Naked Fencing

Every morning before I get writing, I spend a little time in reflection. I try not to plan out my posts, but just write from whatever spark seems to drift up from that quiet time. Sometimes it’s quick…an idea will hit me in a minute or two, and I hit the keyboard right away. Other days idea’s float about, but nothing rises up. I start to worry about the clock and deadlines on those days. Today I woke up with a few ideas, but none of them clicked. So, I spent some time digging around for inspiration.

I’m coming up on a year of daily posts on this blog, which is a frankly frightening amount of writing to have done. At two or three hours of work per post, that’s a big chunk of my life being put onto these virtual pages. The genesis of all this started a lot earlier…about a year and a half ago…when my wife prompted me to get into the habit of writing every day. I’d done the Nanowrimo thing before and enjoyed it, and Courtney challenged me to put that much effort into my writing every day, not just one month out of the year. So I fired up a blog, and started writing one piece of short fiction every day.

Six months of steady writing later, and I started to feel the urge to do something more than just selfish writing. On a long walk with Courtney, we hit on the idea of me writing about fitness and nutrition…which I did, on another blog, for about a month. I started this blog when I realized that I just couldn’t stop writing about martial arts, no matter how hard I tried…even if it didn’t seem like it would be a very popular topic. I’m glad I was wrong about that! Anyway, my morning reading lead me to a bit of fiction that sparked a small idea that has floated up.

Fencing naked has always been a bit of a fun inside joke for the WMA crowd. The manuals are full of pictures of naked fencers, after all, so it seems amusing to joke about being “real” re-creationists. And I grew up in the seventies, which was a weird time…anyone else out there remember the instruction book on sailing that featured a naked woman? Someone want to do a modern historic fencing manual in the buff? …Please…no…

Humour aside, take a moment and imagine fencing naked. Not just no mask or gorget…no gloves, no jock, no shoes, no shirt, no nothing. You would think that fear of contact would be the largest concern, which might make it a valuable training exercise, but I’m willing to bet it would be a secondary concern for most of us. I think the larger issue for most of us would be awkwardness. We are not used to moving naked. Unfamiliarity would make our movements rough. Shame would be a powerful issue. Shame of our own nakedness, and shame of the other persons similar state. The extra body-awareness would also be a major factor. You’d be getting all kinds of feedback you weren’t used to. I’d guess that your fencing skill would reduced by a significant factor.

It’s worth seriously considering this. I don’t mean actually fencing naked, but really thinking about how it would affect you. One of the keys to becoming better as a martial artist, and especially to breaking through a performance plateau, is understanding your habits. This is very difficult to do, because our habits are invisible to us. We are unable to see our own tics, we are unable to feel the shifts of weight and tension we use to support our actions.

Thinking of naked fencing and contrasting it with our normal fencing, we can see just how much we rely on the smallest things. Small things like the lacing of our shoes or the fit of our socks seem less minor when we compare to our naked fencing state. The way we take our guard position might seem natural and easy in our normal fencing gear, but stripped of our clothing, we might start to see how much we rely on external things to prop us up. Every little thing builds up the chain from foot to sword tip. What we rely upon habitually becomes the source of all our strength and weakness. It’s strong if we understand it, weak if we are unaware of it.

When we want to improve our fencing game, we mostly think of tactics or new techniques. When we fail, we commit to working out harder, to training more, to working to remove our bad techniques. We rarely go back to the most basic things, like paying attention to line of our ankle or how we carry weight on our feet, even though those are things that everything else relies upon. The way we carry our hips, or use our arms, is often dictated by things we ignore from familiarity. Excellence in martial arts, and especially swordplay, comes from disdaining familiarity.

Build your foundation from knowledge and challenge. Pay attention to the things you have always ignored.



4 thoughts on “Naked Fencing

  1. Harry Rotter

    I tried to imagine that for a minute… and I think the most naked feeling would come from being without a mask. The real danger of being poked in the eye with a blunted rapier would be stronger than anything else in the room. Danger beating distraction, or something like that. Hopefully…
    Nevertheless – thanks for the images in my mind. Some funny, some disturbing, some distracting. 🙂

    1. David R. Packer Post author

      I’ve done one real bout with rapier and no mask, with a very good friend. It was a special occasion. My best friend had just died, and I had just finished fighting 500 bouts in two hours, in her honour. The last bout was fought against my other best friend, and it just seemed natural at that point to drop the masks and gorgets and go for it.
      Scary, yes, but not so much. Vulnerability is one aspect of the many feelings you go through.

  2. Hugh Wallace

    I can’t comment on facing a rapier without a mask but for the past 10 years all the training ai have done, with weapons or wihout, has been done without mask, padding, gloves, armour, etc. After I encountered the end of a stick in the eye I used safety glasses for a while but I don’t any longer. My hands are covered in small scars from training knives (they are just dull knives, not special in any other way) and my training partner has the same all the way up his forearms too. We train in the dark, in street clothes and outside or in a garage with a concrete floor. We have sticks and other things lying on the ground and train over them. Sounds crazy perhaps but it is as close to the hazards of real life as we can make it without recreating a scene. The reason we do this is not to kid on we are training for reality but to be more ‘naked’ to ourselves and our training partners so that we can learn more about ourselves rather than hiding behind armour, real or metaphorical. Most of our drills are not what we would do in a real situation and we deliberately avoid head strikes of almost any kind in training (but we don’t leave our heads and faces where they can be hit either, we have rules but are quite happy to break them) so it is not as if we are claiming to be totally ‘real’ but training without armour to protect your body has a profound effect. Perhaps more importantly, if you are the one holding the sharp blade and your training partner is ‘naked’ in front of you, you have to take so much more care and act with consideration. My observation has been that civilised people are generally unwilling to stab their unarmoured training partners and that bodes ill for them in a real situation. For our own progression we have to be able to come to terms with having the opportunity, means and ability to cause harm or end a life every bit as much as we need to deal with the fear of being totally vulnerable to a weapon weilding attacker.

  3. Hugh Wallace

    A further thought (I like this blog, it gets me thinking more than most):

    Do you use ‘armour’ in the words you use when training? Do you talk about ‘scoring’ or taking a ‘hit’ with a blade? Or do you talk about wounding and killing? A ‘double hit’ sounds like a draw until you consider that in a real situation one may have died and the other taken a flesh wound (though maybe died later if infection set in…). When training without weapons do you discuss the potential injuries your strikes are intended to cause? My experience has been that most martial artists shy away from talking about killing while practicing techniques which are intended to do that very thing. And these martial artist don’t appear to like to think about the implications of what they are doing and use the language of sport to describe their moves. I have long found it strange that people use the language of sport to describe war and the words if war to describe sport.

    To my mind, one of the most important aspects of training in a combat/martial art instead of a combat/martial sport is exploring this aspect. Not so that you become some horribly ferocious killer but so that you confront your own psyche and face the reality of who you are. Most people don’t appear to be comfortable acknowledging they are killers and few are comfortable with the fact. That is absolutely good in our society because we don’t need killers roaming the streets but, for the martial artist, the knowledge of how bad you really are is extremely important. If you are not a badass then wonderful, but you can then stop kidding yourself that you are and go back to playing sport. It is the main, fundamental difference between sport fencing and training with blades as a martial art. The technical differences are tiny compared to the difference in mentality between someone who plays a sport and someone who trains in killing arts. I think it is perhaps an even more important aspect than knowing your vulnerability when facing a blade unarmoured.

    The technical skill required to protect yourself or take another’s life is easily taught but the mental side is much harder to address and it rarely is. What do they say? Anyone can be a sniper, once.


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