Guard, Line, Measure…

When I first took up rapier, it was a nightmare. It took me a solid year to overcome all my martial arts instincts. Twenty years of training had taught me to get close to my opponent, shut down all their tools, and finish them off. Anything else was madness. My previous training in weapon arts only re-inforced this point. The weapon had to be an extension of the hand, and you had to use it as if it was an extension of the hand to be successful. Alas, it was all bullshit.

Or so it seemed. I was getting constantly destroyed when it came to sparring with real swords. I’ve never felt so humbled in my life…coming in being at the top of the martial arts heap, and being slapped right down to the bottom. Often by newbies. My own training, my biggest strength, was tripping me up. What I was doing was being politely described as “leading with my face.” I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the most crucial lesson of swordplay: Let the sword do it’s job.

One of the first things I do with students is tell them the most important quality a sword has is that it doesn’t bleed. We bleed, the sword doesn’t. The lesson to be learned is that the thing that doesn’t bleed should always be between you and the other guy’s sharp metal thing. And since your metal thing is also sharp and pointy, the other guy should be doing the same thing. If he isn’t…make him bleed. Simple rule. Took me years to really learn.

Stoicism is the act of following the four virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Courage and Justice. Similarly, Swordplay is the art of following it’s own four virtues: Guard, Line, Measure and Tempo. And just like Stoicism, the four virtues have to be in equal strength to have the true art.

Guard is the posture we start in, and our manner of moving. Our ability move fast, to lunge, to defend with suppleness and strength…our manner of positioning our body to shut down the opponents potential actions, to threaten him or her, or to invite certain actions. Guard can reference a static posture, but it should be a dynamic thing. Ideally, it’s the first few stones in a game of Go. It’s the creation of a false structure that our opponent has no choice but to interact with.

I often visualize my guard as being a non-corporeal structure floating in front of me. It’s the cave-dwelling platonic version of the Terza guard of Capo Ferro, usually. I use it’s ghostly presence to judge my distance to the opponent, and what tempo and lines I require to defend myself against their actions. And I always try to get them to walk onto that ghostly point, when I have a clear line to reach it…

Line is our understanding of what must be traversed to reach our opponent, or sometimes just our opponents sword, without revealing the truth of our position. It’s a series of arcs, sometimes. Other times it’s geometric lines, angles of force that dictate displacements, means of wedging the opponents sword aside like the prow of a ship splitting open the ocean. Sometimes those lines include diagrams of force and momentum, measures of balance that require my body to move as a counter-weight to the actions of the blade, to preserve my truth while probing the enemies false structure…or to reveal his truth by driving my blade home.

Measure is the key. It’s the final arbiter of truth and lies. It’s the sketched circle on the floor, the arcs that dictate when and where I must move, where safety and danger lie. The simple distinction of being out of measure, at measure, and at the two close measures is an ideal that can take years to realize. Knowing what actions to trigger at what measure is bad enough. Knowing what measure you are at is the real demon. You practice in simple static drills, and lose the sense of rapid closure and subtle gain that can happen when facing a real person…and ignore the static drills and lose the fine edge of awareness that let’s you build the reflexes you need to achieve the goal of being able to reach the opponent while they can’t reach you.

And that basically describes the focus for tonight’s class…

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