Historical European Martial Arts

punkcowboypoet  asked:

I really want to start sparring but there isn't a good HEMA instructor in my region, and it is at least a 3 hour drive to the closest club. I have done some dueling with LARP swords, as well as regular Olympic fencing, and I have someone I trust who does martial arts to practice with, but I'm afraid I’m more likely to hurt them (or myself) while sparring. What should I do?

Thanks so much for asking! I always encourage people to take the plunge and get into sword-fighting as soon as they can. We all somehow find ourselves doing it one way or another, so we might as well take initiative and practice it responsibly. ;)
If you feel confident in your basic handling and have done some form of sword sport already as well as having a partner you trust, then I suggest you get going! I’m going to centre my advice around longswords and single-handed arming swords, since that is the most commonly practiced form of HEMA at the moment, but it could be adjusted for other forms as well.

There is a wealth of historical fencing instruction on the internet, but if you are short on time to filter through vast resources and full of the need to start moving, then it is still possible to start, with some of these things in mind.

First, I suggest you start sparring with something very safe, such as a good foam sword, and always wear safety glasses, or if you are using rigid and semi-rigid training weapons, wear a fencing mask. Regardless of how blunt or soft the sword is, always treat any sword as though it were sharp to build good habits.

Gun users will appreciate the importance of always treating any weapon as though it were loaded. Likewise, any and all types of sword simulators should be handled with the same respect.

Above: There are many affordable beginner swords available. Durable and attractive foam swords are produced by Calimacil, which have some of the best handling characteristics that I have seen in a commercially-available foam sword. However if you do hope to train with a HEMA club soon, a good semi-rigid sword to start with is the Rawlings Synthetic, also widely-available and reasonably-priced.

In sparring, the places most at risk of injury are your hands, eyes and sensitive areas of the body such as genitals, as well as your spine. The simplest and most basic protection is safety glasses and leather gloves, as well as a firm vest or some other form of torso protection. However, at this stage of your training and without an instructor, no one should be striking with force enough to damage your partner. Strikes dealt during novice sparring should not leave many bruises, although some scrapes and bruises from training are inevitable.

Real historical swordsmanship is relatively calm, intentional and extremely subtle, nothing at all like the desperate flailing seen in almost all forms of popular media and a lot of modern medieval sword sports. It can get heated at HEMA competitions, but there is still a measure of reserve in the top fencers. Even some of the most experienced sharp-sword fencers move with clarity before applying speed and force. I’ll talk more about force a bit later on.

You don’t have to rock any science-lab goggles to save your eyeballs. Many slick, low-profile safety glasses are available for anywhere between USD$2-30, such as these CrossFire Infinity Safety Glasses.

Once you have safe tools and some basic protection, establish clear target zones and win conditions with your sparring partner. Targets always excluded for novices should be vulnerable areas such as the groin, breasts (if you can avoid striking them), face, spine, neck and hands*. These zones should be restricted until you have had more experience with controlling your blows and regular coaching from a fencing master. However, it is bad to cast shots that expose your hands, so once you have developed control and trust with your partner, I encourage threatening exposed hands as a target, but don’t connect with any force. In a real sword fight, the hands are the nearest and easiest place to connect, so you need to learn to cast the blade first.

If you really can’t help yourself and keep hitting at the restricted zones but you still want to sword-fight, then you need to spend a lot of time developing control with your training tool and a non-animate target, and purchase standard HEMA safety gear for when you and your partner spar.

Decide what is a strike and what is dangerous play, such as mutually stopping and breaking apart if you get into grappling range before you have been taught how to grapple and fall. For me, I consider a strike good if it is a firm touch or impact with a sliding motion of two to three inches of the weapon over my body. The impact isn’t a light tap and it isn’t a hard thump either. To gauge the pressure needed, think about the force needed to cut cleanly through a tomato or a steak.
Thrusting also does not need to be excessive. A decent thrust is one that can compress around two to five inches into the opponent, although a good sparring partner will acknowledge the thrust even if you have stopped before you deliver it.

