wrong. You can spot an aluminium sword being used from across the room, simply by the way it moves. Aluminium planks resonate quite differently to tempered steel blades (blunt or sharp), so when the weapons collide, they behave totally differently (this is true for all wasters, wooden, aluminium, padded, bamboo, or whatever). Many of the more sophisticated techniques rely on the feeling of the blade contact in your hands (often called sentimento di ferro); think of mutieren or duplieren in the German school (see page 184 of Tobler’s excellent ‘Fighting with the German Longsword’); think of the difference between yielding through frontale to get to the outside, or holding your opponent in frontale for an instant while you grasp his blade and kick him in the kneecap (as one sees in Fior Battaglia). You simply do not get the same level of information coming through aluminium.

In addition, steel swords spring away from each other, or stick, depending on how they meet. This is a vital consideration when working on deflections; aluminium wasters just do not behave the same, so do not adequately prepare you for the conditions of a real fight. (Though none of us intend to fight for real, all our training, to be valid, must work as preparation for the real thing. Otherwise we can give up our pretensions to Western Martial Arts, and start developing western combat sports. Nothing wrong with that, so long as the terms are not confused. The sporting approach is death to the Art, as the history of fencing clearly demonstrates.)

3) Safety in free sparring is an illusion. Your equipment cannot keep you safe. Granted, it is less easy to hurt someone with an aluminium waster than with a steel blunt, but the risk is there. This is a wasteful shortcut to learning control, and symptomatic of the “I wanna be a knight, NOW” attitude that infects a lamentable minority of practitioners. It takes thousands of hours of hard training to learn to control a steel sword so that one may freeplay with an acceptable degree of safety. Any compromise that gets people sparring too soon is inappropriate.

4) My students all buy steel swords, and relatively soon after they start training. If they can afford it, you can. If you need a very cheap starter weapon, a wooden waster is the way to go. Historically accurate, and very cheap. Aluminium wasters are three or four times the price of a wooden waster, and half the price of a blunt. As such, they form an economic barrier to purchasing a steel sword, which wooden wasters do not. Save up a bit longer while training with a wooden waster, and you can have a proper sword.

I have discussed this issue at length with many of my colleagues in the United States, and so far have only heard one valid argument for the use of aluminium. In a litigious culture, where horrendous punitive damages may apply, a school or teacher must be seen to be making every possible safety concession, just in case there is an accident. Living in a country where any judge would say “you swing swords at people’s heads and then come crying to me when you get hurt? Get out of my courtroom!” I have no good answer to that, except education of the jury-forming general public.

This is a particularly difficult topic as many equipment manufacturers, particularly the small-time producers, have no facilities for making steel blunts, but can churn out aluminium wasters with ease. I hate to undermine their business, as these are decent people doing the community a good service; but if they turn their talented hands to wooden wasters and to safety equipment, they will hopefully not lose by it.

It is up to us as a community to seek always the best way, the highest way, not just the most convenient way, to pursue our Art. Aluminium wasters are a convenience, a compromise, and a step on the slippery slope towards sporting interpretations. They have no place in my Salle, and I wish they had never been invented.

I look forward to hearing your opinions….

This generated something of a storm, and the whole six pages of wild opinion can be found here.

Going back across the pond as I do once or twice a year I have seen a steady diminution of aluminium- by WMAW 2011, I think there was one or two knocking around, and everyone had steel. My primary goal at that event was to introduce students to the difference between blunt steel and sharp- just as aluminium behaves differently to steel, so blunt steel does to sharp. Sharp swords stick, and an awful lot of period technique becomes a lot easier and more natural to do when the blades are sharp. As I said a hundred times that weekend alone: “if you haven’t done it with sharps, you haven’t done it at all”.

While this general improvement (as I would see it) has been going on in the part of our WMA community that I spend most of my time in, there has been a simultaneous shift in the opposite direction, mostly amongst those elements of the community who are most interested in creating tournaments. This has lead to the development and widespread adoption of the only training tool that is more aesthetically offensive to me than an aluminium sword: plastic swordlike objects. Are we children that we want to play with toy swords?

