Monday, October 24, 2016

Actual Sharp Swords

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.


  1. Neat! I was interested in this topic a while ago - it's the reason that every time I re-tip my rapier, I take a few thrusts at my practice dummy with it naked. Because that tip adds so much weight and wibble to it.

    I have heard of some HEMA guys putting a narrow strip of duct tape on the edges of their rapiers to simulate that sort of binding. I'm not sure how to feel about this, but it would be an interesting start, if you wanted to try that at some point. I know you care about keeping your swords clean more than I do, so I'd even be willing to lend you one of my sword to do it with.

    1. I'd be interested in trying it, but I don't think it'd bind in remotely the same way. Too consistent along the length of the tape.

    2. Fire Bow puts leather on the tip of his sword instead of rubber blunts. It keeps the sword more stream-lined than blunts. I'm tempted to try that and see how it goes, but I think the rubber blunts distribute the force better, making it a little more opponent-friendly than a leather tip.

    3. I'm thinking of doing that as well, but I'm hesitant for similar reasons, as well as simple maintenance. (I can retip a blade in like 30 seconds with a blunt and tape, y'know?) I may have to get him to show me how he retips the blade and I'll see how that goes.

    4. This has been a hot topic among blade practitioners for a while now. It sound like a real and exciting learning experience!

    5. It was both real, exciting, and learning! :)

      More seriously though, I think that once someone hits a level of experience with fencing, it's important to do something like this because it puts a lot of the actions we learn into a very different context.