The New York Historical Fencing Association is a school of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). Our studies are based on the teachings of the 14th century German fencing master Johannes Liechtenauer. Although we focus primarily on the longsword, our curriculum includes wrestling, dagger, sword and buckler, spear and poleaxe. NYHFA is a member of the HEMA Alliance.

New Location!

NYHFA Longsword Curriculum is now being offered in Manhattan, through Sword Class NYC, taught by NYHFA Instructor Tristan Zukowski. Please visit for all information pertaining to class schedule, class fees, etc.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Tournament Angst, And Why You Should Get Over It.

Back in 2009, 2010, when tournaments were just beginning to enter the consciousness of the US HEMA community in a big way, I too had tournament angst.  I shared all of the common concerns (oh no, sport fencing!) and I felt like an outsider, like all the reputation and respect I had built up by posting in forums was going to be eclipsed by these upstarts and their tournaments(this is both funny/sarcastic and serious at the same time).  I remember reading something about a European longsword champion and I thought, "What?  What's a longsword 'champion'?  This is not a sport!  This is a hard core combat martial art!  Why are these people hopping around and sniping at each other like a pair of bunnies on crack?"  Then I watched some tournament fights on youtube and thought, "Ha!  These people suck!  I can take them out easy!"  (hahahaha yeah right!)
Back then I had recently started training in JSA, again, but this time under a serious, real deal teacher whose training had a tremendous focus on the martial aspects of swordsmanship.  The symbol of the dojo is three dragonflies in a circle, which represents the “holy trinity” of technique (kata), cutting and gekken (sparring/free fencing).  It is where I got my own ideas on the balance of those things in a weapon art.  I learned small details that you could never think of on your own (well maybe one or two, but definitely not all), such as centering, structure, pressure, little things like ingraining the motion required to pull the sword out after a thrust into your muscle memory, etc.  This was the most martial sword training I'd ever had, and I loved it.  That was why I was surprised to find out that my teacher competed in gekken tournaments. 

"Tournaments?" I said.  "But...that's a sport!"
"Yes," he agreed (paraphrased).  "Tournaments are a sport, but they are a great way to test yourself and your technique, and if, in your mind, you approach them in a martial way, they can be an excellent training tool.  Just don't get focused on competition, remember why you train."

That was when I decided to enter my first ever HEMA tournament, Longpoint 2011.  I thought I was going to go there and just win the whole thing.  I thought this because I never lost a fencing match (I fenced with people at events and gatherings and such) except under special circumstances (injury, exhaustion, etc.) and thought I was a real badass.  So imagine my surprise when I got my backside handed to me and didn't even make it out of the pools.  I was crushed.  So much so that I almost quit HEMA.  I might have actually done so if not for Jake Norwood and Scott Brown, who agreed to fence with me the next day (my attitude at the time was, "why should they agree, I am a loser, I bombed out, I suck, I am not worthy).  So I fenced with them, and I did well, and was very happy with the results.  So, I still had it.  But then...why had I bombed out of the tournament?  Like most, I blamed everything but myself.  Tournaments suck.  Judging sucks.  The type of fighting in tournaments is unrealistic.  Some people just flail and score points.  And you know what?  All of that is true.  And yet, some people had no problems consistently dominating and doing well: going far in the brackets, placing, and even winning.  So why not me?

After much soul searching, and after speaking to my battodo teacher, I realized that despite the fact that tournaments suck (and always will), the failure was mine.  My weakness, my problems.  I was too easily unhinged, mentally.  I couldn't focus under stress.  I was weak.   I was a bad fencer, despite being able to kick ass outside of a stressful situation.  Little things began to add up.  I had never played competitive sports as a kid, I wasn't used to high stakes high stress situations, I got nervous every time I had to fence someone, even in my own school, and so on.  In short, I had issues, serious issues.

