The State of the Art

The Modern Training Sword

The modern training sword, or feder, as most people who practice longsword call their training weapons, serves as one of the keys to training in historical European martial arts. Without a good training weapon it’s very difficult to learn technique correctly, and the subtleties of correct execution will get lost. Unfortunately the market for training swords has recently developed two trends that concern me. First, some lines of training swords are becoming more and more “sportified”, becoming too flexible, too light, too long, and too divorced from the source material they are supposedly trying to emulate in the name of safety, or, worse, ease. Second, there are at least three broad categories for longswords, and many more for other varieties of swords. Little effort is being put into replicating all of these varieties, the focus remains on training tools that best suit the context of tournament rule sets. The only solution is for we as a community to ask more of our training weapon providers to meet these needs.

The tournament scene for historical European martial arts has become more and more competitive, and this has been a good thing up to now. HEMA has thrived on competition, but for some competition has become the goal. For those who run competitions the risks of holding a martial arts tournament, namely injury to the participants, has lead to standard equipment requirements. This, in and of itself, is okay. Standard safety equipment, helmets, gauntlets, gorgets, etc… is just good sense when in a competitive environment. European warriors often used specially made tournament armor. What concerns me is the restrictions on different weapons, armor, and approved makers lists. More than that, the approved lists for some tournaments seem to favor less historical and less accurate training weapons, which seem to some, ostensibly “safer.” I dispute that, and would love to see some actual data collected on the injury rate resulting from the use of certain training weapons before they are excluded from broad use in tournaments. I believe that the trend of current restrictions are largely the result of subjective perception, and do not actually make us safer.

Seriously though, banning the Albion Liechtenauer, because it’s “heavier” is nonsense. Ruling in favor of, and worse, endorsing, whippy training swords with no serious research behind them, that match only a very narrow range of dimensions, and fail to replicate both the weight and feel of historical longswords, all for some, at most, marginal level of increased “safeness” is bad for the art and community as a whole. That way lies sport fencing. I argue quite strongly in my book that we must be careful about standardizing our tournament rules, and that includes equipment rules. We must be more mindful about creating requirements and rules that depart too much from the historical precedents. My club’s injury rate is remarkably low, zero serious injuries since 2009, when I started it, we spar with several rule sets, but our favorite is an interpretation of the medieval rule set, each fighter gets a certain number of attacks, usually 4-7, and the best blow, judged by various criteria, wins. We go full speed, often taking multiple hits in a round. We don’t ban any training weapons unless they have edges or points that would be distinctly unsafe and accident prone. Assuming standard safety gear, banning a well designed training weapon, doesn’t achieve a superior level of safeness, and my club’s record is proof of that.

If we want to make our arts and sports safer, then what we should do instead is promote a culture of control in the HEMA community. We should value the capacity to restrain our strikes when needed and train accordingly. I spend the first several months I have with a new student emphasizing control training with my students, and I believe that every group should. You should spend time laying the safety equipment aside and train your club to develop and rely on control. My club is proof that this not only achieves an admirable level of safety, but that it translates into not needing stringent rules and restrictions in sparring and training that ignore historical accuracy. We can go faster and harder without injuring each other because we put in the hard work to learn how to keep our heads in the game. Do we have bumps and bruises? Sure, but we never have broken bones. We never have concussions. We never have any trips to the emergency room. Frankly if you’re not willing to endure bruises then you shouldn’t be practicing a martial art in the first place.

Relying on “safe” training weapons to achieve safety is a fallacy. In the same way that overparenting can produce rebellious kids, overemphasizing safety through equipment, and not demanding that our students develop physical discipline leads to dangerous training partners. Martial arts distill violence into a concentrated form. If someone executes a technique of distilled violence against you with no restraint they risk doing you serious harm, safety equipment or no safety equipment. Safety is principally achieved with control, not equipment. We need to start paying more attention to how and why competition was done in the past, and start asking hard questions about how we are going to try to live up to that standard, and the answer isn’t to invent safety equipment that fails to behave like decent simulations of real weapons.

