We Fought with Sharps (So You Don't Have To!)
“I want to try sparring with sharp swords.”
“Okay, let’s do it!”
It was that easy--with those words, Sean Franklin of Blood & Iron and myself (RJ McKeehan of South Coast Swords) set out to accomplish the task of sparring with real sharp swords safely. There was no machismo exhibited, no pride on the line. We simply wanted to experience the nuances of sharp-on-sharp contact. More importantly, we wanted to document the process and share it with the HEMA community at large.
A bit of background on us: Sean is one of the head instructors at Blood and Iron, and I am one of the head instructors at South Coast Swords. Sean trains heavily in the Meyer tradition, but has a wide range of skills in HEMA ranging from Thibault rapier to Ringen (grappling). I specialize in Liechtenauer longsword and Leckuchner messer, but also train in several other weapons.
What follows is an interview to show both of our perspectives of the experiment. While there is some overlap, I think we were both surprised by different aspects of the test.
What were your thoughts upon the start of the project?
RJ: “I was incredibly excited! For years I’d been considering a sharp fight, but I had been waiting due to various circumstances. Finally, the stars aligned. I had two sharp swords I was willing to damage, an extremely qualified partner to work with on the project, and the knowledge of German longsword techniques required to test a variety of techniques.”
Sean: “I was curious about how the bind would work at speed and with intensity. A lot of people come up with ideas while drilling with blunt swords that fall apart completely when they fight at full speed (or even more so in a tournament). The only knowledge we have about the interplay of sharp swords together comes from people using them with low gear, slowly and at low intensity. I was highly skeptical that this wasn't just creating the same artificialities we already see with blunt swords used in this way.”
What were you hoping to accomplish during the experiment?
RJ: “To righteously end Sean! Just kidding, of course. I think that everyone who considers sparring with sharps from an academic perspective simply wants to experience the interaction of the edges of the blades during various techniques. I wanted to have video evidence and my own tactile memory of the experience to share with anyone who wanted to listen. Lastly, and most importantly, I needed the information to keep my technique true to form in a “realistic” scenario. My students deserve the highest level of accuracy possible in their instruction.”
Sean: “Other sharp sparring videos I have seen are all done without gear. While this can help you understand the psychology of facing a sharp blade, the fights are all very hesitant as each participant is being extremely careful not to put their partner in any real danger. Which is exactly what that exercise calls for, but massively changes the dynamic of the fight. I wanted to emulate the feeling of the blades interacting more than the psychology of the fight.
“That and I wanted to have sparred with sharp swords at least once because it is cool.”
Everyone says that the “bind” is the critical missing piece in sparring. What were some of the other significant differences you experienced in comparison to “normal” sparring?
Sean” “More or less, it felt much the same. The big differences occurred when two swords were in contact and one of the swords was brought extremely offline, such as when rolling around for a cut to the other side. Normally, with a blunt sword, the sword that is kept online tends to slide towards the cross of the sword brought offline, but with the sharps in a correct bind, the sword moves offline with the other sword.
“This is important for two reasons. One is that it keeps contact with the weaker part of their sword instead of sliding up to the extreme strong. This means that you have a higher chance of winding the sword into a thrust as they try to cut around.
The second is that with your sword further away from the cross you have much more space to disengage the sword and drop it onto the hands/forearms and executed a hand pressing/slicing technique.”
RJ: “The sparring was closer to feder play than either of us expected, however we definitely noticed some differences. Because the swords had more binding sensation than normal, it was extremely easy to feel when your opponent was “soft” or “weak.” As a result the duplieren and mutieren were easier and more natural to accomplish. We also found that hand pressing was easier to target and had a certain “cooperative” effect to it.
“There was additionally a huge difference that we experienced during the setup for the experiment. The swords we used came with sharp tips from the factory. We found that if you threatened with the point, your opponent instantly feared your sword and stayed back. As soon as I ground the tips off and made them safe for thrusting, neither Sean nor myself had any sense of fear of the point. We attempted to imagine the fear while sparring, but still as soon as you remove the point, the psychological effect is lowered massively.”
While conducting the experiment, were there any unexpected results for either of you?
RJ: “The bind we were expecting was absolutely evident, however we experienced some very important subtleties that are generally not discussed when talking about the bind of “real” swords. It’s generally assumed that the bind occurs any time the edges are in contact with each other, however we found that this is not the case. For a good bind that really makes the swords “stick” (and actually affects their interaction), the edges need to be nearly perpendicular to each other, and there must be sufficient pressure. Any time both edges made contact an angle not perpendicular to each other, the bind was far weaker and had less effect on the interaction of the blades. As soon as you begin to release pressure in the bind, the opponent’s blade can move freely.
