The European Historical Combat Guild

Investigating Europe's Historical combative methods and behaviours

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The wasted waster

Attributes needed for suitable training weapons

I recently got a chance to handle some wooden wasters that someone had bought. The finish was good and they had been nicely put together. Yet I was amazed at how badly they handled in comparison to the thing they were supposed to be replicating, a sword. As is often the case with wasters, in attempting to make the waster look like a sword, they have missed the most import thing any training weapons needs to replicate, weight and balance. Although having said that they try to make them look like a sword, I should point out that they are actually often poor visual replicas of real swords as the proportions of pommel, cross and blades are wrong, so they actually do not really look or feel like a sword. So what one ends up with is a vaguely sword shaped lump of wood, that handles like….. a lump of wood!

It is vital that any training weapon should replicate the handling properties of the weapon it is meant to be. Of all the things it needs, the least important is how much it looks like the actual weapon. For a sword, weight, balance and length are the most important statistics to be reproduced. Ideally the dimensions of the cross and also the pommel should be as accurate to the original as possible as long as at does not effect the handling. It is possible to have a training weapon which weighs more than the real thing, Roman soldiers were recorded as training with weapons made much heavier, to increase the soldiers strength and stamina when in action with the real weapons. It is also advisable in certain situations to use weapons that are lighter. However, in these cases the balance and length should not be compromised. I should also mention that how the waster/training weapon reacts when striking is important so that is behaves in the way that a steel sword wood, often wasters bounce more. Also how they respond in the Bind, when the blades are in contact, should be considered.

I should also note that the handling or heft of a weapon is also largely a personal matter. What feels “right” in the hand to one person can feel awkward to someone else. However, weight balance and length can and must be accurate

Similar problems to those found with wasters are also encountered with the steel swords that people use for training or for re-enactment. To make a weapon that appears to be sword like yet has an edge that is safe and does not take too much damage, the edge is made thicker as is the distal taper of the blade itself. All this changes the weight and balance of the weapon. Or in an attempt to make a better weight and handling weapon the blade length is reduced, which changes fighting distance and how techniques are carried out.

The impossibility of making a training sword that really looks like a sword was recognised by our ancestors as evidenced by the few training swords that survive. These are generally for use in two hands and are now commonly referred to by the historical German name federschwert. These handle almost identically to the real weapon, but when compared look very little alike.

Other materials were and can be used. Aircraft aluminium can be used for blades giving good handling, length, balance and weight while having a thicker edge.

Historically there are references to baleen being used to make the blades of training weapons or those used in tournaments. Baleen, sometimes referred to as whalebone, is actually formed of keratin, the same substance that hair, horn and fingernails are made of. It is found in the filter plates of certain types of whale. It was used historically for making many things that needed flexibility and strength, including the stays in corsets. In modern times many of the items historically made from baleen are now made of plastic or fibreglass.

Many groups use modified Kendo shinai to drill and free-play with, these are made of bamboo. Good for their original purpose they are not ideal when adapted to HEMA, though they can be made more suitable, this requires quite a lot of work.

In recent years various groups and companies have been developing training weapons in various synthetic materials. Some are no better than the worst kind of wooden wasters, but made in plastic. However the latest being produced by Red Dragon Armoury, are very good. They handle well and still manage to look like swords. While obviously a modern material, as mentioned plastic fills the role that baleen did in the past, so the jump to a new material is not too great. Bryan Tunstall, the owner of the company and also a Guild member has invested a great deal of time and money in developing the products so far and is looking to increase the number of different training weapons available in the range. Daggers, sabres, poll axes, spears amongst others are to follow. This can only be a good thing, as the need for effective training weapons of all kinds specifically designed for HEMA is vital for proper training and development of skills.

Of course the popularity of free-play and sparring has added another set of demands on how a weapon has to function. In this situation it is not only important that the weapons handles correctly but that it allows a wide range of attacks to be carried out making contact with an opponent while reducing the risk of injury. In this situation it is probable that the concerns about safety will out weigh considerations of handling. While this is understandable, it is another factor to bear in mind when considering what elements comprise ones training and which parts you compromise by the training you use

If we consider the situation from a historical point of view, a warrior of the past would in all likelihood be far more pragmatic towards the tools they used to train with. After all, the goal was to have the skills to survive in a life or death situation and therefore the need would be to have a weapon that maximised the training as a preparation for using the real weapon when it really mattered. I suspect that often people today want a training sword to look like a real sword because it adds to the escapism they get from training experience.

