More Thoughts on HEMA Tournaments   27 comments

Swordfish 2015, the premier HEMA event in the world, happened on Halloween weekend. As always, the amount of actual HEMA that showed up was variable. Longsword was kinda beautiful. Rapier and dagger, on the other hand … well, you be the judge:

Let’s start with the acknowledgement that HEMA tournaments aren’t trying to be a simulation of a real fight (or even historical, for that matter, as page 3 attests). But I find fault with the idea of using these competitions as a training tool for HMA if 1) you use “HEMA” to describe what you’re doing, despite the fact that 2) fencers demonstrate very little HMA, and nonetheless 3) medals and other markers of legitimacy are awarded to high performers. From a simple sport-cultural perspective, tournaments and competitions are what we train for, not what we train with. Call it an exhibition, and I’d be happier.

Maybe it’s semantic. Regardless, if the best fencers at your HEMA event are fighting in a blatantly ahistorical fashion, I daresay you’ve done something wrong.

Which returns me to an earlier question: what set of rules might best promote some sort of periodesque combat? Wistric’s observations remain valid, but I thought I might make an attempt at crafting something myself.


From a historical perspective, these are my principal pet peeves with this year’s Swordfish (and a lot of tournament HEMA in general):

  • Defense is not prioritized by the fencers. Few exchanges are clean. This is (at least partly) a consequence of fully-weighted afterblows in a zero-sum environment. There’s little reason not to attack, even (or especially) when your opponent is attacking.
  • There is minimal gradation in scoring. A light thrust delivered at the edge of measure is weighted the same as a thrust that could actually hurt someone.
  • Related to the first point, action is halted after a hit. This means fencers don’t need to worry about their safety past the first or second decisive action.
  • The idea of a time limit is weird, since it encourages more aggressive fighting, but also puts a fencer who’s behind under pressure to attack, while the fencer who’s ahead can attempt to run out the clock rather than actually fight. Yes, this paradigm (fighting strategically based on scoreboard position) will always exist to some degree, but it could be softened significantly if the timed element was removed.
  • The blades provided may not be very good simulators of weapons used in a historical rapier/dagger duel.
  • Judging takes too long.

How to address these?

Removing time pressure seems like a good idea all around. That part is easy.

Dante favors the idea that double hits should award both fencers zero points (and possibly end the bout). When combined with a round-robin-style tournament, where points are counted rather than wins, this would be a very effective disincentive. But I’d like to do the same in a typical tournament setting. Dante’s ideas won’t work out so well here. History has shown that if doubling can prevent an opponent from scoring, fencers will double, a lot. Longpoint tried to discourage this by declaring that after three doubles, the bout would be ended, and the “winner” would start his next bout at a four-point disadvantage. It’s an idea.

I do think that a better solution here is to give more power to judges. HEMA has already accepted the necessity (and fallibility) of judges, so why not give them the tools and leeway to penalize double hits or other sloppy fencing?

Allow judges to award points based both on the severity of the blow delivered (the location, the type of strike, and how well the strike was performed) and the mastery a fencer demonstrates over his weapon and his opponent – avoiding double-strikes, etc. Since the latter consideration is a bit more subjective, perhaps weight it half as much.

Spitballing this: fencers earn up to 10 points per pass – up to seven based on how much damage they would have caused with their strike, had it been with a sharp weapon, and another plus or minus three for demonstrating mastery.

Let’s see how all this might work out.

20-Point Format

The goal is to get to 20 points before the other guy. (Or higher, if you want. The exact number is kinda irrelevant. Throw in a win-by-5 “satisfaction” rule, maybe add “sudden death after five minutes” to address time concerns. Whatever.) Each fencer is awarded points after each phrase.

Fencers fight from “Lay-on” to “Halt”, called by a referee. “Halt” is NOT called immediately after an apparent strike; rather, “Halt” is called when:

  • After an apparent strike, fencers break measure.
  • Fencers come to corps-a-corps and are no longer fencing (stabbing wildly or grappling).
  • A fencer steps out of bounds.
  • A safety issue or rules infraction occurs.

After “Halt” is called, each judge gives each fencer a score for the phrase. (Abstentions are allowed.) The referee should attempt to restart the match within just a few seconds, so judges should be fluent enough to make their assessments quickly.

Judges award between 0 and 10 points per phrase. Some relevant considerations and benchmarks:


  • Blade Contact: 1 point. An action producing superficial wounds, if any.
    Ex: a slap with the flat; a draw to the torso (assumed to be covered by clothing)
  • Minor: 3 points. An action resulting in a slight wound, unlikely to impair the fencer much.
    Ex: a thrust to the arm; a cut to the ribs; a shallow thrust to the flank
  • Telling: 5 points. An action producing a wound unlikely to be immediately fatal, but likely to impair or be fight-ending; a wound from which one could claim satisfaction in a period duel.
    Ex: a cut to the arm or thigh; a cut to the head; a deep thrust to the abdomen
  • Devastating: 7 points. An action with potentially fatal results.
    Ex: a thrust to the face; a thrust through the ribs; a draw to the neck
  • Ring Out: A fencer is awarded 5 points if his opponent steps out of bounds.


