From Drills to Free Play: Putting Practice into Practice (Part II)

Bill Grandy, Director of Historical Swordsmanship at the Virginia Academy of Fencing

Free play with rapier and rotella (round shield).

In Part I of this article we explored a few variations of drills to help develop both tactical proficiency as well as fluidity between actions under pressure. Those drills allowed more dynamism than static drills, and yet they are still a step apart from full out free play.

When engaging in free play, one has to accept that it is less of a learning exercise and more of a test of one’s abilities under fire. While learning occurs, the moment your brain goes into competitive mode it is spending less time analyzing previous maneuvers and more time adapting to the present and future maneuvers. Because of this, in order to gain the most out of your free play, you should consider variations that limit you and force you to adapt certain tactics.

Here we will look at some forms of free fencing games. Some of these are essentially loosely structured drills, designed to bring free play into a more focused realm, while others are essentially free play with specific rules. Many of these games can be mixed-and-matched with each other. You will find that many of these are very unrealistic, and that is important to accept: These are meant to supplement standard free fencing, not replace it. Each of these games force a fencer to rely on specific goals. Furthermore, all forms of free play are fake (even when people lie to themselves and say that they use “no rules”, which still have certain rules for safety or rules for when to stop each exchange). When fencing against an opponent, everyone eventually plays to the rules, even if subconsciously, because “scoring the point” becomes more important in the short term than practicing realism. By forcing oneself to change the rules on occasion, a fencer will have a more rounded approach, so that even if he or she is “playing to the rules”, the fencer will still develop a wide range of skills, becoming a better fighter overall.

Limiting the Target Area and Attacks

Examples of possible target areas.

One challenging way to train proper free-fencing is to declare limited target areas on opponents and/or disallowing certain types of attacks. Many historical tournaments were done this way. The goal here is to fence against your opponent, but you are only allowed to strike certain areas of the body, such as only the torso, or everything above the waist excluding hands and forearms. This can be done for different contexts. First, it can be done to force a fencer to rely on striking the most vital areas. (e.g. One might only allow thrusts to the torso and cuts to the head to count.) It can also be done to force opponents to rely on certain tactics. For example, by disallowing cuts, the opponent is forced to work on defending against thrusts just as much as using them.

One could easily make the argument that limiting target areas introduces a level of artificiality to the fencing bout, causing fencers to develop bad habits (for example, not allowing attacks to the legs means that fencers never learn to defend the legs). There is a very easy way to overcome this: Don’t always do this. Use it as a training tool. Sometimes limit the target area, and other times make everything a target. Sometimes make both fencers attack the same areas, and other times make one fencer attack different target areas than the other. Sometimes you should only allow certain types of attacks, such as only thrusts with no cuts, or where cuts will only count on the limbs but thrusts must be made to the body. You should also change what the target areas are, sometimes from match to match. You can even give one fencer a significant advantage over the other (e.g. one can only attack the head while the other can attack everywhere). Remember that the goal to all of these exercises is not to train fencers to play to the rules, but rather to require fencers to fight well no matter what the rules are.

Assigning Point Values

Fencing to a certain number of points is a valid way to fence. Oftentimes, however, people will worry more about overall point value than common sense fighting. This means that a small cut to the pinky is equally valid as a powerful strike to the head, and people will quickly start using the techniques that rack up the most points. These techniques are usually not the same techniques we see in the fencing treatises.

To help encourage a larger variety of techniques, you can assign point values for certain target areas. For example, you might make head and torso worth 3 points, and everywhere else on the body worth 1 point, and the first person to obtain at least 5 points is the winner. You might add other rules, such as double hits resulting in both fencers resetting the score 0 to 0.

You can also assign point values based on technique rather than target area. In this case perhaps a weak cut delivered with poor body mechanics only scores 1 point; A well done proper cut with proper body structure is worth 3 points. You can even combine target area with technique — e.g. a properly performed attack anywhere is worth 3 points, but is worth 4 if it is done specifically to the head.

Agent/Patient Roles

In the judicial duel of the Renaissance, it was common practice for the challenging party to be called the “Agent” and the challenged party to be called the “Patient”. The Patient had the right to choose the weapons, but the Agent had the right to make the first attack in the duel. Using these roles in free play is not only historical, it also adds a level of tactical thinking that doesn’t quite exist when both fencers have identical roles.

