Defending with the single handed sword

De Fechtbuch Talhoffer 221

As I have said previously, it is easy to defend with a shield – you just need to keep the shield between you and your opponent. But what if you don’t have a shield? This article explores the options for defending with a single-handed sword.

Three kinds of defence

There are three basic kinds of defence with a sword, which I refer to as blockparry, and void.

The block is where you stick your sword in your opponent’s way. It is not subtle, or particularly strong, and should be a last resort. A static block is weak and easily deceived. With foam swords, it is common for the attacking sword to simply bounce, pushing the defending sword out of the way and continuing to strike the target on a slightly different line. For these reasons, blocking is a last resort.

The parry on the other hand is an active defence. To parry, you intercept your opponent’s weapon with your own. You take control of it and put it where you want it to be. This could be with a beat – which involves striking the weapon in order to move it off its intended line, or with a bind – which is where you engage, maintain contact, and push it offline. Either works, but the latter requires a little more practice.

The void is always the preferred defence where possible. The best defence of all is to not be where your opponent’s sword is. This requires footwork. You must also remember that defending yourself is not sufficient – you also have to strike your opponent in order to win the fight. This means you must manoeuvre yourself into a position where you can hit your opponent, but your opponent cannot hit you. When your opponent strikes, take a small step backwards and strike for their arm. Move around them and strike from their shield side.

Defending against different weapons

Sword against sword is fairly straightforward, but the situation is more complicated when your opponent has a different weapon.

Against two-handed swords, blocks are almost useless. Your opponent has more leverage than you do, and can simply push through or deceive your block. You are much better off with a parry, though you must remember that with two hands on the weapon, your opponent’s grip and leverage will be stronger than your own. Use voids wherever possible and strike for your opponent’s forearms.

Mass weapons – axes, maces and hammers – are very strong in the strike, but slow in the recovery. They move in straightforward circles with little finesse. It is hard for the attacker to redirect them they have committed. However, you can parry and get some leverage over them – the heavy mass at the end carries a lot of momentum, and if you can gain control over that, it is difficult for the opponent to recover quickly. Again, voiding their attack is preferable. This allows you to counter during their long recovery.

Pole weapons such as spears and halberds are problematic for shieldless fighters, as they are very fast and dangerous, and will strike to the leg, which is harder for you to defend. You will need to rely on the void almost exclusively. However, remember that they are reach weapons – they aren’t as good against someone very close. Your best bet is to bind the weapon to control it and move in as quickly as you can before releasing the bind to strike at close range. Never fight at the spear’s range.

Fighting against someone with a shield when you do not have one is always going to be problematic. All other things equal, a fighter with a shield should always defeat one without a shield. However, there are still things you can do. In order to strike, they will need to reach out with their sword arm. Many shield fighters do not adequately defend this arm when they strike – especially if their shield is large. The sword arm is therefore vulnerable to counters. Also, try and manoeuvre to their shield side – they will have to reach around their own shield to get to you. You will need speed and luck.


My pedagogical approach

There are some who say that the best way to learn to do something is to do it. I would agree, with the addition that the best way to learn to do something badly is to do it badly.

In my classes I like to focus on the fundamentals – the steps, the grip, the way the sword and body move together. I believe that establishing good habits is essential to driving out bad ones. Repetition is the most effective way of doing this. It is also extremely boring. A small amount of repetitive movement is always going to be necessary for developing good technique, but I don’t want to let it take over the training session. This is why the entire second half of my classes are dedicated to sparring.

As it says in the description, anyone can hide behind a big shield. They are not difficult to use. Generally, my advice to someone using a shield is “keep it in front of you”. Defending yourself without a shield is a lot more difficult, and requires a lot more skill with the weapon. Hence, my classes focus on shieldless fighting.

All of my classes are designed with the following principles in mind:

1. Calmness of mind and preparedness of body

One of my goals is to train out the twitch response. A fighter should be calm and should react with precision, rather than being tense and reacting suddenly. Twitch responses are quick, but uncontrolled and can easily be deceived. Calmness in a fight is therefore to be cultivated. The mind must be calm in order to be able to react with speed and accuracy to what your opponent is doing.

Secondly, the body must always be prepared to move when necessary. The fighter must not be overly tense, but rather in a state where sudden movement is possible. Tenseness fatigues muscles quickly, and slows reaction time. The fighter should be relaxed but prepared to move.

2. Footwork and the relationship with the ground

I often say that you should always stay in contact with the ground. If you lose the ground, it will rush up and hit you in the head. Solid footwork is essential to maintaining contact with the ground. The ground is the surface that you push off in order to move.

There are some who will teach the “bounce”, that you should be constantly moving while you fight. I believe this to be a waste of energy. Your energy budget is limited, and excess movement that does not contribute to the outcome of the fight is unnecessary. I teach a stable stance, and a solid relationship with the ground. The purposes of good footwork are balance and distance, and neither is achievable without a good stance.

3. Precision of technique

Finally, I believe precision to be more important than speed. A precise fighter can move quickly, but a quick fighter rarely fights precisely. All fighters are capable of being precise, but speed is dependent on body type and fitness. Without precision, a quick fighter will always defeat a slow fighter. Precision is therefore the equaliser – the factor that can allow the slow to compete with the quick.

Imprecision in technique leads to bad hits – either you hit too hard or you hit a non-target zone. As safety is a primary concern in our game, both hard and off-target hits are undesirable and should be trained out. Slow repetitive practice is the best way of achieving precise technique.