There was only one thing to do.  Get better.  Face my fears, conquer my issues.  Keep entering tournaments, do better.  Shifting the focus of NYHFA’s training or even my own training towards competition was out of the question (my focus remains, and always will, on the no holds barred fight to the death with swords...e.g. “stab him in the face!!”).  But I now had an incredible opportunity to test and improve myself in the highest stress situation I would ever face with a sword in hand (hopefully!), and over the next couple of years I learned to appreciate the opportunities these tournaments gave me to improve myself, my character, my skills and my state of mind.   Whatever ego I had was destroyed and replaced with confidence and respect for others.  I made some lifelong friends whom I truly love, and I got to experience fighting so intense, and so amazing, that it became one of the highlights of my life (an example is my fight with Jake Norwood in the PNWHG finals in 2012...oh my god, that was an amazing experience).

In short, tournaments have made me a better fighter, a better person and a better teacher.  And, surprisingly, a better martial artist.  So, if you have tournament angst, and/or if you feel left behind by the direction the HEMA community is going, get over it.  Seriously.  Quit your complaining and come and compete.  Win or lose, you will be better for it. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


As I get ready to attend Longpoint 2013 and compete in open steel longsword, I can't help but think about the temptations of tournaments and how they can be a constant struggle.  I was in Dick's sporting goods look for some thigh armor to avoid the sort of monster bruise I picked up in Fechtschule America and for just a moment, I thought of myself as an athlete.  There I was, in the athletic section of a sporting goods store, picking out athletic gear.  Why not, right?  Except that I am not an athlete.  I am a martial artist.  There is a very clear distinction between the two.  An athlete competes in a sport, and martial artist trains in the arts of fighting. 

Tournaments are great training tools, they test you in ways noting else in HEMA can.  For those of us who take them seriously, they can be a pretty harrowing experience.  But they have a dark side too, one that can hurt your development as a martial artist.  In the weeks or even months leading up to a tournament, it is very tempting to focus on those aspects of your training that will help you win.  Focus on hitting fast and hard, rather than striking with sound cutting mechanics.  Work to make yourself faster by using your arms rather than your body (this backfires in a big way in the long run) be able to strike with smaller and smaller motions than you would be able to cut with.  In other words, to cheat.  "This is what is described in the texts, but don't do it that way, because that wouldn't work in a tournament, the judges wouldn't see it."  Have you ever said or even thought something like that?  I'll admit it, I have, and I felt dirty.

Perhaps that constant struggle with our desire to win and take shortcuts is part of how a tournament challenges us and tests our character.  I don't know what the future of tournaments is, or how it will affect HEMA. Now that cutting tournaments are becoming more common, that temptation to avoid that part of your training may lessen.  In the mean time, I know of no better training tool to test the dynamic application of the art, so I will continue to compete, and to struggle.  I'll let you know how it turns out. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Approach to Martial Swordsmanship

A lot of people assume that my views on what makes a weapon art martial or not martial are based on Japanese swordsmanship.  Actually, this is not the case at all.  I have an internal litmus test for what makes a martial art and I developed it, without knowing I was doing it, in the army, while learning how to kill people with rifles, grenades, rockets and tanks.

When, later on in life, I started learning to use a sword, the first thing I needed, naturally, was a sword.  Not a simulator or toy, but the actual sword I was learning to use.  How could I learn to use something I didn’t own or understand?  And how can you understand something like a sword without picking it up and using it?  I learned this in the army, where the first thing you learn that applies to combat (besides discipline) is how to work the rifle and your other weapons...not a toy rifle, the real one.  Then you learn to use the rifle on targets, so the next thing I needed to learn was how to apply my sword, that is, to use it against targets effectively .  When the army taught us to shoot, they explained the conditions we would be under when we fired on the enemy and what steps to take to survive them long enough to prevail.  They also showed us what parts of the target represented what, and where we should try to hit if we had a chance.  At first it was center mass because it maximizes the chance of a hit, but later on in my brief but interesting "career," I learned about anatomy and how to kill better by understanding where to shoot or stab.  This direct application of weapon to test target seemed so natural and so necessary that when I learned about cutting it was just a simple extension of that same principle.  To me, when someone claims to be practicing a sword art but doesn't practice cutting or doesn't understand how that practice applies to the use of the real weapon, that seems very strange, like a soldier who never shoots his rifle.  I’m not saying it’s wrong, just that I don’t get it.

