Why It’s So Hard to Teach HEMA Practitioners to Cut Well

I’ve taught a lot of people how to use a sword, and specifically, how to cut with one.  For the last seven years, I’ve set out on what can almost be called a crusade (except that it has nothing to do with Jesus or the holy land) to teach HEMA fencers proper cutting mechanics. I have been joined in this holy war (okay, I’ll stop!) by my colleague Tristan Zukowski, who has traveled to even farther reaches to bring the light of truth to the sporty infidel (okay maybe I can’t stop!).

 My teachings have not been limited to HEMA fencers. I have taught practitioners of Japanese sword arts, sport fencers (the Olympic kind) and even random people off the street who had never held a sword before. With few exceptions, HEMA people are the hardest to teach.

At this point, I’m sure a few people want to go and comment, “I don’t find it hard to teach HEMA people to cut! Look at this youtube video of my students cutting!” Yeah, I’ve already seen it. Let’s just say we have different definitions of “cut well.” With that out of the way…

 The reason behind this is fairly simple. The primary way that we learn when studying martial arts, combat sports (or really, anything physical) is by forming muscle memory. We form muscle memory with repetition—we do the same thing over and over again until our brain automates the process by forming specific pathways that are triggered when we set out to do it. Think of it as an organic macro. This word, “macro,” is important, and will be used repeatedly in this article. A macro is a term used in programming (and gaming) to describe a sequence of instructions that are carried out with a single instruction. Look it up if you are unsure of what it means. As for how it applies, think of the first time you tried to do something complex in HEMA. You probably had to think about each step and carry out each movement in a very deliberate fashion. As you got better, you would just decide that you wanted to do it and then your body would perform the action without any conscious thought. That’s muscle memory—an organic macro.

  When I take someone off the street and teach them to cut, I am teaching them to form this macro from scratch. The movements that I am asking them to do are new, and, this is the key—those movements are not in conflict with previously recorded macros.

 The way almost everyone learns HEMA is by doing decision tree style technique drills and sparring with blunt training swords.  Attempting to cut typically comes later, either because these people want to compete in cutting tournaments, or they want to take their skill to the next level (make it “real”) .

 The problem with this approach is that by the time you try to learn to cut, your brain already has well developed (mature) macros for swinging a sword.  And, from a “using a real sword to kill” perspective, these macros are completely wrong.  If you just want to do sword sports, then there is no such thing as wrong, only things that do and don’t work in your sport.  But when it comes to the martial art of the sword, there is no room for bullshit. Things are either wrong (inefficient, ineffective, suboptimal, etc.) or they are right (if you want to know more about this, read my book, Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application).  

 What happens all too often is that people cannot overcome their original macros and may not even want to, because they serve them well in competitive fencing.  So instead, after trying for a long time, their brain creates a new set of macros. Such a fencer is left with a set of sporting macros and a set of cutting macros, and the two aren’t remotely the same.  Some people even start cutting using their sporting macros, and because cutting tatami with a very sharp sword is pretty easy when your only standard is “did it sever the mat(s),” they get away with it.

 Unfortunately there are only two solutions for this, assuming it is something you care to fix in yourself or your students. The first is to slog through the slow and agonizing process of completely reprogramming your body mechanics to erase the sport macros (or at least to dump them in the “do not use” bucket) and replace them with fighting macros (based on solid cutting mechanics). The second can only be done with a fresh student, and that is to make sure they have the correct macros before letting them fence (or even drill). Unfortunately, this is not very practical for a variety of reasons, as I’m sure you were about to scream at the screen.  It can take months or even years to build these macros, and people want to start fencing right away, because it’s fun. You can balance the two effectively, so that you are teaching them the right way to move and making sure they move that way in fencing, but this is very difficult in HEMA because of the typical ratio of fencing to drilling/training.

 This is an issue that, in my opinion, has no solution that can ever be applied to the whole community or even a large part of that community. I believe that this is a phenomenon that will only get worse the more the community grows.  But perhaps knowing the problem exists and understanding it can help some people overcome it.  And if you happen to be a battodo teacher who’s had their friends from HEMA ask for help with their cutting and you’re wondering why they are so hard to teach, now you know.  But at least you know that it’s not because they’re dumb! So go apologize, take back all the mean things you’ve said about them, and show them this article.


People Who Hit Too Hard

One my study group leaders asked me a question today:

"So, if you have a student who hits too hard without meaning to, how would you go about training control? And how do you tell if someone is doing it on purpose of if they just can't help themselves?"

