Breaking All the Rules – Thoughts on Weapon Sparring Guidelines

By Todd Palmertpbio.jpg (2760 bytes)

At the base of any group involved in historical weapon sparring is a set of core rules. These rules vary greatly depending on the group’s goals and knowledge base. But for today’s serious student of historical swordsmanship rules can be a source of many great problems. As long as safety is ensured, rules should always be scrutinized, amended, and alternatives considered. Of course, any rule-system is highly dependent on the sparring tools used. Sparring weapon construction and armor have perhaps the biggest influence on rules for safety. But again, it is the group’s goals and approach that determines the sparring tools to be used. The following thoughts about sparring rules are from the viewpoint of a student of swordsmanship whose goal is learning actual fighting techniques.

Safety Rules
Foremost in any set of rules for simulated weapon sparring is the need for safety. This involves the problem in defining what "safe" is. Each individual has there own idea about what is acceptable risk. There are those that are not willing to feel the slightest pain. Others willingly receive many bruises and risk serious damage. The possibility of permanent injury and even death is inherent in any system regardless of the degree of safety measures. This has occurred even in the highly regulated and safety enforced sport of Olympic Fencing. Theatrical fencing and live-steel performances have also ended in death serious injury –even to spectators. With higher safety standards comes a reduction in the probability of an incident and a reduction in the level of realism. When the rules are written to the "lowest common denominator" anyone can participate. But this only works when your main goal is to have the largest group of participants. Many students are willing to accept higher levels of risk for greater realism and learning.

Risk can be defined as the product of the probability of an incident and the severity of the incident (Risk = probability * severity). An increase in the probability or the severity results in higher risk. The risk of some rule systems can be high because the injuries are frequent but minor (i.e. lots of bruises in full contact padded weapon sparring). But the risk of a rule system can also be high because of a rare yet crippling injury or death (i.e. a broken foil penetrating a mask or jacket). When examining sparring rules, be aware of those that are there just for preventing high-probability low-severity injuries. These rules may only be there to prevent minor pain and bruises that are not permanent in nature. These rules can be tested and stretched if you are willing to accept more risk. However, be extremely cautious of altering those rules that prevent high-severity injuries regardless of the probability. Your best lesson may very well be your last.

It is important to consider the amount of time you spend sparring at any risk level. Generally, the longer you have participated in an activity the safer you become; but you are also more likely to have had a prior injury. The chance of crashing in one plane trip is low. Do it a thousand times and the chance of having crashed is roughly one thousand times higher. For the serious student, I recommend training at different levels of risk to gain lots of hours at sparring safely and then also some riskier hours for realism. With a trusted partner occasionally increase the speed of your blows, include more target areas, or allow for more techniques. Some of my best practices where I have learned the most resulted in bruises the size of cantaloupes on my thighs, knees, and shoulders. My opponent and I were able to fight closer to our full potential. Pain is a great motivator and reminder.

Another important concept of risk is voluntary vs. involuntary risk. A good example would be those people who actively lobby against air pollution but also smoke cigarettes. At first this may seem ridiculous but it involves the principle of voluntary risk. Citizens do not "directly" have control over or benefit from the pollution that industrial plants emit. But they have control over and benefit from their own smoking habits. The same is true for weapon sparring. It has aspects of voluntary and involuntary risk. We elect to participate in a set of sparring rules with a known group of people. We voluntarily accept that risk. We do not have control over any single opponent. If we find that an individual lacks control, fights at a higher level of risk, or is generally unsafe in action, we can elect not to fight that individual. Unfortunately, I have seen individuals and even groups recommend that the best way to deal with unsafe individuals is to "knock their block off" so they get the message. This retaliatory reaction can escalate and become dangerous. It is your responsibility to inform the opponent that they are being too unsafe for you. They can tone it down or not spar with you anymore.

Competition Rules
Competition rules certainly have their place. In competition individuals are more focussed. They have more to lose and often try harder. Competition can bring out the best (and worst) in people. Also by acknowledging a winner we reward those that have apparently trained and studied the hardest. This of course theoretically causes all the students to study and practice harder. Students also know their peers will judge them. Just like academic study, students work harder on those assignments that they have to present in front of the class.

However always fighting in a rule-system that is based on competition can be detrimental to higher skill. The rule-system of many historical combat groups is based entirely on competition. It is important for them to be able to decide who the winner is. With the incorporation of competitive rules a system inherently gains unrealistic techniques. Participants naturally use techniques that "win" rather than what we know is plausible from our experience cutting with real weapons or from methods described in historical sources.

My favorite type of sparring is when I just informally spar an opponent taking a very brief moment acknowledging what happened and what the results might have been. Even without a rule system to determine a winner, both opponents walk away with a good understanding of their abilities relative to those of their opponent. Without being centered on winning or losing each competitor can concentrate on learning, experimenting, and observing there abilities. In this scenario both individuals have the ability to gain or "win". Both can be happy with their accomplishments and grow as a result. As a note, you do have to be careful at keeping your acknowledgments from turning into long debates on the forensics of possible body injuries and thereby lose valuable sparring time. If you are unsure as to what happened on a hit or what the results might have been, then fine. Acknowledge that and keep sparring.