Agree on the win conditions: whether you are fencing to first strike, or if you allow returning shots from the person struck before the other one can get out of range (which I like to do). Make sure you are both clear on all of these things, and be honest with your partner about the results of their fencing.

If you or your partner don’t immediately register the shots you’ve taken, it isn’t necessarily because you are cheating- it’s just that it takes practice to feel and acknowledge your own hits. It’s even harder when you have adrenaline and are getting used to new motor skills. Don’t stress if you or the other person aren’t acknowledging hits, build up to it slowly with each other, like everything else. Also aim for precision in your feedback. Letting each other know exactly where the other weapon has struck helps you both know what you did, and better calibrates how you use your body and sword.

If you don’t want to call your own hits and are feeling overwhelmingly that you want to win during sparring, then you need to find another competitive outlet, because sparring only works when it is cooperative. Fencing “to win” will escalate the sparring to a competition or a fight and results in injury (which is the point of historical fencing, really), or it needs a third party present to referee the success of the combatants. Until you are both very experienced martial artists who can self-moderate, don’t spar to win unless there is someone present to coach or marshal you.

The goal in sparring isn’t winning. Save that energy for competition or getting out of a real fight. The goal in sparring is to develop your abilities with a partner, learning how to move in control as you defend against or strike an opponent and exiting the encounter safely without being struck.

Don’t talk when you’re in range. Talking takes your attention away from your body and the weapons. It makes your fencing sloppy, inefficient and potentially dangerous to both of you. If you both start to chat, just discreetly move back out of range and reset your sword to an obvious place to indicate you aren’t sparring at that moment*, until you both stop talking about whatever it is.

Experienced fencers can get away with talking while sparring, but I strongly advise against it whilst you are first starting out. If you are comfortable with your sparring partner, it can be really easy to want to talk during practice. Talking keeps you both relaxed and calm, but is a poor way to practice swordsmanship.

*I personally put the sword to my side, where the sheath would be, or hold it low and flat across the front of my body with both hands, seen below.

“Don’t talk in range” goes for calling hits as well. You can verbally call hits, and many experienced fencers do, but I find that remaining non-verbal makes it easier to keep the flow and focus of the session.
Instead, you can indicate hits by tapping the body part that was struck, followed by a thumbs up to indicate if it was a particularly good strike that you want to applaud. Verbally calling out shots can easily lead you both back to chatting, which reduces the quality and safety of the sparring session. Once you start to train with a club you might find that the culture around talking may be different, but this is what I recommend when you are away from an established training environment.

Recognise when you need time out. It is completely and always okay to take the time you need before you engage in sparring. I had an excellent Muay Thai coach for a while who recognised when fighters were going to become aggressive a full five minutes before they knew it themselves, and he would pull us off the floor long before we ever got our tempers up. A hot head leads to injuries. Taking a moment or stopping altogether means you can learn and be a better partner, as well. “A moment” can be an extra breath before stepping in range, a short water break, a five minute gap, or more, as long as you let your partner know how long you need. If you have a good partner you will help each other, and part of that is knowing when you shouldn’t be sparring.

Give feedback during breaks, not between exchanges and passes. Again, this helps keep you focussed on the body and weapons, not words. If the feedback is about something small such as “you were targetting my blade instead of me”, then that kind of feedback between exchanges is reasonable, but if it is going to lead to a longer conversation then I suggest keeping it for a time when you both take a break. When in doubt about it, take a break. If you’re there to spar you will both be back trying out the results of the feedback soon enough.

A final thought: make sure the place you are training in is enclosed from wandering passersby/family members/college students/people walking their dogs. If you are visually exposed, make sure you can still limit how people approach you, such as positioning yourself on the far side of a row of park benches or behind a garden bed with a single path for access. Also be careful where you leave your gear, which will always draw interest. I suggest covering it with a blanket or towel even if you are right beside it when you spar. Most people lose a portion of their mental functions when they see sword fighters and their equipment in public, so you need to be smart about where you put yourself so they don’t constantly interrupt you to ask if you ever worked on Game of Thrones. (No, I haven’t.)