In the army, once we knew how to work our rifles, how to apply them to targets and how to do so under difficult conditions, they started teaching us how to do so against an uncooperative opponent who shoots back.  In swordsmanship, this is where free fencing (sparring, bouting, whatever) comes in.  But what is free fencing if you don’t know how to work and apply your weapon?  If you start you training with some plastic rifle simulator and shoot yellow plastic pellets and soda cans, then what you learn when it comes time for force on force training is made suspect by your lack of understanding of what is actually happening when you point it at someone and squeeze the trigger.  I believe the same applies to swordsmanship.

To summarize, first, you start with the real weapon you are learning to use.  Then you learn to apply that weapon, then you practice what you learned in a dynamic environment.  This is my approach to swordsmanship.  I’m not going to pretend it’s the only way to learn, particularly the order I have chosen, but I do have a hard time understanding other approaches (assuming martial swordsmanship is the goal).  I understand that there are lots of games involving sword like objects, and some of them can even teach me some of want I want to learn, but they are still not "learning to use a sword,” at least as far as I’m concerned.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Top Shot

You can learn a lot about the martial approach to KDF from watching History Channel’s Top Shot. I started watching season 2 and wondered about the generally lackluster performance from competition champions (with a few notable exceptions, JJ, Cliff, etc.). Even someone like JJ Racaza (world champion pistol shooter) doesn’t perform nearly as well as you would expect when you watch him shoot in competitions. You would expect him to completely dominate by a wide, wide margin, but he doesn’t, his skill is only marginally better than that of others unless the competition is his specialty, and even then the gap is not as wide as you'd think. I wondered why that was, until I saw the episode in season 2 when they brought JJ and Blake (another champion pistol shooter) back as experts to show off a particular competition skill. They were using tricked out competition guns, and their performance was amazing. That’s when it hit me. Tricked out competition guns.

Now, of course, it all makes sense. Many of the competition shooters on the show get eliminated early on because they shoot like crap. Some of them have a harder time hitting targets than military shooters or hunters who have never competed. Seeing JJ and Blake blaze away with their tricked out guns explained it all. Competition shooters train with specialty weapons made for competitions, that’s what they’re used to competing with. Red dot sights, compensators, balance weights, special barrels, etc. Their skill is calibrated for this weapon, and for most of them, when you give them a real weapon, their skills don’t shine through (the very best like JJ are always the exception, with the above mentioned caveats).

What does this have to do with KDF? Training with your ultra light plastic sword, or even your specialty made steel blunt, has about as much in common with training with a real sword as training with a tricked out biathlon rifle has in common with learning to use an M4 carbine. This is why so many seasoned KDF practitioners who take my cutting class have more difficulty cutting tatami than people who have never used a sword before. Yes, that’s right…I have an easier time teaching people off the street to cut than experienced KDF fighters (and women tend to be easier to teach than men). Why? Because they have spent so much time training to use plastic wasters and steel blunts with no real world feedback other than “I hit my opponent” that simulator oriented body mechanics and simulator oriented weapon control become deeply ingrained. Of course the best of the best do well, talent is talent, but think of how much better they’d be with actual training in the use of a real sword.

So what can we learn from Top Shot? Aside from all the lessons learned about performance in competition, which apply the same way to us as they do to them, there is the lesson of what to practice with. Hopefully by now you all know the value of solo practice. What you need to understand is the value of solo practice with the weapon you’re actually training to use. In NYHFA’s case, that is not the plastic sword, nor the padded one, nor the steel blunt. That is the real sword. If you don’t own one and you don’t practice with it, your technique is going to suffer for it...your real sword technique. In competition shooting, practicing with normal weapons is of little benefit since everyone else competes with specialty guns. The same is true for us. It’s hard to focus on an obsolete weapon when most others train to use light weight simulators in competitions, but that’s what we do in NYHFA. We train as true to the original intent of the art as we can. That means we compete, but we don’t train for competition. Learn from Top Shot, and don’t develop a skill that has little application to the martial art we practice.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Do your part

Sang Kim senis wrote a post on doing your part that you all should read.

Extra Training

Especially now that NYHFA NYC is on hiatus. It is not the time to slack off and wait, it is the time to step up your game and train as hard as you can on your own. Get together with fellow students and fight, drill, etc. When we get back into it, I want to see people who are better than when I left them, not rustier.