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.

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.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fluidity at the pell

Because I have a pell in my backyard, every once in a while I'll come up with a new idea on how to practice with it. The other night, I was whacking away but it was hot, I was tired after work, blah blah blah. Short story: I did want to get some practice in, but not completely exhaust myself physically with rapid-fire work or mentally with approach/non-telegraph-attack work. So I just stood in front of the thing and cut at it, half-speed or slower. Yes, this is a drill born out of relative laziness but as I continued doing it, I realize that there was more than enough to work on. Here's what I was doing, specifically:

- Stand at striking distance from the pell.
- Strike a 1-2 combination of Oberhau and/or Unterhau.* For example, Oberhau from right then Unterhau from left ; or Unterhau from left then Unterhau from right; or Oberhau from left then Unterhau from left. You get the point. Pick a pair and repeat, repeat, repeat for a while before you pick another pair.
- Focus on fluidity of movement, connection between sword and hips.
- Focus on efficiency of movement, i.e. not letting the sword go on unnecessarily large arcs; but be honest with yourself—you probably can't effect a "real" cut with just a flick of the wrists (I know I can't).
- Focus on the entirety of your upper body: are you turning so much that your shoulder is exposed? is your elbow sticking out? are you cutting to your center? etc.

* Yes, I know there are other cuts to be practiced too. Zwerch and Krump I left out specifically because I didn't feel like adding any footwork into the mix. Also consider the fact that you can do combinations of 3, 4, or no combination but a 'random' assault. But by restricting and focusing on less, it's actually easier to pay better attention to the nitty-gritty details.

Also, since Mike hasn't said it himself in a while: "Slow is smooth; smooth is fast."

EDIT: Another thing to think about is grip (looser until point of impact); this however is a bit artificial, since you have to release sooner (because the sword is not passing through the pell). Test-cutting is obviously a better method of refining this, but it still bears keeping in mind.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sang Kim's Philosophy on building technique

It's a short blurb, so I'm just going to cut-and-paste from the original blog post. Annotated a bit for the HEMA ppl:

There are 4 steps to building technique which is commonly shared in kendo.

1st one is Dai or big. Learn how to do all the waza
[techniques] big. Whether it's a cutting techinque, a swing, or kata [form, solo drill, etc.]. Learn how to do everything big first.

2nd is Kyo or strong. Learn how to have weight behind the movements. The power that you learn how to generate in doing things big, you should cement on how that is achieved.

3rd is Soku or speed. As you realize what aspects make the technique work and strengthen it, you chip away at all the excess motions. This builds speed.

4th is Kei or smoothness. As you chip away parts to build speed, you must work on making things smooth.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The life lesson of swordmanship

By Fabio Lamborghini

Wanna a piece of me, baby?
Learning how to wield a sword can teach balance, it can teach how to transmit force from the feet stance to the arms, and it can teach that every blow received is a lesson. Over time I learned that for every strategy I need to plan actions, and for every action there is one correct movement. And, most importantly, I began to realize that whatever holds up my opponent's blade is not a perfect machine and I learned that psychology can be my ally.

Yet, I learned much more, little teachings that have been a great life lesson. Reading about these discoveries may sound amusing, as many of them are sometimes automatic reflexes, but I came to consciously appreciate them through swordmanship, and I have been using them willingly ever since.

> Awareness
I find awareness to be a beautiful and crucial concept: no matter what happens in front of you, be aware of what happens everywhere else too. Sensing the environment looking for the favorable positions and dangerous trapholes is part of being aware.
It is like going to a job interview with the future employer. One could just sit and answer to the questions, or one could constantly scan through the desk and the shelves for books and pictures that could tell what the employer is interested in, his/her "weak" points.
Similarly, it is like having a meeting with some collaborators and being aware that one of them is taking notes about your work. Being aware of it removes the surprise when discovering that someone has been claiming your results as their own. Actually, it allows to pull up the defense in advance, preventing unpleasant follow-ups.

> Focus
Setting up a target and reaching it: it is all about focus. No matter how the opponent defends or backs, fiercely swinging his/her blade: let him/her play, I will have that head. I had this concept very clear in my mind when I had to ask for my tax form, which was never sent to me. The bureaucrat at the other end of the phone had a long list of available excuses in a strenuous effort to change the topic. It was a great chat, I even discovered that the woman at the other end of the phone had two kids and a husband who works in the same building, that she has to leave work at four but it is because the physician suggested so, not to be overloaded with work, and that she has never been to Europe because her husband does not like long flights. I still wanted my tax form, and I got it.

> Never stop, until it is over
A very important aspect of focus is to have a clear goal from start. Sometimes, when sparring, we get a scratch, a flat hit, a gentle caress and we stop. The next thing we remember is the deadly blow that determines our defeat. The same happens just too often, generally masked by the mediocre common sense of "enjoying the little things". Focus, always, and never stop or halt until it is over. One can enjoy the little scratches and the caresses, but the focus is always defeating an opponent.
When we set a goal, be it finding the cause of cancer, or just running ten miles, there is absolutely no reason to halt at the first recognition by a senior colleague, or to stop because our training partner had lack of breath. These are little things. The next thing we may remember is that we missed what we wanted to achieve.

