Monday, June 20, 2016

Allow Me to Illustrate the Difference

The True Art, Science and Spirit of the Sword

"Olympic" or "sport fencing"

 "HEMA" or "Historical" Fencing

SCA/Jedi/Fantasy Role-playing "Fencing"

Iceberg, Let Us

The “sport fencer” sees only the superficial: the domination of others. They live in the transient, short-term world of the purely physical, relying on size, strength and speed. There is little need for tactical sophistication, and strategic finesse is an alien concept.  Two fencers may be playing at the same time, but it’s not a duet. There’s no harmony. It’s just two people each trying to play louder and faster than the other.
For the classical swordsman, the martial artist, that is inadequate and unsatisfying. We know there is more – much more – below the surface, and that what is unseen may profoundly influence that which is seen. We want to know where the iceberg came from and how it came to be, and where it’s going.
We want to understand the currents, the effect of the winds, the life in the surrounding sea. We want to know about the clouds, about the rain and the snow and the sun and the moon, and about every relationship between the iceberg and everything else that exists in creation – including ourselves.
And yet, we understand that it’s just a bunch of water.


Thursday, May 26, 2016


Here’s a famous photograph of the notorious “outlaw,” William Bonney, known as “Billy the Kid.”  He carries a rifle in his right hand, and his colt revolver on his left hip, indicating that he was left-handed.   
Pretty much “everybody knows" this.  It’s a cherished part of sacred wild west lore. In 1958, Paul Newman was (mis)cast to portray Bonney in the bio-pic “The Left-Handed Gun.”
The thing is, it ain’t so.
 The image is from a tintype, one of two almost identical images taken of The Kid in 1880. The original of one was lost. The other was discovered in 1986.
A tintype is a reverse image.
William Bonney was NOT left-handed.

Just a reminder that sometimes what "everybody knows" is dead wrong, and a cautionary word to those who religiously strive to emulate bizarre, awkward and unlikely poses found in some centuries-old fencing books.


Monday, April 4, 2016

Dueling for Dummies

Dueling for Dummies

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Surviving Your First Rapier Duel

In any given encounter, there are three possibilities:
1.     If your opponent is your superior, he lives, you die.
2.     If you are your opponent’s superior, you live, he dies
3.     If you are both equal, you both die.

Therefore, you have, at best, a 33% chance of survival. As Shakespeare advised, “beware of entrance to a quarrel.” Speak gently. Treat others with respect. And grow a thick skin. Become one who neither gives offense, nor takes offense easily, if at all.
If that should fail:

Plan A

1.     Select as your seconds, from your closest friends, those with the most experience as seconds, or lacking that, the coolest heads. It is best to select gentlemen to whom you owe money, as they will be the more keenly interested in your survival. Do not choose someone whose wife, fiancée, daughter, sister, mother  or other object of affection you have slept with.
2.     Be certain that your seconds understand your preferences.
3.     Arrange for the most distant date possible. Hot blood tends to cool over time. By affording yourself and your adversary an opportunity to contemplate your mortality, you may maximize your inclinations toward reconciliation.
4.     Whatever the insult or offense you gave, apologize.
5.     If you gave no insult or offense, apologize, anyway.
6.     If your opponent insulted or offended you, forgive him.
If all earnest efforts at the above should fail:

Plan B
1.     Bring your own surgeon. Be sure it’s one whom you trust with your life. That’s what you’re doing. Make sure he’s sober.
2.     Do not eat or drink much within 12 hours of the event.
3.     Be sure to completely empty bladder and bowel before you arrive on the ground, or you will likely do so afterward.
4.     Suck on a hard candy or slice of lemon or lime. You mouth will be dry.
5.     A shot of brandy may help steady your nerves.
6.     Make a last attempt at reconciliation. “I’m satisfied if you are, Sir.”
If that should fail:

