Martial control in HEMA

In historical fencing, we have developed a culture of valorizing injury and hard striking. We post photos of bruises or destroyed protective gear, inviting others to admire the risks we take in fencing; our toughness as we fight on through danger, injury, fatigue, and pain. Some instructors brag about their students’ reputation for hard hitting in tournaments.

To avoid singling out individuals or schools, I won’t give any examples except my own. I’ve posted pictures of my bruises online. I’ve shown off my dented fencing mask. I’ve told the story of that time a fencer disarmed me and I punched him so hard in the face that his fencing mask scraped the skin off the bridge of his nose.

Toughness, both mental and physical, resilience, daring, fortitude, and courage are fine qualities, and as martial artists we want to build them all. But does valorizing our injuries and our heavy strikes really promote these qualities? I argue that it doesn’t. Rather, it promotes carelessness, disrespect for our own and others’ bodies, needless risk-taking, and plain stupidity.

Heavy bruising isn’t a good thing; it’s evidence that both fencers screwed up. The bruised fencer got hit. The fencer who hit them did so with insufficient control, or without respect for their body, or both.

I want to fence for the rest of my life. I can’t do that if I destroy my body, or if I’m a drooling mess from accumulated brain injury. Even in the short term, I can’t train as effectively with bone bruises on my forearms and deep contusions in my thigh muscles – no matter how “tough” I am. This goes for my training partners, too.

In Managing safety in martial arts, Devon Boorman of Academie Duello writes: “Good practitioners don’t want to hurt their partners. It should be your goal to leave your fellow fencers healthier than they were when you found them.”

I also want to leave myself healthier after each training or sparring session. In Training for the Future, Keith Farrell writes: “I would quite like to keep fencing until I am 68, or 88, or even 128 years of age (might as well aim high!), and I simply won’t be able to manage this if I tear my rotator cuff a couple of times, or blow out the ligaments in my knee, or give myself permanent wrist pains.”

Keith’s article is about how he avoids injury by consistently using good body mechanics, and by prioritizing stability, balance and safe movement over winning. He acknowledges:

I realise that this does lead to limitations on what I can achieve with my sparring, and I often lose training fights with people who expect me to win against them. It means that in tournaments and competitions, I don’t always place as well as I know I could, if I were to compromise on the standards I set for myself.

This attitude is equally applicable to control and self-moderation in striking. I want to fence until I’m 128, and I want my training partners to do so too. I would rather not land any strike than land one that I can’t control. I would rather not hit my opponent than hit them and injure them.

When I train, my goal is to fence with total control over my sword and my body: to strike where and when I want to, with the exact amount of force that I choose. I want to be able to face off against a heavy hitter and maintain my composure, using only enough impact to make a valid touch, even when my opponent is coming at me like a truck. I’ll give respect, even when I don’t receive it.

Maybe I’m not at that point yet, but I’ll get there. That’s what becoming a martial artist means to me.


How to be an awesome drill partner

In HEMA we spend a lot of time talking about how we can learn new techniques, and use the techniques we already know more effectively. But studying a martial art is a collective activity, and we depend on each other for the quality of our learning.

If everyone’s learning experience is awesome, we all learn faster! Here are some ideas for being a more effective drill partner.

1. Be safer

Martial arts are inherently dangerous, but we can and should try to minimize the risks.

Use tools and equipment that are in good condition and appropriate for the situation, and recognize your responsibility to your training partners. Keith Farrell writes in “Responsibility to our Training Partners”:

[Your training partners] give up their own training time to help you with problems. They allow you to hit them, repeatedly, so that you can learn a new technique or skill. They moderate and control their own strikes so that they do not damage you, even though they may have the capability to do so. This is a critical point: they respect you enough to look after you, keep you safe and help you learn, even if they would enjoy practising harder or faster or with someone better. That deserves some respect in return.

Keith’s article outlines what to consider when choosing a weapon to train with, and when selecting protective gear. Essentially, use training weapons that won’t injure your partner or expose them to unnecessary risks; and use protective gear that allows your partner to execute techniques effectively against you.

2. Stay honest

Maintain martial intent in your drills to preserve a sense of realism, and make sure that techniques will work against a genuine threat. When you make a cut or thrust at your drill partner, make sure it will actually hit them! If your attacks are out of distance, you are not helping your partner to learn.

