Had one of those nice embarrassing teacher moments last class. I scolded a student for doing something a few of the students are prone to do…speeding up a shot to take advantage of a random opening. In this case, the scolding was because it resulted in a blistering shot to the top of my mask. Way above the level of acceptable impact. Being an experienced martial artist, the student apologized. I had no more worries, I knew he would be able to recalibrate with no issues…he just needed some feedback on force.

So two passes later, I’m facing the same student. This time I’m working with cloak and rapier. I spoil his shot by dropping my cloak on his blade mid thrust, the weight of it pulling his tip just below his intended target and resulting in a clean miss. I counter with a sneaky quick little shot up into his blindspot…but the cloak catches my blade as well, and the light body shot becomes a stiff shot to the hip with an unbending blade. Oops. My turn to apologize. Ah, humility.

Some fights later, and I’m up against Worf, a left-handed fighter who can throw a brutal hard shot at whip speed when he wants to. By this point, I’m starting to warm up. I’ve won a few fights in a row, and am relaxing into my best open game. My rapier is very extended, and I’m well covered behind it. With good cover, I’m able to use fast movement and feints to open up positions in my opponent that I can exploit. I don’t have to reach to hit my targets, but can simply move the blade a few inches and place it on incoming openings. It’s a game I love, but only clicks for me once in a while. Tonight it was on in fine form.

Worf threw his best whip shot, but it was easy to dodge back and under it using a variation of a wrestling split level change…sort of a reverse lunge. It’s one of the big openings you can achieve against an off-handed fighter, turning their strength into a weakness, allowing you access to their inside right. Wanting to fight with maximum safety, I chose the closest target to me as a counter-attack…Worf’s right forearm. It was held forward, dagger in hand, to ward off any follow-up attacks. It’s usually the right thing to do, but since I was inside and behind the lines, it not a defense, but a target. I could hit it while taking an angled step back outside to safety, so I did.

It was an almost-straight arm false edge cut, with my body momentum behind it. I hardly moved my arm at all…just straightening it a little so that my blade would be in place to catch any chasing attacks. Hardly any motion. It still hit Worf hard enough to take him out of the fights for the night. He had a nice twice-blade-width contusion on his hand. Would have been a hefty blood blister, except that I had managed to scrape some of his skin off, even through his leather gloves. Oops. Two hard hits in night, my fault or no, the rule is you are out of the fights for the night. Sigh.

One of my favourite shots, but because of the false-edge lead, there is not a lot of flex when it hits. If I’m going to keep using it in sparring, I’m going to have to modify it to hit lighter. I may have to start hitting with the flat to make it softer. I could turn it into a thrust with a flick of the wrist, but then I would be open to counter attacks.

The hard shots I scold the students for mostly fall under the category of bad fencing. They happen when a student sees an “unearned” opening and effectively panics, flailing out to hit the opening in the brief second it’s open. Nine times out of ten, this is the cause of double-kills. Some people fence for years doing this. Some people become successful competitors doing this. When they plateau, they can’t understand why the wins stop happening. The early wins they get also teach them that what they learn in class has less value then what they “naturally” do in sparring, so they wind up conditioning themselves to not learn. They start to find value only in being faster…and start to blame other people’s poor defense for the hard hits they start to be known for.

This conditioning can start early, and really get its hooks into a student. It’s very common to see a student do this even in slow work, extending and hitting any opening they see…while practically pushing their face onto the opposing sword. It’s fairly easy to see why so many teaching systems rely on Pavlovian drills and artificial tournament conditions to try and “trick” students out of this behavior. It can be a real bear to try and teach students to look to survival first, not victory.

One on one slow work, teacher to student, is the best way to correct this problem. Next best is closely monitored slow work. Intermittent drills can also work, but it’s best if you explain to students why they are doing them. It’s also useful to explain period work from manuals, when teaching them, in priority of defense and safety first. Show first why the selected technique keeps you safe, through the whole range of the technique. Show where the escape points are if things go wrong. Teach it right, and the “finish” becomes not the cool and interesting part of the technique, but the boring part students want to skip past…just the way it should be in a fight.

