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.