Other than simple disgust, my objections are the following:

1) they in no way simulate the behaviour of steel swords when they meet.

2) they in no way encourage students to treat the swords as if they were sharp

3) they in no way reproduce the handling characteristics of steel swords (they tend to be too light)

4) they encourage foolish freeplay.

It is of course possible for two experts to use these things like swords, but they are generally used by beginners who are then lulled into a totally false sense of security, and a delusion of competence, that can only do them harm.

If you cannot afford a steel training sword, and want something a bit better than a stick to practice with, there is always the wooden waster, widely available and about the same price as the plastic monstrosity. To take those offered by Purpleheart armory as an example: Their plastic “longsword” costs $73, is 124cm, 48.5” long, and weighs 785g, 1.73lb (according to their website. I don’t have any of these things in my possession. You can pay 125 dollars for their type III also). Their (excellent) wooden wasters are $70, and are 120cm (48”) long and weigh about 950g (2.1lb). In terms of mass and dimensions, there is not a lot to choose between them, but in terms of usefulness as a training tool, one has millenia of pedigree, the other has not. One has been used by many of the greatest swordsmen in history, at some stage in their training; the other only by a few modern practitioners.

I am well aware that serious living-history buffs may find my plastic-soled training shoes, modern-pattern mask, and t-shirt-based training uniform equally appalling. I wear historical clothing and footwear for research purposes, but it is not practical for class or teaching when on any given night I may teach five different systems from five different centuries. I apologise for their suffering, and I understand it. But at the end of the day, I care about the swords, I just don’t care about the clothes.

What the argument for plastic boils down to, in the end, is lowering the short-term barriers to entry, especially to freeplay entry. They are an apparent short-cut: but as my grandma used to say, “Short cuts make long delays!”. Proponents of the plastic sword argue along the lines of cost, durability, safety, etc. But there is nothing inherently practical about the Art of Swordsmanship today. If you want self-defence, go train with Rory Miller, Marc MacYoung or someone of that ilk. Neither will recommend studying medieval combat treatises to learn modern self defence. If you want a practical battlefield art, join the army. The art and practice of historical swordsmanship should not be confused with any kind of modern combat, nor should it ever be reduced to simply playing with swords. It is not easy. It is not for everyone. And it certainly demands a much higher standard of aesthetics and risk management that you can possibly attain to by following the tupperware path. Blunt steel is already a huge compromise, which is why I test all interpretations and most drills with sharps. Plastic is just lazy, offensive, and disgusting.

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I have often remarked in class that I have broken bones in training so that my students don't have to. In other words, the safety regulations we have were arrived at through my getting hurt and figuring out ways to avoid it happening again. One of my favourite such examples occurred at a training session at the Dawn Duellist's Society, a historical fencing club I helped to found back in 1994. I had challenged a dozen or so folk to duel at the weapons of their choice. My last fight of the evening was with the redoubtable Kieran Robb, who was a) very tired and had to be persuaded to fence (mistake no.1) b) using a flamberge bladed longsword (mistake no. 2). I was also tired (mistake no.3) and was using just a normal fencing mask with no back-of-the head protection (mistake no 4.).

Merrily I attacked and lo, he stepped offline, parrying my blow and letting it go by, and his sword crashed into the back of my head. The moment was caught on camera.

That's Kieran on the right, in red, me getting whacked on the left, in green.

Assessing the damage. After this shot I tootled off to casualty for three staples in my scalp. But not before assembling a group shot with all my opponents of the evening, holding the weapon we fought at:

This was an important evening for me as it established in my own mind my willingness to take serious physical risks in pursuit of the art- and of the need for better safety standards for the school I was planning to open. My decision to open a school was made in September 2000, this photo was taken in October, and the school opened in March 2001. Not long after this I got a broken finger playing around with longswords- while my steel gauntlets were in my bag about 5 feet away. We had no proper rules, and so laziness and stupidity got me hurt, twice in a couple of months. Doh.

 

 

 

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