Pursuit of Perfection
Modern tournaments made tremendous strides toward increasing the visibility of of HEMA and for polishing our interpretations. I particularly applaud attempts to include forms practice and test cutting as equal events next to the sparring competitions. This, I believe, acknowledges the limitations of sparring as a measure of skill. Let’s face it though, it’s the sparring that most of us come to see, and while the forms and cutting competitions are riveting in their own right, nothing can generate the level of intensity for the participants and spectators as a good sparring match. It is as close as most of us can ever come to a “real” sword fight. Over the years we have sought to refine our rule sets for our sparring matches in tournaments and in our clubs and schools, and I believe the results are the most realistic sets of rules for combative sport competition in the world.
Having said that I believe that we are now reaching the limits of what seeking an ultimate rule set can give us, and, as expected, we are beginning to encounter some examples of people learning technique so they can game the systems. In this article I will to propose a radical change to the modern national and international tournament scene, specifically that we should use highly varied sets of rules that change a great deal from one tournament to another in order to emphasize different kinds of skill sets and different kinds of results. This will, I claim, will make it very difficult to game the system over the long term, force us as fighters to acknowledge the insufficiencies in each and every sparring rule set, help us aim in our own personal practice for the best interpretation of our styles, strive for martial perfection, and, perhaps most importantly, help prevent the sportification of our arts in the long term.
The Fundamental Problem
Let’s begin with the insufficiency of modern rule sets. A good rule set for a combat sport should reward good fighting technique and cause the match to reflect the events of a real fight. Having trained with and fought with many people and under many rule systems over the last sixteen years I can confidently say that no sparring rule set is ever more than roughly 80% accurate. In any given sparring match the physical characteristics of our weapons, clothes, armor, and their interactions with our bodies will manifest quite differently than real weapons, period clothes, armor, and their interactions with our bodies. In a real fight you can tell if a cut or slice was done well because it will open up a wound. In a real fight you can see how deep a thrust penetrates, and in sparring matches many factors can interfere with our ability to observe these things. Cuts, thrusts, and slices enter bodies, and in many cases this would tremendously change the effectiveness of an opponent’s afterblow, or in some cases it would not. A blow that looks tremendously powerful, might leave a bruise in a real fight because it’s alignment was compromised and it would not have actually entered the body, a thrust that looks bad might actually have missed all the important targets within the body, or have failed to hit the right kind of target and produce little more than an annoyance, at least for a few minutes till the blood loss takes its toll. That’s why I argue that approximately 20% of the time we cannot know the result of a sparring match because of the physical realities. Moreover, people behave quite differently in life or death situations than they do in sparring matches, and this further compromises the integrity of these rule sets. The difficult thing to admit is that we often can’t know how the fight would have been different. Think about it though, perhaps as many as one in five tournaments had the wrong winner.
So let’s talk about the other elephant in the room. There are many ways to approach the the creation of rules, and each rule set I have seen has strengths and weaknesses. Even rules that incentivize stupid tactics when gamed can often teach things that other largely superior rule systems cannot. Some rules better reflect different results in combat under certain circumstances. I claim that no one rule set can give us a perfect simulation. Now when we train at the Hilt and Cross we vary the rule sets that we use from time to time with the result that sparring is quite different and behaviors that work well in one system must be adjusted for other circumstances, and thus different lessons are learned. I propose such an approach would help the modern tournament scene. I envision a day when every single tournament has a very different rule set to show and respect the many different ways that skill can be reflected in sparring matches.
Rules and Their Lessons
So let’s explore the incentives given by some of the common rule sets. In one popular old medieval system a set number of blows (often seven, but sometimes much more or much fewer) would be struck and the fighter who scored the best blow, determined by location, won the bout. This rule set has not been broadly recreated in modern tournament or sparring systems. Rather than points it sets a hierarchy of targets, and possibly could include a hierarchy of kinds of blows, so bouts are scored rather than points. It is quite literally possible for a 7 blow fight to have one fighter hit six times and the other strike one good blow to the head and win. George Silver records a fight an acquaintance of his participated in ending in such a manner. It incentivizes targeting lethal areas, but disincentivizes defenses of the extremities, if an opportunity to strike a better blow is offered. It also teaches the fighters to fight on after a blow may have been received, a highly desirable quality in a fighter.
Many of us often express distaste for the rules of sport fencing, which have fully embraced not only sportification, but often frankly suicidal tactics. It was looking at the insufficiencies in sport fencing rule sets and comparing them to the ideals of what a good fighter should be like which led the HEMA community to adopt the “afterblow” as a general rule, though it is implemented in many different ways. Having said that, there are specific contexts which happen in real fights which, if we design a rule set to reflect them, would lead one to use a rule set not too dis-similar from sport fencing. The Afterblow does not always give us an accurate idea of how a fight would end whether from the physical destruction of an opponent’s body or from the results of shock setting in, or its delay in setting in. For a ready visual reference I will refer the readers to this clip from Akiro Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, whose choreography was done by Yoshio Sugino of the Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū one of the oldest surviving sword arts in the world.
While perhaps not perfect in execution it still demonstrates the point that sparring matches don’t always accurately reflect the result of a real fight and that afterblows in specific don’t always reflect reality either. The impact of their sparring match at 1:36 appears to be a draw with one man’s “sword” hitting just moments after the first’s, which in our tournament rule sets would result in an afterblow. The young hot head declares it a draw, the master declares that he won. The results of their fight a few moments later are totally different, and though that exchange actually differs in important ways from the sparring match it is not difficult to imagine for a moment that rather than dodging the attacker’s blow the defender actually cut so that his blow hit first disabled his opponent and covered himself from the attacker’s assault before his attacker’s blow would have hit, and that the sparring match was different because the defender’s “sword” was stopped by his attacker’s shoulder and therefore wasn’t able to defend him as it would have in a real fight.
If the sparring match had been scored under modern rules sport fencing rules they would have been more accurate than common HEMA rules. Now, all of us know about the far more common actions where the fight would have resulted in both participants being injured or killed if the fight had been real. Such as the result at :23 in this video:
George Silver tells us that many fights like this resulted in that way because, in his words, the participants had not learned “the true fight” and behaved suicidally. So we have historical precedents for that as well.
In Part 2 I will discuss how we can use multiple sparring rule sets to enhance the modern tournament scene.