Gaming Rules
Today there are many historical combat groups whose purpose for weapon sparring is to enable live role-playing games. Their rules are full of examples that for the goal of fun and adventure, inhibit developing real martial skills and even promote incorrect techniques. For live-action fantasy, fighting ability in combat is more a function of your "character’s" experience points or how long you have been with a group. Artificial attributes and skills are awarded on merit levels rather than supporting the development of sincere martial ability. Rules for magic, magical weapons and assorted pretend abilities are constantly getting in the way of serious sparring. Often, new participants are restricted from using certain weapon types or using them to their full potential. In my experience, the time spent by these groups at actual physical "combat" is less than any other group. They spend time playing out the adventure, discussing rules or enforcing the results of magic, and disputing rulings. I will acknowledge that these groups have a totally different objective than those pursuing European fighting arts in a martial fashion, however if you are reading this essay then you probably already fall into this second category already. For the serious student of historical fighting arts there is very little knowledge or experience to be gained from these groups and their rule systems. At best you can occasionally go out to spar with new people at a very cheap price. As it is said by some excellent swordsmen, toy weapons create toy soldiers.

Theatrical Rules
Theatrical swordplay has an entirely different goal than the study of swordsmanship for real fighting knowledge. This certainly is not a bad thing. I enjoy a well-choreographed sword fight as much as the next guy does. The problem starts when those who are actively pursuing, teaching, learning or watching theatrical combat begin to suggest that it is real combat technique. There has been plenty already written on this subject so it does not need to be restated here. I would only like to encourage the reader to be very skeptical. Always ask yourself "would that have been done in a real fight?" As you gain experience you will find the answer more often to be, "No, that was just for theatrics, drama, comedy, or safety."

Rules for Historically Accurate Combat Techniques
Some rule systems restrict the user to only using those techniques that can be documented as historically accurate. The intention of these rules is admirable and should be a general objective of any swordsman. However as rules they cause problems. By not allowing students to try those techniques they gleaned from TV, sport fencing, Asian martial arts, or discovered on their own then they never learn for themselves why they may or may not work. Interpreting the actions described in historical texts can be very difficult for many reasons. How do you know exactly what the author meant without trying out all the possibilities? New interpretations of historical techniques can be found by just trying new things. In addition, are there some techniques, especially from earlier time periods, that were never documented? Thus, allow for experimentation, encourage practicality, and educate on the words of historical masters.

Rules for Historically Accurate Dress
Some groups require that participants be in historically accurate dress. Again this is a respectable goal. In fact, clothing does have a very minor affect on technique. But as a rule this distracts from swordsmanship and weapon use. Time and money spent on clothing could be spent on weapons both replica and simulated. Time studying dress could be spent on studying the manuals of the masters. And preserving your wardrobe from damage can distract from a martial mindset. If you have the resources for garb, then that is great. But never allow it to get in the way of your primary goals. Never let others think your are less of a fighter because you do not have a nice costume.

Referees, marshals and judges
I have yet to see any rule system that could not operate without referees, marshals or judges. However many groups require them. For safety sake they are not a bad idea especially in competition situations where fighters are more focussed on winning. But if not limited to a safety role they can become a hindrance to the learning process. It is important to note that even in the safety role they are not entirely necessary. The fighters involved should be capable of monitoring their own safety to a mutually acceptable level of risk. This is not the same thing as an instructor watching a beginner and making corrections until they are safe or spotters keeping spectators back. I have seen sparring systems where marshals that do not participate in combat will argue with the fighters about what happened. They will waste the precious time of the combatants discussing issues that they know little about. Even experienced judges can slow things down. The actions of martial combat are highly subjective and very difficult to perceive. Many times I have questioned combatants I observed about what happened and find out what I thought I saw was totally wrong. As an alternative to this dilemma of judges, just let the combatants themselves quickly decide what happened. If they can not concur as to what happened then forget it and get on with the learning process. It can be frustrating to have an opponent who does not acknowledge your hits, especially when you are sure. But if you are focussed on learning then it does not matter. Who cares if you won that point? More important is if you learned something that day. In the thousands of blows I have delivered or received I can not remember any that upset me because they were not acknowledged. I do remember those skills and techniques of my opponents and myself. I did learn what worked and what did not. I do not need a judge to tell me that.

In conclusion, the serious student of historical fighting should:
Keep safety first, learning second, and all else a distant third
Continually question all the rules that they are using
Discard non-safety rules that inhibit learning proper technique
Never train entirely in only one rule/sparring system
Train at different levels of risk

Todd Palmer has studied swordsmanship for 14 years. Currently he practices in Lake Charles, LA using the HACA approach. He has sparred in 11 separate groups with different rule systems. He is always willing to try new rules and sparring systems as long as they help, not hinder his understanding of the historical fighting arts.

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