Two activities within HEMA practice are sparring and cutting. Sparring helps us to ensure that we can actually execute techniques effectively against an uncooperative opponent, and cutting helps to ensure that those techniques would have the potential to kill or significantly injure an opponent.
This is important because a hit with a sharp sword is not guaranteed to cause enough harm to an opponent to make them stop fighting. Even if a hit is done with some force, this is still no guarantee that it will stop a fight. Strikes with a sword must be done with good cutting mechanics, i.e. they must be done with good edge alignment and sufficient follow through, the strike should land with the centre of percussion, not just with the tip of the sword, and the cut should be directed at a high value target. For example, a well formed cleaving cut to the head has much more potential to end a fight than a shallow cut to the forearm.
For a display of this, please see this video released last month by Holmgang Hamburg. The video is not safe for work, and shows blood and people being injured, so viewer discretion is advised. Please also note that we do not condone the actions shown in the video, and we would strongly recommend against this type of practice as it is very unsafe. Nonetheless, videos like this can give us interesting insights.
Today’s post has been written by Ben Hawkins. Hawkins has had great success in cutting tournaments, having placed 2nd at the Iron Gate Exhibition (2013), Boston Sword Gathering (2012), and Longpoint (2012), and is going to teach a cutting class at the AHA’s upcoming HEMAC Glasgow (2014).
A sword is a weapon. It is a weapon that wounds using either the thrust or cut. When learning how to use a sword as a weapon, it is important to learn what qualities of the blade allow it to perform in these tasks. Today, I will focus on what qualities of the sword allow it to cut. I have divided the six qualities I will talk about into two groups. The primary qualities, those attributes that make a sword cut regardless of other factors, and secondary qualities, those attributes that are much more tailored to the specific circumstance of the blade’s use.
The three primary qualities of a good cutting sword are edge sharpness, blade stiffness and blade thickness. A blade that can achieve these three qualities will be able to cut.
To start off with, a few people made comments to the effect that I thought cutting was unimportant, and I don’t hold with that. I believe strikes that do not cut are perfectly acceptable, but that is not the same thing as thinking that not being able to cut is good enough. It is my firm belief that you should never stop trying to improve. Ultimately we should all aim to be able to make very effective cuts with a very small cutting path, if for other reason than cutting cleanly without telegraphing is difficult, and aiming to be able to cut better will challenge you. There is no excuse to be lazy and never work on your ability to cut.
How important exactly is cutting with German longsword? There have been arguments on both sides: that developing skills and practicing all strikes in such a way that they would cut is vital; or that cutting is completely unimportant. To my mind, cutting is no doubt a useful part of reconstructing a HEMA. If the old masters had not wanted to cut, why did they bother using swords? If all you want is to impart percussive damage then a mace would do the same job more effectively. In chapter 7 of Hope’s New Method of Fencing, he even says: “No blade can have too fine an edge, or too sharp a point. Because the finer the edge, and the sharper the point, the better it will cut and pearce, which, next to defending, are the only uses of a sword.” That’s what blades do, they cut things, and not being able to cut with it defeats the point of having it. Essays discussing the benefit of cutting are numerous, for example see Ben’s recent essay, http://www.encasedinsteel.co.uk/2013/03/22/benefits-of-test-cutting/, so I won’t spend any longer discussing reasons to cut.
So here in Glasgow we have been busy preparing for HEMAC Glasgow this weekend and so I have spent much of my day today building a cutting stand in preparation for the cutting class being ran on Sunday. This has made me consider further the role of cutting as a training exercise and I wished to share my thoughts on the subject and my reasoning for it being an exercise practised in the AHA.
So I have had some ideas about cutting rumbling about in the back of my head lately. I have observed that a lot of people have difficulty cutting and I believe it is because they are approaching it the wrong way mentally. I’m trying to create a rough order of priority of component parts in “a good cut” so that I can coach the more reluctant individuals in a stepwise process to help them improve their technique. Of course the sum of all components is important to achieve, prioritising just one component over the rest will not result in a good cut, I acknowledge this and am fully aware of it. What I am trying to achieve is to work out for myself and for people who ask me to assist them in improving their technique (hereafter referred to as my students for the sake of making writing this article an easier task!) the order by which I should coach them to improve their technique if they are having consistent difficulty with cutting.
