M° Robert Childs
One of the hurdles a swordsman must face at some point in their development is the ability to figure out what they do, and do not, have time for in a single segment of time. What do I mean by that? If I extend my arm and then advance one step; that took two segments of time to complete. If I extend my arm while advancing one step; that took one segment of time. Getting clearer yet?
The best definition: a segment is the amount of time required to complete a simple action at high speed. Extending my arm would be one example of a simple action taking one segment to complete. Taking a small, quick step would be another. Doing them together would also require but one segment, as two different parts of my body are performing a simple action simultaneously. Extending the arm and retracting, however, would constitute two simple actions and would, therefore, require two segments.
Now let’s look at a realistic scenario. I stand against my opponent with a single sword in my right hand; he stands facing me with the same. I attack to the left side of his body and, when he attempts to parry, I disengage and strike him on his right side. Though it is a compound attack, it breaks down simply into two segments of time.
In the first segment I initiate the attack to his left side by showing him the extension of my arm. That is all that will happen in this segment because I initiated the attack and, therefore, had the element of surprise on my side. I spent the first segment moving my arm while my opponent spent the entirety of that segment processing an attack was inbound. Only at the transition from the first to the second segment will he even start to move.
Not convinced? Remember in my first manual where I spoke of tells? In that chapter I described a drill whereby one fighter stands with his hand up as a target and the other takes up a sword in high guard just an arm’s length away from striking that hand. No lunge is necessary to hit the target, just a simple extension of the arm. If you extend your arm to the target, and give no tells while you do so, you will hit it every time. There is just not enough time in that one segment for your opponent to see, process, and respond before the tip of your rapier travels the distance to his palm. Only in the initial segment, however, is this true. Every segment that follows allows both combatants a chance to move.
So in the first segment I extend my arm and my opponent spends that same segment recognizing there is an attack coming. Over the course of the second segment my opponent’s sword moves to parry 4 in the hope of intercepting my attack—but wait! I too have a move in this segment to make. As my opponent’s weapon travels to parry 4, my sword continues forward on a lunge while, simultaneously, I disengage to strike him on his right side. Two simple actions conducted simultaneously in the second segment ensured I finished the attack in that second segment. My opponent, however, wasted his action in the second segment travelling somewhere completely unnecessary.
To break down the actions of any one-on-one fight is no difficult thing once you have a little experience under your belt. You just need to understand what and how much you—as well as your opponent—can do in those individual segments. Remember this concept for later, for it will be important to your understanding of what is yet to come.
DIRECT & INDIRECT CONTROL
One of the chief differences between my style and those used by most others is my focus on exerting control over my opponent’s weapon. As I see it, there is nothing more essential to a swordsman than the very thing that makes them a swordsman in the first place. Take that away, and you have hit the critical node that determines victory or defeat. Simply put, if you have control of your opponent’s sword then you have power over the one who wields it.
But what really is this control I speak of? How do you define it and, more importantly, how do you use it? Control in and of itself falls into two distinct categories: direct and indirect. Direct control would be any use of physical force to neutralize your opponent’s weapon. An example of this would be when I capture my opponent’s sword in a bind as I attack the body; or when I reach out with my dagger and push their blade aside so my own can bury itself in their favorite vital organ. Direct control is the safest kind of control because it is the most informative. I say informative because when you have it you will know it through your sense of sight; you will feel it through the strength and pressure exerted against your arm; and you will hear it through the sound of metal scraping upon metal. Whenever one of these stops giving you information—or, more accurately, whichever one you notice first isn’t giving information—then you know it is now time to parry.
Indirect control is achieved through the utilization of time and/or distance. In this way, I neutralize my opponent’s weapon without ever actually touching it. A basic example of this would be when I execute a feint to my opponent’s 4, causing him to move to parry 4, while I disengage and strike him in 6 instead. In that instance it was a simple matter of deception that translated to control. I had nothing to fear from his blade while it was busy trying to fend off an attack that was never really headed to that target. Therefore, from the time he begins to move to parry 4 to the time he realizes his mistake, I have neutralized his blade as a threat. Another example would be stepping just outside my opponent’s range as he attacks, forcing him to fall short, but I easily reach out and stab him in the arm for his trouble.
It is important to keep in mind, in using one kind of control or the other, it is never an all or nothing venture. Though perhaps rare to use both direct and indirect control simultaneously in a one-on-one bout, it would not be unusual at all to employ both when facing multiple opponents at a time. Often have I frightened off one swordsman, who backed away in anticipation of a powerful attack, only to have me turn on his companion. Or I might feint in the direction of one to get him moving to a parry so I can disengage and bind down both their weapons at once to kill with my remaining sword or dagger.
