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.
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.
You may be surprised at the amount of delicate precision required to cut effectively. Any mook can pick up a sword and swing away, but let’s look at how to do things properly.
Many masters of the broadsword days strongly advise learning the smallsword first, and I have to say I agree with them. Thrusting weapons require an equal amount of precision but since the actions involved in thrusting are smaller, being precise is easier to learn. Here’s an easy way to illustrate this idea. The folowing diagram is a cutting target by Henry Angelo.See that point in the center? I want you to reach out and poke it. Go on, point at it and touch the dot. Pretty simple, right? Now bring your finger back to about your ear and with a quick, slightly arcing motion and following one of the lines leading in, point at the dot again. Pretend your finger is a sword that you are cutting with as you do so. How did that work out? Did your finger overshoot the point, perhaps? Now imagine actually doing that with a sword. Imagine stopping a three foot piece of steel at that exact center point without sacrificing the speed necessary to strike properly. This is a part of how we cut properly and the start of why it is so difficult to do.
Next there’s edge alignment. Swords are not lightsabers. They have at most two edges with which to do their job. In order to deliver an effective cut the edge must be exactly in line with the direction the cut is moving and most people will have trouble with this in the beginning. If the edge is even slightly off the line then the cut will be ineffective. One way to help is to hold your sword with your thumb directly in line with the back or “false” edge. This will provide direct bio-feedback to your brain to help keep your blade aligned and also give me the excuse to use the term “bio-feedback.”
Once you have mastered edge alignment and point control, you will be well equipped to effectively cut a stationary target that doesn’t fight back. Using a cut against an active opponent without exposing yourself to counterattack is no easy task.
In the Western Martial Arts world the debate rages as to whether or not the cut is more effective than the thrust. Here’s my take. Throughout the history of swordplay there existed swords designed for each method of attack and plenty them existed concurrently. This shows that in a time when people relied on their swords for survival and defence both cuts and thrusts were used. Therefore, both are good and effective techniques and no education in swordplay is complete without the practitioner being equally comfortable with using either when the situation demands it. As an instructor, though, I feel it benefits the student to learn the thrust as the first method of attack and save cutting for later lessons. Similarly when teaching new students self defence, I don’t teach them to punch right away. As to what I do teach them? That’s for another post, maybe.