Weapon, Heft, and Interpretation

In the last post I shared news about the Shrike Forge highland broadsword I recently received and had a chance to use. My friend Mike Cherba, who heads Northwest Armizare just up the road, filmed this bout and others and shared it a few days ago to Youtube (link is here: https://youtu.be/QJM4GvJAy2Y).

To confess the truth I am always a little uncomfortable being on camera, any camera, and by a “little uncomfortable” I mean I actively avoid it. It’s not just my natural introversion, but my instructor’s eye: I see what I did incorrectly, what I need to work on, and while that is a good thing it’s not necessarily fun.

Video can reveal our awesome bouts to be somewhat clumsy fencing sometimes (source Pixabay)

I tend to blame my college fencing coaches; there’s nothing quite like walking away from a tournament where one did well and then seeing just what one’s fencing actually looked like on video… Add the rest of the team in the mix and that sense of spotlight turned interrogator’s hot lamp is easy to understand. We all suffered like this, not just me, and for the most part it was useful. One of my chief goals is improvement, so if and when I see video of myself what stands out to me are the actions or decisions that need correction or improvement.

Mike is a good chap, so naturally he asked if I minded sharing it. My first reaction, internally, was “no! I make too many mistakes! What will people think?” but that isn’t very useful. It’s just ego. So, I checked that feeling, and then said “Absolutely!” There are three reasons I was quick to agree. First, Mike is my friend and asked. Second, that bout was an absolute blast–Josh is one of my favorite people to fight and we always have fun, but I don’t think we’ve had as much fun as we did fighting with weapons of similar style. Lastly, I’m a teacher, and just as it’s important to impart correct technique and tactics, so too is it to learn from our mistakes. So, here is a fun video where I am making some mistakes–it’s a great learning opportunity, and not just for me.

Lessons within this Video

One truism within historical fencing is that the weapon, its size, weight, balance, all of it, matters. It’s worth examining why that is, and this bout serves as an excellent example. One thing I’ve often said to students, both my own and those I’ve met in other groups, is that sabre qua sabre and broadsword qua broadsword share much in common. For example, both highland broadsword and unmounted Italian sabre include advances, retreats, lunges, and off-line footwork. All of that is true, but importantly, while both employ similar guards, lines of attack, even footwork, there are differences in the actual weapon that inform just how one uses these common features.

Swords within the same family, in this case single-handed cutting swords, are, to quote many freshman college history papers, “both similar and different.” A broadsword designed along the lines and heft of one from 1700-1750 is going to perform differently than a sabre designed for use in the saddle circa 1850-1900. They balance at different points; they’re generally different weights; one tends to be straight, the other curved; the specific combat context for each was different even beyond the basic differences of unmounted and mounted. [1]

So, it follows that the way a weapon moves will affect how one might use ostensibly similar footwork. If you watch the video linked above, you will notice quickly how differently Josh and I move. I move like a sabreur (which makes sense)–it’s all very linear. Josh, on the other hand, has spent a lot of time on works by people like Thomas Page, and it shows–he pivots more, traverses more. Why is that? Why the difference, that is, beyond training and habit? Why this difference in the sources?

One of the 18th cen. Penicuik sketches

The weapon. A three-pound sword with the balance of these two broadswords makes certain actions, certain uses of measure, not impossible but unwise. In the Radaellian tradition we use a lot of just-out-of-measure preparatory actions to make it safe to employ our skull-crushing molinelli. This is not as easy to do with a broadsword. I “can” thrust to the inside line and then disengage around and cut to the head, but the weapon isn’t optimized for this. How I do that must change in order not to suffer from too slow an execution. Josh, for example, though you see me trying it too, often makes a Cut 1 (a la the Insular enumeration or what we might call a mandritto fendente, a descending cut from the right, in Italian circles), and then a cut two (reverso fendente)–the first isn’t a feint really, though it can be. With the weight behind a broadsword one ignores a cut like that at one’s peril, and so naturally one must respond. If one doesn’t, then yay, free head cut; but if one does, a quick flip of the wrist and that beast is screaming to the outside line of the head.

