On Energy Management 

How long do you want to be doing this for?

If you’re like me, you will answer “for as long as I can swing a sword”. And that’s great.

When you’re in your twenties, everything is fun and easy. You’re fast, you’re fit, and you can run and fight all day. When you start getting older, you find that things change.

While there are certainly exceptions, in general it is a true thing that people aren’t as fit when they’re in their forties as they are when they’re in their twenties, and that can pose a problem.

The activities you do in your twenties are harder in your forties. You get tired more quickly. Partly this is because when you’re older, you’ve spent more of your time trying to earn a living, paying off your mortgage, and drinking beer with your mates than exercising. It adds up.

Eventually you find that all of the high-energy techniques and moves that you practiced so hard to commit to muscle memory aren’t as easy any more. The problem is, you still have the muscle memory. You find that your body tries to do things that were once easy but now threaten to just break you. Most of the time it will succeed – you will do the technique, and you will break. You will tire quickly, and won’t be able to fight for as long. Which means that you miss out on a lot of fun fighting because you just don’t have the energy any more.

There are a couple of ways that you can overcome this. The first is to make sure that you stay fit and active as you grow older. But as they say, good intentions blah blah blah. Suddenly you’re hitting forty-seven and you realise that you haven’t kept up with the exercise the way you had planned.

The other is to plan ahead – learn and practice techniques now that focus on energy management. Don’t practice  high-energy, explosive techniques. Don’t waste your energy on unnecessary movements.

Low-energy doesn’t mean slow. On the contrary, it means that your techniques are quicker because you’re acting directly and without waste. All your energy is directed towards your goals – hitting your opponent and not getting hit – and none is wasted on extraneous movements.

The other advantage of training in this way is that those times when you do want to do something fancy, you have the extra energy to do it.

No-one ever plans to become old and fat. In fact, most of us plan not to. But then life happens. Training for energy management pays off now, and prepares you for your future. And hopefully it will help you to continue doing this hobby for many years to come.

The Circles of the Sword

The sword is an inanimate object. It would be wrong to say that it “wants” to move in certain ways. But it does. It totally does.

circles

If you remember your high school physics, you will recall Newton’s First Law: An object in motion will not change its velocity unless acted upon by an outside force. In real terms this means that when you swing a sword, you need to expend energy in order to make it deviate from its course.

Swords move in circles. Because a sword is anchored at one end – the hilt – it will tend to describe an arc when it moves. Changing that arc requires effort. Therefore for the most energy-efficient use of the sword, you will want to make use of these arcs as much as possible.

Why is it important to be energy efficient? That’s a topic for another post.

For now, consider this:

figure eight

This is one of the most basic circles, and I call it the Figure Eight. This is one of the first things a student will do when they pick up a sword: two slashes – one from right to left, and one from left to right. The hard part is flowing from one to the other without breaking the sword’s momentum. I say hard, but it’s not really all that difficult. It does, however, require a certain flexibility of the wrist.

When practicing the Figure Eight, it is often best to not worry about edge discipline at first. Just pretend it’s a broomstick. Or practice with an actual broomstick. The orientation of the broomstick when it strikes its hypothetical target doesn’t matter. When your wrist is comfortable with this movement, think about edge discipline – think about striking with the edge of the sword. This involves resisting the natural tendency to turn the wrist until the hypothetical strike has been completed.

The next step, of course, is to do this in the other direction. Instead of two diagonal down-strikes, make it two diagonal up-strikes. The movement is essentially the same, though of course backwards. Turn the wrist to make your hypothetical strikes with the sword’s true edge.

Here’s another useful circle:

around the head

Here, the downwards strike from right to left moves naturally into a block to intercept blows coming at the left shoulder. Having blocked this blow, the sword moves naturally to repeat the strike.

Notice here that the sword as it moves is more or less describing a plane. This is the natural movement of a sword – the arm and shoulder follow it.

Here’s the same thing on the other side:

outside

I say this is “the same thing”, but the motion is actually somewhat different – notice the sword shoulder is held back, for example. This gives a slight impression of leaning backward rather than into the blow. Ideally, of course, your shoulders should stay more or less directly above your hips.

Regardless, this is “the same thing” because it consists of the repeating diagonal strike, and the inclined plane that is described by the sword’s motion.

One last example:

thrust

An interesting variation, this, because it actually breaks some of the guidelines I’ve suggested above. Not really, but it seems to. Here, the sword is moving in a figure eight pattern like the first example, but instead of crossing the body, the sword does a small loop and moves into the thrusting position. Note particularly how the leg has to be drawn back slightly in order to make room.

To summarise:

  • Swords naturally move in circles
  • Deviating from these circles requires energy
  • Expending too much energy in a fight is bad
  • Following the sword’s circles when you fight is good.

Starting a strike, then arresting and reversing its motion so that you can strike elsewhere is inefficient in terms of energy and in terms of the time it takes to complete the movement. By the time you have arrested the motion of your sword and redirected it elsewhere, you have given your opponent time to react. You can achieve a similar effect by using circles, with less energy expended and in a shorter time.

Practice with your sword. Take it out whenever you’ve got time and room to move, and swing it. Don’t just do one movement at a time. Put some energy into it, move your feet, and let your sword move into the circles that feel the most comfortable. Familiarity with the way your weapon moves will help you in combat.

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.

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.