Plan C
1.     Disregard everything you’ve seen on stage or in the cinema.
2.     Disregard everything you’ve ever seen (or done) in the “sport” of fencing,  historical “re-enacting,” and/or fantasy role-playing.
3.     Powder your hand. It will be sweaty.
4.     Bind your weapon to your hand. Your manual dexterity will be severely compromised.
5.     Take 2-3 deep, full, slow breaths. (Repeat this whenever there is a “break” in the event.)
6.     Take your ground as far from your adversary as possible.
7.     Assume a relatively tall stance, knees slightly bent, so that you can move backwards quickly and with ease.
8.     Keep your arm well extended, not quite fully extended,  and behind the guard as much as possible.
9.     Train your point on your opponent’s centerline at the level of his throat.
10. No matter what your opponent does, smartly extend your arm to its fullest extent, putting your point in line, aiming at his centerline, and step back -- as many steps as needed to regain your distance. Don’t attack. Don’t parry. Don’t feint. Don’t twiddle with your opponent’s blade. Stick your arm out and step back.
11. This disposition will not only discourage your opponent from attacking, it will encourage him to attack, if he does, your forward-most target, the wrist and forearm, where a wound is least likely to be fatal, but sufficient to end the encounter.
12. If you should wound your opponent, even the merest scratch, immediately withdraw, handing your weapon to your seconds (who should by now have come between you,) and declare to the President du Combat that you are satisfied.
13. If you should be wounded, even the merest scratch, withdraw to your surgeon, handing your weapon to your seconds, and declare to the President du Combat, “Thank you, I’ve had enough.” 

There is no guarantee that this plan will succeed. It is, however, better than any other plan, and much better than no plan at all. 
If you should survive:

1.     Have your seconds immediately approach your adversary’s party with several bottles of the best brandy you can afford as a gesture of reconciliation. Any intelligent gentleman, given a choice, would rather imbibe than fight.
2.     Go for a short, casual walk by yourself. This will allow you to vomit discreetly.
3.     You can expect to be extremely thirsty, soon ravenously hungry, and afterward incredibly libidinous.
4.     When you finally succumb to sleep, you can expect to sleep through the next 12-24 hours,  possibly longer. You will have nightmares.
5.     The next day or so, you may experience an adrenaline flash-back: you heart will race, you will perspire, feel off-balance, mouth suddenly dry, stomach queasy. Breathe deeply. It will pass.
6.     Have your closest friend over for coffee and implore him/her give you a good, swift kick in the ass for having been such a fool, and firmly resolve never to do anything that stupid ever again.

 -- aac

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Concrete-and-Jello Tango

Scientia potens est, quoth the sage: "Knowledge is power."
It’s a good thing for me that it is.
If size were power, or strength were power, I’d be long since sunk.
I wasn’t big.
And I wasn’t strong.
I was a fat, wheezy child.
But I wasn’t stupid.

“Martial arts” attracted me because it wasn’t all about brute force. 
Rather it was about the judicious application of science: leverage, geometry, physics. The universal mathematical rules that glue the whole world together were evident in every strike, every lock, every throw.
This is the science that every fighter knows, whether he knows he knows it or not. But knowing that you know it makes it easier to apply what you’ve learned in the salle, and in the dojo to events outside of those confines.

For every action, there is an equal an opposite re-action.
If A strikes B at X mph, the force acting against A will be the same as the force acting against B. It really doesn’t matter if A hits B or B hits A – the forces created will be the same and will go in both directions.

While the forces created are the same, the resistance to that force, i.e., the ability to withstand that force, depends on the nature (hardness or softness) of the body acted upon, relative to the body acting upon it.

I learned about this principle the hard way – by punching someone in the head with my fist.

Imagine a tub of solidified jello.
Imagine a 35 lb block of concrete.
You drop the concrete block onto the jello from a height of 10 feet.
What happens to the jello?
What happens to the concrete?

Now take a tub of solidified concrete.
Drop a 35 pound ball of solidified jello onto the concrete from a height of 10 feet.
What happens to the jello?
What happens to the concrete?

