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Tag: sword drills

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

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

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

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

The Prudentia virtue, from the Audatia Duel Deck Nikodemus Kariensis.

There are few things that all martial artists agree on, but I think this may be one of them: “it’s easier to fight someone if you know exactly what they are going to do”. To predict their actions. To see the future. This skill is one of the aspects that marks an experienced fighter in any discipline. They can read their opponent and see what they are about to do; but also they can create the situation so that the opponent is lead into a trap. Fiore de’ Liberi knew about this perfectly well back in the 14th century: it’s one of the four virtues he says a swordsman should possess. Avvisamento (foresight) in the Getty ms, Prudentia  (prudence) in the Pisani-Dossi and the Paris mss. For what is prudence if not the ability to foresee danger and avoid it?

Meglio de mi lovo cervero non vede creatura

Eaquello mette sempre a sesto e a misura.

No creature sees better than I, the lynx

And this virtue puts everything in its right place and its measure. (Tr. Tom Leoni)

Foresight is a virtue and a skill, and it can and should be trained. As you probably guessed, I have a well-developed system for doing exactly that. It relies as always on starting very simple, and gradually increasing complexity, while always focussing precisely on the one thing you’re working on. Because the virtue is first discussed in fencing literature in Il Fior di Battaglia, it makes sense to use longsword for my example, but you should be able to apply this to any martial art. This is the bare bones of the three-step process.

Step one: establish the base

1) Set up a basic drill. We’ll use first drill as an example:

2) Set up a simple variation, ideally with the defender responding differently: such as a counterattack, rather than a parry. (Such as in the Stretto form of first drill).

3) The attacker’s job is to counter the defence; either parry the counterattack, or strike on the other side of the parry (as here in our set drills).

At this stage the attacker is just watching the defender, and the defender is just feeding the attacker one defence then the other. No variations. Ok, we have established our base.

Step two: create controlled complexity.

1) The defender now varies their defence, so that the attacker doesn’t know which one he will pick.

2) The attacker’s job is to predict the defence. If she counters it, then great, that’s a bonus. But we’re working on the skill of foresight, not the application of that skill. The attacker makes five attacks, and counts how many times she accurately predicted which of the two things the defender would do.

3) Change roles, 5 attacks, 5 defences. Try to be as random as possible.

4) Use the rule of c’s* to adjust the level of the drill so that the attacker has difficulty predicting the defence.

In a perfect world, you can always predict exactly what your opponent will do, and set things up so that if he does anything else, it will fail naturally, and if he does what you expect, he falls onto your prepared counter.

Step three: reduce their options

1) The attacker adjusts her attack so that the counterattack will naturally fail. In this example, that means aiming the mandritto fendente slightly further over to the left, and stepping slightly across the strada to the attacker’s left. There is no hole to counterattack into. So the defender either parries, or their action will fail.

2) The attacker adjusts her attack to invite the counterattack, by swinging the mandritto fendente round, offline a bit to the right. If the invitation is accepted, the attacker parries the counterattack; if it is declined, and the defender parries, their parry will be wider than usual, making the attacker’s counter much easier.

3) To start with, exaggerate these adjustments to the attack, and co-operate in the responses. Once the idea is clear in both player’s minds, they should ramp it up a bit.

4) Once this is going well, the attacker’s job becomes simply to predict the defender’s actions, and the defender’s job is to respond naturally to the attack with one of the two options. As before, use the rule of c’s to adjust the level of difficulty until the attacker is getting it right about four times out of five.

And finally: add complexity

So far so good. We have a drill in which there is only one degree of freedom; the defender’s action. Everything else is set; the roles of attacker and defender, the attack, the two defences, everything. So now apply the variation engines: “who moves first”, “add a step”, and “degrees of freedom” that you know from Preparing for Freeplay or The Medieval Longsword, to add complexity to the point where the attacker can only get it right three or four times out of five. This might be as simple as step three above, or as complex as full-on freeplay.

Be very clear about what you are training: if you are working on foresight, success = “I predicted exactly what they would do”. It doesn’t matter if you got hit or not. Of course, as your foresight improves, not getting hit should be a lot easier than before.

One more thing:

As you probably know, Audatia is based on Fiore's art. And it totally killed me that we couldn't have Prudentia being used to make the opponent show their hand. The closest we come to that is in this brilliant card, Eye of the Lynx, in the Boucicault deck:


*The rule of c’s is in The Medieval Longsword, and Preparing for Freeplay, and written out in this blog post here.

