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.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Now that's more like it...

To address the problem discussed in my previous post, I brought in an Albion Earl longsword. Not only is this a sharp, but it is a realistic representation of a 15th century sword, not an ultralight designed to appeal to modern sensibilities.

The first thing I did was to have the students show me how they fought with a plastic simulator. I asked them to do the kind of moves they normally do in free fencing. Then I gave them the real sword and had them try to do the same thing. They quickly realized two things. One, they were considerably slower with the real sword than with the plastic, and two, a good percentage of their cuts were ineffective. The Earl is a very good longsword to test this out, because it is very, very loud (when you cut with proper edge alignment and velocity). So if you swing it and you hear nothing, you're wrong.

Imagine that...swinging a real sword and actually getting it to work right is really hard. Hmmmm...

After they took turns doing solo cutting drills with the real sword, we did some free fencing with a twist. The idea was to be honest, to yourself and your training partner, and only do things with the plastic sword that you could actually do with the real sword. Not only do, but do successfully.

The fencing was fantastic. Boris and Vlad participated, and both were able to keep it honest the vast majority of the time. I fought each of them, and they fought each other, and the fighting was really good, and really clean. The things they did were things they could actually do with a sword. The disconnect between cutting and fighting was, if not eliminated, greatly reduced.

Way to go, guys. Really well done. Now to try it on the rest of you and see if works just as well.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Stop playing games

I've been paying close attention lately to how you fight and cut, and your free fencing is writing checks your cutting can't cash.

When you fight, some of you are hopping demons, lashing out sword punishment like boxers dish out jabs. When you cut, you approach your target carefully, take some breaths, get ready and swing, knowing that if you screw up your angles or your velocity, you'll just knock the mat off the stand. This is good...for the cutting.

So let me ask you a question...what do you think you're doing in free fencing? How does a person who can only cut through a mat (which is easier than inflicting a critical injury to a human body) with careful preparation and with only a Zornhau and sometimes an Unterhau justify flinging their sword around like Bob Anderson? How many of your cuts would actually do any real harm to your opponent?

Look at the following image:

A represents correct edge alignment. The sword is perfectly aligned with the direction of movement. As you all know, this is what you need to cut successfully. Mats, people, anything. Nothing less will work.

B represents how most of you cut in free fencing. I've been watching you carefully and with few exceptions, about 70-95% (depending on who you are) of your cuts are like B (with the exception of the Zornhau, which is mostly okay). Do you know what happens when B strikes a person? Nothing. No matter how hard you hit, all you're going to do is really, really piss someone off, and then you will die.

The other issue is small motions, quick motions, the kind of stuff you see a lot on Youtube bouting vids. Sword jabs, if you will. You'll often see me making quick and small motions such as these in free fencing, but that's because I can cut with those motions. If you can't, then you don't get to use them.

Why are you doing all this? It varies for each individual. Some of you are so eager to score a hit that you swing wildly, even in winding drills. Some of you move faster than your brains can follow--you act without thinking. Some of you take advantage of the light weight of the plastic simulators and pay no attention to the realities of a much heavier steel sword.

I often tell you that cutting must inform your free fencing and your drills, yet so far this is not happening. You cut carefully and deliberately, but fight like rabid monkeys. For example, I see a lot of you leaving the bind to launch a quick cut to someone's side or stomach horizontally. That's fine, many of you can cut a tatami mat horizontally that way? Well if you can't, what exactly do think you're doing using that cut in free fencing?

I want you all to stop playing games. Stop treating free fencing like a competition in which the object is to score points by touching your opponent with your sword or whacking them with it as though it were a club. If this is what you really want to do, there are Jedi lightsaber classes offered all over the city. No edge alignment or power generation or tip velocity is necessary, because light sabers are plasma weapons and kill on contact. Real swords, however, take a lot of skill, and a lot of patience.

What's that you say? Lightsabers aren't real? It's all fantasy? Well, so is your free fencing if you don't try really hard to use your fencing simulator like a real sword, with all the limitations inherent in the weapon and in yourselves.

Why am I suddenly being such a hard ass about this? Because when you fight like you have a lightsaber instead of a sword, you're forcing your opponent to react to you as though you were a much better fencer than you really are, except that you're not acting like a good fencer, you're acting like a wild man, and that compromises his or her ability to learn from free fencing. And that is, after all, the point of free fencing, even tournaments. To learn. Not to cheat and win. Respect for your fellow student is of the utmost importance. Your job is not just to learn to be a badass sword ninja killer. Your job is to help your fellow students learn, and theirs is to help you. We all support each other. Keep that in mind next time you flick your wrist for that fight winning point or charge in like a screaming barbarian with no concern for edge alignment or any of the other aspects of proper cutting.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Posturing does not equal intent

Since no one has yet commented on last Saturday's lesson..

A lot of attention was given to high vom Tag, and how it is to be used (and how not). Although posturing is useless in any guard (by posturing I refer to assuming a guard either for no tactical reason, or worse, without intent) it is extremely dangerous in high vom Tag. Not dangerous in the sense that it leaves you particularly open, although quick hand snipes are certainly possible. Dangerous in the sense that if you are in high vom Tag, the sword must come down: it's an aggressive guard, and must be taken as a serious threat. However, if one simply holds a high vom Tag and doesn't strike, the sense of aggression is completely lost. Your opponent will take advantage of this, and start going for the hand snipes, etc.

