Of Means and Methods

The importance of your approach to historical weapon training

By John Clements

Some 16 years ago, I publicly warned of a dangerous orthodoxy building within the emerging field of authentic Medieval and Renaissance combat arts ("MARCA")—one that would eventually result in a watered down, lowest-common-denominator, soft-and-slow interpretation of the historical source teachings. I noted at the time that, without extant schools and masters or any surviving pedagogy for MARCA, efforts to reconstitute these extinct combatives —occurring as they are being simultaneously practiced— is inherently problematic. I cautioned wariness of reconstructions colored by costumed role-play interests, a burgeoning sportification movement, and stunt fencing prejudices mixed with influences from traditional Asian fighting styles.

I am sorry to say I was perceptive in my forecast. I suppose it was inevitable. The same kind of phenomenon occurred with the popularizing of traditional Asian fighting arts as they emerged on the globe in the mid-20th century. This is one of the main reasons why I have worked to build our fellowship, the ARMA, as a fighting guild exclusively supported by members with testable standards and a code of conduct free from the distractions of competitive contests or commercial interests.

At least we can say that over the some 400-years or so encompassing the historical period of our subject’s rich (and unequaled) instructional literature, there was a great diversity of martial activities: from all manner of non-lethal tournaments and public exhibition fights, feats of arms, judicial combats, private duels, recreational bouting and classroom practice, to neighbored brawls and vicious street fights —not to mention a huge variety of full-on battles amidst open warfare. That our source teachings address much of this permits considerable latitude in how modern enthusiasts and practitioners choose to proceed in their approach to historical weapon training.

I have observed for decades different kinds of weapon training in the martial arts, whether conducted alone or partnered. There is the display oriented "Chinese-opera" style of pre-programmed fight routines and performances (which make up a great deal of choreographed stunt fights). There is the common sequential "forms" or "katas" taught as dance-like movement patterns representing isolated technique combinations (done for both entertainment and solo competition) ubiquitous in modern martial arts instruction even among styles without historical evidence of ever using them. There are also the parry-riposte drills of offensive and defensive motions designed to instill reflex reactions and habits (as witnessed in many weapon sports and stick fighting arts). Finally, there are structured “set plays” representing examples of essential striking and counter-striking exchanges executed at various levels of speed and force —one of few partnered training methods within MARCA having strong supporting evidence.

All of these different means and methods of teaching and practicing are ways to arrange agonistic combat actions for safe learning or non-injurious testing. In their own way, they are each activities reflecting the purpose and goal of weapon training —either for exhibition, sporting contest, recreation, healthy exercise, or self-defense preparation. The degree to which any one of them achieves some of these objectives is entirely dependent upon the intensity of the activity, the accuracy of the equipment used, and the attitude taken toward the historical Art.

Different styles and different approaches to historical weapon training today may focus on one or more of these even to the exclusion of any other. Very often, novices beginning practice in a historical weapon training system have no understanding of which means or method they are getting involved with. Many times they are provided little to no information as to the historical origins or validity of the approach. The context of the military technology and martial environment which created any given form of arms and armor in the first place is typically shrouded in folkloric myth and pop-culture nonsense.

More profoundly, practitioners starting out today do not understand how the technical aspects of different means and methods involved in a program of study will produce different levels of understanding and technical skill. An underlying truth of weapon arts is that demonstration of exercises and drills does not equate to fighting skill nor does sparring prowess under a given rule-set equate to earnest self-defense ability. In my view, this is a central issue in the martial practice of historical weaponry.

Nonetheless, different arts and styles, schools, teachers, practitioners, and students, pursue the means or method which best fits their temperament, their capacity, their interest, and their needs. Given this, a question that I have long asked is: How is a confident understanding of Medieval and Renaissance weaponry best reconstituted? To put it another way, how are these lost weapon arts accurately recovered from the source teachings through different kinds of training?

My conclusion, from personal efforts and the training of others, is to follow as closely as possible the examples given to us by the Masters of Defence and associated source literature. This means core exercises in striking and moving, basic exchanges of techniques with a partner, striking at test targets, and some form of vigorous mock combat free play. All this must be done with an understanding that, to paraphrase the Elizabethan master George Silver, the force and timing of classroom practice and light play differs from the force and timing of real fighting and serious play.

A recent experience a private student of mine had in his first-ever encounter with "LARP" sparring resulted in a pretty interesting lesson that reflects much of what I have described above. Sometime in the past, I had briefly taught him how foam toy-weapon tag-play works and what a martial artist should do when confronted with this style of play. The occasion allowed me to "teach" a profound lesson how “not to fight”. I made a reasoned and well-articulated “case” for parry-riposte fencing and the “logic” of deliberate blocking having explained the theory promoting fighting by dodging and voiding to simply win the range and timing all in complete contradiction to the authentic sources of our craft: the genuine historical teachings. Lastly, I showed my student how I could not demonstrate any of this "incorrect" method in the first few hours, days, weeks, or even months of a new practitioner’s learning. I further explained how instead, the student must first have in place understanding of a credible means before they could see how flawed and inept all that theory of defense is.

It was a very interesting opportunity that I have repeated on several occasions with others. Each time my students remark how reasonable the flawed manner of weapon fighting appears even though they knew it was inferior and wrong. They each said they could see how people could be fooled and mislead into thinking the untutored method was especially effective. I was able to help them readily see how their current conceptualization of fighting now makes it easy for them to comprehend this whereas it would have been very difficult to do beforehand. From there, of course, my task was to then try to demonstrate how to overcome and defeat the crude common understanding of fighting (exemplified by the foam-weapon play-fighting) using skill in the superior authentic Art.

Ironically, it is overcoming crude and simplistic actions that is actually the hardest part for real martial artists using foam swords in any play fighting LARP games. For serious martial artists used to working with replica weapons and armor, such an experience can be disconcerting the first time. Foam-weapon fighters invariably have habits and reflexes that come from having no awareness (nor concern) for how impacts from real weapons will cause serious injuries. After all, the debilitating and incapacitating wounds produced by sharp steel points and edges  —or even by hardwood hafts against unprotected flesh and bone— is not a part of every day experience.

In the serious practice of weaponry, it is essential to be aware that, in mock combat practice, firm contact placed with intent for an interval of time that would have allowed a weapon to penetrate or confer force is enough for a fighter to acknowledge a good "hit". It is well beyond a simple "touching" but also far from full force. This is how you can engage in vigorous sparring without having to actually hurt or stun someone with every blow. Practitioners who exclusively spar with lots of padding, in heavy armor, with foam swords, with only light touches, or with extra heavy tournament weapons, will all have different levels of reaction as to what is considered a “good blow”. These expectations can differ immensely under different mock combat guidelines or a fighting style’s structure for safe free-play.

In each case, the important consideration is how much the means or method reflects the actual performance characteristics of real weapons used with real techniques and the effects of the actual damage they would produce in real combat. This is the challenge. The extent a practice reflects these considerations and makes accommodations for safety or recreational reasons changes how historical weapon training is approached and cannot be ignored.



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