I think that training ought to be focussed and goal oriented. The goal in any fencing context is to strike without being struck, so any problem can be thought of as “I’m getting hit” or “I’m not hitting”. Drills are the means by which we fix either of these core problems.

Let’s start with the “I got hit” problem. Here is a snazzy little flowchart:

Yup, it boils down to this: the only reason you ever get hit is because you failed to parry. The hit is never wrong. This is really important. When we are past the point of teaching beginners the absolute basics, we don’t solve the problem of being hit by changing the attack. The attack is supposed to hit.

So whatever your current fencing problem is, here are the steps to fix it:

1) Reproduce the problem. If you can’t reproduce it, it was either a fluke, and so not something that can be trained against, or you didn’t understand what happened. You can’t fix training problems you don’t understand, so if that happens, find somebody to explain what happened to you. Your opponent might do that, or your teacher.

2) Analyse why you are getting hit. You are either doing the right thing, but not well enough, or you are doing the wrong thing. So the problem is either technical, or tactical. These have quite different solutions.

Technical problems are solved by training the technique in increasingly challenging contexts. In short, slow down until it works, then ramp up the speed and power gradually until you can do it at the necessary level. I think of this as solving problems of incompetence.

Tactical problems are solved by choosing a better solution at the critical moment, which you learn to do by using drills with ever increasing degrees of freedom. I think of this as solving problems of ignorance.

So whatever drill you are doing should be solving a specific problem of either ignorance or incompetence making you wiser and better.

(The specific details of how to use pressure and degrees of freedom are in Preparing for Freeplay. They are also described in The Medieval Longsword.)

I have put all this together in another nifty flowchart. The original was done by me in Scapple, which is a great app for thinking with, but doesn't do pretty charts. Several kind and lovely readers have sent me much prettier versions, of which this, by Andrew R. Mizener, is the clearest.


Thanks Andrew! (I absolutely love it when my readers step up and help. Really, it's the best feeling.)

If you’d like specific examples of drills that solve technical or tactical problems, let me know in the comments.

While I was at the Armizare 2015 event, I had a discussion about Fiore’s first play of the first master of zogho largo with Francesco Baselice. Let me summarise our interpretations, with reference to the text.

The first and second plays of the first master of the zogho largo.
The first and second plays of the first master of the zogho largo.

Qui cominza zogho di spada a doy man zogho largo. Questo magistro che qui incrosado cum questo zugadore in punta de spada, dise quando io son incrosado in punta de spada subito io do volta ala mia spada e filo fiero dalaltra parte cum lo fendente zo per la testa e per gli brazzi, overo che gli metto una punta in lo volto, come vederi qui dredo depinto.

Here begins the play of the sword in two hands, wide play. This Master that is here crossed with this player in the point of the sword, says “when I am crossed at the point of the sword, immediately I make a turn of my sword and strike with a cut from the other side with a fendente, thus to the head and to the arms; or I place a thrust in his face, as you will see depicted next.

The key point for our discussion was regarding on the other side of what? I read the line “I make a turn of my sword and strike with a cut from the other side [of the player’s sword].” Which lead to the interpretation you can see on pages 170-171 of The Medieval Longsword.

But Francesco read it as ““I make a turn of my sword and strike with a cut from the other side [of my body].” So instead of striking on the other side of the opponent’s sword, he was striking to the head with a roverso fendente.

I have shot a quick video of the two versions and uploaded it here for reference. Sorry for the crap quality.

After I got back to Finland, many of my students asked what my cryptic reference on this blog to “a very interesting discussion about the first and second plays of the first master of the zogho largo” was about, and I explained it up to this point. And then began to dig…

Clearly, on the evidence above, it is impossible to choose one interpretation over the other. Both follow the text, and picture (the fendente isn’t shown), and similar actions can be found elsewhere in the manuscript. The first two plays of the sword in one hand show striking on one side of the player’s sword, or the other, after a parry; the first two plays of the second master of the zogho largo describe a cut followed by a thrust, on the same side.

The text of the second play, showing the thrust, was the next place to look for more data.

In the Getty MS, it reads:

Io to posta una punta in lo volto come lo magistro che denanci dise. Anchora poria aver fatto zo chello dise zoe aver tratto de mia spada subito quando io era apresso lo incrosare dela parte dritta. De laltra parte zoe de la stancha io debeva voltare la mia spada in lo fendente per la testa e per gli brazzi, como a ditto lo mio magistro che denanzi.

