Trying to simulate a real fight

Keith Farrell and Ciaran O'Sullivan
Keith Farrell and Ciaran O’Sullivan fencing with longswords at Edgebana. Photo by Thomas Naylor, 2016.

When people design rules for a HEMA tournament, a common idea is that the competition should simulate a real fight as closely as possible. This always involves a series of assumptions about what a “real fight” is, exactly, and also about how a person will react after receiving a hit.

I believe that this is too problematic a goal to be useful to the current HEMA movement, and in this article I will explain my reasons.

What kind of fight?

An important question is: what sort of “real fight” is the tournament trying to simulate?

A duel of honour between friends will be quite different to a duel to the death between bitter enemies. A fight between students over an insult in a pub in 16th century German city will be different to a fight between aristocrats over a lady in 18th century France. A self-defence encounter in the streets of Victorian London will be different to a battlefield in the 12th century, which will in turn be different to a battlefield in the 15th or 19th centuries.

Not every instance of violence is the same. Some are planned, some come as a surprise. Some are between friends, others between enemies, yet others between people who do not know each other. Some instances observe written (or unwritten) rules, while other instances have no rules.

A tournament that is trying to simulate a “real fight” must choose what kind of “real fight” it is trying to simulate; just saying that the goal is “for the tournament to be like a real fight” is far too vague and doesn’t really mean anything.


The mentality of the competitors is a key aspect of whether a fight is “for play” or “for real”. Indeed, a friendly fight that begins with play can quickly become ugly and more real if one person becomes upset or angry!

Therefore, making a rule set is not the most important element in trying to simulate a “real fight”; helping competitors enter the right mentality is probably more important. If people treat the weapons with appropriate respect, and strive to remain untouched (because a “real sword” would do “real damage”), then this is a good mentality: a healthy dose of self-preservation is no bad thing!

However, if someone just wants to hit people and score points, and knows that he will never really be in any real danger in a modern sportive setting, then it is unlikely that he will adopt a “more correct” martial mentality. However, did every single fighter in history have a correct martial mentality? Did some of them perhaps throw themselves at their opponent with reckless ferocity, rather than approaching with due caution? There are many accounts of duels where both combatants attacked at the same time, with no caution, and both died as a result.

So in fact a modern sportive mentality can be very similar to the mentality behind some duels, albeit perhaps (hopefully!) without the burning hatred.

Perhaps some other encounters were best approached with a different mentality. For example, in the towns and cities of the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century, an individual’s mentality may simply have been to demonstrate that he was “manly” enough to warrant the right to carry and sword and maintain his status as a citizen, and therefore a brief encounter with no real injuries would be most beneficial, as it would satisfy the martial ethic of the people in that time and place, whereas refusing to fight would be to lose legal privileges as a citizen, and to kill the opponent would result in legal action and perhaps a charge of murder. In such a situation, a different mentality is clearly beneficial, with an emphasis on showing skill and willingness to fight if required, but with the caution and control to avoid receiving any real injuries while also avoiding the problem of giving the opponent a serious injury.

Since different kinds of fights would have involved different mentalities, a competition cannot say that by trying to simulate a “real fight”, it improves the martial mentality of its participants. The best that can be said is that any given rule set will favour one or two specific mentalities over other approaches; but someone with a different mentality may still fight well enough to win.

Health and safety

One problem with mentality is that wearing modern protective equipment and fencing with blunt swords does reduce the amount of threat and danger that a combatant feels during a match. If the fencer trusts his safety gear to keep him safe, regardless or what happens or what hits he receives, then he may take chances that would not make sense with sharp swords and no protective gear.

At the other end of the scale, someone who relies on their hands and arms for a living may be so terrified of receiving an injury that they wear so much protective gear that they can no longer move properly. This ability to keep putting on more protective gear is both beneficial (less chance of injury) and detrimental (being unable to move because of the bulk and hindrance of the equipment).

Neither mentality is wrong: it is quite reasonable to be afraid of injury (isn’t that a good example of a “proper” martial mentality, with due respect for the opponent and his weapon?), and it is also quite reasonable to trust the protective gear that we wear, and therefore to fence without being paralysed with fear.

Of course, the solution most likely to yield the “correct” mentality for a specific kind of fight is to use exactly the equipment that would have been used in such a fight. That would be just a gambeson and light leather gloves for recreating one of Fiore’s duels, or just a shirt and no gloves for recreating a duel for honour in 18th century Britain, or a gambeson and helmet and a pike or a musket (and a hundred friends, with maybe a cannon or two) for recreating the wars of the 16th century.

Obviously this moves further and further away from being a simple test of people’s HEMA skills in a brief tournament during a weekend event.

Effects of injuries

A common topic of discussion is exactly how injuries would occur in a “real fight” and what the effects would be. Does the opponent stop immediately upon receiving a wound? Does he keep fighting, only to bleed out a few seconds later? Does he keep fighting indefinitely? Does he even notice the wound?

This is often discussed in connection with the afterblow rule, with many people holding the point of view that “if I hit you on the arm, there’s no way you could continue to hold your sword and hit me with it, therefore there’s no point in having an afterblow rule since my hit effective finishes the fight”.