Among my arguments were that overly heavy simulators are a bad thing for training. You will need to move a heavy sword slightly differently than you would a lighter sword, and using a weight that does not reflect that of the weapons you will be fighting with would be a great way to confuse your muscle memory. Using a very heavy simulator would be a one way to conduct weight training, but given that it is possible to use weight training methods that would not negatively impact on your swordsmanship, I can’t see much need for using a very heavy simulator. Further, the more you used a very heavy simulator, the greater the negative effect on your swordsmanship would be, however if you didn’t use it enough to impact significantly on your swordsmanship, then the strength benefits would be limited, so what would be the point of going to the effort of getting heavy simulators?
Some historical sources do however recommend using a very heavy simulator, for example, the De Re Militari, or On Military Matters, by Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, or just Vegetius for short. Read more
In my last post, I talked about Running Short Classes. I talked about the challenges that can be involved in running a short class, and I gave advice on how to run a short class. Potentially equally challenging can be running a long class.
As mentioned briefly in my last post, time management is often an issue for beginning instructors, and I gave the most common noticeable example of this, which is newer instructors getting through all their material too quickly. This would normally lead to the instructor desperately trying to fill the rest of the class.
It is also worth mentioning that what exactly constitutes a long class will vary a lot from person to person. Someone who is new to instructing may think that an hour long class sounds like a very long time, while a more experienced instructor may consider a long class to be a several hour long seminar.
Pace yourself, and let things take time
The first, and simplest, piece of advice is simply to pace yourself. There’s no need to race to the end of the material, or to hurry the students through all the drills and techniques you want to cover. While you shouldn’t have students perform the same drill or technique for so long they get bored, you also need to make sure they get plenty of practice, and giving them lots of time before you introduce the next drill or technique will ensure that they have the time they need, and that you don’t run out of drills and techniques too quickly.
One of the skills that is very important to an instructor is engaging a class. It won’t matter how well structured a class is, how much research went into it, or how technically correct the material is if the students are not kept engaged with the class in some way. If they lose interest, then they are not going to be able to pick up the lessons effectively.
There are many ways to engage a class; just as there many ways to mismanage the engagement of a class and to lose their interest, or to let the attempts to engage them distract them from the actual technical material that is being taught.
Humour is one of the most obvious ways of engaging a class, and can be one of the easiest. Simply telling a joke or two is a quick way to make the atmosphere seem friendlier and a little less serious. Some care needs to be taken with humour though: a joke may seem like it will be funny, but then fall flat, which will not help with engaging the class, and could even do the opposite. One example comes to mind of a seminar I once took part in where the instructor came across as quite strict and serious, but out of the blue made one or two very bad jokes. This simply came across as jarring. Other instructors might include too many jokes, to the point where it becomes hard to take them seriously. It is also worth bearing in mind that everyone might not share your sense of humour, and telling a joke during class time that people might find either offensive or cringe-worthy will also not help.
The occasional well-timed, well-told joke can definitely help engage a class, although jokes that are badly timed, badly told or that are simply inappropriate, or making too many jokes can damage how you are perceived in your student’s eyes.
Humour can be more subtle than telling obvious jokes as well: I can think of some instructors who’ve done well from using a certain kind of dry humour for instance. Many of the treatises we study include phrases such as “…and then you may do as you like to him…” or “…this blow he will not soon forget”. Phrases like this, when delivered during a technique demonstration with an under-stated voice, a wink and a smile can go a long way towards this sort of humour.
Today’s blog article is courtesy of Alex Davis, who is relatively new to the study of HEMA, and who wanted to share some of his thoughts on beginning in this activity. He attends lessons with Schola Gladiatoria, in the safe hands of Lucy and Matt Easton, and makes occasional visits to the English Martial Arts Academy with Martin “Oz” Austwick.
Are you new to HEMA, or to any martial art? Here are some of my experiences and my reactions to HEMA, touching on different aspects of the activity that a beginner may experience. I think of them Challenges, along with one Requirement, not necessarily to overcome them but to meet and react to them, and to show how rich and varied HEMA appears to be. I could think of them facets or principles, but the word Challenges seem fine, because they call for me to achieve something and change or improve myself. It seems that with each class, something develops that raises further questions for assessment and refinement. It is probable that I may want to change some of below in another six months time.
These experiences are my own. I do not suggest they are shared by everyone, though I am hoping they may create some thought or discussion. I expect some things may strike a chord and some things may not. We are all different.
I am very grateful to all the instructors and fellow students who guide and share as I learn and practice HEMA. Without them I would not feel able or willing to contribute.