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Friday, February 27, 2015

Fencing with Live Steel: An Experience by Peter Morrow

A while back I asked, encouraged, and outright cajoled my friend, Peter Morrow, to write about his fencing experiences. I hope you learn something from his experiences with Historical Fencing, and encourage you to ask him questions!

Take it away Mr. Morrow.
Historical Fencing: Not Just for Porthos, Athos, and Aramis

About seven years ago, I took a chance on a new experience: Historical Fencing. 

Historical Fencing is the martial arts granddaddy of the modern sport of Olympic Fencing. It generally deals with the period of swordplay between the 1300s and the early 1800s and teaches forms of Rapier, Saber, and Small Sword combat. It differs from both Classical and Olympic Fencing, which focuses on more modern forms of Epee, Olympic Saber, and Foil.

Historical Fencing also differs from its more modern children in that you aren't confined to a fourteen meter strip with your other hand behind your back. You may move in a circular fashion, and have access to your other hand, to either be used in defense or to hold another weapon or small shield.

My first day of my first class, my instructor told us a story about the history of fencing. Life in the Renaissance for many people was horrible. With sanitation standards being nonexistent, and life expectancy being short, honor was all that mattered to most people. Criminal courts were almost unheard of, and the idea of civil courts hadn't been thought up yet.

Disputes and matters of honor were settled by the blade.

It paid to know how to fight.

Those who survived several duels earned a reputation, and soon found they could make a living by training others to fight in their particular style. With the high cost of weaponry, all but the financially well off could afford to purchase a sword, let alone multiples. So the swords that were crafted were always sharp and ready. Students of the blade would foil--or to make safe--their weapons by fixing a nut to the blade with a set screw so that only one quarter to one eighth of an inch of the blade was exposed. From there, the student and the master would practice fencing.

Mistakes were readily apparent, as a strike with the exposed tip would leave a painful mark on the student's body. It gave the student instant feedback. At the end of the practice duel, wounds were examined and the Master would give suggestions on how the student could better defend themselves.

This way of training with the sword left an impression on me. I was impressed with the level of dedication to learning the art of fencing. I thought to myself: "How cool would that be to recreate somehow?"

Fencing Academy: Progression through the Ranks

I joined the Diamond Rose Acadamie D’armes, and continued my progression through the martial ranks of our fencing school. The school teaches a martially correct historical French form, influenced by the writings of Maître D'armes L'Abbat of Toulouse from the 1690s and a strong classical fencing influence from Maestro Nick Evangelista

Most martial arts schools have some form of skill recognition or ranking system. The ranking system is similar to an Eastern Martial Art's belt system. The ranks for the Diamond Rose are: Unranked, Novice, Usher, Cadet, Scholar, Free Scholar, and Courtier. Each rank builds upon the previous rank's skills, and each promotion tested by combat before the next rank is awarded. An unranked is a new student and they must learn all the basics, everything from how to hold the blade, move with it, attack with it, and defend with it. A Novice has demonstrated a proficiency in this and has been tested, the Novice then learns sword and dagger forms, and duel strategy.

Once a Novice has demonstrated their proficiency, they test for the rank of Usher. An Usher continues to build upon the strategy lessons they had been previously studying as well as learning sword and buckler, sword and cane, and sword and cloak forms. Once tested, they are promoted to Cadet. With the acceptation of learning sword or two sword form, a Cadet is generally considered to have reached the end of the school's organized curriculum. So the Cadet's assignment is to assist in the instruction of new fencers, research other fencing forms through translated fencing treatises, write a paper on their studies, and then present it to the school. After the paper, presentation, and the testing of all previously learned forms, the Cadet is promoted to Scholar, and a Scholar is promoted to Free Scholar by continuing to assist the instructor and help administer classes and instruction.

To attain the rank of Courtier, the Free Scholar must perform a great feat through demonstration, or promotion of the school and fencing. As I progressed through my Scholar rank, I began to think about the great feat that I would have to perform for the school to attain Courtier Rank.

Several years ago, Seth Wright, a friend and fellow fencer, decided that his Great Feat would be to sharpen a rapier blade to historical accuracy. He acquired a small pig carcass to demonstrate the various cuts and attacks available using a standard rapier. He built a stand to properly display the carcass, dressed it in a leather vest to simulate "armor," and then demonstrated the various attacks and cuts in our historical form and what they would do to the human analogue.

The push and draw cuts sliced through the leather, skin, and muscle leaving a nick on the bones. The thrusts and lunges pierced straight through the entire pig as if it weren't even there. The tip cuts sliced ribs clean through. Even the skull was pierced. It demonstrated just how deadly a rapier is in the hands of someone who's trained to use it. This left all of those present with a lasting respect for the blade.

My Great Feat: Preparing for a Duel

Once I achieved my scholar rank, I started to think about what I would want to do as a great feat. What would my great feat be? Would it be worthy enough? I thought back to my first day in class and remembered how cool I thought it would be if I could foil sharpened blades and demonstrate a training duel. I talked to my Maestro about my thoughts and ideas. He was excited. I told him it was a shame that I had to wait a couple years before I demonstrated it. 

