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Destreza part 5 – Guards

November 29, 2013

This is the fifth part of a series of posts about La Verdadera Destreza, the Spanish rapier style, as I practice it. I’m going to stop linking to all the previous parts in each post because it’s getting cumbersome; go to the home page if you want to see them (and if you’re thinking about starting here, I strongly recommend that you do!)

Many of the period styles have many guards or “wards” that their practitioners adopt under various circumstances. Historically, Destreza had exactly one guard – the so-called “right-angle guard”: arm extended straight out from the shoulder, point on the opponent’s face, edge down:

Historical right-angle guard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my practice, there are two different guards that I use, and this post will address the advantages and disadvantages of each. The first guard that we teach to new students is the “hanging guard”:

destreza 6  destreza9

Note that this is not the same as, say, DiGrassi’s “hanging ward”, where the sword hand is actually held above the head.

The Destreza hanging guard is a primarily defensive stance; by adopting this position, the diestro has “gated” the attacker into two lines: above the blade, or below the blade. In either case, a very small movement of the diestro‘s body will close the line being attacked, making it very difficult to strike someone in this guard. For example, if the opponent attacks above the diestro‘s blade, a short lateral or transverse step to the left will close the line with opposition (moving the opponent’s sword), with no blade movement required. If the opponent attacks below the blade, a transverse step to the left with a body turn will close the line and also align the diestro‘s blade onto the diameter (ready for a counterattack).

The primary disadvantage of the hanging guard is that the point is not exactly in line. If done correctly, the point will be in a position such that it will strike the opponent in the right hip if he advances down the diameter, but a small deviation from a direct approach, or a light contact from the opponent’s blade, will cause this to miss. Also, holding the blade at an angle decreases the diestro‘s reach, potentially allowing the opponent to enter deeper into the circle before he encounters resistance.

Once the student is comfortable with the hanging guard and with basic evasions, he is introduced to our version of the right-angle guard:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This differs from the historical version in that the edge of the sword is out, rather than down. I don’t know when this change was made, but I can speak to the advantages and disadvantages of this position. The principal advantage is that it is a more relaxed and more structurally-sound position for the arm; this yields quicker, stronger movements. The principal disadvantages are that this costs you a small fraction of reach, and moves the body of the blade off the direct line between you and your opponent, making it slightly easier for him to pass the point of the blade.

The historical right-angle guard is comparable to the center-line guard in modern fencing. It shortens the distance to either the inside line or the outside line, at the expense of closing neither. The modern version of the right-angle guard closes the high-outside line, reducing the number of possible defenses among which the diestro must choose when an attack comes in.

The right-angle guard (either the historical or modern version) is more of a psychological stance than a physical one. The purpose of it is to hold the opponent at a greater distance and make him more hesitant to approach along the diameter. It is defensively weaker than the hanging guard, and offensively only slightly stronger (since snapping the blade into line from the hanging guard is a very quick action), but the effect on the opponent’s mind often makes it worthwhile.

The hanging guard “gates” the attacker into two lines, and thus greatly reduces the number of defensive options. The right-angle guard doesn’t do this – the attacker may attack on any line he chooses, though the position of the sword technically prevents an attack in the high-outside line (this doesn’t actually reduce the attacker’s options, since the guard provides minimal actual coverage).

Thus, when defending from the right-angle guard, the diestro must choose the line into which to place the attack. Usually the simplest solution is to drop the point into what amounts to the hanging guard, and react as you would if you had been using that guard in the first place. However, this leaves the question of whether to move so as to place the opponent’s blade above or below your own.

For a straight attack on the diameter, it is usually faster to place the attack into the low-outside line, meaning that a step to the left will close the line. Placing the attack into the low-inside line requires dropping your point almost straight down, and this runs the risk of miscalculating and pulling the attacker’s point into your body. That said, if the attack approaches from the left side (the defender’s inside line, assuming he’s right-handed), it may be more prudent to step to the right.

Regardless of the guard used, the fundamental principles of Destreza remain: when attacked, the diestro moves away from the line of the attack, closes that line to prevent the attack from following, and counterattacks into an open line. The question becomes only one of style – whether to prefer the psychological advantage of the right-angle guard over the mechanical advantage of the hanging guard.

