Triangulation in HEMA

I first came upon the term “triangulation” in HEMA sometime in the mid-'00s in an article on the Schola Gladiatoria site, and my initial reaction was, of course, “That's not how triangulation works, triangulation is using two points and two distances to locate a third point!” But the concept was one already familiar to me (and eventually I made peace with the name).

The plain fact is, even though we study sword arts, we don’t really fight with real swords (and ditto for students of other weapons—even, to a lesser extent, wrestling). The core scenario that Liechtenauer’s art was apparently designed around, the earnest fight with deadly weapons, is the one thing that we can never truly practice. To attempt to redress this uncomfortable fact, practitioners of historical European martial arts have long used a mixed approach to our training, combining diverse training methodologies that complement each other in an attempt to develop the ideal well-rounded fighter—one who, perhaps, even has the skills that would keep him alive in the unlikely event of that real fight.

Equally important to this consideration is the development of the core martial virtue of control. Control is not some magical trait that a martial artist automatically develops with experience; contrary to popular belief, the ability to correctly perform an action slow does not automatically impart the ability to do it quickly, and neither does the ability to do it quickly allow a fighter to slow it down. Rather, control is nothing more than choice, the ability to choose in any given moment where to strike, where stop that strike, and how much speed and force to apply. Since you can only fight the way you've trained to fight, if you only train in one way then you have no choice, and therefore no control. Developing control therefore requires mixing many different approaches and training in many different contexts, with different tools and different constraints, and striving to apply the specific lessons from each one across all of the others.

In my ill-spent youth as a scholar in ARMA we used a training methodology consisting of four parts: drilling and light sparring with wooden wasters for beginners, drilling and light sparring with blunt steel simulators for the more advanced, heavy sparring with padded “boffers”, and test cutting with sharps. Fortunately, we have much better tools now than we ever did then, and even more fortunately, we’ve come a long way in the past fifteen years in our understanding of swordsmanship (and of teaching swordsmanship).

Since this is a topic that has come up several times in the past few months in online discussions, I will lay out below what the current state of this triangulation is in the practice of Kunst des Fechtens, and the best practices embraced by a growing number of clubs in the xKdF Network. They revolve around three primary training tools: sharp swords, blunt sword simulators, and foils (or “Feders”).

Historical Triangulation

As you may have noticed in previous posts, I prefer to put history first even when discussing modern training practices. While the historical arts we study were often designed for killing, or at least for use in lethal encounters, it seems clear from historical records (and common sense) that not every martial artist in early Modern Europe actually applied them in this fashion. Accounts of period warfare don't generally include high enough death tolls to allow for even a sizable minority of soldiers involved to have killed an enemy, and based on period records, even the highest urban murder rates (including informal duels and street fights) are merely comparable to modern cities. So while the experience of killing an opponent with a sword was undoubtedly more common in Europe five hundred years ago than it is today, the question of how the average fencer mastered his art remains, and the obvious conclusion is that they were engaged in the same sort of triangulation as we are. This topic is vast and far-reaching and we cannot explore it adequately here, but I will briefly summarize what triangulation was like historically to give some perspective on our topic.

Based on artwork and sadly-scarce records, it seems likely that much training was conducted in light gear (street clothes, usually) with sharp swords, and sometimes also blunted swords or other sword simulators—the only surviving two-handed varieties are superficially similar to our modern foils/Feders, but a number of one-handed artifacts more similar to our blunt simulators also exist. There is no evidence of specialized fencing masks during the early Modern period, but records speak of wearing broad-brimmed hats to protect the head and face against downward blows, and padded gloves and other heavy clothing certainly existed and were used. These tools were used primarily for technique training and various types of drills and light play. (De Rei Militari, a famous treatise on Roman infantry tactics that mentions fencing against a pole driven into the ground, was quite popular in this period, but it's unknown whether anyone actually attempted to recreate this alleged training activity.)

In order to train aggression and striking with full force, they engaged in tournament play just as we do. Knightly tournaments (later adopted by the Burgher class as well) conducted in full armor with wooden swords or, later on, simpler cudgels are well-documented in the late Medieval and early Modern periods. These were generally fought with the objective of knocking an opponent to the ground or otherwise beating him into submission, turning into long contests that tested endurance as much as they did technique. Likewise, the Fechtschule tradition included wet bouts, or “fencing to the bloom”, in which the fencers were unarmored, the Feders were sharpened, and the goal was to open a bleeding wound on the head of one's opponent (or a higher bleeding wound, if both were struck in the same exchange).