The first step, I told him, is to figure out whether they are doing it because they are unable to not do it, or if they are just being a dick. Figuring that out takes intuition and experience. And if you have intuition and experience, they will tell you this: if you have to ask the question, then it's always because that person is being a dick. Always.

Now, to be fair, there are several exceptions. One such exception is two experienced/skilled fencers fighting at a very high level at a mutually agreed upon degree of intensity. Another is a teacher doing so for a very specific reason--often to correct exactly the sort of behavior being discussed. People who are too weak to control the sword will sometimes hit too hard if they strike with a big arc, because their arms act as a catapult. They are essentially throwing the sword and holding on for dear life. People also hit too hard out of habit without meaning to, but this is not really an exception because they got those habits by being dicks. People with very good body mechanics often hit hard as a consequence of optimal extension, centering, structure, follow-through, etc.. But not *too* hard. Not unless they're dicks. And if you ask such a person to tone it down, he or she should be able to do it instantly. You know, because they have good body mechanics. But with any of these exceptions (except the one that isn't), you wouldn't need to ask the question. So the point still stands. If you have to ask, then it's because that person is a dick. 

What is too hard? One person's "too hard" is another person's "not so hard." It's subjective. As a teacher, you need to be able to gauge these things in your students and in yourself. Historical fencing can be brutal and it is quite dangerous. When someone strikes you with a steel longsword or an arming sword (or whatever), it's going to hurt. And that's okay. What's not okay is hitting someone so hard that they have to stop to recover. Or they start cringing away from you and start fighting extremely conservatively because they expect and are afraid of pain. The classroom is not a place where people should be afraid of pain (or, at lest, too much pain). Also, accidents happen. Everyone hits someone too hard, at some point, without meaning to. It's part of what we do. But if someone is consistently hurting people, then that person is being a dick.

So now that we know our problem child is a giant douche, what do we do about it? This isn't a training issue, it's an awareness and discipline issue (unless you're dealing with someone too weak to control the sword, then that person has a lot of work to do). There is no drill you can have them do, or trick you can teach them. Though perhaps therapy might help, or medication. Short of that, if you are the teacher, you can and should demand Mr. Douche stop brutalizing the students, but that may not be enough. Sometimes people don't actually realize what they are doing to others. Maybe they are better than the other students and always were, so they rarely get hit. Maybe they were never struck on a regular basis as hard as they are striking others. Maybe if they understood what they were doing, they would stop. Your job, as a teacher, is to make this person understand (I'm not going to spell out how, but it should be obvious). 

If you can't do that, and if they still don't listen to you without it, you can kick them out of your class, or out of the school/group/club completely. And, for the sake of the other students, you should. No matter how important that one person is to your class, your club, your school, whatever, he or she is not as important as the numerous students they are costing you. Students who have better things to do with their lives than to be brutalized by Sir Dickalot in his quest for self esteem (or whatever narcissistic reason this person has for enjoying causing pain to his or her classmates). 

I didn't (and don't) have any specific person in mind when I wrote this. The question brought back memories for me, and along with those memories, a healthy dose of anger. All of the people who triggered my anger are long gone. But If you are reading this and thinking, "Is he talking about me," then yes, I am talking about you, and you need to stop being a dick, before someone else stops you. If you have to ask, it's you. And you should stop not only for other people, but for yourself, because you are placing yourself in great danger. One day, you will do this to the wrong person, and that person may literally kill you (however unintentionally--the levels of force that we can generate are absurdly dangerous with steel longswords, and our gear isn't enough to save us). This isn't a joke, and it isn't a laughing matter. Stop being a brute, and stop it now, before someone gets hurt. And before you do. 

Body Mechanics: Big Swords and Small People

I recently gave a cutting/body mechanics workshop to a group of students from our NYC branch who were struggling with cutting. Prior to the workshop, I assigned some prerequisite homework assignments, one of which was filming themselves doing basic cuts in the air. As I watched one video after the other, I noticed that all of them had, among other issues, one particular thing they were doing that seriously hampered their ability to cut successfully: they were slowing their sword early in the arc. It looked deliberate and was quite obvious. I then watched their unterhau, and something completely different was going on. They were failing to launch the tip (their cuts led with the hands and the tip dragged along behind) and their bodies were twisted and their cuts were scooped (not straight). 

Although I believed, prior to watching their videos, that they were using swords that were too big for them, I had no idea of the extent to which these swords were causing problems with their body mechanics. This blog post is intended to help instructors recognize the signs of some of these issues and then fix them.