Overall, get out there and have fun, breathe, help your partner and don’t be too hard on yourself as you learn and grow.

Every good sword-fighter started somewhere!

(If you want to learn more than what I’ve said here, you might like to check out my 10 minute video about how to get start training with swords.)

anonymous asked:

Hi Samantha, I would like to ask for a method of practising more on reading the opponent and being slower. I feel like my skill in this is very unstable and escapes me sometimes. I feel like rushing is what I do most of the time, which usually ends up with me being dead.

Thanks for asking! This is a big subject. It is the result of what happens when people wear protective gear and lose fear of the blade, which makes it easy to become reckless when fighting. It is extremely hard to defend against an opponent who is reckless because they don’t hold back, but if you are smart in a real fight, then you will preserve some caution- especially with sharp blades. I don’t think that it’s your skill that varies, just the circumstances that you are learning in.

I think that you need a partner who wants to learn the same way, who is trying to develop the feeling in the blade. If one opponent moves faster then the other will follow so you really need to have someone who can agree to not try to “win” or try to be the fastest during a drill. You have to agree to move at the same speed, keep the bind until you have manipulated the other to a place that is safer for you. The goal is for you to learn together and not by taking advantage of the other in the relative safety of the drill.

This is all in aid of developing ‘fühlen’, or ‘feeling’ in the fight.

(For a good technical breakdown of fühlen within historical German martial arts, see Hugh Knight’s description here.)

Below: Half of the page from manuscript i:33 folio 20v, showing two fencers bound.

What I demonstrate when I teach is all centred on fencing from the bind. The historical treatises largely recommend binding and control, rather than rushing in. However the way that most of the modern sword-combat sports world* are fighting is the opposite, unfortunately. There is very little binding, even though it’s shown all the time in the fight books.

*Just what I mean: the wider international community of medieval sword-centred combat sports fighters, which comes in over a dozen forms and identities.

When fighting, if a person’s goal is to strike the other, they will rush in and be reckless. If their goal is to defend themselves from attack, they will be more conservative and efficient.

I think that part of the problem causing “rushing in” is that in modern competitive sword combat, we generally seek to score points in a hurry to win a bout.

If we changed the rules to be that we started with hit points and had to preserve them, it would make for more careful fencing. There would still need to be motivation for both parties to fight, but the focus would shift and reflect the more cautious approach seen in historical swordsmanship. The key is to still have a healthy fear of the other person’s blade. Then you learn how to be safe against the danger.

It’s the same as working with any hazardous equipment. In my industry, there are so many of these that we use all the time. For example, the table saw is a pretty devastating tool but you don’t replace it with a blunted or plastic version, or wear a lot of protection to work with it. Bulky clothes or thick gloves actually get in the way, and create more of a hazard than working with just a pair of earmuffs and safety glasses.

Instead, you just accept the potentially-fatal dangers of the tool and learn to work with it carefully, in a controlled, precise and mindful way.

Below: Carving polystyrene-foam into organic stone steps as a scenic sculptor for the film industry. I’m wearing chaps because the chainsaw can potentially kick-back, although since this is fine-detail work, the material is much softer than what I usually work with and less of a hazard. Note the fencing stance for stability, and the rotation of my body to agree with the angle of the cut.

I am not advocating an irresponsible approach to training with swords, rather to appreciate the full hazard they present and then learn to handle it.

What I’m talking about refers to historical swordsmanship in the context of self-defence, but there are many, many modern sword combat sports that exist that have already put safety factors in place to protect their athletes.

Not everyone can be good at sword sports. But anyone can be good at at fencing for self-defence.

I have experienced this kind of approach in more than a few sword clubs around the world. To see video examples of it in action you can check out Roland Warzecha/DIMICATOR’s YouTube channel, showing the active practice of swordsmanship using sharp steel and shields that as closely as possibly follow the specifications of museum artifacts.