Fight first to survive. Self-defense is the goal. Defense is the first priority of any good martial art.


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    1. New Fighter? I know a lot of experienced fighters who do nothing but this…they just mistake it for skill. And sometimes try to stick a period label on it.

  1. Please, please, please do not modify your strike to hit with the flat of the blade to protect the student. That is how the rot sets into a once viable fighting art and makes it into a martial dance. By all means make yourself go lighter or even deliberately avoid using it at times when you think you will cause your opponent too much harm but if you start changing the angles to make it safer you might as well drop your rapier and pick up a foil and stick to sport fencing.

    For the students who rush into ‘scoring’ a quick hit you could tell them the old samurai maxim that while in every fight you enter you have a 2 in 3 chance of killing your opponent you only have a 1 in 3 chance of coming out of the confrontation alive. Winning does not mean scoring a good hit on your opponent, it is scoring the hit and not being hit in return. A dying enemy can still kill you with their last ever breath.

    1. I’m comfortable enough with my ability to change the blade orientation at the last moment, depending on the situation. Blade orientation was something I was criticized for a lot when I first started working my cutting game, so I learned to be very, very precise in my control.

      Being able to change orientation in mid-cut also allows you to pull off some interesting changes in trajectory that can allow you to “dive” a cut under a parry, and still hit with good alignment. My issue with the particular cut is that it feels like a very gentle cut to me…little more than a touch…so my calibration is very off.

      1. I suspect that your written words and my interpretation of your words produced a slightly off-kilter understanding of what you were actually thinking at the time anyway. After posting my comment above I thought more about the issue and came to the conclusion that it was more of a gray area than a matter of black and white. Being able to conciously manipulate blade angle on the fly is the mark of a high level of skill and I think my horror(!) was that you might have been about to introduce a dumbed down version of what you do just to increase the margins of safety. I have seen it before where the instructor knows what they are doing and makes a concious change but the student only sees the result of the change and follows it unconciously and later passes it on as ‘proper’ technique to later generations.

  2. @Hugh – Not really sure where you’re going with the sport fencing comment. Foil has “right of way” rules, which mean every shot thrown must either land, or be parried. There is no double-hit in foil. There is also no “going lighter” in foil, or deliberate avoidance of any legal technique. WMAs, as far as I am aware, have no discipline which meets all of the desirable components you list (don’t modify strikes to protect students, not a martial dance, don’t go lighter or change technique to prevent harming opponents, don’t practice double-kills). On the other hand, modern foil meets all those prerequisites…so why aren’t you fencing foil?

    1. Markus, I used to fence foil so I understand the rules. It is a very fine sport but it is a sport, not a martial art. But I think you might be confused about what I consider desirable because your last sentence suggests that sport fencing would satisfy my ideals, which is about as far from the truth as you can get. You are also confusing ‘discipline’ with ‘rules’. Sport fencing has a lot of rules to make the sport interesting, measurable and safe. WMA may lack those rules but the practitoners should still have the discipline to train safely and effectively.

      My understanding is that Mr Packer is teaching a martial art rather than a sport. My objection to him modifying technique to make things safer is that it dilutes his martial art into a martial dance (ie. it resembles a fighting art but has no real claim to be called ‘martial’). My thoughts are that if he doesn’t wish to keep his art ‘martial’ the he should drop the pretense of using rapiers (killing weapons) and simply play a sport with a foil (a sporting implement akin to a tennis racket). I am sure he has no such intention and will come up with a solution that keeps his students safe and the killing potential ‘alive’.

      One of the very refreshing things about what I read on this blog is that appears that the version of WMA taught here is properly martial whereas, in my limited experience, the majority of WMA practitoners like to think they are being martial but, in reality, are very sporting in their mindset. But that is true of many other martial arts as well so is not a particular criticism of WMA.