There are four main ways to stop a sword from hitting the ground after an oberhau. The first is to let it keep going around for another strike, the second is to pull it in close to you as it stops so that you pull the tip away from the floor (or just cut with bent arms to begin with), the third is to stop it with your muscles and joints, and the fourth is also to stop it with your muscles and joints, but supported with structure. This last method is the only one that should be taught to students, at least at first. Of the other three, the first can be very useful and effective but cannot be done properly without first learning the forth, the third can be very useful and effective under limited circumstances but should not be used very often (for both tactical and joint health reasons), and the one where you pull your arms in is useless and detrimental 99.99% of the time.

The problem with stopping the sword without structure (aside from crippling joint injuries later in life) is that whatever you think you are doing to stop the sword and whenever you think you are doing it, you are actually doing it way too soon. For example, if your idea of Zornhau is cutting to the center, and you think your sword travels at full speed and stops dead as soon as it gets to the centerline, you don’t have a very good understanding of how the human body works (or physics, for that matter).

Imagine four points along the forward path of a sword—A, B, C and D.  You start at A, C is the target and B is the halfway point between A and C. D is the point you want to end at. Assume that you want to use your arms muscles and joints to stop it, unaided by structure. If you do it in the air, it may appear that you’re stopping the sword at point D. But if you measure the sword’s velocity, you will see that you are actually beginning deceleration at point B, slowing down considerably at C (the target) and coming to a complete stop at D. You can get away with this in the air, but not against a tatami mat (and especially not a person). If you are very strong you can achieve a measure of success doing it this way, but it will be far less than what you could achieve doing it the right way. If your chosen method of stopping is to pull the sword in close, then you will begin pulling it in a lot sooner than you think you are, and your cut will be a slice, not a hew.

For this same reason, if you don’t know how to properly stop a sword with structure and you want to let it come around rather than stop it, then the same thing will happen. You will begin that “coming around” way sooner than you think, and in a detrimental way. First cut first! Then let it come around.

If a student cannot stop the sword reliably using structure (arms stopping against the body, grip too tight to allow sufficient ulnar flexion for the point to strike the ground), then they will begin to slow the sword early in their cut to avoid the unpleasant feeling and accompanying embarrassment of striking the ground. This can happen for a variety of reasons, the simplest being that the student doesn’t know how to properly stop a sword after an oberhau. For such people, correcting their grip, centering or extension will resolve these issues. But if the student cannot stop the sword because either he or she is too weak for the weight of the sword they are using, or too short for the length of the sword they are using, then technique corrections will not help. Correcting such a person’s technique will result in frustration and little else.

It’s your job as an instructor to diagnose the reason for the problems each student is having and help them fix it.

It’s not easy to determine if a sword is too long for someone. A very strong person can easily stop a sword that a weaker person would be unable to control. Much of the ability to stop a descending sword relies on the strength of the student’s grip.  However, there are things you can do to give you an idea. A good basic evaluation is as follows: have the student stand with their right (reverse for lefties) foot forward and hold the sword with the point forward, arms pressed against the body, as though they had just completed a vertical oberhau. Have that student squeeze the bottom two fingers of both hands tightly while maintaining a good (and correct) grip on the sword. The point of the sword, in this position, should be about a foot off the ground. If it’s less, that sword is probably too long, at least at this point in this student’s training.

If the sword is not too long, but the student still strikes the floor (or stops it without structure to avoid doing so) then the student may not be strong enough for the sword he or she is using. Substitute the sword for a lightweight wooden dowel (or a much lighter sword) and see what happens. Do the problems go away? If so, tell that student to order a McBubba and get to work! He or she needs much stronger arms.

If the sword is too long or too heavy, then that sword needs to be replaced (at least for the time being) with a much smaller and lighter sword. Can’t find a longsword to fit the bill? Use a katana or other sword similar to a longsword. You can even let them cut with it in class. Once their mechanics are solid and their muscles (and muscle memory!) sufficiently developed, move to a small longsword, such as an Albion Squire Line bastard sword (which is an excellent choice for smaller students on a budget) or one of their short bladed XVa next gen longswords, such as the Mercenary. After that, whatever they can handle while maintaining solid mechanics. 

Using a sword that is too big also affects other cuts, particularly unterhau. Although unterhau can be executed in a variety of ways (e.g. hands high), the optimal starting position ( in terms of power, velocity, structure, etc.) is with the hands low and the blade pointing slightly behind you. Thus the hips provide lots of power and the axis of rotation remains far from the hilt. For this to work properly, the sword has to be short enough to start next to your leg with the point mostly down. If a student’s sword is too long, they will most likely start with it pointing out to the side and then attempt to adjust its path and straighten the trajectory. This seldom works, except in the hands of experienced practitioners. Another way to compensate for a sword that is too long is to leave the tip trailing far behind the hands (as launching the tip forward will hit the floor if the sword is too long and in a mostly vertical position). Most people do a combination of these two. Signs to look for are students twisting their bodies, using their shoulders and, of course, a trailing tip. Give such a person a shorter sword and the problems go away almost immediately.