Check distance before you start your drill. Know the distance you’re supposed to be working at and maintain awareness of it.

Pause between repetitions and “reset” your mind and body. When you’re initiating the drill, vary the amount of time that you allow to elapse between repetitions so that your partner must respond to you rather than acting on autopilot. Break up the rhythm and make sure you and your training partner are responding to each other, rather than performing a sequence of movements automatically. Don’t pre-empt your partner’s actions – respond to them.

3. Don’t try to “win”

You can’t “win” a drill.

When it’s your partner’s turn to practice a technique, think of yourself as their teacher, rather than their opponent. When your student successfully executes a technique against you, you’ve done your job correctly!

Likewise, when you walk out of a class having learned a new technique, you have your training partner to thank for that. She deserves the same experience.

Make sure you’re not beating the drill. Provide sensible resistance, so that your partner needs to use martial intent and correct technique in order to succeed. But don’t step outside the boundaries of your part of the drill. If your role is to parry once and then get hit on the head, do that. Don’t parry twice.

If your partner’s technique is consistently failing, consider the possibility that you could be doing your part of the drill incorrectly – perhaps by moving too quickly, or taking some action that isn’t part of the drill.

4. Put equal effort into both sides of the drill

When your instructor or a senior student explains a drill, make sure you understand what you’ll need to do when it’s your partner’s turn to practice the technique. It’s just as important to provide the correct stimulus for your partner as it is to get the technique right.

Even when your part in a drill is very simple, such as initiating with an overhead cut for your partner to defend against, there’s still a lot to get right: Distance, cutting angle, making sure you lead with your sword instead of your body, etc. Instead of zoning out until it’s your turn to do the thing, use the time to hone your own technique.

5. Use sufficient control

Your drill partner is letting you strike them – you have a responsibility to do so respectfully, and with control.

Here’s an example of how lack of control can mess up your drills:

Counter-cut drill

My antagonist initiates the drill with a cut to my left temple. My job is to use correct timing and blade angulation to counter-cut through her attack, and without parrying, strike her head.

This is a technique for a specific situation: When my opponent attacks me with a true, direct strike that is intended to hit my head. For this technique to work, my antagonist must throw a proper cut at my head.

If my training partner is performing her part of the counter-cut drill correctly, I should have no problem making this technique succeed. I may need to clean up my timing and cutting angle a bit, but once I’ve done that, a counter-cut should be a reliable technique against this particular stimulus.

A problem arises if my training partner is not delivering her cut at a consistent angle with proper intent to strike my head. In a previous section of this article I discussed staying honest – part of which involves making sure you deliver genuine attacks for your partner to deal with. However, if I repeatedly strike too hard during the counter-cut drill, my training partner will stop making genuine attacks. She will instinctively start to throw parries instead of cuts, in order to protect her head.

My counter-cut will likely “stop working”, since my partner’s initial stimulus is now different – and requires a different response. If I then decide that my counter-cut is failing, without understanding why, I may be tempted to strike harder, or faster – making the problem even worse.

To avoid this, I need to make sure I’m landing my counter-cut with enough control that my partner can safely put up with having it done to her twenty or thirty times in a row. A fencing mask does not make my training partner invincible. I still need to control my strikes.

6. Communicate with your training partner

We can help to keep our drills running smoothly by checking in with each other. Do you both agree on what the drill consists of, and what to expect? If not, clarify with your instructor or a senior student. Are the speed and level of contact appropriate? Are you both getting enough repetitions of each component of the drill?

Sharing insights is also really valuable. What can you learn from your training partner, even if they’re less experienced than you? How can you help them learn more?

7. Have fun

Training is hard work, but it should also be fun. Apart from keeping yourself and your partner as safe as possible, this is the most important part of all!

Remember why you started training with a sword. New students are an endless source of inspiration because they are excited to learn techniques that more experienced students may find mundane.

Swords are awesome and you should feel awesome.

Slow Sparring

Slow fencing with no protective gear is one of the most useful activities in my current HEMA training. With slow fencing, I am developing control, awareness and self-regulation. This article explains some of the benefits I have gained from slow fencing, and outlines how to deal with some of its challenges.