“As a result, you have far more control over how your sword and your opponent's sword move once they are in a true bind, and there is a much stronger sense of “fuhlen” than you experience with normal blunt swords. Sean’s actually able to explain it a little better than I am…”
Sean: “I've read many times about how the sharp edge restricts the sword's ability to slide, but after using sharps with higher intent I think this is an artificiality of using the sharps at slow speed. When both swords had their tips pointed forward I didn't feel the effects of the sharp edges in the least. Only when the swords were brought 90 degrees to each other did the sharp bind have a significant effect.
“I suspect this comes from two reasons. One is that the more orthogonal (square) the swords are the more the edges ‘lock’ into each other. The other is that with the swords at 90 degrees the bio-mechanics of our positions leads it to be much more difficult to exert force in the direction that would cause the swords to slide.
“Overall when playing a completely tip forward game I don't feel that sharps have that great of an effect, at least when both fighters have some earnest intent to their actions.”
But… sharp swords kill people! How did you feel about the safety of the test?
Sean: “RJ and I are both very experienced cutters, we know how much it takes to cut through clothing. At the level we were sparring at (hard, but controlling the power quite a bit on the strikes that landed) at no point did I feel I was in any danger. The swords were also only sharpened to 400 grit, and you would be extremely hard pressed to make a sword at that level cut through a sparring jacket.
“For the overall danger, I would say that sharp swords with tournament quality sparring gear is probably safer than doing work with blunt swords and no gear. The threshold you would have to hit someone in order to injure them is probably higher with the sharps and full gear. The only concern I would have is possibility of a slice getting in under the mask to the neck, or to the wrists if the gloves do not properly cover them. Also the legs are of concern, as they are not usually completely covered.”
RJ: “Sean and I both knew that this would be a dangerous experiment, no matter what precautions we took. That being said, we sharpened the swords only to the minimum required for a “good” bind (approx. 400 grit). This was sharp enough to cut paper well, but not the shaving-sharp level that I typically sharpen to. We tested the durability of the gloves and jackets, and ensured that no skin was showing. With all of our preparations in place, I felt safe while doing the test. It would have taken a truly wrathful strike from Sean to injure me, and we both pulled our cuts that landed to give even more safety.”
How would you suggest the average HEMA practitioner use this as a training tool?
Sean: “Honestly, amongst practitioners with a large level of experience and control I see this as a very valuable exercise. Provided proper protective equipment and sword preparation (TIPS CUT OFF!) it is a very enlightening experience. The main drawback is the cost of the blades. We chewed them up quite a bit, though RJ did later manage to recover most of the damage and hold a successful cutting class using one of them.
“Bottom line, if you are inexperienced in cutting and have any reservations at all, do not do this! I would recommend several years of training in sparring and cutting first. But it isn't as insane as it sounds.”
RJ: “First, and foremost--I would not suggest that the average HEMA practitioner spar with sharp swords. Even with all of the testing and safety we did beforehand, I have students that could have killed me in that experiment on accident. That being said, there is use for this test in multiple capacities. The first thing I would recommend is to watch our video and read this article- much of the information that you will gain is already here!
“When you’re ready to take it a step further, I would suggest approaching your HEMA school’s instructor, and inform them that you would like to feel a sharp on sharp bind. Once you find suitable swords (my business, South Coast Swords can get you some Cold Steel sharps at an excellent price for this exercise), then you can carefully complete some binds with a partner. I would suggest using full gear and swinging gently as to not cause too much damage. Vary your pressure and direction of movement once in the bind. Also, attempt multiple binds at various angles between the blades. Once you have a feeling for it, keep that in the back of your mind. Use it as an aid whenever training.
“I also offer an alternative in the form of the Blackfencer “Sharp Simulator” blades. These notched blades may look funny, but when comparing them back and forth with real sharps, they do approximate the bind fairly well! This may sound like a sales pitch, however this is honestly the best advice that I’ve got to offer.”
Won’t sparring with sharps destroy your swords? I always parry with my flatamastrong!
RJ: “No! But maybe! A well made sword should be able to withstand some punishment, including edge-on contact. This is what our swords looked like after sparring:
I then began reprofiling the face of the blade at a new angle while removing the notches.
Continued to grind at an even angle until I ended up with no more notches.
Finally, using the belt sander, I set a new final edge into the blade and polished it to a mirror finish.
Here is a comparison between the final edge and an edge I haven't worked on side by side. As you can see the sword can be ground down carefully and still be fully functional after massive edge damage.