  3. Hello guys,

    This is a damn good article. I am a foil player, but since I am an amateur, i can play the way i want. And i like to play the classical way, which means every attack done against me must be defended, so, if there is a double hit, this is my fault, because i was not in a correct position, where i could defend myself. It may happen, that by the rules i won the actual play, still, i was hit, so it was bad. Also what the author says is perfectly true, during free play it is pretty hard to find a nice opening, and like a drowning man, the players tend to take a really-really quick breath – by making a quick attack. This is some level, and people with good reflexes and speed can be very efficient in that. However, this is what i call low level fencing. Could be efficient, but the real deal is when i can create the opening for myself, when i can trick my opponent to do what i want. That satisfies me. Being quicker than the other does not.

  4. @Hugh – I appreciate your viewpoint, but I don’t think you have any place redefining the words “martial” and “martial art”. Fatal duels have been fought with foils, and I believe the individuals involved would not be pleased to see you referring to their chosen killing instrument as “akin to a tennis racket.” A Martial Art is defined by Merriam-Webster as “any of several arts of combat and self defense (as karate and judo) that are widely practiced as sport.” This precisely defines modern foil fencing. Martial is defined as “of, relating to, or suited for war or a warrior.” Swords are no longer used in any significant number in warfare, nor are they used by modern warriors, therefore this applies to neither foil nor rapier combat.

    I appreciate that WMA is currently growing quickly, and progressing in defining itself, but it is not necessary to denigrate the practices of others in order to augment or define one’s own practices.

    1. Markus, I am not alone in chosing to define ‘martial art’ somewhat differently than your dictionary does. All the on-line dictionaries I found link the term specifically to Asian fighting sports, which discounts fencing entirely. I fenced foil, epee and sabre for three years (albeit 20 years ago so perhaps useage has changed) and not once can I recall a fencer calling themselves a martial artist so perhaps you are redefining the term? But read this article for a fuller flavour: http://www.thearma.org/essays/Defining-A-Martial-Art.html

      I don’t denigrate foil fencing as a sport but as a means of exploring combat fighting techniques it is a complete non-starter. Even if foils have been used to kill in duels (and duelling is not related to war or combat – hence not linked to the word ‘martial’ – but a form of sport with potentially fatal results) they were never designed to be killing weapons but were intended as training implements. I believe that Mr Packer is exploring the lessons of the killing sword rather than the sport sword so my objection is purely to him sanitising a dangerous rapier technique purely to promote safety when other methods could be utilised. The logical progression of such sanitising is to create the simplest form of sword fighting, fencing with a foil. Better to be an honest foil fencer than a dishonest rapier ‘fighter’ in my opinion. (Though to be linguistically accurate, i am not sure you can define the rapier in ‘martial’ terms as it wasn’t a weapon of war so much as a weapon of personal combat, two quite different, though related, matters.)

      And, for the record, I am not and never have been a practitioner of WMA (unless you count sport fencing, which I don’t). Most of my sword perspective is Japanese in origin but my interest for a long time has been non-geographic and I am simply interested in combat methodology from any and every source.

  5. Excellent article, the “how” and “why” approach does create a fairly cogent picture. Let me tip my hand a little, however, and then I’ll stop abusing Randy’s blog space.

    I was a competitive epee fencer for many years, as well as a highly mediocre rapier fighter in the SCA (if you’re not familiar, it’s WMA only in the very loosest sense of the word). My hackles are up, however, because I learned a great deal in my many years of modern fencing, and I met and matched wits with some exceptional individuals, some of which I have no doubt could sharpen a sport blade and draw blood with the best duelists history has to offer. Indeed, if you’ve read Aldo Nadi’s “On Fencing” he details a live steel duel he engaged in with epees that would chill your blood. He won soundly against a seasoned duelist despite a “sport” background.

    Thus, though I accept the difference defined by the article you’ve included above, I do not accept that any modern fencing weapon, including the foil, is “akin to a tennis racket.”

