This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 28th August 2015. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
Every so often, I find a discussion (online and in person, in roughly equal quantities) where people debate the merits and problems of including hands as a valid target area when fencing. Usually this is with regard to longsword, but sometimes with other weapons as well.
It is my firm belief that the hands are important targets when learning how to fence, but we should look after them and not take matters to extremes.
You need to learn how to keep your hands safe
The first and most important argument in the debate must be that you, as a fencer, as a martial artist, must learn to keep yourself safe. At the end of the day, it is not up to anyone else to keep you safe, especially not the person who is trying to attack you (although as a training partner, he should look after you; as an opponent, it’s not his problem) – the problem and the responsibility is yours and yours alone.
If you do not learn how to keep your hands safe, then they are always in danger. Since hands are fragile yet important, it is critical that you learn how to protect them properly. This could be a matter of learning how to turn your crossguard into a parry, or making your defences with the strong of your blade rather than with the basket guard, or simply taking the hands away from an incoming cut so that they are no longer available to be hit.
Once you have gained the skill to keep your hands safe, no matter what your opponent tries to do when fighting with you, then you can enjoy your sparring more, without the fear of injury, and you can also participate in sparring with other people who take a different approach to safety during sparring. If you know how to keep yourself safe, you can always dial down your intensity and remove target areas, you can always play more gently and not aim at the hands; but if you do not possess these skills, you can never dial up your intensity and add new target areas while remaining safe.
It is better to be prepared and then deploy your skills accordingly, rather than to ignore important skills and then be found wanting.
You need to learn about distance and range
Two of the main reasons why people manage to hit hands in sparring are as follows:
- the person being hit on the hands does not know how to manage distance properly, and leaves his hands exposed and in danger when too close;
- the person making the hits does not know how to close distance to hit any target deeper than the closest extremity.
The first reason indicates a problem with the person being hit on the hands. You cannot complain that your opponent is hitting you when you put yourself in danger. If you get hit on the hands frequently, then perhaps you need to start using different guard positions, or perhaps you need to move back a little and not begin the fight so close to your opponent.
Of course, it is possible to be too far away from your opponent, so that you can no longer close the distance and land hits effectively. The appropriate distance is one that keeps you safe, yet from which you can still work effectively. As you gain more skill, you may find that the appropriate distance will change.
The second reason above indicates a problem with the attacker. Perhaps he fights from too far away, so that the hands are the only targets he can ever reach. Or perhaps he just cannot insert himself into the fight due to a lack of athleticism or forward drive. Or perhaps he is simply lazy, and takes easy targets instead of moving his body and trying to work towards more difficult, deeper targets.
In this case, the only reason he is able to continue hitting hands is that his opponents have not yet learned how to defend their hands properly. The best thing that you can do against such a person is to learn to keep your hands safe. That way, you won’t get hit on the hands anymore (an important improvement), and it will force the attacker to up his game and start working to other targets. This demonstrates that learning to defend your own hands will also help your training partners improve and become better fencers!
Removing the target leads to poor behaviour
A while back, I competed in a dussack competition, which was small, local and friendly in nature. The rules were very simple and the intention was just to have a bit of fun. Hand hits were discounted, however, and hitting hard was discouraged. This led to some competitors turning their hands into my strikes, taking my hits on their gloved hand in order to save their forearm (the valid target at which I was aiming). There was no complex hilt to keep the hands safe; this action was therefore relying on the bulk of the glove to create a large “safety zone” that could negate my hits.
I managed to win the competition anyway, by utilising other strategies, but the fact remains that by discounting hand hits, some people’s behaviour changed to fit the new rule. Rule sets do influence the behaviour of fencers, be it in a competitive setting (i.e. “these targets score points, while these targets are off-limits and score nothing”) or even in a friendly club setting (i.e. “since we don’t want to wear heavy gloves, let’s be nice to each other and not hit hands”), and fencers become accustomed to rulesets that they use regularly.
Not everyone will revert to poor behaviour when rules are introduced to discount hand hits, and it would be incorrect to suggest that everyone would do so. However, there will always be some people will modify their behaviour. Maybe not maliciously, maybe not even in an attempt to game the rules – but if they don’t feel pain (because the intensity is low), and if they don’t have extrinsic motivation (losing points for being hit on the hands), not everyone will not possess the intrinsic motivation that they need in order to learn mid-game what they need to do to improve their fencing skills and receive fewer hits.
Again, I suggest that regular practice where the hands are valid targets is a good thing, since then you always have the option to dial down the intensity and remove the hands as a target zone while remaining safe. Without such practice, however, you cannot dial up the intensity and add a target zone while remaining safe.
Attacking the hands is “cheeky” or “unsportsmanlike”
Says who? The person who keeps getting smacked on the hands? If you don’t want to get hit on the hands, then it is your responsibility to learn how to defend your hands.
Over the years, we have seen great developments in longsword competitions, and other disciplines are not so far behind. I believe that people must first develop to become better athletes, able to withstand the pressure and stresses of competition and to perform with a limited skillset, before they can learn how to employ their full repertoire and skills in such situations. Therefore, we see a development of athletic “basic fencing” before a development of more complex “proper fencing from the sources”.