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Destreza part 4 – Bladework

April 15, 2013
Practice rapier

Practice rapier, from Zen Warrior

 


   This is the fourth part of a series of posts about La Verdadera Destreza, the Spanish rapier style, as I practice it. See parts 12, and 3 for the story so far.

So far in the series, we’ve covered some basic principles and footwork. In this post, we’re going to talk about the “meat” of the style – the bladework. Destreza bladework is based on the same fundamentals as any rapier style: thrusts are preferable to cuts, the shortest distance is a straight line, and one should use the least movement necessary to accomplish a goal. However, the central philosophy of Destreza – stay safe until you can attack with certainty – dictates certain tactics that other arts do not use, or at least do not prioritize.

Lines of Attack

The target area is divided into four lines: high/low, and inside/outside. The point of division is at the hilt of the sword: “high” is above the sword, “low” is below it, “inside” is to the left for a right-handed swordsman, and “outside” is to the right similarly. If I, a right-handed swordsman, hold my sword out to my right side, there is no target available in my outside line – the outside line is “closed”. Conversely, the inside line is “open” – a straight attack in this line can hit me.

Defenses

We’re going to look at defenses first, because that’s how Destreza thinks. In general, any time a diestro is attacked, he would like to have two (or more) separate defenses, either of which would defeat the attack. This is part of Destreza’s one-step-ahead approach to combat. One of these defenses is normally to move off the line of the attack, as described in the footwork section of this series, and the other is a blade movement to prevent the attacking blade from making contact. There are two ways to do this: one can simply close the line of attack, or one can physically move the attacking blade away from the target area. The latter is known as “opposing” the blade; the technique is one with “opposition”.

We have previously looked at the example of taking a left transverse step off the line of the attack and turning the body so as to align the blade on the diameter. This is useful for an attack in the low line (below the blade), either inside or outside. Since in a “hanging guard” (hilt before the right shoulder, point before the left hip, blade angled outward towards the opponent) both low lines are outside the point of the blade, performing this technique will force the attack into the low-outside line and simultaneously close that line. Note that there is no opposition here – we are not applying any pressure to the attacking blade. Instead, we are removing ourselves from the line of the attack, and closing the line to prevent the attacking blade from following. This has the advantage that it provides the attacker with minimal tactile input, which will delay their response as long as possible. Here’s the final position:

destreza4

An alternate defense for the same attack would be to take a right transverse step, turning the body to align the blade onto the right-hand oblique line of the circle. This is a technique with opposition – we are dragging the attacking blade off the line that it was intended to follow, and forcing it into our new low-outside line, which we are simultaneously closing. This has the disadvantage of providing much more tactile input to the attacker (that is, he can feel his blade being moved), so he may respond more quickly. It also potentially drags the attacking point across our own body; if the attack is quick enough, we could conceivably be hit.

Note that in neither of these cases are we “parrying” as such. In fact, we haven’t done any actual bladework at all – our sword has remained in guard the entire time. Everything has been done through footwork alone. Once the defender’s body is off the line of the attack, parrying is frequently unnecessary, and often actually counterproductive – in order to parry an attack that is not actually aimed at the spot where I’m now standing, I have to take my blade farther away from the shortest line between me and my attacker. If I can accomplish my goal with footwork, I can use my blade movements for counterattacking.

The exception to this rule is when defending against cuts. Since cuts sweep through an arc, they are much more difficult to evade than are thrusts; you can’t simply move off the line of the attack. Therefore, cuts must be parried, but we do this with the smallest motion that will accomplish the goal, and without opening ourselves to further attacks any more than necessary. Parries in Destreza are generally performed by placing the point of the sword onto the center line (the line that joins me and my attacker), and the hilt of the sword at one of the four corners – in front of a shoulder or a hip. If the hilt is at shoulder level, the point is at hip level, and vice versa. This guarantees that the body is always covered, and the point is always in position to perform a direct thrust to the attacker’s center line. By extending the sword forward (as usual in Destreza, we perform parries with an extended arm), we force even head-height cuts to strike the parry at a point that is strong enough to stop them. Note that we don’t have to completely stop the cut – we just have to take enough of its power to prevent it from doing damage. Of course, a full-arm swing would crash through these parries, but unless I’m already seriously out of position (in which case I’m not going to manage a good parry anyway), if the attacker pulls his arm back to do that he’s not going to survive to finish the attack.