My second concern is lack of attention to historical accuracy in designing swords and training swords. Most of the swords and training swords made in the twentieth century were simply too heavy, poorly balanced, and poorly researched. This led to many of the stereotypes that we are constantly trying to disabuse the public of today. I think, however, that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction when it comes to swordmakers who cater to the HEMA community. There is quite a variety of weights, balances, and designs in ancient weaponry, and perhaps two dozen meaningfully different designs and contexts from the Viking era through to the Early Modern period. When we look at the training tools on offer though, not only do we see a very limited set of swords being replicated, but we see very little serious work replicating the weight, length, balance and feel of historical weaponry. Not only that, but the current competition trends favor weapons that are advantageous to larger and stronger people. Some of the young women in my club are just too short to be able to use three quarters or more of the training weapons out there. There is a significant percentage of the population of interested people that are underserved by current trends. You have to custom order training swords to get weapons that work properly for them.

Here’s one example, many of the modern training swords are just plain too long in both blade and handle, and too light for proper weapons of those lengths. This is both a function of the fact that our protective equipment, especially the gloves, are too big, and the fact that most beginners have trouble understanding how to take advantage of the features of smaller swords. The HEMA community doesn’t yet have the critical mass of thoroughly qualified instructors needed to reliably overcome the incorrect intuitions that have become common in the community at the local level. We have a long ways to go in educating our students, researching historical sword designs, and translating that research into replica swords and training swords.

Frankly, we need to be banning training weapons that don’t meet minimum standards of historical accuracy. If someone enters a longword tournament with a 54″ sword that comes above their shoulder, and weighs a mere 2.5 lbs, they should be offered a more accurate piece of equipment to use instead. Now, I think this should be a weapon-by-weapon kind of decision. Sometimes a maker will have a really good offering and a really bad offering. For example, I absolutely love SIGI’s short swords. Those seem to be very strong offerings for sword and buckler work. They are an excellent simulator for a Type XV arming sword. Their longswords, however, are too long and too flexible. They use very similar design philosophies between the two categories of weapons, but it is effective in one case and ineffective in another.

I call on modern makers to, as my old math teacher said, “show your work.” Prove that you did your homework and designed your training swords to historical standards. Researchers are putting together more and more publicly available work for recreating accurate swords and training swords. We as a community need to use it. We need to do the design work, the research, and most importantly we need to pay attention and buy stuff that benefits from it. If we do that then in another ten years we’ll have not only wider offerings, but better quality, and better understanding of what good quality is for the many given sword designs, and our arts will be better for it.

Reviews The State of the Art Training Equipment

Custom Regenyei Training Sword

Yesterday I got my new Regenyei training swords in. Somehow the word feder has become modern parlance for these weapons, but that was not quite what they called their training weapons back in the day. So I won’t refer to them as feders. If you want more info on that please check out The Whatchamacallit Sword on HROARR. Anyhow, I am extremely pleased with these training swords and I would like to gush about how fantastic they are for just a little while.

First, while it hasn’t yet become fashionable to make perfectly historically accurate training swords, there are several reasons to depart from the historical precedent, not the least of which are modern tournament restrictions, but that’s a can of worms to open another day. These swords qualify for all of the major tournaments in my part of the world. Secondly, and from my perspective, much more importantly, these training swords fall within the common range of size, dimensions, and proportions for period bastard swords. Not only is this badly underrepresented in the market, but they also serve as a more convenient size for people who simply aren’t tall enough to be able to easily employ a much larger sword. Most of the modern training swords have lengths between 49″-53″ (125-135 cm). SIGI’s Shorty model is 49″.

While we do see historical longsword 53″ (135 cm) long, those are outliers in the period we’re looking at. Moreover, if you’re a 5’4″ student, and I have two young women about that height in my class, and two young men just a little taller, a longsword that goes past your shoulder ceases to be a longsword. You cease to be able to do longsword technique with a weapon that size. Most historical longswords from the late 1300s to the early 1500s, which is the period where most of our longsword texts come form are closer to 44″-48″ (112-122 cm). These Regenyei’s are 46″ (117 cm) in overall length, which is average for period swords, but substantially shorter than the modern average. So not only do I now have a great set of training swords to represent period bastard swords, but I have a pair of weapons that are very well suited to shorter people. Both their technique and their performance show marked improvements from getting these swords.

Anyhow I should tell you which features I chose; 90 cm blade (shortest they have), 26 cm handle (shortest they have), curved and twisted crossguard (I like the way curved crossguards work), the schilt from the Regenyei short model rather than their standard or schiltless designs. I had them add a riser 4″ from the guard so that your pinky or ring finger can sit under it and keep your hand from riding up too close to the hilt, and I chose their pear pommel to finish it off.