HOW TO BE YOUR BEST
Before I truly dive into the meat of this particular chapter, it is important to point out the title does not state how to be the best but is, instead, how to be your best. There is a decided difference between the two. To care about the former means to ultimately stunt your growth in the art—if indeed growth is the right word—for you will never grow any stronger than just good enough to beat the second best.
Believe me when I say there is so much more your body and mind can achieve through this martial art than simply being the best. Comparatively speaking, being the best is easy. To be your best is a much greater test of your mental and physical abilities. It means to accept the challenge of finding out just how much of your potential you can realize rather than settling for the top spot amongst the small pool of fighters around you.
You may ask yourself, how exactly do I follow this road? Where do I even begin? The first step is actually quite easy: find a challenge you deem presently to be just out of your reach…and then reach for it. This may come in the form of a personal task like mastering a difficult concept or something as potentially complex as discovering how to defeat the swordsman who can presently best you. Find this challenge and latch onto it—whatever it is; approach it from every possible angle, discover the bits and pieces of knowledge that advance your understanding until such time as you find a way to transcend it. The amount of knowledge you will gain in just travelling the path toward this goal will be invaluable, as it is tied to the knowledge you will need to surpass every challenge that follows. Each success will bring you one step closer—some larger than others—to being the best swordsman you can.
Equally important, however, is not to lose sight of the difference between perception and reality. It is easy to fall prey to the idea you have achieved your personal best simply because you are the best amongst your contemporaries. This, however, is no different than the big fish in the lake thinking there are no bigger fish in the much larger ocean.
Trust me, there are.
Somewhere over the last twenty-five years of refining my abilities in this grand martial art of rapier I learned there are three categories of skills—pillars of fence, I like to call them—that must be mastered before any swordsman can realize their greatest potential. Those pillars are footwork, balance, and swordwork. These do not come in any particular order, for no one skill is more important than its fellows; that would be like trying to determine which leg of a tripod is most important to help it stand. Similarly, any swordsman who is weak in one pillar will find the other two suffer as a result. Poor balance will cause sword and footwork to be slow and clumsy; poor footwork will affect your ability to maintain your balance and thereby properly engage your sword, etc. Each of these three aforementioned pillars, however, are made up of a host of related subset skills. An accurate metaphor would be to imagine the subset skills as individual bricks stacked atop one another that together form the pillar. In this article, I am going to speak on the oh-so-very important subset of the pillar of footwork called measure.
Measure is a game that absolutely must be mastered. I call it a game because that is ultimately what it comes down to: a contest between you and your opponent of such complexity you could compare it to chess. In the beginning a new swordsman seems to fear the distance between himself and his opponent, drawing too near as he listens to an instinct that tells him close proximity will ensure a swifter strike. The mid-level swordsman understands the importance of maintaining a respectable distance but overuses it. Experience has taught him the wisdom of retreating in the face of an attack, but he takes so much ground he has no hope of a timely riposte. The end result is he lasts longer in the fight, but is only prolonging the original contest. The veteran, however…now this is a swordsman to worry about. This person knows the reach of his attack right down to the millimeter. In the face of an attack, he is capable of taking a one-step retreat that will carry him just inches outside of his opponent’s range without ever a need to raise his sword in defense.
A common misconception about the retreat is it should carry you to safety—as with those fighters who overuse distance I mentioned previously. Sure, it is capable of doing that, but that is not what it is for. No, its true use is one that buys you time, not safety. No one who wishes to be that fellow still standing at the end of a duel will make a habit of planting like a tree in the face of an attack. Such a person is vulnerable to all manner of beats, disengages, glides, and a great assortment of other maneuvers. But on the other side of that coin, if you are the fencer who routinely leaps well outside your opponent’s effective range when attacked, then you summarily cut off your own ability to end your foe with an efficient and timely riposte because you are too far away.
In my own experience, I have found measure to be an invaluable tool. One small step in retreat in the face of an attack buys you the time to see, process, and respond to the incoming threat while keeping you close enough to effect a deadly riposte. Further, and just as important, it buys you time to see where the real attack from your opponent is going. It is hard enough to intercept a well-executed straight attack when you have planted yourself, but infinitely more difficult in the face of a convincing feint that drew your sword away.