Attacks

Rapier fighters always prefer thrusts to cuts – they are faster, more direct (that is, they don’t open you up as much), and do more damage for less effort. Destreza is no exception to this, but we do use cuts more than most rapier styles because we often find ourselves at an angle such that it’s more convenient to cut than thrust. That said, cuts are usually not lethal enough to be a finishing move, so we’ll normally consider a cut as creating an opening for a followup thrust.

Since we normally fence with arms extended, thrusts are primarily done by body movement – either a simple rotation of the body, or a step towards the target. Body angle is critical – by maintaining approximately a 45 to 60-degree angle between the shoulders and the line of the diameter (with sword side forward), one can maximize one’s reach. If the opponent’s body is not similarly angled, it’s possible to outreach him by simply striking in a straight line without exposing oneself to a counterattack to the body.

Cuts are more interesting than thrusts. Rapiers do not cut well; the blade is too light to strike with power and too narrow to take a good edge (the bevel is too short, meaning that the angle of the edge is larger than it ought to be for optimal cutting). The idea is to swing the rapier through an angle and strike as close to the point as possible – since the pivot point is at the hand, closer to the point means that the blade will be moving more quickly and thus will deliver more power. These are impact cuts – some people (in particular, SCA fencers) tend to think of draw cuts, but those really don’t work with rapiers.

There are two types of cuts, which I refer to as full-circle cuts and snap cuts. Full-circle cuts (a bit of a misnomer, since they don’t necessarily cover a full circle) are the ones that people do naturally, and they’re the ones described in the historical literature. To execute a full-circle cut, the diestro spins the sword through an arc using his wrist, elbow, or occasionally shoulder as the pivot point. Full-circle cuts have tremendous power, and the larger the joint used, the greater the power. While no rapier cut will cut a neck, a full-circle cut from the shoulder could conceivably sever a wrist if it struck just right. Unfortunately, full-circle cuts are extremely slow, and leave the swordsman completely open during their execution. Generally, we use them only when we’re sure that the opponent can’t counterattack, such as during a Movement of Conclusion (to be discussed in a future post, but the point is that you’ve got control of the opponent’s sword while executing the cut). There is another problem, as well – if a full-circle cut misses or is deflected, it can overshoot the target, leaving the diestro open.

Both of these issues are addressed by snap cuts, at the expense of some of the power of the cut. To execute a snap cut, the diestro places his hilt on the line between himself and the target, and his point slightly (maybe 20-30 degrees) off that line. He then snaps the hip on his sword side (the right hip for a right-handed swordsman) forward, allowing the power generated to throw his hand forward. The momentum of the sword blade snaps it out straight, making contact with the target. Snap cuts have two great advantages over full-circle cuts: they don’t require that the sword be removed from a defensive position at any point, and they can’t accidentally swing beyond the target. Of course, they do lose a great deal of power, but with practice they can hit quite hard, and since the cut is used primarily to create an opening for a thrust, it’s not necessary that the cut do tremendous damage on its own. One can add power to a snap cut by retracting the arm from the elbow or the elbow and shoulder both prior to executing the cut; this gives more room for the cut to accelerate, and allows the swordsman to add the power of his arm muscles to the cut. Of course, doing this sacrifices some of the speed of the cut, and creates a (small) opening for the opponent to exploit while the sword is withdrawn.