Lastly, a philosophy that may help prevent rushing in:

You have to control your space, the circle (or sphere) around your body. This is the distance around you that you or your weapon can reach. Anything that is inside it is your space.

(This concept was developed extensively during the Renaissance though Italian and Spanish schools of fencing- the example below is from Sebastien Romagnan’s book on Destreza)

So when your opponent comes into that space, they can be in your control.
You are allowing them in. It’s the same for them- they are allowing you into their space. You just need to help them to make a mistake. Then once they make a mistake you can control them. Unless you also make a mistake, then you are both equal again. The best thing is to be efficient and make fewer mistakes than your opponent.

You can let someone into your space to trick them, or if you already have a better angle and they will struggle to defend. But it needs to be a clear decision to allow them that close to you.

If you practice understanding your circle (with and without a sword), and think about what you allow to come into it, it will give you an advantage when you practice with a partner. However, there is a lot you can do to improve your reflexes and self control for combat, explained in length by many other martial arts practitioners.

I hope that helps!

In winning the open longsword tournament at Fechtschule Frisbee, Lauren just did something amazing for women in HEMA.

There are many who thought or think that well, there is no way women could win a longsword tournament because of size and strength disparities, etc.But this isn’t true - and we have proof of this now.

And while I will never criticize another person for their competitive choices, here’s hoping more women now will say, “hey, I can do this thing!” and try competing in open steel.

So, Lauren - You’ve just changed the game. Not just for us, but for every woman who picks up a sword, and every girl who dreams of doing so.

Proper names and sizes of medieval swords, edited by me.

Arming sword, or knightly sword, or one-handed sword: speaks for itself, it only fits for one hand, and is not not designed or practical in anyway to use with two hands, so don’t. The pommel is just there to be a counter-weight for easier use of the tip of the blade.

Bastard sword, or hand-and-a-half sword: quite a lot of misconceptions about this sword. While there is no definitive right or wrong answer when it comes to what to call these types of swords, bastard sword is the most fitting. It can be used with one hand, but if need be it can be grabbed by the pommel for extra power (note I said the pommel, the grip is curving in like that at the bottom to encourage you to grab the pommel, as the grip is still too small for two hands).

Longsword: the classic “knight” sword alongside the arming sword. Used only with two-hands (no chance of using a second weapon or shield with this one). It’s incredibly versatile and effective in the right hands.

Greatsword, or zweihänder: the biggest type of sword used in war history. Made especially famous by the german landsknecht of the 16th century, despite their more avid usage of halberds, muskets, crossbows, and pikes. Not much is known on how these swords were used, but people theorize they were used to disrupt and even rout enemy pike formations (the swordsman would twirl the sword around in an 8-shape, gathering momentum until it swinged so fast that it pushed away or cut the pikes in two), and also probably used in duels.

Finally, note the prongs on the bottom of this greatsword

Those prongs weren’t there to just “look cool”, the steel below the prongs is blunt and was grabbed by the wielder in case fighting turned into close-quarters (like when they’ve gotten themselves into a pike formation), using the sword kind of like a short spear.

HEMA Fencing Styles

The great diversity of sources in HEMA, while normally a strength, can create problems when trying to quickly classify and codify the approaches of individual fencers. Fencers and coaches alike need simple and easy to understand definitions for how the bulk of combatants conduct themselves in a match. By drawing upon modern boxing I have developed a classification for the three major HEMA fight styles.

In-fencer – in-fencers are generally characterised as close proximity fighters. They use rapid dart and dash manoeuvres to close the distance quickly and fence within a close measure. Often they will use aggressive zwerch and cut combos to impose pressure and create openings.

Originally posted by mindhost

Out-fencer – Out-fencers generally favour keeping their opponent at a wider measure. Commonly, the out-fencer will utilise fast, long-range thrusts and strikes to exploit openings and points of weakness. Attacks will often be limited to singular strikes or short combos.