> Strategy Vs. Tactics
This actually became even clearer after I attended a course on game theory. When sparring I often had the impression that my planned actions were too limited in time to be a guarantee of victory. That is tactics: a few actions that lead to a specific, often intermediate, goal. Ensuring victory requires a grander plan, which includes studying and probing of the opponent, learning the weak points, taking advantage of them and, finally, delivering the final strike. This is strategy.
This applies to every human conflict in real life. While a powerful all-in-all attack may work in some situations, observing the opponent, learning the weak points, and wearing off the adversary before striking will always have higher chances to succeed. That was the case with the tax form. I listened to the woman and asked her questions so that she told me about her. Unsurprisingly, she was more concerned with following the rules than interested in helping me (for a mistake they have made, by the way), and her situation was not exactly brilliant with her co-workers including her boss. Wearing her off was just about listening to how many mistakes she has made for which she was reprised. This lead to my final strike when I offered her the chance to amend to at least one of them. It took quite some time, but nonetheless it worked. On the other end, I could have applied the simple tactics of calling her supervisor: there was a chance that, as retaliation, my tax form would have reached me the following year, instead of being there right in time.

> Never lower the guard
I learned this the hard way: lowering your sword and turning your head is always a mistake. In general, this has been the topic of a Nobel Prize for Economics (I forgot the name of the guy), who claimed that in repeated games (conflicts), the players will eventually move from a competing to a collaborative stance. In other words, there are going to be a lot of confrontations before you can think of trusting someone, no matter what. So, never lower your guard.
The applications in real life go from "beware of pickpockets on the buses in Rome", pass by "never leave notes about your most precious research on the desk when you leave", to "read the fine print on anything you buy or sign". This teaching is just natural, however swordmanship added a very interesting spice to it, which is the following point.

> Keep a threat position (aka fear the blade)
There is guard and guard. There is the guard that allows the opponent to comfortably sip some tea in the meantime, and one that will cause uncontrolled self-wetting because of the threatening stance. The second is often the best choice, when possible. Unfortunately, there is no real threat stance on a bus in Rome. On the other hand, asking for the name of the representative we are talking to on the phone, or in the shop, and asking for their phone contact and, in some creepy situations, for the phone of their manager is perceived to be quite a threat:"If anything goes wrong, I'll be here again looking right for you."
For instance, at work, when I feel something is not 100% right, I used to ask people to send me a detailed report by email (not lowering the guard). Now I require to cc a copy to someone else (threatening stance).

> Fear not the psychology
I have noticed that in many situations when the person I am facing knows to be somehow wrong, then he/she will fiercely attack, purposelessly, only to keep distance and try to scare me. Raising the voice is one such behavior.
In swordmanship we are taught that the way we look has a psychological impact on the opponent. Interestingly enough, once we are aware of this, we are no longer impressed. No matter how big the other person tries to be, or how hard he/she is trying to swing the sword, if we perceive it to be just the psychology of fear, we will not be afraid.
Most of body language, as well as the use of some verbal registries is just a psychological act of intimidation. We learn not to fear them and we train to identify and deconstruct them so that, in the end, we can actually measure the fear of our opponent. When in a work meeting someone starts screaming and insulting, then you know your last question undermined some shaky tower.

> Be the first to strike
Observation of sparring teaches a very important point: you cannot win if you don't strike. From this follows the central lemma: be the first to strike. There is a profound difference between attack and strike. The purpose of attack is to put the opponent into defense: it is a series of actions that may just be intended to probe the opponent and discover the weak points. The strike is the blow that is intended to kill. One can let the opponent attack the whole time and still deliver the first (and final) strike. Bargaining for a price is just about attack. Leaving the place is the strike, and don't turn back unless the seller runs after you begging you to pay as much as you want.

> The tempo of the strike
Mike made it clear. There are three tempos and each has its application given by how much range we have, and how much room there is for intimidation. I used to walk into colleagues' offices when I had a problem with them. This is like stepping first and then striking: I am out of measure and I end up showing my intention in advance prior to the confrontation. No wonder I generally faced defending urchins.
Bumping into the colleague at the coffee table, or in the corridor connecting all offices is like striking and stepping at the same time: no intention showed, that was just in the right measure. Sending an email with someone else in cc, it is like striking without the step: a painful snap to the hands. No time to put up defenses. Beware though, this will not be easily forgotten (nor forgiven).

> When in a bind, change, immediately
Sometimes arguments just happen and too often the bitter taste of unfinished confrontation just lead to a stalling crystallized situation. This is a bind. The very first time I trained I was taught never to stand still in a bind. Then, why should anybody stand still in any stalled confrontation? Searching for openings, or just changing can be done in several ways, many of which could actually aim at resolving the conflict peacefully, not differently from disarming the opponent.
A trivial example is a common situation when
B says:"A is an idiot because of Z, I am smart because of Y"
A replies:"B is an idiot because of Y, I am smart because of Z"
B adds:"A is an idiot because of Z, I am smart because of X and Y, with X very similar to Z"
A rebattles:"B is an idiot because of X as well"
B changes:"I apologize, I am an idiot because of X, which is actually Z."
A falls for it:"Yes, idiot, X is Z!" (Uops!)


These are the lessons I learned from the sword. I have no doubt that more are still to come. In the end, it seems that many of these are just innate animal reflexes over which we have no control until we understand them. I believe that understanding them, for instance through the practice of swordmanship, makes us a bit more humans, perhaps even a bit better humans.
PS In truth, most of my co-workers are very nice people. Crazy apples just happen.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Double Hits

“No one can defend himself without danger.”

I’ve recently been considering revising my view on double hits. To the HEMA community, double hits are an anathema. They are severely punished in tournaments, maligned in discussions and criticized mercilessly. To be fair, a double hit is obviously bad. You got hit. That’s never good.

But you know what I think is worse than a double hit? You getting hit cleanly and your opponent walking away unscratched.

I don’t want to train people who are so focused on their own defense that they can be manipulated easily by a fighter who understands how to use pressure. Don’t get me wrong. The objective remains the same. Kill your opponent without getting killed or injured yourself. This should be what everyone strives for. But the secondary objective should NOT be to get killed and leave your opponent unharmed!