  • Plus or minus 1 point (maybe 2 in extreme circumstances) for particularly good or bad structure.
    Ex: a fencer lands a thrust to his (immobile) opponent’s shoulder with a particularly large yielding action. His sword cannot penetrate far given the extreme angle. He is awarded 2 points (3 for significance, -1 for quality).
    Ex: in response to a bind, a fencer turns a roverscio to his opponent’s face, aided by a strong, well-balanced oblique step. The blow lands right at the blade’s center of percussion. The fencer is awarded 6 points (5 for significance, +1 for quality).
    Ex: after an inconclusive flurry, a fencer delivers a wild, flailing thrust to his opponent’s face. He is awarded 5 points (7 for significance, -2 for quality).

Multiple Strikes

  • If a fencer scores multiple hits in a phrase, score the highest, then add 1-2 points for additional blows of significance.


  • Double Hits/Afterblows: A penalty is assessed against fencers who fail to close the line when striking or recovering. Double-hits penalize both fencers. The penalty may be mild (-1 point) for “responsible” fencers who make an effort to defend themselves, moderate (-2 points) for fencers who abandon the line, relying on tempo or measure for safety instead, or harsh (-3 points) for fencers who outright ignore control of the line in order to strike.
    Ex: in response to a feint, a fencer turns his hand into a stop-thrust in prima at eye level. His opponent comes forward anyway, and runs onto the sword as he thrusts to our fencer’s chest. A judge awards our fencer 5 points (7 for significance, -2 for the double hit), while the opponent earns 4 (7 for significance, -3 for the double hit).
    Ex: our fencer performs Fabris’ plate 32, yielding to the outside in quarta while performing a girata to get past the opponent’s point. Before our fencer can recover, the opponent throws a short, weak cut to his mask. Our fencer earns 6 points (7 for significance, -1 for the double) while the opponent earns 2 (5 for significance, -2 for quality, and only -1 for the double since he attempted to defend himself in the previous tempo).
    Ex: our fencer feints high, drawing a parry. He then drops his tip, striking his opponent in the foot. As he attempts to recover, his opponent turns a cut onto our fencer’s arm. Our fencer earns 1 point (3 for significance, -2 for the double), and the opponent earns 4 points (5 for significance, -1 for the double).
  • Brawling: A small penalty may be assessed for “brawling” – disordered combat at corps-a-corps, use of grapples or holds, and other techniques which do not rely on the blade interactions, judgement of timing and distance, and other skills that comprise fencing.
    Ex: a fencer grabs his opponent’s guard before cutting him across the head. He scores 4 points (5 for significance, -1 for brawling).
    Ex: a fencer body-checks his opponent out of bounds. He scores 3 points (5 for significance, -2 for brawling).
    Ex: after an inconclusive flurry, both fencers close to dagger range and begin stabbing each other repeatedly. Each is awarded 2 points (5 for significance, +2 for multiple hits, -3 for “suicidal” doubles, -2 for brawling).

Unsporting Conduct

  • A fencer judged to be exploiting the rules (purposefully closing to corps-a-corps to end the phrase, or “running away” to run out the clock) or fencing in an ungentlemanly manner may be warned, then penalized by the judges or referee according to the severity of the infraction.

These are benchmarks; the idea of such a granular system is that judges have the wherewithal to quantify ad-hoc sentiments. “That thrust was to the chest, but the angle wasn’t good; I’ll give it a 3.” Or “that cut looked like it landed on the head, but maybe it was the clavicle – hard to tell from where I’m standing. I’ll split the difference and give it 4.” Since scores are averaged across judges, minor differences of opinion shouldn’t matter too much.

Scores over 7 should be uncommon, demonstrating above-and-beyond domination of the opponent and high marks in all the above categories (minimally, high significance, good structure, and no double-hits). A beautiful “through the left eye” counterattack deserves an 8; if followed with an immediate cut to the head, it might score a 9. Earning 10 points would require something like a picture-perfect plate 178, or several unanswered thrusts to the chest – something inspiring the “flawless victory” sense in all spectators.


This is, admittedly, not the most parsimonious system. It will require confident and experienced judges. But I like how the game theory stacks up.

As far as encouraging historical technique, I think it’s important to make e.g. toe shots allowed but suboptimal (particularly if fencers are forced to use simulators with more period characteristics). If you’re great at sniping toes and your opponent can’t handle it, go ahead and ride those 2- and 3-point shots to victory. But you should soon face an opponent who can, at which point I imagine you’ll be swiftly defeated. A solid strike, as we might see in the manuals, is worth twice or three times as much as an insignificant sword-tag wound.

The defensive mindset is, hopefully, encouraged. An excellent fencer can win with three to four solid hits, particularly if they’re clean, so it’s difficult to get a comfortable lead. Double-hits are penalized, but fencers cannot “take one to give one” effectively, or completely invalidate a good hit with a meaningless afterblow. Certainly, a fencer who’s ahead can try to play the double-hit game, but it could go very poorly for him if his opponent can void the shot, or at least make it strike a less valuable target.

Hand parries will give your opponent a point for making contact, so in order to be worth it, they must prevent or set up a more valuable strike. This seems well in line with how they are used historically. The over-active offhand (often present in the SCA) is not a strategy the masters advocate.

At any rate, it seems like the score awarded to a single phrase is a reasonably good metric for “how well did I do?” Having that feedback as a training tool is important.


Posted November 1, 2015 by Ruairc in Uncategorized

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