Fencing with mixed weapons

Keith Farrell and Yvain Rit fencing with longswords at TaurHEMAchia 2017. Photo by Andrea Boschetti, 2017.

An idea that seems to be enduringly popular is to see what happens when fencing with mixed weapons; if one person as a longsword and the other a messer, or sabre against rapier, or spear against sword and buckler, for example. Some combinations are of course quite far-fetched, but others are quire reasonable, and there are even some sources that discuss fencing with one weapon against a different type of weapon.

So why don’t we see people fencing with mixed weapons more often? This article will attempt to answer the question from my point of view.

None of us begin our training as masters of HEMA. We all start as students. Perhaps some of us have a little prior experience that gives us a boost in some way, but we all have to begin as a student.

Most sources deal with the topic of matched weapons: longsword against longsword, sword and buckler against sword and buckler, smallsword against smallsword. This is of course the easiest way to learn skills in the beginning – by keeping the situation simple, people can learn the basics of how to use that kind of weapon, and how to keep themselves safe against the basic things that the other guy can do to you.

If we spend our time training with matched weapons, and then suddenly try to fence with mixed weapons, do we really know enough and are we really good enough for this experiment to make sense? Can we bring a well-developed skillset to the table and showcase the key stylistic elements of our system against the opponent? Can we make sensible decisions so that the end result is not so very different from our usual matched weapons fights?

I have several years of practice with the Scottish broadsword. This is a really simple system, and I am confident enough in my knowledge and abilities with the broadsword to face someone else armed with a broadsword, or with a sabre, or with a smallsword, or with broadsword and targe, or with a musket and bayonet. I think that if I would fence with anyone using one of the weapons that the broadsword would have been likely to fight against in history, I would have a good chance of giving a good showing of myself and my system.

However, with the longsword, even though I have more years of practice than with the broadsword, I don’t think I could fight very well with mixed weapons. The system is so much more complex, and I spend my time training in a matched weapons environment. I’m getting better, every month, and I can demonstrate more and more of the complicated techniques and sequences and set ups in both sparring and competition – but sometimes I still struggle to find the right opportunity to do my techniques, and even today, sometimes I take an interpretation or an idea back to the drawing board and try to improve it to match the source material better.

With this assessment of my own training, I feel that my time is better spent by continuing with my training, rather than playing around and complicating matters by mixing the weapons. I would rather learn my system properly before starting to mix things up.

Of course, if I had been learning to fence in the 15th or 16th century, and was studying directly under Ringeck or Meyer or whoever, then I would probably have gained a much higher level of performance with longsword much faster, and I would also have a master to instruct me in the problem of facing a different weapon. In this situation, it would probably also make sense to learn to fight against a different weapon, as it would be a situation likely to occur. But today, reconstructing the system rather than being taught it, and not having any need to learn to fence with longsword against rapier (or whatever), the circumstances are quite different, and my time is better spent working on improving my understanding and performance of the system as written.

So why don’t we see more clubs teaching mixed weapons, or more tournaments featuring mixed weapons? Because, with a very few exceptions in the grand scheme of things, most people are still not very good at using their weapon in a matched environment. People are getting better, sure, but clubs and instructors are still focusing on what will give them the best return for their investment of training time. People can’t fence well in a mixed weapon environment if they can’t fence well in a matched weapon environment, and instructors can’t teach mixed weapons very well until after they learn how to use these weapons properly in the first place.

Therefore, most training time today is spent with matched weapons. Maybe in ten years, as more instructors and more clubs improve to the point where large numbers of people can demonstrate their system perfectly well in a matched weapons environment and also in a mixed weapons environment, we may see more mixed weapons events occurring. My expectation is that it would occur first for the 18th and 19th century weapons such as broadsword, sabre, smallsword, walking stick, and musket with bayonet; medieval mixed weapons is likely to be a long way behind, as the complexity of these systems is likely to require more work to gain competency in the first instance.

Fencing with mixed weapons may seem cool and interesting, but just like taking up yet another discipline, most people would be better served by spending more time on training their main discipline and improving their skills in a matched weapons environment. Creating a solid foundation will pay dividends later on, and will pave the way for more interesting (and more useful) experiments with mixed weapons.