I don’t think for a minute that a fighter should ever strive for double hits. That would be suicidal and stupid. What I am contemplating at the moment is a strategy for the fight that is more aggressive, and, oddly enough, more in line with Liechtenauer’s teachings. Don’t just defend, cut into the attack. Go for the kill. Don’t back up, go forward.

If two equally skilled fighters fight and the resulst is 10 clean hits and 2 double hits, then each fighter got 5 clean hits on his opponent. Yay! Conversely, each fighter let his opponent hit him 5 times without doing a damn thing about it. Not so yay. Let’s also not forget that double hit does NOT equal double kill. It may not even equal double injury. Some people train hard to make sure that each of their hits is a kill. Some people don’t. This is true today, and it was probably true in period.

In our fencing in NYHFA, double hits are very rare. Particularly for me. I think this should change. Even if the change is simply a transition to a more aggressive, more zettel-correct means of fencing that is free of double hits.

What do I mean by that? Let me put it plainly. I think we fight wrong most of the time. Just look at how people cut vs how they swing in a fencing match. Two completely different animals, at leats for most people. I think we're too fast. Too imprecise. You disagree? Show me a video of yourself moving with the exact speed and the same strikes you use in a tournament or fencing match with a real, historically accurate sword, and I want to hear the swoosh of proper edge alignment and velocity with each movement. Or you can take it one step further and set up some mats (mats ain't people, they're easier, but they'll do). Let me save you the trouble...unless you're amazing, you can't do it, and I don't know too many people who are amazing.

I don't think we should fight in such a way that would cause double hits in a real fight. But I think we're overly concerned about double hits in fake fights. Adjusting how we fight to super fast plastic and steel swords that are used with zero consideration for cutting and wounding is a sure way to distort Liechtenauer's system and the realities of combat.

So I think I'm going to start trying to do the right thing, even if my opponent does the wrong thing, and if that leads to a double hit, so what. Call me sloppy. I won't lose any sleep over it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

After the cut

OK and now for the post I had originally planned on writing before the rant came out instead.

In practicing cuts—whether through air, against a pell, or through tatami—we focus on all the mechanical stuff: grip, hip, casting the tip, stopping the cut at an appropriate juncture, etc. We also focus on mental preparedness to perform a follow-up action (this is part of composure: not just "hit it and quit it" so to speak), however I've noticed that until today my own personal practice has lacked any sort of physical preparedness to follow-up.

Let me explain, and I'll use a particular Krumphau (throwing the point to the hands against someone in longpoint) as an example:

Practicing in the air, I'll either perform the cut with my "step" already taken—to work on engaging the hips—or I'll step and cut, recovering to the same spot. Similar with tameshigiri, although I'm much more likely to advance on the mat, cut, pause-and-reflect, and then retreat. What this has fostered in me as far as free fencing is maybe I'm relatively good at striking Krump, but I might unbalance myself shortly thereafter because I've stepped too deep on an oblique line.. and I've never actually practiced anything from this new position I've found myself in.

What I started doing today, against the pell first surprisingly, was advance, strike a Krumphau, and then advance past the pell, or rotate from where I was after the oblique step and assume longpoint, facing the pell, from my new position. I intend to do this more with test-cutting as well. The idea being that yes, I will approach and strike with intent & good composure, but I will also teach myself to be physically as well as mentally prepared for "whatever comes next." Fluidity of motion. At least this is the theory, but it's one I'll certainly be working on for a while.

And the fight goes on..

After the free fencing done last weekend with our friends at the Kunstbruder Fechtschule, and teaching class today at NYHFA's Poughkeepsie branch, I started thinking about how to deal with reconciling the sport-fencing mentality and the Ernstfechten mentality that we at NYHFA try to cultivate.

What are some of the pitfalls* of sport fencing?
* Assuming of course one's goal isn't to become the best tournament fighter in the world, ever. If that's your goal, then ignore all this.

1] Little or nonexistent cutting intent: sacrificing cutting ability (since it's "irrelevant") for an artificially increased speed in hitting, recovering, etc.

2] No fear of the weapon: because it's not a weapon, it's a flattened stick and no matter how hard anyone tries, it's not going to cut you. Adding masks, gloves, gambesons, etc., there's less of a chance that it will even hurt you.

3] Rapid-fire attack mode: because it doesn't matter if you get hit incidentally (see #2), and you're not actually trying to cut through anyone (see #1), you can attack in a frenzied, "suicidal" manner. Or, you can continue the fight even after receiving a blow that, with a real sword, would have incapacitated you and ended the altercation.

I'm sure there are plenty of others, even without getting into issues inherent with particular sword simulators.

Now, what can we do about it? Sure, one can get into an academic pissing-match in the salle or on the forums: "But he would've been dead if blah blah.." Or, one can be a little more Zen about it, "I'm fighting myself, there is no other opponent" (i.e. I'll fight as purely as I can, even though it probably appears that I'm slow, that I'm constantly losing, etc.) One can always just cross over and play their game.. but that'll probably end up degrading into a sloppy slug-fest. There is a synthesis to be found though, it's one that Mike and I have discussed a bit, which is fencing to punish bad fencing: They keep rushing in? Pommel strike to the face hard. Leading cuts with their forearms? Snipe their hands hard. This seems kind of vindictive—and let's be honest, it kind of is—but hopefully it will instill at least a healthy respect for the weapon in your hands and thereby force them to think twice about what it is they're doing.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

NYHFA Poughkeepsie's new sword rack

Equipment doesn't make a school.. students make a school. But equipment does tend to help. Here's a sword rack I whipped up this afternoon:

Thursday, May 19, 2011


A lot of people talk about character in martial arts, but what does that mean? The simpler aspects of character are easy to define. Respect for your teacher, respect for your seniors, your fellow students, your art. But how are they developed? How does one manifest these qualities?

