More Thoughts on HEMA Tournaments

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.


27 comments to More Thoughts on HEMA Tournaments

  • Dante di Pietro

    Could be good! This is hugely dependent on judges having a serious, serious clue, though, and would probably need 5 of them to err on the side of caution. Throw out the high and low score.

  • Dante di Pietro

    I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m pretty sure that granting points for contact will be a bigger problem than solution.

    I am also pretty sure that the judges will have to be *intensely* observant. I mean, can you spot the difference between an invitation and a weakness? I can’t, if it’s a good invitation! And what’s the difference between an artful void and ignoring an open line?

    Part of what would make me leery, as a competitor or a judge, is that this system has a lot of dependence on adhering to specific plates. It actually optimizes an inauthentic fight that has many constraints, much like a video game with a finite lists of acceptable actions. A person might end up *not* taking an easy, open strike in favor of trying to score more highly, which is the exact complaint you raised about the point system I proposed the other day.

    Heck, I could even countergame this by working to make my opponent look artless. Some boxers have specialized in winning rounds by making their opponents look bad. Benson Henderson in MMA, for one, took time to fix his hair while standing and fighting off an RNC.

    • Ruairc

      The logic behind granting points for contact was “you let your opponent’s sword touch you. Bad fencer!” In practice this has been a little sloppy. On the other hand, HEMA tournaments have, in the past, evinced a trend of granting points for insubstantial contact. Perhaps judges see contact, can’t tell if it’s slop, and don’t want to rob the fencer. Maybe this would be a thing to remove.

      My thinking on “artful void” vs “ignoring an open line” is 1) if you don’t get hit, there’s no double and it’s irrelevant, and 2) if you DO get hit, judges should ask “was any effort made to avoid being hit?” If the effort is, for lack of a better word, sword-based (parry, closing the line, even voiding behind the sword), that’s in the -1 category. If there’s an attempt at avoidance through footwork or bodywork, but the sword’s uninvolved, that’s -2. If there’s little or no attempt to actually deal with the opponent’s sword, that’s -3 (or worse, if you like).

      I’m not sure what would prevent someone from taking an easy, open target with minimal risk. Why not grab some free points, even if they are few?

      “Artlessness” is intended to apply to actions that are clearly non-fencing (grappling, etc) or blatantly awful fencing by anyone’s judgement (repeated shivs at corps-a-corps). I can’t actually think of much that would fall into the latter category, and kind of included it as a “you’ll know it when you see it, because you’ll facepalm”. Something like “you threw a cut out of tempo” is wayyyyy too subtle and arbitrary to qualify. We’re not using the masters’ judgement here.

      Training judges would be a significant obstacle to this format, but sport-fencing directors have been making decisions based on similarly subtle observations for over a century.

      While there are judges, there will always be an element of “what actually happened doesn’t matter as much as convincing the judges it happened”. There are ways to mitigate this. Allowing fencers to challenge decisions or volunteer additional information seems to have worked decently in recent HEMA competitions, even if it does kill the pacing.

      But I had a thought that this system might work very well in an informal context, where the fencers themselves are the judges, because many things are only clear to the person in-mask.

      • Dante di Pietro

        Every low point strike has a contratempo risk, and hitting your hand is a lot less useful if I’m not actually dealing damage. That changes things up, IMO.

        One thing to consider: a void done exclusively with tempo and position is arguably more artful in its attempt than one done with the sword as well (several CF and F plates are this way), so that would be a tough call.

        All told, I would fight in this format and enjoy it. I would not feel that it was especially taxing in terms of risk for errors, but that’s a tradeoff, not a flaw.

        • Ruairc

          There will always be unavoidable “tough calls” on things like the artfulness of a void. My hope is that every such call would differ across judges by no more than a point or three, and that between the averaging and several passes, this would have minimal impact.

          Nearly every judged sport does the same, and it only seems to be a problem when the competitors are very closely matched and the judges are few.

  • David Twynham

    A couple of thoughts

    rewarding artfulness:
    One of the things that I always come up against is whether the end goal of our training should be artfulness or effectiveness? As a fencer, I want both of these things (specifically, I want for form and style to be a means by which improve my effectiveness as a fencer). As a competitor, I want an objective scoring standard that can be applied consistently. Some tournaments try to encourage this by using style points (one made the points completely secret), some with variable scoring systems. My problem with these is that they are inherently subjective and almost impossible to get multiple judges to interpret things the same way. With style points, it’s easy to use them to favor a particular group or fencer. And with variable systems, it is super easy to get screwed by a couple of bad calls.

    punishing bad defense:
    One option is to use the rules of priority from modern fencing. With some minor adjustments that could work pretty well for rapier.