No one training simulator can fulfil all the varied uses that different practitioners might put them to. As such, consider the type of training that you will do. Remember that how the weapon handles is vital, how it looks is less is far less important.
At the end of the day suit the tool to the job at hand. Check with your Teacher and handle weapons to understand how they feel and function in the hand

Guild Secretary

Monday, 25 October 2010

Happy Saints Crispinus and Crispianus day!

Hope that everyone can celebrate the Day and the battles that took place..
Poitiers Charles Martel 732
Agincourt 1415
Balaklava 1854
Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Pacific theater in 1944.

Who can tell me the they are the patron saints of. Responses in the comments box of the blog please and unfortunately no prize other than knowing that you know!


Saturday, 16 October 2010

More life in the shades of grey

This was a reply to a comment but developed in to something that I thought was worth posting on the blog.

Paul wrote -It was written by someone on the subject of training...and I paraphrase here "By the age of seven a child should have seen his blood flow, and heard the sound of his bones break"-

I would suggest that any child that has reached the age of 7 without seeing their own blood or been in a situation where they could have broken a bone, are either extremely lucky or they have lived in an overly protective bubble. I know for myself and everyone I know, that by the age of 7, had seen their blood flow and a number had broken bones, I have been lucky enough to not break a bone despite having been some dodgy incidents that could have resulted in it happening. At the end of the of the day it's called growing up. Also that is hopefully something that people have done before they come to me to start training with weapons, it is certainly not something I want them to be doing in my classes. However my experience, people who have not had this kind of experience are far less aware of the dangers in their training.

So I am not saying that that HEMA training should include blood spilling and bone breaking. I've also argued that in the past, though they may have been more accepting of the potential danger involved in training, serious injury was not promoted as part of training, though of course it could happen.

Of course, we can not say for certain what exactly what they did or how exactly how they trained, yet we may find educated possibilities. I am concerned sometimes that some people are desperate to re-invent the wheel.

Neither should new materials and methods be ignored, but neither should the methods of the past. I for one welcome Guild Study Group Leader Bryan Tunstal's new synthetic weapons, as they more accurately replicate a real sword than any of the wooden wasters on the market.

Anything that reduces the risk of injury is of course welcome,yet if the possibility of injury is unacceptable, then it is perhaps time to look for a new thing to do. However should bear in mind that if a tool isn't working it may not be a fault of the tool, it might be a fault in the way we are using the tool.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Living in the shades of grey

This is a response to a comment left by Hugh on my post on Training methods.

I think that the grey area is where all training takes place, as close to reality as we can get to make it have some value and meaning, while balancing it with safety. In the long term it is all shades of grey, what works and when it does are suggestions not absolute truths.
Especially when studying and recreating historical arts, where the process is in many ways the goal. It also depends very much on what actual arts, skill, you want to recreate. Better, more safe weapons, better protective equipment, may be great, especially if your goal is more free-play and competition.

However we are trying to recreate a lost or historical arts. So as well as trying to find out what they did, or how we can go some way toward how they put those skills into practice, should there not also be an equal drive to understand how they learnt it? What methods they used, how their training might of developed? Is this not the other wheel of the cart of understanding what the people of the past did? What they could do and how they actually learnt it.
I'm not saying that one has to but its worth considering.

Do Western Martial arts need a Uniform?

There have been suggestions and discussions about a more formalised uniform for Historical European Martial arts training and what that unifrom should be.

A number of groups’ wear clothing more or less closely based upon that worn by fencers. Others wear clothing loosely replicating 14th/15th century clothing and footwear. Others who concentrate on wrestling and grappling wear uniforms based on what surviving traditional systems wear. All suit the needs of the groups that use them or at least they are adequate, otherwise why wear them.

In the Guild we have a uniform of loose black trousers, (I wear heavy-duty martial arts trousers) and a T-shirt of the Chapter colour fitted with the Guild badge. This was a decision based upon the fact it needed to allow movement, be relatively easy to wear, purchase and clean. Also as a group studying more than one period and style the uniform needed to be adaptable. We also suggest that members wear flat soled, un-cushioned shoes with good grips, as these more closely replicate period footwear than modern super sports shoes.