I have placed a thrust in the face as the master before me says. Also I could have done what he says, so, have struck with my sword immediately when I was near the crossing from the right side. From the other side, thus from the left, I would have to turn my sword in the fendente to the head and to the arms, as my master that is before me said.

Hmmm. That is inconclusive, but it appears that the strike should be done very early; as you get close to the crossing, or immediately that the crossing is made. And he mentions that the blow is done from the left side. “Stanca” in modern Italian means “tired”, and in this period, means “left hand side”. Two pages on from here, in the play of the colpo di villano, Fiore tells us to “await the peasant’s blow in a narrow stance with the left foot forwards”, with “lo pe stancho” for “the left foot”. (You definitely do not want to put your “tired food” forwards!) So perhaps “stancha” here is more likely to refer to the body than the sword, but it’s hard to say. After all, posta di donna on the left, is posta di donna la sinestra.

So let’s go to the Morgan Ms: the text in both paragraphs is identical except for a few variant spellings. No help there then. So how about the Pisani Dossi manuscript?

The same plays in the Pisano Dossi.
The same plays in the Pisano Dossi.

Over the master, the lines are:

Per incrosar cum ti a punta de spada/ De laltra parte la punta in lo peto to fermada.

By crossing with you at the point of the sword, from the other side I’ll strike you with a thrust in the chest.

The differences are obvious, I trust. No mention of the cut, and the thrust is to the chest, not face. But it’s still “de laltra parte”, from the other side.

And the next play, the strike itself:

Per lo ferir che dise el magistro che denanci posto/ in la golla to posta la punta de la spada tosto.

With the strike that the master before me said/ I have quickly put the point in your throat.

[Note, again not face, or chest!]

And the image is basically identical to the strike shown in the Getty ms, as you can see.

So here is the critical point for this discussion; “from the other side” is not being used here to mean the other side of the player’s sword. It is quite clearly describing a thrust that remains on the same side of the sword, so it is probably being used to refer to the way you make the blow. You got into the crossing with a blow from the right, and you leave it with a blow from the left (as all Audatia players should already know).

So, Francesco old chap, you were right. I take my hat off to you sir!

Hat off to Federico :)
Hat off to Francesco 🙂

And as I said on the day, looks like I’ll have to revise that bit of The Medieval Longsword.  Given that the final draft of the book was finished in April 2012, that makes it three years before a change to the interpretation was developed. Dammit, that’s too long; I’d hope for at least one new thing a year! It makes me wonder what other bits of my interpretation are due for review. This is one of those plays that I've been happy with since about 2004.

I should also note at this point that the interpretation we were using is the correct response to the context in which we do it; but that context is not what Fiore is showing us in this play. It seems that in both plays, it's the inside line that is open, not outside for the first, inside for the second. It remains to be seen what knock-on effects this will have to the rest of my interpretation; at present it seems to be fairly self-contained, but who knows what other doors this might open…

Let me summarise the steps that lead to this correction to my interpretation.

1) I published my interpretation. This meant that Francesco, and others like him, could see what I was thinking, and therefore check it against their own ideas.

2) Francesco brought his alternative interpretation to me, and showed me that it did not contradict the source. This was made much easier by our being at the same event; there is nothing like discussing these things sword-in-hand. Thanks again to Mauro and Andrea for organising Armizare 2015!

3) That lead to me re-examining my interpretation in the light of the sources themselves; we are very lucky to have more than one copy of the manuscript.

4) I now publish the corrected interpretation, here (and will update The Medieval Longsword in due course).

Readers of this blog will have seen the same procedure in the way I was totally wrong about the identity of the titimallo flower, used in the poison dust pollax play. I shamelessly published an idea, which generates responses, which lead to the idea being abandoned, confirmed or corrected as needed. That's how the process is supposed to work, folks.

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

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

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

Now onto my main point:

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

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

“Now you will try to strike me”.

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

The next day their real work began.

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

You can see this scene here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greetings! You may be thinking about pre-ordering my new longsword book through the Indiegogo campaign. In case you're wondering what the book contains, you can see the table of contents on the campaign page. Here is an example of one of the dozens of drills, with its accompanying photos.

The Exchange of Thrusts:

Fiore’s instruction is to step out of the way and pass across the line, and with your point high and your hands low, cross his sword and strike him in the face or chest (this is the ninth play of the second master of  zogho largo).

