Duellist logo
Home
Update
Societies
Arms/Armour
Treatise
Fiction
Events
New Societies
Books
Articles &
Links

How to study the sword

The simple answer to this question is of course: Find a qualified teacher, take classes, join a club or group and practice lots.. Finding that qualified teacher and being able to afford the tuition, time and equipment is of course another matter.

To put things into perspective, there are at present within the UK less than 20 well established classical fencing and historic swordsmanship groups, in addition to that there are perhaps another 30 re-enactment groups. Add a scattering of theatrical fencing groups and you've got a pretty accurate picture of the potential resources available to a budding swordsman.

To dwell on the negative side a little more, it should also be noted that there is no official body or supervising organisation regulating the study of classical fencing or historic swordsmanship, and as such there is currently no such thing as a nationally recognised qualified instructor.

So, put these things together and suddenly the possibility of finding that qualified instructor in some conveniently local fencing school seems a fraction less likely. This isn't to suggest that you shouldn't try. An experienced swordsman or group would make learning the basics of swordplay, not only much easier and much quicker, but probably also much more enjoyable and entertaining. An experienced eye can spot faults in technique before they become bad habits, and an established group will often contain a great deal of experience, knowledge and diversity of interest, allowing the beginner to try various techniques and weapons before deciding upon a definite line of study.

But if you've checked the local area and just can't find a group or teacher close enough then all is not lost, because it is possible to study swordsmanship without the aid of a local classical or historic group.

 

1. Alternative Tuition.

If there isn't a classic or historic group in your area then you may want to try finding a sport/olympic fencing group. Sport fencing groups despite there relative anonymity are quite numerous, check your local leisure centres, university's and colleges.


The sport of fencing:
The modern sport of fencing is quite significantly removed from the art of swordplay and as such is far from ideal, but having said that, it does have it's foundation in real swordplay and as such still retains considerable value for the budding swordsman, especially if the swordplay of interest is the art of duelling or personal combat with rapier or smallsword.

The good points of sport fencing are of course coupled with bad points and might typically include:

Fitness:

Sport fencing is an athletic exercise, as such it will enhance general fitness levels. Leg strength - most swordplay relies as much upon leg strength as it does upon technique and hand, eye co-ordination.

Hand/Eye Coordination:

The weapons may be lighter and faster, but they'll teach you to respond to an adversary.

Technique:

Despite only being a distant relation, sport fencing still retains much of it's roots, experienced fencers and coaches will normally teach you several techniques that can be directly applied to all lighter classical and historic weapons.

Equipment:

As a member of a club, you will have access to discounted equipment, much of which is used for classic or historic swordplay.

It's light, it's whippy and it doesn't respond like a real blade. Sporting weapons are not swords, and as such there is a whole range of technique that just doesn't work with them, but they're inexpensive, easily available and can by used to practice an equally large range of transferable techniques before moving on to a more realistic weapons.

Conventions:

One of the things that most classical and historic swordsmen detest about sport fencing is the use of conventions. Which put bluntly, is the rule that you have to take it in turns to attack and defend. Once you've attacked your opponent you must then defend and vice versa. Be aware of this and practice non convention fighting outside the club and you shouldn't develop any unrealistic habits.

The Flick:

although there is still some genuine fencing technique involved in sport fencing, there is also a range of techniques that only work with electric scoring equipment.

 

2. Going it alone.

If sport fencing isn't an option then your only other alternative is to try and teach yourself, this is very difficult but just about possible.

Whether you manage to find a fencing club or not you need to practice classical or historic swordplay separately, and to do that you're going to need a practice partner, several swordplay web sites like the The Sword Forum and The Exiles have sections devoted to bringing swordspeople together, ideally find someone who can spar at least once a week, if you can't find anyone already listed, list yourself and then post an entry on the forums asking for contacts and suggestions.

Once you've found a practice partner you need to find something to practice, somewhere to practice and something to practice with. You don't have to sort them all out at once, but you're going to need all three before you can begin.


Decisions
Deciding what it is you're going to practice is probably the most difficult thing, and unless you have a burning desire to study the swordplay of a particular period or style then you're just going to have read around the subject. If you're not sure where to begin try arranging a visit to your most local classical or historic group(s) in order to try various weapons and techniques. If you don't have the resources to pay a visit to an established group then try and get advice from the on-line community, you'll probably get a whole range of responses, many of which you'll just have to discard, find a few that suit your resources and interest and ask for more information.

As a general rule with sword practice it's best to focus on a single weapon to begin with, don't try and develop a two weapon combo, sword and dagger, sword and shield, sword and open hand etc. As a beginner you need to concentrate on developing a sense of distance and timing, and having two weapons means you have two lots of distance and timing to figure out. Stick to one weapon until you feel comfortable with it, until you start to respond intuitively, and then bring in second weapons.

When you finally get to the stage of knowing what weapon and technique you'd like to practice, then find a treatise, manual or text and start at the beginning. Make no mistake it'll be hard work, you'll make many mistakes that'll cause you to have to go back over the text time and time again, you may even interpret something better than anyone else. Again though, if you start struggling, make use of the online community, there are many experienced people who are only too willing to share their knowledge.


Location
In order to practice you're also going to need somewhere where you're not going to disturb or alarm others, as a small (possibly 2 person) group you're probably going to have to settle for an imperfect location. As a general rule though you're going to need somewhere at least 20 feet square with enough head clearance to allow freedom of movement for the sword arm. If you can't find anywhere else, try local, theatre's, church halls, hotels, schools and colleges. You'll need special insurance before you can practice in any of these places, but once you have that it should be reasonably straight forward. The British Fencing has a page dedicated to sporting insurance located at: British Fencing.