Select one person to take the Agent role and one the Patient role. The Patient is absolutely not allowed to make the first offensive action. This means that the Patient must plan out what guard to stand in, and plan on what counters are useful against the Agent’s most logical attacks based on that position. The Agent must think about what attack makes sense to open with, what defenses the Patient is most likely to use, etc. When the Agent starts the first offensive action, the Patient must counter or be hit. If both fencers fail to hit, the match continues uninterrupted, ignoring the Agent/Patient roles.

This can be further limited to train specific skillsets. For example, the Patient might be required to stand in a specific guard, and the Agent is required to open with a specific attack. Or perhaps the Agent is required to begin with a thrust, but is allowed to make it a feint if he chooses to.

For groups that practice multiple weapons, you can even let the patient choose what weapons are being used, as was historically done. Since the patient does not have the right to attack first, he at least can have the chance to choose weapons where he feels he has the most advantage. Historically the weapons would have typically been the same for both parties, and generally this is also how one should use the Agent/Patient rules in modern times, but there is nothing saying you can’t have the patient mix the weapons for the purpose of training (and fun).


In Marathon two fencers are given a time limit and must fence non-stop, without any pause until the end. This game is specifically intended to force fencers to develop endurance for long extended bouts, and also to fight through exhaustion. A typical time-limit for many fencers is two minutes, but this should certainly be increased as the fencers’ physical fitness level develops.

For a Marathon bout, it helps to establish ground rules. One example is that grappling tends to disrupt the flow of this game, so the fencers may decide that grappling is disallowed. This is something that should be decided before the bout begins.

“The Juggernaut”

In this game, one fencer is designated the Juggernaut. The Juggernaut is allowed to keep fencing until he has been hit a certain number of times, whereas the opponent needs to be hit only once to lose. For example, we can designate that the Juggernaut has three “hit points” before he loses. If he is hit once, the Juggernaut will continue fighting without a pause. If there is a double hit afterwards, the Juggernaut automatically wins since he retains one “hit point”.

The purpose of giving the Juggernaut such a big advantage is to force the opponent to keep fencing even after he has hit. If you want to make it easier for the opponent, you can force the Juggernaut to only attack limited target areas whereas the opponent is allowed to strike anywhere on the Juggernaut with any kind of attack.

The Afterblow Rule

The afterblow is not so much a rule set as it is an individual rule. Many historical tournaments included a rule that if one fencer struck first, the opponent was allowed a moment to make one additional attack. This meant that the fight was not over after the first hit, and the initial attacker would need to defend for at least another moment or else be hit. The purpose was to train a fighter not to immediately stop each time someone scores, since in a real fight you may not have stopped your opponent with your first strike (or perhaps your weapon was turned by the opponent’s clothing or armor and you didn’t realize it right away). This rule can be added to most rule sets, and typically the afterblow negates the first hit (though it can also be used to reduce the points of a hit rather than negate it, if applicable). Like most rules, it is artificial, and a clever fencer can game the rule to his advantage, but when used judiciously can be a valuable training tool.

“Julius Caesar”

The Julius Caesar game requires at minimum three people (though it is much more fun with more people). One person is in the middle taking the role of Caesar surrounded by everyone else. The people outside of the circle will take turns, going in order, to make an attack at the person playing Caesar, who must counter the attack.

There are a few variations for this game. In the first variation (the one that everyone should start with) the attackers are only allowed to make one dedicated attack and cannot do anything else, allowing Caesar a chance to counter and win. If Caesar wins, then he quickly turns to face the next fencer in the circle who will immediately attack; If he messes up at all, then he’s out and someone else comes into the center. Note that Caesar does not have to be hit to lose; If he chokes up and panics or does something purely defensive without a counter, then he still loses. Here is an example video with the longsword:

The above is a simple version of the game, where the attackers could only make one committed attack and do nothing else. If the fencers are more advanced, then the attackers have the choice of either one committed attack or a feint, which Caesar must deal with. To make it very hard, you can even give the attackers the choice of allowing themselves to be hit by Caesar’s first counter, or making one counter that Caesar then has to re-counter. That last variation becomes very confusing very quickly, and really should be reserved only for high level fencers.

Another variation would be to have the person in the middle unarmed while everyone else holds a dagger (which is the original version of the game that gave birth to the name). The person in the middle is allowed to disarm an attacker and take the dagger, but is required to give it back after one use.

Note that the Julius Caesar game is not free play, but rather a game to allow reacting under pressure. You can (and should) play around with arbitrary rules, including that Caesar is not allowed to make the same counter twice in a row, or that Caesar is required to use a different guard each time.