  1. Wait in tutta porta di ferro, attacker in the same guard.
  2. Attacker thrusts to your stomach;
  3. Pick up your point and cross his sword (middle to middle, edge to flat), hands stay low;
  4. Step your front (left) foot out of the way (to the left— this pushes his point further away from you);
  5. And pass across (so, diagonally left), thrusting to his face (no need to lift your hands: keep them low!)

Do this in one smooth motion: it feels like a simple strike that happens to collect his attack. But beware— it is critically important to make sure of your cover before passing in. Otherwise you eat steel.

The drill continues with what to do if you miss your strike.

The images below are uncropped, and at much lower resolution for browsing convenience. Most of the costs of publishing the book are in layout, which will be beautiful!

Jukka (on left) waits for Joni’s thrust
Jukka (on left) waits for Joni’s thrust


Joni attacks;
Joni attacks;


Jukka parries,
Jukka parries,


while stepping off the line;
while stepping off the line;


and strikes, passing across while thrusting into Joni’s face.
and strikes, passing across while thrusting into Joni’s face.
while stepping off the line;
while stepping off the line;


and strikes, passing across while thrusting into Joni’s face.
and strikes, passing across while thrusting into Joni’s face.

Class on Monday (in March 2014) was all about how the seniors should approach the new sword handling drill, the Farfalle di Ferro, the Butterfly of Iron. As this is a pretty important topic, especially for the chaps in the branches, we videoed the class. The footage here was preceded by the usual 10 minutes of breathing exercises and a few minutes of the Syllabus Form done solo, then (because there were difficulties with it that we fixed last week) the Syllabus Form Applications Drill. Then by way of introduction, we did the Farfalle di Ferro in its basic form.

[Update, Dec. 2021] Over the 8 years since I created the Farfalle, it has become quite popular, and many folk have lost sight of where it comes from: some even think it's directly from some historical source! Let me set the record straight: I invented it from scratch, with the help of some senior students in March 2013, as you can see from this video:

So that's the Farfalle- what's it for?

This 20 minute video is basically unedited footage of the Applications class.

The video contents are:
00.00-0.56 introduction. Making the handling drill tight and small.
00.57-2.35 basic applications of the drill: counterattack with mandritto fendente; gaining leverage control with fenestra to thrust (note groundpath in true edge, not in the flat); yielding to the parry and striking on the other side.
02.36-04.11 corrections to mistakes made in class; when not to follow the drill. General rule: “If your opponent’s point is going away from you, strike into the opening line.” Being specific about when to use the farfalle combination.
04:12-07.06: About the footwork: when winding to fenestra to thrust; and especially the footwork when striking on the other side: the meza volta. Noting Fiore’s explanation of the meza volta, groundpaths and the mechanical consequences stepping linearly instead of turning.
07.07-08.39: The same applications, applied by the attacker. Noting what happens if the parry against the fenestra thrust is a yield to the outside instead of the turn to the inside.
08.40-09.41 changing the measure; using the drill to get into close quarters. The rules: “stick your point in his face. If his sword is moving away from you, strike into the opening line. If his sword is moving towards you, put your sword in the way.”
09.42-10.52 difficulties arising from poor mechanics, especially the turn around the middle of the sword. Minimising time spent with your point moving away from the opponent.
10.53- 11.46 a basic drill to help with the turn around the middle of the blade.
11.47- 12.51: repeating the drill beginning with the roverso instead of the mandritto (i.e. start at part 2). And other variations on the basic drill.
12.52-15.19: Using part 3; the sottani blows. Variation on second drill, defender ripostes with sottano on either side. Notes re the necessary footwork to stay safe. Note re continuations if attacker parries the riposte. Note re getting away again after the riposte.
15.20-16.48: Attacker’s use of the same action, as a response to the parry. Variations depending on the defender’s actions. Use of the sottano v. the sottano.
16.49-18.02: Counter to the punta falsa as an example of turning within the turn. Making your actions smaller than your opponent’s. Note re opponent’s expectations re line of attack.
18.03-19.35: How does this work with sharps? Very nicely, thank you.

So, there you have it. Enjoy!

Beginner you are not, hmmm? image from
Beginner you are not, hmmm?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, here are some questions for you:

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

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

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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Sad news, but be happy

My father Roger Windsor died on Tuesday 22nd, at home. Sometime in the night- so