Friday, December 27, 2013

Merry Christmas to Me

Well, Christmas has come and gone, without a holiday post from me.  This year the big present not under my tree was my Albion Liechtenauer trainer, which I’m not expecting until about April.  Since so many people contributed to it, though, I thought it deserved a post.

I thought a lot about what I wanted out of my first blunt.  The ideal training tool, of course, would basically be a sharp sword that is incapable of hurting people.  It would flex as much (or as little, depending on how you want to look at it) as a sharp, and when its edge met another training tool it would “bite” and stick at the point of contact, just as two sharps do.  It would have the same balance and percussion characteristics, with an identical crossguard, handle, and pommel.

Of course, such an object does not exist, and I’m not even sure that creating one is technically possible at the moment.  The main problem is the fact that the edges of a blunt sword must not only be un-sharpened, but thick enough that they won’t cleave when swung with force (a blunt sword can still cut; heck, even a round wooden dowel can cut - think of the wounds a caning can leave).  This obviously throws off the mass distribution of the trainer, although clever use of a fuller (a channel down the center of the blade) can help with that.

The thick edges are also smooth (obviously they can’t be serrated), which means that when two steel trainers contact each other there is nothing to prevent the blades from sliding up and down each other.  This can cause a technique that would have worked with a real sword not to work, and that obviously makes it harder to learn than it would be with a real sword (though it has compensatory advantages, of course, such as little to no risk of dismemberment).  It also presents a risk that one sword will slide down the other and bang into the fingers.  Historical training swords (what are now often called federschwerts, though the use of that term to refer to a training sword is a neologism) had a flared shield called a schilt (“shield”) at the base of the blade to help prevent that - but this, of course, further throws of the mass distribution of the blade, and adds a radical enough amount of metal that the whole blade has to be reshaped.

Then there is the issue of thrusts.  Many longsword techniques involve thrusting, which is obviously not safe if one’s training sword has a pointy tip (as many longswords did, a trend that became acute during Liechtenauer’s probable lifetime).  A pointy tip on a trainer, obviously, is not safe to thrust into a sparring opponent, so the tip must be blunted in some way.  Some trainers simply use a spatulate tip rather than a pointy one; others actually roll the point back or flare out at the tip.  Even with a theoretically safe tip, though, most real swords are too stiff to safely thrust into an opponent (even with the flexibility that is characteristic of European swords in the late middle ages).  A training sword must therefore be somewhat more flexible than a real sword, or at least on the flexible end of the spectrum.  Too flexible, though, and the blade doesn’t resist another blade the way it should.

The commercially available trainers all vary with respect to these safety-necessitated features, as well as others such as blade and handle length, grip material, and style and size of crossguard and pommel.  It’s a lot to consider, especially for a practitioner just starting out who doesn’t have (and doesn’t expect to have, at least for a long time) an arsenal of different training tools with different characteristics.

What ultimately governed my decision was this question: what kind of fencing do I want to learn?  I’ve talked before about the level of martial authenticity I want in my fencing - what the masters sometimes call ernstfechten, fighting in earnest (as opposed to fighting to win a tournament, for exercise, or even in self defense when you are actively trying not to kill your attacker, which at least in some historical contexts was quite common).  I haven’t talked a lot about the historical side of things, though.  In part this is because I did not actually know a lot about the sociohistory of KDF, but I feel like I now know enough that I can set my sights on a firm enough target to guide my gear acquisition.

Insofar as we consider Liechtenauer’s art of fighting a distinct martial tradition (which we do, more or less, not least because Liechtenauer’s students considered it a distinct martial tradition and extant sources from competing traditions with a different view are thin on the ground), it arose or was codified in the mid- to late fourteenth century (the late middle ages), as an art to be taught to and practiced by knights - men whose job was, at least in theory, to be professional martial artists.  The tradition was apparently successful enough to survive into the Renaissance, and eventually became democratized enough to be taught and practiced by non-artistocrats (an evolution that can be viewed, I expect, as merely part of the larger democratization of violence during the Military Revolution).

Within KDF, the longsword was, as almost all swords have been at almost all times, a sidearm.  It was, in particular, an aristocrat’s sidearm (lower social orders generally preferring the sword and buckler).  To my knowledge, no historical sources ever directly discuss why this was so, although one suspects it had at least something to do with the fact that aristocrats can generally afford better body armor.  Of course, a longsword is perfectly capable of killing a person stone cold dead with a single attack, but it was not likely to be the weapon of choice for truly serious, premeditated violence.  Nobody would feel fully armed going to war armed with nothing but a longsword.  It’s a backup weapon, or a minimum level of weaponry, to which one might strip down when traipsing about in body armor and armed to the teeth might be considered not quite the thing.

