Lion DNA

I learned rapier in a pure Darwinian environment. The only way it could have been more Darwinian would be with copious bloodshed. The Society for Creative Anachronism frowns on bloodshed.

Historical swordplay instruction proceeds in an orderly fashion. You start with the basics, show skill, and progress to the more complex things. You are taught all the important things in the correct order. Guard, measure, line and tempo. You drill, are evaluated, corrected, and drill some more. At the right time, you start to test your skills against classmates. Eventually you test yourself against others.

In the SCA, you start with a sword, a bare handful of instruction, and a fight. If you survive that, you’ve probably already learned some valuable lessons. The fight is your primary way of learning. You beat up everyone you can, and then you find people who can beat you up, and learn to beat them up. You learn about the pain of losing, and how deep you have to go inside yourself to find some way to win.

The bare instruction received is simple, but never the less holds a profound truth. Instead of precise guards, you are given two vague positions. The first is generally called “presented” and means sword and sword-side leg forward. The other is called “refused” and it’s with the sword-side leg back, and the sword held low, or back by the hip.

Presented is considered the weak guard, because it leaves your sword out for people to control. Smart fighters use Refuse, because it “refuses” contact with the blade. This contrasts with historical swordplay, were the extended blade is considered superior because of its line coverage and the simple logic of its defense. It makes sense…swords don’t bleed, so put them between you and the other guy’s sharp thing. And you learn a large body of technique to deal with people trying to deal with getting past your pointy tip sticking out at their face.

The subtle beauty of the SCA approach lies in the acceptance of the refuse guard as superior. It isn’t superior at all…but it teaches an early reliance on deceit and tempo actions for victory. Tempo is one of the hardest things in the historical repertoire to teach. It’s hard to teach anyone, in any art, which is why a fighter with excellent control of timing is almost always considered a master fighter. By encouraging people to use this bastard guard, the SCA rapier community manages to create fighters who excel at using empty space to create tempos.

At least, in the best cases that’s what happens. It’s a method that also tends to create pockets of inbred mutants with true hillbilly rapier technique…which has to be seen to be believed. But the fighters that make an effort to test themselves against the best, are receptive to new ideas, and travel and fight outside of their own kind…truly formidable.

The best SCA fighters take the extra step to come into the WMA world and learn the historical concepts and approaches to using guard and line. They are happy to add new tactics and drills to their toolbox.

WMA students could do well to take a page from their SCA cousins. When sparring, take a break from just trying to do the right thing all the time. Put yourself at a disadvantage, lose some fights. Make it hard for yourself to win…and learn what it takes for you to overcome those disadvantages. There is more to the fight game than can ever be found in any one system, and no system is ever perfect for everybody.


  1. There is always a lesson learned in losing. And inbreeding happens in the WMA as well. The small look of panic on their faces when they run across some SCA jackass (me) and he doesn’t fight “properly”…it’s amusing.

    • Yeah. The idea is that by relying on period sources you can alleviate that. The constant referral to the “mother source” should stop too much specialization from creeping. Capoiera does the same thing with Regional and Angola. One explores and plays, one keeps the old heritage alive.

      I think the AD approach will work, but it’s still comparatively young. They are just at the tail end of developing a consistent house style…Devon will probably finish shepherding them through that process in another five years or so. At that point they will be able to start looking at becoming adaptable. Or not. I suppose I can head out there on friday nights sometime and see what’s up.

  2. Refuse used to be the guard of choice in SCA fencing, but over the last 4-5 years it has been replaced by an understanding that presented is the superior guard.

    • When I started presented was the superior guard. Refuse was the “dirty trick” guard. It worked so well that everyone started to use it…and then people figured out you could beat it with presented.

      I was also told that the cycle of guards had gone through two iterations since the beginning. The Coup de Jarnac seems to go through the same phase, as does the An Tir Drive-by. What phase are things in now?

      …I suppose I can just come out and see for myself, maybe next week. đŸ™‚

  3. Be great to have you out. Things are pretty much solidly in presented everywhere I’ve traveled in the last 4 years – from Summits to Tir Bannog. People will pass back to Refuse, and a few will pass forward using their dagger aggressively against a presented blade. For the most part people still fight in a line with few offline attacks – something I’ve been working on recently and seeing a fair bit of success in my last few tournaments. Skill levels overall in the Kingdom have gone up, and historical techniques (or attempts thereof) are now commonplace.

  4. I talk about the same thing in training sessions. We are very happy to take our favorite guard and deliver our favorite techniques. It all boils down to ego. It feels good to win and to feel in control of the fight – but its hard to get better when you are not expanding your understanding of the dance.

    Its important to experiment with other guards – even if you fall back to your favorites under pressure you have expanded your mind. Its also important to explore 2nd and 3rd intentions. Your favorite scheme will ultimately fail you sometime – its nice to know what that looks like and what to do about it.

    Sparring is supposed to be a safe place to digest and dissect your responses and those of your opponent. Not just a place to hone your ego.

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