“You can only fight the way you practice.”
-Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings
The context for which many historical fencers train, even if they know they will never end up in it, is lethal combat with sharp swords. Or indeed combat in, say, early 15th century Italy. We obviously cannot train in that context. The best we can do is approach that context from different directions, using different training methods. Overemphasizing any single method, or failing to adopt useful methods, introduces faults in our fencing. The relative merits of partaking in, as well as the potential hazards of overemphasizing, various methods like cutting practice and fencing competitions have been argued extensively.
Other than gloves, safety gear has received relatively little attention of this kind recently. This article will therefore look at a few of the problems we historical fencers run into when we neglect training with protective gear that would allow us to perform a full range of attacks with the sword, at proper speeds and force levels, at the correct distance. I approach this primarily from the viewpoint of unarmored longsword fencing, but it probably applies to most (unarmored) fencing, especially with larger weapons.
Sparring about Gloves
In several groups it is common to fence quite freely, with most of the body protected such that landing forceful strikes is not an issue, yet without decent protective gloves. This approach is often defended by arguing that a skillful fencer can easily protect his own hands, and that lacking protective gear on the hands in no way distorts the way people fence. Back in March 2012 a group of Polish fencers traveled to Barcelona, taking a few extra sparring gloves with them, to find out whether these arguments had merit. Videos of the sparring bouts that ensued resurface regularly, largely because of the great stylistic differences between the Polish and the Spanish fencers, both highly skilled at what they do. However, I’d like to draw attention to a particular feature of these videos.
Lingering in extended guards and parrying with extended arms, without projecting an immediate threat, leads to getting your fingers smashed a whole lot. This is typical of fencers who have little-to-no experience of fencing with proper protection for the hands and with strikes to the hands being allowed. Fixing this issue is fortunately straight-forward: Get proper gloves and fence with people who do target the hands.
The point is we have to practice in this manner, or else the way we fight is likely to leave us wide open to strikes to the hands. The same is largely true of protection for (and intentionally striking at) any particular body part. It just happens to be especially true of the hands; for reasons why see e.g. the recent article by Ilkka Hartikainen on targeting the hands, as well as “Attacking the Hands in Sparring”, by Keith Farrell.
Problems with Nudity: Faking It
The problems become much greater when training is primarily done with little or no protection. When protective equipment is severely limited, we can no longer practice attacking with proper speed and force and with intent to hit our opponents — equally, we can no longer practice defending ourselves from such attacks. A common feature of training in such a context is that large categories of techniques are completely avoided, particularly thrusts and any strikes that might hit the hands. The problems with this, as well as the solutions, are similar to those regarding lack of protective gloves.
There are at least 4 other major ways people modify their training because of lack of protective gear, although usually any one group or practitioner ends up adopting training methods that combine some or all of the four.
First of all, some people deal with the situation by intentionally missing their partners and pulling their blows, effectively turning their fencing practice into stage combat. There are two massive problems with this. First of all, the attacker is practicing to miss with their attacks, which is obviously a bad idea. Secondly, the defender cannot truly know whether they succeeded in their defense or they were simply saved by the attacker missing on purpose.
This may even form into a habit where we aren’t even quite aware of missing intentionally, allowing technique that wouldn’t work against a properly aimed attack to proliferate. The defender certainly doesn’t get any experience in dealing with properly aimed attacks, so that even if the technique is theoretically suitable, execution is likely to be lacking. In addition, since an attack that is going to miss should usually be met with different technique than one that is going to hit, intentionally missing teaches the defender to wrongly identify and respond to incoming attacks.
Pulling our blows might not be quite as bad is intentionally missing, but it causes similar problems. Going from a pulled blow to one that’s intended to hit is easier than doing so after training to miss. But the attacker now primarily practices attacking without any commitment. The crossings tend to be at least slightly off, the pressure different from what you’d get following an attack that wasn’t pulled. Thus we practice the wrong reactions to pressure and visual stimuli. And the defender is still often clueless as to whether the reason for why they weren’t hit is their successful application of the proper technique or the attacker pulling their blows.
