Some Very Basic Training Tips for Students of Historical Fencing

For practicing Renaissance fighting arts and historical swordsmanship today, the following basic advice is offered for novice students.

This is a fighting art of self-defense. Approach it as such. It is not about display, or contests, or costumed role-play. You have to exercise and train in order to practice what you learn.

Never ignore the importance of free-play/sparring. Always endeavor to engage as many sparring partners as you can and particularly the better ones. The better the opponent, the more you will be challenged and the more you will learn about yourself. Training with only inferior opponents will not bring you to your highest level and can even lead to lazy habits. Do not neglect free-play with blunt steel blades. Do not rely on padded weapons for your understanding.  

Cross train. Whatever form of historical fencing you are pursuing, realize that training is a continual, never-ending process. Seek out as many varieties and methods of swordsmanship and weapon sparring as you can find. Almost any method has some virtues to offer and practicing exclusively with only one method is limiting.

Research. Scholarship is an important part of this craft. Read and study everything you can find on the subject and pay special attention to the works of the historical masters. Don’t exclude the wealth of information available in either sport fencing or the modern Asian martial arts. But don’t forget that to question, doubt, and inquire is part of our Western heritage. Nor should you assume that all ways of moving and handling of all weapons all equal in all parts of the world with all people and cultures throughout all ages of history. Think about it.

Practice hard and often. Although it’s a cliche’, the three most important things in gaining true martial skill are: practice, practice, practice. Don’t treat it as a short term activity. But remember, what they teach in the modern fencing today is not the historical reality and what is found now in many martial arts styles is useless. Whether or not competent instruction is available to you, there are still numerous exercises, drills and routines that should be followed according to the counsel of the historic Masters of Defence.

Some rudimentary suggestions for training in Renaissance fencing:

- practice using both single-hand and two-hand grips (i.e., side-sword and long-sword)
- practice single as well as double-handed swords as well as the rapier 
- practice use and coordination of a shields
- practice cuts and strikes (for proper delivery, angle, flow, and recovery)
- practice full-contact strikes at a fixed target or pell (for power and focus) 
- practice stepping and footwork on its own

- practice controlled strikes and cuts at a mobile target
- practice strike and counter-strike combinations with and without a partner
- practice use and coordination of two weapon combinations, such as sword and buckler or dagger
- conduct safe contact sparring with controlled intent (using wooden weapons or  blunt steel training blades)
- spar at full speed and full-body targets (wearing helmets)
- spar without verbal comment or instruction
- spar by alternating offense only/defense only
- practice with dissimilar weapons against one another
- practice against (and with) pole-weapons,
- conduct test-cutting with a sharp live-blade (to understand how it’s really functions) 
- include grappling/wrestling and empty-hand actions in all training
- do some aerobic exercise for stamina
- do some form of weight training for strength

Some additional suggestions specific to rapier training:

- practice thrusts
- practice footwork (for speed, agility, and mobility)
- practice lunges and recovering
- practice point-control at a fixed target
- practice attack and counter-attack combinations with and without a partner (to gain coordination and reflexes)
- train with and without a second-hand weapon (dagger, buckler, etc.)
- practice with the sword held in the opposite hand
- practice with single dagger against single dagger, and against rapier & dagger
- practice routines with a historically accurate replica
- conduct constant sparring (the only way to learn timing, perception, proper movement and feedback)
- practice with and against a side-sword/cut-and-thrust swords

Swordsmanship, as with most martial-arts, is a path not a destination. Keep in mind that while there are certain universal concepts of fighting (i.e., perception, distance, timing, technique, attitude), every form of weapon use or method of swordsmanship has its own historical context. No one style or form should not be viewed as an end-all, be-all, ultimate method. There really is no "best sword" or "best weapon". It is as much mental (psychological) as physical. Above all should be the realization that when this activity is treated as a historical fighting art, it takes discipline and physical conditioning. It does not work well with a light-hearted, romanticized, weekend past-time approach. It is a true martial-art and really should be treated as such. If you come to feel inadequate or lacking in skill during your learning and training, this is a good sign for it means you are honestly recognizing you could be better and that there is more to higher skill than you yet know. The desire to improve is a further step down the path.