The footwork accompanying this is normally a step to one side, then the other. [2] This is a safer way to make this one-two attack combination. Attempted with the more linear footwork of sabre, it’s far more difficult to pull off, because one is farther away when making that Cut 1. If one delivers this specific combination with a lunge, one must hold the extended blade potentially longer to await the opponent’s response–lunging distance is a bit more farther out than stepping distance, so not only must one move the blade once they’ve responded (if they have), but recover forwards or redouble in order to disengage and cut to the other side. Stepping as Josh does is more efficient, faster, and helps conserve energy. In short, “critical distance” varies not only by height and reach, but also by weapon type. There are important ramifications for this I will share shortly.

In brief, Newton’s second and third laws of motion, to whit…

  • The acceleration of an object depends on the mass of the object and the amount of force applied.
  • Whenever one object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite on the first. [3]

… explain that there is a relationship between a sword’s acceleration, its mass, and how much force propels it. [4] If that sword is then yanked back, if it must decelerate rapidly and change directly, it will require energy enough to accomplish this; if it meets resistance, say a parry, it will transfer energy to that other sword. Distance affects this too. It is easier to change the direction of that weapon if one is closer, and thus, stepping vs. lunging that initial cut makes good sense. One can lunge it sure, but it will be slower, easier to parry or to launch a counter attack.

This is not to say one can’t lunge or that one doesn’t, because one can and does–if I wish to force the blade (a species of press, coulé, filo, glissade, glisé, etc.) I can absolutely lunge this attack, and arguably should as it helps close the line. The extant sources for broadsword, though perhaps more “regimental” than “highland” or “early” to use popular categories, make it clear that the lunge was a standard method for delivering attack. As ever, context, especially situational context, should dictate whether we step or lunge.

A Few Ramifications that Follow

Confiteor Sancto Gregorio… quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

Jokes aside (and apologies to Father Tavares) I have often chided or raised the judgmental eyebrow at footage of broadsword and sabre. It comes with the territory. In my defense, there is usually justification for the mental red pen we apply to the mistakes we see in video, but at the same time it’s easy to slip into an unwarranted sense of superiority or elitism.

“Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” 1985

The best check against this tendency is time spent with the tools and sources underpinning the fencing one is viewing. It will change how we view it. As a final example, one of the complaints many of us in the more classical Italian and/or French side of historical fencing make is about the HEMA tendency to fight in measure. It’s like “Thunderdome” only without using the whole dome–two people enter the ring, clash, repeat. There is little use of measure, little suckering people in and exploiting when they fall short, little use of any footwork save the advance. That isn’t good.

If a 3lb Scottish broadsword and if our interpretations of its use are at all close, then we have reason to recall that use of measure is different for different weapons, for different contexts. Like most observations I make here this is obvious, I know, but it’s also easy to forget when we view most things through our own experience and bias. We all do that sometimes. In order to foster the openness to see how other, even related systems use measure, tempo, and footwork, we must first acquaint ourselves with their sources and tools.

Doing so is not just a window into something new, but a way of gaining a different perspective on our main focus within historical fencing. Exploration can also be a lot of fun, which is reason enough to try out that baskethilt, longsword, or rapier that perhaps we’ve sometimes found easy targets to criticize.

NOTES:

[1] It’s too large a topic to explore properly here, but warfare among the Irish and Scots favored ambush, quick strikes, not long engagements of massed troops in meadows. Armor and weapons, well into the early modern period, appeared archaic to many, but had long served well in the bogs and heavily forested areas either side of the Irish Sea. Roman and Greek sources made much of Gallic horsemanship, but in many parts of the Isles foot combat made more sense. Cavalry played a role, but it was not as great in medieval or Early Modern Ireland or Scotland as it was in say France or Spain.

[2] Thomas Page’s work (cf. https://linacreschoolofdefence.org/Library/Page/Page.html) remains controversial, but is worth reading in conjunction with other works on Insular broadsword. Questions of accuracy in re Highland fighting aside, much of what he describes is useful. His section on traversing can be a little dizzying to read at first, but taken slowly and then drilled it does work.

[3] Cf. https://www1.grc.nasa.gov/beginners-guide-to-aeronautics/newtons-laws-of-motion/

[4] With so hefty a weapon one needs little force to propel it forward. Good mechanics, that is technique that allows the weapon to do the work, used with proper measure and timing not only is more efficient and less exhausting, but also less likely to expose one to counter-attacks. Newton’s laws hold here too–if one swings too hard and wide, it’s that much harder to recover and one is that much more prone to being hit.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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