This is the second article in a short series, discussing common pieces of advice that sound helpful but in fact can be detrimental to your practice of some HEMA systems.
A common piece of advice in some unarmed martial arts is that it is alright to take a hit as you give a better hit to your opponent. This certainly makes sense in some flavours of boxing, for example, where taking a weak punch to your non-dominant shoulder is not the end of the world, and if that enables you to deliver a simultaneous strike with your dominant hand to your opponent’s face, it is perhaps quite a reasonable trade.
However, in martial arts with weapons, this piece of advice does not hold up quite so well, for physical reasons, and for some historical reasons as well.
Historical unarmed martial arts
If you are studying European arts such as pugilism, or medieval ringen or abrazarre, then you may not have a problem with taking a hit to give a hit. With unarmed martial arts, taking a hit might genuinely be the best way to close in and deliver a fight-ending technique, perhaps even reducing the number of hits or the amount of damage you would take by keeping your distance and trying to find some other way to end the fight.
Weapons as “force multipliers”
However, weapons act as a “force multiplier”. No matter how hard you can punch, you can almost certainly hit harder and with greater force if you use a stick, and the damage dealt becomes even more severe if the stick is replaced by a blunt sword, and then the damage becomes even greater still if the sword is sharp. Therefore, taking a hit from a weapon is a less feasible choice, because the resulting damage could be so much more than from a mere punch. Although taking a kick to your leg as you deliver a punch to your opponent’s face might be a reasonable trade, losing your leg entirely to a sword cut just to give a scalp wound in return is a very poor trade.
Therefore, when working with training swords that are supposed to represent sharp swords, it would be sensible to keep this in mind and to treat the receipt of any hit as a failure on your part, thus invalidating the idea that it is reasonable to take a hit to give a hit. In other words, the essence of fencing should be “touching your opponent without being touched”, according to Aldo Nadi.
Different paradigms of thinking
Another consideration is that historical martial arts did not come to exist in a world with modern sensibilities and modern paradigms of thinking. Rather, they came to exist in other centuries, where people had different sensibilities, different paradigms of thinking and of perceiving the world, and perhaps even different beliefs. Therefore, what may seem reasonable to a modern mind may have been entirely inexcusable to a historical mind, and vice versa.
An interesting passage I read recently comes from a scholarly work by B. Ann Tlusty, on the subject of drinking culture in early modern Germany:
Physical health also played a role in defining the sin of immoderate eating and drinking, for knowingly harming the physical self was a form of suicide (a mortal sin). As one manual put it, “overeating and over drinking kill more men than the sword,” and the sin is equally great whether one kills oneself slowly or quickly.
The relevant concept here is that “knowingly harming the physical self”, or knowingly allowing harm to come to the physical self, could be seen in early modern Germany (late 1400s to late 1700s) as perpetuating the sin of suicide, regardless whether the harm to the self was small, great, or terminal. Therefore, it would be sinful to accept a hit in order to give a hit, according to this paradigm of thought and belief.
One of the common actions in German longsword fencing from this period is the Zwerhaw, a technique that is often very difficult for beginners to learn to perform without getting hit on the fingers. When working to interpret this technique over the last decade or two, some people have espoused the idea that in the context of a judicial duel or a real self defence situation in the 15th century, it could be seen as permissible to take a hit to the finger and to lose the digit if at the same time the fencer could land a fight-ending blow to the opponent’s head with this technique. According to the notion of sin, as suggested for drinking by Tlusty, and as I suggest could be applied equally well to fencing, this idea would be denegrated by 15th century fencers who would not want to suffer for the sin of suicide, even if they survived the fight.
An excuse and a crutch
In my experience with historical fencing, when people suggest that it is alright to take a hit in order to give a hit when fencing with swords, it is often a crutch and an excuse for poor mechanics , incorrect interpretations, and often inadequate personal skills (such as reading distance and timing) and characteristics (including fitness, speed, and agility). It is perfectly possible to perform the Zwerhaw without being hit on the hands, just as I have managed to do in sparring and in competition, and as demonstrated in videos such as this promotional piece by Anton Kohutovič:
In conclusion, I would like to suggest that the idea of taking a hit to give a hit can be quite reasonable for unarmed martial arts, and may even be described in the source material for such disciplines. However, for martial arts with weapons, the idea is probably bad advice, for reasons of physics and safety, and also for contextual and historical reasons when trying to recreate a historical martial art.
 Samuel Ha. “Top 9 methods on how to take a punch.” MightyFighter.com, accessed 28th March 2017. http://www.mightyfighter.com/top-9-methods-on-how-to-take-a-punch/
 B. Ann Tlusty. Bacchus and Civic Order: The Culture of Drink in Early Modern Germany. The University Press of Virginia, 2001. Page 71.
 This idea can be found written in some older discussion forums, but more commonly comes up in discussions on Facebook or in conversations in the pub after training, neither of which is a good medium for preserving such statements for helpful referencing at a later date!
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Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.