When I initially approached the company about making these I requested a forward pivot point within an inch or so of the point. I was informed that this was beyond the scope of the kind of work they were willing to do, so I took a step back did some thinking about how best to get the training sword I wanted. I decided I wanted a more substantial schilt and pommel with more back weighting to maximize the likelihood that the weapons would turn out right. Most of their pommels would work fine for this, their pear, perfume, mushroom, and scent stopper should all perform similarly in this regard.

Much more importantly, I wasn’t particularly happy with the standard schilt options. I did not want a schilt that would offer an unrealistic level of hand protection, or which would bind in unrealistic ways. All of the standard models of schilt in the Custom Feder page catch and hold a blade a couple of inches from the cross, or in unrealistic ways. While historically accurate to some training swords, this is not a feature I want, because I choose to emphasize realism, and I’ve never seen a real sword from the period with such a feature. You can’t learn to protect your hands correctly if your training sword does it for you, and with features like that so close to the cross your close range slicing actions would be inhibited on a real blade. The binds would also be different because your weapon won’t actually be bound on the cross.

The schiltless model was tempting, but I wasn’t sure that it would have the right weight distribution, and I once had a training sword disallowed at a tournament, ostensibly because it didn’t have a schilt. Looking through Mr. Regenyei’s other offerings though I found that his Short model actually had a schilt that might fit both of my requirements. It has a curve toward the blade that will allow a sword to come all the way to your cross, but a substantial width to add weight at that point. His “short” model, however, has a 38″ (96 cm) blade and a 11.5″ (29 cm) handle for an overall length of 49.5″ (125 cm), which is just plain too big for what I needed. Thankfully, they were willing to use their short model’s schilt on these training swords.

Forgive me for not cleaning the tape residue off before taking the picture. I was excited.

On to how they perform. These things feel great. When one of my target students picked it up her first question was “Where do I get one of these?” That forward pivot point I wanted, but that they declined to promise, is exactly where I wanted it on both swords. The fact that it’s there on both swords probably means that they tried to deliver on it hoping to exceed my expectations. It could possibly mean that I just hit upon a particularly good combination of features, and that their standardization is so good that anyone who picked this combination would get a similar result, but until I hear otherwise I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s point is super accurate, and combined with the short length it not only becomes substantially easier to nail someone with a thrust, but it becomes darn near impossible for someone to get inside your minimum thrusting distance without forcing them to close to grappling distance, which is a great advantage when fighting against sword and buckler, or for pressing an advantage into close distance against a big longsword. For an in-fighter like me this is a fantastic training sword.

The blades are nice and stiff, with just enough flex to be durable and cushion a thrust a little. The cord grip is tight and quite comfortable. Hopefully it will hold up for years. On reflection I wish I had ordered the faceted scent stopper pommel, to give a little more control to the left hand, but I’m willing to let the smooth pear pommel have its chance, maybe I’ll learn to love it. If there is an actual flaw in the weapon, I’d say that I’d like it to be just a little heavier. Don’t get me wrong it’s around 2.3-2.5 lbs (1000-1130 grams), within historical parameters, but just barely. It is designed to model a lighter more nimble longsword design. If I had to choose between it’s frankly perfect balance, and a little more weight, I’d keep it the way it is though.

My final conclusion, Mr. Regenyei’s service exceeded every expectation he set. He was accommodating and forthright. The weapons look beautiful, arrived in perfect condition, handle like a dream, are the right size for historical purposes, work beautifully for when I want to simulate a bastard sword, and are perfect for my shorter students. I strongly recommend getting one of these from Mr. Regenyei if you want a a sword that better fits historical parameters for bastard swords or if you find the common offerings on the market just too big for you. In other words every serious HEMA club that practices longsword from the 1300s-1500s should get a training sword like this.

The State of the Art

Diversifying Tournament Rule Sets

Every rule set I have observed or created incentivizes at least one suicidal behavior on the part of the attacker or the defender.  I sometimes wonder if the issue runs deeper, to the very nature of armed conflict.  A certain capacity to accept risk comes with the choice to fight, one might call it bravery.  In any case, every rule set I’ve seen proved itself inaccurate, prone to misunderstanding, and incentivized behaviors that most ancient masters warned against.

