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

New Location!

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

Monday, 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.