Clothing or uniform needs to be considered in several ways and should address certain points, which I shall address below

How it affects the movements one can carry out. If one works in the clothing of a period, and this includes the appropriate footwear, one understands the how and why of the movements and footwork better, it can also lead provide insight to why certain movements are done in what may seem illogical wearing a different type of clothing

How it affects the technique, this is obviously relates to the above but also specifically certain techniques, in grappling for example, where the clothing is used to secure holds etc. Only by wearing the appropriate clothing will you understand the action, it may also be that you can only properly apply the technique when wearing the right clothing

How practical is it? The clothing should not be another expense that burdens the students unnecessarily. It also needs to be hard wearing enough to put up with the rigours of training with out the need to repair or replace it.

However if we are striving for accuracy or authenticity then there are other things we should insure as well.

One should train in realistic environments, outside, on uneven terrain, or if inside then on surfaces that replicate those of the period understudy. After all the historical techniques were not designed to be used in a modern gym.

The clothes need to reproduce the originals as accurately as possible. If what you are wearing is not fitted or cut like the originals then you aren’t going to get the insight, you are just going to be training in fancy dress. However do you risk slipping in period footwear and injuring yourself or those you train with. Of course if you wear period footwear all the time you will become accustomed to it and should be no less likely to slip than anyone else. However if you only wear the clothes and shoes when training what are you really learning? After all our ancestors wore the clothes all time.

There are the secondary reasons for wearing a uniform. It helps to develop a group identity for the Chapter/organisation. A uniform contributes to develop a more disciplined approach and mind set, in that when you take of your normal clothes and put on your uniform, you are also entering in to a training mind set. It looks better, everyone is uniform and certainly when attending a multi-group event it can help to identify different groups and schools Ultimately these are considerations of less importance than those mentioned above

In conclusion, when possible any scholar should try to work when they can in a good approximation of the clothing and/or armour of the periods they are studying. This should include correct footwear and training while wearing these things outside on appropriate surfaces.
However it is the training that is most important, the clothes, footwear and environment when worn can give insight and understanding to certain things, but they have to be appropriate, otherwise one can end up just training in “funny” clothes.

Jonathan Waller

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Ways to train and understanding that they have in built flaws

Continuing my examination of how to approach the study of Historical Martial arts. Once we have made decisions about our reasons for training we should consider the ways to achieve that goal. I am going to look briefly at how we can go about training and developing our skills.

It is not my goal to dismiss any form of training. Rather my aim is to take a look at various approaches to training and understand why thy are flawed.

From the standpoint of the Guild as a whole and from a personal preference I will look at training with the goal of recreating/understanding the combative systems of the past.

While doing this one strives to respect the past, that we should be safe, improve our understanding and continue to enjoy the process.

If we are training combative skills we should remember that the main goal is to neutralise the opponent as efficiently as possible while preserving ourselves. As such we are developing skills that are designed to injure, cripple or kill other people. Unfortunately there is no way to accurately replicate cutting, stabbing or breaking people without actually doing so. Therefore the training will have to be modified in some way if we do not want to keep finding new training partners because we hospitalise them and we don’t ourselves want to spend large amounts of time out of training while we have to recover from injuries.

It should be noted that while martial artists of the past were arguably not so concerned with safety issues, minimising the risk of injury through training was important. No training program for warriors could tolerate a continued high rate of injury from training. An injured warrior that can not train or fight is not fulfilling their role

However any modification to the effectiveness of the technique is training a flaw, in effect training the technique to fail.

This paradox has challenged martial artists in all eras and cultures. The need to address it is the search to find, to quote modern combatives instructor Tony Blauer, "the best fake stuff out there".

Unless we recognise these flaws and understand how to compensate for them, we are training ourselves to fail under pressure when things become real. Even if our goal is research, the modifications and the flaws can lead us to draw false conclusions from what we do. We have to be careful that the flaw does not become the "right" way of doing it, if it does the conclusions and solution it will be more and more false.

The important elements that make a technique effective are,

The Target attacked

The Timing/Speed

The Power

The Distance

Therefore at least one of these core elements will have to be modified or changed for the sake of safety in training.

