Swords are, by definition, sharp. Anything sword-like that is not sharp is either a foil, or a percussive weapon like a club. I am a swordsman, and so I use sharp swords. Do I let my beginner students fight each other (or even handle) sharps? No, of course not. But my senior students have done all the basic drills in our longsword syllabus sharp on sharp.
I would go so far as to say, if you haven’t done it with sharps, you haven’t done it at all. The arts that I practice were all intended for combat with sharp swords. There are two main differences between training with blunts and training with sharps: the way the weapons behave on contact, and the psychological factor. Sharp swords tend to stick together when they meet; blunt swords slide off each other. This makes binds, winds, transports and other blade on blade actions more difficult with blunts. And there is nothing that demands your attention quite like a sharp sword pointed at your face. You behave differently when the swords are sharp; more attentive, more alert, more focussed, more careful. More alive. The conservative tactical choices that the treatises tend to favour make much more sense.
It is well to remember that when you practice safely and are not attempting to harm your partner, you are compromising your swordsmanship. So we do lots of practice with blunts and sharps, at every degree of freedom and level of intent. (I’ve written extensively on this concept here.) Sharpening the sword does not eliminate the compromise, it just moves it from the tool to the level of intent. Blunt swords and wooden wasters have their place in swordsmanship training, and always have done. With sharps you can practice full intent actions alone or against inanimate targets; and careful actions with sharps with a partner, up to and including light freeplay. With blunts you can do all of that too, and also more vigorous actions, such as full speed freeplay. It is also possible to use a sword-simulator that is sharp in the middle of the blade and blunted at the tip, which gives you most of the binding and handling characteristics of a true sharp with much less risk, and so much less of the psychological characteristics. This can form a bridge between blunt only and full sharp training, and also allow you to freeplay with a tool that binds properly.
In many other blade-oriented martial arts, the question “should we train with sharps” simply does not arise. In Escrima, for instance, drills are usually done with sticks, or with sharps. On every one of Kaj Westersund’s knife courses I’ve been on, we have done drills with sharps, and only on some of them did we use blunt training knives at all. In a ten-weekend-seminar series, there was, I think, one minor cut that was not self-inflicted. (The balisong weekend was a bloodbath! 13 self-inflicted minor cuts in the first hour. It was hilarious.) Traditional Japanese sword arts are similar: reading Dave Lowry’s Autumn Lightning, a memoir of his childhood spent mostly training martial arts, you find that after many months of using a bokken (wooden sword), he, while still in high school, started using a sharp:“But unleashing a yard-long, wickedly sharp sword out of a scabbard inches from my belly, slashing with it, and then sliding it back into its sheath, again only a finger’s distance from my abdomen, was one of the most frightening things I had ever done. It was worse by far than the time my best friend and I went canoeing on a flooded river and nearly drowned… It was the only distraction that could occupy more of my attention than Linda Smith’s legs, stretched out two rows in front of me. Teachers who saw me walking to classes with a fretful look about me probably concluded I was worried about acne, or a relationship with a girl like Linda Smith. It’s a safe bet they never suspected I was really wondering how many stitches it would take to close the gash opened by a carelessly handled samurai katana.” (P. 106).
Sure, it’s frightening. It should be. But isn’t swordsmanship all about behaving well in scary situations?
Our treatises from before the 1500s don’t seem to address the issue; as far as I know the earliest reference is in the introduction to Book Six of Manciolino’s Opera Nova (1531) which begins:“I now wish to show how wrong those are who insist that good swordsmanship can never proceed from practice with blunted weapons, but only from training with sharp swords. … It is far preferable to learn to strike with bated blades then with sharp ones; and it would not be fair to arm untrained students with sharp swords or with other weapons that can inflict injury for the purpose of training new students to defend themselves.”
I couldn’t agree more. I start all my students with blunt steel swords, and introduce sharps when they are ready for them.
So the questions are: when, how, and how much?
1) “When should sharps be incorporated in a student’s training?”
When students are thoroughly able to control a longsword simulator, and have a solid grounding in basic technique, they should start incorporating work with sharps as soon as possible. In my school we have a set basic syllabus, which allows us to track student progress quite precisely. I would say that once the student has passed our four basic levels, she should, while she begins to add freeplay into her practice, also go back to the beginning and do it all again with sharps, at first only with me, and then under the guidance of an experienced senior.
2) “How do I incorporate sharps safely?”