Many of these issues can be corrected, to an extent, by skilled/advanced practitioners, and so they may not seem like much of an issue to some people. However, the more skilled you are, the more you’ll recognize that even with compensation/correction, you will cannot perform as well with a larger sword as you can with one that is the right size for you. At a certain size/weight point (e.g. montante), a sword becomes heavy enough that momentum will more than compensate for suboptimal body mechanics, but that is irrelevant to the topic at hand.

Your take-away from this, as an instructor, should be to keep a careful eye out for these issues so that you don’t misdiagnose it as a technique problem. Also, when your students ask you what swords they should buy, make sure that you take their size and strength into account when advising them.

As a student, your take-away is simple. Don’t get a sword that is too big and/or too heavy for you. It’s one of the worst mistakes you can make. I only wish that I recognized the full extent of the problem sooner, but better late than never. 

There is an accompanying video, which can be found here: 


Another Note on Pedagogy - How Not To Be a Bad Martial Arts Student

In my previous blog post, I talked about what it means to be a good martial arts teacher. This time, I will talk about what it takes to not be a bad student. This is more appropriate than discussing how to be a good student, because being a good student is really simple. Not being a bad one is very hard, and there are things we are all naturally inclined to do that make us bad students. These are things that you want to pay close attention to, because if you keep them in check, you will improve and get the most of out of the time and money you invest in your art. You will also help your fellow students, and that's important. We are all in this together, and we have to help each other.  

There are many aspects to not being a bad student, and I can't cover them all. Most of them are simple:

  • Take your classes seriously, don't fool around or cause distractions, listen to what you're told to do, and do it. 
  • Come to class on time, but if you can't, that's okay, so long as you join quietly without causing disruptions and accept that you may not be able to fully participate because you missed critical information. And also accept that that's your fault. 
  • Respect your teachers, seniors and other fellow students. Don't do things that make their lives harder.
  • Don't expect things that you don't deserve or haven't earned. 
  • Ask questions, but don't keep asking them if you don't understand. Class time isn't just for you. Approach the instructor after class.
  • Don't be adversarial in drills...don't try to win the drill. Play your role.
  • Don't stand around chatting when a break hasn't been called. Keep working, or ask for a break if you can't. 
  • Do your part. 

That last bit, that's what the rest of the post is about, and it's the most important. As I mentioned in the previous post, the best martial arts teacher I know has a saying, "The teacher gives 10%, the other 90% is up to the student." As you may have noticed, the lion's share of that ratio falls on you, the student. Let's try to put this into perspective. If I am the teacher and you are the student, and we are painting a room together, you have to paint all the walls. I only have to paint the small areas near the edge of the floors and ceiling. If we are cooking a pizza together, I just find the recipe and you do all the cooking. Let's take a look at what that means for you as martial arts student. 

For starters, it is your responsibility to not demand too much time from your instructors. If there are 10 people in a class and the instructor has 20 minutes of in-class time to devote to all of your individual needs, you get 2 minutes. Sometimes you get more, because other people don't need theirs. And sometimes you get less. A lot less. Because one person in the group is monopolizing that time. Such a person is asking for more than is their due, and in doing so, hurting you. One of your primary responsibilities as a student is to not do this. Learn to work with the time you are given. If you need more, approach the instructor after class and ask for help. 

Your greatest responsibility as a student is to do what your instructor tells you to do as it relates to improving your skills. Let's say that you have a problem with a particular aspect of footwork. Your instructor, in those two minutes that he or she can allocate to you in a given class, sees that you have this problem and gives you some homework. "I want you to spend 15 minutes every day doing this thing(shows you quick drill)." Your job is to understand what this thing is and how to do it, and to communicate this understanding or lack thereof immediately, and then to do the thing. Every day, for 15 minutes, until the next time that particular footwork comes up and your instructor signs off on the fact that you now know how to do the thing. If you don't understand it, the instructor's job is either to help you understand it in the time available, or simplify it until you do (break it up into even smaller skill drills that are easier). But these things that you are told to do are almost always very simple things that everyone understands. The only hard part is actually doing them. 

