Safety at the Hilt and Cross

Martial arts distill violence into a concentrated form.  They pose inherent danger, especially when practiced correctly.  The whole point of a martial art is to learn how you might neutralize a threat to the life, limb, or liberty of yourself or another person by using force.  Training in martial arts is fraught with minor bumps and bruises as well as the occasional injury of a more serious nature, such as broken bones and bad sprains, and there just isn’t any way around it.  Nevertheless, even reconstructed martial arts can be learned in such a way that is historically accurate and does not risk death or serious injury.
Evidence for ancient training methods of warriors in Europe can only be had piecemeal, but I’ll endeavor to condense the conclusions of the last century of historical research and archaeological findings on the methods of training in historical European swordsmanship here.  Bear in mind many styles may have used only some of these, and that all of these were also done mounted as well as on foot.  I use the word sword here because I am teaching a form of swordsmanship, but all of these can apply to other weapons as well.

  • Paired drills with swords without protective gear, or with gloves
  • Paired drills with training swords without protective gear, or with gloves
  • Paired drills with wooden swords without protective gear, or with gloves
  • Solo exercises with a sword
  • Striking a pell with a sword or training weapon
  • Participating in tournaments, these are usually depicted as being conducted with armor, and often armor specialized for tournaments.
  • Calisthenics and tumbling without armor
  • Calisthenics and tumbling in armor
  • Weight Training
  • Wrestling

The vast majority of material from surviving manuals for unarmored fencing depict the first two kinds of practice.  Perhaps as much as ninety percent of all the pages in fightbooks depict those activities.  I believe that paired drills without protective gear, beyond the occasional set of gloves, which show up in a very few manuals, formed the core of their training regimen and that they devoted a substantial amount of their time to it.  I believe that training with real swords in paired drills was reserved for very advanced students with thousands of hours of hard training under their belt.  I believe that paired drills with training weapons and little or no protective gear should constitute the vast majority of modern training regimens, just like their historical predecessors.  A lot of people would object to my assessment of proper training methodology.  I believe we should train the way they did for purposes of historicity, the development of skill, and strangely enough, because I have found that it is safer than the alternative.

When we look at ancient manuals from all over the world depicting warriors training for unarmored combat we do not see much safety gear.  When we look at the old martial arts that have survived to this day, we do not see safety gear unless it was introduced in the last few hundred years, when the martial arts began to decline and the line between martial art and martial sport began to blur.  In ancient sources we see warriors with training swords, or real swords.  We do not see them wearing helmets, armor, gauntlets, padding, or any such thing when practicing unarmored combat, though they possessed such gear, which many modern groups dub essential, in any of the manuals depicting unarmored fighting.

When we look at the evidence in sword arts that have survived from before 1600, the various kenjutsu styles from Japan, kung fu sword styles from China, Shantan Hindu Sikh Shastar Vidya from the region of Northern India and Pakistan, and others, we see that they did not use safety equipment when training for unarmored combat either.  Some of them even train extensively with sharp swords to this day.
I have never seen a manual, tapestry, or painting from anywhere in Europe depicting ancient warriors practicing unarmored techniques with more protective gear than a pair of gloves.  Such things did exist, as attested by a few particularly rare examples in a handful of museums throughout the continent, but they cannot have been commonplace if the frequency surviving evidence both written and archaeological is anything to go on.

The training armor used in modern kendo wasn’t used until almost 1700, nearly a century into the relatively peaceful Edo period.  In Europe, while some precursors have been found, the modern fencing mask’s invention and broad acceptance only occurred at the end of the eighteenth century, long after the sword had lost it’s place among the chief weapons of war,  in an era when training in swordsmanship served mainly as a form of recreation and, to a lesser extent, self defense.  Dueling had already become less common among dwindling classes of noblemen, and the manuals of the use of the sword in war show considerable simplification and a marked decrease in sophistication in all but a very few cases.
Why should martial arts have been taught this way for so many centuries ?  Why didn’t lethal or maiming training accidents beset all of these warrior cultures so badly that they adopted lots of training armor?  Why was this the case all the world over?  Why did this not change until well into periods when swords ceased to be major components of military fighting?

After a lot of cuts, bumps, and bruises, I have come to the conclusion that the most likely reason they did this is because what keeps a person safe in training isn’t safety equipment, but the self-control of one’s training partner.  In my experience no amount of safety equipment is sufficient to remove the possibility of minor or even serious injuries.  In fact all of the serious injuries I have seen or read about in martial arts training happened because one of the persons involved ignored protocol, lost control, or attempted something much too far beyond their skill level.