To the non-martial artist, these may seem like easy concepts, clearly visible and manifested with polite words and smiles. But this is on the surface only, and quite fragile. I don’t know anyone who was born with character, though it certainly can happen. True character is, at least in my experience, developed over many years and tested daily.

So what is character? Brian Sherry, during his presentation at Swordfest, put into words what I have been thinking about for quite some time. Character in martial arts is coming to practice no matter how hard or far away it is, and working through pain, fatigue, frustration and despair. It is practicing relentlessly on your own to perfect your technique and then coming to class and having your technique ripped apart, criticized and corrected, day after day, year after year. It is earning your next rank after months or years of grueling work, only to realize that it is only another rung in a ladder that will never, ever end, with each rung harder to climb than the one before. And yet despite all of this, you keep going, you never give up. You trust your teacher, you trust your seniors, and you trust yourself. You accept the fact that you will never be as good as you hope to be, that with every gain in skill and ability will come the realization that there is much more to learn than you ever realized before.

This is character for a martial artist. The other things, respect for teacher, seniors, fellows, these things come as a consequence of this process, and when thus developed they are not fragile. They stand the test of time, conflict and hardship. If you have never been there, never kept going and going despite the despair of failure, the constant pressure to do better, the never ending chase of the carrot on a stick that is always just out of reach, then you do not have this character. You may have earned it elsewhere, be it in military service or a grueling ordeal of another kind, but you did earn it, you did not just wake up one day and decide that you had it. Maybe you obtained it on your own, without a teacher, by pushing yourself as a teacher would, by persevering despite your own never ending criticism. I know several people like this, and their character is real, and tested. Whatever the case, if you have it, you earned it, and you should be proud.

In HEMA, this character is often hard to come by. This is not the fault of HEMA practitioners themselves, but of the nature of HEMA. There are few genuine teachers, few authorities to push you, to challenge you. The culture of HEMA encourages people to disdain authority, to seek answers in books and in themselves. This is a shame. Character is not found in books, fancy words, ideals or period clothing.

The good thing is, it is never too late. It was not too late for me, and though my journey is long, I have begun it. And it is never too late for you. No matter how high up the ladder you are, if it is a ladder of your own making then get off. Go find another ladder and start climbing it only to have someone knock you off and make you fight for every rung. The reward will soon become self evident.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Polly want a cracker?

NYHFA’s origins are fairly typical. Like most groups, we started with a few swords, a lot of enthusiasm and some books in which someone told us exactly what was in the treatises and how we should practice it. Our practice was also typical, we would do some warm-ups (maybe), a guard transition drill or two and then spend the rest of the day on paired techniques. We did all kinds of paired techniques. Static, dynamic, improvised. A few years later, we got really, really good. At paired techniques (and uselessly transitioning through guards).

It was about this time that I started noticing that we weren’t getting good at much else. We were okay in the free fencing department, but in the way that people without any training at all are sometimes okay because they’re fast and athletic and played with swords as kids. We could cut too, but not with the stuff we did in paired drills, because we were so busy trying to move in “true times” that we didn’t notice the damage it was doing to our body mechanics. All in all, we were pretty happy with ourselves. But in the back of my head I knew that there had to be more. I was winning fights because I was faster or stronger or just more determined, and losing them because I had no idea what was going on, or how to control it. I knew that I sucked, but I didn’t want to face it, because I didn’t know what to do about it. Learn some more techniques? Read some new manuals? Fat lot of good that did in the first place.

Fast forward to the present. I can see genuine progress in myself and my students. People who came to me a year ago and could barely hold a sword go out into the world and come back with ass prints on their boots. More important than seeing improvement, I can see why it’s happening, and most importantly, how. I win fights now because I can see and understand what’s happening, and how to apply Liechtenauer’s principles to control the situation. I lose fights when someone can do this better than I can, or when someone exploits a weakness in my technique or my mental state, and if I didn’t know what it was before the fight, I sure as hell will after.

What changed? It was quite simple, really. I’ll spare you the details of how (I had lots of help), but I realized that techniques are not the art. They are what one does with the art once one learns it. You can’t learn to fight from a book, this is known to everyone that knows how to fight, but you can learn techniques from a book, if you already know how to fight (the German longsword treatises tell us this up front, pay attention). When I look back at our past, I see that we were good parrots, and we wanted our cracker, but that’s about all we were. It was only when we stopped trying to learn techniques and tried instead to learn the art itself that we started making any real progress. And we got better at the techniques too, because we started doing them right.

I’m sharing this on our blog because I want what happened to us to not be an isolated incident. There are many fantastic HEMA groups out there that took a different road than we did. There are many roads, ours is but one. But this realization that the art is more than the sum of its techniques was a big part of ours, and if it can help someone make the transition from parrot to martial artist, then it was worth typing.

So, how can you learn the art if you can’t learn it from a book? I’m sure there are many ways, and I don’t know most of them (hey, what do you expect, I barely got out of the parrot jungle!). I only know what I did, and that isn’t too dissimilar from what our ancestors did. Learn a different, but similar art. An art that uses a two handed hewing weapon in a manner similar to the way a longsword is supposed to be used. There are plenty to choose from. Once you have a good grasp of that, learn Liechtenauer’s art.

There’s this really cool dude named Steve Hick. Some call him the grandfather of HEMA. He coined a simple HEMA law: “Don't do what seems logical or natural. Do what the period text says; when it doesn't make sense (or doesn't seem to), do it some more.”

Well, the texts say this: “…and those hidden and secret words of the teachings are made clear and explained below in the comments, so that anyone who already knows how to fight can understand them.”