Now let's say that you did the thing for the first couple of days, but then life happened, or you got lazy, or you forgot, or whatever. You didn't do the thing again and then suddenly it's the day of class and you're there and you can't make the drill work because you didn't do the thing and you still don't get the footwork. Your instructor will sigh and try to make spot corrections, but here's the important part. You do not deserve a moment of that person's time. Not one. He or she will be fixing the drill for the sake of your training partner, whose progress you have compromised because you didn't do what you were told to do. Until you do the thing you were told to do and fixed the problem you were having, you have no rights to your instructor's attention You were given a simple task, you failed to perform that task, and until you do, you need to shut up and accept it. That's part of your 90%. 

I've been a student longer than I've been a teacher, because we are, all of us, always students. So I know how this works. I have often been given things to do that I didn't do (hi Sang!). And if my teacher paid any attention to me after he realized that I hadn't done the things, then I was immensely grateful, because I didn't deserve it. In the real world, your instructors will not flunk you the moment you fail to do a thing. They will give you many chances, but if you keep failing them, you will be ignored. And that will be your fault, not theirs. Ultimately you may be asked to no longer attend their class. That will be your fault as well, and you will deserve it (provided that the instructors did their part). 

One of the biggest obstacles that people face is our capacity as human beings to fool ourselves and rationalize our actions. "I have to work 28 hours a day and then I have to cook and take care of my 89 kids and 32 cats and 1 really fat dog and so I don't have time to do the thing, but I'm not unique, right? Everyone else has these issues...I bet that no one else did their thing either. And I'm paying for this, right? They owe me! I will do the thing in class. It's pretty simple, I thought about it all day, and that's as good as doing it right? And oh, I just remembered, I kinda did it for 30 seconds yesterday and that's enough, that 70 seconds that I did. Yeah! Those five minutes were totally fine. I mean, that's what he asked for right? Fifteen minutes, and I totally did." We all do this to some extent. Recognize it and stop doing it. You did not do the thing, it wasn't even 30 seconds, let alone 15 minutes. Thinking about it doesn't count. Paying for class doesn't mean anyone owes you anything, it means you are sharing the cost of the school's existence because you want to learn. Do your part!

Another thing that some people do is use crutches, and that is one of the biggest causes of failure. What is a crutch? A crutch is something you use to justify your failures. For example, say I have a bad leg and I use a crutch to walk and someone says, "Hurry up! You're holding us up! You are so slow." My response will be, "But...I have a crutch! My leg is messed up!" And they will say, "Oh, yeah, sorry, I didn't see that. It's okay then, we'll work with you."

In the above example, I had a real crutch. But not all crutches are real, and not all real crutches are still needed. Let's say that my leg heals, but I am so used to special treatment that I keep walking around with the crutch even though I no longer need it. Maybe I've even convinced myself that I do need it, because my leg hurts sometimes. That's when a crutch becomes a problem. Have you ever caught yourself saying, "Well, I didn't do the thing, because I can't, because I'm [something, whatever]" but deep down inside, in some dark corner that you are only dimly aware of, you know that you are making an excuse? Yeah, you know you have. We all do it sometimes. The trick is to admit it to yourself, realize that your bullshit is hurting not only yourself but your fellow students, and to cut it out. We all have obstacles to overcome, and overcoming them is our job, not our instructor's. The instructor's job is to identify the real crutches and slow the group down to walk as the same speed as the person with the messed up leg. It is also to speed up until the fakers either drop their crutch or are left behind to be torn apart by wolves. 

This can all be summed up as follows. Do your part. Don't think you deserve more than you do, and don't ask for more than you deserve. Watch yourself carefully for signs of self deception and rationalization, and cut that shit out. Think of others, not just yourself. For the ninety thousandth time, we are all in this together. Take the 10% your instructors owe you and give your 90, and we will all grow together. Do any less, and you are part of the reason why we won't. It's never too late, but knowing is only half the battle. 


A Note on Pedagogy - What It Means To Teach a Martial Art

In the world of high stakes competition, there is a natural selection process for who gets the attention of the coaches, who gets picked for the team and who gets to play while the rest sit on a bench. This type of aptitude based filtering often seeps into competition oriented classes as well. It is natural to focus on those who put in more effort than those who do not. Largely, this is a good thing. The instructor (or "coach" in competitive pursuits) has limited time and resources, and he or she also has goals that must be achieved. To spend those resources on people who don't want to do their part is a waste of time that is unfair to those who do try. 

In a martial arts setting, the same tendencies tend to manifest. Students who don't try very hard tend to receive less attention than those who give it their all. In both competition and martial oriented pursuits, a particular problem arises when a student tries as hard as he or she knows how, but still doesn't make progress. This could be because of a learning disability, a physical disability or other such issue. 

