Sword Fighting in Sunny California

SoCal Swordfight is US HEMA's largest event, though most folks in the community probably don't know that. This year's iteration was an ambitious undertaking spearheaded by Kron headman and former HEMA Alliance president Jonathan Mayshar, Alliance co-founder Jason Taylor, RJ McKeehan, former Alliance Curriculum Council director Lee Smith of Blood and Iron Martial Arts, and a whole host of volunteers from Kron Martial Arts and other west-coast clubs.

With about 180 attendees, SoCal Swordfight is US HEMA's largest competitive event. Photo by RJ McKeehan.

With about 180 attendees, SoCal Swordfight is US HEMA's largest competitive event. Photo by RJ McKeehan.

SoCal is a three day event (plus a secret extra day that no one told me about, and which I therefore missed) featuring tournaments, classes, and plenty of time for socialization. Competitions included rapier, singlestick, beginners' (synthetic) longsword, open (synthetic) longsword, invitational steel sword and buckler, invitational steel longsword, and Glima. A ladies' longsword had been planned but was cancelled due to low registration, and an impromptu dagger competition seemed to break out just an hour before closing on Sunday. In short, there was a lot of competition.

SoCal Swordfight 2014 Numbers:

  • 55,000 sq. ft. venue
  • 176 paid registrants; (200 attendees)
  • 34 instructors
  • 70 unique classes offered
  • 7 tournaments


John Patterson and the Phoenix Society for Historical Swordsmanship took point in executing the singlestick tournament on Friday. The format was inspired by a singlestick pub game, wherein both fighters took up their initial measure and had a water bottle (standing in for a beer mug, apparently) placed behind the heel. Three blows to the head won the bout; off target shots were allowed but awarded no points. Knocking over the bottle of water behind your own heel awarded the other fencer a point.

Photo by Tracy Mellow.

Photo by Tracy Mellow.

The game was fairly difficult when faced with a quick-handed opponent. A few fencers--most notably those from Blood and Iron--showed signs of genuine proficiency with the singlestick. My opponents included Jesse Tucker (whom I have faced previously in both Dussack and Saber), John Patterson, Steve Wittman, and ultimately Richard Marsden in the finals on Saturday. The game required quick wits and lightening parries, but the tenuous balance of the water bottles harshly punished any footwork or back-weighted stances, forcing matches forward and up.

The prettiest form was displayed by Blood and Iron's Steve Wittman. Steve not only had a good sense of the weapon's flow and measure, but also maximized the use of his right upper arm to absorb blows aimed at the heat without simply camping it there. Two days later I bought a shirt with an image of two singlestick fighters, and the one on the left was doing exactly that. Watching Steve impacted my own strategy, including my match against him.

Invitational Steel Sword and Buckler

(A personal aside: I have taken half a dozen I.33 intro classes and I have worked through Liegnitzer's buckler plays many times...but I am not a sword and buckler fencer.  I hadn't signed up to fight in this one but Lee Smith talked me into it and so I entered...)

Sword and buckler competitions in recent years have been closer to stick fighting matches or something out of Bohurt fighting than anything we might recognize from Morozzo, Lutergus, or Liegnitzer. Tournament organizer Lee Smith's vision for this competition was to showcase better competitive sword and buckler fencing than what we've seen since Kristine Konsmo's artful win at Swordfish 2011. The ruleset took a page from Manciolino's rules with an added emphasis on I.33-style covered thrusting to the torso. Fighters received three points for head shots, two points for shots below the knee, three points for covered thrusts to the torso, and one point for any other hit to any other target. Afterblows reduced an opponent's score by one point. Fighters used hard-hitting Mac Armour arming swords provided by event.

The result was hit or miss. Several fighters--Lee Smith, Jesse Tucker, Steve Wittman, and (half the time) Kyle "The Cimmerian" Griswold and I--captured the spirit of the rules and provided some decent looking fencing. The rest of the time it was pretty brutal. Anyone who has fought with single-handlers knows that they tend hit harder than the larger but more restrained longsword. My first fight with Kyle the Cimmerian (only my second fight in the pools) was among the most costly victories of any in my career. Kyle managed to identify an opening under my buckler on my left side, and at least three times struck it with some kind of mittlehau. The first of those three may be the hardest hit I've ever received, and I worried for some time after that I'd cracked one or two ribs (as I write this it still hurts to run or sneeze, but seeing as breathing causes no issues at all I'm figuring it's just some deep brushing of the intercostals). I eked out a narrow victory only to face Kyle again in the elimination rounds. This second fight was something much prettier, more controlled, more technical. Not only did several viewers comment it was the best looking match of the tournament to that point, but nobody got beat up too badly.