Winning and losing according to artificial standards, no matter how well conceived, won’t perfectly simulate combat.  The psychology alone, and the lack of real danger, creates an abstraction at least as big as any inaccuracy in the rule set.  Even the very concept of guaranteeing a winner presents a problem.  In a real fight there are many possible results.  One can win or lose cleanly where the loser does not harm the winner at all.  One can, win after tiring considerably, or after receiving a wound.  Both combatants might become injured enough to cease being able to fight, or they might both suffer maiming injuries.  Both might die.  Both might retreat. One might be wounded, but retain the capacity to fight on in a battlefield scenario, or at least retire from the active fighting under their own power.  Competitions fail to simulate such diverse outcomes.  Several of the possible scenarios have no ‘winner.’ 

Tournaments, however, have declaring a winner as one of their chief purposes.  It’s very difficult to use a tournament as either a test of one’s skills, or to spread the enjoyment of the art, not to mention glorifying athletic and martial achievements, without declaring a winner.  Moreover, we cannot really follow historical precedent without declaring a winner.  Tournaments benefit the community by drawing attention, generating publicity, and bringing us together in friendly competition. Naming winners forms a central part of that purpose.

I believe the problem lies in the nature of competition and standardized rules.  I have spent twenty years devising sparring rules, watching tournaments, and searching for better rule sets.  I’ve been very happy with several methods of judging sparring matches, but none of them are perfect.  In fact, I’ve come to believe that the disconnection between sparring and fighting is so great that we cannot come to a perfect rule set.  If we acknowledge this then we should change our goals in holding tournaments in a couple of very important ways.

First, if we acknowledge that all rule sets are susceptible to abuse, and even incentivize certain types of poor swordsmanship, then we need to see the tournament more as a training exercise, and less as a proving ground. If we understand the regimented sparring matches of a tournament as a means of testing and developing skill, rather than as a measure of skill, then we will approach them seeking to understand what they incentivize and disincentivize. For example, let’s say a tournament decides to emphasize grappling. Rewarding more points for clean execution of grappling techniques.

the best thing we can do is prevent a particular set of susceptibilities and incentives from dominating the tournament circuit.  To do this we should diversify our tournament rule sets.  We should explicitly acknowledge this failing in the foundation of the activity, and explore and experiment with wildly different rule sets that incentivize different actions and reward certain types of swordsmanship.  This should happen in two ways, each tournament held on a regular basis should vary their rule sets, and we should reject the idea of consistency between different rule sets among different tournaments. 

By varying a rule set in a given regular event we prevent problems from becoming ingrained.  By varying rule sets among the tournament offered within a given year as a larger whole, we prevent particular abuses from being easily trained and practiced for.  Both of these measures incentivize a strong core to every participating style of swordsmanship, and help mitigate the effects of trying to maximize one’s chances of winning a tournament by optimizing one’s practice to tournament rules. Ideally, giving tournament optimization a moving target will not only keep us conscious of the goal, to recreate and practice historical martial arts to the highest skill level we can, but also prevent over-specialization to the tournament setting.

The State of the Art

H.E.M.A. or HEMA

Historical European Martial Arts (H.E.M.A. or HEMA) claims a very small percentage of the world, per capita, but in some ways the community has grown very large. The diversity of that community, in weapon systems, source material, styles, approach, practice, method, and to the community as a whole, gives us both the advantages and weaknesses that attend that level of diversity. For example those of us who try to recreate the Kunst des Fechtens of Johannes Liechtenauer, or an amalgum of his tradition, can benefit from those of us who specialize in single sources from within that tradition, and from those who learn other longsword traditions, such as Fiore dei Liberi’s or the British systems, and vice-versa. People trying to recreate Polish saber fighting methods can benefit from the more thoroughly documented traditions from western Europe.

On the other hand, this same diversity, and the propensity to cross-pollinate, often leads to creating fighting styles that don’t actually look like the styles that we, ostensibly, are trying to recreate. That is the question now isn’t it. Are we trying to recreate historical fighting styles, historical European, martial arts, or are we trying to create a modern style inspired by historical European martial arts?

I once went to a large event that brought this point home to me. One class in particular caught my attention, the instructor called it “The Seven Cuts of HEMA.” I found this puzzling. You see none of the historical longsword systems we have records from used all seven of the cuts he taught. Fiore’s Colpi de Mezzani are not Zwerchhaus, nor does a vertical cut straight down to the crown of the head exist in his system. Ringeck doesn’t use a long edge rising cut from the right side. The British longsword systems that we have record of give us just enough information to make some headway, but their language is too sparse to settle exactly how their strikes worked. In other words this instructor was not even attempting to teach a historical European fighting style, he was teaching a modern style that pulled pieces from multiple historical styles.

