Spoiled By Choice

There is a funny thing that happens in martial arts.  At beginning levels all students seem to want to learn new techniques.  New techniques, all the time.  As an instructor, it’s sometimes a challenge to restrain yourself from indulging them.  There is that niggling insecurity (at least with me) that by showing new students things too slowly you’ll lose their attention.  This is a problem for more than a few reasons, the most immediate of which is that those students who get bored by the basics are probably not worth training unless they can be convinced to change their mind. Continue reading

The Knightly Knife

I had a conversation with someone a while back about Game of Thrones.  They were pointing out to me the “incorrect” way they wore their swords, saying that they were being worn too high on the waist.  I had another problem with how the swords were being worn around the castle, namely that they were being worn at all.  It seems that the main characters in particular wear a sword all the damn time.  Although this is a minor gripe with an excellent series, let me tell you that swords are (in general) uncomfortable.  Historically there were of course situations where you would want to have a sword close at hand, but in your own house was probably not one of them.

“Ah,” I hear you say, “but what about assassination?  Surely you would be worried about your enemies cutting you down while you were unarmed.”  Well, that’s certainly a good point, but the fact of the matter is a sword is a terrible assassin’s weapon.  First, it’s all but impossible to conceal.  Second, you have to be able to draw it and strike without anybody noticing.  So no, I don’t think people would have been terribly worried about being assassinated via sword.  I’m sure it happened, mind you, I just don’t think it was that common.  Even in times where a sword was considered part of a gentleman’s dress (mostly after the 16th century) most accounts tell of sword fights and not sword “drive by stabbings.”  Having said that, important to remember that there was a time that everyone carried a knife.

The modern idea of honour s a funny thing.  The thought in these times is that knifing an enemy is a low thing to do.  Something an honourable knight wouldn’t have to worry about.  Back in the sword days this may not have been the case.  From some of the tales of the time that have survived we can see that if someone wronged you, revenge was inevitable and the exact means was left to your own devices.  Combine that with a culture that virtually demands that any adult male carry a knife and you have a recipe for violence.  Knives of the time were tools as much as weapons and always by your side.  In fact the Saxons share a name with their ever present blade, the Saex, as seen here in Hanweii’s replica:

I figured this space needed more saex appeal.

I figured this space needed more saex appeal.

Knives as an ever present companion are a staple of European society and enough people carry knives today to be considered a still living tradition.  In a way we owe it to ourselves to be proficient in knife fighting if we plan on carrying a knife.  A weapon we don’t know how to use belongs to our opponent.  But let’s look again at the knives in olden days.  We’ve mentioned the saex.  In Fiore’s time the rondel was the dagger of choice.  There was also the ballock knife which later e

volved into the Scottish dirk.  From the surviving manuals we can see that these all had a similar shape and were used in a similar way.  The sword and knife company Cold Steel makes some good rubber training knives and a training dagger that works really well so long as you take off the large and slightly goofy looking cross guard.  It’s worth noting that from my research almost every dagger in history didn’t have a cross guard at all.  Some did, but by and large knives are most useful without one.

DSCF1310

The bottom one is my preferred option.

Dagger play is a tricky thing.  An easy trap to fall into, that I’ve seen happen many times is teaching new students that Renaissance dagger is exactly the same as modern knife.  I’m not going to waste any more time talking about this except to say “don’t, unless you know exactly what you are doing.”  Make it clear to students that there is a difference and warn them off real world confrontations.  One of the biggest things to keep in mind is that knives now are far sharper than they were.  Thus, almost all attacks were delivered with the point.  Daggers are also much bigger than a standard pocket knife.  This totally changes the game.  It’s just such a shame that knives are too often seen as weapons to be feared these days.  In Scottish society carrying a dirk was a sign of adulthood, and I don’t think this is without merit.  I prefer people carrying knives to guns, after all.  I have heard far too many accounts of people for whom there is no intermediate step between “I feel threatened in this situation” and pulling a weapon.  At least with a knife there is a chance for defend yourself.  So, as always, stay safe and don’t get in any knife fights.

Fighting Scots

The Scottish have something of a reputation for fighting.  Back in the 18th Century this was also the case.  I think it’s no coincidence that the Romans built a wall to keep the Scots (okay, the Picts actually) out of their territory.  Sadly, there isn’t much in the way of recorded Scottish swordplay and what does exist has been diluted by English sword masters pretending to teach a Scottish system.  Hey, this was good business on their part as they were simply marketing to what was in demand.

Probably the best source we do have of Scottish swordplay comes form a man named Thomas Page.  Mr. Page was an English artillery officer who wrote a very brief summary of Scottish highland broadsword play as he observed it. Now, I am loathe to describe any system of martial arts as being superior to any other, but Page would probably not have agreed.  He saw the Highlander fight first hand and saw them as true masters of the sword.