If having a deadly mastery of measure is something you desire, there are a number of drills you can practice to begin cultivating it. First and foremost, you need to dial in a keen, intimate knowledge of your own reach. You must learn it to the point you can almost feel it more than you see it. To do this just choose whatever target you like and drop into a ready stance somewhere well outside your range. Now approach the target and attack when you think you are at the extreme limit of your ability to strike. Continue this practice, approaching from different distances and angles of approach to change the variables—to include different elevations for the target at which you are striking. And unlike what you see in the movies (with that student who eats, breathes, and sleeps his kung-fu) this does not require hours and hours of practice a day in order to turn this into an instinctive measure. Instead, just take five or ten minutes out of your daily schedule to dedicate to its practice. With honest adherence, in as little as a month you’ll see a difference.
Another drill I like to use works on distance mastery from the opposite perspective: knowing just how far to retreat. Find a tennis ball and suspend it somewhere such that it hangs just below your sternum. Now start it swinging and position yourself in the path of that swing so that it is moving toward and away from you. Now advance and retreat in your ready stance, in time with the swing, so that you are always within a couple of inches. Each time it completes one forward and back cycle you will find yourself needing to adjust your own movement as well as the swing loses momentum. If you are off balance, or blocky and mechanical in your motion, you will find this deceptively simple exercise a bit more difficult, but it is an excellent primer for the best measure drill of all.
When it comes to learning, nothing takes the place of combat. By far the most effective drill out there for the purpose of learning proper measure is to stand and let your opponent attack you. Right there in the fire of a spar, occasionally attempt to defeat your opponent’s attack by retreating a mere four to five inches outside of his reach as he attacks. Do not try to parry, do not try to counterattack, just defeat it with distance and distance alone. Make no mistake, this will not be easy. In the beginning, you will be struck often, and different opponents with their different arm and sword lengths, and different strides, will further complicate the equation but rest assured, you will in time learn to instantly add up everything you see and know exactly how far you must move at any given moment.
As I said, understanding measure is an invaluable tool of fencing. I use my own to keep me safe, to buy me time, to launch surprise attacks, to counterattack swiftly, and sometimes to weaken my opponent by instilling impatience or doubt. Whether you are talking about offense or defense, distance plays a major role in determining your strength in either. Without it, no matter how deft and skillful with a blade you become, you will only be half the swordsman you could be.
If you were only allowed to master a single skill in swordplay, this is it.
Sense of Touch
When a student first begins to learn swordplay, everything is about what they can see. They look to see they are standing in the right position, they look at the target they want to hit, they look for their opponent’s attack, they look at the sword, etc. The problem, however, is the number of students who, despite their advancing skill over years, remain reliant upon their eyes to tell them everything they need to fight. The Great Maker blessed you with five senses that have evolved over millions of years to help you survive, and three of them are ideally suited to making you a great swordsman: sight, touch, and hearing.
Before the fight has begun you will take to the field across from your opponent and assess him using your eyes as the primary sense. Through your eyes, you will glean volumes of information you will later use to bring him down. Information like his height, his reach, the length of his sword, what is his off hand item, how far apart are you standing, etc., are all pieces of information that will help you determine before the contest has even begun how you will attack him, what you will attack, and from how far away. This is what your stereoscopic vision is good for in a swordfight: information at range. Once the engagement begins, however, the true swordsman allows his sense of touch to come to the fore and serve as his primary conduit of information. And the reason? Speed. Our eyes are terribly slow when it comes to the speed at which we can see, process, and respond to information—tremendously slower than our sense of touch. Your sense of touch is so fast, in fact, if you were to accidentally touch a hot object your body would flinch away from it before the pain signal even reached your brain.
In my first treatise on the science and art of rapier fencing, I touch (no pun intended, honest) on this method of fighting in the chapter titled “One Step Ahead”. In it I describe an exercise whereby the reader, as the student, must ascertain where my attack is about to strike—and all with their eyes closed. This is not some secret ninja technique (though, admittedly, ninjas probably use it too) but rather a method of receiving information much faster than your eyes could ever allow. Think about it. Imagine your opponent attacks you with a thrust to the chest and you parry him deftly to your right. Now imagine you close your eyes just at that moment. Without your sight you will be very much aware of the pressure of his blade against yours. You will know how far away he is by the strength of that pressure against your forte: weaker if you are holding his blade at the feeble and stronger toward the forte. You will know he is withdrawing by the feel of his sword sliding away from you or pressing closer as it slides forward. You will know if he is attempting a cutting remise by the sudden release of pressure on your blade, and you will know exactly where he is going and what parry to use to thwart him because he has but one option: to attack with a low cut from the right.
All of this information and more is yours to know despite the loss of your sight. And all of it faster than your eyes could deliver it.
It is quite simple: fight with your eyes before the engagement and with your touch thereafter. No student of mine, or anywhere else, will ever realize their greatest potential until this is understood.