So, if you’re starting out with naught more than a fechtbuch and a dream, that ain’t you. I’m not saying you won’t find some other way to get there, or even far beyond. I’m saying you’re not likely to get there parroting techniques. And if you do find another way, share it. It may help a parrot who’s wondering why he or she still sucks after many, many years of trying. It bears saying once more that the art is so much more than the sum of its techniques.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Some first impressions on solo cutting

By solo cutting, I mean cutting by myself, without having Mike around to critique.

Overall, it's a good experience. There's a lot of mental background noise that needs to be filtered out, regardless of where I am, but I think there's a bit more in class. During class, I'm concentrating on doing exactly what Mike wants, I'm trying to block out the other students, I'm worried about f*cking up in front of people, etc. At home, I have a little more liberty to try out new things without worrying too much about if it's going to succeed or fail miserably. For example, one thing I was trying out was holding over-the-head vom Tag a little further back and closer to my forehead—like Kyle was doing this past Sunday—and how this affects how my forearms are positioned, and how my wrists are angled, etc.

I flubbed a bunch of my cuts, but some where quite clean. I'm proud of the first Oberhau I did on my second mat (pictured).

Besides the cutting itself, I have to practice the "composure" aspect as well—but I suspect that the more cutting practice I do, the more confident I'll get and cutting in front of people will be less of a mental road block than it is now :)

Oh, the other thing that's great about cutting at home.... you can keep ALL the fragments!

Monday, April 18, 2011

NYHFA Poughkeepsie has a cutting stand!

Post title says it all. Say hello to my super cool tacti-awesome cutting stand that I just built this morning:

That's right, it can be dismantled for easy transport, too! Mike, you know you want one of these..
EDIT! Two things: One, as per Mike's suggestion, I made the peg longer. Now it sticks out around 5-1/2". Two, to answer Steve's question about size, I've attached this little diagram here!

One Way of Moving, For Everything

Yes, this is another rant about cutting and it’s place in the study of HEMA. You have been warned.

We HEMA people do not have the luxury, for the most part, of learning from people who know what they are doing (when it comes to HEMA). Consequently, we often find ourselves working really hard to perfect body mechanics that don’t work, body mechanics that we invent in our back yards while looking at 500 year old static two dimensional images or worse, by reading period treatises and believing we can learn how to move from words. Words and pictures can direct, set criteria, describe end results, but beyond that, you’re on your own.

We as a community have no problem coming up with body mechanics that work well in free fencing. After all, that is something we can do often, and see our mistakes, and improve. And what we end up with are fast, non-telegraphing motions that can score us lots of points. Motions that tend to send tatami mats flying off the their stands, mostly undamaged.

So what, right? Tatami mats don’t fight back, right? Well, buddy, if you can’t kill something that doesn’t fight back, what chance to do you have against something that does?

Cutting a tatami mat is so easy that a 12 year old girl can do it (see our youtube channel). Heck, a 7 year old Japanese girl can cut three of them (lined up next to each other…she’s on youtube too). Tatami is harder to cut than naked flesh, easier than living bone (much easier than a skull), and much, much easier than flesh and bone clothed in typical 14th or 15th century European clothing. So if your super cool tacti-awesome match winning strike can’t sever a single mat cleanly, guess what? Back to the drawing board, bud.

There are tactical considerations in cutting, considerations that don’t tend to occur to people inventing body mechanics in their basements (yes, this used to be me). For example, there is the “you must cut to longpoint” crowd that believes that cutting past longpoint is wrong as they believe (wrongly) is described in the texts. If that were true, Germans would be extinct. Do you know what happens if you cut to longpoint? Well, if you miss, it’s great. You should stop the sword there if you miss. If you hit, though, your sword is going to get stuck in your opponent’s body (assuming it doesn’t bounce off his shoulder because your cut sucks to begin with). And then you will die.

So that leaves us with a simple question…how do you cut? There are several choices. One, you can optimize your body mechanics to cut tatami. That will be great when it comes to cutting tatami, but you’ll probably have your ass handed to you in a fight, since you’ll make big sweeping motions, pull back your sword before striking, etc. Two, you can optimize your body mechanics to free fencing, delivering super fast non-telegraphing strikes directly to your target in a straight line just like the often quoted and just as often misunderstood passage in 3227a describes. This will get you tourney wins and maybe groupies (where do I sign up?). But then you won’t be able to cut anything, and you’ll be a sport fencer. That’s great, if that’s what you want. There are many great sport fencers in HEMA that I respect very much. But if sport fencing isn’t your cup of tea, you need to look elsewhere.

Another option is to have one way of moving when you cut tatami, and a different way of moving when you fence. And that would be…pointless. You’d be proving that your cutting motions don’t work in a fight and you fighting motions don’t cut, rendering both motions useless.

What you need to do is optimize your body mechanics not for cutting, not for free fencing, but for fighting. What we German fencers like to call ernstfechten.

That means a cutting motion that is non-telegraphic and direct, but one that moves in the proper arc and with the proper structural backing to cut clean through your opponent and not get stuck in his dying body. Will this motion cut as well as a tatami optimized motion? No. Will it win you as many tournaments? No. So why bother?

Honesty. Keeping it real, as they say. The goal of a martial approach to learning to use a sword is to learn to use a sword in ernsfechten. To learn to destroy your opponent and not get killed in the process. If you want to do this right, you need to use the same motion for everything you do, be it cutting, free fencing, drilling, etc. And it has to work well in all of them. You won’t get the glory, you won’t get the groupies (dammit!). But you’ll go to your grave knowing that you practiced an extinct and obsolete primitive fighting art in the way it was meant to be practiced. That and 99 cents will get you a loaf of store-brand white bread on a sale day. But at least you’ll be able to look at yourself in the mirror every day and know that you did at least one thing right in your otherwise miserable, imperfect and all too human life.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Instruments and Artistry

Last night I was relating a story to Kat that I thought had absolutely nothing to do with swordsmanship... until it occurred to me this morning that maybe it did, in its own oblique way.

