Drill is a mainstay of fencing. We do footwork. We practice point control. We make molinelli in the air and at a target. We (should) be doing a lot of drill. In historical fencing we sometimes devise or find ourselves doing drills that are new, concocted out of our source material, and it’s a fair question to ask what might be signs that a drill isn’t up to par or might even be dangerous? What does it take for a drill to be “safe” when we’re talking about hitting people with weapons? Different types of partner drills require different levels of complexity, intensity, and safety-gear. The instructor has primary responsibility for introducing safe drills and monitoring how fighters are managing safety, but there’s an equally heavy burden on fencers performing the drill. They need to exhibit proper control and courtesy or they’ll injure their comrades and injured comrades mean fewer people to fence with.
On the instructor side, it’s often a balance between imparting what a particular skill or play requires and safety. Teaching longsword and sabre, for example, requires modulating what safety means. If one is teaching Fiore dei Liberi’s Armizare, a combat system designed to main and murder people, either in the lists or in the field, then one must be more vigilant in some ways than when teaching sabre. Most if not all of Fiore’s techniques must be modified to make them safe and some of them one can never do at full speed save perhaps in armor (and sometimes not even then). Teaching a sabre class, in comparison, makes for an easier balance of technique and safety. The relative weight, flex, and delivery of the thrust in sabre, though deadly with sharps and in earnest, is likely to do little more than bruise someone, especially if they’re wearing proper protective gear. With a stout jacket, one is rarely marked at all. This is often not the case when thrusting with a longsword—there is more power generation, more mass, and more surface area to the weapon. One thrust against the mask with either weapon will demonstrate the difference. Each weapon was meant to do harm in different ways, in different contexts. Assuming the exact same safety requirements is dangerous–fencing masks, good as they are, were not designed for longsword.
An instructor must understand the dangers inherent in a drill and modify it when and as necessary. This is the first step. The second is monitoring a class to make sure that fencers aren’t doing anything to nullify that modification. There’s no room for leniency with this—if any fencer is acting in an unsafe way they either fix it or one pulls them out of the drill. In some cases the drill itself needs further refining. Safety gear, good as it is, is only a fail-safe, an additional layer after one’s technique fails. No mask, jacket, glove, or pad will make you invincible and it’s stupid to proceed as if they will.
The same heavy burden for safety is shared by the fencers executing the drill. Drills can be complicated and applying sufficient oomph to the play with the control required to ensure no one is hurt is a tough skill to learn. Not everyone, in fact, learns it. I’ve seen experienced fencers fail to exercise control in drills; I’ve seen them fail to pull a blow that had clearly gone wrong. No one should have to “Fence for Two”—it’s the responsibility of both drill partners to proceed in such a way that both fencers are as safe as they can be.
There are several attitudes and skills one needs to cultivate to be the sort of person people want to drill with:
Courtesy: It’s important to be a courteous partner, not just in the sense of polite salutes, hand-shakes, or the blade-smack to the butt or thigh a la American football, but most importantly in the sense of the Golden Rule. Do you want to be injured? Do you want to be fearful of working with someone? Of course not, no one does. Work to be a safe partner and you help everyone, yourself included.
Control: Control is the marriage of skill and awareness. It takes a long time to develop. It means having a full understanding of each move, its direction, intensity, and target, as well as the ability to modulate any of the three at will. It’s a hard-won but crucial skill that requires hours, weeks, months, and years of hard work, drill, and patience to develop. Never stop working to achieve it. Control is not fool-proof, however, as everyone can and will misjudge from time to time. However, once you have it, people will want to drill with you because they know you’re safe and can help them learn whatever technique it is you’re all working on. You will learn more too because you’re both comfortable.
Competence: A certain degree of skill, of the ability to use the weapon, is always to be desired. For beginners naturally this is not necessarily there, but it will develop over time and provided one puts in the time. Within historical fencing there is, unfortunately, this general sense that one can just “dive in” and become proficient. This is not true. Being aggressive and suicidal doesn’t make one a good fighter—have the patience and smarts to do it right first, to put in the time, to learn enough to make actual bouts worth your time. The truth is that those who just jump in do so because it’s fun, and it is, there is no arguing with that, but too often the goal is simply to win, not to learn, and bouts—like drills—are another learning opportunity. As ever, if your ego is driving you, if you’re relying on speed, strength, brutality, etc. alone, you’re never going to get very far, and moreover a lot of good people, better fencers who could help you improve, will avoid you. At my age, I don’t have time for macho b.s. and have no qualms refusing to fight people who don’t have the requisite skill or control. I have old injuries enough to deal with and I don’t care for more.
Consistency: Emerson’s ideas of a foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds holds in fencing as elsewhere, so it’s important to be consistent in the right ways. First, developing the ability to perform the same action correctly and pretty much the same way each time is important. Likewise, the capacity to perform the same action in the same tempo or from a standard distance is helpful. Much of this comes down to practice, but a lot comes down to focus and awareness too. Staying zeroed in on the drill, its purpose, what you need to do to do it successfully seems obvious, but a lot of people sort of go through the motions, especially if it’s a drill they’ve done multiple times. Even the oldest, most basic drill remains useful if approached correctly.
These attitudes and skills work best where there is sufficient trust. When it comes to safety and a successful drill trust is at the very heart of it. Some time ago, in an Armizare practice, I saw a student, one with considerable skill for someone her age, break a drill out of fear. She knew how to do the drill; she knew what the instructor wanted her and her partner to do; but she didn’t trust her partner. In this drill, when she made a mandritto fendente as the initial attack, the defender was to counter by striking into it with bicornu—done right bicornu effectively takes the center-line and breaks the attack.
What she did was modulate her attack—if her opponent was likely to break her cut, she pulled and beat instead so as not to get spiked in the face. I spoke with her afterward during a break and it was clear she felt awful; in her mind she had messed up. I told her that, actually, she had demonstrated considerable skill in reading her opponent and adjusting things to keep herself safe. These are not bad things. She was just fencing for two because she didn’t want to get hurt. However, it also meant that the drill had failed. There are multiple sadnesses there: first, this dedicated, hard-working student learned less than she might have, as did her partner; second, this drill was a good one, but like anything it required trust to succeed; and lastly, a capable, skilled student left that drill feeling she had failed, when in fact, she had not. Trust is everything. Without it, nothing works or at least it won’t work as well.
Actively cultivating courtesy, control, competence, and consistency will do a lot to dispel fear, because on the one hand it helps train one to do things more effectively, but on the other it also alerts one’s classmates that one is a team-player, that they have your best interest at heart. It helps build trust, and when you’re playing with swords, even blunt ones, you need that. Students who don’t feel safe, who in fact aren’t safe, aren’t going to stay long, and that is a net loss for all of us.
First image, “Parry in Seconde,” from The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes, Walter H. Pollock, E. B. Michell, and Walter Armstrong, London: 1893.
Second image, sword in two hands, zogho largo/wide play, play of the first master, Pisani-Dossi MS 19b-b.