Is your art really “a killing art”?

Liverpool HEMA lesson
Ben and Marc performing an exercise during a lesson at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2018.

Back in September, Kaja Sadowski posted quite an interesting question to Facebook for discussion by her friends and colleagues:

Honest question for my HEMA friends: if you consider the totality of the sources you work from, to what extent is the art you practice really “a killing art”? 100%? 75%? 50%? Less?

Follow-up: what do we gain/lose by framing it exclusively (or primarily) as such?

This is an excellent question, and I’m grateful to Kaja for posing it and giving me the opportunity to consider my thoughts. I think it is a rather important question for practitioners of any martial art (especially those with swords) to ask themselves, so that our practice is framed properly and is placed firmly within its proper context, as best we can understand it.

What follows is an edited and improved version of my original response to her question on Facebook.

I typically frame the HEMAs that I practise as systems for doing exactly the amount of damage to the other person as you wish. This could perhaps be a non-lethal action to draw a fight to its conclusion, or it could be a series of strong hits with the hope that one of them will be sufficient to stop the other guy, or it could potentially even be playing gently to lull the opponent into a false sense of security before blasting through with my strongest action. There are many ways to use a sword and they do not all require using 100% of my strength at all times.

My main disciplines are 15th century Liechtenauer longsword, 16th century Germanic “common fencing” longsword, 18th/19th century Scottish broadsword, and 18th/19th century British singlestick. I have done some reasonable amount of work with the sabre, dussack, the sword and buckler, the quarterstaff, and the dagger. In all of these disciplines, there are techniques designed to win the fight through strong and violent (potentially lethal) means, and there are also techniques designed to win the fight by showing that you are the better fighter (drawing the first blood, controlling the arms, takedowns, disarms, etc.).

Singlestick is just a stick held in one hand, so it’s difficult to be lethal with that, and the source material we have for it tends to treat it as either a training tool for sabre or a sportive tool for playing games that teach you how to fight better in general (but the games themselves are not necessarily intended to be realistic or lethal). It really is just a tool to play and learn, either by formal drills, or by playing games. This is an immensely valuable way to learn, and so the non-lethality of the discipline should not be derogated!

Understanding what the sword can do

With sword disciplines, I feel it is important to be cognisant of what a sharp sword can and cannot do. I practise a lot of test cutting so that I can have a fair understanding of my own ability to do damage with a sharp sword: this has taught me that if I do a technique correctly, I have a good chance of doing some meaningful damage, but that I am likely to achieve virtually nothing if I screw up the technique even just a little.

Therefore, when I teach my students, I don’t teach that swords are lightsabres, or that one hit = a kill. I teach that a well-formed strike will have the highest chance of doing damage, whereas a badly-formed strike will have very little chance of doing what you want it to do. Therefore, my focus is on learning to make well-formed strikes, as much as possible, even under stress, because that IS a measurable skill in which we can see improvement over time.

I figure that if you have the wherewithall to make well-formed strikes and structures as a matter of course during fencing, and also have the wherewithall to think it through as you are doing it, then you have all the tools you need to be able to choose whether to try to end the fight violently or nicely. This is probably less useful for disciplines like dagger, but it seems to be entirely along the lines of what the sword source material tells us.

Considering the Scottish broadsword

For the broadsword, there are some interesting 18th century accounts by McBane and Macleod about duels/fights they had, in which they didn’t want to kill their opponent, so they found non-lethal ways to end it and show that they were the better person.

Donald Macleod fought a duel with a German officer (not the person he had actually challenged to a duel!) and didn’t want to kill him, so he cut the guy on the thigh sufficiently that the German officer couldn’t continue the fight, but no worse. [source, pages 35-37 of the original work]

In another fight, between champions, Macleod cut the purse from his opponent’s belt, showing that if he had the skill to do that, then it wasn’t worth continuing the fight any further, because he was by far the better swordsman. [source, pages 39-40 of the original work]

I like these examples, and they are part of why I have the perspective that I do. Similarly, both McBane and Macleod relate tales of the protagonists killing their opponents, so this was also sometimes a desired outcome of fights.

Considering Liechtenauer’s longsword

In the earlier material by Liechtenauer, as well as potentially devastating actions such as the Zwerhaw to the head or the thrust to the face or throat, we see similar non-lethal kinds of actions intended to end the fight reasonably peaceably.

The Drei Wunder (three wounders) comprise the haw (the cut, that cuts through a target), the stich (the thrust, that thrusts into and potentially through a target), and the schnitt (the slice, that drags the edge over the target without going through it). These are described as being component parts of Winden actions in the bind, and although are not described as part of the Hauptstucke (the principal techniques, or the main and most important actions in the system), they are nonetheless part and parcel of the various items that comprise the Hauptstucke. Although the haw and the stich are quite violent, the schnitt is a relatively kind way to gain a less violent victory over your opponent.

The Abschneiden (slicing off) is a slicing, dragging technique that controls the limbs, rather than trying to chop into (and through) the arms. It is one of the ways to control your opponent and bring yourself to a position of dominance without hurting him very much in the process. Of course, it is an excellent springboard for delivering a powerful and very painful strike to another openings, but that doesn’t have to be part of the action unless you desire it to be so. The Abschneiden is one of the Hauptstucke, and therefore one of the most important techniques in Liechtenauer’s system.

There are other nonlethal techniques in Liechtenauer’s sytem for unarmoured longsword, in Lignitzer’s system for sword and buckler, in Paurenfeindt’s system for quarterstaff, in Meyer’s system for dussack, in Starzewski’s system for sabre, in Page’s system for the broadsword. In all of these systems, there are also techniques that are potentially lethal. The systems cover the spectrum completely.


So, in short, we should be able to do exactly what we mean to do in a fight with swords. If we mean to end it violently, then we need to have the skill, the structure, the form, and the technique to make that more likely. If we mean to end it non-violently, then we need to have the skill, the structure, the form, and the technique to be able to achieve something as non-violent as cutting the purse from a belt without getting hit in the process, without doing any more damage than we intend.

Perhaps the next time you are sparring, fight one bout with a priority on “lethal” techniques, then one bout with a priority on non-lethal techniques.

Fight the next bout with the goal of demonstrating that you are the better fencer, without landing any actions that might injure the other fencer in the imaginary scenario where the swords are sharp and there is no protective equipment.

Fight the next bout with the focus on landing the most devastating, most “lethal”, most violent actions you possibly can.

Fight the next bout where you pick a specific body part, changing the target in each exchange, and only allow yourself to strike at that specific target – pull away any hits that are about to land elsewhere.

Play with the idea of what you mean to achieve in your sparring. It doesn’t have to be about scoring points (it doesn’t NOT have to be about that either). It doesn’t have to be about using only a particular technique or subset of techniques. It doesn’t have to be about landing only cleaving blows or penetrating thrusts.

As you gain the skill and wherewithall to decide exactly what you mean to achieve in any given fight, and then achieve precisely that, you will be growing as a fighter and as a martial artist. If you have the skill and wherewithall to do precisely what you intend to do, at precisely the strength you intend, doing precisely as much or as little damage as you intend, then you have control – anything short of this is probably not “controlled” enough.