In short, take high vom Tag, and mean it. Bring that sword down on your opponent's head; make him aware of the danger they are in.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Training for a Tournament

With Longpoint 2011 just around the corner, preparing for a tournament should be on everyone's mind (don't forget to register here: ). This is part of the reason we've started doing the stations workout in class, and also the reason I have considerably upped the intensity of my personal nightly training regimen.

However, when preparing for a historical fencing tournament, we have to remember that the focus of our training should be...historical fencing. Fitness is extremely important, and a good training regimen will incorporate a lot of endurance and strength boosting exercises, but fitness should not be the focus or goal of your training. Your routine shold focus mostly on building the core skills of swordsmanship: coordination, balance, power generation, reflexes and, most importantly, technique. I've written in the past about what all the best professional athletes have in common, and that is that they train not just for resulsts, but for the refinement of individual techniques. And so you should train in the fashion as well. Solo cutting drills, pell work, forms, etc.

I've outfenced people who were in 100 times better shape than I was, but I've also lost fencing matches because I was too tired from previous matches. You have to find a balance. Skill is number one, but endurance cannot be forgotten. Happy training, and good luck in the tournament!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Scoring Hits in Free Fencing

The other day we were doing some free fencing, and one of the students wanted to challenge me with steel. So we got to fighting. In one particular exchange, his sword made contact with my right arm and “sliced” along the sleeve of my gambeson. The judges called a point. I said, "No." As the teacher, I get to make such decisions. The judges did not understand, but the other fencer did. Don’t get me wrong, I like it when my students hit me, it means I’m doing my job. But this was different.

A sword is not a light saber. It is not enough merely to touch someone with it. You have to cut them. Or stab them, or slice really hard. Even a thrust has to be delivered with force. There are people who think it takes very little effort to put a sword point into someone's body, but those people apparently like to fight naked, and without bones. That's some trick!

There is a clear dividing line between excessive force and a decisive hit. You don't have to hit someone hard, but you have to hit them. Or if you sword happens to make contact with their arm or other part of their body, you have to turn the edge to the target and push/pull hard and slice (no need to worry about holding back for these!). If you thrust, I want to see the blade flex, or it doesn't count, particularly with the plastic swords.

There is a great danger to counting light touches. It leads to massive distortions of free fencing, which already has more than its share of artifacts. This is one of the reasons we practice cutting. You know what it takes (technique wise, not just force wise) to cut a mat. It takes more than that to mortally wound a human being. There are reasons to cut back on force in free fencing, but not technique.

As the months roll on, I will be increasingly strict on what I consider a "point" in free fencing. My ultimate goal is to have you guys deliver each strike cleanly and decisively and avoid small snipy movements. Note that this has nothing to do with hand all means take the hand. But take it decisively.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Cheezy Hand Snipes

Some people don't like to be hit in the hands, wrists or legs. Especially when they are standing in a guard like Vom Tag and someone closes, whacks the hand with a one handed cut and steps back out range before you can blink. Some people consider that a form of cheap shot, or cheating, or cheezy fighting.

Let's examine the scenario objectively. Two swordsmen draw their weapons and prepare to kill each other. One is angry at some slight to his honor and is a strong, powerful man. He wants to split his opponent's skull or cleave him in two. He raises his sword over his head and prepares to attack. All of a sudden, the other man launches a quick strike that hits the big man on the left wrist, severing most of the tendons and biting into the bone. The fight is effectively over.

When this happens in free fencing, people complain. They criticize the other fighter, they call him names like "hand sniper." Well, guess what. He hit you, you didn't hit him, and if he can keep doing it to you over and over while you stand there helpless, he's a better swordsman than you. The hand sniper in the above story saw a weakness in his opponent and exploited it. The other one had a preconceived notion of how the fight would go and got killed for his efforts. Preconceived notions are for ivory tower academics and fools, not martial artists.

Like them or not, such sniping hits are a perfectly valid vorschlaag (the first strike). When you stand in high Vom Tag, your left wrist is the closest target to your opponent, and getting struck there will end the fight without putting dings on your opponent's sword. Why would someone attack a more distant target and put himself in greater danger? Know your vulnerabilites in any position, and know how to react to their exploitation.

As Liechtenauer says, "do not shun the tag hits." So stop whining about cheezy hand sniping and learn how to deal with it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

I can't practice at home because...

I hear this all the time.

"I can't practice at home because I have low ceilings."
"I can't practice at home because I have no room."
"I can't practice at home because...etc."

Yes, you can practice. You just don't want to. Some of you remember the fish grill. It is a cooking implement I lent to one of our students that makes a perfect practice weapon for confined spaces. It can even make a good sound when your "edge" alignment is correct.

The point of the fish grill is, where there's a will, there's a way. Want to practice? Take a waster. Cut it in half (or smaller). Duct tape a small weight to the end. With something like this you can practice in an airplane bathroom.

There is only one reason not to practice, and that is you don't want to. Admitting that is the first step.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


One of the common ills inherent in practicing a work-in-progress recreated art is a lack of consistency. How you do things changes as you make new discoveries, and it is not uncommon to have more than one way of doing something because you're just not sure which is the best way.

