Advice For Folks Interested in Historical Swordsmanship From a Fairly Average Practitioner

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Your resident slicer enthusiast demonstrates the middle guard with a replica M1840 “Wristbreaker” Heavy Cavalry Saber. This guard is so useful, natural and all around handy that we tend to forget it exists.

So, I’ve offered a lot of commentary about swords on this blog. Yes, obvious statements, but we all know I love to open posts with obvious statements. It’s occurred to me, however, that I haven’t said much of anything as to how someone with no prior experience might get into swordsmanship.

First of all, understand why you want to learn and decide in advance how ready you are to commit to learning. If you just want to understand the methods so you can, for example, write about it (oh, the feedback loop we could create together!), you need only set aside an hour a week and buy a propylene practice sword. Practicing technique once a week will let you understand how all the movements work so you can describe them. If you want to be genuinely skilled, you’ll need to practice for an hour several times of week to a higher level of intensity than you would if you just wanted to know the moves without necessarily being able to execute them well. You don’t need a uniform or any kind of protective gear unless you’re going to be sparring (for which, of course, you’ll also need some interested friends).

Basic propylene swords are between $30 and $40 and will take a beating as well as (in fact, likely better than) any carbon steel piece. Never under any circumstances buy a stainless steel sword for practice. They’ll almost certainly have a rat’s tail tang or no tang at all, making them prone to snap off and go flying mid-swing. This is an excellent way to hurt someone, wind up in jail, and totally throw off your practice. If you decide you want something shiny, iaito (blunt practice katana) are available in aluminum zinc. It’s not sturdy enough to use in cutting practice even if you did fully regrind it, but for drills it’ll do just fine. Iaito come with scabbards by default, which offsets the $10-20 price hike you’re otherwise looking at.

For live blades, you’re looking at a minimum of $200 for any I’d personally recommend. Start with Cheness Cutlery if you’d like to study Iaido, Iaijutsu or Kenjutsu and Hanwei’s European-style blades if you want to study HEMA. Always, always read reviews for any sharps you’re going to buy. The price is one thing; it’s your money and you’re free to risk it how you like. But a sharpened, carbon steel blade snapped off at the tang and hurtling through the air is an order of magnitude more dangerous than a blunt stainless one.

Mindset is the single most important thing to cultivate early on. Technically all aspects of swordsmanship are equally important, but you’ll have a hell of a time improving if you don’t beat your brain into line. Don’t literally beat it. That’s not a good training technique (I’ve tested it, doesn’t work). Learn to trust yourself. No matter how clumsy you think you are, you’ll find soon enough that grace is just klutziness refined. If you’re going to handle sharps, don’t be afraid of them. Unless you’re doing something stupid, the sword won’t hurt you. It’s in your hand, after all.

That said, never attempt any technique that involves moving the edge past part of your body if you’re not sure you can handle it correctly. HEMA practitioners can grip the blade of a shaving-sharp longsword and bludgeon tires with its guard bare-handed without harm. They can do this because they’ve learned to trust their hands not to let the blade slip and slide its edge.

Focus on the purest basics early on. The individual mechanics of footwork and any given cut or thrust should be your starting point. Pick out as many flaws as you can find and then pick the most egregious ones to sand away. I tell you all this because these are things an instructor will normally do for you, but there aren’t a whole lot of sword instructors today and depending on where you live and what you study you may have no choice but to instruct yourself.

You’ll often feel like you’re not making any progress, and there will be many adjustment periods where your ability to perceive good technique runs ahead of your ability to actually execute it (because your brain despises itself and delights in stress, you see). You’ll suddenly notice that your cuts aren’t as straight as you’d thought, that your thrusts are sluggish and telegraphed, that your blocks won’t really block anything. Learn to treat those flaws as an opportunity and redouble your efforts.

Read the manuals and watch videos of experience practitioners demonstrating technique and sparring. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important these things are. Don’t just stare at the video, drive yourself to see and fully understand what’s happening. This’ll be disorienting at first, but your brain will adjust quickly and you’ll start to follow the movements. After a while, you’ll find yourself naturally imitating the useful bits during your own practice. Don’t be ashamed to look for things they’re doing wrong, provided you’re doing it so you can look for and fix those problems in your own form rather than to excuse those flaws.

If you’re wondering whether something could work and there’s no risk in trying it, give it a whirl. You may be surprised to find how useful some methods can be. Remember that no matter how refined your skill grows, you’ll still be uncertain whenever you try a new technique for the first time.

I could keep typing for ten thousand words yet, but unless you live in West Michigan I can’t instruct you. Even if you find a qualified teacher, you’ll need to learn to push your limits in ways they may not always think of. Again, mindset is everything.

That said, feel free to ask. I’m going to yap about this anyway, so you might as well give me permission.

Say something, darn it!

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