Modern people tend to draw the lines between “longswords” and “greatswords” (both words that were used historically, though not in the way we now use them) as the line between about 40” of blade length and longer, and between a balance and handle that can be used with one hand at need and one that cannot.  Within the family of weapon characteristics that we presently recognize as a “longsword,” blade lengths seem to have bottomed out at about 33” or so.  A very short longsword might be useful in a variety of circumstances, particularly remembering that it was (i) a sidearm (enormous sidearms tending to defeat the purpose of carrying a convenient backup weapon in the first place) and (ii) an aristocrat’s sidearm (a somewhat shorter longsword being, so I am told, handier to use as a sidearm on horseback, when one must worry about hitting the horse’s neck with one’s sword).  I have also heard that shorter longswords seem to have been popular in the Italian tradition, though I’m getting that rather secondhand.

The final piece of the buying puzzle for me was a reminder in training that modern HEMA practitioners generally (including AHS) have three legs to our training: cutting, drilling, and sparring.  One cuts to understand how a sword works.  One drills to learn how to make a sword work when the opponent is not cooperating.  One spars to practice what one has learned in the drills.  No one leg is complete martial arts practice.

With all these thoughts in mind, I looked at the commercially available steel longsword trainers and settled on the Liechtenauer, for the following reasons.

First, it has no schilt.  There is an argument to be made, and I think it’s a strong one, that a schilt is useful compensation for the fact that blunt steel does not bind in the same way that sharp steel does, and is thus more apt to bash fingers.  On the other hand, we use more robust hand protection than historical practitioners did (in our unarmored fencing, that is), and I actually want the challenge of learning to protect my fingers in a suboptimal environment.  Moreover, all the blunts I’ve handled with schilts have a balance point that is quite near the hilt.  This makes them feel very lively in the hand, but I would like to train with a weapon that is slightly less nimble.  This is because I know that I already have a natural tendency to want to leave the bind in situations where I know I should not, and the faster one’s sword is the easier it is to leave the bind and land a successful follow-up cut.  This is the opposite of the sort of fencing I want to encourage in myself; despite my natural aversion to it, fighting from the bind is one of the parts of KDF that I like the most, and I want to get good at it.

Second, the blade is about 36” long.  The overall length of the sword is not too long for me, but it is also not a short longsword.  Perhaps Italian fencers or mounted fencers could make good use of those, but as I am unlikely to train in either art, a longer sword seems appropriate for me.  At the same time, it is not as long as many other commercially available blunts (the current “trend” being towards longer blades).  I am fine with this, since 36” is about the length of my Pentti, Shereshoy, and about the length of the sharps I am most interested in (in fact, there does not seem to be a corresponding trend towards longer sharp swords).  This is good, since even though I don’t own a sharp sword yet, I would want my wasters to resemble my sharps as closely as possible - the sort of fencing I want to learn, after all, involves a real sword.  I don’t want to learn to fence with a 40” blade unless I actually own a 40” live blade.

Third, the overall weight is about 3.5 lbs.  This is on the heavier end for a longsword (though by no means unhistorically weighty), on the heavier end for a commercially available blunt, and probably a shade heavier than any of the sharps I am likely to buy.  Since this is a training weapon, though, I’d rather err on the side of being heavier than the real thing than being lighter. 

Fourth, and finally, the handle is not particularly long - pretty much just enough room for two hands without gripping the pommel.  There are some fencers, and some historical masters, who prefer a long handle, as well as some fencers, and some historical masters, who prefer gripping the pommel.  This appears to have been a matter of personal preference historically.  I, however, am being taught by somebody who prefers (and primarily follows historically texts that prefer) shorter handles and no pommel gripping, so it makes sense to me that I should prefer a weapon that encourages that.  Moreover, a short handle makes sense to me for a sidearm - a really long handle undoubtedly does have many positive attributes, but it seems to me that it would also tend to make the sword rather clumsier when simply being worn.

The Liechtenauer does have some negative attributes (to my mind), but I decided that these four were more important to me as a training tool.  On the negative end of the scale, the blade is somewhat less suitable for sparring.  The edges are thinner than most other blunts, and the blade is somewhat stiffer as well.  These mean that I will probably have to use more care when hitting and thrusting with it in sparring than I otherwise would.  I ultimately decided that this was an acceptable tradeoff for a few reasons.  The first is that any steel sparring requires an artificial measure of control - the safety gear simply doesn’t exist to permit full-power steel sparring without turning it into armored fencing.  The second is that I couldn’t find any commercially available blunts that had a better combination of advantages and drawbacks.  The third is that it may not be a “tournament legal” weapon at bring-your-own-sword steel sparring tournaments, since it doesn’t have a schilt.  On the other hand, steel longsword tournaments are generally only for more advanced fencers, and BYOS tournaments are not necessarily going to become the norm.  If they do, and if I regularly compete in them, and if this blade is still not tournament legal, I can always get a “tournament sword” at that time.

And the fourth is that, frankly, I already have a sparring sword for full power (or closer to full power).  Shereshoy fills that role, and probably better than any steel waster ever will.  The role of my steel blunt should be to provide a more accurate drilling experience, and secondarily to provide a sparring experience that trades speed (and all the things that fast sparring can improve, like proper form under pressure) for increased weapon verimisilitude, and this - for the sort of fencing I want to practice, and in my judgment - is the best available tool for me. 

Now the thing just has to arrive.