The problem is, what you are losing by not picking one far exceeds any potential gains from diversifying.

The problem with allowing for diversity in your body mechanics is that you never train yourself to be consistent, and without consistency your practice is only partially effective. When you force yourself to do things a specific way, you are teaching your body how to comply with your will, to do things the way you want them done when you want. This is a form of discipline. Discipline, both mental and physical, is the cornerstone of martial arts. You can learn and memorize a thousand techniques, but if you can't control your body under duress then those techniques are worthless.

Another reason for consistency is muscle memory. It is a powerful force, easily demonstrated in most people's every day lives. When was the last time you consciously thought about turning the wheel or pushing pedals in a car? If you have too many ways of doing something, your muscle memory may become confused, or you may run into problems recalling the appropriate muslce memory to deal with the situation at hand.

In other words, if you have 10 ways of doing something, when are you wrong? And if you're never wrong, how can you be right?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


One of the most important aspects of good body mechanics is also the most neglected and the easiest to do...posture. It's very simple: keep your back straight as you strike, or you may trip and fall on your face.

I've previously discussed using video as a training aid. Record yourself doing some striking drills and freeze frame at the moment of impact. Is your back straight? Or are you leaning forward? If the latter, you are wrong, and need to correct yourself.

This is a mistake many people make, including myself, particularly in the heat of free fencing when you want those extra few inches of reach. However, there should be no excuse for doing this during drills. Be aware of what your body is doing, and keep your center of gravity where it the center.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Power distribution in a cut

I'd like everyone to read this blog post by Sang Kim sensei (link below). It talks about power distribution in a cut...that is, where you should be applying power and where you should be relaxing.

Don't worry...there are pictures.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Unnecessary pauses

After all the free-play we did on our first day back, Mike mentioned to me (among other things) that one of my weaknesses in bouting is that I tend to pause after I score a hit (or after I assume that I should've just scored a hit..). I realized that this had been a problem back in my epée fencing days as well, particularly after lunges. It occurred to me that this is due to two main reasons, one psychological and one physical.

Psychologically, it's connected to my desire to not only hit, but hit cleanly. Pausing is me going "Look at what I just did. This was intentional, not incidental." I'm sure that this'll be beaten out of me quickly enough - consider a certain post-kill thwap to the head that I received..

Physically, it's about balance: A] I'm overextending myself in lunging, making a recovery very slow (still doesn't excuse me from taking a defensive ward like Ochs, I know..); B] My weight distribution in passing steps is less than optimal, making movement generally slow. For example, Zwerchau combinations could be faster, because I'm wasting time shifting my weight in between.

Course of action:
I need to do more "improv" pell-work. A gambeson-pell like Mike's would help, but I can make it work with a fixed pell. The point is, I need to get my feet more connected with my sword - and fluidly - so I can deliver multiple attacks in succession, as well as being ready to get the hell out of the way if necessary.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Scholars and Martial Artists

If you ask a martial artist and a scholar...

"Can you do a Schielhau from Schrankhut?"

...the scholar might say, "No,it is only described as being used from Vom Tag."

Whereas the martial artist might say, "Of course you can."

I'd like you to think about this question over the summer, and when we resume training in September, tell me your answers. How can you do a Schielhau from Schrankhut (or Nebenhut) without first transitioning to another guard (in any way shape or form)?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why we do what we do...

I was watching the vid I posted of our recent promotion test and I asked myself, "Why do we put so much time and effort into something that's so utterly useless in modern society?"

Then I thought about it. Is art useless? Is history useless? Is tradition useless? Is beauty useless? Is love? Objectively, there are many things in our lives that have little or no practical purpose. There are many things we learn in school (philosophy, science, art, history) that are useless in most people's lives. Yet if you think about it, these are the things that enrich us, these are the things that give us purpose, that make life worth living.

We, you and I, are immensely privileged. We get to restore something that was lost, recreate something beautiful, something important, something that is a part of our collective cultural heritage, a part of who and what we were, and therefore, who we are today. If you think about it, this is a tremendous honor, because it is such important work. Archaeologists and historians are building medieval castles and villages so people can see what life was like. History professors research the past, reconstructing events, economies and cultures. What we are doing is the same, except that we focus on something more profound, something that defined not only how these people fought and died, but what was in their hearts.

Just think about it for a moment. We belong to a select few, a community of men and women who have pledged their time, their sweat and their blood to recreating a vastly complex system of combat that spanned three centuries and an entire continent. Ain’t that just freakin’ awesome?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

6/26/10 Promotion Test Results

Novice Test
Fabio - passed.
Steve - passed.

Senior Novice Test

Tristan - passed.

Vlad - provisional pass.*

Jonathan - provisinal pass.*

* A provisional pass means you did very well overall, but there were a few areas of the test that you messed up on. Because of how well you did, I don't want to fail you, so instead you will make up those portions in September.

Thank you to everyone who came to support and help us. Fencing with your guys was a privilege.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The purpose of intensity drills

It is important to remember the purpose of intensity drills. That purpose is to come as close as possible to real combat with a sword. An intensity drill simulates a single exchange that ends in someone's death. It is true in the body in every way--you advance, attack and defend the same way you would in earnest. Or at lest that is how you should do it.

