What you learn in your first few classes is what you fall back on. I always keep this in mind when teaching new students. Nothing will ever define a students style more than what they learn in those crucial first lessons.
My crucial lessons came from Sean Irwin. The local SCA practice used a system of eight classes to introduce the rapier to students. The eight classes were developed by F. Braun McAsh way back when. New students were assigned to an experienced fighter, and put at the back of the hall for separate classes.
I still have vivid memories of those lessons. They were in Kennedy Hall in Surrey, which was predominantly a dance hall. Killer wooden floor…you can’t beat those. The hum of the fluorescent lights, the smell of sweat-soaked steel and athletic tape. And duct tape and fibreglass. So much damned duct tape.
Back in those days steel rapiers were incredible rare. The first Del Tin sparring blades were in the hands of an envied few, and most of the pro’s made do with schlager blades. Somewhere down the line some lucky fellow had made a contact in Germany, and realized that the Academic fencer guys were still going. Whoever this person was reasoned, or so I heard, that the mensur guys were probably using training blades. And those blades would probably be better suited to cutting and rapier actions than foil and epee blades. So somehow or another arrangements had been made and people started started stuffing oval schlager blades into rapier hilts. Weird, I know…but the rest of us had to use fibreglass.
Seriously, fibreglass. You could take two or three fibreglass rods, tape them together. Punch some holes in a dog food bowl and stick it on as sort of a cup hilt. Tape together some metal rods to be quillons. Add a tapped metal chunk for a pommel. Duct tape the whole thing together, and voila! A Rapier! …Good lord, some people are still using them!
Well, they sort of worked. For about five minutes, and then the duct tape started to get sticky. You learned not use blade-on-blade actions! I hated those things. They were cheap and ugly. I got my hands on a Del Tin blade as soon as I could, and my father-in-law welded me up a proper swept hilt. Took me forever to get used to the weight and length. But at least I was holding a real sword in my hand! I loved that sword. It was heartbreaking to put the archery blunt on the tip, and ruin the sexy lines of the blade.
And that gets us to the crux of my first lesson, the thing that has stuck with me the longest, and been the best lesson of swordplay I ever learned.
Sean was a nice guy. I liked him right away, and we wound up developing a good friendship for a while. He’s still one of my role models for rapier play, and easily the person I try hardest to emulate. He had an immaculate control of measure that I still hold up as the gold standard for rapier fighters.
The first things we learned were footwork and parries. As a diligent student of the Asian martial arts, I put some real sweat and effort into drilling each lesson Sean put to me. I remember I was concentrating on holding my arm just right, and stepping the correct way, and I stopped to wipe sweat out of my eyes. I looked up at Sean, and he was staring off at the regular class, somewhat wistfully. I could see why. Not only was there good fighting going on, but there were a number of very pretty girls over there. And here he was, stuck teaching the newb how to walk.
I stood up and tucked my bit of fibreglass under my arm, and smiled. I told him he didn’t have to stay here with me. He’d given me enough things to drill on for the rest of the night, I didn’t want to keep him tied up the whole time. I told him he should go get some fighting in and have some fun. He shrugged, and looked at me, and said with complete honesty “Doesn’t matter what I’m doing, I’m happy as long as I have a sword in my hand.”
Every damned time I pick up a sword, I remember him saying that, and every damned time I think “Yup, he was right.” Probably the best lesson about swordplay I ever learned. I’m always happy just to have a sword in my hand.