A good training program should include a wide variety of activities. It is important to develop physical attributes, technical skill and martial spirit. This page offers some ideas on how to achieve this. It is about training methods not fighting techniques themselves. 

Test Cutting
Anyone claiming to be a serious swordsman who has never used sharp weapons at length on realistic test-targets is bogus. It is vitally important to training and takes considerable practice. Practice cutting must be done on a regular basis to sharpen skills. It teaches the subtleties involved and prevents improper techniques from developing. Many historical fencing groups today can be seen using ridiculous cuts that would not work with real weapons on real targets. These bad techniques develop and become popular because poor sparring guidelines and mediocre training encourage their use. A serious practitioner should practice all of their cuts on a variety of test targets. Sticking to the basic cuts at first until they are competent. Recommended targets include: bamboo, fresh tree saplings wrapped in wet straw or wet cardboard, thick cardboard tubes soaked in water, thick rope, thick plant fiber, raw meat and bone, wooden 2x4 posts, and scrap armor or helmets. When starting out, simple targets like plastic soda bottles, water or milk jugs, foam pool noodles are useful. But realize these things and thin plywood are all feeble targets that offer no real lesson nor any substantial test. Above all, if you practice cuts at a target with any kind of blade be especially careful and take things slow. It takes practice as it can be a very hazardous activity.

Solo Exercise
This is obviously mandatory for developing the most basic skills in the most basic techniques. It can be done with real weapons or training weapons. Use care with real weapons. It is easy to hit yourself when trying new techniques as you first start out. If done with vigor it can be a great workout. It can be done with or without a target to impact strikes on. Videotape your sessions to help yourself improve. 

Free-Play / Sparring
There is nothing like the real thing. However the real thing is illegal and something to be avoided. So the next best thing will do: fighting against opponents with a safe sparring system. How you go about this is very important though. Every sparring system has strengths and weaknesses. Each system emphasizes a different aspect of combat. The important thing to know is what those strengths and weaknesses are. Then use a variety of systems to give yourself balance. Ultimately, however, adopting any curriculum for martial arts practice is not just a matter of your views toward training or techniques, rather, it's about having a philosophy of learning a combative discipline.  If your views are to focus on sportified contests or sparring (even though neither is actually a martial art) or to focus on form over function, your practice will reflect those limitations and your learning will suffer in the end. Sparring is a means to leanr the art not the end focus of the art. 

Sharps - ("real weapons")
No, you can't really spar with real and sharpened weapons. But safe solo training with a sharp blade will give you an appreciation for the feel and effort real weapons demand and the damage sharp edges can suffer under improper technique. 

Federschwerter / Practice-Blunts
"Featherswords" (or foyles) are unsharpened historically-accurate training swords (not stage-combat weapons, not props, and not "wall-hanger" replicas). With such blunted practice weapons it is possible to make controlled contact blows on restricted target areas. These blunted tools are now available in various models especially designed for historical fencing study. But, avoid most blunt reproduction weapons as these as they are typically too thick, too heavy, improperly designed, and incorrectly balanced for serious martial arts practice.

Wooden weapons (wasters)
Wooden substitutes were historically used fro almost all manner of weapons. Good wooden swords can be used almost as fast and hard as blunted steel blades depending on the amount of control, skill, armor, and target areas employed. They obviously do not perform as accurately as steel practice blades, yet have a more realistic feel than padded sparring weapons but require more restrictions on technique. Wooden weapons should be made with a distinctive edge (i.e., flattened instead of round) and have a realistic weight. The farther you get away from historical weapons the more likely you are to learn bad habits.  Inrecent years a number of carbon-fiber or platic nylong wasters have appeared. After having first pioneered their use, following two years of trial we discarded them as unsuitable due to their inherent over-flexing and unrealistic handling that distorts proper historical technique. 