The only way in which an intensity drill is not real, aside from the fact that real swords are not used (yet) and you are wearing protection, is in the mind. You know what's coming, and you know what you're going to do. Therefore, your mindset during such a drill is extremely important.

Clear your mind. Put aside thoughts of the day. Forget that you are tired, or hot, or thirsty, because a real adversary is not going to care about any of those things. Whether you are in the box doing the technique or you're the one being killed, forget about that. It hasn't happened yet. Know your role, know what to do, if you have to be weak, be weak, if you have to make a mistake so your training partner can do his technique, then make a mistake. But know all this in the back of your head. In the moment, it is real, and your life should flash before your eyes.

If you find that you are not in the right mindset and can't get there, let me know. To proceed under such circumstances would deprive both you and your training partner of a beneficial experience.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Winden across all the armory

It has been two days and I am still stunned by the glimpse of the unifying principle behind the Liechtenauer system. Conceptually, it is a very elegant choice of design (and also astonishingly practical): the idea is that the physics of action-reaction behind strike, bind and wind is independent of the weapon at hand. Longsword, staff, poleaxe, sword-and-buckler: no matter whether the hands move from hilt to handle, the very same physical principles apply. I found it enlightening. There can be few modifications to the posture, few tricks to exploit the absence of blades on poleaxes, or the symmetry of staffs, but the mechanics are identical. Ideally, with enough exercise, any object of adequate shape could fit into Liechtenauer's verses.
Often I find myself stuck on a wrong posture, a lack of support from the hips, or a bad trajectory of the sword-tip. Cycling through different weapons helped. Some required more focus on the posture, other on the movement of the feet, or the arms, and others just feel so natural that the whole action folds inside the muscles and it fixes there, in the memory.

"Strike, slowly. Feel the bind. Wind!"
Together with intensity drills, the bind-wind-free-play has, at its first attempt, been a very instructive activity. The duelists have to enter in a bind and from there find the way to thrust the opponent. It felt like a game of planning and quick thinking, probably pointing at the fact that I need to practice more the different winden. Yet, eliminating all the adrenaline-clogged introductory tagging dance helped and the following free-play was closer, faster and felt more natural. I'll be looking forward to more bind-wind-free-play.

P.S. a brief comment on bucklers: I dislike them. Besides my skin-feeling for such a wimpish option, I am not even sure they are of any practical advantage. They protect the left hand, fine enough, so that we can be sure to have one for the final handshake: at what cost? Still I am not completely convinced that a longsword, driven by two hands can't be as fast as a single-handed short sword. In addition, the choice of buckler may imply a different strategy when facing a longsword, a strategy of compromise between a weak attack, a weak bind, a sword with less inertia and a well protected left-hand: is it worth it? As of now, I think it is not.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Seminaring" first impressions

Seminaring involves our instructor plowing through a very broad repetoire of techniques with all students, regardless of their level. At first I wasn't too keen on the idea, since I much prefer working on a very few techniques (new or not) and practicing them over and over at length to internalize them—and this is typically how we practice. Seminaring does, however, provide a sort of "coming attractions" (at least this is how I explained it to one of my classmates) in the more advanced curricula. It also got some of the students thinking about why some of the "basic" techniques are done the way they are; and some students were able to anticipate counter-counter-techniques, etc. Also, it illustrated how the Master Cuts really do make up the bread and butter of the art; most of the counters to the advanced techniques (as far as I can remember) didn't involve any weird techniques.. mainly just the Master Cuts applied in different situations.

Overall, I'm still not a fan of doing so many techniques without many (if any) pauses for correction or explanation. Having said that... Yes, we as students need to be exposed to these techniques no matter what our level (see again the bread & butter comment above). Yes, maybe one or two might have gotten stuck in our memory and could be tried out in free play. Yes, it was probably good for our instructor to get a break from only ever doing the basic curriculum over and over :-)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Triumvirate of Training Types

Michael Chidester from True Edge Academy recently asked me to explain my idea of the "triumvirate" of training types...cutting, free fencing and drills. First, it's not my idea, it belongs to Sang Kim Sensei, and though I've been training that way almost since I first picked up a sword, it was Sang who put the idea into words for me and crystalized the importance of each of these forms and how they relate to each other. Our dojo mon (I say ours because I am, proudly, a member) is three dragonfly in a circle, each one representing a form of training, which is slightly different on the Japanese side--kata, gekken (free fencing) and cutting.

The reason for this post is that I made some effort to explain this concept to Michael and I want to share that post with you here:

"I grew up in Brooklyn, then served in the military, so I saw (but fortunately did not participate in) a good deal of violence. I’ve seen people who want to kill each other with a bat or a knife or a crowbar (or whatever) stand a few meters away and hop on their feet, taking cautious swipes, probing, but that is just the preamble, and is not the norm. If a man wants to kill another with a crowbar, he comes at him with everything he's got, fully committed (even if, on occasion, he hops around a bit first to get up his nerve). The other man either dies or gets one chance to do something, and usually only one combatant realizes that the fight has begun.