Training can be divided into the following broad categories;

Solo Drills
Repetitive co-operative drills
Scripted co-operative drills
Competitive drills

Solo drilling
Solo drills are as the name implies those that are carried out with out interacting with a partner. Solo guard drills, progressions, moving or cutting from one position to another, carrying out solo forms or striking against a pel or punch bag, or test cutting all fall under this type of training.

Here there is no partner to be kept safe, so there is no need for modification of the technique and as such allows the actions to be carried out with proper Power, Speed and Intention. Also by removing the opponent, it allows the scholar to focus only on the technique they are carrying out.

Training this way can also allow for live weapons to be used, which would be too dangerous to use when working with a partner

When correctly trained Solo exercises are very good way to pick up the fundamentals of movements of combat. Because you can attack with proper Power Speed and Intention these drills, unlike others, should do not inherently create bad habits, provided the instructor knows what they are teaching.

The flaws come from what is missing, It is hard to learn proper targeting when attacking thin air. Also hitting something feels very different to hitting nothing. While striking a pel, punch bag or test cutting gives an approximation of hitting an opponent, it is not the same as hitting an active body. The dynamics encouraged when hitting a static test cutting target are different than a dynamic and active human opponent, who is trying to hit you at the same time. To quote Bruce Lee "boards don’t hit back"

It is also hard, especially for less experienced students, to understand what the moves would actually be doing in reality, this is especially true if the student is not balancing the solo training with other partner drills.

A well-executed sequence of solo movements will almost never work the same way against a live opponent. Hitting and being hit by someone, even if you interfere with their strike feels completely different, and things that feel completely different lead to freezing.

Cooperative drills

These drills involve 2 or more scholars, training within a predetermined structure of movement, attack or defence etc. The goal is training through the exercise, it is not about winning in any way you can.

I would further divided this type of training in to the following;

Drilling and Sequences/Plays.

Drilling is the repetition of specific techniques or simple attack and defence or flow type drills.

Sequences/Plays are scripted patterns of actions, dealing with specific tactical type situations.

The advantages are that you have an opponent/s so you are dealing with a real moving target and real attacks coming at you. However as you are working with another person there will need to be some modification for the sake of safety and so an in-built flaw is being trained

Other flaws that can develop with a set drill, is that "knowing" the drill can lead to the scholars pre-empting and anticipating the next move and not committing to the action they are doing now. Or the scholar wants to win and so cheats because they "know" what the other person is going to do.

Often techniques start or are carried out at too great a distance to simulate a real sudden assault. This is often the case when dealing with grappling or dagger techniques. This is often done to substitute Distance for Time, by starting further away the defender has more time to make the reaction work. This is often why many of the techniques seen in the manuals don’t work in free-play. Free play is more like duelling, where as what we generally see in the manuals is dealing with a sudden unexpected assault. Different contexts call for different techniques.

Another problem one often sees in cooperative drills is people getting fixated or carried away on all the things that they can do after they intercept the attack. They block the dagger arms, and then get carried away with the locks, disarming and the other cool stuff they can do then. What has been forgotten or ignored is that the attacker allowed the block to work, by modifying one of the core elements, usually Distance and/or Power.

A common flaw that one sees is in Timing, the attacker makes the attack badly to allow the reactor to succeed. The attacker does not properly keep their weapon between them and the target, and thereby makes it easy to pull off the reaction. This not normally done consciously, rather it happens because the goal has become to make the defenders technique "work". It also happens when scholars make the attack against a teacher or more senior scholar. The more junior does not want to make the teacher fail, so they subconsciously make their own attack badly! Worse still is when the teacher subtly encourages this attitude in the scholar. The problem is that this becomes the way the technique should be done, in this case the technique will fail against someone who does not play by these unwritten rules.

Probably the best way to make Cooperative drills safe while minimizing the flaws is to do them with slow speed, not unnaturally slow, but so that the scholars can maintain proper power generation and delivery while maintaining enough control to keep the action safe. The actual speed used can vary and can increase as the skill level of the practitioners’ increases. In this way the same attention to detail can be applied while keeping it safe. However one has to be careful when the scholar starts to cheat and exploits the fact that their training partner is going slowly by speeding up or doing things that would not work against a full speed attack, like deflecting a staff strike with their forearm

Competitive drills

These include sparring and free play. They have a random or free element in that those involved may choose what techniques they use. This can vary from having two or three choices up to a full no hold bared (with certain restrictions) free play assault.

