Bouting is easily one of the most enjoyable aspects of fencing, but it can also prove to be a troublesome problem. The fact that it’s so fun only helps mask the issue. In this case I do not mean those clubs who focus on little else but “sparring,” a different misfortune, but the misuse of bouting, specifically focusing so much on winning that the value of bouting as a pedagogical tool is all but lost.
“HEMA,” because it lacks a robust coaching pool, is all over the map when it comes to teaching. Some groups do their best to work fundamental actions, but many do not. Too many put a weapon in a new person’s hand, give them five minutes of instruction, and push them into the ring. People with busy lives and for whom swords are recreation often want to get fighting as soon as they can; it’s understandable, but lamentable. Instructors cater to this desire because they don’t want to lose people. That too is understandable, but again, lamentable. Given the audience for this site, and the unpopularity of my position on this, I don’t expect to sway many to adopt the approach I have embraced, but it would be remiss of me not to try, because I’m convinced after decades of watching what happens when people bout too early that there’s a better way to build solid skill.
Why Bouting Too Early is Unwise
There are several reasons why new students shouldn’t bout from the off, but spend time acquiring and drilling good technique, building a keen appreciation for measure, and an equally keen sense of timing.
Safety: First, fighting even with blunted weapons is dangerous. New fencers hit hard because they lack control and the fine motor skill required to modulate their attacks. Thrown into the stress and excitement of a bout in real time, these fencers are unlikely to learn finer motion because they’re too keen to strike and to a lesser extent defend. Their actions tend to be larger and harder, neither of which are hallmarks of skill.
Stunted Growth: Traditionally there’s a reason why new fencers weren’t thrown into the assault too early. Without solid fundamentals fighting before one is ready is a prime way to cement bad habits, none of which are easy to correct once they become ingrained. One of the reasons that “HEMA” suffers so badly from shoddy fencing is because many fencers are, ironically, rewarded for crappy fencing. It’s not hard to “git gud” in one’s local group, jump into a local tourney, and intimidate and/or hurt one’s opponents on the path to a medals and glory. I’ve judged a lot of tournaments and have seen this over and over again. Worse, these same fencers take their good luck for skill and start teaching, thus creating another generation of hard-hitting louts convinced of their own genius.
Wasted Opportunity: Bouting, approached correctly, is a pedagogical tool, at least that’s what it is supposed to be. It’s a chance for both fencers to test out what they’re learning in real time. Ideally the first bouts a fencer has is with their coach–these teaching bouts, as they’re often called, require a lot from the instructor. They must possess the skill to alter how they present an action, change tempo, play with distance, all of these things in order to provide the student with realistic scenarios.
Drill, good as it is, often consists of snapshots of actions made in an actual assault. The feint to the inside line, disengage to the outside line, for example, is something two fencers can practice and within a short time get down because they establish a rhythm. Fighting isn’t like that. The metronome effect that can occur in drills creates a fencer who can only make that action if the same, exact conditions are present. 
Free-bouting, as opposed to a teaching-bout, ideally takes the conditions a coach changes on purpose and randomizes them. This is to say that a coach usually tells a student what it is they’re working on, what they will set up, and what the student must try to do, at least at first. As a student advances, a coach can say less about the specifics. With a fellow fencer, however, the student normally does not get any advanced warning. They just jump in and either seize the initiative or react to that of their opponent. This can be a super effective learning tool IF both fencers take advantage of it, if both realize that the bout is way to test, break, and improve their tool sets.
One Upsmanship: No one is immune from ego issues. Competition is one place where we often see these normally hidden issues emerge. Whatever self-worth concern drives a person can easily take over a bout, because “winning” makes people feel good and serves as a species of external validation. When the goal is winning, in feeling good about one’s skill and self, then learning normally takes a back seat. One becomes more concerned with getting the touch than in how one makes the touch, and that how matters. It’s easy to hit an opponent, but not easy to hit them and not be hit oneself–that requires far more attention and presence of mind, far more calm and mental fortitude, and none of that is fostered well when the concern is ego-driven.