So if you look at a description of a play in a fechtbuch..."when he strikes A at you, you do B," it's basically a description of this type of violence. The drill that evolves from that, when done with full power and intensity, is therefore the closest you can actually come, in my opinion, to a real confrontation with a sword. It is artificial because you know it beforehand, but it is artificial only in the mind, not the body. So performance in drills, to me, is therefore extremely important. We do what I call "intensity drills" where the drills are done with 100% of what you've got. It's a bit dangerous, but worth it.

However, even with drills you have to ask yourself, what am I doing? What is the point of swinging this plastic or wooden or metal stick around? That's where cutting comes in. Cutting is the element of fighting missing from both drills and free play. By itself, it is imperfect, because the target does not move, is not armed, and does not fight back. However, it is only a piece of the puzzle. They are all a pieces of the drills, the target is cooperative, in free play, you just have to tag someone who is acting unrealistically (not coming straight in intent on bloody murder). Keep in mind we're focusing on the worst possible scenario, not all combat is uniform.

So what cutting does is it shows you what you're actually trying to accomplish when you swing your sword, and teaches how you have to move to accomplish it. Free fencing quickly separates the bullshitter from the fighter, cutting, the way I see it, separates the sport fighter from the martial artist. Approaching a target, timing your strike, getting your measure right, coordinating your body, keeping your center, maintaining your balance, composure, awareness, etc. etc. etc., and most importantly, that subtle motion of the sword along the target that is so hard to explain and teach but just comes to you naturally when you've been cutitng a while.

So after you learn to cut, you apply that same criteria to your drills, you strike at your opponent the way you would a cutting target. Now you have two pieces of the puzzle combined, and you practice both to maintain them. Finally, when you free fence, you come in fully committed, striking as you would a target, reacting as though a sharp sword is about to get you. This gives you all three pieces of the puzzle, if you can pull it off (I am still struggling).

I hope that answers your questions."

Friday, April 9, 2010

Test Cutting

As some of you know, test cutting is a regular part of our curriculum. Now that we're firmly in our outdoor training season, we are going to start cutting again. The first batch of mats has been ordered.

Cutting works like this:

You can buy your own mats, roll and soak them, and bring them to class on days when we do cutting. This is the cheapest option. Alternatively, you can pay me $10 per mat. This includes me rolling and soaking it. This is more expensive (mats cost about 7 bucks each), but more convenient for you.

Every NYHFA student is encouraged to own a sharp longsword made by Albion or Arms and Armor. There are other alternatives. The Tinker sharp longsword for CAS Hanwei is a good inexpensive cutting tool (at around $200 it's the best deal out there).

We use two kinds of mats. The first kind is Bugei Wara, the second is Mugen Dachi tatami. Wara are not easier to cut than tatami in terms of technique, but they do require less force and they are less likely to bend your sword. New students will always start learning on wara, and then proceed to tatami. Although many cuts in the system, such as zwerchhau, krumphau and schielhau will usually be done on wara regardless of skill.

Cutting is important for several reasons. Nakamura Taizaburo, founder of Nakamura Ryu battodo, said, "unless you experience cutting with a real sword, you will never begin to taste true sword technique." Truer words have never been spoken. You can't learn to shoot without firing a gun, and you can't learn to drive a car without getting behind the wheel. When you swing a sword, what are you actually doing? How do you know if you're doing it right, if your cut will actually have its desired effect? There are many kinds of cutting besides severing a mat, and we will practice many of them, but severing a target is the most fundamental, and the easiest to both learn and teach correct cutting technique.

Happy cutting.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Thoughts on Absetzen

During the intensity drills on Saturday, I found myself catching my partners' thrusts (or cuts) successfully, but I was aware that almost every time (except when there was a blatant tell before an attack) I was almost too late in the winding. Something was slowing me up. On Sunday while I was practicing at home, I re-read our notes, and saw that the von Danzig gloss tells that the step should come after the winding. I then practiced the winding from right Plug to left without moving my feet much at all: simply twisting my hips and sort of punching my right hand to the side. This seemed to be much faster than winding with a step, and also didn't change my measure (meaning it should be easier to catch my strong on the opponent's weak, because I'm not moving into them). Then, as per the gloss, I thrust while stepping with my right foot. My only concern here is the slightly less stable stance provided by the short-lived "backwards" footwork, but as the Absetzen shouldn't be occurring in grappling range, it might not be so serious. Not as much of a concern as, say, not winding in time. The left Plug does feel like it should be strong regardless, whether against a thrust or a low Oberhau. I would like to do some more Absetzen intensity drills next class to work on this; I'd also like to try it with the opponent counter-winding as per Mike's curriculum comments.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Free play with steel

Aside from the expected scrapes and bruises, bouting was exceedingly fun. I was a bit gun shy at first, so one of my main goals is to keep pushing forward.. or at least not retreat so much. It's a strange phenomenon, where once I found myself in a bouting situation, I was either thinking too much (and getting hit in the rather large tempos I was providing), or not thinking at all, and reacting with ineffective "oh sh!t" parries. Here are some mental notes I took away from the experience:

• Acquire a gambeson. While the fear of pain is good to help self-correct against "suicide attacks" or other stupid actions, too much pain/fear of pain will cause me to hesitate too much, and lose that forward movement.

• According to Mike: "When in doubt, wind to Ochs."

