I was sparring with a guy who’d been training about a year in the art of rapier. I was enjoying a rare moment of acting my experience, and pretty much landing whatever shot I wanted. My less-than endeared opponent was not sharing my sense of achievement. If I didn’t know better I’d think he was getting grumpy about being trounced by the old guy. Especially when said old guy had been easy pickings for him six months earlier. What can I say? I took a few years off from fencing and it took a while to shake the ring rust off. Not my fault he expected me to not get better.

To get to the point of the story though, I pulled off one of my favourite cheap shots from Marozzo: a seemingly pointless falso to the opponents blade followed by a gathering step. With his blade forcefully moved off-line, the opponent is prone to flinching backwards. When you don’t attack, the tendency is for them to immediately counter-attack. Which would be fine if you hadn’t sneakily pulled just out of measure, and slapped a cut to the inside of his knee at the same time. This is one of my favourite things about Marozzo…almost every technique he teaches is designed to screw with your position, tempo, and expectations. True master work.

But not according to my partner. He muttered an incoherent grumble. This wasn’t unexpected. One of the downsides of polite swordplay is that sometimes people think the only valid shot is the kind that they understand. If they don’t see it, or if it doesn’t land in a manner they are habituated to, they think it’s somehow wrong. It’s as if they imagine that death and wounding would only occur in a polite and recognizable fashion. Probably so they have time to die with the correct dramatic, tragic last gesture.

When I pressed him for the source of his discontent, he stated that he didn’t think he should have to take the cut because…he would have been wearing boots. I should clarify that due to my partners excessive height, I’d played it safe with the cut and landed it to his ankle instead of inner thigh. So, I guess, had we been fighting “for real” ie. in the supposed seventeenth century, he would have been wearing boots that would have resisted my cut. Unlike, I suppose, modern sport socks.

Hell, I admit at some point in time, I imagined my training would have prepared me for a magical event that somehow transported me back in time. Much in the same way in high school I imagined my Karate-do training would prepare me to defeat the ninja-terrorists that were going to burst into the classroom any. second. now…now? now. Dammit, now I have to pay attention to the teacher. Anyway…

It seems a bit sad that the WMA world has to find some sort of mutual hallucination to agree to. If we pretend to be actually recreating a lost art, we run the risk of role playing. If we try to be pure researchers, we run the risk of being exclusionary. If we try to stick to the reality of what’s in our hands, we run the risk of sportification. I’ve hit each end of the spectrum at one time or another. I’ve been the smug researcher. I’ve more than done the SCA thing. I’ve taught pure competition classes. Hell, I’ve even fought a first blood duel with sabres, purely so that I could have a sense of what happened to your mind (a shitload. Seriously.)

A few days ago, I was working with a private student. It was a good slow work session, working on streamlining some movement things. I took a step and laid a good cut into his inner thigh, and at the same time he landed a good lunge to my right shoulder. We stopped to talk about it for a bit, and consider the potential reality of sharp blades. A clean thrust through my shoulder, high up. Likely would have gone right through my shoulder complex, may have hit the edge of the shoulder blade on the way out. May not have. A sharp rapier blade…I would have felt something, but would I have recognized it as a wound immediately?

The meat of my blade landed just above his knee, at a good angle. I had hip turn and a good pull of the hand into the cut. Even a thin bladed rapier would gone in a inch, maybe two. Hell, even my blunt training sword, at full speed, would have split the skin and possibly buckled the knee. Had I been using one of my sharp swords? Most likely would have severed his leg, or at least enough tendon and bone to effectively sever it.

In the weird D&D derived SCA ruleset, I would be “dead” from the body shot, and my opponent would have to fight from this knees, since a leg shot is only a wound. A wound…who the hell was the dork who ever thought up “just a wound?” Here’s the truth of damage in combat: It’s total or non-existent. You can either function, or you stop. Real life has no hit-points. I’ve accidentally sliced my pinkie with a chef’s knife, and nearly collapsed, but been stabbed into the ribs and just got angry. Nobody is tough enough to reliably take any injury. Combat isn’t a nice set of tables, but a complex web of possibilities.

I like to teach a martial art. And what I mean by that is that if, god forbid, my students ever have to face someone trying to kill them (sword in hand or not), I want them to survive. Which means I don’t want them to get any kind of injury. That’s the fear that keeps me up at night, and has since I started teaching lo those many years ago. Have I done enough? Will my students be safe? Have I let them down?

Or do I need to buy them heavy leather boots?

Come to think of it, Marozzo really does like to throw leg cuts. Must be the lack of boots in all the plates.