ARMA is one of few historical European martial arts organizations actively working to include unarmed fighting principles in its training repertoire of techniques from historical Western masters (primarily in the area of seizures, disarms, grappling and takedowns). Thus, in the ongoing effort to present diverse views on exploring and reviving our Western martial heritage, ARMA presents the following short essay on the use of kicking techniques in Medieval and Renaissance weapon sparring.
The Use of Kicks in
When I was in my early teens, before any involvement in Eastern martial arts or Western swordsmanship, I read a historical novel whose name escapes me. One of the characters was an unarmed combat specialist who, through the use of his fists and feet, was able to successfully defeat armed opponents, even those wearing armor. Even in my impressionable teen years and with no training in fighting, this seemed odd. If this person could perform such mighty deeds, why would ancient armies bother with the costs of weapons and armor? Just sent the troops off to war with their natural weapons and forget the taxes needed to raise weapons for an army. Further, the few scrapes I had been up to that point in time had taught me that when skin vs. skin, both sides get hurt. The old joke that "I broke his hand with my head" has a great deal of truth. Why didn't this warrior eventually end up with a crippled, arthritic body?
Later, when I had earned my black belt in Taekwondo, a primarily kick-oriented martial art, I would sit through movies where the hero (or heroine by this progressive time) would kick up his opponents with the same ease as the ancient warrior in the book. I could appreciate the martial techniques, but I was always curious that when the movie hero faced armed opponents, usually with swords, he would easily defeat them, as if the swords were more of a hindrance to the people using them than a weapon. Even more interesting, when the hero had a sword himself, he would always rely more on his kicks rather than the cold steel blade in his hand. A jumping wheel kick apparently was more useful than a katana or a cut-and-thrust sword in both the 1930's China of Bruce Lee movies or the innumerable bad Hong Kong kung fu films of ancient warrior "shaolin monks", not to mention the "Ancient Greece" of Hercules and Xena.
In addition, there always seemed at least two possibilities that could occur while kicking against a person armed with a sword that film directors and fight choreographers apparently were not considering. The first is that when a person is holding a long, edged weapon, a kicker can cut his foot or shin against the edge of the blade! Also, a moderately competent swordsman would know enough to lower or raise his blade when a kick was approaching and parry or deflect the incoming kick, with disastrous results for the kicker. Just as an attacking blade can be parried or deflected by a sword edge, a leg lifted to strike can be met just as easily. Feet are fast, but seldom can a leg out maneuver a blade.
It is no great revelation, of course, that movies and television will rarely portray any fight scene with even the most remote sense of realism. In addition, both writers and fight arrangers will always have their poetic license. Still, after earning my teaching rank in Taekwondo and becoming a student of Western swordsmanship (not modern fencing), there are a few comments which I believe are appropriate to the subject of kicking techniques when using swords in combat. This essay focuses on the use of kicks with swords in Western swordsmanship primarily within ARMA free-system with contact-weapons.
The most obvious revelation to a person who has spent his martial career learning unarmed combat techniques is that suddenly the whole focus moves from the body to the weapon (both yours and that of your adversary). No longer is it a question of "how do I move my body" but rather "how do I move my body in accordance with the weapon." The weapon, after all, is the primary determinant of the combat situation.
In addition, a sword is longer and has a greater striking range than a kick. Jumping kicks, of course, can immediately close the range and can even outdistance a sword on many occasions. However, using such techniques against an armed opponent when the kicker is himself armed with a sword immediately shows another great truth in armed combat: their are no second chances when struck strongly with a weapon. Being impaled upon a rapier or neatly sliced by a cut-and-thrust sword while kicking delivers a quick lesson: it is better to use the primary weapon in most circumstances rather than rely on a kicking technique (the same applies to empty hand attacks). Failure to do so gives your opponent an immediate advantage. The kick may cause damage to an opponent, but in an armed combat situation, it is usually the person struck first with a sword that receives the life-threatening injury.
