mbbio.jpg (3297 bytes)Inside ARMA's Sparring Systems

J. Mark Bertrand
ARMA Senior Scholar

The goal of practicing historical swordsmanship today is to come as close as possible to developing real martial skill in the use of period weapons. Unlike sixteenth century swordsmen, today’s scholar will never have the opportunity to put his skill to the ultimate test. Even so, we want to develop true martial skill.

Of all the approaches that have been developed to meet this goal, the ARMA method offers something unique. It is certainly one of the most complex, and it claims to offer something more than what is generally available in Western swordsmanship – a true martial emphasis. Let’s look at what the ARMA method of teaching historical swordsmanship is all about.

What's the point?

If you’re serious about learning swordsmanship, then the measure of any system of study is the quality of the education that results. In other words, you expect a working knowledge of how to fight effectively with swords. You also want to acquire the basics within a reasonable amount of time – without the "wax on, wax off" routines that tend to keep beginners from quickly advancing. Ultimately, the system should produce a mature, competent swordsman – a swordsman capable of using real weapons in actual combat.

The farther a system gets from the reality of combat, the less useful it becomes to the student who wants true martial skill. Realistically, all systems involve a certain amount of "abstraction." Simulations are used as an alternative to real fights. Safe sparring/free-play systems are developed. One of the measures of an effective system is how closely its sparring/free-play system resembles the dynamics of real weapons use. This is an area where ARMA stands out. In ARMA, the sparring systems are merely a means to an end, not an end in themselves. No one in ARMA is trying to achieve skill at "sparring." Rather, a number of sparring techniques are used to develop skill at fighting.

You can judge the value of a sparring system by measuring how well true fighting principles work in the sparring environment. Ideally, the system should allow you to do what "works" without letting you get away with what wouldn’t. Target areas and sparring weapon construction are two factors which will figure throughout this evaluation.

Narrowing the cross-section

Before we go any further, let’s narrow our focus a little. The only way to evaluate ARMA sparring properly is to understand its role in the overall teaching program. Developing martial skill is the only goal of this system. There are no contests or competitions. Sparring provides a laboratory in which scholars can safely practice what they’ve learned. Comparing what ARMA does to what a number of non-martial groups are doing with swords will help bring this point into focus.

Let’s look at sport fencing. Despite its ancestry, modern fencing is not designed to instill the art of historical swordsmanship. The foil, epee and saber are no longer stand-ins for weapons but ‘weapons’ themselves. The value of a technique in fencing is not its lethality but its ability to score, and the mindset of modern fencing is competitive rather than martial (a trend we can see in some Eastern martial arts, too). Of course, modern fencing lays no claims to teaching a historical system of swordsmanship, either – it's an evolving sport where new innovation takes fencers farther from the roots of lethal swordsmanship.

Having said this, let's not throw out the baby with the bath water. Things you learn from sport fencing instruction can be useful in studying historical swordsmanship. Familiarity with fencing terminology is a plus, too. Practicing fencing is a better preparation for a real sword fight than no practice at all. But the purpose of fencing is not the study of historical swordsmanship, so the merit of the sport has little impact on our present evaluation.

A sub-culture has emerged in the fencing community centered around the teaching of eighteenth and nineteenth century swordsmanship. Classical fencing asks the question, "What if our swords were sharp?" Classical fencers are stripping away the techniques and mentalities of modern fencing and returning to the more martial use of the dueling epee and the smallsword.

A second practice we will be excluding from consideration is the forms of "heavy" and "light" fighting done in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). These forms are practiced as a kind of competitive sport by many, and as a semi-martial practice by some. But the purpose of "heavy" and "light" fighting is not to produce swordsmen skilled in the use of real weapons. As with sport fencing, there may be many benefits afforded by SCA, but these are secondary to the main purpose of the pursuit.

The question of "purpose" or intent is important. You can’t fault a system that doesn’t claim to teach real swordsmanship for using a sparring system that doesn’t prepare a student for the realities of combat. Many people have criticized systems like that of the SCA for these reasons, without considering that SCA combat was never intended to be a martial pursuit.

Stage combat falls into the same category. Many stage combatants use replica weapons, and they create a spectacle which -- at least to the untrained eye -- looks convincing. If stage combatants sacrifice "authenticity" for the purposes of safety or entertainment, we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, stage combat is about creating an illusion, not a fight. People study stage combat to learn how to pretend to fight, not how to do it for real.

In summing up, let's make it clear that the exclusion of these three categories is not intended to disparage their participants or discourage their pursuit. All three require skilled participation and produce impressive results. None of them claims to teach historical swordsmanship, and none is designed with the need to train swordsmen as its raison d'être. That’s where ARMA is different. It exists for no other purpose than to preserve and pass on a practical understanding of historical swordsmanship.

The obsolescence of the sword

One factor irrevocably separates anything we do today from the historical reality: the obsolescence of the sword. No matter how proficient your skill with the sword, you'll never use it in a life or death context. Even if the nearest thing to hand when your house is broken into is your trusty cut-and-thrust sword, the odds of your intruder also being a swordsman are slim to none.

