The ARMA System for Historical Fencing Study
Man muss fleissig nachdencken ("you must study this diligently")
- the 15th century German Masters of Defence

The ARMA’s “system” for historical fencing is a combination of academic scholarship, vigorous physical practice, and insightful effort. To achieve progress in research and training we form into Study Groups of like-minded fellows working together and sharing information under the same essential approach and methodology, and with the same philosophy, goals, and shared values.  We develop a pragmatic, historically sound and martially effective practice curriculum for reconstructing these skills based on the source teachings of diverse historical works then offer it to members as a training program. We define standards and then certify our member practitioners and instructors in these skills. In addition, we offer resources and advice to the public and community of historical fencing enthusiasts.

The ARMA Study Approach consists simply of: researching historical European fighting manuals, literature and iconography combined with comparative analysis from hands-on experience using accurate replica weapons and armor as well as surviving specimens. 

The real historical teachings and arms are our guide. We neither make it up on our own nor simply “borrow” from popular Asian martial arts or modern sport fencing. Our own historical sources are too rich, diverse, and sophisticated in their methods to need to bother.

The ARMA Training Methodology consists of physical practice using several training tools for a well-rounded comprehensive understanding: blunt practice blades, wooden wasters, sharp reproduction weapons, sometimes even padded contact-weapons.  These are employed in exercises, drills, and practice routines. 

The curriculum of our original Member Training Program is made up of a Study Approach and Training Methodology directed at developing core skills. Our continually updated system of established drills and exercises (our Armatura) includes assorted rills, exercises, and set-plays of strike-and-counter-strike exchanges.

While continually revising our core assumptions of historical fencing, ARMA members constantly innovate, experiment, and self-critique our study curriculum. That's why it produces demonstrable results and maintains the cutting edge. We can confidently claim this is the most complete and unified presentation of these lost and secret teachings yet offered in modern times.  As an Art of fighting, not merely historical swordplay but a fighting art, it connects offensive and defensive actions as it teaches the simplicity of leverage and timing, motion and striking, displacements, and seizures.

"The vast majority of modern sword enthusiasts have, fortunately, never had to deal with an emotionally charged individual bent on doing them real harm with a bladed weapon, let alone trained hard on a regular basis to deal at close range with such danger. Keeping this reality foremost in mind as we investigate and explore historical European arms and armor and their associated combative systems is what we endeavor to do. It means rejecting the distractions of costumed role-playing, stunt routines, and escapist reenactment performance in favor of seeking documentable knowledge and genuine skill. There were many kinds of swords and weapons in Renaissance Europe and many different ways of using them which fighting men wrote upon."

See also:
Defining Historical Fencing

"Real World Skills From Real History"

Our Renaissance fencing skills are not a chivalric fantasy sport, duelling game, or re-creational role-playing amusement but a modern combative discipline. This is no "pose and prance" approach, and no pretentious play and display attitude.

The ARMA curriculum is aimed at understanding, as much as we find possible, the totality of forgotten fighting skills, not just emphasizing a single isolated source or master’s work. We seek to do cross-comparisons among the little-known historical teachings and not synthesize a method from them, not recombine it into something new, but instead attempt a distillation of their teachings---in the sense of obtaining a purity of information, not diluted with modern conceptions and assumptions.  It is a holistic approach to research and study.

In this approach to exploring lost fighting arts we first look for commonalities in the source literature; seeking understanding of underlying elements in order to learn about the overall nature of the craft. Then we next begin to focus on specific sources or teachings noting their unique aspects, looking for any contrasts in style or philosophy from others.

The ARMA means of study is to explore, to question, to examine, to execute movements and actions with vigor, then “rewind” them, repeat them, and re-analyze. This system is a "tool" that allows students to teach themselves by using materials from the source manuals as examples and as “puzzles” to work through, always keeping in mind the lethality and intent of the historical techniques.  We have been advocating and teaching this method as a combative discipline for a long time and it works.

The proof is in the quality of fighters we produce. Yet, we actively seek to avoid producing students that are technically proficient in movement patterns yet tactically ineffectual as fighters. We seek the meaning of these teachings…and through analysis, a modern way to safely practice them once again. When it comes to Renaissance martial arts, we concluded, authenticity does not exist unless we now reconstruct it.

The Skills Proficiency Certification for ranking within the ARMA consists of examinations for competency in foundational techniques and knowledge base in the discipline of historical fencing studies.  The ARMA revises and amends its knowledge base and interpretations as new information and material comes to light.  The ARMA's longsword curriculum provides the foundation of study and is made up of: fundamental drills and basic exercises, core practice routines, free-play (contact-sparring), and test-cutting.   

The ARMA system of exploring real techniques also places emphasis on proper intent –i.e., learning and executing moves with realistic speed and range in order to acquire a correct sense of counter-timing, balance, and motion. 