• Moving in is good, but being able to get out again before I get thrown onto the ground is good too.

I do see the value in free play, and how it teaches in a very different way than the highly-controlled intensity drills. However, I think what would be very valuable (and I seem to recall us—or at least the more advanced students—doing this at some point) would be a healthy medium: intensity drills wherein the agent has a limited variety of attacks to use (say, 2 or 3), and the patient must react appropriately.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


A student has many responsibilities, but I want to focus on just one:

Come to class prepared.

We only train once a week, and therefore it is essential that we make the most of that time. There are many things you can do to help make that happen. One of the most important ones is getting a good night's sleep. People don't function well when they're sleep deprived, and in an environment where you are swinging steel swords around, you can be a danger to yourself and others if you're running on a couple of hours of shut eye.

Eat breakfast and lunch. Class starts in the afternoon, so you have plenty of time to grab a bite to eat. If you're thinking about food and your stomach is grumbling, it's hard to concentrate. This not only compromises your training, but that of your training partners.

Come to class on time. If you live far away, and there is traffic, leave early. If you show up late every once in a while, that's no big deal, things happen. But if you're consistently late, then there's a problem. Being late disrupts class and takes time away from other people who did not come late.

So, what do you do if you get up an hour before class, after going to sleep two hours before that, are starving but would never make it on time if you stopped to get a bite to eat? That's easy. Don't come, and do better next week.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Again, and again, and again.

I don't have much to say except that yesterday's class was great, and was very much needed. While I do think that the intensity drills are very good for honing specific techniques and responses, constant repetition of techniques in a lower-intensity mindset like yesterday are wonderful—not only for tweaking technique, seeing what's working (or not) for you, and just committing those actions to muscle memory. I was more [physically] worn out after yesterday's class than I usually am. Felt good, and I hope we have more days like this in the future.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Results vs. Technique

While reading the new Freakonomics book (SuperFreakonomics), I came accross an interesting tidbit on professional athletes and decided to follow up with a little research of the studies behind it.

It seems that the overwhelming majority of the world's most successful athletes have one very important thing in common. They do not rely on their gifts alone (which they have), but train very, very hard. More improtantly, and more relevant to us, is how and what they train.

The world's best atheletes invariably train in a way that stresses both result and technique equally. Meaning, when practicing hitting a ball with a bat, the top athlete will not only practice with the goal of hitting a fast ball very far, he will work on the technique of his swing. Body position, timing, footwork, etc.

Athletes who rely on their gifts alone rarely if ever make it to the top, and neither do athletes who focus only on results.

How is this applicable to us? Many HEMA students show great skill and competence in free play, and perhaps in paired exercises, while showing poor technique in solo practice. If this describes you, considering the above advice, I strongly suggest you step up your game, because statistics don't lie, and while you'll always be good, you'll never be great.

Focus on your performance of individual techniques (cuts, thrusts, guard transitions, solo forms, etc.). Improve your fluidity, balance, coordination and precision. Practice slow and steady until you can do it perfectly.

Results are great, but ironically, it seems you can't achieve them by focusing on them, unless of course you're aiming low.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Learning by teaching

I like the little opportunities I get now and again to teach during class—even when I'm slightly unsure of myself (e.g. during Kampfringen). Teaching forces me to think more about what's going on, which also helps me internalize it. I recognize that there are plenty of things I need to practice just in the way of teaching (e.g. occasionally over-explaining), but I do like doing it, and I think it's very good for me to do it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The morality of martial arts

When you study deadly arts in a group with others, every single time you do this, you place these people in your hands; their safety, their progress, their future and their lives. The teacher guides the class, but the students are responsible for learning, but not only for their own learning, for that of their fellow students.

Students must learn to cooperate in paired exercises and other activities, and not try to win all the time, or they compromise their own learning and that of everyone they are paired up with. To do this, students must have respect for the art, for the learning process, for their teacher, for themselves and for their fellow students.

Students must understand the danger of what they practice and limit themselves accordingly so as not to injure their fellow students. Swordsmanship is a dangerous art to study, and the more vehemently one studies it the more dangerous it becomes. One must find the balance between effective training and safety, and to do this students will need to develop a sense of responsibility towards their fellows.

Students must obey school rules. Rules and rituals exist to help people get in the proper mindset, to keep them safe, and to remind them of what is important when studying. A particular student may not need these rules, or may not understand why they are needed, but he or she must still obey them for the benefit of others. To do this, students must have respect for and trust in the teacher who creates these rules, and a sense of responsibility to their fellow students, for even if one student doesn't need them, others do.

Students must give everything they have to the art, to train hard and to practice hard and to make the art their own. To do less would be to leech the time and energy of their teacher and fellow students, because if a student doesn’t take the art seriously, then he or she shouldn’t be studying it. This also takes responsibility and respect, most importantly respect for one self, but tempered by humility. A student does not deserve attention just because of who he or she is. A student must realize that he or she gives back to the teacher and other students by giving of oneself to the art, and by learning the skills and values (as discussed here), so that this person’s presence in a school is a benefit to everyone, and not a detriment.

This, to me, is what it means to be a martial artist, rather than just a fighter or thug. The martial artist learns and teaches, and that is not something that can be done solo. Anything that takes a group to do requires cooperation, responsibility, trust, respect and humility.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

We are celebrities... Korea.

