Within Martial arts that are largely weapons based, such as Western Martial Arts or Kali, the repeated use of similar or identical weapons in practice and sparring is often emphasised.
This comes with many advantages as well as disadvantages when training. Using the same weapons repeatedly can often lead to problems when facing an opponent who is using a different weapon to you. The very nature of a combative situation is one that is entirely unpredictable. Of course it is necessary to start with a single weapon to learn its use. However at the same time you are never guaranteed to be facing an opponent using the same kind of weapon as you.
These differences can be as subtle as an alternative hilt configuration or a slight reach advantage of a few inches, to larger differences with entirely different weapons. This in turn poses the question, when do you start mixing it up and how do you go about it? You want to approach this without sacrificing or hindering your training and development. It is this topic to which we will explore below in detail.
The same weapon.
At Gray school of Arms, each student begins by learning the single sword, more specifically the military Spanish cup hilted cut and thrust rapier. This comes with a host of advantages when first learning the use of the single sword. For example, two students having the same weapon, takes away any advantage or disadvantage gained from differences in the weapons. For instance one student having a longer weapon than the other or the weight being lighter or heavier or even a better balanced weapon can make all the difference in a fight. This can lead to one student having the advantage over the other from the very start, and can often lead students into over dependency on these advantages which can become a hindrance to their training.
To eliminate this, students start with the same weapon. This evens out the playing field and allows no possible advantage or disadvantage to be gained. This forces each student to gain the upper hand and best their opponent through technique, ability and performance alone.
It is through training with the same weapons that student’s develop an understanding of not only the weapon at hand, but also how to read and fight an evenly matched opponent. However, as students gain competency with the weapon and become accustomed to fighting with and against it, there will come a time when it is needed to move them onto other forms. In martial arts this usually means moving onto another weapon and again repeating the same process of fighting against it.
This in my own opinion is the best and most efficient way to start learning, until the student again has gained a high level with the new weapon. However, once this high level has been obtained it is recommended that student progress onto fighting against other weapon types. For instance, the use of a rapier against a curved sabre forces the student to start thinking about the curvature of the blade and the fact that when fighting a shorter weapon you cannot linger in the bind (two blades crossed trying to gain advantage over one another through leverage). This forces the person using the longer weapon to keep their point moving, constant breaking the bind and regaining it, never allowing the shorter weapon to dominate.
In turn this also forces the sabre fencer to be more aggressive having to close the line (shortest most direct path to the opponent) and distance quickly.
It is this very nature of mixed weapons sparring that forces students to adapt and learn for a host of different situations which cannot be learnt from simply sticking with fighting the same kind of weapon. This is also the most realistic form of training when it comes to the combative nature of martial arts as fighting is never set in stone, and the situation will always vary.
Mixing it up.
Let’s look at another examples of matching up weapons to force students into a variety of situations, some of which will actually be quite unfair, but often is the nature of what we do.
Partizan (spear) against Rapier (sword) is often the most difficult pair up of weapons. The simple reach advantage of the spear allows the user to dominate the line (shortest most direct path to the opponent) as well as the ability of having overwhelming strength in any binding action. However, this would have been a common weapon used within the battle fields of Europe and today if guns were to fall out of use (not likely but we can imagine) it would again rule the field.
This in turn forces the rapier user to practice a form of fighting known as half-swording. This is a form of fighting where you grip the sword handle with your main hand and the blade with the other, making the sword more ridged and turning it into a short spear or staff. This allows the sword user to try and catch an incoming cut or thrust from the spear. If able the sword user will catch just under the tip of the spear, using the extra strength of the now more ridged sword blade to bind and quickly move up the shaft of the spear, quickly followed by the swordsman grasping the spear and launching a cut or thrust at the opponent.
In turn this makes the spear user have to deal with an overly cautious opponent, waiting for their strike to counter and then quickly rushing in. This can be a difficult situation for a pole weapon such as the spear to deal with. Often forcing the spearman to quickly shorten or free his blade by stepping off or retracting the shaft of the spear, even at times bringing the butt of the spear around and bludgeoning the swordsman as he rushes in.
These examples are of course only a few ways of going about it, with many other options available, although admittedly a little more limited due to the nature of the paring. However, as demonstrated above the host of knowledge and experience gained by both students in going through such a process is invaluable. From teaching distance management, footwork, timing, body mechanics and much more.
Other examples would be that of sword and dagger against longsword. The use of the sword and dagger to bind and transfer the opponent’s blade over (binding with the sword and transferring the opponent’s blade over to your dagger, freeing your sword to counter attack while maintaining control over the opponents) while also dealing with the strength and reach advantage of the longsword. This is a good pairing to get the students to learn about the advantage of losing the bind, the longsword is a long two handed weapon that allows for big powerful cuts. Initially any binding attempt would be futile due to the force and leverage gained by the longsword.
Allowing the sword to make contact and letting the longsword win the bind in order to rebind on the other side (taking advantage of the rapiers quicker nature) and then to pin the sword with the dagger and counter cut or thrust. This sort of training again allows students to gain much more experience in timing, distance and feeling within the bind.
It is this mixing of weapons and experimentation of fighting with the very tool and or tools that you train with, that will great expand your knowledge of fencing. Not only should it be implemented for its learning advantages but also for its entertainment value. Allowing the students to learn complex theory and practice while enjoying training with an exciting experience.
In simple terms, start with fighting against the same weapon, then use that very weapon to fight against a variation. This is the only true way to master your chosen weapons full potential, and to develop the key aspects that you will need when fighting in a truly unpredictable environment.