The Real Life Duel

Western Martial Arts is a funny thing.  It’s a resurrected Art, for one thing, as opposed to having a living tradition.  Thus we see that throughout almost every historical self defence system it is assumed that a gentleman would carry a sword at all times.  This is no longer strictly true.  Since self defence is the essence of any martial art, let’s look at the “true” art of defence.

The first step in defensive training begins with the hands.  To paraphrase my old kung fu Sifu, if you can’t fight with your hands, you have no business saying you can fight at all.  If you strip away everything else, unarmed martial arts is about two things: hitting and being hit.  And yes, being hit is a big part of it.  It seems at first to be a side effect of training, but in class you get hit a lot.  Even with padding, it sucks at first.  Eventually you get used to it to an extent.  More than that, you learn how to take a hit and keep going.  There are ways you can move and things you can do to minimize impact.

As soon as you bring a weapon in to the mix, the rules change.  The order of the day switches from “get hit as little as possible,” to “don’t get hit at all.”  There is no safe way to take a hit from a sword.  While a single cut or thrust will not necessarily be fatal, there really isn’t an optimal way to get hit.  It is commonly taught that “good” technique is a lethal or debilitating strike that keeps the combatant safe.  The focus of most techniques is for lethal strikes.

Which brings us to the duel.  As Western Martial Artists we theoretically try to simulate the duel.  There is, however something that is damn near impossible to simulate.  Fear.  There are few things more terrifying than squaring off against an armed opponent, sure in the knowledge that any offensive motion must by necessity open yourself to counter attack and equally sure that such a motion is required to end the fight in your favour.

We have written historical accounts of duels, surprisingly few of them resulting in death.  We also have youtube.  Actual, filmed duels (mostly fought with epees) can be found with a minimum of searching.  Fought mostly in the early parts of the 20th century, I personally noticed two things in these videos.  First off, the combatants never lunge as I have come to expect from that style of fencing.  Secondly, almost every one of these duels ends with an injury to the arm.

This meshes quite well with what I have been talking about.  Deep lunges allow for easier counter attacks and the arm is the most readily available target that can quickly end the fight.  So here we see that the natural human instinct for survival overpowers old ideas of “good” technique.  Thus we encounter a fencing paradox.  The best techniques for ending a fight quickly are not the best techniques for the true art of fencing.  In a modern context striking to the hand is considered to be a dirty trick and those that do it are called dishonourable.

So what does this mean?  It means it’s better to use properly effective technique when simulating a duel.  Techniques that leave your opponent feeling like they were defeated by a skilled fencer and not some quick little bastard who went for the easiest target.  Except when it matters.  In fight for your life, you may find that there is no choice but to attack the easiest target in order to survive.  So now I leave you with one of those duels I mentioned.

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