Historical Fencing

What a lot of people take ages to learn in HEMA

For people who don’t know, HEMA is Historical European Martial Arts which aims to reconstruct Martial Arts which no longer exists, whether it’s fighting like a knight in the 1400’s or a British Officer in the Napoleonic Wars; it covers both armed (longsword, sabre, halberd, spear) and unarmed (grappling, bare-knuckle boxing) combat. For this article, I’m going to be focusing on armed combat but the principles are more or less the same.

My background was in Thai Boxing and boxing, I’m completely used to it and it’s something that comes very intuitively to me. I can sense the distance, interceptions, points of attack and defence etc, and overall have a good understanding in what might be called the theatre of combat, the imaginary arena where you engage, set distance and timing and in a weird way co-operate with your opponent, after all a consented fight carried certain social/ cultural standards, acceptable areas within areas and, more importantly, a limit. Even in an completely spontaneous unprovoked fight, people get exhausted, things can go to ground but somehow there’s a limit unless the person is encumbered by rage or a complete psychopath.

With that theatre, let’s say all you have, or can use, to fight are your hands. They can stretch a certain distance; feel the opponent’s incoming blows in a certain way, reach out and, more importantly, develop context for situational awareness; the arms are literally an extension of one’s own body. However, what if I were to extent your arms by about 2 feet? Immediately, things would become very different and 9 times out of 10 you would become completely thrown off as a result. All the mechanics you associate with your body changes completely; you have to make certain adjustments and compromises to alter the way you interact and feel the environment of your opponent. The arms are much longer so the balance is different and it’s all coming from the core of your body which is the main point where all the limbs are moving from, as well as being the main point for creating momentum and force. There’s a saying in boxing, 20% is the punch itself and 80% is the body. Anyone can throw a punch but a punch which has momentum and power in it, comes from the mechanics of the body which better optimises how that punch is going to be thrown. To throw a right cross to the face simply throwing the punch isn’t going to work: you need to turn your hips inwards in the direction of the punch being thrown; swivel the ball of the foot on the same side to accommodate it etc. In short you’re letting your body support the momentum that the punch is generating and, in of itself, generate momentum. Think of it like this, an army in today’s doesn’t simply attack an opposing army, it needs to provide the foundations for that support e.g. artillery and airstrikes to suppress the enemy before moving the armour and troops in; all of it intending to weaken the opponent to generate a more momentous attack. This is much like that.

How does this relate to my point? Well, I give you, say, a one handed sword which has about a 130cm blade, something like a rapier (a long bladed sword optimised for thrusting, but can also cut and there are many which do effectively); longsword’s a good example as well but the example works better with a one handed blade. Like the long arms, this blade is now an extension of your arm and thus your body; you wield it and because your hand is gripping it, by connection it is now an extended limb. That changes the whole ball-game. The way you move your arm, attack, move around becomes effected by this; it’s no longer an easy task of feeling what your opponent does because the mechanics have changed; for example, you can now engage at a longer distance and, if they’re holding a rapier as well, they have to feel with that as well. You’re both holding very sharp swords which can kill at each other so the smart thing to do is the put that in front of you towards your enemy and let that do the work.

The issue with something like this is it alters the whole mechanics of the situation. You have your body, and in that your core in which to generate energy, force and momentum; that all goes to your limbs and therefore the human body has to make certain compromises to enable that to happen. For example, a giraffe has a really tall neck so the whole body has to dedicate itself to making sure it revolves around that. Why? Because it’s a major part of the body, a lot of blood, and therefore oxygen, has to move around it for it to simply work. Your rapier hand has become a lot like that; your body now needs to make alterations for you to work that arm, something which you’re not used to doing. In this context, it’s a lot about length and distance; both relative to time. Your core gives force and momentum but the longer the limb, and therefore the distance, the more delayed the time it takes to reach where it wants the certain part of the body to move. It’s no longer easy, say, doing a cut with a rapier the same way you would do a chop with the hand. It now not only takes longer but requires more energy. Using the example of 80% of force generation coming from the body, this means the body needs to move in a certain way to amend that. A more obvious point would be energy generation but a less obvious point would be time.

Let’s say I want to aggressively advance on my opponent, I need to take advantage of their blade first. I can do that by applying pressure on their blade with mine which will move theirs out of the way, or provide an opening, so I can strike. As discussed, because my arm has essentially lengthened a large amount, it’s going to take more time to do that and with a rapier blade, I need to generate more body mechanics to support that move. More importantly, I have to let it coincide with the time it takes my body to do it. Simply unarmed, my feet might be capable of doing it at the same time, but with a rapier, I might have to move my feet a couple of moments in advanced to actually do the thing I want to do. More length means more time it takes to generate from the core. Think of it like this, why are cranes that are longer a lot slower, when moving cargo, then say shorter ones? Why does an athlete on the inside track of a circular racetrack have an intrinsic advantage? Because it takes less time for them to bridge distance as they’re near to the centre. Your body is the centre and because of the longer hand, it’ll take more time to get your arm to do an action. So what’s the result? You need to calculate a move with your core and feet well in advance of what your arm is going to do; the hope is that the calculation will lead to your arm attack at the right moment and your body supporting it with 80%, to the 20% of the actual attack.

This is a very simple idea but takes a lot of time to actually get used to. A new weapon is a new bodily function and learning this general idea will inevitably make you a better Historical Fencer.

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1 thought on “What a lot of people take ages to learn in HEMA”

  1. Good post on the complexities of adding a weapon to a fight. I’ve found like you that the sword takes some getting used to. When I was sparring with a sword and buckler I was the first in the class that had ever hooked someone in the body with my buckler but it was perfectly natural to me coming from a martial arts background. Once I got inside I wanted to take advantage of my strengths. 🙂

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