In HEMA, I have seen such people ignored and left to struggle way too often for my liking. I myself have been guilty of the same, though I like to think not as guilty as I could have been. I have worked with difficult cases before, and I succeeded in showing them how to try, though they have not always succeeded in using that knowledge. I have been teaching martial arts since I was 20 years old, which makes it 26 years now, and I have made many mistakes. I hope that those who come after me can learn from them. 

There are two things that we must consider when we examine these problems in a martial context. The key word in martial arts is "martial," which means relating to war. A war is not fought by a single person or a small group of elite champions. Wars are fought by armies, and armies are made up of a lot of people working together. The best special forces unit on the planet would be massacred by a conventional army in open battle. Odds are, you've heard of the expression, "an army can only move as fast as its slowest unit." This applies to all things martial, even on an individual level. There are no even playing fields in combat, and so you are only as good as your least developed skill. 

The other issue is that in all pursuits involving more than one person, be they competitive or martial, those who engage in those pursuits together need to work together. Solo practice is perhaps the most important form of practice, but you can never become great doing only solo drills. You need your training partners, and they need you. Only when you work together can you do what it takes to succeed. Being antagonistic and/or trying to "win" drills hurts your training partner, but it also hurts you. Particularly if your training partner reciprocates. As a teacher, it is your responsibility not only to make sure that people are working together, but that they are developing their skills in balance. 

A big part of teaching martial arts is not leaving anyone behind, so long as they try. Learn to tell the difference between someone who doesn't care and doesn't put in the effort and someone who does care, does put in the effort, but doesn't progress. Most importantly, don't convince yourself that the latter is actually the former because you don't want to deal with them. Those who only teach and work with the talented students are not good teachers. They are selfish. This is a little different in a competitive pursuit, where selecting the best and purging the rest is a significant part of a good coach's or team manager's skill set. 

When you teach a martial art, always keep in mind that it's not about you. You are there because you have made a commitment to pass your knowledge and experience on to others, and that comes with a tremendous responsibility. The best martial arts teacher I have ever trained with has a saying, "The teacher gives 10%, the other 90% is up to the student." Be sure you give that same 10% to everyone. Some students may need 15%, and that's okay too. If they don't do their part, that's on them.  But if you don't do your part, you need to recognize that and correct your approach. Otherwise, you dishonor yourself, your school and your art. 

Choosing an Appropriately Sized Longsword

"Longsword" is a fairly nebulous term. It is just precise enough that when we hear it, we have a pretty good idea of what type of weapon is being referred to. But not so clear that arguments cannot be made to broaden the definition substantially. For practical purposes, I will limit the scope of this post to swords that are worn (in a scabbard) on the body rather than carried. Also, this post is about sharp, historically accurate reproductions, not training swords (e.g. feders, blunts, etc.). Though depending on how you study, it may encompass some of those as well. 

We are fortunate to live in a time of plenty, with an incredible selection of quality longswords available in a wide range of both sizes and price points. When choosing a longsword, there are many considerations, including your physical characteristics and capabilities. However, if you are interested in historical fidelity, there is one consideration that trumps all others: do not choose a sword that you cannot draw from a scabbard. 

There are three size ranges that meet that criteria: ideal, borderline and "this sucks but I guess it will work in a pinch." To test for these ranges, you will need the sword you are considering (or one that is the same size) and a scabbard. If you do not have a scabbard available, you can make one quickly by sandwiching the sword between two pieces of cardboard that are cut slightly larger than the blade, then wrapping the cardboard in duct tape. It won't be pretty, but it will be sufficient for this test. Likewise, if you don't have a suitable sword, you can make a quick cardboard mock-up based on available dimensions. Be careful not to cut yourself if you are working with a sharp sword. 

To begin, hold the scabbard in your left hand, about three inches below the cross guard (this would be the area between the suspension attachment points). Lefties should reverse these instructions.

Turn the sword counter clockwise until the handle is oriented in such a way that you can grab the hilt with your right hand in the same way you hold the sword when you strike, then attempt to draw the sword. As you do so, pull the scabbard away from the blade, but not more than a few inches (about six). Ideally, you would have a scabbard with a suspension and the straps would limit how far you could pull. If you are not comfortable with approximating the limitation but do not have a suspension, hang the scabbard from your belt with a single six inch strap that attaches to the scabbard near its throat. You can make this strap out of duct tape, or use an existing strap and use the tape to attach it to the scabbard and belt.

This movement, which is required to draw larger swords while maintaining the ability to deploy them instantly as they leave the scabbard, is why I believe such swords were worn suspended from the belt by straps below the hip rather than more securely held at the hip.