Yesterday morning, waiting at the Poughkeepsie train station, I took a seat across from a young 20-something Latino playing an acoustic guitar with an astounding level of technical skill and musical emotion (if it helps to qualify this statement, I trained as a Classical violinist for a good 15 years of my life). Sitting next to him was a guy who, although clearly impressed by the music, just would not shut up; he kept firing a barrage of inane questions at the guitarist,who bore the onslaught with hardly a raised eyebrow, as he continued to play:

"So, are you, ya know, a professional musician?" — "If I get paid some money to play, that makes me a professional, right?"

"Can you read music?" — ::shakes head:: — "Yea, man.. me neither.."

"I like rock guitar best, you know, Les Paul and that shit. You can bend notes on an electric guitar. You ever bend notes?" — "Sure, man" ::plays a scrap of blues, bending notes::

I'll give the guitarist credit for never losing his cool. Finally, though, the man next to him tried to make some sage comment about the instrument, how nice it looks, and asked what kind it is. The guitarist stopped playing, and laughed, saying "I got this at a pawn shop for 30 bucks, man. Cheapest guitar I could find." I couldn't help myself: I raised my hands and said aloud to both of them, "The musical instrument is here," wiggling my fingers.

My point, if it's not already clear, is this: People argue constantly in person and on the forums about efficacy. Efficacy of different weapons, of different permutations of the same type of weapon, of armor, of swordsmen facing each other in an anachronistic setting, etc. But, like the guitarist with the cheap guitar, mastery comes from within. Peter Johnsson can design and create swords that are astounding works of art in their own right. Just like Stradivarius made violins that were—and still are—museum pieces. Without requisite skill, trying to cut with an $8,000 handmade sword would be just as unsuccessful as trying to play a sonata on a $2B Strad. Sure, maybe expensive and superbly crafted tools of the trade help, but they can only do so much on their own; in and out of someone's hands, they are still just a passive object.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

You Suck

You suck. Yes, you. You're terrible. If you are reading this and you are saying "I don't suck, Mike's an asshole," then either you really don't suck (I only know two such people), or you're an idiot. Sorry, but today is hard truth day.

I too suck. And not being an idiot(mostly), I know it. That said, there are people who suck and know why they suck, and people who suck and make excuses. I'm too old. I'm too fat. I'm too young. I'm too skinny. I'm not really out to be the best, I'm just [insert bullshit here]. I don't have enough time. I didn't start training when I was young. And so on.

The trick is to be one of the people who suck and know why they suck. Because if you know why you suck, you can fix it, and that's what martial training is all about. When someone exposes one of your flaws, you should not be angry or hurt. You should thank them. You're alive, and you know what you have to work on. Knowing why you suck isn't easy, but then nothing worthwhile ever is.

It really sucks to suck and not know why. But even that is better than not knowing you suck. I once heard it said of someone that "he doesn't know what he doesn't know." Don't be that guy.

Why am I ranting about how much you suck? Because it is glorious. For a martial artist, there is nothing better than getting better, fixing a flaw, discovering a new ability, knowing that your hard work is paying off. That feeling you get when you suddenly start winning where before you were losing, when you start succeeding where before you were failing, it's like nothing else in the world. And I want you to have that feeling, over and over.

You suck. Now go practice and fix yourself. I'll be right there with you.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Some thoughts on free play, and why Boris is fast becoming a killer.

I was thinking about our king-of-the-hill free play session yesterday, and about why Boris, a relatively new student, is getting more and more difficult for a lot of us to handle. Here are some of my thoughts:

Pressure. One of Boris' main strengths is his aggressive spirit. Sure, techniques are not always solid (this isn't meant as an insult, by any means; we're all learning!), but lacking any offensive movement from his opponent, he is typically the one to move in and attack. This does make for quite an intimidating opponent, and I for one certainly feel the pressure of his almost constant forward motion. When Boris is in the ring, he's out for blood and by god he's going to get some. On the flip side of this, when I'm facing him, either I'm not projecting any sort of pressure (more likely), or Boris is not sensing it (less likely, but still possible, since this is alien to all of us on some level—refer to Mike's handgun analogy).

Technique. Let it not be said that Boris doesn't learn from his mistakes. Going back just a few weeks, I could lure him into a particular trap: He'd go into high vom Tag, and I would take Alber. He'd take the bait, and I'd respond with the textbook catch with Kron and Zwerch to the side of his skull. I tried it yesterday, and whether it was a conscious decision or not, he did NOT try to Schietelhau me, opting to try something else instead.

One thing that we all need to do, as a class, is learn from each other's strengths and weaknesses, and be able to see our own. Like the drill we did yesterday to find each others' tells. We all have different skill levels and skill sets, different bodies and varying degrees of skill in using those bodies to affect technique. Watching two other people bout is just as important as being in the ring yourself; as combatants, we need to learn to size up our opponent as quickly as possible, judge their strengths and weaknesses. As students of a combative art, we need to be very aware of our own strengths and weaknesses.

Above all, we need to constantly practice and hone technique, otherwise there is no hope (or no point) in trying to exploit the weakness of others or lure someone into a trap by purposely showing your own weakness. Even Mike has a weakness—I don't know what it is, but even if I did (for example, if I talked to Sang Kim sensei about Mike's free play) my technique is probably no where near solid enough to take advantage of it.

The moral of my meandering post: Free play is an opportunity to learn. Watching free play is also an opportunity to learn. And practice, practice, practice.