No one uses swords for real anymore, so there is no common knowledge to draw on in the study of swordsmanship. Today, we use guns, and even people with no formal firearms training know enough to operate the weapon. The same was no doubt true in the sixteenth century with swords. A certain level of understanding could be assumed in the average person. Trying to learn swordsmanship without that common knowledge means not just starting from square one but moving back to square zero. If accuracy is your goal, everything you've learned from TV, movies, fencing, SCA and Eastern martial arts is potentially misleading. You've got to unlearn before you can start the learning process.

To create a convincing fight, a fight choreographer can use a smattering of technique from Eastern martial arts, fencing, and whatever he knows of historical swordsmanship. He develops a synthesis of all his knowledge to create a safe, visually interesting scene. This synthesis represents an attractive way of moving the props, not an effective way of using the weapons.

To study historical swordsmanship, we have to break down syntheses like this and focus on learning the real techniques preserved in the historical manuals, which reveal themselves through training. And since we'll never have the chance to try them in combat, we need an effective method of practice and sparring that checks the effectiveness of our technique against a determined opponent.

The need for safety

That's where safety rears its ugly head. The only way to be 100% certain a technique works is to use it effectively against a determined, skilled opponent in a life or death struggle. When you try to simulate this reality as closely as possible, you're essentially weighing safety in one hand and realism in the other. You've got to strike a balance as far in the favor of realism as you can without sacrificing safety.

If you begin with real combat as your "ideal," the first obvious safety measure is to use blunted weapons. But a blunted weapon isn't necessarily a safe one. A blunt rapier blade can still penetrate if the thrust is done correctly (or the blade breaks), so you have another trade-off to make: substituting modified technique or adopting a less rigid blade. If you pull your blows and moderate your lunges, you can get by with a more realistic blade, but at the cost of altering technique to a degree. If you compromise on the blade, however, you can be more aggressive with technique.

In this context, ARMA's use of the schläger blade represents a compromise on the blade in favor of technique. The handling differences between the schläger and a rapier blade are tolerated so that historical technique doesn't have to be modified in the name of safety. In a sense, "unsafe" techniques are possible because "safe" weapons are used. ARMA compensates for its use of schlägers for sparring by practicing technique and even very limited sparring with blunt rapiers.

This isn't the only valid approach, of course. Some historical combat groups are experimenting with stiffer, tapering blades in an attempt to more closely simulate the handling characteristics of the rapier without using real rapier blades. Unfortunately, this necessitates a whole new level of restrictive safety equipment, which may make the advantages gained by a more accurate handling blade pale by comparison.

Other groups compromise on technique to take advantage of training with blunt rapiers. They prohibit thrusts to the face and pull thrusts to the body, essentially using "unsafe" weapons in a "safe" way. The groups who choose this non-contact route do it with an understanding of the trade-off they make, and may attempt to compensate for it in various ways. This practice, of course, has a strong historical precedent.

One factor which works in favor of groups who use schläger blades as rapier simulators is that schläger blades are available in lengths up to 45 inches. Most manufacturers of replica rapiers produce weapons whose overall length is less than this. Until this trend changes, schlägers are the only readily available option for simulating rapier fighting with realistically long blades, short of having weapons custom-made (a costly, time-consuming process). In addition to being more economical and easier to obtain, schläger safety equipment – the requisite heavy jackets and fencing masks – are more common. Schlägers are also available with a stiffer diamond blade which functions more realistically than the oval cross-section.

As a rule, ARMA's system focuses on using safe sparring weapons in order to minimize the use of restrictive safety clothing and equipment. The exception comes when we look at headgear. ARMA insists on masks being worn when schläger blades are used (rather than using "scholar's privilege," a gentleman's agreement not to thrust to the face). When padded contact weapons are used, ARMA insists on a metal helmet being worn if blows to the head are allowed. These provisions insure safety without requiring a substantial investment in safety equipment.

Simulating the rapier

In the medieval and Renaissance period, swords were not mass-produced to a fixed standard. Looking back, it is impossible to define the specifications of the rapier blade, because each blade was different. Asking whether or not a schläger accurately simulates the handling of a rapier is a bit of a red herring. Which rapier are we talking about?

In 1996, Greg Stauf interviewed Dr. James Jackson, formerly dead of the English Department at George Mason, better known to students of historical swordsmanship for his 1972 book Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals. Dr. Jackson shared data collected from rapiers at the Tower of London – data which points to some of the inadequacies of using modern replica rapiers to simulate rapier fighting. The average overall length of rapiers on display was about just under 49 inches, with some examples as long as 59 inches. Today, most replicas measure 44 inches at most, which suggests a blade length of no more than 40 inches and probably closer to 36 in most cases. Schläger blades, as mentioned earlier, are available in lengths as long as 45 inches, allowing for a more accurate simulation of rapier lengths.