    1. I apologise if I have caused offense by comparing foils to tennis rackets, that was not my intention. But I do, respectfully, stick with comparing sport fencing to any other sport, tennis included. A tennis racket is the primary means by which you win a game of tennis and a foil is the primary means by which you win a game of fencing (with a foil). I mean nothing more or less than that. The actions undertaken and the skills acquired are quite different in each sport but the intent is much the same: to win fairly. In sport, fairness is defined within the rules that each participant must follow. You cannot win any sporting contest without sticking within the primary rules of the sport (the ball must stay within the lines or the foil must touch a certain target with sufficient force) even if you can cheat on the minor ones.

      Duelling is much the same. Duels had to be fought within narrowly prescribed rules to be considered fair and honourable otherwise they were no longer considered duels (this idea seems prevalent all over the world as far as I know). Personal combat, whether on the battlefield or in self defence on an ancient city street, has no such concept of fairness and survival becomes the only criteria. Our modern self defence laws have no concept of fairness enshrined in them but do expect proportionality and for a person to use ‘reasonable’ force (which is an attempt by the law makers to impose rules but also a recognition that such aspects of real life do not conform to rules however much we might wish them to).

      So while a sport fencer could well develop the skill necessary to prevail in a one-on-one match with an opponent within certain prescribed limits (duelling) it is highly debatable if they would develop the ability and skills required to enter into personal combat with an opponent who doesn’t care about playing by the rules and simply wants to kill (in a nut shell, my own focus on combat arts is to be able to deal with such individuals and to learn to be one so that I can defeat a more rule-bound opponent if required to). I would also caution against using the exceptional actions of a master fencer as a guideline for the expectations of the rest of us who are far more mediocre.

      In modern times we have seen highly skilled fighters from MMA, kick boxing, etc. beaten and even killed in the street by criminals they outclass in terms of fitness and skill many times over. That is not to say a good sport fighter cannot be good at personal combat but the measure of personal combat is not found in sport fighting, including duelling, and if you want to prevail at personal combat then train for it. If you don’t, and most of us have no real interest or need for that thankfully, then enjoy your sport but don’t confuse the two.

      [As a footnote I would say that the skills learned from fencing epee and sabre are far more applicable to combat than foil, so if I single out foil for special ‘criticism’ it is with a purpose and I am not simply having a go at all aspects of sport fencing.]

      1. Markus, just to take the wind out if my own sails a bit; this debate we are having is about as old as the hills. I have two books in my collection that recount very similar discussions. One was had between Saviolo and Silver in 16th C London discussing the relative merits of rapier and back sword while the other relates to 15th C Japan where the sword master Yagyu Jubei bemoans the gentrification of the samurai who are corrupting the techniques of swordsmanship through peace time contests and ideals of honour which were far from the realities of the battlefield. I don’t think you and I are going to conclude this one way or the other, but it is fun to debate and share ideas so I hope you can appreciate that is the spirit within which I write.

  6. I always appreciate thoughtful and well explained beliefs, even if they are not my own. It’s been a pleasure.

    1. Just wanted to thank both of you for the interesting conversation…and the gentlemanly manner you conducted it in. It is a fine and rare thing to see these days, and I appreciate it.

      ps…Argan, It’s been way too long since we crossed blades. If you are still around and free on a Monday or Thursday night, swing by Valkyrie and have some fun with us.

      1. Thank you for allowing the space and catalyst for such discussions.

        I don’t know what Markus took away from the discussion but it has made me delve into a couple of books I had half forgotten and helped me look at them again with fresh eyes! Much appreciated.

  7. I’ll do my best Randy, but I should warn you that the years have not been kind. I seem to lose a little fitness and a little hair each season, and all I seem to gain is waistline and credit card bills…

    Thanks again Hugh.

    1. Yeah, that happens! One of the many reasons Courtney and I got classes started again was that we couldn’t afford memberships anywhere else, and we found we really only work out well when it’s with a group. It just makes it more fun and energetic. Consequently, we try to keep costs low, cut a lot of deals for students..and keep the workouts high-energy.

      Doesn’t seem to be affecting my waistline yet, sadly…

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