Test cutting with sharp swords is a valuable exercise for HEMA practitioners. However, as with any exercise or skill, there must be development and progression in the skill, so that it becomes better and more relevant to the activity in question.
One of the most common arguments against the practice of test cutting is that people cannot see why performing single attacks against a straw mat has any relevance to fencing – the mat is not fighting back, there’s no footwork required, the practitioner can spend as much time as they like in preparation for the cut, etc. This is, to some extent, a reasonable argument to make, but there are some easy ways to mitigate the problems and to ensure that cutting skill develops and becomes relevant for sparring and other elements of fencing.
Start with a big motion, then make it smaller
One of the main advantages of test cutting is that it highlights flaws and errors in your performance of any given technique. When you observe a flaw, you can then take remedial action to fix the problem and improve the technique.
If your test cutting tells you that you are not accelerating the sword enough, then the solution is to accelerate more. If the test cutting tells you that you turn your blade in the target, rather than maintaining a straight line all the way through, then the solution is to get better at establishing and maintaining a single straight line throughout your action. Failed cuts expose flaws and give us hints about what to improve.
One reason why so much practice of test cutting begins with large cuts from a stationary position is because, until you learn to perform a whole technique properly, it is unlikely that you can take shortcuts successfully.
If you think about learning to drive a car with a manual gearbox, you begin by learning how to use the clutch and put the car into gear, so that it can begin to move. You put your foot on the clutch and hold it there, you move the gearstick to the correct place, you begin to lift your foot on the clutch while pressing down gently with the other foot on the accelerator, you feel the bite, you begin to loosen the clutch a little further while offering maybe a little more pressure on the accelerator, and then you begin to move. You don’t take any shortcuts until you are confident that you can perform the whole sequence without any errors.
If you think about learning to use computer software (for example, something like Microsoft Word), then perhaps you begin by learning what all the various tools do to the text on the page. You probably use the mouse to experiment with this, and you do this until you learn what actions need to be performed on text to achieve the desired result. Then, once you understand the process and have learned how to achieve it, you might begin to learn the keyboard shortcuts to make the process a little faster. Until people become familiar with using certain kinds of software, keyboard shortcuts tend not to be so helpful.
It is a similar situation with fencing. Until you can perform your cutting technique properly with big motions, smaller and tighter attempts are probably going to be more difficult. This is not a problem. It is natural! By starting with large motions until the large motions are correct, you can achieve correctness quite rapidly. Then, with the knowledge of what the correct technique looks like and feels like, you can make the action smaller and shorter and tighter, without losing anything important. But if you start by trying to make your cuts smaller and shorter and tighter (and therefore more difficult) before you can do the easy version successfully, you are probably going to struggle to do it correctly, and so the learning process breaks down.
Start simple, then make it more difficult
Another reason why so much practice of test cutting begins with large cuts from a stationary position is because, in the beginning, it is most beneficial to remove as many variables as possible. What remains is just the cut itself, and therefore diagnosing errors is much easier and more effective.
Once you can make a simple cut (without any steps) as a big motion, and as a short motion with a minimal amount of chambering beforehand, then you can start to play with other elements of complexity such as footwork.
Ideally, you should be able to perform each of your techniques with your right foot forward, with your left foot forward, with a right or left step forward/backward/sideways, with a combination of steps… Think of the various ways you find yourself moving in sparring when performing this technique. You should be able to perform your cut successfully in all of these situations, and therefore you need to expand you cutting practice to include all of these footworks. If you understand properly how to perform your cutting technique, then your handwork should be independent of your footwork, and you should be able to perform any given technique with any given footwork.
You might also begin to include the cutting technique into a sequence of blade actions. A common action in sparring might be to feint right, then make the real cut from the left. Well then: do that in your test cutting! If you are able to perform that same sequence successfully, the way you do it in sparring, with a sharp sword against a cutting target, then this is a good sign that you are cutting well and that your cutting skills are beginning to integrate with the rest of your performance.
Start in isolation, then integrate
Returning to the example of learning to use a manual gearbox in a car, you will usually learn to change gear as a relatively isolated action. Your first introduction to using a gearbox is probably not going to be reverse parking on a busy street, or navigating a three lane roundabout with six or seven exits; it will probably be in a quiet street or carpark, with time devoted to doing nothing more than learning how to use the gears and clutch without stalling the machine. However, to be able to drive, you do need to take this skill and integrate it into a variety of other skills.
When it comes to fencing, it is beneficial to learn cutting (and any technique or new thing, to be honest) in an isolated fashion, to learn how to do it properly. Then, once you achieve success in that isolated, clinical fashion, you can increase the complexity of the exercise and integrate the action or skill with other actions or skills.
The common argument against test cutting is quite right: tatami mats don’t fight back, so it is very different from sparring. Sure. But what can you do to integrate your test cutting skills into your sparring practices? Perhaps you pause at random so that the coach can push you to check your body structure and make sure that you have not over-extended yourself. Perhaps you take the hitting situations you find in sparring and try to replicate them against a tatami mat to see if those actions, done in that way, would have any meaningful effect against a target.
There are all kinds of ways to integrate your cutting skills into your overall performance. How do you go about integrating your footwork skills into sparring? How do you integrate any given technique or striking sequence into your sparring? How can you integrate your good striking mechanics into sparring after learning them in isolation?
If we want to see techniques learned in drills begin to appear in sparring, we need to bridge the gap between drilling and sparring, and make the drills more complicated and more chaotic until they begin to resemble a sparring situation. This is how we learn to use complicated techniques in sparring.
We maybe also need to bridge the gap between friendly sparring and more intense competitive sparring, by learning how to deal with higher intensities without losing any of the performance or skill.
We need to bridge the gap between drilling and cutting, so that there is no difference in the way that we perform techniques against a mat or against a person. If we perform a technique one way in drills, but a different way in test cutting because it doesn’t work otherwise… Then that’s a sign that the technique isn’t really working properly in drilling either. We must use test cutting to inform our performance in drills, and we must also use drills as skill development for the practice of test cutting, otherwise it all stagnates.
Finally, we must be able to bridge the gap between test cutting and sparring, otherwise our sparring will be dysfunctional and ineffective. Similarly, we must use sparring situations to inform our test cutting and to provide yet further scope for skill development, to avoid stagnation.
If all of our elements of practice (solo drills, paired drills, test cutting, sparring, competition) line up and work towards the same goals, with similar mechanics and performance in each element, without any differences, then our practice will be very well joined up, and our skill will develop faster as each element reinforces the lessons from other elements.
Test cutting is an important part of our development as historical fencers. To deny this is to admit that one has no care for the correctness of techniques or for the effect that techniques might have on their target. However, test cutting with large and simple motions, measuring the distance beforehand, setting up the ideal situation, chambering excessively, and all the other habits that can creep into basic test cutting exercises, are also problematic if there is no skill development.
Just as drilling without any sparring leads to compromised performance (isolated practice without integration), test cutting with large motions without any further development (isolated practice without integration) is not ideal.
We begin with large, simple motions in test cutting, because this is how we can learn the shape of a correct performance of an action, and how we can identify and fix errors. We then develop the skill by making the motions smaller and tighter, without losing any of the important parts of performance or success. We then develop the skill further by adding different footworks and making the cut part of a sequence of cuts. We must also integrate the basic skills into the other elements of our practice so that our training programme is joined up and complete.
In this fashion, we can become skilful and effective fencers who can rely on our techniques and mechanics even when under pressure.
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.