We then went on to have a successful cutting class at my school using this sword with no problems.
I have no idea what kind of repairs would be done to a sword historically between fights, but the abuse that these swords withstood I would equate to over 30 fights’ worth of damage (assuming that a well placed hit to the head or body would end the fight). If I was able to repair a sword after thirty fights, I would be happy.”
Any final thoughts?
Sean: “On a further research topic I now think it is valuable to read the manuscripts which state 'when he binds on your blade' not as 'when the swords are pushing on each other' but as 'when the swords which are touching have bitten together and formed a bind', as the firm bind itself should not be taken for granted just because the blades are touching edge on edge. This may or may not prove to be relevant, but I don't know that it is an avenue which has been all that well explored.”
RJ: “Are we experts? No. Are there things we could have done better? Yes (and we will likely revisit the experiment again). With that in mind, we still went for it. The knowledge gained and information we’re able to provide to others outweighs any potential criticism we receive. Keep this in mind whenever you’re considering whipping up a video or article about something. It’s worth sharing your experiences and helping the HEMA community grow and learn. When you keep your knowledge ‘secret’, the art suffers.”
Sean: “I feel I more or less confirmed my suspicion that once you apply more force/speed to sharp on sharp contact it changes the dynamic as compared to drill-speed contact. Knowing the feeling is enough to help improve future interpretations. Just like drilling with sharps a few times can help you improve your interpretations to train with blunt swords, doing some sharp sparring/high intensity work will help you understand more when working more realistic interpretations at lower intensity.”
RJ: “I’m extremely happy with the experiment as a whole, and I’m glad we have footage and now written information to share with the community. I will be using the information gained in this for years to come in my classes and own personal training.”
To conclude the article I would like to list out the majority of techniques that we tested, and give our feedback (where applicable) on each technique.
Sprechfenster (standard neutral bind):
RJ: “This is where we were able to break down the angle needed for a ‘good’ bind. With the sword edges at an oblique angle to each other, the effect of the bind was minimal, and there wasn’t much different in this position.”
Sean: “It seems like for the swords to actually bind strongly you have to turn them edge into each other after contact as a deliberate motion to establish a bound position. Which could indicate sprechfenster is something that is arrived at by both parties attempting to bind, rather than the inevitable conclusion of two right oberhau.”
RJ: “I felt there was a huge difference here. Hitting with the edge really grabbed and displaced their blade nicely to align for the thrust.”
Sean: “I do my zornhau different from RJ and I felt almost no difference in the technique, which was the opposite of what I expected.”
RJ: “Not a considerable difference, but there was a little more friction that allowed things to work as intended.”
RJ: “Big difference here. The bind kept my hand generally safer, however in Sean’s zwerch there was some rubbing of the glove on the edge. Unsure if this was a danger or not.”
Sean: “Hand position is certainly more of a concern when performing zwerch/ochs winding actions. I had always assumed that the sharp swords binding at speed would reduce a lot of the sliding towards the hands actions, but that wasn’t the case. Keeping the actual grip in the right place so that a blade can not slide into the hand is very important, and having big bulky gloves goes and adds a whole nother fudge factor!”
RJ: “Less of a difference than we were expecting. There definitely is some bite, but the violence and ‘beat’ motion of the krump seem to minimize the effect the edges have on the technique.”
Sean: “There is a huge difference when moving slowly, but with speed and intensity it more or less disappeared.”
RJ: “No different.”
RJ: “Considerable difference. You could feel the strong/weak much much better with the sharps, and it felt natural to go into a duplieren and mutieren.”
RJ: As above, plus there was slightly more control of the opponent's blade when winding.
Sean: Ditto (you can tell RJ wrote his answers to this part first)
Hande Truken (sp):
RJ: We noticed that it was much easier to feel the direction and intention of your opponent, therefore targeting the hands was easier. There’s also some “cooperation” that comes with having a sharp blade biting into your wrists.
Sean: Also having the sharp edges means that the blade doesn’t always slide to the cross as the opponent's sword tip rotates, making much more space for the blade to move around the quillins and two the wrists.
RJ: Less difference than expected, but still noticeable. Just lended to a little more control of what your blade and your opponent does after the impact.
RJ: Minimal difference. There’s not much bind that occurs here, so there wasn’t much that could change.
RJ: I went into the fight wondering if blade grabs would feel safe and viable. I happened to run into an instance where I wanted to do a grab. I executed it without fear, and it worked well (only with thin leather inside my gloves).
Sean: I told him so.
RJ: All winding felt more controlled and easier to have a sense of fuhlen of the opponent’s intentions.