Incorporating sharps in training is totally dependent on local conditions. It is unworkable for some, straightforward for others. Local experience levels and local legal conditions vary wildly. Just bear in mind that all physical activities have injury rates, and an accident does not necessarily kill the club. Obviously, my solutions are adapted for a formal school. Other groups may not be able to implement them, but I suggest talking to other martial arts clubs in your area that do use sharps (there are bound to be some) before dismissing the possibility as an insurance nightmare.
Normally in my classes, a student’s first time handling a sharp sword happens when I take a person individually, put a sword in her hand, and take the student through a basic pair drill. This is not reproducible though, so here are other options for instructors. Let us assume that whoever is leading the class has sufficient experience with sharps to do this:
- Cutting seminars; let everyone have a go. Run properly, there is no real risk at all, and they learn much about how sharps work. In this context you can even take people who have never handled any kind of sword before, and get them to safely cut a tatami mat or similar. I’ve done this in public demonstrations with members of the audience.
- In our syllabus, we introduce doing drills with sharps at level 5. This is after the student has completed the basic levels, and is beginning freeplay too. Usually in their first advanced class (which are scheduled separately: beginners can watch but not train), I take them one at a time through a couple of basic drills that they know really well. No protection for the student. I may wear a mask if they are really worried. (Almost every student I’ve done this with was more worried about injuring than getting injured.) You can do this in protective kit if you want, but that tends to generate a false sense of security.
- At this level of their training, I also encourage my students to do all solo training with sharps if they can buy or borrow one.
- Once they are habituated, they can at any time do any drill with sharps. My senior students are always working on a specific training issue. If their issue is best addressed with sharps, then that’s the tool they will choose.
With thrust-oriented weapons like rapier and smallsword, it is more difficult because thrusts to the face or body are much harder to control than cuts, and are more likely to cause permanent damage. I think all students of any system should practice test-cutting and test-thrusting, and I normally demonstrate rapier drills with the one “winning” that step of the drill holding a blunt, and the one getting hit holding a sharp. That way, you are really careful to get the opponent’s sword out of the way before lunging forwards. And exercises like Hunt the Debole, which do not involve striking, can easily and usefully be done with sharps. So it takes a bit of thinking about, but it can be done.
3) “How much training should be done with sharps?”
Angelo Viggiani (in Lo Schermo, 1575, page 52v-53r) was insistent that all training be done with sharps, though note that his student in the book is already an experienced swordsman. This is one of my favourite passages in all of swordsmanship literature, so I’ll reproduce it in full, from Jherek Swanger’s translation. (ROD is Rodomonte, Viggiani’s character in the book, CON is Conte, the Count, that Rodomonte is giving a lesson to.)
ROD: … take up your sword, Conte.
CON: How so, my sword? Isn’t it better to take one meant for practice?
ROD: Not now, because with those practice weapons it is not possible to acquire valor or prowess of the heart, nor ever to learn a perfect schermo.
CON: I believe the former, but the latter I doubt. What is the reason, Rodomonte, that it is not possible to learn (so you say) a perfect schermo with that sort of weapon? Can’t you deliver the same blows with that, as with one which is edged?
ROD: I would not say now that you cannot do all those ways of striking, of warding, and of guards, with those weapons, and equally with these, but you will do them imperfectly with those, and most perfectly with these edged ones, because if (for example) you ward a thrust put to you by the enemy, beating aside his sword with a mandritto, so that that thrust did not face your breast, while playing with spade da marra, it will suffice you to beat it only a little, indeed, for you to learn the schermo; but if they were spade da filo, you would drive that mandritto with all of your strength in order to push well aside the enemy’s thrust. Behold that this would be a perfect blow, done with wisdom, and with promptness, unleashed with more length, and thrown with more force, that it would have been with those other arms. How will you fare, Conte, if you take perfect arms in your hand, and not stand with all your spirit, and with all your intent judgment?
CON: Yes, but it is a great danger to train with arms that puncture; if I were to make the slightest mistake, I could do enormous harm. Nonetheless we will indeed do as is more pleasing to you, because you will be on guard not to harm me, and I will be certain to parry, and I will pay constant attention to your point in order to know which blow may come forth from your hand, which is necessary in a good warrior.
While I adore this book, I don’t think that even for experienced swordsmen, all training should be done with sharps. Competitive sparring, for instance, is best done using a tool you feel able to really strike with. But in my ideal world, once a certain level of competence has been reached, all solo drills and set drills would be done with sharps. You may note that in the excerpt above, Viggiani is teaching an experienced swordsman a set drill.
Guy Windsor is known for saying “if you haven’t trained with a sharp sword, you haven’t trained to fight with a sword at all”.