Blood & Iron Martial Arts swept the Sword & Buckler Tournament. Right to left, Jessee Tucker, Coach Less SMith, and Steve Wittman. Photo by RJ McKeehan.

Blood & Iron Martial Arts swept the Sword & Buckler Tournament. Right to left, Jessee Tucker, Coach Less SMith, and Steve Wittman. Photo by RJ McKeehan.

Kyle won the elimination bout, knocking me out of the tournament. He went on to lose against Jesse Tucker and then Steve Wittman to finish in fourth. The indomitable Lee Smith took Gold, leading a Blood and Iron sweep of the tournament with Jesse and Steve filling out the podium.

The Mac Armour swords held up reasonably well. Both bent several times under the extreme duress of fighters running full-on into thrusts; one had to be replaced for setting but never broke.

Invitational Steel Longsword

Don't even think about it!

Don't even think about it!

Exhausted, bashed in, and generally feeling like a wimp I entered the next phase of what became the longest Friday of my life. The steel longsword tournament featured 20 fighters in four five-man pools fighting it out with Mac Armour longswords under a variation on the International Lowlands HEMA Gathering (ILHG) longsword rules developed by Mishael Lopes Cardozo and Lee Smith. Strikes to the head scored four points; strikes to the torso, three; to the legs, two; and arms, one. Strikes to the hand scored nothing and single-handed launching techniques such as das Gayszlen were forbidden under penalty of foul. The ILGH rules also put nearly unlimited scoring power in the hands of the director, who worked with the judges to reach the best decision but retained the right to overrule their calls.

As this was an invitational, the quality of fighting was generally quite high. The majority of fighters entered with earned, preexisting reputations; most lived up to them. My own pool included Keith Cotter-Reilly (in our fourth tournament meeting, perhaps), Kron's Vincent Stoy and Longpoint 2013 Synthetic Longsword silver medalist Myles Cupp, and Kevin Duvall (standing in for Tracey Mellow, who was unable to compete). Each fighter presented unique challenges: Vincent's towering height, Kevin's unorthodox (to me) but controlled movement, Myles' artful and aggressive thrusting, and Keith's familiarity with both his system and me as an opponent.

Notable fighters in the other pools included RJ McKeehan (another of Kron's up and comers), Blood and Iron's Sean "Zeussquatch" Franklin, and Phoenix Society's Richard Marsden, John Patterson, and Kyle Griswold.

Richard Marsden (right) and I watch the pool fights during the Invitational Steel Longsword. Photo by Tracy Mellow.

Richard Marsden (right) and I watch the pool fights during the Invitational Steel Longsword. Photo by Tracy Mellow.

As is generally my luck, my first elimination fight was with Kyle (again). Kyle is fast, strong, and well-trained. While not nearly as expensive as my short-lived sword and buckler victory, defeating Kyle was no easy feat. The match got pretty rough at times, and in one exchange Kyle attacked while running through on my right. I pivoted and struck him in the back as he passed, knocking him to the ground and forcing a time-out. Kyle's a tough guy and he shook it off, but I wouldn't be able to give him crap about my ribs anymore. (Sorry, Kyle.)

Too much pain. Kyle "the Cimmerian" Griswold and Sean "Zeussquatch" Franklin.

Too much pain. Kyle "the Cimmerian" Griswold and Sean "Zeussquatch" Franklin.

Next came the Zeussquatch. Sean Franklin is one of HEMAdom's top athletes, with an impressive list of competitive accomplishments after less than three years training (e.g., Gold, open Longsword at FNY 2013 and in the Longpoint 2013 triathlon). I narrowly led him for a minute and 57 seconds of the two-minute round, losing to a thrust under the ribs in an ill-fated grapple at the last moment. Sean is a great fighter and a good human being besides; I expect he'll only be more trouble for the standing champs of the world competitive HEMA scene over the next few years.