However, from first-hand accounts of duels and battles over the last few hundred years, it is clear that people do not always stop conveniently when they are hit, and in fact it was not unusual that people would refuse to die until after they had managed to kill or injure the person who struck first.

There are many medical accounts of individuals surviving horrendous injuries sustained in fights, and also many accounts of other people dying quickly from lesser wounds. From reading these medical accounts, and the first-hand accounts of duels and battles, it is clear that sometimes people go down, and also sometimes they do not. Some people are simply tougher than others.

We can also look at modern data, such as how well people perform in test cutting. If someone cannot do any meaningful damage with their strikes, because their mechanics are poor or because they don’t understand the physics of how a sword actually interacts with its target, then a hit may be nothing more than a simple slap, and a powerful hit will be merely a nuisance, rather than a grievous injury.

The medical evidence and the historical evidence both show that landing the first hit did not always mean winning the fight. Modern data from test cutting shows that most people are unable to do any meaningful damage with a sword until they put some significant effort and practice into improving their mechanics, with plenty of opportunities to work with sharp swords and useful targets such as tatami mats.

Therefore, what is the likelihood that a “real fight” would end when the modern competitor lands the first hit? Not so great, I think.

Thus, the discussion about the effects of weapons and injuries is largely moot, because most people can’t use a sword properly anyway (if they could, then everyone would know everything there is to know about striking mechanics and would be successful in test cutting 100% of the time, with all techniques in every sequence, in every situation, and this is definitely not the case), and so a rule set based around some idea of what would happen in a “real fight” when one person hits the other is largely a work of imagination or speculation.

What is the purpose of a tournament?

It sounds like trying to simulate a “real fight” is doomed to failure, for the reasons above. Therefore, if a tournament cannot simulate a “real fight” very well, what CAN a tournament do? What is the value in having a tournament that does NOT simulate a “real fight”?

I have written before about the value of tournaments as a training tool. In short, tournaments are one of the tools that fencers can use in their journey to become better martial artists, along with sparring, drilling, test cutting, and solo drills such as flourishes. Tournaments help to validate what we do and how we interpret the source material, by giving us proof that certain methods fail consistently and just don’t work, while other interpretations can work even under the pressure of competition. Tournaments are a way to pressure-test skills against an uncooperative opponent in a way that friendly sparring cannot manage.

Personally, I go into each and every tournament with a few skills or techniques that I want to work on. If I can make these things work in competition, then it means I understand them better than I did previously. For example, entering a longsword competition, I may try to work with the right (crossed arms) Ochs position, the overhead Vom Tag position, Bleiben (remaining in the bind, rather than leaving it immediately to make a strike or a parry) and the Krumphaw from the left Schrankhut. In other words, I take techniques and concepts from my regular training and try to make them work for me in a competitive setting. Sometimes they work well, sometimes they don’t work well enough, and so this gives me data about how successfully I am performing them and also about how and why they fail. Then I can return to my regular training with new insights, and make my fencing even better in light of this new information.

Therefore, a good tournament is one that gives people the chance to develop as fencers, that gives people the opportunity and incentive to try the various techniques they have been training, and that encourages “good fencing” by whatever definition.

What is the most useful rule set?

Well, one that gives people the chance to develop themselves, incentive to try to use techniques from the sources, and that encourages good fencing.

Since everyone tends to agree on a very broad definition of “good fencing” (hit without being hit), that is an excellent starting place. Make a rule set that rewards clean hits and that discourages messy fighting such as double hits.

How do you give people incentive to use historical techniques? That’s a good question, but perhaps the answer is simple: proper use of historical techniques should make the fighting clean and effective, and therefore fencers should be able to realise that using these techniques is a better strategy than just flailing with the sword or treating it like a modern foil.

A question that could be asked to support the previous question is how to discourage non-historical techniques, or how to discourage an over-reliance on certain techniques (such as the one-handed strikes and one-handed thrusts with the longsword) or any other behaviour that the organisers consider not to be “good fencing”. These two questions are where discussing different rule sets can be most valuable!

Finally, how do you encourage “good fencing”? Well, first of all, define “good fencing”. Think about what behaviour fighters have to display, or actions they have to perform, in order to meet your definition of “good fencing”. Then encourage these behaviours in your rule set!

The best rule set for any competition is one that gives incentive for the fighters to perform in the manner that the organisers want to encourage, thereby promoting “good fencing”, while giving people the opportunity to display their skills and develop themselves as fencers. If you can accomplish this with your tournament, it will be much more valuable to the participants and to the community as a whole, than if the tournament tried to simulate a “real fight” with all the inherent problems described above.

Bibliography for useful reading

Paul Kirchner. Dueling With The Sword and Pistol: 400 Years of One-on-One Combat. Paladin Press, 2004.

B. Ann Tlusty. The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

D.A. Kinsley. Swordsmen of the British Empire. 1st ed. British Sword Fighters series, part 3. Lulu, April 2013.

Keith Farrell. “Validating What We Do in Martial Arts.” In: Keith Farrell (ed.). Encased in Steel Anthology I. Fallen Rook Publishing, 2015. Pages 199-2018.