Originally posted by mindhost

Counter-fencer – preferring defensive postures, the counter-fencer aims to exploit the mistakes of attacking opponents. Capitalising at opportune moments, the fencer will often counter with accurate and singular cuts/thrusts. Most counter fencers work at wide measure, though some prefer to draw in their opponents before closing the distance themselves.   

Originally posted by mindhost

Note though, that no one style is mutually exclusive and some fencers will move fluidly between two or all of the classifications. There also exist a range of sub-styles and the dreaded ‘balanced fencer’ who is proficient in all three. Naturally, style classifications will dull some of the nuance of a person’s strategy, yet they can be a great tool for quickly identifying the trends, strengths, and weaknesses of our opponent’s game and our own:

“looks like I’m fighting Danny next. He’s a classic out-fighter. I need to own the center line, cover my head on the approach and seize ground to put the pressure on him.


It was a great joy to model at premier concept design school Syn Studio today, demonstrating I:33’s 14th century European martial arts for artists who are training to go into Montréal’s vast video game industry.
Thanks so much to Salgood Sam for inviting me again!
This work is by the following artists (I’m not 100% sure of the order), Salgood Sam, Lydia Wong, Tatiana Tung Gerencer, Renée-Claude Dostie, and Dany DiSalvo.

Adventures in Swordplay #2: The Powerful Potential of Pummeling People with Pommels

Level Up!

I’ve being going to HEMA class more frequently lately; about twice a week, and practicing on my own whenever I can find the time. Thus, our instructor decided it was time to teach us how to use all parts of our swords, and not just the sharp bits.

When “Stick Them With the Pointy End” Isn’t Enough

When training with a longsword, one quickly learns to take advantage of the point, the true-edge, and the false edge in order to end an opponent. But did you also know that your quillons, grip, and pommel can also be used to effectively defeat your foes?

Today I learned that when one is in a bind, it is often more advantageous to strike with the blunt end of the sword rather than to disengage. Also, if one were to face an armored opponent, a blunt strike will cause much more damage with than a cut, since you can’t cut armor, no matter how many anime series tell you otherwise.

And did I mention that pommels make for a devastating long-ranged weapon as well? True story. ;D

Post-Carnage Report

Thus, we conducted the pommel-bashing drill several times. I, as always, was voluntold for the demonstration. And on the fourth repetition of eating a delicious pommel, the loaner helmet caved in, slamming parts of the grill and gorget against my forehead and throat respectively. OUCH.

My brain is somehow still intact, despite the blunt-force trauma. I certainly hope my new helmet (which I’m still waiting to get delivered) provides a better defense in future sessions. 

I guess I’m a glutton for punishment, because you bet your ass I’m still going to the next class.


Here mark the break against the Twerhau:
Mark, when you stand against him in the guard vom Tag, then hew him boldly above to the head. If he then springs from the hew and he means to come Before with the Twerhau and strike you therewith to your left side to the head, then fall in with the long edge on his sword. If he then strikes with the Twer around to your other side, then come Meanwhile before, also with the Twer, in front under his sword on his neck. So he strikes himself with your sword.

The importance of Order in cuts

As we all know, sword fighting is not easy at all. The image portrayed by movies and games sometimes makes it feel like it’s the simple result of pure passion, speed and strength but the reality is that there is a science behind a duel, and it’s damn hard.

One of the first ideas i was introduced to when i first started HEMA is the very important and fundamental concept of Order of cuts.

 Let’s take as an example this well executed Mandritto Fendente

As you can see, the entire motion of the body starts from the force impressed on the pommel. This way, the blade is first moving forward and right after the cut is completed, the motion forces your body to step

This is very important because it gives you more time to react, preventing your body to get too close to the opponents blade.

It can be really frustrating to get used to the body mechanics so i found a couple of exercises that might help muscle memory!

THIS video explains how to execute a correct Fendente cut 

THIS shows some exercises for body mechanics development 

important: If you, dear reader, have some suggestions, PLEASE contact me! i’d love to receive some advice on how to improve myself