Fighting full-contact with historically accurate weapons therefore demonstrates that it is dangerous and foolish to rely primarily on kicks when fighting with swords. A properly placed kick is dangerous and powerful. However, using them as a primary weapon when armed with a sword is literally like fighting with both hands tied behind your back. The sword is the primary weapon and should be used as such. Does this leave kicks out of the picture? Hardly. For in these situations, as a secondary weapon kicks become of primary importance. They can be even more useful than empty hand blows.
The most important point for a kicker to remember when fighting with swords is that kicks can act as a herding mechanism to draw your opponent out so that one's own own sword can be more effectively employed. A kick will rarely finish the fight, but it can either distract your opponent or force your opponent to briefly lower his guard. When an opponent is forced to concentrate on the possibility of receiving a powerful kick in addition to having to worry about the blade, his mind is more easily distracted and less focused. This alone gives a person skilled in kicking techniques some distinct advantages when fighting with swords.
The three most effective kicks for employment in swordfighting are, not surprisingly, the front kick, side kick, and roundhouse kick. Spinning kicks, a staple in Taekwondo and used in many styles of Karate and Kung fu, are to be avoided. It is extremely difficult to develop proper speed while spinning when holding a weapon, especially weapons which are the correct historical size and weight. In addition, turning one's back against an opponent is always risky even when the opponent is not armed. However, as previously mentioned, when all that is often required is one hit to end the fight, it is extremely foolish to give an opponent such a free opportunity.
The kick which is easiest to apply in a swordfight is the side kick. There are two primary reasons for this. First, the side kick, because it is often most effectively used on targets at waist-height or lower, has the greatest reach. In addition, many stances with the sword employ a sideways facing stance or the fighter will end up in a side stance after an attack. The side stance naturally favors the use of the side kick.
When using various types of cut-and-thrust swords, there are often moments when the two fighters are close enough to employ a side kick. This usually occurs after a cut or thrust has been made with no contact, or when their has been a successful parry or disengage and the weapons are being redeployed and are off-line. In both cases, the opponent is briefly off-balance and too close to employ the sword effectively. This gives the fighter performing the kick a brief "window" with which to strike. But the purpose of the kick is not to strike a disabling or incapacitating blow but rather to knock the opponent off-balance in order to strike a solid attack with the sword.
This is also true with the thrusting rapier. In rapier fencing, when practiced under more historically accurate conditions, both fencers will often have the opportunity to grab the other's weapon. Once again, as long as the range presents itself, a side kick can be used. It should be emphasized once again, however, that the real focus of the duel is the stab of the rapier. The kick is intended to knock the opponent off-balance so the killing power of a good rapier thrust can be made.
These same observations apply to the use of a front kick in combat. The only real difference is that a front kick is more effectively employed when the fighter using it is in a forward-facing stance which is the stance used in most initial fencing positions. There is historical evidence that such kicks were used. The 15th century German Fechtmeister Talhoffer shows at least two front kicks used with long swords in his manual. Other historical manuals show such techniques as well. Also, similar techniques are routinely employed in Japanese Kendo.
Front kicks should be aimed at the waist and below for two primary reasons. First, in many of the stances or "wards" of medieval long-sword, renaissance cut-and-thrust swordsmanship and rapier fighting, the opponent's sword will be held above the waist. It is extremely difficult to maneuver a high kick against a person when the upper portion of the opponent's body is defended by a blade. Second, remembering once again that the purpose of a kick is to distract and harass, the kick should be a set-up for the sword strike, and lifting the kicking leg too far off the ground while holding a weapon means that either some of the striking power of the sword will be lost or that precious time will be wasted in returning the foot to the ground to gain the push from the legs needed for effective swordwork. Finally, nimble footwork is essential for moving into or out of the long reach of the opponent's cuts or thrusts. This is obviously extremely difficult when one leg is off the ground. One special note about front kicks. Generally, a front thrust kick will be more effective than a snap kick when using swords. The reason is that a thrust kick will force the opponent back and give the kicker room to use the sword effectively.