Atajo

The term atajo is somewhat unique to Destreza, and coming up with a good translation into English is not easy. It means something like “control of the blade via engagement”; it is similar to the French pris a fer, but that phrase refers to a specific offensive technique, whereas atajo is more general. In the historical literature, it appears that atajo refers to a specific blade position: the diestro takes engagement from above his opponent’s blade, with his blade at an angle on the horizontal plane (that is, the diestro‘s blade points to the left or right of the opponent’s). The usage of this term that I was taught is more general, and I don’t know whether this is a consequence of having it interpreted by an English-speaker or whether the meaning has just mutated slightly over the past few centuries. As I was taught, any time you have engagement – contact with the opponent’s blade – you have atajo. You use your sensitivity (in Spanish, tacto) to determine the opponent’s intent, and then you use your knowledge of geometry and leverage to place your blade in a position so as to control the opponent’s blade.

That said, engagement from above is still the strongest position, so it’s the preferred position for atajo when you can get it. Any time you have moved off the diameter of the circle and the opponent’s blade has not yet followed you, you have an opportunity to cross their sword. From the hanging guard, given an attack in the low line, this is most easily accomplished by taking a lateral or transverse step to the right, dropping your hilt so that it is level with or below the attacker’s blade (below is preferable for defense, but that requires additional movement, so it depends on the precise situation) and allowing your blade to simply drop onto the attack.

From this position, you have a great deal of control over the attacker’s blade. You can, for example, attack with a straight thrust down the diameter, relying on your atajo to prevent the opponent from parrying towards you. Alternatively, you can take a left transverse step and attack with opposition, pressing the opponent’s blade to your inside line and attacking to his inside line.

Conclusion

Of course, the possible permutations of bladework are endless. The examples given in this post are very simple – most exchanges involve multiple compound blade movements on both offense and defense, but these are too complex to easily describe in a format such as this. Next time, we’ll look at the hanging guard and the right-angle guard and the implications of using one or the other.

 

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Destreza part 3 – Footwork

April 8, 2013

This is the thid part of a series of posts about La Verdadera Destreza, the Spanish rapier style, as I practice it. See parts 1 and 2 for some background.

As in any martial art, footwork is of critical importance in Destreza, and even more so since Destreza puts such a priority on positioning. Using the circle, we can precisely codify the various steps, and having done so, we can describe techniques in terms of those steps.

There are eight possible directions of movement: forward/back, left/right, and four diagonals. The left/right steps are called lateral, and the diagonal steps are called transverse (these are historical terms). In all simple (as opposed to passo, which we’ll get to in a moment) stepping, the feet do not cross – that is, the closest foot in the direction of movement moves first. When stepping forward, the front foot moves first; when stepping left, the left foot moves first, and so on.

All steps are done in balance and in control. Destreza has no ballistic movement – that is, there is never a moment when both feet are off the ground, nor when the body weight is projected beyond the base (that is, moving out of balance). Once the diestro begins moving, weight is always on one foot or the other – the only time he is double-weighted is during the transition between feet. For each step, he will dip the post leg (bend his knee) until the free foot can touch the ground (without shifting his weight at all), transfer his weight entirely to the new root, then bring up the trailing foot.

Normally, the trailing foot is not planted. It is left ‘light’, because we expect continuous movement, and the simplest and most natural way to move is to alternate feet (see the description of passo, below). Therefore, usually you’re going to want to immediately step again with the trailing foot.

The basic guard position, called afirmarse, looks like this (see part 2 of this series for an explanation of these diagrams):

Guard

The forward step takes the diestro to this position; the backward step returns him to his original place:

Forward Step

The left and right lateral steps are as follows. Note that they follow the circumference of the circle rather than moving directly to the side:

Lateral Steps

The left and right forward transverse steps are often used to leave the diameter while gaining distance for a counterattack. Note that they turn inwards to address the opponent, rather than maintaining the original orientation towards the top of the diagram:

Transverse Steps

The left and right backward transverse steps leave the circle (but, of course, the circle will follow the diestro - you can’t really leave your own circle, by definition). Note that they also turn inward, just like the forward transverse steps:

Back Transverse Steps

Rather than always moving the closest foot, I can move the opposite foot first, crossing my feet in order to step. This is called passo, and it is useful in particular for performing passo naturales – natural stepping, where one foot passes the other. If you take any of the above diagrams and simply reverse the numbers, you will get the passo version of the step. Some of these steps are awkward, such as a forward transverse right passo; that doesn’t mean they’re useless (in particular, one might take that step and then spin to the outside so as to “unwind” the feet), but it does mean that their use should be carefully limited to only specific situations.