Throw a bottle at a concrete wall, and the bottle shatters, not the wall, because glass is less able to withstand the equal and opposite forces created than the wall is.  (We could call that the Molotov Cocktail Principle.)  But throw a same-size chunk of concrete at a window, and the window shatters, not the chunk of concrete, because glass is less able to withstand those forces than the chunk of concrete is. Throw the same bottle against a featherbed and the result is quite different.

When a cartoon character, like Wile E. Coyote runs through a brick wall leaving behind a perfect cookie-cutter shape of himself, that’s funny only because we know it’s impossible.  We know the wall is actually better able to withstand the equal and opposite forces created than the cartoon character’s body would be. 

When bullets bounce off Superman’s chest, we are impressed because we know it’s impossible. Flesh is less able to resist the equal and opposite forces created than bullets are.

The practical application is simple:  Always direct a relatively harder weapon at a relatively softer target. Never use a softer weapon against a harder target.  You don’t strike your opponent’s forehead with your nose; you strike the opponent’s nose with your forehead. 

You can strike your opponent’s throat with that web between your thumb and forefinger to great effect because his throat is less able to withstand the equal and opposite forces created than your “fishbelly” is. By the same token, you don’t use that strike against your opponent’s shin because his shinbone is better able to withstand the equal and opposite forces created than your hand is.

You can effectively apply a kick to your opponent’s groin, because your foot is better able to withstand the equal and opposite forces created than your opponent’s testicles are.  And you don’t try to block his kick with your scrotum.

Some guy in a bar comes at you with the jagged end of a broken beer bottle, that’s cause for concern. If he’s coming at you with the jagged end of a broken milk carton, not so much.

See how easy this is, once you get the hang of it?
I’ll bet you can come up with a dozen examples of your own without even breaking a sweat.

I love science.
It’s how I know that you don’t block your opponent’s elbow strike with your nose.
 It’s also how I know that aluminum airplanes do NOT fly through buildings made of concrete and steel.

Unless maybe the pilot was Wile E. Coyote.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Travelin' Jack's Magic Show

Yesterday, I showed some of my students a little card magic I learned in the waybackwhen, the summer I worked in a carnival. I’ll tell you that story sometime.
One reason I did this is simple: magic is exactly like combat.
Allow me to elucidate.

Magic relies on capturing your audience’s mind. You lead it where you want it to go, by using a   combination of suggestion, distraction, diversion, subterfuge, subtle deception, and outrageous lies. You baffle and bewilder them by making them think that they “see” things that they are not really seeing. And because they “see with their own eyes,” you make them believe – even if just for a moment -- things that are not true, cannot be true, things they know are impossible

Combat relies on capturing your opponent’s mind, too. You trap your opponent’s mind using a combination of suggestion, distraction, diversion, subterfuge, subtle deception, and outrageous lies. You baffle and bewilder them by making them think that they “see” things that they are not really seeing. And because they “see with their own eyes,” you make them believe – even if just for a moment -- things that are not true.
And a moment is all you need.
A lot can happen in a moment.

Eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Another reason that the study of magic is valuable to the student of the sword is that it stimulates your critical thinking juices.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes once said, “Eliminate the impossible, and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
The importance of this principle cannot possibly be over-stated.
We know that playing cards do not change, do not move around on their own. It’s IMPOSSIBLE. Therefore, you can trace the illusion back, step by step. When did it APPEAR that the cards changed? When and where did you last actually see the card? What happened after that?  Clearly, what you thought you saw was really something else. Step by step. Question each one. Verify what you think you know and HOW you know it. Verify what you think you saw – did you actually SEE  “X”, or did you conclude that you saw “X” because of some assumption, or suggestion?

In both magic and combat, you use your opponent’s assumptions, beliefs, habits, and responses against him. Because you know that your mark responds to “A” with “B,” you can anticipate “B” and be ready to do “C.”  See?
This brings me to the second master principle I want to mention, one that you should probably get tattooed on your forehead: “If you don’t have a Plan B, then you don’t have a plan at all
Let’s put it in fencing terms.