ARMA stresses a “martial” approach to this subject –by this we mean emphasizing that these skills and techniques were intended to be used with force to cause injury –even though we never use them for this.   To be relearned properly today it is only logical that they must –must– be performed in earnest, with energy and speed and we must make the effort to practice them in this way.  (Going slow and soft only teaches you to go slow and soft)  This kind of dynamic doesn't come at first and has to be developed over time. The degree to which each student achieves it may vary. 

While other organizations may focus more on the pageantry and role-playing of knightly tournaments or on the “deportment” of proper “technical exchanges” within a conception of gentlemanly duels, the ARMA does not.   Although these may be semi-historical approaches, we feel such things are more ritual than martial, and more ritual combats of the period were far outweighed by real fighting.  Thus, one of the things we try to inspire in modern students is a realistic appreciation of the martial content of the subject we study.  We therefore place value on the mental or psychological aspects as well as the physical or technical. The ethical component of the craft is not ignored either.

For both Medieval  and Renaissance weapons and sword training what ARMA students normally do is fairly simple yet sophisticated and detailed. Beyond our proprietary lesson program and original insights, there is nothing "secret" or "special" really, just plenty of hard training, intensive study, and emphasis on free-play using our inclusive guidelines.

Few things are as useful for fighters as constant free-play for teaching distance, timing, perception, tactics, and for gaining technical proficiency (as well as discovering faulty bio-mechanics).

In the ARMA system for study free-play is supplemented by group and solo work in delivery of techniques and actions plus moving with proper footwork and stepping. On their own students work on focus, speed, control, and power in their attacks by performing striking and counter-striking drills with a partner.

A main practice we employ using floryshes (or solo "routines"), a series of basic moves and performed in semi-sequence, but not as any pre-arranged set pattern or programmed "dance" to practice fundamental form and the flow of movements. 

Over time, intent (range, speed and power) is increased to more and more earnest levels.  Safe free-play / sparring is conducted with controlled force but with realistic martial intent (speed and contact) using wooden wasters or blunt training blades. Sharps are used for some occasional cutting experience.

For rapier fencing, practice and free-play is done with assorted safety equipment and employing inflexible wood and steel blades of various tapered lengths and cross-sectional shapes. Personal exercises and unrehearsed routines are also conducted using replica rapiers. This combined effort at physical conditioning, exercises and drills, practice routines, and free-play/sparring works to enable a more martially sound and historically accurate understanding of the source methods

The historical teachings tell us many things. But they do not specifically instruct how one goes about doing these things correctly, let alone learn or teach them. This then is where experience and insight comes into the process of reconstructive interpretation.

The ARMA is the only organization of its kind run by a professional instructor of historical European fighting arts with demonstrable mastery over its methods and techniques. But it is through the collaborative effort of fellow students and researchers that we train ourselves and train one another.

A Holistic View:
There is an interesting parallel to the ARMA method found within one of the world's foremost elite infantry fighting forces –the United States Marine Corps.  To train its recruits in bayonet fighting skills, the Marines rely on three tools: steel bayonets, wooden bayonets, and padded bayonets. Actual bayonets are used for acquiring familiarity with the weapon and for practice in stabbing at targets. Wooden practice bayonets are employed for safer drills and exercises, both alone and with a partner. Finally, padded pugil-sticks are used in full-contact sparring lessons.  The Marine Corps, ever known for the pragmatic no-nonsense approach to combat training, found the best instruction was gained from the combination of unique lesson provided by each tool.

"If you are fearful,
never learn any art of fighting"

- Master Liechtenauer, c.1389

Teaching and Learning in ARMA

Today, practicing historical European fighting arts and swordsmanship is about reconstructing real techniques as real methods. But it is not possible to fully know or completely reproduce the precise methods of any particular historical styles. It is too easy to blindly speculate or merely invent hollow theories.  

Thus, to help advance and promote more systematic and structured instruction in the ideas, techniques, and systems of the historical Masters of Defence, the ARMA offers a Proficiency Certification Program for these combat skills. To make it easier for enthusiasts to learn a true craft we also presents a core curricula as well as continually developing sound instructional methods for transferring and testing of skills.  The ARMA's simple training objective is to provide greater legitimacy in both teaching and evaluating fighting skill with historical arms. We have always endeavored to avoid the once common "museum curator" approach to historical fencing which treats it as a fossilized cultural artifact instead of a hands-on craft. 

We also strive to avoid a "synthetic art" as we synthesize our understanding of the teachings of the many historical source works which are our direct guides. We encourage and promote study of the historical fencing manuals and sharing of insights as well as discourse, healthy debate, and peer review.