So, what’s the point of all this diagramming? What the circle tells us is the area in which action can occur. If I’m at one end of the circle and you’re at the other, I know that I can hit you if I take a single step. I could take a forward step, but I probably don’t want to, because if I walk down the diameter I’m walking onto your sword. So, instead, I’m going to take a transverse step so as to hit you at an angle.

If you attack me, I may take a transverse step (as shown in the example in the previous post) and counterattack; if you attack deeply, say by doing an extended lunge, a transverse step may be too far forward, so I may take a lateral step instead. If you walk the circle, I will initially pace you, using passo naturales. At some point, I may decide to enter the circle in order to attack; again, I will most likely use a transverse step to do this, while you might use a lateral or backward transverse step to evade.

By having all of this drawn out on the ground, you can practice the steps individually until you develop muscle memory. This allows you to fix your range; by knowing that you can take the same transverse step each time, you can memorize precisely how far that step takes you. This, in turn, lets you fix the distance you can reach with an attack, the angle of that attack, the defensive angles you can achieve, etc.

By practicing our footwork until it becomes second nature, we can devote our available brainpower to higher-level concerns such as strategy. In the next part of this series, we will look at the fundamental concepts of bladework; once that’s done, we’ll have all the pieces we need to start assembling some compound motions and examining actual techniques.

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Destreza Part 2 – The Circle

April 3, 2013

This is the second part of a series of posts about La Verdadera Destreza, the Spanish rapier style, as I practice it. See part 1 in the series for some background.

One of the central, and most misunderstood, features of Destreza is the “Spanish circle”. It looks complicated and mysterious, and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries many people would have considered it magical. All of this contributed to Destreza’s reputation as being abstruse and academic, but in fact the circle is a very practical training tool. It is simply a diagram, drawn out on the ground, of various possible movements, attacks, and defenses that one might execute.

The first thing you must understand about the circle is that it exists in the mind of the fencer. One does not fight in the circle, that would be ridiculous. One trains in the circle, until the dimensions and angles of the circle are engraved indelibly in the mind and muscles of the fencer, and one no longer needs to think in order to step out at the right angle and strike at the proper distance.

Being a construct in the fencer’s mind, the circle can move whenever it is convenient for it to do so. In practice, it is usually convenient to think of the circle as remaining stationary during an exchange, and resetting whenever there is a pause in the action or the fencers return to guard. One therefore starts at one end of the circle, and (potentially) walks across the circle during the action, and returns to one’s starting point (by resetting the circle) whenever it is convenient to do so.

The second thing you must understand about the circle is that it is specific to a given fencer. In my school, the diameter of the circle is defined to be one step plus an extended arm. This means that it depends upon the fencer’s height and build, and also upon the length of their sword. A longer sword results in a larger circle, which requires longer steps; thus, it is important that the sword length be well-matched to the fencer’s height and style of movement.

There are many variations of the circle. Originally, the circle was simply that – a circle, illustrating the space between the two fencers where action might occur. Soon, the diameter line was added, showing the line of engagement between the fencers; this is a crucial concept in Destreza, where most techniques involve leaving this line. Later, further embellishments were added, showing other angles and distances. This reached its extreme with Thibault’s circle from Academie de l’Espée, which shows extraordinary complexity:

Thibault's circle from l'Acedemie de l'Espée

The circle used by my school is somewhat simpler:

My circle

The diestro stands at one of the cardinal points on the circle, by convention at the bottom when the circle is illustrated in this way. His opponent stands directly opposite on the circle, at the top, with the vertical diameter line joining them. This line, the line of engagement, is commonly referred to as “the diameter”, despite being one of eight diameter lines on the circle.