I repeat no protective gear can totally remove the possibility of serious injury from martial arts training.  If your training partner executes a technique of distilled violence against you without restraint he or she risks doing you serious harm, no matter the protective gear you’ve acquired.  In my experience strictly teaching and expecting responsible behavior removes the threat of injury far more effectively than relying on protective gear.  In a day and age when medical techniques were unreliable at best preserving the safety of the students would have been up even more importance than it is today.

I believe training armor can be useful for students to practice making their strikes and thrusts with force and intent.  Even then though, they cannot afford to abandon control of their body and weaponry.  Historical European methods for gaining the experience such practice delivers were largely limited to armored fighting in tournaments and pell training, and medieval tournaments were fraught with injuries and death in spite of the fact that much of their safety equipment was superior to modern equipment.  The groups I’ve observed who rely on protective gear to keep them safe typically neglect the serious control training I advocate and they have far more injuries than my group, particularly to the hands and head.

Ancient European warriors usually owned their own armor.  They owned helmets, gauntlets, breastplates, greaves, and a lot of other equipment, only a fraction of which is required by most modern HEMA schools.  They were also in some ways better made, better designed, and better fitted than the vast majority of the equipment that most modern practitioners use.  So why didn’t they use them to improve the safety of their training?

First, wearing protective gear changes the way you can move, it changes how you can see, it adds extra weight, restricts your flexibility and reach, and of necessity changes the way you think about your movements.  On top of that it does that to your opponent as well so that they will act somewhat differently than a real opponent.  When training for armored combat this is absolutely necessary, and most manuals with sections on armored combat depict their subjects wearing armor for their training, because you need to be prepared to deal with those artifacts when you fight in armor.

Second, since safety isn’t achieved by the addition of armor, but by learning control, protective gear is ultimately unnecessary during normal training.  I believe historical warriors learned a far greater degree of control, and the mechanics of their techniques to a much higher degree of perfection than most modern groups do, and this helped keep them even safer than we are, in spite of our safety gear.

The most common responses to this logic is that ancient people had different notions of safety, different expectations of normal training injuries, and some even claim inferior gear to train with.  I think the gear point is nonsense.  The extremely refined quality of European armor is a testament to itself.  Their armorers came from traditions hundreds of years old, with tens of thousands, if not millions of real battlefield tests to draw knowledge from.  The term “bullet proof” was coined in the Renaissance after all.  They could have worn their armor in training, but they didn’t.

Now I’d like to turn my attention to the chief exception among their training exercises to the method I’m suggesting, the tournament.  At tournaments warriors almost always went fully armored, with superior defensive equipment to what most of us use, even so, they regularly inflicted serious injury on, or even accidentally killed, their opponents.  Nevertheless, European warriors regarded these events as an integral part of their training, and here we would see armored warriors, often wearing armor specifically designed for tournaments, specialized training gear in other words, exactly the opposite of the training method I advocate should make up the majority of our work.  This also serves as evidence that they trained in such armor in preparation for tournaments.  It also means that they must have trained with the limited technique sets designed for tournaments at least some of the time.  I wish to re-emphasize that in spite of these measures the accidents that happened in ancient tournaments should make us cautious about accepting tournament appropriate methods as a regular part of everyday practice.  Many of the techniques in the Liechtenauer tradition as taught by Ringeck would have been illegal in the tournaments of their day, and are inappropriate for armored combat in the first place, which is what you make when you place a lot of protective gear on a fighter.

As for the criticism that ancient people had different notions of safety, I concede that to some degree.  Certainly, their literature and historical records describe and depict training injuries.  Yet most of the really serious injuries and deaths caused by training accidents appear to have been caused in the competitive environment of tournaments, where the atmosphere of competition and the prize money acquired through victory was allowed to overrule safety measures.  I argue that the presence of real swords in many manuals and the lack of quality medical care would probably have made them more conscious in many cases of the potential for serious injuries, not less, and the fact that these didn’t result in a remarkable number of deaths in training halls makes me think that their methods of learning control probably worked very well.

