The messer is an interesting HEMA discipline to study. There is quite an active and vibrant community of people who practise it regularly, and I would like to interview some of these instructors to help show some of the different approaches to study and interpretation.
My inspiration for these questions has come from seeing people asking about how to begin their study of messer, and seeing the kinds of response that they often receive on social media online. I would like to pose some of the common questions and also to ask some of the questions that I think could be helpful but that I don’t often see in these discussions.
In this piece, I am interviewing Jim Campbell from Ursa Major HEMA Academy in Australia.
1) Let’s start with the most common question: what models and suppliers of messers do you recommend for people getting started with the discipline? What should people be looking for in a training messer?
I have a tiered answer to this, based on budget and fencing style preference. I’ve owned and used messers from Regenyei, Comfort Fencing, Albion, Kvetun, Krieger, and Landsknecht Emporium. My favourite messer is my Albion Marxbruder, but they come at quite a cost and have a considerable wait time. It’s nimble yet authoritative, moves well, and is made of quality materials. More affordable and accessible workhorses are the standard ring-hilted offering by Kvetun, and one of Krieger’s offerings (review on ursamajorhema.com). These are both great options, with the Kvetun tending toward ‘cuttier’ techniques, and the Krieger being much more nimble. If money and wait times are no object, get the Marxbruder. If you’d like something this year, either the Kvetun or Krieger are great options, depending on your preferred fencing style.
In buying your first messer, you should first and foremost look for handling characteristics that match your existing fencing style preferences – you can draw this from the specs (points of balance and rotation, relative weapon length, etc.) of your existing armoury. From there rounded blade ‘corners’, swelled/spatulated or rolled tip, and peened crossguard are all great to have to ensure durability and safety.
2) The next most common question: what original sources would you recommend for people looking to get started with messer? Would you recommend different sources to a complete beginner and to someone with plenty of experience in other HEMA disciplines, or would this not matter to you?
Leckuchner is one of the best sources to work from, but it’s quite a bit more complex than others. Starting out I recommend the Glasgow fechtbuch, Codex Wallerstein, and the plates from Kal and Talhoffer (though there’s only images in these). Once you’ve spent some time working through these four, you can start looking at Leckuchner’s more complete and complex text.
3) Along those lines, to what do you think people should pay most attention when they start reading messer sources for the first time? Is there anything that merits a closer, more detailed study than might appear on the surface?
Good question – I think the biggest consideration to keep in mind is the relative differences between messers and other one-handed swords. As a general rule messers are shorter, more cut-oriented, and more closely related/integrated with grappling than other one-handed swords (arming swords, sideswords, rapiers, etc.). While there are certainly a considerable number of techniques that are applicable across weapon systems, for the most part you will need to be cutting, in close, and ready to apply some sort of control to your opponent’s person in order to practice messer well and faithfully to the sources.
Additionally, the importance of the zufechten and provocations cannot be understated in messer fencing – you can’t just walk in and start swinging, expecting to come out without being hit yourself. Lacking the reach and leverage of a longsword, and the additional protection a complex hilt offers you (such as on a rapier or sabre), you need to dominate the zufechten and utilise provocations well to begin to influence your opponent. Sources should be read and considered from this viewpoint.
4) Furthermore, are there any “false friends” that you would suggest people are aware of when they start working with messer, to avoid importing ideas or spending time with motions that are ultimately unhelpful?
If you’re coming from other one-handed systems, particularly those with complex hilts where the weapon foot is kept forward most of the time, it can be tricky to break this habit. I find the footwork and body mechanics required for messer are more similar to longsword or sword & buckler movements from the German traditions.
5) Are there any modern or secondary resources that you think are worth consulting in addition to the original, primary sources?
I’ve found stickfighting and FMA sources have provided some interesting insights and content to compare & contrast. I’ve been to a few FMA workshops focussing on short blades and sticks, and found the techniques & movements to be generally applicable and helpful to filling in some of the blanks (though this is stepping quite close to ‘frog DNA’). If you’re struggling with footwork or measure when fencing with a messer, get along to some FMA workshops to try and get some context.
6) Can you describe one or two “lightbulb moments” that you experienced in your own study of messer, that suddenly made things click or work better for you?
Trusting the techniques that rely on the nagel – originally I was compensating to protect my hand and as a result the techniques were not working as they should have been. As I began to play more and experiment, trusting the hilt would do what it was designed to do, I found higher success rates in these techniques.
Messer fencing is better when ‘done with the whole body’ – although the messer is a one-handed weapon, you have to get the whole body going behind it, from agile and dynamic footwork to the willingness to grapple or employ unarmed strikes. When I was first getting into messer I was treating it much like sabre and was regularly getting hit, and regularly unable to pull off what I was trying. As I became more dynamic, changing lead feet and becoming more inclined to grapple or at least control my opponent’s body, I began to have more success.
7) Finally, is there a question you wish I had asked on behalf of people getting started with messer? If so, what is the question, and how would you answer it?
Perhaps only ‘why should I learn messer?’ – for use when interest or motivation wanes, or when someone is unsure whether it’s worth investing the time to explore a new weapon/system. For me, messer is truckloads of fun as it combines the best of both swordplay and grappling, allows you to get in close AND assault from afar, and it has helped me to work on my footwork immensely, which translates directly to longsword. Learning messer gives you some skills and techniques you can apply across multiple other weapons/systems, and is an exciting one-handed weapon alternative to the ever-present sabre and rapier. They’re also a very, very sexy weapon.
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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.