Although I’m currently based in Liverpool, I am responsible for all the paperwork and business admin for a full-time training centre that teaches HEMA in Glasgow, as well as offering archery and blacksmithing activities. The Vanguard Centre is located just south of the city centre in a railway arch beneath the train lines leading into Central Station, and it is a very cool place to spend some time!
Running a full-time venue like this is a lot of hard work, but it has some very rewarding moments too. Since many people toy with the notion of becoming a professional HEMA instructor at some point in their future, I thought it would be interesting to share some of my experience.
From time to time, clubs may have the opportunity to do some community outreach and give some HEMA demonstrations for the public. This is a great opportunity to raise the profile of your club in your local area while helping to entertain and educate people.
I have several years of experience giving demonstrations of various types and I would like to share some advice that may help you run a more effective demonstration.
Sometimes there is a question about technique and its importance, compared with other elements of fighting, martial arts, and/or sports. Often some people will suggest that historically accurate technique is what verifies our practice of HEMA; other people will suggest that technique is of relatively little importance and that it is principles that are more important.
I have been thinking about how best to answer this. In the past, due to my karate training, I was of the mindset that principles were more important and that techniques were simply the embodiment of those principles. At the moment, however, I am flirting a little with what might be heresy: my current thinking is that technique is incredibly important in our study of HEMA with swords (especially cutting swords with edges) and that hiding technical deficiencies behind “principles” is a very easy crutch to avoid addressing the real problem.
I may well swing back in the other direction again at some point in time, but I would like to examine this approach while it is fresh in my mind. Maybe it will help me learn something, maybe it won’t; maybe it will help other people come to terms with their own thoughts on the matter, or spark some new thoughts.
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.
This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 12th August 2011. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
I used to be involved with a historical re-enactment group before I began to practise HEMA. More recently, I have taught workshops and seminars on the subject of swordfighting for an audience, sometimes with re-enactors in attendance, and sometimes exclusively for re-enactment groups.
In my opinion, both HEMA fencers and historical re-enactors are trying to do a similar thing, but with quite a different perspective: re-enactors are usually trying to recreate the look and outfits of the time, whereas HEMA people are trying to recreate the fighting methods of the time. This leads to inevitable compromises: to recreate the look as authentically as possible, re-enactors cannot wear modern protective equipment such as fencing masks, and therefore must change how they fight for reasons of safety; HEMA people are trying to recreate the fighting as authentically as possible, meaning that the look and clothing are often sacrificed in favour of modern protective gear such as fencing masks.
With these major differences, does HEMA have a place in historical battle re-enactment? This is a contentious issue with various different schools of thought. Opinions are often entrenched and debates can become passionate, and so my intention is to take a neutral point of view and discuss both the advantages and disadvantages of the different points of view.
This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 13th January 2017. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
Following on from my article about how to make techniques work in sparring, I would like to present a case study from my own training. Over a period of two or three months, I began to have more success at applying the Mutieren during sparring with the longsword.
If you are unfamiliar with this technique, it is somewhat similar to the croisé in classical and modern fencing; converting an attack to an upper opening downward to thrust into the lower openings, maintaining blade contact with the opponent’s sword for greater safety. With the longsword, because it is so easy for the opponent to lever his sword around to make another strike, it can be quite daunting to try to attempt this technique, and it is often a technique that many longsword fencers struggle to perform.
This is the process through which I have learned to apply the technique more successfully in sparring.
This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 6th January 2017. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
One of the common problems faced by many practitioners of historical fencing is that while we know and have learned many cool techniques from our source materials, we may not be able to apply these difficult techniques in the heat of sparring. How can we work towards being able to apply all of our techniques at will, even when under pressure? It requires a little bit of thought and effort, and perhaps you need to change your typical sparring and training habits.
This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 20th May 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
Can good fencing ever be considered “bad fencing” or “incorrect fencing” at the same time?
Sometimes people integrate actions or concepts into their sparring that could be described as “good fencing”. However, sometimes these actions or concepts might also be described as “bad fencing” or “incorrect fencing” at the same time, and I think this is an interesting paradox that is somewhat unique to historical fencing.
This article will present a few examples, and it is not the intention to say that any one skill or behaviour or idea is “bad” or “incorrect” all the time. Rather, the intention is to suggest circumstances that may lead to certain actions or concepts changing from “good” to “bad”, or vice versa, or perhaps remaining “good” but suffering from being “incorrect” according to the system. If you take from this article the inspiration to think about these notions, then I will have achieved my purpose, and hopefully more people will consider what counts as “correct fencing” in the system that they study.
This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 6th May 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
In martial arts, broadly speaking, there are two types of training exercise: those where you have a specific goal to accomplish, and those where you do not.
It is my belief that exercises without a specific and achievable goal are only useful for experienced practitioners who have already learned how to learn from play. For beginners who have not yet learned this skill, all exercises must have a well-defined goal to strive towards.
This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 14th October 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
The afterblow is still sometimes a contentious issue in the HEMA community, depending on the person or people with whom you speak. I used to disapprove of the concept myself, but over the last several years, I have recognised it to be a valuable training method with genuinely important outcomes. I would like to share a few of my thoughts on the matter.
This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 25th March 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
I often hear the advice that you should train with a heavier sword, in order to improve your strength, balance, coordination, stamina, whatever. In fact, this notion is recorded as early as Vegetius, who wrote about Roman training methods.
In this article, I will argue that lighter swords are in fact more beneficial for beginners, and that people should not rush into using a heavier sword before they are ready.
This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 18th September 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
Although I enjoy my HEMA training as it happens, I make a point of training for the future. A few months ago, I turned 30 years old – in this time, I have been practising HEMA for around 8 years, and I also have 14 years of experience in karate.
Now that I enter my 30s, I feel that I can no longer rely on my body and my physical attributes in quite the same fashion as I could when I was 18; I can’t just push myself to my limits and then expect to be without aches the following day, nor can I shrug off injuries in the knowledge that I will heal within a week. I’m still a youngster compared to many other martial artists who have my great respect, but I would be a fool if I kept approach life as if I were still a teenager.
I have been lucky enough to have spent 20 years practising martial arts without taking any long-term injuries, but I’m aware that they could be just around the corner if I don’t pay attention to what I am doing.
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.
This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 18th September 2015. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
A common action in modern Olympic fencing is that of feinting: making it look like you intend to do one thing, when in fact this is a trick, because you actually want to do something else. If the opponent falls for your trick, then he creates an opening that you can exploit. A very common example of feinting is to perform an attack toward one opening, then when the opponent makes to parry your attack, to take your sword away and go to a different opening instead.
However, is feinting a big part of Liechtenauer’s system of unarmoured fencing with the longsword? It is common to see people utilising feints in sparring, but are these actually part of the system?
This article will examine the advice presented by Ringeck. Other sources within the tradition may well offer different advice, and I would encourage practitioners to examine the issue from these other points of view too. For the purpose of this article, and to stimulate discussion, I will argue the stance that feints should not be used as frequently as most people (myself included) tend to use them in the sparring.
A question I am asked quite regularly is how to become a good (or better) HEMA instructor? Of course, everyone’s situation is a bit different, but here is a simple set of guidelines for becoming a better instructor. I’m afraid this is quite blunt in places, but as an instructor you cannot hide behind delusions, and you need to be honest with yourself and your students.
Needless to say, to become an instructor (rather than aiming high to become a good instructor), the approach can be much more relaxed. The same general principles apply, though: meet people, practise as much as you can, read a lot, try to understand the material as deeply as you can, and learn how to present it to other people.