Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Overcoming hurdles to the inclusion of historical technique in SCA rapier

(With thanks to Lilias de Cheryngton for editing this. Otherwise, it wouldn't be remotely intelligible.)

One of the common remarks I hear about historic technique is that it doesn't work well in the SCA. On the contrary, I think there's a lot of room for the use of period techniques in rapier (and for that matter, in Cut & Thrust) over those of sport fencing, but there are absolutely barriers to their full adoption by the SCA rapier community. I think that these barriers can be problematic to the point of turning people entirely off from the study and use of period techniques, and that is unfortunate. At the very least, we should be able to use historical techniques in bouting situations within the bounds of our rules, and I argue we should make an effort to work past the hurdles and do so.

In this brief essay, I would like to discuss the issues that can interfere with the use of historic technique, and offer a few ways we can try to avoid, remedy, or at least mitigate them. The crux of the issue is, essentially, people don't fight the right way for the techniques to work. I will elaborate on this rather broad statement in the following ways:

  • Reasons due to safety concerns.
    • Calibration.
    • Speed and intent of attack.
    • Body contact.
  • Reasons due to influence of rules on combat (or “gaming the system”).
    • Double kills.
    • Touch calibration.
  • Reasons due to mindset.
    • Modern influence - sport fencing.
    • Lack of fear - point fear, fear of death.
    • Lack of period priorities.
There is certainly some crossover between these categories, but my hope is that breaking it up in this manner will facilitate discussion.

Safety Concerns
Safety concerns are probably the more intimidating issues to cover - who wants to ignore safety and really injure their opponent or themselves? That being said, they're also pretty easy to address, since they tend to be concerned solely with the fighter initiating the attack.

The first safety issue is that of calibration. Initially, it looks like we need to thread a needle between "safe" and "historically accurate." Look at some of those plates - they want you to hit someone so there's a foot or more of steel coming out the other side! How hard would you need to hit someone to do that, though? The answer is to adjust the angles necessary to perform the technique safely as well as effectively. Modifying the technique slightly from the original will take more study and practice, but changing the angles slightly to allow you to perform it safely in SCA combat is worth it. Sometimes you can simply place the tip of your blade on your opponent and not finish the skewering movement, but performing the technique without the prescribed follow-through could leave you vulnerable.

A large subset of period techniques require proper intent and speed for them to work, making safety more of an issue. These techniques should be worked up to, and practiced until they can be performed safely – much like any “modern” fencing technique a person uses for the first time! Until you can perform them safely, do not use them in an uncontrolled bout. Given enough practice, it is quite possible to perform period techniques while being ready to break your wrist or arrest your forward motion on contact.

Body contact can be a larger hurdle, depending on your home kingdom. If your kingdom allows fleeting contact in accordance with the society standards for rapier, you have a fair amount of freedom to play with. You still can't grab, pull, grapple, or strike, but you don't need to worry about accidentally bouncing off your opponent, or performing techniques that require you to put your hands on their limbs to check their motion. If you are forbidden to use body contact, there are still large amounts - honestly, the majority - of historical techniques you can use without any change whatsoever; you just happen to be somewhat restricted in what you can choose from.  Nearly every period technique either fits, or can be modified to fit, within our safety rules.

Influence of Rules on Combat
A much thornier issue is how the rules of our game unduly influence the course of combat. This might also be termed "gaming the system." Sometimes it's intentional on the fighter's part, sometimes it isn't, but the rules have an effect either way.

Double kills are the first problem here, and they are two-fold. First, there is the practice in the East where, when each opponent strikes the other at nearly the same time, the second is considered late and not counted, regardless of whether it was in motion at the time the first shot landed. (Note: Society rules specify that if a shot is in motion when the first blow lands, the second shot is still good, which neatly obviates this issue.) The Eastern practice encourages speed while ignoring defense; as long as you get that first touch, whatever happens afterward is irrelevant, no matter how large a bruise it leaves. This can lead to poor defense, and is a horrible practice in general. The period masters agreed, using the concept of "after-blow" to describe its dangers. Dealing with this is relatively easy – I suggest adopting the society rule on the matter, and the problem should remedy itself. You'll either see better fighting, or a sudden spike in double kills (which should encourage better fighting).

The second issue with double kills is the fact that, much of the time, double kills are not punished. It can be common practice, to make life easier on the MoL, to re-fight double kills until there is a winner. There are no negative consequences. This has another easy solution: to quote Don Dylan ap Maelgwn, "Dead is dead." A double kill counts as a loss for both combatants. It could be awkward if both finalists in a tournament are eliminated this way, but a special provision could be made in this case.

The other major rule issue has to do with touch calibration. In kingdoms where lightest touch calibration is preferred, a number of bad habits can develop. It's easier to not commit to your attacks, tap people gently as you're flinging yourself backwards, or touch your target many times in rapid succession, but in ways that wouldn't even realistically break the skin. Beyond altering what your region views as acceptable, it is difficult to remedy this for other fighters. Certainly though, you can ensure that you are placing your weapon firmly and well, making good committed attacks against your opponent. The benefit to doing so is that it is much harder for those shots to be ignored – intentionally or not – and that is a benefit in itself.

