What Have We Learned from ARMA Rapier Fencing?

By Senior ARMA Rapier Studentsmhbio.jpg (3710 bytes)cdbio.jpg (2786 bytes)cgbio.jpg (2595 bytes)

As the title above asks, that’s a good question. It’s one we’ve been wondering about ourselves for awhile. We never were particularly great sport fencers, better than most, but we had a long way to go to become really competitive in foil or epee. Committing the time to train had always been one of our big weaknesses. So, after more than two years now of study in historical fencing following the ARMA Approach to Medieval and Renaissance weapon arts, we’ve stopped to try and examine what we think we’ve learned. We’ve been able to reach some firm conclusions.

We certainly know that much of our sense of timing and distance and the footwork that we do was acquired from sport fencing. It only makes sense because in sport fencing we drilled in these frequently and for only one manner of linear thrusting fight (excluding saber). So there were not as much for us to learn in those areas through ARMA study except to think more of a round fencing strip. Plus, whereas before we only stuck with one sword where the only major difference were a few changes in rules, today we do three or more distinct weapons with completely different handling characteristics. But, compared to these other weapons and swords we also have some very bad habits from our sport days that we are constantly trying to break, like linear footwork and stopping action after a hit or corps a corps (close contact). There’s no doubting the value of sport fencing for helping with some things like coordination and movement, but let’s not fool ourselves, it’s about scoring points not killing. There’s no question that as far as setting us in the right direction, we gained that hands down from ARMA practice. The only way you learn that you have vulnerable bad habits is when because of them someone else can make mince meat of you. Also by studying the old masters that taught these subjects in a life or death manner and training with people who can twist you up in a hundred different ways we realized just how little we knew about the killing. We were vulnerable in places that we never knew existed! That’s something we experienced right away in ARMA.

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When we were sport fencing, the competitive atmosphere was great and the tournaments got the butterflies going like nothing else. But when we’d work for a double touch or got penalized for a new rule infringement we knew something were not quite "right". But we had no idea exactly what it was and in a way we were actually "scared" of the truth. There were always questions about why you couldn’t do something or why you had to do something else. One time some of us we had a replica rapier that at the time felt quite heavy. We remember we took it and tried to do "fencing moves" and it just didn’t work right. But we had in our minds that sport fencing was the "pinnacle" of swordsmanship; a "pyramid" instead of a branching tree, as we now say in ARMA.

So what were wrong? We didn't really know and didn't explore. We suppressed doubts about how and why we fenced this "way" and not some other "way" in order to manipulate the tool. We didn't know about any historical manuals and again didn't look for them since we were receiving some very knowledgeable information and the results of the instruction were having acceptable results. Again why bother with the "other stuff" if what we are doing is perfection? Old swords were just heavy bashers after all. It was "common knowledge" that what was on TV and in movies "showed" how artless and inferior the old sword fighting was.

Could we have figured out how wrong this was ourselves if we had all the information in front of us? To a certain extent, yes, but there are many techniques that are difficult to determine from a solitary picture or brief description. Even today with all the knowledge we have acquired, we often misinterpret a counter or seizure. And without access to all the necessary equipment itself (the replica arms and armor), how can one even begin to study? So there’s no question that ARMA instruction accelerated our learning by removing the waste of trial and error. Having things put right live before you and proved beyond a doubt makes a big difference. Given the knowledge and advantage of the ARMA approach we now know there were a lot more to rapier use and that it really worked. Even in my last few years or rapier sparring we have been pleased with our results when sparring with others from different perspectives or study habits. As we train and understand more and more we expect the results to continue to be favorable. Others just beginning in our group have experience much the same results. So that alone to us is a good sign that ARMA teaching is on the right track. We also learned pretty quickly how to fight with cutting swords against thrusting swords, something generally uncommon in traditional fencing practice. It’s not nearly anywhere as easy as it’s supposed to be according to sport fencing.

So, as far as acquiring a martial view to fencing, there’s no doubt ARMA gave us that for sure. "Fighting" is not an interest in sport fencing and before we had never had much of a desire to learn any grappling or unarmed technique, while now we see how it all goes together and are interested (we just need to start practicing it more!). Being able to see, despite our fencing prowess, how easy we could get hit by someone skilled at closing in on or getting around us was enlightening (to be honest, you start to feel a little foolish when even though you’re a good fencer you’re shown how easy someone in a swordfight can be knocked around in ways you never knew possible). You never see that in a sport fencing class because it’s not required and won’t help push the button on the end of a foil or epee. The most important things ARMA for sure taught us about historical fencing was the integration of our left hand. We learned how effective and useful it could be in any swordplay or hand weapon. We also learned the important use of traversing and passing instead of straight-line fighting back and forth, back and forth.

To us, watching newer ARMA rapier students who have no sport fencing background or Asian martial arts knowledge is interesting. We’re curious how well they’ll be in a few years, doing exclusively rapier fencing and a not sport or stage fencing from the start. We wonder how learning other weapons will affect them. We also want to experiment with an exceptional traditional fencer soon and see how well he’ll do in the more open and free-style rapier. We’re curious now how well both methods will translate against each other since we don’t see the old fencing the same way.

What was really interesting in our discovery of using other types of swords and weapons was how at the same time we learned the limits of sport fencing training, we also learned how much more actual skill and history there really was to old European martial arts. We’ve come to appreciate the various uses and advantages of different swords and weapons and techniques in different situations. By this one can’t help but respect all of them and understand a lot better how they developed and changed over time. Thanks to ARMA, none of us can consider ourselves just a "fencer" any more; we’ve lost that view forever. But can confidently say we would never trade all we’ve gained for what we lost.

The preceding essay is drawn from the composite experiences of four ARMA rapier students.

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