In battodo, it is important to maintain composure while doing kata or cutting. A lot of HEMA people I know look at that and say, “That has nothing to do with martial arts, so I think it’s useless.” Oh really?

Today in class we did an exercise I borrowed from Sang Kim sensei designed to identify and eliminate people’s telegraphs, or “tells.” People who dip their point before striking, or who tense up, or move their hands before their point or make other mistakes perform poorly. People who have few or no tells do very well. This translates directly to free fencing, where the same people who do poorly in this exercise are very easy to defend against because you can see their attack coming well in advance, while the people who do really well can sometimes hit you before you have a chance to parry.

What does this have to do with composure? Part of the exercise is to tell your partner what his or her tells are after the exercise is over. It’s a very good way to expose bad habits and bad technique and try to correct them. One of the most common tells is, “His eyes go all wide as he is about to attack.” Another is, “He smiles when he is feinting, but frowns when he attacks.” Or, “I can see it in his face when he is about to strike.”

You know…composure.

There are two lessons that can be learned from this. The first, learn how to control yourself. Not just how you move or cut, but your facial expressions and mannerisms. They can make the difference between victory and defeat.

The second, and please excuse my language, is don’t teach your father how to fuck. When you see someone who is practicing a martial art that is not recreated from books doing something you don’t understand, odds are there's something there worth learning.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Real Swords

If you are a martial artist studying ernstfecthen with the sword, you need to own a sword. A real one. A sharp one. A historically accurate one(should look, handle, cut and thrust like a period sword).

Just owning one isn't enough though. You need to practice with it. Every time you practice solo. In class and at home. Your sharp does not handle like your blunt. It is much more difficult to use, and you need to be able to use it, not the blunt, not the plastic, not the waster. Practicing with a sharp also has mental and emotional aspects not present with any simulator. It brings you closer to the reality of the sword, something we as a civilization have drifted away from.

Can you practice a sword art without a real sword? Sure. Much as you can practice it without a steel blunt, or even without a waster. You can go in the woods and get a stick and use that. Yet each step away from the sharp nets less and less returns on your investment of time, blood and sweat.

We today have the luxury of doing this as half assed as we want. Our lives don't depend on what we do. However, if we want to be true to our art, then we owe it to ourselves and those that came before us to do it right in every way we can. This is but one of those ways, and it is also an area in which corners are frequently cut. How easy would swordsmanship be if you didn't have to cut with all of your techniques? Or if you never had to put your skill to the test in free fencing, or were allowed to free fence without being expected to cut with every move? What a breeze, right? Well not using a sharp for solo practice is another way to make it easier. How great would it be if all of our swords were perfectly balanced and had hilts designed for comfort and were easy to swing around because they had no mass in the cutting portion of the blade?

You don't need a sharp right away. It's okay to wait until you feel you are competent enough to handle one safely. You also don't need one if this is just a casual hobby to you. This is why we have a cutting loaner. But if you're serious, and you want to take it to the next level, get a sharp, and use it. Every day.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Swordfest 2011 Date and Details

The date for Swordfest 2011 is May 14th.

Here is a link to details about the event:

Swordfest 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why It's Easier to Do it Half-Assed

I can talk about this for hours, but there's an easy, and better, way to understand this. Go out into the world and find yourself a child, preferably a teenager. Thirteen, fourteen, not much older. Girl, boy, doesn’t matter. Give this person an hour of training, just the very basics of attacking and parrying, and then fence him (we’ll assume it’s a guy).

Here are the rules. If he so much as touches you with his sword, you lose a point (and the kid has to know this). You, however, will be held to a higher standard. Each of your “touches” must be powerful and direct. Not hard, you don’t want to hurt the kid, but they have to be real cuts, with the edge, with enough distance between the start point and end point that it would work if it were a fight to the death. You can thrust, of course, but you have to pull it out and withdraw (or parry) before the kid whacks you back, or it’s the kid’s point.

How do you think you’d do? If you’re fantastic, you might win. More likely, you’ll barely survive with more double kills than you feel comfortable confessing to.

Well, whatsa matter, tough guy? Can’t beat an untrained kid?

Now make it harder for yourself. Now your cuts not only have to be with the edge, they have to be with the edge perfectly aligned. They have to be powerful enough that you could cut into a person’s body, covered in clothing, deeply, and have your sword cut through rather than get stuck in bone and flesh (don’t worry, we’ve covered the kid in padded armor, he’ll be okay). Your cuts have to be straight, so that they don’t scallop inside the body (and again, get stuck). Your thrusts have to hit vital organs or arteries, and you still have to pull them out, only now you need to make a visible motion of the hips, because that sword won’t come free easily. If the judges don’t see a hip twist to withdraw, you get no point, and the kid still gets to whack you.

Oh, and speaking of the kid, he still just has to touch you to get a point. Flat, edge, hard, soft, strong weak, big arc, small arc, no arc, doesn’t matter.

How do you think you’d do then? Would the kid kick your ass? Would it be double kill paradise? Starting to get the picture?

As the world of HEMA gets increasingly competition-centric, we as martial artists have to keep this idea first and foremost in our minds. The temptation to forget about all that stuff you'll never use and just do it half assed will always be there. Tournaments, free fencing matches, martial challenges, these are all extremely imporant for our art, but there are two ways to do them. The right way, and the easy way.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Exhaling with the cut

Last Sunday class, Mike [again] discussed the importance of exhaling with the cut. Last night I realized that I more easily forget to do this than, for example, kiai during karate practice. But more importantly, I also realized why I was doing this, and perhaps I'm not only the one:

We listen to our blades to judge proper edge alignment and tip velocity. No sound = bad alignment, and/or not enough tip velocity. Brief sound = twisting the blade. Sustained "woosh" = good alignment, good velocity, etc. I caught myself holding my breath so I could hear what was going on, because a quick exhalation is sufficient to drown out my Albion Meyer indoors*, and certainly outdoors where there's already plenty of ambient noise.