Benefits of slow sparring

Devon Boorman writes in Building precision through slow fencing: “Slow work is a type of sparring practice where you fence freely against an opponent but at a speed that is slow enough that you can consider and be observant of your actions as you respond fluidly to the situation at hand.”

In slow work, Devon and his students develop the ability to respond to a fencing situation, rather than just react to one:

“A reaction is an uncontrolled, martially or tactically imperfect movement that your body spits out when you panic upon receiving some stimulus from your opponent… What we truly want is a response; a fluid and conditioned adaptation to the opponent.”

Devon advocates finding a speed to work at in which responses, rather than reactions, become possible.

Slow sparring reveals holes in technique

As well as permitting us to choose more considered and martially sound techniques, slow sparring can expose bad habits and gaps in our understanding of techniques.

In The Buffalo Trap, Shanee Nishry describes how we can consciously or unconsciously try to compensate for weaknesses in technique by applying more physical force. At speed, we may get away with this, especially at beginner and intermediate levels; or we may simply feel that our techniques are not working, without understanding that we’re substituting force for skill.


I strike at my opponent’s left temple, and she parries. If we form a strong-on-strong bind, I know that in this situation it is possible for me to strike her behind her sword by pulling my pommel under my right forearm, capturing the strong of her blade in my crossguard, and striking her opposite temple with my true edge. Students of the Liechtenauer tradition will recognize this technique as “duplieren”, or “doubling”.

As I try to execute this technique, something goes wrong. Perhaps I fail to extend my hands sufficiently, creating a bind in the middle or weak of her sword instead of the strong. Perhaps my footwork is incorrect and I am too far away. Maybe my opponent’s parry is too wide to make the technique applicable. Any number of things could happen to cause my duplieren to fail. However, the speed at which I’m working and the force of my blow mean that I can’t identify any of these details. Instead, as I feel that my duplieren is going to fail, I’m likely to just push harder, struggling to apply enough strength to “force” the technique through.

Anyone can fall into the buffalo trap – not just large or aggressive fencers. I have done so many times, but fewer since I started emphasising slow fencing in my training. Slow fencing allows me to examine my techniques as they play out, and pay attention to feeling and finer details. It forces me to use correct mechanics to make a technique work, as simply applying more force is too dangerous and unpredictable.

Processing the fight

Another exploration of the benefits of slow sparring can be found in Johnny Nguyen’s article on The Secret Fight Training Method – SLOW SPARRING.

Beginner boxers complain that they “can’t see the incoming punches,” writes Nguyen. “That they don’t feel fast enough or have fast enough reflexes to fight their more-skilled opponents… they feel like the fight is happening at a faster rate than their mind is capable of processing.”

Much of the time, this is exactly how I feel when fencing! Slowing down helps me to process and think, rather than simply reacting on instinct.

Nguyen proposes that one of the advantages of slow work is in developing the ability to pick up visual cues earlier:

“Sparring at a slower rate allows you to get better at seeing movements. You can see all phases of every punch… You get to see the load, the release, the extension, the impact… Later on at higher speeds, you will be more effective at evading them because you can pick up on the earlier cues of the punch.”

Likewise, when working at a slower pace, as a fencer I can observe and try to understand an attack as it develops. Where does my opponent’s blade start? What trajectory does it take, and does that change as I respond? Does my opponent move through recognizable guards or positions with her blade? What is the earliest visual indicator of an attack? Do my opponents feet, hips or shoulders move before she strikes? What does she do with her head? Her hands? Her eyes?

I can also work to understand the consequences of my tactical choices. If I wind to ox here, what can my opponent do? If I close this line, where do I become open?

Training martial control

Slow sparring without protective gear also means that we are forced to control our strikes. If we land a touch, it must be light enough not to cause injury. Recently, I feel safer sparring without gear than with gear – as many fencers seem to think that a mask and jacket make us invincible, and fence accordingly.

With no protective equipment, rather than simply letting my sword fall uncontrolled towards my opponent’s head or body, I must always be in control of it and aware of how much momentum I allow in my techniques.

The experience of finding a fencing speed at which you can control your strikes to avoid harming your training partner is excellent for training martial control.