Test cutting as we apply it today is not documented historically, but that is not to say that there was no cutting practice. The most war-like guilds of the Burgher class were those who worked with blades every day, such as the furriers (who were often named interchangeably with the Marxbruder guild), butchers, and tanners, and those who made and maintained such weapons, such as the cutlers (equally synonymous with the Veiterfechter), sword-polishers, and so on. But more importantly, the weapons of the hunt—spears, crossbows, and swords—were well aligned with the weapons of war in the early Modern period and the popular activity of hunting was a prime opportunity to learn cutting and thrusting against living creatures (and also become accustomed to taking life).

(A more direct analog to our test-cutting is the practice of cutting clay towers or pyramids, but while that has been documented among Arabic and Persian cultures in the early Modern period, we have not yet found direct evidence of it in Europe until much later, so we cannot yet say with certainty that it occurred.)

With this is mind, let us now turn to current practices in HEMA.

Triangulation Today

The Albion Alexandria, a very sharp sword

The Albion Alexandria, a very sharp sword

Sharp Swords

While we refer to these swords as training tools, let’s not mince words: these are weapons, and the same sword you cut grass mats with is the one you’d use to kill or maim (if, you know, you ever were in a situation where that came up). For this reason, sharp swords demand constant caution and complete respect from their wielders. The other tools described below are toys designed to simulate this weapon, so in this article I’m going to try to limit my use of the word “sword” to describing only these.

A portion of our training should always include real swords (or else we face the problem that, as my first teacher liked to put it, “toy swords make toy soldiers”). The purpose of training with sharp swords is to instill in fighters a good sense of how the weapon they are studying and training for actually behaves, and to learn what physical mechanics are necessary to apply the art effectively with that weapon. In addition to mechanics, sharp training is also important for understanding the psychological factors involved in facing an opponent with a dangerous weapon. And they are vital for identifying the artifacts inherent in play with the simulators described further on.

Thus, sharp swords are used by fighters at all levels for target cutting; a good target medium will illustrate every flaw in a cut and can be easily read by an instructor or an experienced student. Grass mats (tatami), tightly rolled and bound, are the most popular medium for testing cutting mechanics these days (a practice originally pioneered by Japanese fencers earlier in the 20th century when they were faced with a similar problem to ours). Clay is another cutting medium that sometimes sees use, based on a documented practice among Medieval Arab cultures as mentioned above. Plastic bottles, cardboard tubes, and various gourds are also used occasionally when nothing better is available, but their value as learning aids is minimal.

Swords are also sometimes used by fighters at all levels for solo drills such as cutting in the air. Intermediate and advanced fighters may use swords for certain partner drills (even including slow free-play). In partner drills with sharp swords, obviously no blade-to-body contact is ever attempted; instead, fencers focus on internal skills like Fuhlen (feeling) and on creating openings through binding and winding, always being careful to stop their weapon’s movement well short of their intended target.

We call this type of activity “fencing to the opening”, indicating that the action ends as soon as the opportunity for a good strike appears. Because no contact is intended and it is reserved for advanced fighters, fencing to the opening is generally practiced with little or no personal protective equipment (PPE) except, perhaps, goggles or light gloves.

Finally, sharp swords may also be used for manual interpretation, even though that's not an activity that all schools engage in during class (though it should be, dammit, and I'll die on that wall).

Play with sharps obviously has an extreme danger potential and requires fencers to stop their weapon well short of their targets—we are never talking about actually touching another person with a sharp sword, nor are we advocating the sometimes-deadly historical practice of fencing to the bloom. Do not do that. When in doubt, always do what your instructor tells you, not what you read here, and never engage in an activity with real swords that you are not convinced that you can perform safely.

The Albion Liechtenauer, a very blunt simulator

The Albion Liechtenauer, a very blunt simulator

Blunt Simulators

A very important tool that has nevertheless seemed to be waning in popularity in the past five years (in some sectors of the community, at least) is the blunt sword simulator. This is not, as mentioned above, a sword, but rather a training tool with a similar shape, weight, balance, and other handling characteristics. They generally achieve this by retaining the same mass as a sword, but adding wide fullers and shifting more steel to the edges of the blade, producing a relatively wide striking surface on the edge and enough flex in the weak of the blade to allow somewhat safe thrusting.

Blunt simulators allow us to train in ways that would be reckless and probably deadly with sharp swords. With blunts we can make physical contact with our training partners without necessarily risking injury, and thus we can practice applying the mechanics learned from sharps with more speed and pressure and in more complex conditions. Because they retain the shape and handling of a sword, they behave in a more sword-like fashion in the bind (though the lack of a sharp edge is still a limiting factor that must be accounted for). The emphasis in training with blunts should always include applying the lessons learned from sharps, but in more adversarial situations.