He asked, "Why wait?" Why indeed? I knew what I wanted to do. Now to make it happen.

For a month, I pondered the most important question: How do I make my demonstration duel safe? At first, I thought perhaps I could weld a spacer to the blade for a hard stop. I brought this idea up to my metal worker friends, Isaac Humber and Zane Hayes, and was reminded that welding could make the blades brittle. Another of my friends, Chris Kalish, suggested I pressure-fit steel tubing to the blade and place a washer at the top.

For a month, I pondered the most important question: How do I make my demonstration duel safe? At first, I thought perhaps I could weld a spacer to the blade for a hard stop. I brought this idea up to my metal worker friends, Isaac Humber and Zane Hayes, and was reminded that welding could make the blades brittle. Another of my friends, Chris Kalish, suggested I pressure-fit steel tubing to the blade and place a washer at the top.

With this prototype plan in place, I asked my Maestro Chris Atkinson, for permission to present my demonstration at our next fencing event, and then asked him to be a part of my demonstration. He paused a moment to think, and then told me that it would be an honor for him to participate. After gaining the approval, I declared that my demonstration would be held for all to see at the KVMR Celtic Music Festival, at our fencing school's guild encampment.

I began working on prototypes, and initially chose to test some of my designs on a standard Olympic foil blade. I sharpened one of my spare blades with a file and was not happy how thin the tip had become. I also had trouble finding a piece of tube steel that was both small enough and strong enough for me to properly safety the blade. I decided to talk to Isaac about my issues; he suggested that I use a double-wide epee blade--called a musketeer blade. The musketeer blade is between two and three times as wide as a standard foil with a strong triangular design to the blade. We hypothesized that the musketeer blade would both take an edge and hold up to dueling after the modifications.

The musketeer blade was traditionally only sharpened at the tip, so it had no real ability to make push or draw cuts like the rapier or saber. The only way to cause a wound would be to strike your opponent with a thrust or lunge directly at them. Typically, while using the rapier, you can use draw or push cuts as a backup if you miss your target on the initial thrust or lunge. I also discovered, through he course of practice with the musketeer blade that I relied too much on the push, draw, and tip cuts to score my touches. I had some more practice to do, and I needed to ensure that I could effectively and repeatedly strike my opponent with the tip. After a few months of practice with this new weapon, I ordered another complete weapon for my Maestro, and two new musketeer blades of the same length to sharpen.

At any point in time, I could have asked any of my friends who have experience in metal working for assistance in sharpening my new blades. But I decided against it. I wanted my hand to be the one that put an edge on these blades. I felt there was no other choice. If anything went wrong, it would be my responsibility alone. With the help of Chris, and an angle grinder, we took the blunted tip off and rough cut a point at the tip of the blade. I took a hand file and further refined the tip. Once I was happy with the size and shape, I used a medium grit stone to further hone the blade's tip, followed by a fine grit stone for the final polish and edge.

To properly foil the blade, I had decided to pressure fit steel tubing to the tip of the blade, and then top it with a washer to give me a solid base. Once I had pressure fit the steel tubing to the blade, I greased it up with a little vegetable oil and slid the rubber sword blunt on over the steel tubing. I then liberally applied strapping tape and a colored duct tape to the outside of the blunt to both hold it in place and give the tip a bright and visible color, in case it came off. And in that case, our fencing academy has always been instructed to call an immediate hold to all combat if the tip of even a blunted sword had come off. To test my foiling method, I screwed a pommel to the end of each blade and using a weight that had a hole just small enough to allow the tip of the blade to poke into, but not big enough for the sword blunt to enter, I struck the pommel several times with a mallet. Upon inspection, I could see that the tip had not moved at all.

My blades were ready.

The Duel: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Steel

Chris and I had plenty of time to practice with these new weapons of ours. I felt ready to face him with a sharpened blade. At the final class before our duel, I confirmed with Chris that we would be using our gorgets, masks, and all other standard armor requirements for our school. Nothing to do now, but wait.

When talking to my wife two days before, she expressed her nervousness about the duel. In an attempt to calm herself, she contacted Chris's wife Katie, who had also been very worried about this duel. Their nervousness started to affect me on Friday evening; I started to doubt both my own skill, and my testing of the blades. I had to remind myself that I had been practicing for this duel for several months. I had tested my foiled blades against thick, double walled cardboard, and had even struck the blades with a rubber mallet several times to ensure that the blades were properly foiled. I am not sure if it was some part of me that had doubts, or if I was just feeding off of my wife's nervous feelings.

I woke up that morning, excited and in general feeling good about the day. About an hour before the duel, I realized that I needed to eat and hydrate. I had to give Chris my best. I ate a lunch of haggis, a Scottish meat pie, and a really refreshing strawberry lemonade while Chris Kalish and I assembled the blades.

After the initial fencing tournament concluded, Chris Atkinson and I set up for our presentation and demonstration. We gathered the school together in a semicircle, while giving the regular public a view of things. I briefly spoke about the history of this kind of duel, and what I had done to safety the blades. In reality my talk lasted a couple minutes, it seemed like seconds.