Our two cutting videos now have over 10,000 hits. Apparently, people in Korea are very interested in Medieval martial arts and test cutting. I think this is great. These arts are European in origin, but they do not belong solely to Europeans. They are a collective cultural treasure that belong to everyone in the world, and I am honored to share these arts with our friends overseas.

The Asian people have shared their martial arts with us for a long time, and I'm glad that we now have something to give back to them.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Working on my Zornhau: getting worse before getting better

As I've mentioned before, I regard myself as having an adequate technical knowledge of the Zornhau [Oberhau from right shoulder] and understand what aspect of it I'm trying to improve: maximum arm extension (without locking the elbows) to give the cut just a little more range. So, over the last few days I've been working on just that. Or so I thought. Yesterday I was very frustrated because it seemed as though my Zornhau was getting considerably worse: beyond the fact that I was lacking that satisfying fsst as the blade sweeps through the air (probably a sign that my edge alignment sucked), the tip of the weapon was travelling in a distressingly wobbly line. This wasn't only happening during fast cuts, but also when I cut slowly.

The only thing to do was go back to the basics: forget full extension, forget adjusting my grip on the hilt (which I realized I was also giving a little too much thought to, after being reprimanded by my teacher to stop opening & closing my hands while in vom Tag), and just cut. "Punch" with the right arm, "kick" with the right foot to swing the hip. I simplified it further, by using a one-handed grip on the sword to eliminate any possible interference from my left hand. After a while, I began to notice a slight improvement. Satisfied that at least I wasn't getting worse any more, I moved on with the rest of my practice. This morning, I practiced it the same way, stripping the cut down to just the things that make it a cut. We'll see where my cut is next week; maybe I'll still need to extend a bit more, or make some other small adjustments, but for now, I'm letting that stuff go.

EDIT: After some discussion with the teacher, apparently the "punch" mechanic is obsolete for our purposes. Back to the drawing board with this one. I'm just looking for consistently good results here.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Effective immediately, stop doing Scheitelhau from on-the-shoulder Vom Tag. Never, ever, ever do it again.

Do it from over-the-head Vom Tag only.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Practice felt good this morning. I'm finally getting to the point where I have a decent repertoire to go through. I can see myself a month ago practicing one thing, then standing around scratching my head, looking at notes, and then deciding what do practice next. Now, there are enough things that I know on a good enough technical level to practice without second-guessing myself with Am I doing this right?.. I can just get right to making it better than yesterday. For example, I know my Zornhau is more or less correct; now it's time to work on getting that extension of the arms.

I (re-)started pell work this morning; my back yard is almost defrosted enough (there are still some icy patches on the ground that refuse to go away). Mike's taught us to use the pell not only for striking, but also for the approach: smooth steps, on the balls of the feet, coming into measure. This is something I'd never even considered when I originally made my pell, and now it's twice as useful as a practice tool.

Both Monday and Tuesday mornings I got a good 30 minutes of solid practice in, but even now I'm remembering things I left out, or could've done differently. My personal goal for now is to get up to 45 min a day.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Every fight...

There is a saying I've picked up along the way: "Step into every fight as if it were your last." The point of the proverb is to engender caution, since you never know if you will die in the conflict to come. Always treat your every opponent as if they can kill you and his every blow bearing such intent.

If you always train with that in your mind, then when it finally comes to blows, it will feel like you are training rather than feeling like an alien situation. Unfamiliarity breeds fear, and fear is the mindkiller. It has no place in your heart when you fight, and thus no place in your being when you train.

On a similar note, you must make your opponent believe that fighting you is a big, if not grievous mistake. The subtleties of this psychological warfare begin in your body language. Express the strength of your stance out of measure, make known the confidence of your stride as you come into measure, and strike with cold, calculated efficiency in krieg.

I believe this element of combat should be noted often, since I've noticed a significant enough lack of confidence in the actions of some of the students.

Friday, January 29, 2010


As some of you know, I’m a writer, and there’s something we hear a lot of in the writer community—you’re not a writer if you don’t write. It’s not enough to visit writing forums, or attend weekly writer’s workshops, or call yourself a writer in your facebook profile. Well, the same is true in martial arts. You're not a martial artist if you don't train.

Everyone should, ideally, practice for half an hour to an hour a day at least three times a week, not including class on Saturdays. All of you have the space, time and equipment to practice, whether you know it or not. A few weeks ago I brought a fish griller into class as an example of what to use in a cramped space. You can also use it in place of a weight bar—put something heavy in the grill and tape it with duct tape.

You need a pell. If you don’t have a pell, make one. Those of you who live in private homes can dig a hole, fill it with cement and stick in a treated 4x4. If you rent, or live in an apartment, get a small car tire and make a ceiling mount with a chain so you can take it off when you’re not using it. If neither of those things work, buy an inflatable karate target, or one with a water filled base. Where there is a will, there is away.

