As long as there have been swords there have been mock-swords used in training.
They may be made of steel or wood or rubber or some other material.
They may resemble the “real thing” very closely, only generally, or hardly at all.
Why do we use such tools?
Well, first, these various training tools are at least marginally less dangerous than the real thing, and we’d like our charges to survive the training process. Make no mistake, it’s not exactly a stroll in the park to catch a blow on the skull from a wooden weapon – and stout lads have been killed with wooden swords (look into the exploits of legendary Japanese swordsman Myamoto Musashi). Still, as a rule, wood is a little more survivable than steel.
Thrusting weapons, such as all derivations of the rapier, are tempered to bend rather than break. Practice thrusting weapons are tempered to bend rather than penetrate. I consider that an important difference.
Secondly, swords were expensive then and are still expensive now. Good ones, anyway.
A bona fide rapier made by a real swordcutler like Dennis Graves, for example, could easily run $400-$500, with no upper limit.
On the other hand, a “foil” from any of the fencing equipment houses will probably cost $50-$60. And a 40” long ½” diameter dowel will run you just a buck or two.
Imagine you’re a fencing master, either today or back in the waybackwhen. You’re going to outfit a class of 10 with practice tools. Which do you purchase? Just do the math.
Besides that, you don’t need a fine weapon to learn to fence any more than you need a top-of-the-line Maserati to learn how to drive.
There’s one more thing.
Fencing is 100% skill-based.
Skill means practice.
Practice means repetition.
LOTS of repetition.
The smart money says it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery.
The smart money also says that fatigue will inhibit the acquisition of skill.
So the question is, how many repetitions can you do before fatigue sets in, cuts into your practice hours and interferes with learning?
I would suggest that you can do more repetitions with a 1 lb sword than you can with a 3 lb sword.
More reps before fatigue sets in means you can accumulate your 10,000 hours sooner.
What we today call a “foil” was at first designed to be a practice weapon for the rapier, or dueling sword, some like to call it. Some people are a bit baffled by the “conventions” of foil (the limitation of target and the phenomenon of “priority”). Some claim that these things are arbitrary and that the “epee” is more “realistic.”
As to the first proposition, they’re wrong. As to the second, it depends.
In a real fight with swords it’s utterly true that you might be wounded on the hand, arm, leg or head. It’s also true that the most immediately incapacitating wound is not necessarily fatal – and that the most fatal wound is not necessarily the most immediately incapacitating.
For example, a thrust through the forearm might sever tendons and make holding on to your weapon physically impossible.
But it’s a wound you’ll probably recover from (assuming it’s not managed by an HMO) and you will probably live to be foolish another day.
A thrust through the body, however, may puncture lungs – even the heart – wounds that will very likely prove that you and Socrates are both mortal. Yet, death may saunter along rather than sprint and you may have several minutes before you bleed out.
If I’m teaching you to fight with a sword, my first goal is that you will come home alive.
Therefore, the first thing I’ll do is to teach you to defend your centerline, particularly from eyes to pubic bone. Now that’s not a perfect approach. It still leaves your femoral artery waving in the breeze, but I have a back-up plan to deal with that. First things first: protect the vital organs. Walking erect has proved to be a mixed blessing.
The brain, of course, is a vital organ, too – more vital to some than to others, no doubt.
But it’s encased in armor – thicker on some than on others. If the surest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then certainly the easy way to a man’s brain is through an open mouth or an eye socket. Relatively small targets, requiring relatively greater accuracy than a thrust at “center body mass.”
Not all duels were fought “to the death.”
In fact, quite a few were fought to “first blood.”
That means you don’t have to kill your opponent. Just pink him in the arm or wrist or knee and go home.
In a bout with “epees” or, let’s say with epee’s lack of conventions, all hits anywhere on the body are counted. This is very much a “first blood” situation.
But in a bout with “foils” or, let’s say, using foil conventions, we have two combatants who are prepared to disregard all wounds except the gravest ones.
Therefore, I would submit that the “epee” bout represents one in which the opponents are not necessarily determined to kill each other.
A “foil” bout, however, is a fight to the death.
The notion of “priority” in foil causes a great deal of head-scratching in some quarters, but it’s really very simple: an extant threat has priority over a potential threat. This is based on the assumption that neither party is keen on dying. Therefore, they will act to avoid it, insofar as they are able to do so.
So the best question to ask yourself when pondering the mysteries of priority is this:
If these babies were sharp, would my action X keep my opponent from killing me?
Or would it merely be a “tie” with both of us being wounded.
The purpose of the priority convention is to teach you to fight intelligently, that is, to protect yourself while assisting your opponent with shuffling off his mortal coil.
If you don’t care whether you live or die, might as well fence “epee.”
Yet, it’s amazing how many macho young men who claim they are “willing” to die, nevertheless go to great pains to avoid it.
As far as conventions go, the “epee” has one, as well. And quite a silly one.
In “epee” fencing all hits are counted, but all hits are counted EQUALLY. That means if you scratch my forearm and at the same time, I drive my point through your heart, both touches are of equal value. If you scratch my forearm a second time, you might even “win.”
The most important difference to keep in mind is the difference between fighting with a sword and fencing with one.
In a swordfight, I’m not interested in going whackety-whack with my opponent for three minutes, just to show how big my panache is. I’d prefer to make one or two moves and have that be the end of the encounter and be long gone before the cops show up.
In a fencing match, I’m putting my skill on display, my virtuosity with the blade. It’s a lively game of “anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better.” If my opponent is skillful, it will allow me to indulge in luxurious phrases, subtle and delicate exchanges, a cold-steel sonnet, a grim ballet, beautiful if not for its actual purpose.
Fencing and fighting each have their place.
But in my experience, it is a simple matter for a fighter to fence, just as it’s a simple matter for a good sprinter to slow down to a jog.
But the fencer would be as hard-pressed to hold his own in a fight, as the typical jogger would be to pace that seasoned sprinter for some 100-yard intervals.
It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re fencing or fighting.
But YOU should know which one you’re doing.