If you can draw the sword without compromising your grip or putting too much strain on your wrist trying to maintain that grip, then the sword is of the ideal size for you. If you have to compromise the grip without altering it drastically, then the sword is borderline. You would be able to draw it quickly but not deploy it immediately (i.e. you would not be able to cut from the draw). 

If you cannot draw the sword in this manner at all, reverse your grip on the weapon's hilt (thumb towards pommel). This will add significantly to your range of motion. If you can draw the sword in this manner, then it qualifies as, "this sucks but I guess it will work in a pinch."

If you determine that the sword is too long, then have someone assist you by marking the blade right at the scabbard mouth when you are at maximum drawing extension (without compromising grip). Measure the distance from the cross guard to that point, and look for a sword with a blade length as close to that as possible without going over. 


The Paradox of Strength

Over many years of teaching historical fencing, I noticed that small framed people tend to have problems with the application of body mechanics, specifically cutting. This made me realize that the way people think of strength and power may not be optimal for applying to historical fencing.

When we think of power or strength, we tend to think of the upper body—the biceps, triceps, lats, etc. Students of historical fencing learn early on (or should) that the upper body should not be were power comes from. Power should come from the core, provided mostly by the hips and legs. But this is only part of the picture, and ignoring the rest of it can result in unrealistic expectations and unfulfilled potential, particularly among small framed people.

The reason you cannot use most of your upper body muscles for power is because to use a muscle you have to tense it, and tensed muscles are slow muscles. Slow muscles lead to slow hews, and slow hews don’t cut. Also, some parts of your body, like your shoulders, distort the trajectory of your hews, which makes them ineffective. But before you can effectively bring your core to bear, you need to develop your upper body strength. In particular, forearms and shoulders, but all the other muscles too.

This may seem confusing—you don’t use upper body strength to hew, but you need upper body strength to hew effectively. A simple way of looking at it is as follows: you need enough upper body strength to make holding and moving the sword almost effortless. Once you have that, you can effectively utilize your core power. If you don’t have that, you can’t.

Consider this: if tense muscles are slow muscles, and your arms are so weak that holding the sword strains them, then you will tense your arms to apply what little strength you have to control the sword. And that will take whatever power your core develops and nullify it almost completely.

How do you know if you have this problem? Put away your sword and get a wooden dowel. It should be about the same length and it should weigh as little as possible. Then, with your dowel, go to your instructor and show him/her your cutting mechanics. Take a few swings, etc. If you suddenly look and feel great and seem to do everything right (or at least more right than before), then your problem is upper body strength. If you don't have an instructor handy, you can self diagnose using a mirror or just being aware of what your body is doing. Recording video of yourself can also help.

Here is a good diagnostic technique: hold the sword in various positions with one hand and use the other to feel where the working arm and shoulder are tense, and how much. The more tension in a muscle, the more you need to work on that muscle. 

So if you are having a problem generating power, and this information resonates with you, you have work to do. Build your upper body strength! You won’t need a lot. You don’t need to get swole or build huge hulking muscles. You just need enough so that you don’t strain holding your sword.

Although specific instructions are beyond the scope of this article, here are some suggestions:

1. Work with a heavy trainer, such as a weight bar, wood splitting axe (be careful!) or similar object. My battodo dojo has "Bubba," a 4x4 with a handle. You can make one at home, or buy something similar.

2. Various weight and/or kettle bell exercises. Farmer’s walks, forearm curls, etc.

3. Pull up bar exercises. Just hang on a pull up bar for as long as you can, repeat, etc. Slowly build towards full pull ups, but don’t stop hanging. While hanging, loosen and tense your hands to pull yourself up by your fingers. Focus on the bottom fingers.

Whatever you end up doing, do it until your sword feels like air. Then whatever problems you had with cutting will disappear. Good luck! 

The Five Hews: A Fight for the Center

In its purest distilled form, Liechtenauer's art is a fight for and around the center. You have the center when your point is before your opponent’s openings, and you do not have center when it isn’t. Similarly, you have center when your edge can reach the opponent through the bind, and you do not have it when it can’t.  The center is not your center, which is important in body mechanics, but the center between you and your opponent. If your opponent is facing sideways (perpendicular to you) with his sword sticking out to your left or right, and you stab him in the side of the head, you have center against him, and he does not have center against you.

Leverage is a tool with which the KDF fencer takes the center-line from his or her opponent, either through winding, hewing or stabbing. Winding either re-captures the center with force (leverage—inside wind) or by snaking around force to return to the center (outside wind or Duplieren). Mutieren is an exception, as it recaptures the center from a Hard bind (your opponent being Soft) by snaking around his sword with you having control throughout the action—it is distance that necessitates the winding (you are too close to stab despite being in control of the bind). The Five Hews—Zornhau, Krumphau, Zwerchhau, Schielhau and Scheitelhau are integral to this philosophy.