Session 2 Recap

Thanks to everyone who came out tonight. We had eight students, which is almost double the number we had last week. I expect that different people will be able to attend on different days of the week, which is why I rotate days.

Tonight’s school was essentially a repeat of last week’s. I believe that repetition is important in developing good technique, and all my classes will basically begin in the same way – with warmups and practicing the Tai Chi Step. Over the summer we will develop different focuses and explore new techniques.

It is true that I talk a lot during my classes – this is just the way I do things. There is a lot of theoretical knowledge associated with swordplay, and sometimes it can only be given to students verbally. However, I want to make sure that practical knowledge is a priority in my classes, and so I started this blog.

Here, I intend to pontificate to my heart’s content, pouring out all the words that I keep in during classes in order to maintain the focus on practice. I have a number of posts on the boil – such as an examination of the differences between single combat and group fighting, discussions of several different weapon types and their use and purpose, and my thoughts on the battle games that are part of the Hundred Swords experience.

You can subscribe to this blog using an RSS reader, or just follow it at the Señor Capullo’s Facebook Group. Feel free to leave comments.

On The Differences Between Battle Gaming And Historical Swordplay

Epic Empires5LARP, or Live Action Role Playing, is a popular pastime across the world. LARPs involve dressing in costume, getting into character, and playing out an adventure across the countryside – usually but not exclusively including mock fighting.

What the Hundred Swords does is best described as Battle Gaming – we take the mock fighting elements of LARP but leave behind the emphasis on costume and character. Since our focus is on fighting, rather than roleplaying, we have a particular interest in fighting technique and skills.

HEMA, or Historical European Martial Arts, is a method of recovering lost fighting arts by reconstructing them from period texts. There are many extant period texts to draw upon, dating from the late 12th century onwards, and dealing with a wide variety of different weapons and fighting styles. Some cover single-handed cutting and thrusting swords, others two-handed swords, and later manuals are dedicated to the rapier.

There is an obvious overlap between battle gaming and historical swordplay, but there are some significant differences that it is important to be aware of.

 1: The game.

Historical swordplay is almost exclusively illustrated by one-on-one situations. They are a very good resource for winning duels. On the other hand, battle gaming is usually (though not exclusively) done in groups, in the field. Group fighting is a very different situation from duelling.

Duellists are focused on their opponent, usually to the exclusion of all other potential distractions. In a group fight, such focus can be disastrous. Fighters will always need good battlefield awareness – the ability to perceive major events and flows on the battlefield – in order to achieve their objectives. Focusing exclusively on a single opponent is a good way to help your team lose.

2: The weapons.

Foam weapons behave very differently from steel ones. Steel weapons engage while foam weapons bounce. This bounciness necessitates changes in technique, since historical techniques relied on their weapons’ ability not to bounce. Techniques such as engagements, binds and winds usually require the swords to connect and ‘bite’ in order for the technique to work correctly. This is, of course, impossible when the weapons just bounce off one another.

3: The play.

Historical swordplay is all about killing or maiming your opponent. The techniques presented in historical manuals are brutal and effective at bringing your opponent out of the fight as quickly as possible. On the other hand, battle gaming is about fun and enjoyment. These two goals are basically incompatible, which means that if we want to adopt techniques from historical swordplay, we must adapt and change these techniques to be compatible with our goal of having a fun afternoon in the park.

In future posts on this blog, I will examine many aspects of how historical swordsmanship can inform the practice of battle gaming. I believe that there is a lot that we as foam-sword fighters can learn from historical techniques, as well as from modern reenactors and members of groups such as the SCA and AAF.

Ultimately, what we do will never be an accurate martial art. No, it is not necessary to study the techniques of martial arts before engaging in battle gaming. But we can still use these techniques as training tools, as long as we are aware of the differences. In the end, the enjoyment of the game is all that matters.

Session 1 Recap

Thanks to everyone who came out to the School tonight. I think we had a fun and interesting time. I’d like to emphasise here that my way of doing things is not the only correct way. It’s what has worked for me over the past 25 years, but every sword fighter is an individual with their own preferences and techniques.What follows is a recap of the main points of the lesson. This is intended as a memory jogger for those who attended the class, but also as an introduction to those who didn’t.

1. Fighting Stance: Feet at opposite corners of a square, weight evenly distributed between the feet.
2. The Tai Chi Step: Shift weight to the front foot. Lift the rear foot and touch it to your other ankle. Reach out with that foot and place it on the ground without putting weight on it. Then shift your weight so it is evenly distributed.

Solo Drill
3. Ward: Silver’s Open Fight – fighting stance, sword aloft. Arm next to ear, leading edge of sword and knuckles towards the enemy.
4. Strike: Diagonally at the enemy’s shoulder. With Tai Chi Step, time so that the foot lands at the same time as the blade.

Pairs Drill
5. Agent/Patient: The Agent does the action, the Patient has the action done to them.
6: Distance: fight takes place outside distance, so that the Agent needs to take a step to attack. Measure distance by touching your opponent’s chest with your sword, then take a small step back.
7. Ward: True Guardant – sword leg forward, point of sword directed at shield knee, gaze below the arm. A good defensive ward.
8. Ward: Variable aka Forearm Ward – protecting one side of the body or the other. Inside, outside, high, low for 4 separate forearm wards. Very good for defence, but vulnerable to thrusts.
9. Agent in Open, patient in Forearm Ward. Agent strikes with a step (as point 4 above), Patient shifts Forearm ward to intercept the strike. Not a parry, a shifting of the ward.

10. Rock/Paper/Scissors: Guardant counters Open, Variable counters Guardant, Open counters Variable.
11. Change opponents regularly.