Problems in slow sparring

There are problems in slow sparring which I’ll readily acknowledge. The first is the challenge of maintaining martial intent and preventing your sparring from devolving into a game of “feder tag”, in which participants change their objective from making slow, genuine attacks to trying to “tap” or “tag” their opponent lightly with the tip of the blade. Another challenge is in managing the impulse to speed up in order to make a successful touch or parry. I will describe how I deal with both of these challenges, and how the process of working through them can be beneficial, rather than a reason not to do slow sparring.

Martial intent

In slow sparring, as in technique drilling, we need to make sure we are making genuine attacks, at the correct distance, that present a proper threat. This is a challenge that we can rise to.

With enough skill it is perfectly possible to maintain martial intent, with no gear, at any speed, without harming your opponent. For an illustration of this, watch this video in which Roger Norling demonstrates a brutal technique from Meyer’s quarterstaff on Ted Elsner of Sacramento Freifechter, who is wearing only light gloves. Any doubt as to Roger’s martial intent should be dispelled by the look on Ted’s face.

However the nature of sparring at slow speeds and without gear does change the way I fence, and this can lead to a lack of realism in fencing situations.


My opponent slowly extends her sword in a strike at my left temple. I countercut at the same speed, and we bind strong-on-strong. My opponent applies pressure and I resist it. We are in the perfect setup for her to perform a duplieren, but it would be far too dangerous for her to do so. The action of pulling the pommel under the forearm when I am resisting in the bind provides so much leverage that the strike would injure me; so my opponent doesn’t try it. We remain in a static bind for a moment.

Inadvertently, I am training a false sense of security that remaining in a static bind is safe, when in fact I am providing my opponent with the perfect stimulus for a duplieren.

Fencing without gear requires me to sharpen my observation, tactical understanding and awareness in the fight. Some openings become impossible to take because of safety, and without the feedback of my opponent’s blade connecting with my mask or hand, I may not realize that my head or hands were open targets.

In this context, I rely on my training partner to give me that feedback verbally. We can pause as she explains that she had a direct line to my head and try to recreate the situation to allow me to choose a better technique.

I’m fortunate to have an excellent training partner with whom I can analyze these kinds of situations, recreate them and work out drills to deal with them.

Slow sparring helps me to practice awareness, and the ability to acknowledge to myself and my training partner when I have placed myself (or been manoeuvred into) a compromised position. I find this incredibly valuable.

Maintaining a consistent speed and intensity

Another problem in slow sparring is ensuring that both fencers maintain a consistent speed and intensity. This isn’t just a problem in slow fencing, but slow fencing does make it more obvious.

Competitive drive can lead us to break from our agreed or initial speed in an attempt to make a parry or land a touch. 


I am standing in long point, and my opponent aims a strike at my hands. I lower my hands to avoid her strike, exposing my head. As she sees my head become open, she changes the trajectory of her strike to aim at my head.

As I was not expecting this, I must speed up suddenly if I want to parry. I may also twist my body and become unbalanced as I try to avoid her strike.

In Devon Boorman’s terminology, my actions in the example above are a reaction rather than a response – the opposite of what I want to train.

I need to avoid training myself to make reactions. The better course of action would be to acknowledge that my opponent had successfully opened my head for a strike and that, if we were working at speed, she would almost certainly have landed it.

However, it’s not really important whether she would have “won” that touch or not. Rather, it is important for me to understand how my head became open, and how to fence better from long point with the awareness that A) my hands are a target and B) a strike can be used to draw my guard down, exposing another target. It’s also important for my partner to know when her technique was successful – so I should acknowledge when this is the case.

Again, we rely on communication and acknowledging our own errors to learn these things.

Many people see slow work as problematic because people can speed up to “beat” each other, resulting in a cycle of escalated intensity. But like all aspects of a martial art, learning how to maintain a consistent speed and becoming aware of when you are deviating from it takes practice.

This is another way in which slow fencing helps build awareness and self-regulation.

I find that slow fencing is one of the most useful and fun parts of my current training routine. With a controlled training partner and mutual respect for safety, we can experiment, make mistakes, and try out random ideas. We can fence all day without getting fatigued, which means we can do swords more often and for longer. And we can make valuable insights into our technique, martial control, and awareness in the fight.