Saturday, September 03, 2011

Edge of the Blade

On one level, there are few things as obsolete as medieval sidearms. Whether kobudo or iai or fencing, sword attacks, much less sword fights have become pretty damn rare. Which might make it seem a pretty silly thing to study. Combined with my general attitude about dueling training being applied to self-defense, you might expect an automatic rejection.

Can't do it. There are some things you can learn from the edge of the blade that get sloppy and take too long any other way. Also, especially in Western weapons, there are centuries of people working out very carefully efficient ways to kill and not be killed.

Maija (and Jake and Mac) got me thinking about this. What follows is a mix-- big things and little things. Don't waste time looking for a theme. And a caveat: I've trained and played with swords and other weapons extensively. I've even slaughtered livestock with swords... but I've never been in a sword fight. Take everything that follows with the appropriate amount of salt.

Margin of error:
Dealing with a sword, there really isn't a margin of error. Unarmed you can afford to make far more mistakes, give yourself more time. You take a glancing blow to the head or someone tags your upper arm with a fist and it's not a big deal. Bladed weapons force you to think in a more demanding way.

Weapons teach distancing faster and better than unarmed:
You need to be able, at a glance to tell from build, grip, foot position and weapon if the threat can reach you. Exactly how his range changes with shifts of footing, grip or center of gravity. You can predict the 'tells' you need to watch for when and if the threat decides to develop range. It's a critical skill with weapons and the cool thing is that it translates. After getting ranging with weapons down, unarmed range assessment is even easier.

You learn not to waste time or motion:
Related to 'no margin of error.' A sword fight is won or lost in fractions of seconds and fractions of inches. If the person is going to miss you by the tiniest of margins, you don't waste effort or time in motion. You never parry even an inch more than you absolutely have to. Unarmed fighting allows for a lot more slop.

It requires (and thus develops) commitment:
There's no way you can hit someone without being close enough to be hit back. Or maybe hit first. But we've all been hit enough to know it really isn't a big deal. With a blade? Any decisive action means you are close enough to be killed or maimed. Every time you engage you are betting your life on your skill, your speed and your ability to read what is truly happening.

This is specialized, maybe, but by truly limiting the weapon, strategy comes to the fore. Unarmed we can get by forever on tricks. Given just hand strikes, foot strikes, take-downs, locks, gouges, strangles, head-butts and slamming I can keep shifting between the options and force you to play catch-up, or find the one that you haven't experienced before. Limit it to just one class of tool (hand strikes in boxing, for instance) and it forces the skill to go up another level. t changes from tricks to tactics and then, maybe even strategy. Dealing with just a point (foil or epee) and limiting offense and defense to the same tool in the same hand pushed a deeper understanding of all the elements of strategy: timing and distancing and psychology and...

All of these things, and there are more, inform and improve your unarmed skill. They change the way you see and think.


Jason said...

I totally agree. I've always thought of games and sports in the same way: they're training for particular skills but also, due to the limitations imposed by the rules, they force you to adapt, to create strategies and tactics to overcome unfavorable situations. Playing games, especially ones with a lot of chance involved, can help you develop a mindset for dealing with unfair, unbalanced, impractical situations.

Anonymous said...

Does stickfighting or dueling with knives teach the same things?

ush said...

Stick fighting doesn't in my experience, The margin of error is larger with sticks. You can trade a punch or kick in a stick fight. If you manage to get into that range with bladed weapons and you waste the opportunity on striking, you'll probably "lose".

Kasey said...

Awesome! We are going to have alot of fun in Minnesota

Anonymous said...

Do we always train with the weapon the way the warrior did? I mean Kenjutsu is so different from Kendo.
And look at karambits, everyone who uses one holds it upside down, it's supposed to represent a tgers claw, so I reckon it should be held like a tigers claw, like a boxcutter.....and like that it is deadly efficient, but you can only do relatively few things with it, and none of them flashy

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

Could I post this to my Historical combat blog? I will of course credit you fully and post a link leading back here.
Jonathan Waller

Rory said...

Anon 1- I don't think so.
Anon2- I seriously doubt it. One of the things that always strikes me about kenjutsu is the sheer amount of time spent on detail and ritual. I think the emphasis in training was probably much different when you had to get recruits ready for a war.
Jonathon- Permission granted freely.


The European Historical Combat Guild said...

Many Thanks Rory...

Rob Lyman said...

So, to what extent (if at all) do these benefits depend on training with a live blade? A wooden katana isn't all that different, in terms of getting hit with it, than a stick. But if you need a live blade, how do you do dynamic training safely?

Rory said...

Rob- Distancing it doesn't matter much. Many of the others are simulated with safe weapons and the skills instilled may not be the skills wished for.

And that's one of the things-- there are skills learned in safety that you would never survive to develop in danger, but there are totally different skills and mindsets learned in danger. This is one of the cakes you can't have and eat both.

Lise Steenerson said...

From personal experience translating the training from swords to empty hands has been invaluable!!!
Of course you need a brilliant sensei to actually have a good and sensible translation.

Ernesto said...

One of Funakoshi's 20 Guiding Principles of Karate: "Treat your opponents hands and feet as swords". I feel that he was admonishing his students to consider the point you are making, and to try and adopt a psychology of eminent death, though I do not think that imagining all the hand swords and foot swords in the world can replace that feeling/experience of being confronted with cold steel.

Anonymous said...

Rory, it was a pleasure to meet you apologies for missing your session..however I will be practicing that reverse hip power you showed me..;>) checked out a little utube..really good stuff...a familar scene (bar security) been a few years back though..."and I thought you'd bigger"....ha...Ive never heard that one...look forward to meeting you again...Respectfully, Sifu bill

Neil Melancon said...

These are many of the same points I give my students in iai. It's also a great tool for the mindset of situational awareness, simply because you're put in a life-and-death position which you have no other means of getting out of other than what's in your hands (literally).

As to the practicality of sword training, my two thoughts on it are:

1) I think a combination of arts would be necessary to fully prepare one for a medieval battlefield. On a Japanese one, you would benefit from iai, kenjutsu and kendo alike (archery and spear training being givens). Each one has different elements. While kendo is a modern-day sport compared to the others, the experience of ma'ai and fast reflex training would be invaluable.
2) Unless one has really killed someone on a feudal battlefield, you really don't know what the experience is like (full disclosure: I've never killed anyone with a sword, feudal battlefield or otherwise). There's no way *any* training could fully prepare you for that experience.

Thanks for the post! I'm going to repost on my Facebook group if you don't mind.

Rory said...

Don't mind at all Neil.