In promoting historical Western fighting arts and sharing something of our understanding of them, ARMA is always open to cross-training with fellow martial artists of all styles and schools.  Below is a short analysis describing one brief opportunity we recently had the pleasure of having:

A First Experience in Rapier Fencingrhbio.jpg (2837 bytes)

Ronald A. Harris, Ph.D.

This is about my first experience with rapier fencing. I tell how I met John Clements and got involved with the ARMA [at the the time, the "Historical Armed Combat Association]. I am now in the process of introducing Western martial culture to my students and friends in the Asian martial arts. The purpose of this article is not to criticize the Eastern martial arts (that I practice), but rather to give credit due to the Western martial arts, that are experiencing a renaissance.

In 1976, I fenced at Eastern Michigan University with Erwin Ballarta. Erwin and I both became discouraged with modern fencing because their weapons were unrealistic and their rules were stifling. Why couldn't we strike each other with the side of the dull coat hanger thing called a foil? Why couldn't we walk around in a circle to get a better angle of attack? Why couldn't we use our empty hands to strike each other or grab that foil? Alas! Erwin introduced me to the Filipino martial arts (FMA), which I later learned from several teachers in the US and Philippines. In 1988, I was certified as a master instructor in the Negros Occidental Arnis Federation. I am an expert in (1) single stick (short and long), (2) double stick, (3) knife (single and double), (4) stick and knife, (5) whip, chain, and flail, (6) spear/ staff, (7) empty hands, (8) healing arts and metaphysics. My Filipina wife Lalaine is a practicing martial artist and former full-contact stickfighting champion.

Claims made about the superiority of Asian martial arts to European martial arts as practiced by my ancestors, led me to investigate my lost martial culture and heritage in early 1998. Indeed, these claims were such that a challenge for a duel to the death with bladed weapons (sharps) was even made to Americans on an Internet forum which circulated around the globe. This challenge came despite the historical evidence that my ancestors had all but conquered these countries using arms and armor that is still superior to their current obsolete weapons technology. The facts are: historical medieval and renaissance weapons of Europe are often superior to the weapons now still being used in Asian countries to practice their own historical martial arts.

My initial feeling was: "You asked for it, now I'm going to get a huge mother-sucking sword like my European ancestors used and then chop all you *&$!@! into itsy-bitsy pieces." My experience with ethnocentrism and racism within the Asian martial arts community had frustrated my learning path for most of my life. Like John C. and the people at the ARMA [HACA], I also get criticized for asking people to stop the talk and start the walk. Rather than kow-tow, I decided to learn about historical Western swordsmanship.

So, I contacted the ARMA [HACA] and I began corresponding with both Todd Palmer and John Clements. I met John Clements for the first time in Houston, Texas on August 15, 1998. John C. is that rare genius: A pragmatic no-nonsense martial artist. This felt refreshing.

My first experience with rapier free-sparring (i.e., free-sparring is more real than modern fencing, but less real than actual historical fighting) was one of adapting to the unfamiliar weight and length of this primarily thrusting weapon against a live and skilled opponent. I found myself recalling my brief practice with a replica rapier and my foil fencing at the university. I adapted quickly. John had suggested, before we met, that I obtain a quality replica of a real weapon. Hence, I purchased a fine 17th C. swept hilt rapier, made by Del Tin Armi Antiche. This advice proved excellent, because I now knew how to hold the real thing. My year's worth of training with the modern fencing foil at the university helped me to adjust to the point orientation quickly. My substantial experience with full-contact stickfighting helped me most with the other weapons, but it also proved useful for speed, timing, distance, closing, and other martial skills necessary for effective combat.

Using a practice rapier (i.e., realistic flexible blades made by Del Tin Armi Antiche), you can feel, with feedback through sparring, the possibility of death caused by penetration. I know that thrusting has more stopping power than cutting. Laws of physics dictate that a sword thrust is faster to execute than a cut, ceteris parabis. On average, puncture wounds from thrusts are generally more likely than cuts to damage internal organs vital to human function and also cause delayed death from infection. The rapier is made for thrusting.

Sparring with John, the timing of the hits and exchanges got more interesting, as I later played the rapier against a cut and thrust sword. Their practice cut and thrust sword is weighted like a real cut and thrust weapon. I could see how thrusts disrupted the timing of cuts. As civilian edged weaponry developed in the West, swords became more point oriented and less cut oriented. Yet superior weapons did not necessarily replace inferior weapons. You can discover this yourself by playing the European weapons against one another. Your opponent's skill always matters in real combat, but weapons have unique characteristics. This reality factor applies to all martial arts styles, methods, and systems.

That is how training is conducted in the ARMA [HACA]--weapons are used in combination and in opposition. I held and/ or played with the (1) rapier, (2) dagger, (3) cut and thrust sword, (4) long sword, and (5) spear. I also became familiar with armor like the shield, buckler, and helmet in weapons sparring. Although I already knew the sword, dagger, spear, and shield from my FMA, European weapons are different in their application. Realize that the FMA does not include the rapier and neither does modern sport fencing. The FMA sword and dagger (i.e., techniques) are not the same as the European renaissance rapier and dagger (i.e., techniques). It could be a serious mistake (i.e., fatal) to assume that all long edged weapons are the same as rapiers. True rapiers are not cut and thrust swords!

The traditional swords practiced with the FMA are not equivalent in length, weight, and shape to historical Western swords. The kris, barong, and kampilan are diminutive and appear less efficient in cutting and thrusting actions than Western cut and thrust swords. Their metallurgy is different, because Southeast Asian technology is unlike the Western. Differences between Filipino and Western swords will be the subject of a future article.

In conclusion, I am quite pleased with my first rapier experience. Now, I can add to my knowledge of weaponry by discovering the history of the sword. Rather than run amok with a Claymore like some berserker ancestor of mine, or display bravado like heroic action stars in some recent Hollywood movies, I becalmed myself and practiced to delicately poke holes into the false pride of ignorant masters with a steel needle more than a meter long.

About the author

Dr. Harris is a consultant to ARMA and began studying martial arts in 1972, at the age of sixteen. Ron is a certified instructor in (1) Arnis, Eskrima, and Kali (2) Combat Judo, (4) Kajukenbo, (5) Karate, (6) Muay Thai, and (7) Taekwondo. He also studies Brazilian Jiujitsu, Boxe-Francaise Savate, and Wing Chun Kuen. Ron was a full-contact tournament champion, promoted The Classic Eskrima Championship, Filipino Martial Arts Tournament, conducted The Adventures In Paradise, Filipino Martial Arts Tour, and hosted the Southwest Martial Arts Camp. He has published articles with Inside Kung Fu and Inside Karate and written for the the Martial Arts of the World Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO 2001). His latest pursuit is Western martial culture. He teaches in Baton Rouge. La. You can send him email

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