Meanwhile, Richard Marsden lost to his longtime student/partner in crime John Patterson in the other half of the semi finals, lining up Patterson/Franklin for the finals for gold and...again...Marsden/Norwood in the finals for bronze.

Finally wrapping up at almost 10:00 p.m., I limped back to the hotel with fellow old men Marsden and Patterson to lick my wounds. It had been a hard day, and I was nursing bashed in ribs and a bit of disappointment in not quite pulling it off in Longsword; my only salve was a day hard fought in good company.

The Other Tournaments on Saturday

I spent all of Saturday before the finals teaching classes and so missed the beginners' and open longsword tournaments. Phoenix Society swept the open and nearly swept the beginners'; we should all be keeping an eye out for Randy Reyes and Christopher Phoenix in particular.

The decision to hold distinct open and beginners' tournaments, and to exclude those who had fought in the invitational form joining either, was inspired. Competitive historical longsword has grown to the point where separate, skill-level-based tournaments need to become the standard. The same dozen names tend to win throughout the US scene (with a different-but-overlapping dozen doing the same in Europe), leading to a sense of futility among even promising beginners entering the open longsword tournaments at Longpoint, IGX, or even smaller venues like the Purpleheart Open. SoCal's approach has brought to light not just the hard work of six up and coming fencers, but also of the good work their coaches and clubs are doing. It shouldn't surprise anyone that clubs like Blood and Iron's fight team or the Phoenix Society for Historical Swordsmanship are consistently producing winners at multiple levels of competition.

The Livestream: Some of the Finals

SoCal's livestream went down at 5:00 Pacific time Saturday, before either the rapier or Glima tournaments had been fought. As a participant I missed out on the audience experience--particularly that of those watching at home. Richard and I sat together and chatted prior to our singlestick final. The match itself was odd, with some strange judging calls (at one point, after Richard and I had thumped each other in the head two or three times each we paused, waited for the judges to call a hit in vain, shrugged, and went back to work). The placement of the judges also ensured that the yellow fighter, who had two judges on his right, carried the advantage against the black fighter who had only one on his right. Ultimately Richard out fenced me and I reckon the right man won, but it carried that sort of amused frustration that seems endemic to judged arts everywhere, regardless of art or venue...particularly in our fledgling competitive community.

Between matches at the Steel Invitational. Photo by John Knoch.

Between matches at the Steel Invitational. Photo by John Knoch.

Realizing that I wasn't yet in my right head space (and that I was in danger of letting my loss to Marsden get into my head), I put on my game face and scowled my way through the remainder of the finals until my next fight with Richard. I don't recall any of the fights between, though I vaguely remember Lee Smith's buckler bout with Jesse Tucker for gold (it was good).

The final with Marsden was fairly intense. I have respected Richard immensely as a fighter since watching his performance at Longpoint last year. Added to the fact that he's smart, sneaky, and a heathen Florist, I harbored a healthy concern about my prospects for bringing home another medal for longsword. Marsden didn't disappoint. He landed a nice thrust early on, which I answered with a hard afterblow to his right temple. Apparently the hit, which I had only executed to langen ort and not clean through, was still enough to cause a millisecond's blackout and a five-step stumble toward the edge of the ring. Richard caught himself and won full points for the thrust, forcing me to watch my defense more closely. A few rapid, hard exchanges followed and I managed to nickel and dime my way into a leading position by the end of the match.

The actual final between Patterson and Franklin was as exciting as any final I've seen recently. Both big, strong guys, neither could rely on their preferred grapples for an easy win. The match went into sudden death and concluded with a beautiful stop-thrust from Patterson's Boar's Tooth into Franklin's hand/abdomen. For the third year in a row, a member of the Phoenix Society took home SoCal's gold for longsword.

TournamentsNot done yet...

Sunday brought the Rapier and Glima tournaments. I missed the rapier entirely while teaching pickup classes or fencing lightly with Sean Franklin. I heard Roberto Martinez-Loyo looked really good. I did manage to catch the final rounds of Glima, an Icelandic folk wrestling art supposedly practiced by the Vikings. To win a match a fighter had get his opponent on the ground (meaning anything on the ground other than the feet) while himself standing at least arms-reach away. This simple, objective solution to scoring worked great, rewarded the sort of techniques we see in, say, Ott's Wrestling, and led to a number of exciting engagements. The tournaments ran in three weight classes and an open, which was ultimately taken by reigning North American Ringen champ Sean Franklin.