There are three sets of eight lines on the circle: the diameters, the obliques, and the chords:

Diameters

Diameters

Obliques

Obliques

Chords

Chords

We will refer to various points on the circle by letters, as illustrated below:
BigCircle with letters

With that established, let us look at a simple Spanish technique. We will illustrate the fencers’ positions using footprints and swords (since my art skills are down there with my Spanish) – green for the diestro, and red for his opponent. The numbers on the footprints indicate the order of the step – “1″ means the foot moves first, and “2″ moves second. Since Destreza was designed primarily to work against the Italian and French schools, most techniques begin with a counter against a straight attack down the diameter:

Drill 0 - step 1

Note that the diestro in this example is in a “hanging guard” – that is, he is standing with his point in front of his left hip and his hilt in front of his left shoulder, with the sword angled out towards the opponent. This is a compromise between the historical “right angle guard” (with the sword pointing straight out from the shoulder) and an angled guard such as the French or Italian guards. It provides a greater defense without losing too much of the reach advantage of the right angle guard.

In response to the straight attack, the diestro steps with his left foot to point B (this is known as a transverse left step). Due to the turn inwards, the sword ends up on the diameter with no (or minimal) change in arm position, closing the line:

Drill 0 - step 2

With a short step along the oblique to point F, the diestro then drives his sword in along the diameter. This is a very difficult attack to defend against, first because it starts so close, but also because even if it is successfully parried, it is very easy for the diestro to angle his sword out to the left and strike around the parry.

Drill 0 - step 3

There are a few things to note about this technique. First, at no time was the diestro in any danger of being struck. When the attack came in, he performed a double defense – leaving the line, and interposing his sword. Either of these would have sufficed to defend against the attack. If the attacker was able to counter the diestro‘s attack successfully, the diestro could always retreat back along the line of the oblique without ever being exposed to an attack.

Second, note the use of the circle to shape the technique. By training on the circle, the diestro has learned that by stepping to point B, he can remove himself from the line of the attack, close the line, and simultaneously set up a counterattack, all with a minimum of motion. The circle also tells him the range at which he can respond to the original attack, and the range of his counter.

Next time, we’ll codify the footwork, and look at range issues.

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La Verdadera Destreza

March 28, 2013
800px-Spanish_-_Cup-Hilt_Rapier_-_Walters_51504

Attribution: Wikimedia

This is a slightly different topic for me. I’ve mostly been posting about kenjutsu, the Japanese sword art, but in fact that’s only one of several arts that I practice. Another is the Spanish rapier style La Verdadera Destreza (lit. “true art and skill” – in fact, the image at the top of the blog is my wife and I practicing this style.) A note about my background here: I was taught Destreza by a man who learned it while serving in the Army and stationed in Panama. He was taught by a Spanish expatriate living in Panama, who was taught the art in Spain. Assuming that all of this is true, I learned this as a living art, and (other than the few others who were taught by my teacher and the folks I’ve taught myself) I don’t know of anyone else who can say that.

Many people (notably the amazing Puck and Mary Curtis, with their Destreza Translation and Research Project) are attempting to reconstruct the art from the period writings. I’ve read their work, and as much of the period writings as have been translated to English (my Spanish is, shall we say, weak…or, more accurately, completely nonexistent). The principles of what they do are very much the same as what I was taught, but many of the specific techniques are different, and there’s a body of technique around my art that isn’t documented in any of the writings.

So, I thought I’d write a series of articles about Destreza as it was taught to me, for the benefit of anyone else who might be trying to learn. This first article in the series will be about the basic philosophy of Destreza, and how it differs from other similar systems; subsequent articles will look more closely at specific techniques and principles.

The central tenet of Destreza is don’t get hit. That probably seems unsurprising, but it’s actually quite different from other contemporary styles, such as the far-more-common Italian and French styles. To illustrate this, picture a simple attack-defense sequence in each style. In the Italian style, a typical version would be: attacker steps straight in and attacks; defender parries (possibly attempting to hit in a single tempo). The thing to note here is that if the defender misses his parry, he’s hit. He has no backstop.

