WMA Practice: Drilling and Sparring

Historical Background
Longsword Combat
The Rise of the Rapier
WMA Practice
What HES Is Not
European sword arts were usually taught as part of a larger system integrating unarmed combat, bladed weapons, and staff weapons. Students of longsword will thus typically also study the wrestling, dagger, and staff- or polearm-fighting techniques taught by the period masters. At a certain point, the student recognizes that use of different weapons (or no weapon) follows a single coherent set of underlying principles that can be applied in any fight situation.
The main activities of the WMA practitioner are drilling in fundamentals – both singly and in paired situations in which attacks and defenses are practiced at slow speeds to inscribe correct movements in muscle memory – and sparring. Opinions differ about the relative importance of these activities in any martial arts training program. There is a school of thought that holds that sparring should only be allowed after a student has mastered the fundamentals. Application of half-learnt principles in the rapid, chaotic, competitive situation of a bout will only, it is felt, lead to the solidification of bad habits. Other teachers hold sparring to be integral to training right from the start. The perils of learning bad habits and later having to undo them are, in this view, felt to be outweighed by the added perspective sparring brings to martial arts practice. Not to mention the fact that sparring is fun, and fun promotes learning both in the long and short run.
Either way, students ultimately spar. As with other martial arts that are intended to be lethal or debilitating to an opponent, proper safety precautions are a must. For historical swordfighting, a three-weapon fencing mask is a universal requirement, and is suitable for nearly all bouting. A fencing jacket, often supplemented with a plastic chest protector and a leather throat-protector called a gorget, is suitable for rapier fencing. For longsword, many students ultimately purchase a cotton or linen gambeson – a quilted arming coat, essentially the medieval equivalent of a fencing jacket – as it provides much more protection. This is ideally supplemented with pads for elbows and knees and a leather gorget protecting the throat from thrusts. To protect the hands, either leather fencing gloves or, for work with steel or aluminum swords, metal gauntlets or heavy lacrosse gloves are generally used.
Since full-speed bouting with steel swords is extremely dangerous, most bouting is conducted with a range of sword simulators, all of which serve different purposes and have their own advantages and disadvantages. Beginning students at many schools start out with bamboo shinai, the weapon used in Kendo, modified with a crossguard and sometimes a padded tip to make thrusting with the weapon safe. Increasingly, padded sword simulators are also used. Shinai and padded swords are the only sword-simulators that can be used full-speed with a high degree of safety, and so even advanced students continue to use them routinely in their bouting.
Throughout history, the main practice sword has been the wooden sword or waster. These are also widely used training tools today. In some ways, namely their hardness, they behave more like real swords than shinai or padded simulators do; but they are more dangerous to use at full speed. They do not flex, for one thing, making them difficult to thrust with safely. Bruises and, yes, breaks, are not uncommon when sparring with wasters at anything approaching full speed.
Steel swords with blunted or rebated edges, often with a rubber archery blunt covering the tip for added safety, are used by advanced students. Increasingly, sword manufacturers such as Albion, Angus Trim, and Arms & Armor are making blunt swords designed for use by WMA practitioners that nevertheless retain the handling characteristics and beauty of their sharp swords. These are usually fairly expensive, however.
In the last few years, cheaper aluminum wasters have become available as an alternative that combines the advantages of steel blunts and wooden wasters, and many schools are adopting them. Aluminum wasters, being metal, behave much more similarly to steel swords than wooden wasters. They flex like steel, so they are also actually safer to thrust with than wood. But being a lighter metal than steel, aluminum allows the waster's blade edge to be wider – thus much safer – than a steel sword, while mimicking a steel sword in overall weight and handling.
Next page: What HES Is Not

All material copyright 2005
Eric Wargo