Cut and Thrust: Armor and Calibration   20 comments

“That looks like a lot of fun, but I’m scared of getting hurt.”

I’d like to say that the above isn’t a direct quote, but it is. I give it without attribution because it is something I have heard over and over from, by my best recollection, over two dozen different people. These are only people within driving distance of me, and only people who know me well enough to be willing to share their concerns; I can only assume that the real number of people who are avoiding Cut and Thrust combat out of concern for their safety is far greater.

This is very unfortunate, because C&T is much, much more fun than regular heavy rapier and gives a reasonable increase to authenticity, even if we are still (necessarily!) saddled with All Wounds Are Equally Incapacitating. The addition of the cut immediately makes a lot of the sport mentality strategies obsolete. Someone who goes for toe shots, for example, will not do so more than once after realizing that their forearm is impossible to miss with a cut as a response. People who recklessly charge forward do so at the risk of a retreating cut disabling their leg and ending the fight. Tiny little ultra-light schlagers are much less useful for parries now, as mass matters when you must accomplish more than a mere deflection and redirection of a thrust.

In short, things start to look and feel much more like swordplay. We also have some significant diversity to the list of viable weapons once the cut is incorporated: the longsword, schiavona, katana, greatsword, sidesword, arming sword, and scimitar all become advantageous, to name a few. Several rapier styles that make more extensive use of cuts suddenly reveal their utility. C&T opens up a wide realm of possibility that can only enhance our game in the long run.

But, it’s not popular. It’s not popular because enough of its practitioners take it as an opportunity to play whack-a-mole with each other that observers walk away thinking that they’ll never bother with it. I can’t fault them for it; the only time in 14 years of SCA combat I have honestly felt a threat to my safety came during a C&T tournament at Pennsic when someone was swinging for the fences. I honestly had the thought that if he were to hit me I would probably have to end my vacation.

I’ve sparred with people who, nearly every time they landed a shot, it broke my skin and welted up. I’ve also been told that “if you wore more armor, [that kind of thing] wouldn’t happen.” No wonder the C&T program isn’t growing much, and that there are only a couple of tournaments a year for it, usually with only a handful of participants.

Reject this state of affairs. It can be done. My practice can have up to a full dozen people practicing C&T at any given moment, and while some of us do add extra armor to avoid stings, I have been using minimal armor since 2007 or so without anything more than an occasional sting once I decided to limit my opponents to people who recognize how rapier safety functions.

In rapier, which C&T falls under, the armor is largely not the primary means of protection. The mask is irrefutably important, as is the tip on the sword, but everything else is designed as protection against blade breaks, tip failures, and the possible crushing blow to a crushable bit. That said, the thing that keeps all of us safe is the care and consideration of our opponent.

Consider this hypothetical: a fencer goes to an event with the express intent of hitting someone so hard they require some kind of professional medical attention. Horrible to imagine, but how many events would it take for them to accomplish this goal? One? Two? I am fairly certain that I could send someone to the ER at every event I went to if I were so monstrously inclined.

The armor is not the only thing that keeps us safe, and the expectation is not that a person should wear more armor in heavy rapier; the expectation is that the required armor is adequate, and that it is the fault of the opponent or the situation if it is not. C&T does not get a pass merely because cuts are involved. Cuts should land with about as much force as do thrusts, and injurious cuts should be about as frequent as injurious thrusts. That is to say, they should be vanishingly rare and happen only under unusual circumstances… and if they happen more often than that, then there is a problem with the fighter delivering them. In fact, hard cuts should be less frequent and are almost exclusively the fault of the person throwing the cut.

Heavy, injurious hits are the result of the fighters’ bodies in motion, not the weapons themselves (any weapon we use *could* be controlled by someone physically able to control it; even a 6 pound two-handed sword *could* be controlled to hit gently by someone strong enough to do so, though such a person might be one in a million). With a thrust, the possibility of changes in distance is highly likely, as we can all attest, so sometimes both fencers move forward simultaneously and a genuine accidental collision takes place. With thrusts, sometimes everyone does everything right and the resulting hit is still brutal.

Cuts are different. With a cut, if the opponent moves forward, the resulting hit will be closer to the hilt and therefore weaker; in fact, this exact method is described in the cloak section of several Italian masters as a means to take the force away from a cut. Even if you were to do something foolish like intercept the point of percussion with your hand, the added force will still be substantially less than with a lunge because there is less mass behind the action. With cuts, the chief contributor to an excessive shot is the person throwing the cut doing so harder than they should.

You do not need more armor. They need to learn how to control a cut. The edge being a smaller surface area is a reason for extra caution in attacking, not a justification for failing to account for the difference. Done right, in accordance with the rules we agree to follow, C&T should be no more harmful than what we already enjoy dozens and dozens of days a year.

Cut and Thrust is tremendous fun. I love it, and I use minimum armor without fear of injury. I use weapons that protect my fingers, soft elbow pads, a good mask, and nothing more. I don’t get hurt because I don’t fight people who I don’t trust to face in minimums. If I feel like I need to armor up to fight you, then I’m not fighting you.

For some further reading on force and injuries:

Posted November 11, 2014 by Dante di Pietro in Musings

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