When it comes to the fight for the center, there are only two basic options to actions in the Krieg (meaning there are exceptions). The first is to take center and act, usually with a stab, either using leverage or by snaking around. The second is to surrender center and take the long way around by hewing. The second option is inferior to the first as it places you in great danger by surrendering the center to your opponent for the entire length of your action, which is the longest possible action in the Krieg as it must travel all the way around from one side to the other. The Five Hews are based around this concept.

Zornhau: The Zornhau captures the center with structure.

It does not require a Strong on Weak bind, which means that it does not rely on leverage. The word used in the Danzig, Ringeck and Lew Glosses is Soft, rather than Weak.

The Zornhau takes the center directly and forcefully, when successful (if it fails, you will need to retake center), and keeps your opponent’s point outside of center. This gives you an advantage in all follow up actions, since your opponent will need to retake the center prior to any action that can threaten you, or he will have to hew around to the other side, which will give you sole presence in the center for a significant period of time and will allow you to easily stab him while parrying his hew. The only way for your opponent to retake center without this is with winding, which is specifically designed for this purpose.

Krumphau: The Krumphau surrenders the center so that you can deny it to your opponent.

When someone hews or stabs, you step off-line and hew to his hands, or hew against his sword without a step. In this manner, you take away their control of the center.

In the hews to the hands, you deny your opponent center by leaving it (and also denying it to yourself) and then hew at his hands without recapturing center—this is the significance of the “crooked” hew. Normally, when you do not have the center, you must either regain it before acting (either with force or by going around the opponent’s sword), or take the long and inefficient way by hewing around, which gives your opponent control of center for the entire duration of your hew. However, by stepping offline and hewing at your opponent’s hands, you strike at your opponent without retaking center, which gives you the advantage (initiative).

In the hew to the sword, you do not strictly surrender the center because you can reach your opponent with your edge through the bind. Your opponent’s weapon is pushed out of center, leaving you in a superior/dominant position on top of his sword and allowing you to strike or wind safely from there.

 In Liechtenauer’s pedagogy, the Krumphau is taught so that fencers can deal with attacks they cannot predict, and therefore cannot reliably control.

Zwerchhau: The Zwerchhau takes the center with the hilt.

When he hews at you from above, you step well out to your right side and strike the Zwerchhau so that you catch his hew on your hilt. This action gives you control of the centerline by placing a barrier between it and your opponent’s hew and giving you superior leverage in the resulting bind. It is the strongest leverage you can have, in fact, without half-swording, assuming it counts as a bind since it’s not really blade on blade. If your initial hew is not successful, your control of center gives you an advantage to all follow up actions. Understanding this advantage is critical for proper understanding of actions from Zwerchhau.

When used as a vorschlaag, the Zwerchhau forces a bad parry, which makes your opponent leave center, allowing you to retake it from an advantageous position.

Schielhau: The Schielhau takes the center with leverage.

It positions your sword in the hew so that the strong of your sword makes contact with the weak of your opponent’s sword in the bind. It is designed to break point forward guard and to defeat anything the Buffel hews or stabs. A Buffel is someone who does not fight with Fuhlen, and therefore knows nothing of the art. The actions of a Buffel attempt to succeed without allowing the feedback of Fuhlen or resulting decision making and an action in Indes. For example, an interpretation of Zornhau as something that lands the thrust before the bind is felt is the action of a Buffel. Such a fencer will attempt to land the thrust regardless of the bind by fully committing to it with both hew and footwork. Such an action is by definition defeated by Schielhau, which breaks it with leverage (ironically without using Fuhlen). In doing so, it forcefully takes the center, if successful, regardless of the power of your opponent’s attack.

Scheitelhau: The Scheitelhau takes the center with timing and efficiency.

It starts in the center and stays in the center and forces your opponent to either take it out of center in order to prevent himself from being struck, which is difficult to do without the opponent also surrendering his center, or to use a bad parry. It offers the shortest and most direct path to the closest target for a hew, the top of your opponent’s head. When used against the guard Alber, it eliminates the possibility of a counter by out-timing your opponent’s actions, resulting in the forcing of a bad parry, which makes it similar to a Zwerchhau (when used in this manner).   

Understanding how the five hews, and all actions in Liechtenauer’s art, relate to the fight for the center will provide a valuable perspective and useful context for using these actions and their associated techniques.