Good fencing, bad fencing, and incorrect fencing

Liverpool HEMA lesson
Roland and James performing an exercise during a lesson at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2017.

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.

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The development of historical technique in modern HEMA tournaments

Keith Farrell and Robert Schwartz
Keith Farrell and Robert Schwartz fencing with the longsword at Edgebana. Photo by Thomas Naylor, 2015.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 15th May 2015. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

One of the criticisms that is often levelled at modern HEMA tournaments is that the fighting seen in the bouts does not look like what is described or illustrated in our source material, and that the style of fighting is more like “sport fencing” or “playing tag” than “proper fighting”.[1]

Many people bemoan the state of the current HEMA movement, especially with regard to the medieval weapons such as longsword, messer, and sword and buckler. However, I believe that we can see something more interesting, and much more hopeful in the general trends.

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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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Go for the legs!

Keith Farrell
Keith Farrell with a Polish sabre. Photo by Miri Zaruba, 2013.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 16th October 2015. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

It is a common piece of advice for shorter fighters who face taller opponents that they should “go for the legs”. I wrote about this unhelpful piece of advice in a previous article, Myths of the Short Person in Martial Arts.

However, with the correct tactical set up, the legs can be an interesting target to attack, and it can be quite safe to do so. The important thing is to ensure that the opportunity is set up properly, and to recognise when it is not safe to pursue the target.

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Fencing with mixed weapons

Keith Farrell and Yvain Rit fencing with longswords at TaurHEMAchia 2017. Photo by Andrea Boschetti, 2017.

An idea that seems to be enduringly popular is to see what happens when fencing with mixed weapons; if one person as a longsword and the other a messer, or sabre against rapier, or spear against sword and buckler, for example. Some combinations are of course quite far-fetched, but others are quire reasonable, and there are even some sources that discuss fencing with one weapon against a different type of weapon.

So why don’t we see people fencing with mixed weapons more often? This article will attempt to answer the question from my point of view.

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Safe training swords part 3: the schilt / ricasso

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

This is the third part of a short series of articles on safety features on swords. The first part was concerned with “tipping solutions” for the point; the second part was concerned with measuring flexibility for the thrust; and this part is concerned with protecting the hands and fingers.

This article in the series is focused more on longswords, although it applies perfectly well to any training sword that does not have a complex hilt, such as messers or other medieval swords.

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Review of “Sword and Shield” DVD by Roland Warzecha

Sword and Shield DVD by Roland Warzecha.

Sword and Shield: Basic principles and technique of medieval buckler combat is a DVD by Roland Warzecha and Tobias Wenzel, published through Agilitas in 2011. The subject is fencing with the medieval sword and buckler in general, as opposed to concentrating on a single source such as I.33 or Lignitzer’s treatise.

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Review of “Obsesseo” DVD by David Rawlings

Obsesseo DVD by David Rawlings.

Obsesseo is a DVD by David Rawlings and the London Longsword Academy, recorded in 2011. The subject is the MS I.33 treatise, an early medieval manuscript from the late 13th or early 14th century that depicts combat using sword and buckler.

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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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