Lee Smith tests the protective qualities of the infamous Phoenix Society Skull Codpiece. Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Society.

Lee Smith tests the protective qualities of the infamous Phoenix Society Skull Codpiece. Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Society.

SoCal featured one of the most extensive class lists Ive seen in a HEMA event. There were six or more classes running at any given moment, and every one seemed well attended with anywhere from 10 to 30 students at a time. The most popular classes were taught more than once, as there were classes running concurrently with all of the tournaments (including the finals). There seemed to be something of a mild emphasis on backsword and related weapons (saber, singlestick, etc.) throughout the weekend, but I also saw everything from poleax to bullwhip to sword and buckler to Aztec war club.

Between teaching, competing, and groaning from my fight with Kyle I managed to miss every class I was interested in, and more the shame as the instructor list included many known community names and developing up and comers: Roberto Martinez-Loyo, Lee Smith, Richard Marsden, Michael-Forest Merservy, Stephen Fick, Hugh Knight, the Cateran Society, and many, many more.

I taught three courses over the weekend. The first was my Messer Means Knife class which went well enough but seemed to run out of time too quickly. The other two were repetitions of Meisterhau the MKDF Way (wherein my first statement is that I dont teach the Meisterhaue, I teach the Verborgen Haue), which went over so successfully I ended up doing an informal encore for some of the event staff on the last day.

Every student at every class seemed eager to learn, grow, and see something new. The entire venue seemed full of open books and empty glasses. It was a pleasure to teach, particularly since a class full of beginners is increasingly rare at large HEMA events these days. The nature of Kron as a university-based club means high turnover and a steady stream of youthful enthusiasmall leading to lots of highly motivated beginners.

Fighting? Socializing? Other Stuff?

I wont lieI was tired just showing up to SoCal less than a week after the Purpleheart Open. The first days class and tournament schedule meant two hours of teaching followed by eight hours of stressful waiting punctuated by brutal matches against skilled components in three disciplines. Throw my ribs into the mix and I was pretty wiped out by the end of day one. I took Saturday easier, taught two classes, sat in on a HEMA Alliance Instructor Certification Board, and knocked out my fights in the finals. Both nights I went to bed earlyish, like the old man that I am. Mostly I blame Richard Marsden and John Patterson. Sunday I ran through another certification board, taught two impromptu classes, and fenced at some length with Sean Franklin in minimal gear.

So while I didnt get in nearly as much free-fencing as I had only a week earlier at PHO, that was more my fault than SoCals. There were pockets of fighting somewhere in that great hall every hour of the day from 9:00 a.m. to closing time at 10:00 p.m. What I did manage was a lot of was discussion on theory and interpretation. Every day I spent hours discussing Fiore vs. Liechtenauer, Schielhau vs. Pflug, or listing reasons that everybody should come to Longpoint this year. It so happens that I love that stuffand so I was a happy man.

SoCal Swordfight medalists from all events, including the Schwertkampf-sponsored Technical Award winner. From right to left, Mehran Kamari, Myles Cupp, Roberto Martinez-Loyo, Jesse Tucker, Adam Simmons, Richard Marsden, Jake Norwood (hidden), Christopher Nelson (hidden), Peter Hoff (hidden), Randy Reyes, Lee Smith, Steve Wittman, John Patterson (hidden), Justin Snyder, and Shane Gibson. Photo by Tracy Mellow.

SoCal Swordfight medalists from all events, including the Schwertkampf-sponsored Technical Award winner. From right to left, Mehran Kamari, Myles Cupp, Roberto Martinez-Loyo, Jesse Tucker, Adam Simmons, Richard Marsden, Jake Norwood (hidden), Christopher Nelson (hidden), Peter Hoff (hidden), Randy Reyes, Lee Smith, Steve Wittman, John Patterson (hidden), Justin Snyder, and Shane Gibson. Photo by Tracy Mellow.

Socially, the icing on the cake was the awards dinner Sunday night over an all-you-can-eat Italian dinner. It was nice to get a few medals, but it was even better to see so many fledgling members of the US HEMA community celebrate their own growth together. I dont know if those who are new to HEMA were inspired by the ceremony or notbut I was. Kron and company have accomplished in just a few years something that, five years ago, I wasnt sure was likely to happen in the US anytime in the next decade.