The cutting tournament that day used a semaphore system that called for long edge or short edge cuts from falling diagonal, horizontal, and rising diagonal angles on both sides. Inadvertently this requires the participants to use strikes that they normally would not use within their styles. There is no short edge horizontal cut from the left in Liechtenauer’s tradition, and there is no short edge falling diagonal cut on the left described in Fiore. Arguably, there are no short edge falling diagonal strikes in Liechtenauer or Fiore. The Schielhaus are, arguably, short edge falling vertical strikes, not diagonal ones, and while I have seen the argument made that such might have existed in Fiore’s style, the evidence is thinly based on a couple of isolated images and not supported by his text. The point is that while being able to perform well in that event proves consistency and versatility in cutting, it also required participants to practice techniques outside of their chosen style. This kind of event rewards someone who practices “The Seven Cuts of HEMA” and asks someone who is trying to learn a historical fighting style to incorporate training that may not make sense in that system.

In an effort to be inclusive our community is incentivizing diversification, and cross-pollination, and this can be a very good thing. In my book I had to look quite far afield for answers to some questions that naturally came up. It also, however, incentivizes creating styles that are modern amalgams of multiple ancient styles, rather than faithfully recreating historical styles. I have two chief criticisms of this. First, this disincentivizes faithfully recreating a historical European martial arts. Second, it requires training in redundant material. You see I find it simply impossible to believe that Fiore did not understand what a vertical cut is, or that Ringeck wouldn’t understand how to do a long edge horizontal cut from the right. The reason those techniques don’t exist in their systems is that they deliberately chose to leave them out, and achieve the goals that they might have used those for with a smaller technique set.

I once had a student ask me: “What if one of these masters created the ultimate sword style? Wouldn’t it be great to learn that?” While some masters probably had a achieving a ‘minimum standard’ for their students or soldiers as their primary goal, I expect that the vast majority of them set out to create a style that was as close to perfection as possible. While the question of a style’s merit can be argued, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of these systems were created with the highest possible standards in mind. They taught what they taught with life and death on the line, not to mention livelihoods and reputations. When we find something conspicuously “missing” we should be unironically asking ourselves “Why didn’t they include this?” and “How did they deal with situation X?”

In my experience those answers are very enlightening. You see their goal seems to have been to create the smallest possible style. Traditions like Fiore dei Liberi’s or Sigmund Ringeck’s are quite extensive, it takes years to master them. Every additional technique you add requires more time to teach. When you have to spend years mastering a system in the first place you simply cannot afford redundant material. The smaller the technique set the faster your students can master it, the more creative they can become with those tools, and the better they will fight. I once heard an Asian martial arts instructor say that it was better to know one technique really really well, than it was to have only mediocre knowledge of a thousand. I believe he was right.

I feel it’s important to recreate these styles faithfully, not only to be historically accurate, but because it gets better quality fighters. I want to be able to tell someone I practice the art of one of the great masters of the Late Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, depending on how you delineate. I want to be able to tell them that I train within this system because I want my style to be as authentic as I can make it. I also believe, however, that it makes us better fighters, because it lets us dive deeper into the subjects we know, rather than wasting time wading in the shallows of places we don’t need to explore.

I hope that in the future our events, competitions, and classes will place more value on historicity. I hope that we do this for the sake of accuracy and authenticity. I also hope that it will raise the level of quality of our practice as a community. To that end I practice a historical European martial art, and I hope you make that your goal as well.

The State of the Art

Announcing My New Book: The Art of Longsword Fighting,

Hi, my name is Ben Smith, I research and interpret historical European martial arts. I specialize in the longsword style of Sigmund Ringeck. I’ve been doing it for twenty years, and I hope to do it for forty or fifty more. I teach, compete, and write. I’m pleased to announce that my first book on Rineck’s fighting style The Art of Fighting with the Longsword: Teaching the Foundations of Sigmund Ringeck’s Style. In it I lay down my research into the teaching methods of this great Renaissance master, and how, why, and when we should try to replicate and use them in our modern context. It also presents my interpretation of this complex art, and how to transmit it in a simple, easy to learn way to a new student. I emphasize how to lay the foundation for the fighting style as a whole, how to understand and share the broader concepts necessary for a modern HEMA student, how to teach someone to drill, spar, and train safely, and how to avoid pitfalls that can impede a student’s progress.

You can find my book at Pen and Sword, and on Amazon.