So I’ll outline here my methods for making training safe:

  • Use properly made training swords for partner training, or quality wasters if you’re on a budget.  These training tools can seriously hurt your training partner if you don’t use control, and you will know immediately when you exceed your limits.  Also high quality equipment is less prone to breaking, which often produces unforeseen actions and can leave sharp points which one might not notice quickly enough to prevent an accident.
  • Begin slowly enough to be able to stop your blade at the moment of contact or just before contact without exception.  Your partner should feel little or no pain.  Do not tolerate accidents, they are symptomatic of poor preparation and control.  Slowly build up your control until you can work at relatively high speeds while making gentle contact or no contact.  Expect this to take a few weeks.
  • The sword hand, the one near the hilt should be guiding the blade and using an appropriate striking motion, which will be covered in detail in the section on cutting.  You can alter the speed of your strike with the motion of this hand, and this will chiefly determine how hard you hit your opponent.  The off-hand, however, controls the blade’s extension in the cut and the forward snapping motion of the blade.  It plays a crucial role in developing power in a real fight, but it also provides a mechanism for positioning the weapon properly without hurting your training partner when you are practicing, especially in unexpected situations.  With a longsword cut the motion can be conveniently arrested by the off hand simply not following through with the primary motion.  Thrusts are best controlled with careful knowledge of the distance at which you are thrusting and sensitive flexibility of the arms.
    You may allow somewhat harder hits during special sessions for experienced students to develop physical toughness. For these it is appropriate to wear some protective gear helmets. The same can be done for techniques which specifically target the hands, such as the krumphau
  • Simultaneously, you should train in solo drills with the intent of learning to cut and thrust properly. Ideally you should go through the full motions with a real weapon.  When you do this with a real sword and your technique is executed correctly you should hear a nice sharp whistle as you cut through the air.  You should also train with a pell, an old tree, or another person holding mobile targets so that you can perfect your targeting and range.  I prefer to use plastic wasters for this activity so that I can really let loose and not break my training tool.
  • You should regularly do test-cutting a few times a year.  There is no evidence of test cutting in Renaissance Europe, though there is some record of Early Modern cavalrymen from eastern Europe cutting clay mixed with straw.  Nevertheless, our modern situation makes it necessary that we gain practical experience cutting.  It is amazing to me how many “advanced” students can spar pretty well, but can’t cut worth beans.  The Japanese practice of cutting tatami mats, is, I believe, the best such training method available to us.
  • Once you have mastered good control for a substantial period, I suggest a year with a good track record of safety, then it is appropriate to begin training the techniques with some protective gear on occasion to enhance your follow through so that you can “finish” your techniques.  I recommend helmets in particular to protect the face, gorgets to protect the throat, and protective gloves or gauntlets for hand strikes.  This will allow you to practice finishing the techniques and striking your opponent’s body and face with the cuts and thrusts you’ve been learning in your partner drills and sparring.  This should not replace or supersede your normal training which relies on control.  You must remember that you are perfectly capable of hurting your training partner in spite of the safety gear, particularly the easily damaged areas such as the throat, eyes, and fingers, and that control ultimately is the root of safety in a martial art.
  • You should also try to experience the competitive side of practice through in house competition and attending tournaments.  I suggest this be left to students with at least a year under their belt.  It is also very important to understand what tournaments teach, and what they do not teach.  I’ll elaborate on this in another section.The end result should be regular practices that look a lot more like Japanese koryu training and lot less like a contemporary HEMA tournament.  Frankly, I believe that something like this is what most ancient masters, and for this case Ringeck and Liechtenauer in particular, had in mind.  Carefully controlled drills should make up the vast majority of our training and sparring and tournaments should be the exceptions that prove the rule.  Most importantly, I believe that these are as close as we can get to the historical methods.  They presume more personal risk, and achieve safety through self-control.
    How does this work in terms of safety?  My self-control first training method has a pretty good track record.  My group regularly has some minor bumps and bruises.  They consistently throw each other to the ground, and must deal with the aches and pains that come with that, but none of them have lost and eye or a finger.  None of them has had a training partner break the bones of their hands, wrist, neck or back.  None of them has had a concussion.  In the years I’ve been instructing people in historical European martial arts with this method only one has had a serious injury.  One of my students at one of the summer camps for high schoolers in 2009 broke his toe because he stepped incorrectly.  Nevertheless, he came back the next day with his foot in a brace and cheerfully participated in every training activity.  I’d also like to point out that this injury did not come from a lack of a training partner’s control.
    So that’s the way I train.  It’s the way I think historical warriors trained.  I think it’s the fastest, safest, most historically accurate, and most effective way to train historical European martial arts.  I strongly urge you try it, for your own safety.