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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Some thoughts about tricks and systems in HEMA

Liverpool HEMA lesson
Singlestick play at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2018.

I believe that there is a difference between a system and a bag of tricks, where historical martial arts are concerned. Both are effective, and both are important to have in your repertoire; the greatest skill, however, the greatest skill comes with recreating a full system, and being able to incorporate a variety of tricks into that system without making it any less systematic.

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How to begin working with a HEMA source

Folio 29rfrom the Goliath manuscript. Image from the Wiktenauer.

HEMA is an activity that relies on sources; but what does working with a HEMA source involve? Although it may seem obvious to people who have involved in HEMA for a while, it is not the simplest process, and there are many things to consider at each stage.

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How Scottish is the broadsword method of Roworth and Angelo?


A common question in the study of broadsword sources is how Scottish is the method of Roworth and Angelo? How much of it is merely labelled as Scottish, but in fact comes from elsewhere? It is quite fascinating to trace the development of this method over the course of the 18th century.

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What sabre system should you study?

Liverpool HEMA lesson
Singlestick play at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2018.

If you have been intrigued by the idea of starting to fence with the sabre, then a common question is what sabre system to study? There are so many different systems that have been written about, so what sabre system is good for a beginner? Read more

Five solo practice drills: Scottish broadsword

Keith Farrell and Mark Wilkie
Keith Farrell and Mark Wilkie fencing with sabres at Edgebana. Photo by Thomas Naylor, 2015.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 23rd September 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

If you spend time working on your skills in between your regular weekly sessions, your skill will develop more swiftly, and you will find yourself better able to learn from your regular lessons.

Here are five solo practice drills that you can do at home to help improve your basic skills.

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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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Unhelpful advice part 1: “Make yourself a smaller target”

Keith Farrell
Keith Farrell with a Polish sabre. Photo by Miri Zaruba, 2013. Note the “side-on” position as described by many authors of sabre treatises.

This is the first article in a short series, discussing common pieces of advice that sound helpful but in fact can be detrimental to your practice of some HEMA systems.

A common piece of advice in HEMA is to stand in profile, with your side towards your opponent (rather than shoulders squarely forward), and the rationale is usually “to present a smaller target”. While this is quite reasonable advice for some disciplines, such as broadsword or smallsword, I believe that it is not only incorrect for other disciplines such as longsword, but that it is detrimental to your practice of such disciplines.

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