Moreover, too much concern with winning can make things ugly; it can break down what should be a partnership in learning into a battle of egos. If one person crows about landing a touch, the other may not take it well. Resentment may fuel hard-hitting in both directions, shots after the halt, and ill-will. Learning and improvement, the purpose of a class or lesson, suffers when behavior like this enters the picture. People tend to struggle to learn in a place where they don’t feel safe. Class should challenge students, but because it should push them it must be a place where other stressors are removed or at least reduced. Behavior which introduces needless distraction, which engages emotions unhelpful in the acquisition of skill, have no place in the sala.
Bouts as Learning Tools
The bout within the context of a class is not the place for the same energy, ethos, or goals as one has in competition. A fencing class is a cooperative learning lab, not the piste, not the ring. Everyone will get far more use and enjoyment from bouts when they bring the right mind-set to it. Use these bouts as a way to practice, to learn, to see what works and what doesn’t. Use them to play with measure and tempo, to test them out with different techniques and tactics.
Inevitably instructors will encounter students who struggle to embrace this notion of bouting as really just more or less unplanned drills in real time. My advice, if this goes against one’s plans, is to quash it immediately. I have a sort of “Defcon Levels” approach to managing this problem in my classes:
Level 1–Student is no longer allowed to bout
Level 2–Less gentle reminders and a review of my approach to bouting
Level 3–Gentle reminders that we’re partners in learning, opponents not adversaries
Level 4–Cultivating and reemphasizing expectations about bouting
Level 5–Establishing clear expectations about bouting
First, I make sure that my rules and expectations for bouting are explicit, not only when someone joins a class, but before each portion of class that includes bouting.
RULES for BOUTING
- Safety equipment–mask, jacket, glove, etc.–are mandatory
- Be respectful: your opponent is your partner in learning
- Be gracious: acknowledge a hit and refuse to accept a touch you know you didn’t make
- Be humble: we’re here to learn. Save all the fire and drive for competitions
- Be gentle: hard-hitting is the mark of a poor fencer, of an untutored brute
- Be curious: ask questions if you have them; observe and analyze the action
- Have fun!
Second, I actively cultivate the proper approach and do my best to model the behavior I want to see, from congratulating my partner on a good touch to keeping the mood light. When a student breaks protocol, if they crow about a point, get too aggressive, or start talking about who won/lost I remind them that we are here to learn, we are working together toward that goal, and that it’s not about win or lose, but improvement. If the gentle reminder fails, and it does sometimes, I stop class, have everyone remove their masks, and I lecture them: I reiterate the rules and expectations, and inform them that future infractions will mean no bouting for that person. If after a more stern warning a student persists, I stop the class and remove them from bouting. It’s not happened (yet…) but should a student persist in such behavior, I will ask them to leave until they’re ready to act responsibly.
What we do is dangerous. Part of my job as an instructor is to help students hone a dangerous skill set safely, to learn to use it responsibly, and in the spirit of camaraderie that should unite us all as comrades-in-arms. One of my goals is to instill in my students the truth of the school motto, vis enim vincitur arte, “for force is conquered by art.” Strength, power, all of these have their place in fighting, but our tools in fencing–applied correctly–replace and mitigate force. That’s why we use them. 
Each club or school will have its own approach and protocols for bouting. I have found, having visited so many schools, having fought so many people from different club cultures, that treating the bout as a tool produces better results. The assault engaged in as a learning exercise can still be fun, it can still be a fight, but with the focus on improvement over net performance, students are better prepared for competitions, they’re more likely to help others improve, and generally they’re a lot more fun to fight because they’re there to learn and have fun instead of beating people down. There is a time and place for the aggressive, go-get-’em approach, but generally it’s untoward and unhelpful within a class setting.
 There are many good instructors out there. However, there are also a lot of horrificly poor ones.
 This is one reason altering drills, even simple ones, via the universals is so important. In the example used here, changing the measure and footwork, changing the tempo the feint and thrust/cut are made in, changing the set up, all work to make this one action far more useful when the fencer needs to use it in a bout.
 We talk a lot in historical fencing about attribute fencers, about this person’s speed, that person’s strength, and we tend to downplay them because the milieu in which we work is focused on skill, not the application of natural abilities. In an actual fight, however, and depending on the context, something like strength does matter. It might not in a duel between two people with smallswords, but it almost definitely would in armored combat in the lists.