Skill development in test cutting

Keith Farrell cutting with a sharp longsword. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2017.

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.

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Is technique important?

Keith Farrell cutting with a sharp longsword. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2017.

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.

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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.

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Training for the future

Keith Farrell and Colin Farrell
Keith and his brother Colin fencing with longswords during a demonstration at Glasgow University. Photo by Rene Bauer, 2012.

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.

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Attacking the hands in sparring

Sparring Gloves and an Albion Meyer
Sparring Gloves and an Albion Meyer. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2015.

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.

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Review of “Cutting with the Medieval Sword”

Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application.

I have been looking forward to the publication of Cutting with the Medieval Sword by Michael Edelson, and now that it is finally in print, I bought a copy immediately. It arrived a few days later and I immersed myself in it over the course of an evening.

In summary: this is a fantastic book, and you should have a copy of it in your bookcase. If I were to list everything I like about the book, my list would have more bullet points than the book has pages. There is nothing to dislike about it.

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When can we question the masters?

Keith Farrell and Jacopo Penso fencing with dussacks at TaurHEMAchia 2017. Photo by Andrea Boschetti, 2017.

An interesting discussion that arises from time to time in the HEMA community is how much we can trust what the authors of our source material wrote, when we may in fact have better ideas and can improve upon these methods, and generally: when can we question the masters?

For some people, it seems only reasonable that we should use the source material as inspiration and then create our own systems, without being beholden to some long-dead author. For others, it seems ridiculous that anyone would claim to be in a better position to talk about the realities of swordfighting than the masters who taught it for a living at a time when swords were still in use.

So when can we question the masters? When can we decide that we “know better” and can therefore make a system that will be the equal of one of these HEMA traditions?

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Ethical considerations with antique swords, part 2: cutting

A 1796 pattern British light cavalry sabre, from the Triquetra Collection.
A 1796 pattern British light cavalry sabre, from the Triquetra Collection.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 12th February 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

This is going to be a short article, presenting an ethical consideration. The previous article in this series discussed the problem of people sparring with antique swords; in this article, the focus will be on using antique swords for test cutting.

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Review of the Armour Class sharp longsword (MS6T)

Results of a cutting session with a sharp Armour Class longsword. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2016.

Armour Class has been around in the re-enactment and HEMA communities for at least a couple of decades. Their swords have an excellent name and reputation in re-enactment circles, although they haven’t always been so popular in HEMA clubs: the blunt swords are designed for re-enactment purposes, and are usually too heavy and unbalanced for historical fencing. However, they do make custom swords, and their sharp and semi-sharp blades are perfectly suitable for HEMA.

I bought my Armour Class sharp longsword (model MS6T on their website, perhaps more fully named their “14th Century Hand & a Half Medieval sword with thirty five inch blade”) several years ago, and have been using it for cutting practice ever since.

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You cannot hide from boolean data

Keith Farrell cutting with a sharp longsword. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2017.

One of the most important developments in my practice of fencing was when I started doing test cutting, because this gave me boolean data, and either I succeeded or I failed. There was no longer any way to hide behind an excuse for why a technique didn’t work, as the data was perfectly clear: it either worked or it didn’t.

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Learning the position of Vom Tag

Folio 18v from the Codex I.6.2º.4 by Paulus Mair. Image from the Wiktenauer.

When I teach the position of Vom Tag to beginners, I do it very differently these days to what I used to teach even a year ago. My understanding of the Vier Leger (the Four Positions) has changed in general, for the better I think, and my cutting mechanics have improved. These developments in my understanding of longsword fencing have had a great impact on how I choose to present and teach the position of Vom Tag to my students.

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