The danger here is that free-play and sparing are dynamic and we know that combat is dynamic and as such, sparring or free play becomes a reality test of what we have learnt. However it MUST be remembered that free play or sparring is nothing like a real fight for your life.

Also free-play is active, dynamic and fun and therefore habits that are developed in free-play will go deeper and last longer than skills from other less engaging forms of training. Also free-play looks more like what most people expect a "real" fight to look like, most of which expectations are based on fantasy and entertainment, not reality and so will reinforce those untruths and misconceptions

To quote Combative Instructor, practitioner and author Rory Miller "Almost twenty-five years ago, I asked my Karate sensei why we practiced kihon (basics) and kata when the techniques we used in sparring looked nothing like kata. He didn't have a good answer, just some vague nonsense about discipline and muscle development. Twenty years ago, after my first ugly brawl in the casino, I remember sucking wind, shaking, and thinking, "Shit, that wasn't anything like sparring.""

Most of us will not get in to "an ugly brawl" and there is even less likelihood of us using the weapons based elements of our training. So for most people Free-play WILL be as real as it gets. Also free-play is fun. However it must not be forgotten that free-play, sparring, or competition is nothing like real combat.

Free play can become a very sophisticated strategic game, which is a flaw in and of itself. For example people do not attack with a knife the way they spar with one. The reality is fast, close, staccato and overwhelming. The sparring is often a chess match of distance timing and rhythm. The skills are not the same and they don’t transfer.

Wear Protection or modify the weapon?

As Targeting, Timing/Speed, Power, Distance are integral to real combat, one or more of these will have to be messed with to make the training safe. To reduce the need to modify the core elements one can wear armour to allow the better use of power and targeting. Another option is to modify the weapon to make it safer, often a combination of both is done.

Wearing protective armour to allow the replication of un-armoured combat allows people to hit each other in a better approximation of "reality". This can be OK when practising specific techniques or situations However in free play the protection that people wear invariably makes them braver than they would be if they were not wearing the armour and then takes the situation further away from reality again.

If the armour is being worn to replicate armoured combat then the weapons and techniques would change to defeat the protection worn. After all armour is worn to protect the wearer, so defeat it would require more aggressive and therefore more dangers techniques to defeat it. Because of this increased danger it will mean modification in targeting, speed, power or distance or the types of technique used.

For example almost all-combative grappling techniques are by their very nature extremely dangerous and therefore can not be done properly in free-play or competition, so they are either banned or have to be modified to make them safer

If the weapon is made safer then it can reduce the need for armour and allow different level of freedom. However one now has the problem that the less threat/danger the weapon poses the braver the scholars become, and can start to do things that they would not if it were real. Also being hit by a "safe" weapon will produce a very difference result than being hit by a real weapon. Again this is less of a problem in set training than it is in free-play. Also modifying the weapons generally stops it from handling like the real thing and this will also change the way the technique works and lead to false assumptions and conclusions.


So what is the answer? What is the right way to train? Well there isn’t one. As said at the beginning there is no way to replicate real violence without injuring and damaging people. However you train it will be fake in some way. One has to recognise what the deliberate flaws are in the training that you are doing. Minimise those flaws as much as possible to make sure that the skills you are developing are not based upon false assumptions or untruths. If you can, counter act the flaw by adding another type of training to your program where that flaw is not present, just remember that the new drill or exercise will also have a flaw in it!

Jonathan Waller

Guild Secretary

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

New Guild website and emails up and running

I'm happy to say that the new Guild website is up and running a few thinsg need ironing out, and I will be updating the site as I work through it over the coming days and weeks.

My email is functioning again as well.

Hope the site proves easy to navigate. Once you have visited please tkae a momemnt to fill out the poll on the opening page.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Guild website and emails down.

The Guild website is currently down and Guild emails are not functioning.
This is due to a transfer of servers hosting the site and a new site about to go live.
The new site shall be easier to update and so we will be offering more information, articles, links and updating current information over the coming weeks.

Also a reminder that there is a Facebook page at!/group.php?gid=15962131366

I'll notify the groups when the new site goes live.

Above All, Honour

Jonathan Waller
Secretary, EHCG