“Bruce Lee”

The Bruce Lee game gets it’s name from the classic Bruce Lee movies where our intrepid hero finds himself surrounded by an onslaught of opponents who only ever attack him one at a time. Similar to the Julius Caesar game, this requires at least three people (with more being even better), with one person in the center. Ideally, this game will also have a separate time keeper. Each challenger stays well out of distance and will attack one at a time in a predetermined order (e.g. clockwise). The fencer in the center playing “Bruce Lee” fences one challenger at a time, but has five seconds to win before the next challenger enters and it becomes two against one. If another five seconds go by, another challenger enters and it becomes three against one, and so forth. (This is why a time keeper separate from the fencers is useful, as this person can watch the time and call out “Time!” every five seconds.) It is a good idea to set a boundary as well, or else the fencers tend to run around everywhere.

This game forces the fencer to not wait around, but instead to seize the initiative lest he be surrounded and overwhelmed. At the same time, however, the fencer cannot be reckless because once he is hit, he is out (even if it is a double hit), and a new person takes the “Bruce Lee” role.

The “At Fault” Rule

One of the frustrating aspects of free play is when fencing against an opponent who constantly makes suicidal actions because he has no real fear of the weapon. While it is true that one should learn to deal with such a fencer, that does not mean fencing in such a manner was the norm in a real life-or-death fight. In the 19th century, Classical Fencing developed the rule of Right of Way to punish a swordsman for diving onto the opponent’s oncoming weapon rather than defending against it. Many modern HEMA practitioners cringe at the idea of Right of Way, fearing how the rule can be abused, but we can look to the spirit of this rule for inspiration.

One rule inspired by this is the “At Fault” rule. This generally requires a third person to officiate the match. With this rule set, everytime a fencer is hit he receives a negative point against him and the match is reset. In the event of a double hit, the judge decides if one person was “At Fault”; that is, did one person do something completely suicidal. An example would be if Fencer A attacks the head, and Fencer B, realizing he was about to be hit, quickly hits his opponent in the leg rather than defending. In this scenario, both fencers are penalized for being hit, but Fencer B (the one “At Fault”) receives two negative points against him, whereas Fencer A receives only one. This penalizes both fencers for being hit, but one person clearly needed a larger penalty than the other for doing something stupid which caused the double hit to happen.

In the event that the double hit was mutual, and neither fencer showed he was specifically “At Fault” any more than the other fencer, then both recieve one negative point against.

Slow-Motion Fencing

Slow-Motion Fencing is exactly what it sounds like: Free play at a very low speed. It can be done with any rules from above, but it must be done with a very low level of competition, lest you start speeding up to beat your partner. The goal here is simple: To analyze what you and your opponent are doing while you both are in the middle of doing it, but without the intensity and chaos of full speed fencing. It is much easier for the brain to remember actions when performed slowly, making it easier to learn from mistakes. In many respects this form of free play is a variation of the Passive Step Drill (see Part I) without the pauses, though this form is much better for learning how to react in the moment.

As you practice this, you will find that your brain will learn to recognize and interpret your opponent’s actions more accurately, and you will start responding faster in your full speed fights as your brain starts treating both slow-motion and full speed actions as more-or-less the same thing.

Putting it all together

The act of pressure testing one’s techniques in an unscripted environment against a friendly but uncooperative opponent is an integral part of training for many groups. It is the time when one is allowed to assess one’s progress under fire, and to see if one’s abilities shine or burn out. Any good martial artist knows that in order to perform well under pressure the techniques and skills must be conditioned and drilled into muscle memory. When studying a historical martial art, however, there is a tendency to go through the motions of a fencing treatise repeatedly and assume that this is enough to just “dive in” to free fencing. Learning the plays of a system, while vital, is only one aspect of drilling, and to properly bridge the chasm between drilling and free play, one must understand how to utilize one’s art in an active manner that allows you as a fencer to apply the rules of that art. A beginner must first learn all of the techniques and understand the application and theory. A good fencer, however, must be able to go beyond the scripted elements, and the drills presented here (and in Part I) will help take you to that level efficiently.

Special thanks to the students of mine who were able to stick around after hours to help me film: Kolter Bradshaw, Ed Toton, Leet Wood, Tom Connolly, Tim Hall, David Rowe, Jonathan Gordon and Doug Bahnick.

3 comments on “From Drills to Free Play: Putting Practice into Practice (Part II)

  1. […] From Drills to Free Play: Putting Practice into Practice Part II […]

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