Finally, we come to mindset. This is the area individual fighters can most readily change in themselves, and even lead by example in their communities.

First, the fighter should look to any modern influences on their fighting. The majority of us still have foil and epee roots even within the society, even if they never officially did sport fencing. There is also a definite perception that techniques derived from sport fencing need to be used in order to win.

For people who came to the SCA from sport fencing, there is absolutely a hurdle of ingrained responses to get past. Especially if these responses win bouts, it is hard to let them go in favor of more period techniques. However, I would point out that sport fencing techniques are primarily designed around sport fencing weapons - which period weapons are assuredly not. The difference in weight alone could lead to injury, either in execution of technique on your opponent, or simply through muscle strain on yourself. Additionally, with as much difference as there is between modern weapons and period ones, the techniques used with modern weapons aren't designed for the heavier, longer, and otherwise different period weapons. Period technique was designed for period weapons. While there is absolutely going to be a learning curve in learning or re-learning techniques with the weapons we use, I feel that it will ultimately be more comfortable and have a higher success rate - as well as being closer to what the SCA is ostensibly about.

Another issue which can dramatically affect how the fight plays out is the lack of fear. There may be a deep concern for winning; fighting well for your royalty, kingdom, or inspiration; and simply performing well. However, that is different from looking at your opponent and realizing a missed parry might mean death - possibly a quite painful one over days or weeks. In our game, there's no fear of mortality, and there's not even any “point fear.” Look at a tipped rapier pointing right at you. Now take the tip off and do it again. It's suddenly a lot harder to pin down where the point of the blade is. That difference in perspective, combined with the fact that it is pointed right at your vital organs, is scary. It might be melodramatic, but it drastically changes how people fight. Without live steel, what's the worst that will happen? You might lose. Maybe you'll get hit a little hard. Because of this, people are willing to take risks, fight unsafely, and do things that they'd never even consider if the fight were real.

All of these mental aspects of the game roll up into the final point - the lack of period priorities. The manuals I'm personally familiar with are very clear on one point: worry about defending yourself first and make sure you are perfectly safe before you consider attacking your opponent. For instance, Capo Ferro states, “Therefore, it is moreover seen that defense is the principal action of fencing. No one should proceed to offense if not through the route of legitimate defense.” This means that gunslinging, willingness to sacrifice a limb to land a hit on your opponent, and trying for a double kill are out. Combat is serious because blood can be shed. This isn't to say we shouldn't try to have fun out there, or that we shouldn't be trying new things, working on different techniques, and relaxing (especially in pickups with friends) - not every fight needs to be kill-or-be-killed. When it matters, though, I believe internalizing the period fighting mentality does a lot for encouraging the use of period technique.

One of the great things about SCA rapier is the degree to which, even keeping our safety rules in mind, we are able to train and use period techniques as we fight. I believe encouraging this in ourselves and in our communities is important to what we do, both as historical fighters, and as members of the SCA.


  1. What's your opinion on how "Armor as Worn" tournaments fit into encouraging period techniques, if at all? Could we combine the two somehow?

    1. My knee-jerk reaction is to think that they're amusing, but that depending on the rules it's possible to become nearly invulnerable to anything except unsafe techniques like grapples, throws, and breaks.

      Of course, it's not like there's a standard set of conventions for Armor as Worn, so that's something to think about, too.

      That said, I think that they'd function far better under the Cut and Thrust rules, in that you could more readily come up with weapon and armor combinations under there that would make sense, as opposed to the civilian weapon that the rapier is - I don't know off the top of my head of commonly worn civilian armor.

      I might be wrong, though. I clearly need to do more reading.

    2. I've wanted to do an <armor as worn" tourney a bunch of times, but my game-design brain keeps breaking the rules. The more I work it, the more it comes out looking like our old targeting and wound rules.

    3. I've never seen/been in an "Armor as Worn" tourney, but if it's what it sounds like, I kinda agree with Donovan. I'd be cool with a limited version... say, if you're fighting cloak and have it wrapped around your hand, it's more protected than what the current rule is.

      Since rapiers is more of a civilian weapon, it makes sense that the "armor" would just be their normal clothes (cloak included). I like Donovan's idea about how it could work for C&T, though.

    4. In my experience, it makes a great open sparring event, and a lousy tournament.

  2. I came from foil fencing and the biggest hurdles for me were sword weight/length and technique. A lot of what I learned in foil didn't cross over into rapier. Once I started studying Capo Ferro my skill set increased rapidly.

    For me, winning/losing = "point fear." I want to win, and I want to win cleanly so I try to make sure I'm safe when attacking and not participating in a quick draw with someone. It also helps that I'm shorter and use a shorter weapon, so I need to be more "cautious"

  3. By the way, if I manage to carve out time (between college football season, two classes towards my Ph.D., WMAW next week, theatre tickets on Friday, and working full time), I'm going to write what I hope will be a helpful critique of your essay.

    1. Can't wait to see it, if you can get the time away from all that, y'know, life stuff.