From the archives: Ruminations on a Duel

Dug up from the archives, originally posted on another blog a few years ago.

Part One

It’s been about two years, so I think a retrospect is in order. Mostly to clear up some misunderstandings, but also to share what I learned from the experience. I’ll add conclusions at the end.

It started with Justin Ring and I, probably drinking, talking about fencing. Big surprise, eh? We decided that life was short, and the one thing we both wanted to experience was a duel. A real one. So we decided to do it. We picked a date three months in advance, at the first Garibaldi Peak Accolade Tournament. We announced it so we’d commit to it. We decided the best option was first blood, with sabres. Seemed like the safest alternative.

We got a pair of the Hanwei Pecarroro sabres, as they seemed light enough not to hack a limb off (as opposed to our Cold Steel cavalry sabres) and they seemed amenable to sharpening.

We got some proper instruction from F. Braun McAsh in sabre, and in mensurenfechten technique. And then we started training. At first with full gear, and eventually working down to t-shirts, gloves and fencing masks. We drilled and sparred for about 2 sessions a day, 3 days a week. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

A week before the duel, I sharpened the sabres. I had 4 antique sabre blades to examine, and I used a grinding wheel to add the apple-seed edge profile they all had. Not wanting to cause grievous injury, I didn’t take them all the way to a fine edge. We had learned in the course of our training a hard hit with a blunt would split the skin, so it seemed reasonable that the edge I’d added would enable a good bleeding cut with a solid contact…but not a giant gash. I cleaned the blades, and put them away in prep for the duel.

That night at class Justin and did our final review with each other. Our last chance to chicken out before leaving for the tournament. The nerves were starting to get to us both. It was an easy thing to think about when it was in the future, but when we had only days left…it started to sink in.

Fear starts small, with a little tightness in the stomach, a tingle at the back of the throat. A deep breath can push it back, at this point. And this was one of the things we wanted. We wanted to know how we would handle the fear of a real confrontation, a true earnest duel. Building a little fear was part of the experience, the experiment. We both resolved to go ahead with it. But I can honestly say, from this point on, I didn’t really think of much else but the duel.

The night before the duel was surreal…the day of the duel, the morning…I brought out the sabres and showed Justin. That was when the true fear hit us both. Watching the video, I’m surprised you can’t see the shaking. Again, this was part of it. We could have stopped at any moment, and no one would have thought less of us. Hell, they probably would have applauded us for our common sense. But, you know, we would have always wondered what it would have been like. There are a lot of things in life you can live without knowing, but this was our thing.

The fear had been growing in the previous weeks, and we’d talked about it. We had two big worries. The first was the obvious, being afraid that we would freeze up, and be unable act to defend ourselves. Really, we weren’t too worried about this. We’d both fenced and fought a lot, and were pretty sure in our reactions. But you never know, with the equation changed to sharps. The second was our biggest concern, and our biggest fear. Would we actually be able to deliver a wounding blow to each other? It seemed entirely to easy to imagine flinching away from cutting open a friend.

And holding those sharpened sabres in our hands for the first time, looking at each other on that sunny day, knowing in a few hours we’d be duelling… It was hard to imagine actually throwing a real blow at each other. I honestly didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it. But I was resolved to try. It was not an easy decision, and I was constantly questioning myself right up until the final moment.

In the hour before the duel was scheduled, Braun was to teach a class on Sabre, and Justin and I both participated, as a warm up, and a way of cooling our nerves. Nothing makes you focus more on a technique than thinking you may be using it in moments, to cut a friend open or to defend your own precious skin.

Just before the duel, with everyone gathered around, I gave instructions to a few people. If you see a hit, here, to the femoral, don’t wait to see the blood, run and compress the wound immediately. Same for the Brachial. There were grim looks from friends, and whispered questions if we were sure we wanted to do this. Black humour was pretty common.

Gloves on, sword in hand. My heart was beating a million miles an hour. My stomach was hollow, and I felt like the literal shaking leaf. Justin looked calm, but I know a moment before he was looking pale and shaky too.

The salute calmed me, a little. I advanced, as steadily as I could. The subtle manoeuvres for position began, but I was still forcing myself to be as calm as possible.

I don’t remember who attacked first, but I do remember the incredible change that happened when I parried the first blow that Justin threw at me. A towering rage, a cold fury consumed me. All I wanted to do was see blood. A lot of it. My whole world focused down to the desire to slice skin, and see the red blood of he who dared to strike at me.

In my mind, the rest of the duel lasted about 45 minutes. I knew that wasn’t possible, but right after, I asked Justin what he thought, and we both agreed it was about 20 minutes long. I would have taken hundred dollar bet that it was no shorter than 18 minutes. The footage of the duel shows that it was, talking and pausing included, a little over 7 minutes.

It became apparent at some point that the blades weren’t sharp enough to cut, and we eventually called the duel when Justin landed a good solid blow to me, and a previous wound on his elbow finally started to drip blood. It didn’t matter…the duel for the both of us was over, and successfully, with the first exchange of blow and parry.