The Slow Mo Guys
Others try to ensure safety when fencing with little protective gear by slowing down. Often this takes the form of consciously fencing slowly, which is then offset by separately practicing similar techniques and engagements at high speed. This may not be problematic, and can be a valuable addition in a balanced training program. Problems arise when training is overwhelmingly done in slow motion, and when no offsetting occurs. This usually goes hand-in-hand with coming up with excuses as to why it makes no sense to fence at high speed, as well as losing sight of what “high speed” actually is.
There are plenty of reasons why this is bad. For more on the subject, see my earlier article Presteza e Forteza and the links therein.
How could we enable the attacker to strike fast and forcefully, at the proper target, while still assuring the safety of the unprotected defender? One answer is to help the defender cover themselves securely. A simple way to achieve this is telegraphing our attacks.
Again, when done consciously, and combined with plenty of practice in attacking without telegraphing, this may not be problematic. Some technical training even requires the defender to be prescient about incoming attacks, although in these cases you have to make sure the telegraphing is something relatively realistic. Counterattacks in particular generally only work if you know in advance when an attack is coming and which type of attack it is. For more on this, see “When to Counterattack” by Kristian Ruokonen.
Yet, like missing on purpose, telegraphing forms into an unconscious habit too easily. We cease to notice how we wind up, bounce, lean, turn our hips, adjust our grips, or otherwise give off a tell as to when and how we are going to attack. At that point we are practicing to make it easier for our opponents. This is rather counterproductive.
As defenders, telegraphing teaches us to keep looking for the same cues, which may no longer be there when faced with an opponent who is unconcerned with our safety. It allows us to believe we have a completely unrealistic amount of time in which to perform our own actions. When attacked by someone who doesn’t telegraph their actions, we’re suddenly blindsided, confused by where the attack came from and why our “safe” technique failed.
One last method of ensuring the safety of an unprotected training partner is to strike from far enough away that the attack cannot hit.
This is rarely done as a conscious choice in regular practice. Rather, the inability to actually hit our partner changes our motivations in preparing and executing our attack. If our partner were sufficiently protected, we’d be more likely to attack from the proper distance, since our failure to hit when striking from too far away would be a big red flag. But without protective gear we can’t hit our partner anyway, so we err on the side of caution. This often results in the distance between the fencers increasing. Additionally, since distance translates to time, by initiating our attacks from further away we help our partner to safely perform their technique, much like we would by moving slower or introducing telegraphing.
Watch the above closely, paying particular attention to the footwork of the two fencers throughout the sequence, and where the point of the attacker’s sword ends up in the final attack relative to where the defender’s head was at the beginning of the attack. This is typical of training situations where there is little or no intent to actually hit our partners. As we’re performing the techniques we fool ourselves into thinking we aren’t actually too far away, by taking extra steps, leaning a bit further, or doing other similar corrections. This allows us to blissfully ignore the fact that we are practicing at distances where the techniques are unlikely to work, were our opponent intent on actually hitting us while avoiding being hit in turn.
Practicing like this combines the downsides of telegraphing, moving slowly, and missing intentionally. We’re practicing to give the opponent extra time and space in which to safely perform techniques against us, and even if they did nothing our attacks would often still fail. As a bonus, we’re extending our hands towards the opponent without seriously threatening them, leading to easy counterattacks to the hands. As defenders, this teaches us to perform unsuitable techniques against incoming attacks. On the whole it screws up our ability to read the tactical situation while fencing, because we’re expecting the wrong things to happen at any given range.
It is theoretically possible to practice primarily without protective gear and not be exposed to any of the above issues. It is extremely difficult, however. The hazards are insidious. We are easily blinded by how much our practice is being distorted. Meanwhile training in proper protective equipment, at high speed, with intent to hit with our attacks, can be done easily and is the fastest way to remove the above distortions from our practice. There’s nothing quite like being hit hard and repeatedly to bring failures in our technique into sharp focus.
P.S. All of the gifs in this article were lifted, usually out of context, from YouTube clips. I am not implying that any fencers appearing in them they are practicing “wrong”. They just happened to demonstrate (possibly intentionally) some of the issues I brought up in the article.