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Switching Between Systems

One of the benefits to having produced things like my books and the syllabus wiki is that they provide a service to a vastly wider range of students than I can possibly train in person, who consequently ask me a wider range of questions, forcing me to think about things differently. One such example is this from Javier Andrés Chamorro Bernal, in Chile.

“I would like to ask you about something that troubles me now that I started to study I.33. Do you have problems with your footwork and technique when you practice with another sword or another fencing master? I know that you practice Capoferro’s rapier, does that cause trouble for you when you go back to Fiore?”

This, on the face of it, has a simple answer: no, I keep them separate. But that demands an explanation: how? And that lead me off on this rambling perambulation through what it is like to have these systems cheerfully cohabiting in my spine.

My approach to understanding and applying these arts is largely mechanical. Every system has its own mechanical preferences, which are based on the handling characteristics of the weapon, the context of the fight, and the aesthetic preferences of the author (e.g. Fiore or Capoferro). But all of them (and I include every martial art I’ve ever studied, and sport fencing, and walking down the street) have at root the following fundamentals:

  1. Power generation, through tasking large muscle groups to do the work, and small muscle groups to stabilise and direct.
  2. Structural support for the power, i.e. a delivery system. This includes the weapon, and is intimately linked to grounding, the route by which energy reflected from the target into the weapon is safely dispersed into the ground, or put to good use, and the route by which energy is put into the weapon.
  3. The overall strategy: strike without being struck.
  4. The overall tactics to apply that strategy: keep your defensive arm (the first half of your sword blade, your buckler, your armour, your dagger, whatever) in the way of his sword (or other offensive weapon): hit him with your sword (whichever part seems appropriate).

Differences between systems then resolve into a change in the handling characteristics of the weapons, and a change in what constitutes a strike. These are easily adopted, as the weapon is there in your hand, constantly feeding information into it, and the target is right there in front of you begging to be hit.

Keeping Fiore’s mechanics separate from Capoferro’s is especially easy as they are very very different. Fiore has us in a very easy stance, weight on either the front or the back foot, moving with somewhat improved-upon natural steps. The longsword will naturally draw those mechanics out of you if you can simply establish a proper groundpath, and can accelerate the weapon with little effort. Capoferro has us hiding behind the sword (not very knightly!), with the right shoulder forwards to get the point in the opponent’s face, the left shoulder back to a) push the right shoulder forwards and b) profile your chest to minimise your opponent’s available target area. From here, keeping your weight on your back foot is very natural if your opponent is similarly threatening your face with his point. All systems operate some kind of compromise, emphasising some key benefits at the expense of others. As an obvious example, students starting rapier after learning our basic Fiore syllabus all agree that rapier is much more physically demanding. Any beginner can be put into a longsword guard position. But most are physically incapable of a correct rapier guard position without months of specific training. Rapier emchanics are optimised for a short, sharp, illegal duel. Longsword mechanics are optimised for a longer, public, tournament, duel or battle.

Keeping two such distinct systems separate is easy. Things get a little more complicated when the systems are mechanically or tactically closer, when the weapons are more similar, or when the source for the system is more vague about mechanics, so there is a much longer period of figuring out what works, rather than just following the treatise. I.33 is a good example. If you look carefully at the I.33 videos on the wiki, you’ll see me sometimes chambering the sword on my right shoulder much too far around- away from the Priest’s second ward and into Fiore’s posta di donna. This is also partly due to the fact that I spend way more time with longsword and rapier than I do with sword and buckler. Oddly, I never get my backsword (18th  century) confused with my smallsword, nor my smallsword with rapier or backsword. They live in totally separate compartments, because the weapon in hand feels nothing like a longsword or a rapier, nor each other.

One of the advantages of teaching many different systems is that my students can usually find the one that suits them best, emotionally and physically. This requires me to frequently switch between weapons and styles, from day to day, and often in a single evening. I have noticed that whatever weapon I am holding becomes, until I put it down, just the best, most natural, why-would-you-waste-time-on-any-other-system, top favourite. When holding a smallsword, rapier is just a long, clumsy, stupid, out-of-date, obsolete horse and cart to my nimble, modern, up-to-the-minute smallsword Ferrari 458. I think this is part of the skill of switching between styles- the one you’re doing must be the one you want to do.

So I am often asked by students when they should start a second system. My advice is, as usual, an analogy. Swordsmanship styles are like languages. If you can speak Spanish fluently, learning Italian is easy. The former supports the latter. But if you try to learn them both from scratch, side-by-side, you’ll run into trouble, as they will interfere with each other. Your native language probably does not interfere much, as it is clearly separated in your mind from the foreign language you are acquiring. And the closer it is to the new language, the easier acquiring the new one will be. So, given that nobody has a native swordsmanship language (if you’ve been taught since birth, then forgive me, but you’re the exception), we must first learn one style until we are fluent in it. It doesn’t matter which, though in my school it’s easiest to start with Fiore just because most people do, so there are the most training opportunities. Once you have a solid base, and can conceive of any combat situation in terms of that style, because you understand the mechanical and tactical compromises in play, then it will speed up enormously the acquisition of a second style.

Frustration occurs when a beginner takes up a second style too early for optimum speed of acquisition. That is not really a problem, in that there is no hurry to master this Art, but if you are finding that the style you know is contaminating the style you want to learn, it is probably because the style you know has not been fully mastered yet. Either drop the old for the new, or the new for the old until the old is fully absorbed, or live with a slower pace of learning and some confusion.

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About Guy Windsor

Swordsmanship instructor, based in Helsinki, Finland. Founder of The School of European Swordsmanship. Author.

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