An equivalent Spanish exchange would be: attacker (who we’re assuming to be Italian, since that’s what Destreza was primarily designed to work against) steps straight in and attacks; defender steps off line and interposes his sword, keeping his point in line but not necessarily attempting to hit in a single tempo. The body movement is the critical thing: as long as the defender gets off the line of the attack, it mostly doesn’t matter how badly he screws up his defense, he isn’t going to get hit regardless. Conversely, if he succeeds in interposing his sword, he’s safe even if he didn’t successfully get off the line in time. Of course, he’s sacrificed some time by stepping – his riposte isn’t going to be as fast as it would be if he stood still – but he’s a great deal safer.

The theory here is to build an impenetrable defense, and wait for the enemy to make a mistake. Of course, we (the Spaniards) are going to do everything possible to encourage that mistake. In particular, by moving offline, we force the enemy to turn to address us, which Italian and French fencers aren’t necessarily used to doing; if there’s a fractional hesitation before they can reestablish the line, we have our opening.

Even once the opening is found, however, our attacks are carefully chosen to maintain the exit line. Given a choice, we won’t attack straight down the enemy’s sword, because if he counterattacked simultaneously we’d both get hit. Double kills are not an acceptable outcome. We’ll nearly always move away from the sword, and preferably cover the line as well to prevent it from following us. Alternatively, we can control the sword as we move in, so that we can attack without risk of being hit.

If, at any point, we feel like we’re not completely in control of the situation, we’ll abort the attack and regain our chosen distance. If an opportunity is risky, says the practitioner of Destreza (diestro), it’s not really an opportunity. We have a strong defense, time is on our side, we can wait for the next one.

This philosophy shapes everything in Destreza. Next time, we’ll look at a few specific techniques, and relate them back to the central tenets. Also, in order to describe the techniques properly we’ll have to introduce the famous Spanish fencing circle, so there will be pretty pictures (or, well, pictures, anyway) next time, I promise.

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A range of ranges

September 28, 2012
European medieval print showing disarming techniques

European disarming techniques

Recently, I’ve been working on grappling techniques with the sword. This might seem like an odd thing to do – after all, you’re holding a three-foot knife, why are you grabbing your opponent? There might be quite a few answers (you’d rather not kill them, for example), but the simplest is that they’re just too close to do anything else.

There are four basic ranges in kenjutsu: thrusting range, cutting range, striking range, and grappling range.

In the first, you’re too far away to hit with anything other than a step and a tsuki, or extended thrust with the sword. While it’s certainly possible to hit with this, it only works if your opponent is disabled or seriously distracted – crossing that much distance gives him a lot of time to parry or evade.

The second range is what most people normally think of as “swordfighting range”. This is surprisingly close with a katana – if I can cut you effectively, I can just about punch you as well. In a “typical swordfight”, if such a thing existed, the combatants are darting in and out of this range. They try to just “ride the edge” so as to be close enough to move in and cut if the opportunity presents itself, while not being close enough to be cut themselves.

The third range is striking range. This happens when both people step forward at once, or when the swords engage and someone moves in. One doesn’t normally punch and kick (at least, not the extended tae kwon do-style kicks that people think of martial artists as doing) with a sword, because it puts the striking limbs in too much danger. Instead, low kicks (like a soccer kick to the shin or ankle), elbows and knees, shoulder strikes, and strikes with the tsuba, tsuka, and ha. Note that striking with the ha is different from cutting – normally, you do it with your off hand on the spine of the blade, and it’s a sharp pushing motion rather than a slash.

In the closest range, there’s nothing you can do but grapple. If, for example, my sword ends up behind your back (while the rest of me is in front of you!), I really can’t cut you effectively, and my striking options are severely limited. This might happen because you moved inside my cut, but then failed to counter effectively, leaving us body-to-body. At this point, if I simply step away, I’m likely to get cut. I need to use my body structure, my root, and my weight to disrupt you, before you do the same to me.

Obviously, one needs to learn to fight in all the ranges in order to be an effective combatant. The critical thing, though, is being able to transition from one to the next without having to “throw a switch” and change tactics. Your parried tsuki can circle directly into a kiriage (rising cut) as you step in (or your target does); when that fails to penetrate his armor, it can reverse course and become a tsuba strike while you draw his intent down with a low kick. One step through and behind him with the inside leg turns into a reaping step, using your tsuka (with your off hand reinforcing it) for leverage on his neck. All of this can be done as a single continuous movement (Musashi’s “one cut“), starting from outside combat range and ending with your opponent on the ground, your foot on his chest, and your blade at his throat.

