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Fencing Fast and Slow

In the mid 16th century Kamiizumi Nobutsuna had an idea. Rather than have his students injure each other in class when practicing at full speed, with either boku or blunt steel, he developed the hikihada shinai. This bamboo sword allowed practitioners to fight at full intensity with minimal chance of injury. Or perhaps a chance of minimal injury. Either way, you get the idea.

Interestingly enough, the federschwert (feather-sword) was developed around the same time in the West, for a similar purpose — to prevent injury. Here they added the schilt to a light, flexible blade. The schilt was a great innovation, intended to protect the hands of students in the Federfechter fencing guild. By this point the longsword had become more of a sport than a practical fighting weapon and consequently, a considerable number of the practitioners were bourgeois or tradespeople. These professionals, unlike the nobility, actually needed to go to work the day after practice — so hand protection was of particular interest. A truth, I think, that most of us can appreciate to this day.

These developments in gear were great improvements. Until then, training intensity was greatly influenced by the potential for injury — especially when working with sharps — but even with practice weapons such as wooden wasters (as wooden swords were labeled in the West) or the Japanese bokken, both of which could easily deliver a serious wound.

Consequently, training with these injury causing weapons was limited to drills, and to working at a slower speed while sparring. Not exactly an ideal form of training when you finally found yourself on the battlefield or held to account in a duel.

So it’s no wonder that Kamiizumi’s innovation made him a notable figure in the history of japanese swordplay.

Given this history it would be reasonable to assume that the slower sparring pace required when practicing with sharps has become little more than an archaism, correct?

Definitely not.

Prowess is more than simply who’s fastest and strongest. There are countless stories where an old master is able to defeat some young hotshot through their deeper understanding of technique. Of course, these stories are just that, but I believe that they contain a fundamental truth. The tactical challenges of a sword fight are, arguably, more important than strength or speed. Fencing is a mental game. A “conversation between two liars” as Vlad frequently reminds us. Minimalist sparring is an opportunity to learn how to lie, casually. It’s a life skill, really.

So how can we best learn how to lie…  develop our tactical facility. Certainly, this can be challenging when one is fighting all out. Full speed fighting calls upon our instinctive responses. To see and react instantaneously to stimuli like the tension in your opponent’s blade or their posture and balance.

Full speed sparring will very quickly inform you whether you’ve achieved an effective and instinctive tactical understanding of a fight. But what if you haven’t? The question arises, how do you program/reprogram your responses, for this seems incredibly challenging when you are in a purely reactionary mindset.

One answer, of course, are the drills we do in class. A tactical scenario is presented, along with a few options for response — a parry-riposte drill, for example.

In a drill, the range of options are predefined. Of course our partners, ideally, try to challenge us — to make us fail a certain percentage of the time, but only within the context of the drill. If our partner is attacking, they might start slow, and then build up speed to ensure that you can respond with the requisite speed and appropriate edge alignment etc. But generally, you only need to deal with one or two types of attacks or defences at a time. So your options for a response are similarly limited.

Then you go to full speed sparring with these ideas in mind, and your partner has the nerve to be noncompliant. Sure, this is exactly what we signed on for, but it can be incredibly frustrating when you want to experiment with a new combination or add a novel stratagem to your arsenal.

This, to my mind, is where slow sparring (often with minimal gear) is incredibly helpful. It gives you space and time to breathe. To think tactically, dynamically. It’s an opportunity to hone and refine your instinctive responses. Obviously, this is not the only way to do this — flow drills can let you explore different patterns of attack and response. But I find that the imaginary opponents in my flow exercises are more cooperative than real ones. Consequently, my flow patterns fall apart under the stress of full speed sparring.

In contrast, during slow sparring, you can focus on specific skills such as flowing from guard to attack to guard — just as you would in a flow drill — but there is a very concrete problem that you’re trying to solve while you’re making these transitions. Even if your experiment fails, it’s far easier to recover; even during the back and forth of the exchange. Personally, I also find it far easier to test minor (or major) changes to the flow I’m trying to achieve without the adrenaline-driven version of yourself constantly pushing you to win.

Also, the minimalist nature of slow sparring (mask, gorget, light gloves) is a particular joy. This is especially true on hot days, or after training. As much as I love full speed fights, there are days where I want to chill after a class — but it’s too early for beers. Slow sparring is a great option; you can cogitate dynamically on the day’s lessons and see how you can incorporate them into your existing arsenal.

The minimal gear and slower pace can also provide space for conversation during the bout; about what your partner is trying, and why something did or, more often, didn’t work. Here, it’s really not about scoring the hit, it’s about exploring the paths that you might take with your sword, and how you can get into your partner’s head.

It’s also an opportunity to explore how you deploy specific techniques in your larger tactical approach. A key aspect of tactics is how to utilize tempo and measure to implement a given technique. Exploring things like how you pace your attacks and feints or what your measure is when you parry and counterattack.

You may wonder whether tempo really can come into play when you’re fighting at a reduced pace. It definitely does. Indeed, one of the interesting aspects of this approach to sparring is the requirement that you operate at, or below, a specific tempo. You are fighting in a a tempo of consensus, one that you establish with your partner. Consequently, the very act of slow sparring gives you a heightened awareness of what tempo means and how it affects your sparring. But this slower pace doesn’t mean that tempo becomes irrelevant. Your pacing and rhythm can both shift as you try to deceive your opponent. You can use them both to lull them into a pattern and rate of exchanges, that you can then break at your discretion.

Similarly, when exploring measure, you have time to get a sense of what distance is threatening in an attack. The distance required to make a feint realistic, or any other deceptions of distance that you can dream up to snare your opponent in your cunning stratagems. But to do this, your (apparent) intention must be clear. The attack must have proper form and feel like a genuine threat. At slower speeds, your opponents ‘twitchiness’ is reduced and they will be content to watch you attack the air until the cows come home. Similarly, if you attack with bad form, without controlling the line, their counter-attack will be annoyingly lethal. If your attack is the setup for a longer exchange, each of your parries and responses must, again, be crisp or your opponent may decide to take matters into their own hands, and suddenly you’re playing their game.

Excellent examples of this can be found in a recent tournament held by the Fencer’s Guild. This is a minimal gear tournament, and while I’m not that comfortable with the lack of head/eye protection, I found it fascinating to see fencers trapped by their opponents tactical decisions.

You can watch the exchanges here:

One thing that you’ll note is how the successful fighters have much more clarity in their movements. The more crisp their guard positions and the more decisive their attack intentions are, the more successful they are in controlling the fight. I have watched myself, far too often, flailing about in what I call the ‘mushy middle’ of the fight where the swords are binding indecisively on the centre line, timidity making me unwilling to move decisively. It is worth recalling that the lion’s virtue in Fiore’s Flower of Battle is audacity. Fighting always involves some risk, you must be courageous and take the fight to your opponent. If you do not, you may rest assured that they will do what they can to take it to you, and you will be on the defensive.

So I will look for you, on the field of battle, but let’s take it slow.

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