Padded contact-weapons
Since 2008 the ARMA no longer advocates the use of any padded weapons in its curricula for historical fencing. After more than two decades experience with various designs and models we have ceased advocating their use for serious study. 

Side-Swords and Replica Rapiers
Various flexible rapier simulators are available that offer long tapering blades of diamond, lozenge, or hexagonal cross-section.  They are very often still far too "whippy" to make them ideal for historically accurate fencing. Most are little more than "steel noodles" intended for concocted martial sports and do not permit true techniques (especially the thrusting of the slender rapier). Even some brands of longsword practice-blades suffer this defect now. While too flexible most of the time they are often far better than modern fencing foils or epees, which are unrealistic for simulating the longer, heavier, and wider rapier. A historically accurate replica rapier blade, vital for general practice, is best for training as well as free-play, provided the point is both completely blunted and padded. Unfortunately, few blades of this kind are available at present.  As a historically accurate alternative, a simple wooden foyle -- made from a tapered hard wooden rod, can serve for training as well as contact bouting. Curiously, there is currently no historical evidence that flexible practice rapier blades were actually used for the study of the rapier, as there would later be for the far lighter and shorter 18th century smallsword.

Instruction and Training

If you seek out instruction in Medieval and Renaissance fighting arts there are several considerations to appraise before committing to studying with them: Do they have a clear study approach and identifiable methodology? Does their understanding come from years of private effort, or the recent collections of other novices?  Do they have an actual program of drills and exercises with proven results? Have they any actual accomplishments or achievements in this craft? Does physical conditioning and martial intent come across in their displays? Do they convey maturity and sincerity in their efforts? Do they exhibit concern with high standards, or more with artificial competitions and living-history escapism? Do their activities seem focused more on a historical combat discipline or a modern combat sport? Do they have demonstrable skill and experience in self-defense teachings? Is their background in the authentic revival of this material, or is it derived from Asian styles, sport fencing credentials, and stage-combat theory? Do they promote a sense of camaraderie, ethical conduct, and scholarship, or do they seem commercial, theatrical, sportified, or amateurish? Is their curriculum run by committee or is someone competent in authority? And lastly, do they seem to need you more than you need them?  These are important matters that at their heart are issues of character and motive as much as method and goal.  Throughout history experienced martial artists of all styles discovered that, in the long run such factors, which might seem to have nothing to do with learning to fight, in fact, have everything to do with the kind of fighter you become.  Every student of the martial arts must live with the real consequences of how they train, and with whom they train, not the good intentions of either.

Lastly, there is something else to consider when acquiring practice partners. Finding opponents who equally match one’s particular level of ability can be difficult. Quite often they are either noticeably superior or inferior. Though one may practice with individuals with whom you are better than and can readily outperform, it is important not to allow yourself to become lax. Resist the feeling to fight softer or to quit trying in an effort to somehow make things "more interesting and challenging." This attitude not only does a disservice to your true skills, but also to your sparring partner by not offering them an honest test. Practice like this surely leads to bad habits and weakens one’s edge. This is not to say that when facing those you are truly superior to that one should always crush and overwhelm them. Not at all. For in those cases you obviously need to teach and instruct without diminishing an individual or breaking their spirit. On the other hand, if one faces partners against whom you are soundly beaten, one must avoid the urge to view it entirely in terms of simply something we failed to do or entirely in terms of something the opponent did. This is not useful for growth as a student of the art. Victory or defeat is always a matter of that which we do or fail to do, in combination with that which an adversary did or failed to do. Sometimes the two are indistinguishable. Seek partners who share the same motivations, objectives, and values in the craft.  If you share the same values and objectives, then you will find a matching approach and method. It will then be all the easier to learn together. 

Now get off your chair and go fight!

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