So last week, I was up in Vancouver learning a whole lot about rapier, longsword, teaching, and learning. It was a fantastic time - I learned a whole lot of stuff. Tweaks to my technique, new ways of thinking, better concepts to apply, efficient ways to learn motor skills and perception. A lot of these things will probably appear in blog posts, show up in classes I teach, and more. I still need to sort through and re-categorize my notes though, and really integrate a lot of that knowledge into my brain. So instead, I wanted to post an entry containing my thoughts on using an actual for-reals sharp sword, across from another actual for-reals sharp sword.
It was really, really cool.
It was also terrifying.
It is also an experience that I recommend to everyone who fences. It was enlightening in a number of ways.
First, I want to stress that this was done in a highly controlled environment. The two people with sharp weapons had a very wide space around them, and observers were keeping an eye out just in case. The floor was clean to begin with, but it was given a quick glance to make sure there were absolutely no tripping or slipping hazards. At no point was any movement made by either fencer towards the other with the feet - only an extension or a lean, and without foot movement, there was no way to strike the body of your partner. Every movement was done quite slowly and especially precisely, and with prior discussion. Safety was an extremely high priority.
That said, this was done without any protective gear. The reasoning for this is that people have a tendency to assume that if they are wearing protective gear that they are completely safe. This would absolutely not be the case in this instance, and highlighting the seriousness of what these weapons were capable of was part of the exercise.
Safety being handled, I want to move on to my reactions and takeaways from this experience.
What struck me the most was how much more difficult it was to get a real visual sense of the blade position. We have these giant blunts on the end of the swords we use, and I never really noticed how much they stand out in my vision until I was standing across from a blade without one. Without that bobbing point in my vision, and with the overall thinner blade, it was much harder to get a real sense of blade length and position just through visual cues. At certain angles, the blade very nearly vanished from sight, which was deeply creepy. It was almost comedic how much I reflexively wanted to constrain my opponent's blade, even knowing that he wasn't going to hurt me, just because it made me feel safer. (The comment was made that some of the senior students will do some slow work with untipped, though blunted, swords just so they get used to not relying on the visual cue of the blunt. This seems like it could be really worth trying sometime.)
The other thing that the lack of blunts impacted was the size of the disengages. It was possible to slide your blade along the other, and then up the other side. Doing this with our simulators doesn't work nearly so well, with the blunt and tape catching on the blade as you try. Also, it felt like the blade was a bit lighter than I expected - if the edges were truly sharp, the geometry would by definition be different than the simulators we use, with that much less metal on the edge.
Speaking of sliding the blades, what you may have heard about edges catching on edges is absolutely true. It isn't predictable or consistent, but when you're sliding edge on edge, there are catches that happen which absolutely impact the movements that you're making. If you can utilize it quickly when it happens, you might be able to save your life! On the other hand, it really made it more important to have your edge on their flat if you're trying to displace their blade with an attack.
Finally, hand shots. It was very clear that while it may still be a low-percentage shot, that the tip of a blade isn't going to bounce off as readily as a blade with a bird blunt on top would. Rather, it seems that if someone really wants to take the shot, that it would be very possible for the blade to skip into the guard, and into your hand... and along it, through it, and into your wrist and arm from that angle. Super problematic for continuing the fight.
Having had this experience, if you have the opportunity to do the same, I really recommend it to a serious student of historic swordsmanship. It highlighted a number of reasons we really do what we do, and gave a very tiny and controlled taste of what it meant to be across from three to four feet of sharp steel.
So! That was sure a thing. Soon I hope to have more Good Historic Material up, now that I've got a bit more free time and brain space.