Like others in the HEMA community, I always took that with a grain of salt. After all, I’ve been training with the Melbourne Swordplay Guild and the Glen Lachlann Estate College of Arms in Melbourne for over four years, using blunt weapons, and I think I have a reasonable grasp of what it would be like with actual swords.
And then Guy stood in Posta Longa in front of me with a sharp longsword to explain a technique and I realised, quite simply, I was wrong. Sharps make a world of difference. There was no way – NO WAY – I was going to attempt techniques against a sharp I would normally have been happy to try against a blunt.
If you are thinking to yourself “this is all very well, but I am not experienced enough to do pair drills with sharps yet”, then firstly, you’re probably right, and secondly, you may instead be ready to do the solo drills and test-cutting with sharps. You may also want to go to a professional to train you past this hurdle. I routinely do unprotected sharps drills with students I don’t know at seminars: WMAW 2011 is a good example. There I offered the class the opportunity to do some basic drill (often the breaking of the thrust, which is much easier to do with sharps than with blunts, and a variant on the Four Crossings drill) sharp on sharp with me, with no masks or other protection. All of the 40 or so students took me up on it (I was expecting about 10!). Many of them came up to me afterwards and said it was one of the most important training experiences of their lives. This encouraged me to risk losing my sharps at Customs when I went to Melbourne in 2013; they have very strict sword laws in Victoria State. (I declared them, and with the right paperwork, there was no problem getting them through.) It was worth the risk, because on that trip almost everyone at the seminar got to experience pair work with sharps, and again, it opened their eyes and minds to an amazing degree. As Shannon Walker wrote in his review of that seminar:
Most frightening was a demonstration I did last summer, at Ropecon, a major roleplaying convention here in Helsinki. The theme of the demonstration was sharps v. blunts, and I allowed members of the audience, whom I did not know, to have a go. This is wildly different to doing it in a seminar, where I’ve had an hour or more to assess and prepare the students beforehand.
The way I set it up was really important. It came at the end of the demo, so they were habituated to listening to me. They did a slow drill with blunts and wearing masks with a senior student, so that they would get some experience with a longsword first, and get used to following directions. Also, it was a filter for undesirables (there were none).
The set-up had the attendees with their backs to the audience, and I had five students in uniform behind me and the senior assistant. Literally, they had my back. So those having a go were clearly in MY space. They were handed each sword in turn by another assistant. Psychologically, they were primed to follow directions, before we faced each other with sharps.
Most of them had some background in weapons martial arts, but not all. Everybody (especially me) learned something. And nobody got hurt.
I did this for three reasons:
- it was a really useful experience for most of the participants, especially the martial artists, and memorable for all.
- it clearly differentiated what we do from the boffer tournament and other events.
- it was a useful training experience for me. I was utterly focussed on the person I was training with, while keeping half an eye on the crowd. An exercise in awareness and control.
In my experience about 1 in 3 students do something suicidal while facing a sharp, so really, it’s me keeping us both alive. That’s ok. And if one day I fail, that’s ok too. I think the risk is worth it. It is an unparalleled learning experience. And simply essential when working on an interpretation. If you haven’t tested it with sharps, you haven’t tested it at all. Outside of my school, I would not tell a class “now go do this with sharps”, the way I will with my senior students. But as a service to the students present, I accept the risks of sharp on sharp with people I don’t know. I just prepare them really carefully beforehand, one way or another, create a safe environment, and make the assumption that they will try to stab me and try to run onto my point, before we cross swords. But this is my job. I would not expect any amateur to take that kind of risk; the cost-benefit analysis would not work out.
A decade of injury-free sharps training suggests that even without masks the risks aren’t that high, because they are so obvious. More obvious than the risks when driving. In fact, almost all the training injuries I’ve seen happened during freeplay with blunts. This is because of the human tendency to apply risk homeostasis: you are intuitively comfortable with a certain level of perceived risk, and will take more risks in what you think is a safer environment. See “Consuming Risk” for a discussion of this. Ironically, based on our injury record, I would say that training with sharps is safer than training with blunts!
I hope that this article demonstrates that training with sharps is a necessary and achievable aspect of learning the art of swordsmanship. Let me finish on this note though: if you feel totally competent and comfortable to train with sharp swords, that is a good indication that you are either a master swordsman way beyond my level, or you are dangerously deluded. Much of the value of the sharps comes from the clear and present danger they embody. Please make sure that you can see it and feel it, before you draw your sword from its scabbard.