Approach
You've decided what weapon you want to study, you've found somewhere that you can practice without alarming dozens of people, now you have to decide how you want to practice and more importantly, how you're able to practice.

Ideally you may want authentic weapons and sufficient armour to allow complete freedom of attack and defence with minimal risk to anyone's health. In practice you're going to have to find a compromise, if you want to use real weapons, then you're going to need to pull or telegraph blows. In other words, you're either going to have stop the sword from hitting too hard in the first place or you're going to have make it clear to your opponent where you're going to attack so that they're sure to be able to ward the blow.

If you can't afford real swords and real armour, or you don't like the idea of pulling/telegraphing your blows, then you can use lighter and blunter weapons, these come in several basic forms:

Wasters:

Wasters are wooden swords, they come in a variety of forms and range from broom handles with woven wicker guards, right the way through to accurately shaped and balanced facsimiles of their metal counterparts.

Wasters have several good points, they're usually quite inexpensive by comparison with metal weaponry, they can also be quite durable, and they react in a very similar way to metal weapons. But wasters also have some limitations. They don't work well for lighter weapons, courtsword and transitional rapier have blades that are just too thin and fast to be able to make a resilient enough wooden version. Wood just isn't flexible enough for point work, you're ok with light point work, but a good lunge is as dangerous with a wooden sword as it is with a metal. You can't really use wasters against metal weapons or armour without risking damage to the waster.

Blunts/rebated weapons:

There can be quite a range of blunts and rebated weapons. At one end you have real swords that just haven't been sharpened yet, at the other end, a roughly shaped piece of iron with all the weight and balance of a brick. Metal weapons are generally more resilient than wood, heavier weapons can still be too dangerous to use all out, no matter how much armour is being worn, metal blunts also tend to be a bit more expensive than wasters and if poorly made, a lot heavier.

Practice weapons:

Practice weapons have been specifically designed to practice with, they tend to have less realistically shaped blades, which are often completely blunt, the blades may also be lighter and more flexible than the real thing. Practice blades work particularly well for lighter, faster weapons and for point work. Practice weapons also tend to be less expensive than the real thing and can frequently be used without restraint.

 

Treatise
Ok, you're more or less there, you're possibly going to a local fencing group once a week, you've managed to find somewhere else to practice, you've done some research and decided you want to study a particular type of swordplay, you've found a sparring partner and between you, you've decided on the approach you want to take to practising. All you need now is some instructions on how to use your chosen weapon.

The primary sources of information about historic sword techniques are the treatise and manuals written by the various masters of defence throughout the ages. Many of these treatise are today available free of charge on-line or for a small cost 10 - 20. In facsimile reproduction, and translated from their native languages into English. This doesn't necessarily mean they're easy to read, but with work they can offer great insights into period techniques. If you're going to study swordsmanship from scratch without tuition, then these treatise are probably your best bet. Having said that, you're going to have to do a bit more work in deciding which one of the many to go for. The most popular resources for treatise are listed on the Treatise section of this site.

How you go about deciding between the various treatise, manuals and fectbuchs is entirely up to you; getting advice from the on-line community is quick and easy, but without some background knowledge you're probably going to have some difficulty in explaining exactly what you want. You're also going to have to bear in mind that individual are going to put different slants on the advice they offer, depending on the approach that they think is best. This doesn't mean you shouldn't ask, but rather that it's probably going to be much easier in the long run if you do a bit of research first. Fortunately there are several books in print outlining extant texts and what they cover. The best of those currently available are listed on the Books section of this site.

Once you've decided on a treatise to work from you can begin your studies in earnest. Don't be afraid to ask the on-line community for assistance if you're not too sure about something, any questions you ask will help dozens of other people over the same problem.

 

3. Additional practice

Whether you practice as part of an established group or not, you can make use of test cutting. As the name suggests, it basically involves getting a sharp blade and cutting things, this can be more or less anything, large lumps of clay, fruit, water bottles, bound straw, lead pipes, cardboard boxes, whatever. The basic idea is to try and cut the selected object cleanly, with the trailing edge of the blade following in the exact path of the front or leading edge. If you get this right it means all the force you're putting into the cut is being directed in the most efficient way, just go out and try it, you'll soon figure out when you're doing it right. Just put the object to be cut on a post, or suspend it from a tree, try cuts and even thrusts from various angles until you get the cuts nice and clean.

Once you think you've got the hang of each of the basic cuts on softer materials, try combining them with a pulling or pushing action, it doesn't have to be a great deal for you to get dramatic results, you should find you need a lot less force to cut much harder and tougher materials. Once you think you've mastered the more advanced pulling and pushing cuts try incorporating them into a series of movements. Begin in a given on guard position, perform a cut and return to the guard, go further and combine the sequence with footwork and begin using more than one target to represent where you anticipate your opponent may move in relation to yourself.

Even though you may use pulled blows when you're actually sparring, practising your cutting will help you to hit more consistently with the edge instead of the flat of the blade, it will also help you to become more accustomed to interruptions and resistance to your blows.


Sparring
Although you only need one person as a minimum to practice with, you will find with time that you become accustomed to their particular technique and fighting style and they yours. If you get the opportunity therefor, you should try and spar with as many people as possible, this will help you to become accustomed to the various different approaches and techniques that individuals employ and to be more prepared for them when they're used.

Comments and suggestions on this article welcome.

P.Harding