I believe that test cutting practice is an important element of our HEMA training. It keeps us honest and ensures that our techniques are effective.
It is all too easy to spend time and effort working on mechanics and interpretations that are not actually effective or realistic unless you test them with a sharp sword against a reasonably resisting target – then you get a boolean, pass or fail result to tell you whether or not your action was at all effective.
So how do we make sure that test cutting is a healthy and useful part of our training?
However, it is also all too easy to practise test cutting in a way that is unrealistic and not very helpful. I have written previously about skill development for test cutting and how we need to treat these exercises the same as we should treat technical solo and paired drilled. There are two rules we must follow if we want a well joined up and consistent method of fencing:
- We need to perform our movements for test cutting the way we do them when we are sparring.
- Similarly, we need to perform our movements for sparring the way we know we have to do them to be successful at test cutting.
If we manage to follow these two rules, then both the sparring and the test cutting will improve as our skill at the other improves, because everything is joined up and linked. It also gives us the best chance of keeping sparring from devolving into ineffective “sword tag”. There’s nothing wrong with playing sword tag if that’s what interests you, but it is important to be honest about what you are doing, and not to claim to be doing one thing when you are in fact doing something quite different.
But there is more to it than just trying to follow these two rules. If we want to get better at fencing, then we need to develop our skills, we need to increase the complexity of an exercise, and we need to make the training environment a bit more like the environment where we expect to be using our skills (in our case, usually sparring).
That means changing the way we approach the mat for test cutting. It means linking the cuts with guards and parries, with footwork forward and footwork away from the target. It means making several fast cuts in quick sequence, it means making shorter cuts from a position that is not fully chambered in a textbook position. It means working on our basic cuts in a more complex fashion, rather than keeping the fashion simple for us to push more and more complex cuts.
Just like when we are driving, we need to be able to learn all the basic actions (accelerating, braking, staying in lane, changing gear, parking, etc) in a simple, controlled, ideal kind of situation – but then we also must be able to do them in the chaos of the environment for which we are training, so probably on the road with other cars around. That means we need to be able to perform these basic actions quickly and confidently – and correctly, no matter what pressure is upon us, otherwise we risk a catastrophic accident. We rarely need to be able to perform complicated actions (let’s say handbrake turns, or off-road driving, or performing stunts) in our everyday driving, but we DO need to be able to do the basics correctly in chaotic and complicated situations.
So, in the video embedded above, my goal was to do my test cutting in a fashion more like how I fence. Some of the sequences are linked, some of them are faster, some of them involve more footwork, others involve shorter and less chambered positions. Some of the cuts are still simple actions in simple circumstances, because that is fun to practise, and there is no harm in including some fun when training!
What do you do with your test cutting to make it a bit more like how you move and perform actions in sparring?
What do you do to make sure that your sparring is more like how you do your successful test cutting?
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.