People might use “cheap” or “sneaky” techniques to score points initially, but then the use of such techniques begins to fade when people learn how to counter them. In this exact fashion, if you learn how to defend your hands, then people whose only game is “hand sniping” will lose to you. However, if you fail to learn the very important skill of keeping yourself safe, then it is not your opponent’s fault that they have learned how to bypass your defences – it is your fault that you have not learned how to keep yourself safe. Once you learn how to do this, you will take fewer hits to the hands in sparring.
Hitting the hands is just as cheeky or just as sensible as hitting any other target. If the target is available, and your opponent cannot defend it, then hit it! Hopefully he will learn how to keep himself safe if you point out his weaknesses. You do your training partners no favours by dumbing down your own fencing.
You have to learn how to hit the hands properly
Test cutting is an incredibly important aspect of historical fencing. If you cannot transfer force to your target, then what are you left with? Strikes must be set up with proper edge alignment, proper acceleration, correct body mechanics, correct follow-through, and an appropriate and safe withdrawal from the situation.
The hands are not as tough a target as other body parts, and require less force to damage them. Nonetheless, you still need proper cutting mechanics to impart this force, and you need to make the strikes in a fashion that is sensible and fits within the system that you study.
It is my belief that during fencing, no hits should be given credit unless they land with proper body mechanics. They don’t have to hit hard – they just need to be made in such a fashion that, if the swords were sharp and if the fencers were giving it their all, there would be a chance that the strike might actually do something. Therefore, a gentle tap on the hands is fine if it is supported with proper body mechanics. However, some ridiculous false-edge sweep up into the hands from beneath, where the arms are fully extended and the torso is leaning forward, perhaps with the attacker balancing on only one leg in order to get the reach, should not be counted and instead should be ridiculed.
That is not to say that no false-edge cut into the hands from below could be successful – far from it, this can be a very successful technique. But if the body mechanics are not sufficient, if the strike is more of a tap from the very edge of distance, then it’s probably a rubbish hit. The same goes for any strike to any target. Learning to hit properly is an important skill to learn, regardless of your target.
Once you have control of your body, and control of your sword, you gain the ability to dial up or dial down the intensity of your strike as you see fit, depending on your partner’s protective gear and the context of the sparring match.
Intensity is important
I was at an event several years ago, and participated in a longsword competition where the hands were included as a target area. However, some of the competitors did not know how to defend their hands properly, and as a result, one fencer had his hand shattered in one bout; and in another bout, another fencer had her wrist hit hard enough (although not broken, luckily) that she had to retire from the competition.
Neither of these competitors wore appropriate gloves for the intensity of the competition. Had they worn appropriate gloves (as the event organiser should have insisted upon), then these two injuries could have been averted.
It is also important not to delude yourself that sparring will be safer if you use synthetic swords rather than steel swords. Risk is less a question of material than a question of the intensity with which the swords are used. If you fight hard, then expect a greater chance of injuries. If you fight softly, then there is less chance of something going wrong. It is important to note that while training gently is a valuable training exercise, it is not necessarily the pinnacle of skill, nor an appropriate paradigm upon which to base the entirety of your training.
The only way to learn how to keep your hands safe against people who are fencing quickly and with enough power to break your hands is to practise this situation, building up to it from an appropriately gentle starting point. It should not be an immediate progression for beginners (“ok, that first round was nice and slow, now go full power!”), because that is irresponsible. No, it should be a process over time. As students become accustomed and comfortable with defending themselves against a given level of intensity, you can increase this gradually, and eventually your students will become able to keep themselves safe at a high level of intensity.
Awareness of intensity is important. Hitting hard against someone who cannot handle that intensity is wrong and irresponsible. However, expecting that everyone will play your preferred game of light-contact fencing is also quite short-sighted, as your partner may not have understood just how light the contact should be. You must work to be able to keep yourself safe at any level of intensity, even if you then choose to dial it down and play gently.
There is nothing wrong with attacking the hands during sparring. In fact, this should be encouraged, as it teaches people how to defend their hands. Of course, this requires appropriate coaching, to make explicit the fact that people need to learn to defend their hands, and to suggest methods of doing this.
Furthermore, the intensity should be appropriate to the level of protective gear worn (which, equally, should be appropriate to the level of intensity that your opponent is likely to use). Beginners should not be swinging for the hills and striking hard at each other, but it does advanced fencers a disservice to restrict them to gentle taps, as they lose the opportunity to learn to defend themselves against faster, harder-hitting opponents.
The responsibility is yours and yours alone to keep yourself safe when fencing. You must learn to defend yourself skilfully, at any level of intensity. Sure, in training, your partners should be trying to help you learn and should not be trying to hurt you – but at the end of the day, you must take responsibility for keeping yourself safe.
Therefore, learn to keep your hands safe, and teach your training partners to do likewise.
 Keith Farrell. “Cutting Concepts.” In: Keith Farrell (ed.). Encased in Steel Anthology I. Glasgow: Fallen Rook Publishing, 2015. Pages 167-176.
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.