The rest of the day was an exhilarating blur, and I can honestly say my life hasn’t been the same since. Putting myself through that intense ritual, and finding in myself what I did…was life altering. I don’t think anything else in life can match the co-operative ritual duel for self-awareness.

Part Two

The biggest thing I learned from the duel is that sparring is not realistic. Watching the video shows this. The first few actions, we expect wounding and mayhem on the first good blow, and our actions reflect this. It’s real fighting. When we start to realize that the blades aren’t sharp enough, we start to take chances, and to strike harder. Within the course of a few moments, we transition from duellists to sport fencers.
Sabre Cut recieved on chest

Just a little bit of blood, a scratch.

It’s only too easy to extrapolate from this that frequent sparring starts to induce a lot of artificial actions. Extrapolate from that to cover an activity, like the SCA, that has had organized sparring for decades, and you can start to see a problem. After this duel, I changed my instruction methods to focus more on combative drilling, and less on sparring. It also made a change to how I approached my own sparring practice, emphasizing the personal feedback aspect.

Another lesson learned was never, ever, to engage in any ritualistic activity in public. I don’t think a single person watching understood what was going on, and you can hear it in the comments being bandied about on the video … and certainly in what I have heard from people in the time since. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what happened, but only the people involved really understand. The absolute worst aspect of this was people attempting to imitate what we did, but without the preparation or even attempt at risk…which results in people thinking that shirtless whipping of each other with sport sabres is somehow duelling.

The importance of ritual preparation is profound. Since this duel, I’ve had 3 more sessions with very sharp weapons, and none of them were nearly as intense, powerful, or transformative as the first. The mental preparation is key for this sort of thing. If you don’t absolutely think you are going to be killed or maimed, or kill and maim someone else, you aren’t in the same mental space. Not that there is anything wrong with that! Sport is a good clean fun thing, and I love it! But don’t try to compare the two. It’s a disservice to both. If you are doing a sport, don’t try to justify it, or “man it up” by going on about how martial it is. It isn’t, so get over it. Enjoy what you do for what it is. Even when people fought duels to the death all the time, they still played with swords for fun. We can too, no shame needed.

Realism. A lot of people talk about fear as a factor, or adrenaline. Overrated hype, if you ask me. Or to be more specific, too generic. If you are the kind of person who reacts with fear…you are not likely the kind of person to pick up a sword in the first place, so don’t worry about it. If you are wondering if your training is preparing you properly for a mythical “real” encounter…yes, it likely is. I know I worried that in the stress of the actual duel, I would forget all technique and flail like an ape. I didn’t. I used the techniques and tactics I drilled to use, as did Justin. You do what you train to do, regardless of how “realistic” your training is. As long as it is rigorous training, it is good training. It doesn’t have to be any special flavour or have weird elements added to it…hard work, plain hard work, does the trick.

Anger doesn’t get enough credit in sport rules, when we try to make them “realistic.” People always want to pass off a light touch as no good! Please! In a real situation, the opponent is likely going to be a bit more savage in action and intent that they would be in a tournament. If you let a blade get within contact distance of you…take it as a hit, and hang your head that you let it happen. The conceit that a shot wasn’t good enough is just that. Get over it, and be glad that it wasn’t a better shot with a real blade. A tentative shot in a tournament might be anything but in a real situation.

Ritual is good. Risk is good. Scars and pain are good. We live in a risk-adverse world, and that’s bad. You get one life, one body. Death is just around the corner, and there is nothing sadder than dying with a perfect body. Use it up! I’m not saying be stupid…I assume everyone has a brain and common sense. But sometimes you have to ask yourself: what are you saving your life up for? An upgrade? A rainy afterlife?

So, do I recommend other people try what I did? No, not really. I think it was a great thing. It definitely had a profound and positive effect on my life, but I don’t think other people would be able to re-create the unique conditions that made if favourable for me. I’ve been a martial artist since I was a child, and pain and suffering for gain is something I see as natural. It’s part of what my training has made me, and the same is true for Justin. This isn’t normal. Most people, even most martial artists, don’t have this sort of background. A lot of people think they do, but they are just trying to make up for some lack by posturing. If you grew up under the millstone, you know the weight. It’s not for everyone. But if you know what that means, then by all means, find a way. It’s worthy.

NOTE:  I use the term “Duel” as a convenience of expression. Actually duelling is illegal in Canada, and in many other countries, in the sense of having a disagreement with someone and trying to settle it with a formal duel. Justin and I had no disagreement, just a mutual sense of adventure.

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: The sharp question

  2. A few of the fencers down here have discussed, off and on, putting thumb tacks through the blunts on our rapiers. The thinking is the addition of pain as an incentive would shut down some of the attack-without-defending slop we get in to in our sport and at least train it out of the couple of us stupid enough to do this.

  3. I was there, but missed the duel for reasons that seemed good at the time. Is that video available somewhere?

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