On the Subject of Disarms - Part One (video)

Mr Voelker and I were discussing aspects of our dueling practice in light of recent re-reading of Maestro Lurz's article which we recently serialized here at TDS.  Often our conversations turn to how we define success in fencing and this is precisely where we found ourselves at the conclusion to another regular Saturday training session.  Maybe this topic is of little interest to you, or perhaps it seems unnecessary.  After all, is there not a consensus for what constitutes success in fencing?

No, there isn't.

Most fencers never think about it, but rather unquestioningly adopt what everyone else appears to be doing.  Touches for or against; fight to a specific number of touches or unlimited touches over time; allow some target and disallow the others.  All of these variations have one thing in common - that the touches define the success.

If you read M Lurz's thesis over the preceding weeks you will have learned what the physical reality of swords are, viz. deadly over time.  This fact emphasizes the prime directive in swordplay, DO NOT ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE HIT.  As M Lurz wrote specifically,

clearly for the duelist hitting before being hit is not at all the same thing as hitting without being hit.

I brought attention to this quote in the last article for a purpose.  Some fencers still not only fail to apprehend the importance of this fact, but some openly refuse to accept it when they fight.  How can this be?  I suspect that when fencers are free to define the nature of combat themselves rationalizations creep into what otherwise would be sound, technical swordplay.  But this topic will be revisited another time.

As we talked something occurred to me about scoring - which let me tell you we labor over and never take lightly.  Usually, in Classical Fencing (what we consider to be the modern weapons of foil, epee, and sabre), corps a corps is proscribed in combat.  This convention exists principally for two reason.

  1. to decrease potential danger to the fencers (in terms of physical damage)
  2. to emphasize technique of the blade (as an ideal) over all other possible actions

Therefore, all of the auxiliary sword technique such as off-hand parries, locks and grapples are typically barred.  For this reason many fencers are surprised to learn that these techniques even exist, let alone represent sound tactical choices for their combat.  Along this line of thought then necessitates a consequence for both the corps a corps and any resulting dis-arm. The former is a simple matter often resulting in nothing more serious than a halt in action and a potential warning.  The latter is more interesting.

Typically when fencers lose their weapon it is due to the mechanical leverage applied by their adversary which changes their grip.  Sometimes the leverage is accidental - a strong line well established can unintentionally disarm a fencer.  Sometimes the leverage is purposeful - as the deliberate disarming techniques accomplish.  In both situations (provided that the conventions for the fight allow) it is normative to halt the fight and re-arm the fencer.  But what does this say about our swordplay and further, what it means to be an effective fencer?

It makes an excuse for losing your grip - and that is not good fencing (technically nor tactically).

Sometimes, within groups that recognize this problem, the disarm is equated with a touch in terms of the consequence for the fencer.  You disarm me and I suffer the implication of having lost my grip/sword by accepting a touch against me.  This certainly provides a real incentive in scrutinized fights (tournament play) to prevent the disarm from happening.  But is a disarm the same thing as a successful stab?  When we consider the medical facts about what we are likely to experience when stabbed or cut can we accept a disarm as equal in consequence?

No, we cannot. So what can we do instead?  We can use a real consequence for the disarm - you lose the fight.

Seem a little extreme? Let me give you my reasons and maybe we can have an extended conversation about it.  A fencer is a fencer is a swordsmen precisely because he wields a sword.  No sword, no fencer.  Maybe you exercise another form of WMA, but without a sword you cannot study its science.  Learning how to apply the sword in context includes the necessary ability to hold it correctly and to create real geometry in preparation for combat.  This includes learning proper grip, hand positions and lines.  Without these fundamentals accurate swordplay will escape you.  During this practice you may lose your grip - either due to your incorrect action or perhaps fatigue.  Your instructor and/or seniors will point this out and assist you in fixing the problem

Next you might learn the various actions which potentially disarm your adversary - expulsions, sforza, beats, etc. that exist within the context of blade technique rather than off-hand actions.  These off-hand actions might also find their way into your training.  But be mindful, for if your training does not include possible counters to these action you will be unable to forge a meaningful contrary action and keep your grip.  If I introduce an action like a disarm in a lesson I am careful to also include at least one counter to it.  It is important that new fencers leave training understanding that actions have contraries and not to put too much stock in something that appears unbeatable.

Therefore, actions like disarms, can be countered.  It is part of our practice.  How then do we make sense out of the circumstances around a fencer losing his weapon in combat?  First we must acknowledge that he should have had a contrary action to mitigate the effects of the disarming action.  We have to operate upon this fact because to do otherwise would open a Pandora's Box of ridiculous cataloging of techniques each fencer may or may not know simply to engage in combat.  Second, if the contrary was not applied or failed we must determine whether the fencer is capable of continuing the fight.  And here is where we may part ways.  It is our way of thinking that two disarming scenarios exist, to wit

  1. superior leverage is encountered and you are disarmed - typically results in weapon falling to the ground
  2. specific disarming technique is deployed by your adversary who end up in possession of your weapon

In the former case it is reasonable to allow the disarmed fencer to make an attempt to re-arm themselves and re-enter the fight.  In the latter, the fight is over.  Having lost your weapon you have no reasonable chance to continue your fight.  Swordplay is complete.  Mr Voelker decided that this form of disarm was a more difficult sword skill to demonstrate in combat. We concluded this conversation with a final exchange in which the definition of success was a disarm - which would finish the fight.  The insight of M Lurz's thesis provided us intelligent context for this - successful thrusts could still be made, they would just not define how the fight would conclude.

Unbeknownst to us, Mr Capstick was capturing this final exchange and we present the video record here.  Mr Voelker in white jacket and D Achilleus in grey.  Swords are Italian spada d' marra (made by D Graves) and the entire body is target.