The last "effective" kick is the roundhouse kick. Much of the same observations used in the side kick apply here. The kicker will be using a side facing stance. The only big difference is that the roundhouse kick is the only one of the three which can be effectively used against the head. The primary reason for this is that when it is in range to be used, namely, when the parties are too close together for swords to be effective, many times the head will be an available target. Since the roundhouse kick will travel from the outside of the body towards the opponent's inside, rather than remain on the inside, the opponent's head will be more exposed, especially if the opponent is holding the sword on the opposite side of his body from the direction of the kick.
It must also be emphasized that a swordfight in many ways resembles a boxing match in the use of footwork. A good strike with a sword requires smooth footwork, especially in lunge attacks. A kicker must remember not to sacrifice the killing power of a sword by throwing kicks when it would be more effective to use proper footwork to set up for an effective strike with the weapon.
A final note on the use of kicks in swordfights involves the challenge of quantifying a "hit" while kicking. It is a paradox of fighting with a historically accurate system like ARMA that it is easier to quantify a weapon hit than an unarmed blow. The reason is that when one is hit by a ARMA contact-weapon it is fairly obvious what kind of a hit is made. Further, the lethality of the hit, especially if one is struck by the point or the edge of the contact weapon, is rarely in doubt. The strike is either good or not good, seldom is it questionable as to whether it would be disabling, or killing, or otherwise insignificant. However, it is impractical and dangerous to an un-armored / unpadded opponent to use a full-power kick. It is impractical because as previously mentioned, the focus of a swordfight is the sword. It is dangerous because unlike a contact weapon, which will sting or whack when applied at high speed, an uncontrolled full-power kick by a bare or booted foot can severely injure (the same naturally applies to bare hand strikes).
Because of this paradox, the importance of control becomes critical. In safe free-sparring kicks should not be thrown at full speed, but they should not be exaggerated slow movements at all either. They should be executed in either a manner consistent with typical martial arts semi-contact drilling or point-sparring using padded footgear. A good rule to observe is that a properly thrown kick should have the same impact as that of a contact weapon in un-armored contact-sparring. The person on the receiving end will be startled and distracted, which is the purpose of a kick in a swordfight in the first place. The opponent receiving the kick will know that they have been struck, but the impact will be no greater than that of a contact weapon. This actually brings some historical accuracy into the picture as well; medieval and renaissance fighters who used kicks did so while exercising caution. They did not want their feet to end up being hacked on the edge of a sword. Blindly throwing hard kicks would have been out of character for these seasoned warriors who knew the lethality of the blades they and their opponents carried.
In any serious form of swordsmanship kicks can't be ignored. There is no doubt that they can certainly be effective secondary weapons in a swordfight. The most important point for a kicker to remember when using swords, or any weapon, is that the weapon is of primary importance. The killing power of swords cannot be overstated. Knowing this means that all movement will be focused on one goal: setting up your moves so that you will be able to use the weapon with maximum effectiveness. If a kick will help to facilitate this goal when in combat, then it should be used. It is also worth noting that leg sweeps and low kicking attacks to the legs are a natural choice when swordfighting, but are such that an entire essay should be devoted to the subject alone.
Fighting with weapons under historically accurate conditions, such as in the ARMA approach, means that a participant will be able to briefly experience what fighting may have been like for medieval and renaissance warriors. With this experience comes the knowledge that the sword for most of humanity's history was often the weapon of choice for a reason: a sword is not a hunting weapon or show weapon; it is intended solely to kill other human beings. In the hands of a trained warrior, a sword is lethal. For this reason, body weapons such as kicks should be used to supplement the sword, not replace it, when fighting in armed combat to do otherwise is to ignore the lessons of much of recorded history.