Chris knelt to pray, we saluted, tapped our blades to signal ready, and I took a deep breath and went calm. No anxiety, no excitement, no emotion at all. I stopped hearing the music, and time stretched on forever. I felt that we were moving in slow motion. I could anticipate his actions. Feel his intentions. The crowd became a blur, and I was hyper focused on my opponent. I could see his eyes searching for a target. I could hear his breathing.  I didn't have to think to defend myself. I let my body react to the attacks coming at me, while I concentrated on attacking him.

After what seemed like fifteen minutes of fighting (really only 5 minutes), he asked the crowd if they wanted to be in my spot. Would they want to hit him with a sword? I did not hear what the crowd replied with. I was analyzing my own performance in the duel.

I realized that I was holding back.

As I attacked, I noticed that I was stopping short of striking my friend. My conscious intent was to strike and injure my friend. Unconsciously, I was pulling back. It's an odd thing to think about, especially when you're fighting. Why was I holding back? I redoubled my efforts to give Chris a proper duel, and the crowd a proper demonstration. He challenged me, but do people think I actually want to hit him? Was he feeling something similar? The duel lasted maybe 10 minutes at the most.

It was quite possibly the longest 10 minutes in my life.

As we concluded the demonstration duel, I realized I was tired. The world came flooding back into my view.

Chris then addressed the crowd. "It was an honor," he said. "No one has ever done a thing like this before." The crowd thanked us for the demonstration, and gave us a hearty three cheers. 

I opened the duel experience up to my friends Seth and Zane, and any ranked fencer who wanted to give it a try. Seth and Zane gladly accepted the chance to fight with sharp swords. We retreated to an area behind our guild encampment, as to not distract from the tournament in progress. Seth reacted the same as I had been during the demonstration duel. Zane and Seth fought, same reaction. I dueled Zane, and we retired to discuss our experiences. We all felt the same, that excitement before, the deathly serious calm, the hesitation and unwillingness to purposefully wound our friends, and the giddy rush of adrenaline after the duels were over.

My wife, Britta, recorded a video of the duel while we fought. I uploaded it to YouTube and it can be viewed here: Fencing Duel

The Aftermath

We examined ourselves and found many small cuts and scratches. I had a two and a half inch scratch on my arm. Seth had a four inch scratch across his stomach. Zane escaped any large scratches. Chris came out the best, with only two small cuts on his chest. While none were serious, in any respect, these felt different. We were proud of these, small though they were.

Here we faced each other with the intent to cause injury. These scratches were earned by our opponents. They feel like a badge of honor. Something I could show people and say "Look at this. This was caused by a sword, wielded by a man who was intending to cause this injury." Who else could say that? I could say that I've fought a duel using sharpened swords. In fact, I faced three different opponents.

More than that, I learned that I could do it. I could stare down my opponent's blade, see the sharpened tip looking back at me, and feel no fear. That I could break through the initial subconscious hesitation. We all felt reinvigorated and inspired in our fencing. The duel had given us a new perspective on fighting.

As we were discussing it, I noticed that adrenaline was really flooding into my system. I had energy, and I had to spend it. I joined the open tournament, and quickly dispatched 3 opponents, using a blunted blade of course.

It felt both strange and freeing to be using a blunted blade again; strange because I had not picked up my rapier in several months to fight, and freeing because I didn't need to worry about hurting my opponent. My first fight was with a newly ranked Novice, I gave him two openings to allow him to kill me by exposing my head to him. When he didn't take it, I quickly dispatched him with a light thrust to the head. My second fight was with the young Novice's mother, a recently ranked Usher. Wanting to give her a good fight, I gave her an opening to trick her into attacking, then countered her attack and lightly struck her face.

My last fight was with Isaac, my friend, a Courtier, and one of the school's newest instructors. After a flurry of attacks and counters by both of us, I came up the winner. It was a close duel, and we both fought well. The rest of the faire went well. I cooked our guild's traditional dinner of tri-tip and potatoes. Later, I found myself a quiet spot and happily ate my steak.

It had been a good day.

At the following Tuesday Night fencing class, Chris and I had a public discussion of our emotions and experiences while dueling each other. As we discussed our experiences in the duel, it seemed that Chris and I had shared the same emotions, same hesitations, and same after effects. I realized that I now know and understand my friend Chris in a new way. I feel that it will be the same me with Seth and Zane.

I do not believe that it is a "we did it" club. I feel a deeper connection attained through a shared experience. 

Some of the students asked if I was planning on doing this again. My reply took some thought. Finally, I said, "I can do it, and I know I can do it. Now I don't have to."

Peter Morrow is a native Oregonian currently residing in the greater Sacramento, CA area. When he isn't fencing, he enjoys playing airsoft, photography, and camping with his wife and dog.

If you have any comments or questions, leave them below!


At February 28, 2015 at 8:35 AM , Blogger Peter Morrow said...

Thank you for posting this for me!

At February 28, 2015 at 8:46 AM , Blogger Deb Salisbury said...

A very interesting article. Thanks for posting it!


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