Since no one historical fencing manuscript or book alone provides a complete and full style of fighting on its own, ARMA has chosen a more or less “holistic” approach to study of these forgotten combat teachings.

ARMA's philosophy is that the only way to communicate authority in any interpretation of these skills is not by theorizing their application but by energetically displaying competence in executing techniques in a manner that skillfully demonstrates their validity.

From the beginning we proceeded on the assumption that the material and information presently known was only a small portion of what would eventually become available.  We therefore consciously endeavored to have our practice and teaching curriculum make room for future advancements in the subject. In this way, as new information and translations become available they can with small effort be fitted into our curriculum.  Rather than limiting ourselves to examination of one or two specific source works – certainly a valid approach that allows for a deeper study of each particular title –we instead used contrast and comparison of the widest possible range of historical texts to supplement and augment one another.

Our Philosophy of Training and Teaching with Intent:
The techniques of Renaissance martial arts were meant to protect an individual from being attacked with deadly speed and force. Historically, it was imperative they were understood in this context and they were surely taught to students in this way. The only way to communicate authority in interpretations of these methods and techniques is through energetically displaying competence in their physical application and doing so in a manner that demonstrates their martial validity. 

If historical self-defense methods are to be established as functional and effective under conditions of violent force, they must logically be shown-at some point during instruction-with something more than hypothetical slow motion sequences. Simply "going through the motions" of a fighting technique isn't sufficient to either evaluate it or develop it as an effective action. It is certainly acceptable to move with deliberate caution and careful control when doing initial analysis, when first teaching new students, or when practicing with novices, but the eventual goal must be to execute actions with earnest intent -assuming your goal is actual skill in the reconstruction of a genuine combative system. It surely gives no credibility or legitimacy to this subject for those claiming expertise to fail to perform with expertise. The use of controlled force in this very way is itself a sure sign of higher skill. Our emphasis on intent is also directly in keeping with what we see as the four key components of research into historical fencing methods: transcription, translation, interpretation, and application.

In order to provide a broad general understanding of fighting arts from the Medieval and Renaissance periods we include in our research all European fighting manuals up to the late 17th century.  The benefits of this method have enabled ARMA students to quickly integrate new information into useful training and teaching curriculum.  Our Member Training Program is intended to provide instruction in this.

Understanding the nature of these fighting methods of self defense cannot be accomplished only through arranged drills and exercises. To explore and reconstruct these historical teachings and methods requires developing skill in performing them spontaneously through free play (sparring) conducted with proper intent and energy.  The craft cannot pursued legitimately or credibly when reduced to a mere sportified activity that dilute its inherent violence into a gaming contest.

As practice-fight, sparring is about safe realistic application of effective teaching under adversarial conditions for the purpose of combat preparation. When performed as a vigorous exercise, contesting with others  provides vital feedback to the fighter. And doing so with good camaraderie and martial spirit is undeniably fun for practitioners.

But recreational amusement was not the goal of the activity --- nor was merely executing an ideal technical form or some personal aesthetic. Form comes from the motion of effective function and in real life and death encounters effective techniques by their nature require good form. They don't require restrictions for safety, as in classroom practice, or rules for scoring as in sporting contests.

It is not hard to notice that those who dismiss sparring as a vital tool for learning martial arts (or a means of judging self-defense ability),  notoriously perform the poorest when engaging in it or are frequently the least capable of physically conducting it.  Instead, they invariably advocate practice that consists of little more than arranged drills and seldom demonstrate anything more than dancing "katas" --- neither of which are prominent within the source teachings or historical accounts of Renaissance martial arts.  It is a common sense truth that if you cannot perform well under mock conditions, you cannot claim you would do better if only the conditions were real.

The evidence for assorted forms of mock combat practice as a means of training knights and ordinary fighting men in the Medieval and Renaissance eras is incontrovertible. And the requisite physicality of doing so credibly is self-evident. For serious students of the craft there is simply no ignoring this.

"He must have seen his blood flow have his teeth
crackle under the blow of his adversary, have dashed to earth with
such force as to feel the weight of his foe, and disarmed twenty times.
He must twenty times retrieved his failures, more set than ever
upon the combat. Then will he be able to confront actual war with the
hope of being victorious"
- 14th century poem by Rodger of Haveden

See also:

Doing Things the ARMA Way

Core Assumptions and the Exploration of Historical Fencing


Note: The word "ARMA" and its associated arms emblem is a federally registered trademark under U.S. Reg. No. 3831037. In addition, the content on this website is federally registered with the United States Copyright Office, © 2001-2022. All rights are reserved. No use of the ARMA name and emblem, or website content, is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and its respective authors is strictly prohibited. Additional material may also appear from "HACA" The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright © 1999-2001 by John Clements. All rights are reserved to that material as well.