I don't have a conclusion to this, I just wanted to throw this thought out there. Maybe Mike or someone else has a suggestion..

* EDIT: My Albion Crecy is very loud, but I don't often use it indoors, so I haven't yet determined if it is louder than me or not. :-)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Swordfest 2011

We have the honor of being invited back to demonstrate at Swordfest 2011. A date has not been set, but it will be sometime in mid-late May or early June. I would like as many people as possible to attend.

This year our demo will focus on how we practice the art rather than its theories or techniques. It will either show the differences and similarities to practicing JSA or just focus on what we do. For that, I need a handful of students demoing along with me.

I can take three people and their gear. Others may be able to take more. If you go with me, it will be a two night trip, and hotel will cost about 80-100 a night. If four of you share a room, that is only 50 dollars each for both nights. I will not charge gas money. You can go for just one night if you're driving yourself (Friday night, then leave after the event). But there is usually some post-event socializing, which is a great chance to meet not only some members of the HEMA community (Bill Grandy, Steve Reich, Dave Rowe, etc.) but also some of the great folks on the JSA side, which makes this event rather unique and special.

I will let you know as soon as a date is set.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Our loaner cutter lives again!

You all know I despise our loaner cutter. I bought this thing, a Hanwei Tinker sharp longsword, thinking it would at least be servicable, but it turned out to be useless.

So, when a sword is pice of crap and you can't get it work, do you throw it away? No! You make it sharper! On the way to my mailbox are the following:

(for my 1x30 grinder:)
320 grit belt
600 grit belt
1000 grit belt
2000 grit belt
leather belt (for the grinder!)
honing paste (for the leather belt)

When I am done with this thing, it will draw blood if you look at it funny. I will also razorize some of your personal swords, once I make all of my horrible grindng mistakes on the loaner and get them out of my system. This is a good day for NYHFA.

Monday, January 31, 2011

It's all in the grip...

Ok, so last time it was all in your head, but today, it's all about the grip. I was watching you guys cut today and I was wondering, why wasn't it working out for some of you? Sometimes you have clean cuts, sometimes you don't. Something wasn't adding up. As I watched the video, I realized what it was...your grip.

Your grip on the sword is like the tires on a car, it is the most important part of the sword/body unit, the part that makes things happen, translates your body's movement into sword movement. Your grip can slow your sword, ruin your edge alignment, ruin your trajectory. Some of you grip too tight, some of you grip with the wrong fingers, others do things I can't even identify. Practice your grips. Practice using the bottom two fingers, tightening only as much as you need to when you need to.

How do you do this? Sounds hard? It's not. Don't think about the grip except to make sure you use the bottom two fingers. Other than that, worry about velocity, and try to get the sword point moving as fast as it can. Think about how your hands can help you do that through your grip. The rest will come naturally. Practice, practice, practice. There's just no way around it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

It's all in your head

I've been training for the tournament at Longpoint and doing quite a bit of fighting (thanks to all of your for your help in that regard). One thing that sank in was how much of your fighting performance is in your head.

This is one of those things I've known for a long time, but never really appreciated until recently. It really sank in for me over the last few weeks. With all the fighting I've been doing, I sometimes just didn't feel like it, and my mind wandered. This gave me a chance to see how mental state affects results, and let me tell you, if I had to fight to the death, I'd rather fight hopping on one leg than with a messed up head.

It doesn't matter who I'm fighting, our newest student or our best fighter, if my mind is somewhere else, I get hit. Sometimes a lot. If I get into it, put myself in the zone, then I fight well and rarely get touched. It's almost like a magic switch. On, kick ass. Off, get hit.

What does this mean for you guys? Well, you may want to think about how your mental state affects you. Do you get scared? Confused? Does Crazy Steve intimidate you?:) Whenever you fight, consider it an opportunity to practice. Not just your technique, that's the easy stuff, but your mental state. That's where the real fight takes place.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Training for accuracy: thrusting pell

I'm glad that Mike reminded me of an old accuracy training device I used to use when I did Olympic-style fencing: the swinging-ball pell. Mike had us thrusting at one of the handles of his jump rope, but I came up with something a little less ghetto and with a few more targets: a series of wooden beads suspended at heart, throat, and eye-socket height.

The idea for training is essentially the same: to work on thrusting accuracy from Pflug, Ochs, Langenort. At the most basic level, you can stand in a more or less a static guard, thrust slowly towards the targets to teach yourself (that is, your muscle memory) the relationship between the sword, arms, hips, etc. Remember to mix it up between thrusts with a lunge and with a passing step (turning body to present less target and to extend reach).

As you progress, play with distance, and get more dynamic in your movements (as I'm often reminded in free-play, holding a hanging guard for too long ends up with your blade being grabbed): winding and disengaging (e.g. Abnehmen). The target is there to help get a sense of measure, but also you must visualize your opponent's blade: close off lines of attack as you thrust (Absetzen), recover in a defensive guard, especially if you miss.

Particularly for me, this is good for keeping myself balanced when I thrust: in free-play I too often over-extend myself, and end up in a decidedly un-structured position. I have to scramble out of the way, usually while throwing up some "Oh sh!t" parry. Here, I can focus on keeping my body structured before, during, and after the attack has been made.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

NYHFA Cutting Curriculum

Our cutting curriculum has finally been formalized and posted to the website. For those of you who are novices and senior novices, start familiarizing yourselves with your cutting patterns and saving up for all those mats you'll need to master them.

Link: NYHFA Cutting Curriculum