Everyone should be doing the drills, both guard transition and striking drill, repeatedly, every time you practice. In addition to that, do twenty or more of each cut from each side—all the meisterhau, unterhau and mittlehau. Then do twenty or more thrusts from each side from Pflug, Ochs, with and without steps. Novices should practice solo drill forms of each item in their curriculums that they have been taught. Remember, never cut air, never counter air. Always see an opponent in front of you. Half of your workout should be pell work. Use a waster for this, steel will break (as recently proven). They are called wasters for a reason.

Strength/endurance training is great, but it doesn’t count as practice, or we would be going to marathon runners to learn how to use a sword. That said, you should definitely do it, and the more the better. Running and weight lifting are the easiest and least useful, which is not to say not useful. Speed rope is fantastic (and does count as part of practice), as it makes you lively on your feet and enhances your hand/foot coordination which is crucial in swordsmanship. I highly recommend everyone get a speed rope. I’ve previously asked everyone to buy a 6lb weight bar and use it as a sword for a portion of your workout. This is a great way to not only build strength but to teach you to use your body instead of your arms.

One aspect of intense training people often forget is endorphin release. Training hard feels good. Really, really good. Aside from that, don’t hesitate to use music or anything else that gets you motivated. Remember, if you want to be a martial artist, you have to train. There is no way around that.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Personally, I love questions. I love to answer them, I love the look of "oh!" on people's faces when they understand the answer. The problem is, we have limited time in class, and I have limited mental energy to give you. So please stop asking questions during class.

Let me rephrase--ask questions about what you need to do at that given moment, as briefly as possible. These are necessary, because if you don't know, you can't proceed. However, general questions, such as why we train a certain way, why I do things a certain way, etc., these have to go away. They need to go away to a place called "after class" or the NYHFA blog. Breaks are not a good time for these questions, becuase breaks are limited, and as I have proven in the last class, my love of questions makes me easily distracted and I am prone to rambling on well past the end of the break.

The more important factor that comes into this, however, is trust. I know how to do something that you don't know, and so you come to me to learn. Good, that's why I'm here. Now shut up and let me teach you. You will come to understand everything if you let the knoweldge be absorbed at the right time. You cannot rush knowledge. I can tell you everything I know in an hour. Will that mean you will know it all too? Knowledge must be earned.

As my friend and colleague Jessica Finely said recently, "When was the last time you sat down with a child and explained to them how to ride a bicycle?" I replied, "Never, I just set them on the bike and yell at them 'till they get it." She said, "Exactly."

Our new training model is train more, talk less. This is for your benefit, not mine. As I said, I love questions, and I am going to miss them.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Implications of missing class

As I teach the Novice Basic curriculum to prepare some of you for the test that will open the doors to the Novice Advanced curriculum, I will teach you to not only execute the techniques correctly as some of you have in the past, but to meet very high standards of technical competence, conceptual understanding and intent/awareness.

To do so, I will rotate through the curriculum, covering and reinforcing the material. However, I will make no allowances in this plan--zero, zip, zilch--for people who miss class. Therefore, if you come twice a month, it will take you twice as long to get the same material than it will for someone who comes to every class.

I understand that some people cannot attend every class for various reasons, most of them good, but I cannot punish those who attend every week by reviewing things for the benefit of those who do not. I am telling you this because I want you to be fully aware of what he implications of missing class are. To a certain extent, you can make up for missing class by practicing on your own at home, but that will only take you so far.


The point of our "intensity" drills, those done with full intent and constant awareness, is to simulate, as closely as possible, a life or death struggle with weapons. As such, some of you are expected to strike with all the speed and power you can muster. Some, but not all.

The safety of these drills lies in two things, the first being that your attack is a known quantity--your drill partner knows exactly where you will strike and vice versa. The second is skill, both your partner's and your own. It is partly for this reason that those who have not taken the novice test may not participate fully in these drills but are limited to the roles involving a simple attack or a simple defense. Yet even these can pose great danger, as a mistake at full power can cause grievous injury.

If you're unsure whether you should be holding back or giving it all you've got, ask me. The simple rule is, if you're new, tone it down. Keep it intense in your mind, but focus more on proper technique and being relaxed than putting power or speed into your attacks. You will soon realize that it is this, being relaxed and precise, that is the key to a fast and powerful attack.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

mental notes

- When guard transition drill gets boring, do it backwards (starting in left vom Tag).

- While working on Krumphau, I noticed something about my weight distribution; how I had been doing the step before seemed a little cumbersome, and today by accident I noticed that the whole action was smoother when I don't transfer as much weight to what becomes my leading leg. I have to practice and think about this some more, and then I'll want to test it against a full-intent Oberhau. My concern is I may be sacrificing some of the stopping-power of the Krumphau if this new weight distribution is going to upset my structure.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Not an epiphany but..

It had occurred to me that I didn't leave class with my normal array of cuts and bruises on my hands. Now, I'm going to chalk this up to luck (or probability) but it did get me thinking about the movement towards "full-intensity" training, and how it may actually lead to less injuries during practice. [Back me up on this one... or maybe I'm just injury-prone?]

By being in the fighting frame of mind from way out of measure, I would wager that at least incidental damage would go down significantly due to the simple fact that we - both agent and patient - are focused only on performing a single action (or small series of actions). We already know that these techniques work, it's just a matter of letting them play out to the correct end.. which involves getting rid of the mental background noise.

This is only a theory though :-) One which I will be testing every class, however.