Thus, blunt simulators are used by fighters at all levels for solo drills and for most kinds of partner drills. Blunts are also used by intermediate and advanced fighters for light to moderate sparring (or even heavy sparring, with appropriate personal protective equipment). Blunts are not as dangerous as actual swords, but still require fencers to control their power level and strike at less than full force—activities with blunts are generally fought to a solid tap or light hit.

We call this kind of activity “fencing to the touch”, to indicate the level of force used. Fencing to the touch is generally practiced in light PPE that protects vital body parts, such as a fencing mask, gloves, and a gorget. Heavy PPE such as that used in tournaments is usually not necessary, except as added insurance on occasions when fencers decide to spar with moderate intensity and injury is thus more likely.

And, of course, blunts should generally be used for manual interpretation by fighters who are not cleared for or not comfortable with sharps.

A Regenyei Trnava, a very foiled Feder

A Regenyei Trnava, a very foiled Feder

Feders

The third tool in our tripod is the foil (a name that makes some people bristle, but really, the historical roots of the term apply just as much to our longsword trainers as they do to the traditional epee trainer) or Federschwert (“feather sword”; this is a name of uncertain origin that is nevertheless quite popular in the community today). In many clubs foils are replacing the blunt in training these days, which is an unfortunate trend we are trying to reverse. This tool only vaguely resembles a real sword, with a blade that is much narrower than that of many historical two-handed swords (comparable to an estoc or rapier), and generally a wider point, more length, more flexibility, and less blade presence than the weapons Liechtenauer would have taught. It is, however, specially-designed to fill a certain niche in training, and indispensable for that function.

Foils are used primarily to learn to maintain correct form and technique while fencing with a full-body target area and at high levels of speed and power—without compromising the safety of our training partners. They also allow us to fence in an aggressive and adversarial fashion that is, perhaps, closer to the energy of a “real fight”. Foil fencing also produces the most artifacts, which is why they are not ideal for use in normal drilling; that said, regular training with sharps and blunts will help fighters remain cognizant of those artifacts and try to limit them in their sparring.

Foils are used by fighters at all levels for dynamic and full-force/full-contact drills, and for all kinds of sparring. Fighters who are preparing for tournaments will also use Feders in place of blunts for much of their drilling and light sparring, in order to maintain familiarity with the tools of competition.

This type of fencing is called “fencing to the blow”, indicating that the strikes will land at close to full force. Fencing to the blow should be performed only with fairly comprehensive PPE, including heavy gloves, a hard gorget, protection for the back of the head, and padded torso and leg protection. Hard-shell elbows, knees, forearms, and shins are also sometimes worn, depending on the force both parties are capable of generating. As the thin blade of a Feder (combined with a higher level of force) is more prone to breakage than a blunt, a hard chest-plate and generally puncture-resistant garments may also be desirable.

Foils are suitable for interpretation of some later-period sources, but are inferior to blunts for most treatises.

What to Buy First

Since owning even entry-level models of all three of these tools will generally include a cost approaching a thousand dollars, it is not feasible for beginners and only sometimes feasible for intermediate students. For this reason, the amount of each activity that an individual fighter can engage in is generally determined as much by the limitations of club resources and personal finances as it is by best practices.

As far as which order to purchase these tools, I recommend the following:

  1. Blunt
  2. Feder
  3. Sword

For fencers starting out, the most important tool they can purchase is a blunt simulator (apart from a mask, gorget, and gloves, obviously). Beginners will spend far more time drilling and their sparring will consist only of fencing to the touch, and a blunt will teach them better mechanics than a foil ever could. As they progress, they can begin purchasing a Feder and the more comprehensive protective equipment necessary for fencing to the blow.

A sharp sword should come last; there is rarely a time that every fencer in the room will need a sharp at once, so a beginning fencer should be able to borrow when he needs one. (Apart from which, a sharp represents the largest investment of the three, and it’s good to borrow many different models to settle on one that you love first.)

Conclusion

Even though this is how many of the best fighters coming out of xKdF have taken to training, it is far from the last word on the subject of training tools. For example, some fighters also advocate using wood or synthetic wasters for solo training against a pole, and that isn’t covered in any of the above. The amount of protective equipment that is ideal for each of these activities is also far from a settled question; some clubs drill with sharps without gloves or eye protection, while others put on full tournament kit even for structured drilling with feders.

So we continue. Maybe in another five years someone will write a column about triangulation that paints all of this as ridiculous. Actually, knowing our community, that will probably happen in five days or five hours.

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