HEMA Alliance Certification Boards

Two-thirds of the SoCal HEMA Alliance Instructor Certification Board, Alliance president Richard Marsden and former president Jake Norwood...er...me.

Two-thirds of the SoCal HEMA Alliance Instructor Certification Board, Alliance president Richard Marsden and former president Jake Norwood...er...me.

I had the pleasure of sitting in on two HEMA Alliance Curriculum Council-sponsored Instructor Certification Boards over the weekend. These were my first since I was tested in the pilot program at Longpoint last year. The first board included (now retired) CC director Lee Smith and Myles Cupp; the second replaced the freshly retired Lee with HEMA Alliance certified instructor and GC president Richard Marsden and traded in CC member RJ McKeehan for Myles.

Make no mistakethe certification exam is tough. Of the two that stood for certification only one passed, despite generally high marks in most areas. The genius of the test is that as an applicant you essentially write your own exam when you submit your curriculum or syllabus for review. The certification board then tests you on your own material, grading your performance in five areas across a challenging but fair 1-5 point rubric. A two in any area fails the test. Both applicants received valuable feedback and I expect that the one applicant who didnt pass this go-round will do so with flying colors during his next attempt later this year. Its an exciting program and Lee, Jason Taylor, Stew Feil, and everyone else involved in the project over the last several years have every reason to be proud of what theyve accomplished.

Constructive Criticism

The SoCal crew tried a lot of new things this year, and naturally that meant in some places they bit off more than they could chew. The schedule ran late from the get-go every day, despite the fairly brilliant idea of starting the event at 9:00 but kicking the first classes off after 10:00. The tournaments relied on volunteer staff swept up from among the bystanders, and at times some of the directing staff seemed a bit confused. Certain table procedures were inconsistent, particularly timekeeping, which stopped the clock for scoring during the pools, but which ran non-stop on the finals Saturday, leading to fights that were over much before they probably should have been.

In last weeks review of the Purpleheart Open I said, So what? To some extent thats true here, too. But SoCal gets to be held to a higher standard, as is the reward for successful events in their third year or beyond. With SoCal being the US competitive HEMA scenes largest event by attendance, and with the sponsoring club numbering something near 80 members, I expect well see some really great things happen in the next year or two. More and more work is coming off of the shoulders of Jonathan Mayshar and Jason Taylor, delegated to more promising club members who are learning to get things done. The tournament ruleset worked great, but the logistics surrounding the tournament often felt like an afterthought. This too will pass. The food was good and sufficiently plentiful, but arrived late the first two days. Whine, whine, whine

What Did They Do Right?

A lot. A lot a lot. The venue was fantastic. The instructor roster was perfect for the target attendees and showed the right blend of in-depth courses, sampler classes, experienced instructors and rising stars. The stratification of the longsword tournaments was perfect, ensuring that everyone there got more fights within their skill level than any other event Ive been to. Mayshar shined as the master of ceremonies at the beginning of each day and for the awards ceremony on Sunday. Most notably, however, SoCal Swordfight has developed an internal, regional culture for west-coast HEMA thats worth emulating. Students come to learn, teachers come to teach and share, and even the lowest fighter expressed interest in getting good enough to emulate their HEMA hero, whether that was a competitor, researcher, instructor, or community leader. Where most events struggle with the shadow of circular love-fests between the community elites, SoCal comes across as an event by the people for the people. And thats not just a good thing, its a great thing. --JPN


The "Secret Extra Day," apparently. Photo courtesy of Purpleheart Armory.

The "Secret Extra Day," apparently. Photo courtesy of Purpleheart Armory.

Personal note: I want to thank Richard Marsden, John Patterson, and Randy Reyes for rides and room sharing; Natasha Darce of Purpleheart Armories for literally everything; Keith Cotter-Reilly for being a genuine member of the community who happens to sell stuff to us, too; Colin Farabee for rides to and from the airport; RJ McKeehan for his hard work and for letting me talk his ear off; Victoria Andrade for making sure that I left Lees side early enough to catch some sleep the first night; Lee Smith and the Blood and Iron crew for setting an example in training and competitive conduct; and Jonathan Mayshar for making space for me at his event, even if it was later than he had planned. I want to not thank Lee Smith for talking me into the Sword and Buckler tournament.