In Defence of Singlestick

Bring me to a Fencer, I will bring him out of his fence trickes with good downe right blowes
-George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence

Singlestick is a game with simple rules.  It has been practiced for centuries in Scotland.  You stand, without moving your feet across from your opponent with the stick for which the game is made raised and protecting your head in the position the Scots called St. George’s Guard.  Your opponent does the same.  On the command of “go” you attempt to strike each other on the head with enough force to draw blood without him striking you in return. There are occasionally variations, but that’s the gist.  Singlestick is a game with simple rules but endless complexities and strategy.

For your first game (with will almost certainly played with fencing masks) will be over before you know it’s begun.  You’ll hear the Go command and suddenly you’ll be reeling from a hit you wont remember receiving.  For your second match you’ll be watching for, but you’ll only have just begun your defensive motion when you’ll feel the impact against your mask.  If you keep at it you’ll hear a clack, clack as your stick meet before the now familiar thunk against your head.  Eventually you’ll find a kind of rhythm of defend, defend, attack, defend, attack, attack.  That is when you’ll make an inevitable and critical mistake; you’ll start to think about what your doing.  The instant your conscious brain tries to direct your actions you’ll get hit once again.  Singlestick is all about forging simple actions into instinct.

When fighting with the broadsword, a technique that can very quickly overcome an inexperienced or unsure fencer is to rain down blows on their head.  The manuals of Henry Angelo and John Taylor focused more time to this than any other attack.  It’s hidden, though, but once you see it, it becomes impossible to ignore.  Thus we see the value of singlestick.  There is an adage in fencing, that timing is equal to distance.  Because in singlestick you are standing at the closest effective combat range the game goes blindingly fast.  You learn to react without thinking to strong downright blows and deliver them with force in return.  In a good game of singlestick your instincts become honed and you can begin to plan and direct your motions without ever engaging the more conscious portions of your brain.  It is far from the mindless machismo that it looks like at first glace and was, in its time, a valuable survival skill.DSCF1849

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