When someone comes to our classes with a background in unarmed martial arts, they’ve got a hard road ahead of them. Depending on the length of time they’ve been training, they may have to deal with overcoming a trained reflex that gets them into some trouble.

Japanese or Korean style striking martial arts actually lend themselves well to rapier fencing. The focus on fast linear striking and quick recovery translates very well. New students can often find solid early success in bouting because of this background. Japanese styles that emphasize low stances have even more advantages, because the lunge position is something strongly emphasized.

The problem is that their sense of comfort eventually screws them up. Or rather, their sense of where safety lies screws them up. Having a large body of technique that all takes places at a certain range, there is a subconscious desire to be at that range. The more stress, the more desire.

Students with such a background tend to start in a good guard, and the first few actions are fine. But as the bout continues, as their sense of the first touch coming increases, the desire to close in increases. In haste to land that blow with their sword, they actually start to move the sword back towards themselves. They bend the arm, lower the hand, and raise the tip of the sword.

They do this…actually all fencers can be prone to this regardless of background…because using a tool is unnatural when fighting. We want tooth and claw range. The lizard brain says that the stupid piece of steel is between us an our opponent. We can’t get our teeth on their neck until we get that thing out of the way. The opponent’s steel thing is less concern, it’s just an obstacle to get past. It’s not the frustration that the thing in our hand is. We want it out of the way.

It’s a subtle thing, often. Just small actions and reactions that can tend to look into a bad position. Combined with forward momentum, and suddenly a student has a habit of leading with the body or face instead of the sword. Their speed and aggression can win them the place, but that doesn’t remove the flaw in the style. If you know to look for this flaw, it’s easy to exploit. Throwing multiple feints and disengages to expose an elbow or bicep is just one action that takes advantage of this.

It’s a fatal flaw. The first lesson of swordplay we teach is that the sword doesn’t bleed. We do. Always put the thing that doesn’t bleed between the opponents sharp thing and the thing that bleeds. Steel does the work, because it is designed to, and because we train ourselves to make it so.

We can learn a wealth of technique, but if we can’t move past that instinct to claw and bite, we truly haven’t even begun to master our sword. Until we can trust it to act for us, to figuratively put our life in it’s hands, we are limiting our potential ability with the blade. It’s why knife work and longsword work seems easier or more natural to us than rapier or spear work…and why such arts are more popular. There is less of the animal instinct to overcome. Indeed, the good arts understand that instinct and use it to fine advantage.

Mastering the rapier requires mastering that instinct. You can’t beat it or ignore, because striking and grappling are part of swordplay. You must master it, you must have such fine control that you can turn it on and off in mid-sequence. It’s one of the reasons point-oriented weapon work is known for it’s finicky and fussy drill approach, and respected for it’s precision. If you approach such drills with a mind knowledgeable about what you are trying to overcome, they make so much more sense.

Technique means less than mastering the mind. The saying I heard when I was studying Asian arts, is that it takes ten years to become a master of one martial art. In my experience, this is about right. The people that I have trained for a decade are people that understand and have a relationship with their use of the blade. They have different approaches to fighting and training, but that understanding of the need to for control of instinct, and marrying that control to the techniques they employ, it highly developed and unquestioned.

They understand clearly what they are working on and need to improve. It’s one of the reasons you see a strong return to development drilling on basic skills in the most advanced students. They know why they will see the most performance improvement from basic drills.

Measure is sometimes more than just the distance between you and your opponent. Sometimes it’s the distance between you and your own sword.