Let’s say “A” is the attack, the initial offensive action.  If you understand the nature of your opponent’s attack, you can counter-attack, make an offensive action DURING the attack. An opponent who is committed to an attack is in a very poor position to defend and so a properly chosen and executed counter-attack has a very high probability of success. Counter-attacks are good. I love them.
It’s foolish to put all your eggs in the attack basket. It’s a habit of beginners and very poor “fencers.”  They try to attack harder, faster, and deeper so that their opponent doesn’t have a chance to do the counterattack, or that the counter-attack will miss, or be a hair too late, and in the artificial context of a fencing contest, the “rules” will save the attacker’s life. But there are no such rules in a fight. The attacker must save himself.
People are good at what they like and like what they’re good at, and tend to do it whenever they can.  If I can determine that my opponent is so inclined to counter-attack, I won’t try to keep him from doing it. I’ll let him do what he wants to do. Hell, I’ll ENCOURAGE him to do what he wants to do. I’ll create the appearance of an opportunity to do it that he can’t resist, because he thinks I’m making a mistake. And then I’ll use it against him.
For example, I “attack” with my swordarm bent and my high outside line slightly open. This invites my opponent to counterattack with opposition to that line. I telegraph my intention, and contrive the speed of my attack to enable him to “pick me off” with a fast thrust. As he makes that thrust, I parry, and then continue my forward movement with a riposte with opposition to guard against a remise of his counterattack (getting inside his point if I can).
We use the term contre-temps or “counter-time” is used to describe every action made by the attacker against the defender’s counterattack.
If my opponent is skillful, he will not walk into the same ambush again. If he is skillful, he will understand the nature of my contre-temps and will either deceive my parry, or parry my riposte and make a counter-riposte.
We use the term fenta di tempo, or feint in time, to describe every action made by the defender against the attacker’s contre-temp.
Let me break it down for you another way.

Suppose we’re having a fencing contest.
My plan A is to hit you with my attack
If you try to parry my attack, one of two things will happen: either you will find my blade, or you will not find my blade. If you do not find my blade, it’s because I have deceived your parry.  Deceiving your parry is my Plan B.
But suppose I try to deceive your parry, and I fail. You find my blade. One of two things will happen: either you will make a riposte, or you will not make a riposte. If you do not make a riposte, I will make a remise and hit you. That remise is my Plan C.
If you DO make a riposte, I will parry and counter-riposte.  One of two things will happen: either I find you blade with my parry, or I don’t. If I find the blade, I will execute my counter-riposte. That simple parry and counter-riposte is my Plan D.
If I do NOT find your blade with my parry, it’s because you have deceived my parry. If I do not find your blade with my parry, I will give a little ground (if necessary) and execute a second parry and find your blade with that one, and counter-riposte.  That compound parry and counter-riposte is my Plan E.
Are you beginning to see a pattern?
Anytime you make a plan, you have to ask yourself, “What could go wrong?” at each step of the plan, and have a back-up plan for each eventuality.
I don’t even put my pants on without a Plan B.


Resources for Further Study
Just for fun, here are some films I strongly recommend. They’re good films and I think you’ll enjoy them. But they aren’t “just entertainment.”  Each of these films is about illusions, distractions, ambushes, understanding the nature of the opponent’s probable response, plans and back-up plans.
1.     The Sting. Dir. George Roy Hill (1973)
2.     The Spanish Prisoner. Dir. David Mamet (1997)
3.     House of Games. Dir. David Mamet1987
4.     Heist. Dir. David Mamet (2001)
5.     Harry in Your Pocket. Dir. Bruce Geller (1973)
6.     Inside Man.  Dir. Spike Lee (2006)
7.     The Thomas Crown Affair. Dir. Norman Jewison (1968)
8.     The Great Raid. Dir. John Dahl (2005)
9.     Deceptive Practice. Dir. Molly Bernstein (2012)
10. The Illusionist. Dir. Neil Burger (2006)

Sing it, Brother Ray:

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Left-Handed Compliments

The sword, used alone, as Capo Ferro said, is the queen of weapons. There’s not much point in trying to use TWO weapons, if you’re not capable of using ONE.
That said, I have two hands. Would I use only ONE of them in a fight?
When it’s a fight, and not an “athletic contest,” there are no rules, and you use whatever you have available. That includes both hands and both feet.  And it doesn’t hurt to use your head a little, either.
Back in the day, most everyone carried a dagger as an all-purpose tool, and of course, some were made en suite with rapiers.  Whether it’s a dagger, a cloak, your scabbard, a wine bottle, or chair leg in your left hand, or just your empty hand,  it pays to think past the solo sword.
As our exemplar of the left hand, let’s use the dagger as our left-hand weapon because so many fancy themselves “rapier and dagger” fighters, and so few are correct.

The dagger has several functions.
1.     Preparations. The dagger can be used to engage, beat, press or trap your opponent’s blade in order to facilitate your attack with the sword.
2.     Parries. The dagger can be used to deflect, divert or obstruct the opponent’s attack
3.     Opposition. The dagger can be used to apply opposition to your opponent’s blade.
4.     Offensive actions. The dagger can be used to cut or to thrust

Opposition may be the most critical of all these uses. Having parried your opponent’s attack, you oppose his weapon with your dagger while you make your riposte. I’m a great believer in controlling the opponent’s weapon at all times, keeping it where I want it, not where my opponent wants it.

Parries are the second best use of the dagger. This allows you to execute your parry and riposte simultaneously rather than consecutively.  Indeed, you could say that you’re now executing a counter-attack with opposition rather than a riposte. Because the counter-attack happens during the opponent’s attack, and because it’s very difficult for your opponent to go forward and backward at the same time, your counter-attack is extremely difficult to defend against – unless, of course the attack itself was a ruse to draw your counter-attack, in the hope of a contre-temps.

While the dagger can be used alone to parry, it can also be combined with the rapier to effect a “double” parry or “crossed” parry. In this use, you surrender the simultaneity of the parry and the riposte, but you gain opposition with the dagger, freeing the rapier to do its work.

Preparations.  Never make a frontal assault against a fortified position unless you have already neutralized your opponent’s offensive capability.  That’s the job of the preparation. The dagger occupies your opponent’s sword so that you may attack. Often, the preparation is combined with opposition.

Offensive actions. While seizing your opponent’s sword with your own sword, you can close the distance and strike with the dagger. Against a same-handed opponent, you close and move to your dagger side, that is, to his (now) unprotected rapier side. This use doesn’t work as well against an opposite-handed fighter.

The dagger is only useful for offense when at close quarters, as we’ve seen so many celluloid villains try to prove. Another good reason to control distance, and keep your opponent on the end of your point.

It’s possible to throw your dagger, but unless you’ve developed that skill in particular, forget about it. It might as well be a crescent wrench.  Even folks who throw a knife pretty well, generally don’t throw it well with their non-dominant hand. Then too, if your opponent didn’t have a dagger of his own, you may just have provided him with one.

You can use your empty left hand in much the same way, even for offensive actions – though personally, I’d use my elbow to strike with and not my hand.  Some people balk at using the naked hand for fear of getting it cut, to which I reply with the very first rule of fighting which states: You’re going to get hurt.  A cut to the hand, or a thrust to your heart?  I leave the choice to you.

A bottle, preferably broken, or any blunt instrument can be similarly employed.

A cloak, coat, or blanket is good, too. Wrap it around your left hand and forearm to provide some protection.  Some people have said that you should hold it loosely, and flail it around like a matador, but I personally find that more awkward than helpful, though, lord knows, there’s nothing like a good veronica.  

A good veronica.


                                                                                                                    A bad Veronica

Of course it’s possible that you could throw it over your opponent’s head, but unless you’re starring in a Tom & Jerry cartoon, I consider that one of those things to be “imagined, rather than practiced.”

As always, it’s important to know the difference between a “fencing match” (an athletic contest with specific rules) and a fight, and to know which one it is that you’re doing at the moment.

When you’re in a contest with a weapon, you use the weapon.

When you’re in a fight, you ARE the weapon.