Does this mean that for contact-sparring schläger blades are better simulators of rapier than replica rapier blades themselves? Of course not. It means that, with the exception of custom swords made to exacting specifications, we sacrifices something no matter what choice we make. This is highlighted by the larger fact that we are sacrificing real combat in the interests of safety, no matter what form of simulation we use.

Nevertheless, we know that simulation is a valid form of training – police live-fire combat ranges and pilot training programs make similar trade-offs without losing their effectiveness as tools. As long as the student is aware of the nature of the simulation, and the aspects of combat that the simulation doesn't simulate, the use of simulation in training is extremely useful.

Triangulated training

If anything, the ARMA method illustrates the inadequacy of any one method of training. Taken alone, re-creating historical techniques using schläger blades is not an effective way to learn rapier fencing. Taken alone, structured drills with blunt replicas is not an effective method, either. Ironically enough, fighting it out with the real weapons is the most ineffective method of training of all, since only one participant gets the opportunity to learn from his mistakes. To learn historical swordsmanship, you need a system that using a "triangulating" approach. In other words, you need a number of systems which, taken together, create a complete understanding of the sword and its use.

ARMA delineates these complementary systems with reference to the "weapon" used. With medieval forms and Renaissance cut-and-thrust swordsmanship, we use wooden weapons – "wasters" – for practicing technique and controlled sparring. These weapons have the weight and appearance of the real thing, and they have some of the same handling characteristics, such as a tapering blade and a discernible edge. They teach precision and finesse. On the other hand, they are unsafe for what we call "free play " (i.e., sparring) – the delivery of forceful, full-speed blows to a full-body target – and they don't simulate the "feel of steel" well enough to properly understand bladework.

ARMA uses padded contact weapons in medieval and Renaissance cut-and-thrust "free" sparring contexts. These weapons have the shape and weight of swords, with discernible edges and a balance roughly equivalent to the real thing. They deliver solid, forceful blows without injuring an opponent, which allows a full-body target – an essential for realistic combat training. They can be safely used wearing full armor or wearing no armor at all. On the other hand, padded weapons lack the feel of steel and are bulkier than real blades. They add a dimension to the student's experience, but they do not offer a complete education in and of themselves.

For rapier fighting, ARMA uses schläger blades, which we've already discussed at length. With each of the three simulators – wood, padded, and schläger – companion pieces of similar construction are used.

In addition to working with "simulators," ARMA encourages drilling and very controlled semi- and non-contact sparring with replica swords and rapiers. In fact, it is largely out of frustration at not being able to do more with the real weapons that the simulators were developed. When possible, it's best to learn techniques with an accurate replica. With a trusted partner, you can work on these techniques and begin to understand aspects of timing and distance. Then, you can pick up a "simulator" and apply the technique – always careful to observe and avoid doing things with the simulator that can't be done with the real weapon.

Taken as a whole, this system "triangulates" true skill by approaching practice from several different angles. When you add to this ARMA's insistence on test cutting (and thrusting) with sharp weapons, you get a fairly complete understanding of what historical swordsmanship is all about.

Don't miss the focus

Not long ago, an accomplished fencer and stage combat choreographer asked John Clements, director of ARMA's study group in Houston, what made ARMA's padded weapon sparring or wooden weapon sparring any different from what sport fencers do or what a group like the SCA does. "Everyone has their own approach, and who's to say what's right and what's wrong?"

Good question. The only objective criteria for measuring right and wrong in this context would be the training of effective swordsmen, and since neither sport fencing nor the SCA considers that to be their mission, it's not fair to evaluate them on this criteria.

This is not a question of condemning fencing, the SCA, or anything else. You don't have to look hard to see that there is a difference between what they do and what ARMA does. The mistake this instructor made was in looking at one or two aspects of what ARMA does and missing the big picture. He saw some of the pieces but he missed the focus.

The thing that separates what ARMA does from sport fencing, groups sych as the SCA – and most any other program you compare it to – is that the purpose of the ARMA method is to produce skilled combatants. ARMA does not sponsor competitions or anoint kings or put on performances. ARMA's focus is extremely narrow and concerns itself with nothing other than the effective use of historical weapons as a martial art. You can’t look at any aspect of the ARMA training system as a stand-alone piece or an end unto itself. As our introduction pointed out, no one involved in ARMA is concerned about learning to fight well with wooden swords or learning to fight well with padded swords. No one is interested in learning to fight well with a schläger, either. What we are concerned about is learning to fight well with real, sharp swords. All of these simulators are simply tools to help accomplish this. Alone, they are useless. Together, they combine to offer a very effective system for learning historical swordsmanship.

Here are ARMA's four guidelines (what we call "PICT") employed as general rules of thumb for mock-combat free-play:

  • Placement = using good edge alignment and targeting
  • Intent = striking with some degree of force in proper range to ensure actual contact and in a manner that has sufficient motion to simulate the inertia of a real damaging blow
  • Control = not hitting too hard or too fast to prevent injury, plus not hitting off target
  • Time-on-Target = connecting with a sufficient interval of time whereby the weapon makes contact in order to simulate the energy that would have impacted or penetrated

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