So what made the Highlanders “better” than their English contemporaries?  Well I have a couple of theories.   I think the biggest thing was training.  For an Englishman to become a soldier was a career choice.  For a Scottish Highlander, being a warrior was cultural.  Sword training began at a very young age.  So when matching a lifelong swordsman against someone with only a few months or even weeks of training, there is really no contest.

English Broadsword of this era also had some pretty strong deficiencies as well.  As much as I love the swordplay as practiced by masters Henry Angelo and John Taylor, their system is highly derivative of the point oriented smallsword way of fighting.  This translated in to a very linear fight.  When you think and fight exclusively in straight lines you are opening yourself up to complete decimation by a swordsman used to using oblique angles and circular movement.  Guess how the Scots liked to fight?

Outside Guards: Smallsword, English Broadsword, Highland Broadsword

Outside Guards: Smallsword, English Broadsword, Highland Broadsword

We also have some body mechanic issues as well.  Being so close to the smallsword system, English broadsword was focused of keeping the sword hilt between you and your opponent at all times and almost exclusively relied on wrist powered cuts.  While these cuts are perfectly effective when delivered properly, they were far less devastating than the elbow and shoulder cuts that were favoured by the Highlanders.  It was a trade, really, between the stronger defence of the English Style and the more powerful attack of the Scottish.  Of course the Highlanders compensated quite well by using a device that was out of style the rest of the world over: the shield.DSCF1267

So despite not having access to any true first hand sources of uniquely Scottish swordplay, we still have a good idea of exactly how the Highlanders would have fought.  It’s a fascinating study that I am just getting to the meat of and an area I plan on training in for a long time to come.

A Guide to Historical Fencing

I tell people I am a fencer.  This to them summons the image of those guys in the white suits poking at each other with what looks like car antennae.  So in order to combat this I thought I would provide a brief history of the sword as well as explaining exactly what it is I do. Continue reading

Good Fighters With Bad Technique

I have had the privilege of knowing and training with some truly awesome fighters.  Fighters that work hard and show the results.  Every now and then, though, I come across an odd breed of fencer.  These folk win many of their fights with what can only be described as trickery.  These sneaky tricks often make use of bad technique.  Now it’s important to mention that I have no wish to disparage these fighters and I will shortly explain what I mean by “bad technique.”  It’s also important to note that were I called upon to train someone for a life or death duel, I would teach them to fight exactly as I described.  I have a repertoire of deadly tricks that tend to work exactly once and if you needed to defend your life in a one time duel, I would drill you with one of these techniques.  It’s my feeling, however, that reliance on tricks severely hampers the development of true skill. Continue reading

Guarded Statements

There’s something that’s been bothering me about historical fencing for a while.  I’ve been having a lot of problems with the term “guard.”  In theory a guard is any position your body and sword take to defend yourself.  There are complexities within that definition and some people have their own different definitions.  For example, one interpreter of the medieval I.33 system stated that there were no guards present in the style, because you were never supposed to stand stationary to protect yourself in any particular position.  One of my own instructors once made the ridiculous claim that any position you can hold your sword in is a guard, but it is only a “good guard” if it serves to protect you.  Ignoring the fact that if every position is a guard then the entire concept of guard becomes useless, some refining to the term is clearly needed. Continue reading

Cutting Remarks

I have been working a lot recently with the broadsword.  That is to say, the basket hilted sword that is also sometimes called the backsword.  Not any of the following examples.

Not Broadswords

Broadswords belong to a class of weapons that are primarily designed to cut.  Cutting is a funny thing.  I equate cutting to punching.  Hand a person a sword and right away they are going to want to cut with it.  Put someone in an unarmed situation and they are probably going to want to punch.  Just as it is  with cutting it is with punching, unless you’ve received quality training you’re going to do it wrong.  When teaching unarmed fighting I tell my students it will be about three months before they are going to be able to throw a proper and effective punch and this seems to be about right for most people. Continue reading

The Katana: In which Snark Rears its Head

This is a special request I received: “Will you do one about katanas and how they can cut through tanks, rocks and telephone poles?”  The request was made by one of my students, so you can be assured that there may have been a hint of sarcasm in that comment.  At any rate, it’s still something that deserves to be talked about.  First take a minute or six to watch the following video.  Seriously this guy is brilliant.:

Continue reading

Simon’s First Three Rules of Knife Fighting

I was recently privileged to be invited to teach a couple of classes at the Cascadia North Accolade Tournament (CNAT) at Camp Jubilee.  This is an annual tournament and workshop for Western Martial Arts.  I taught two classes, the first was a combat knife class, the second was highland broadsword.  I had originally written a post about the broadsword, but after re-reading it I decided that it needs work.  So we’ll start with the knife.  I take my knife classes very seriously.  Which is not to say I don’t also take sword training seriously as well, but I don’t lie awake at night worrying that if I poorly explain a longsword technique one of my students will get in over their head at the bar. Continue reading