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Why to meditate

March 9, 2012
Statue of a meditating samurai

Statue at the Sengakuji Temple where the 47 Ronin are buried

Meditation brings to mind images of monks sitting on mountaintops, learning serenity and all that good stuff. Not very martial, right? So, why did many of the greatest samurai consider Zen, and specifically the practice of zazen, or Zen meditation, to be at the core of their martial training? The Zen monk Takuan Soho was an adviser to several of the greatest swordsmen of all time, including Miyomoto Musashi and Yagyu Munenori, despite having no sword training whatsoever (as far as we know, anyway). What did these men find to be of value in the practices of Zen, which are apparently so far removed from the practical day-to-day realities of life as a samurai?

It turns out that mental focus is one of the most difficult aspects of combat to master. I’ve written about intent, and the need to maintain your intent or risk losing the initiative to your opponent. The way you maintain your intent is by holding your mental focus, and not allowing yourself to be distracted – in Takuan’s terms, you don’t let your mind be “moved” by your opponent.

So, how do you learn to do that? Just like everything else, practice . Meditation is a form of practice for mental control, and like any practice, the exercise is designed specifically towards the goal you’re trying to reach. If you’re trying to learn how to jump high, you won’t get there by doing bicep curls, nor even by practicing a horse stance. If you’re trying to learn how to hold your mind immovable in the face of an opponent who’s doing his best to distract you, you practice that by holding your mind immovable in the face of more ordinary distractions first.

The style of meditation that I was taught, and that I explained in the previous post, is designed to teach you immovability. By holding your mind “still” and empty, you learn “where” thoughts come from, and how to control the deeper parts of your mind that tend to wander off on their own.

You might notice that the previous paragraph looks like gibberish. This is a hazard of talking about Zen, and about meditation in particular. There is a famous quote, which is sometimes translated as “The Way that can be spoken is not the true way.” The problem is that Zen is, by its nature, dealing with things outside the normal scope of language, which makes it very difficult to talk about coherently. All I can say is, practice, and you’ll understand.

The goal of the effort is the ability to hold your mind motionless in the face of distractions – to avoid “attachment”. When your opponent raises his sword, if your attention goes to the sword, your mind has become attached to it. In particular, if he then kicks you in the shin, you won’t see it coming, because your attention has raised with his sword. If there’s a cut on your arm and your attention is taken up with the pain and the blood flowing into your hand, you’re attached to that, and you won’t react as fast when something external happens – like another attack. If you initiate an attack and you’ve committed your mind to it, you’re attached to your own motion, and you won’t be able to flow with changing circumstances – like a parry.

By holding your mind immobile, you gain a “vantage point” from which you can observe the entire situation objectively. Your opponent raises his sword – OK, he’s raised his sword. Is there any implication to that? It changes his possible actions and reactions, but it doesn’t necessarily call for any immediate response on your part. When you start your own motion, you can be aware not only of what you’re doing, but what your opponent is doing in response, and at every moment you can choose the optimal action within the current situation.

This is what I’ve referred to as “effortless awareness”. Being aware of lots of things that are changing rapidly takes effort, because you’re moving your mind back and forth between them. It’s the difference between watching a crowd of people from the middle of the crowd, and watching from a balcony where you can see everything at once. The trick is to not let yourself leap off the balcony as soon as something unexpected happens, and that’s where the practice comes in.

As a “side benefit”, from the martial perspective, meditation has been shown experimentally to have significant benefits on mood, attention, and stress levels. I can say from personal experience that meditation definitely improves my mood, and the improvement lasts for several days even if I don’t continue meditating.

Bottom line, the mind requires training at least as much as the body. People focus on the external, visible aspects of the art, but in so doing they neglect the internal aspects. Ultimately, while physical skill and strength are important, the mind is what determines the outcome of an encounter.

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