    • Dante di Pietro

      I like to think that everyone optimizes for the ruleset they find themselves in (or the more successful people, anyway), so that what is artful and what is effective are ultimately one and the same, after adjusting for physical/mental attributes.

      So I think it’s a false dichotomy, but a pervasive one. I am of the opinion that a fencer who can’t handle a bestial fencer has deficits in their own art, no matter how much like a plate they might look. In fact, I’m sure you know many people who are very clean, artful fencers who also can’t win very often because they don’t have the effectiveness part down. I prefer to train for effectiveness by WAY of art, as you suggest, and it works pretty well. 🙂

      • David Twynham

        I’m pretty much in agreement here, but It I think you can make a clear case for an aesthetic in fencing that exists apart/in addition to effectiveness. Often, what is considered to be artful is determined by the majority of instructors who are passing down a tradition to their students, then, you get somebody like Johan Harmenberg coming in and using a variety of unorthodox, yet effective techniques that looked terrible to everybody else, but ended up being highly effective. Even Nadi talks about some of his departures from the way that his predecessors fenced, though it doesn’t seem to be quite as extreme. In some cases, changes like that are an effect of optimizing/exploiting rules (like a marching attack in foil), but in others I think there’s simply a number of different ways to be an effective fencer.

        As a historical fencer, I’m interested in being effective in a fairly specific way – that is, by training techniques and tactics from a specific tradition. One of the interesting things in the SCA though is that we’ve seen plenty of successful fencers who have taken a different path to be effective. What I like about our rules is that they are do not try to dictate the method that you use to win, only that you are effective. Anybody can work hard and win using whatever technique the want. The advantages of working from a historical system I think, mostly have to do having an already established blueprint to work from that requires less reinvention of the wheel as well as an established pedagogy that can make it more efficient to train the next generation of fencers. (In addition to the sheer geekery of historical research and learning for its own sake)

        • Dante di Pietro

          Well said. The best HEMA marketing tool I ever had at my disposal was their effectiveness, even against people who have optimized for sport. HEMA are an effective way to be effective. 🙂

    • Ruairc

      I’m not interested so much in rewarding artfulness as discouraging behaviors or actions that clearly do not fall under the umbrella of “fencing”, by any definition. There should be little or nothing subjective about “artlessness” penalties. If you use your sword, it’s fine. If you perform an armbar on your opponent, you’re going to be penalized, no matter how beautiful or effective it might be. If the match devolves into a knife fight, well, I feel pretty safe saying that’s not fencing either.

      (Incidentally, a small amount of bona fide historical material out of Fabris and Giganti could be called “not fencing”. That’s fine with me.)

      Someone who fences poorly should be punished by his opponent, not the rules. Someone who succeeds under these rules (which attempt to create an environment conducive to historic swordplay), despite using an ahistoric style, is beyond criticism.

      In short, we can’t judge style, but we can judge what is and is not “fencing”. Perhaps “artfulness” was poor word choice. I have attempted to amend this section above.

      I’d be interested in seeing a good priority system for HEMA.

      • Dante di Pietro

        Closing safely to use a dagger involves control of tempo, measure, and line, along with the footwork necessary to achieve strong positioning. To do so without being struck is exactly defending oneself with weapons.

        It sounds to me more and more like you’re working toward a stylized form of rapier fencing that is not especially martially authentic. That’s not a criticism, but an observation.

        What would an ideal bout under your system look like? You can omit most adjectives and adverbs, I think.

        • Ruairc

          Given that these judges are making subjective assessments all-around, if someone closes artfully with a dagger, he ought to avoid penalties. The point is not “dagger fighting is bad”; the point is “bad fighting is bad”. The usual results of dagger fighting merely provide an example that many SCAdians will find readily familiar.

          My aim was to fashion a system granular enough to allow for assessment of a fencer’s mastery (under considerations that would have been relevant in a duel with sharps) as well as his effectiveness (the damage he’d cause). The penalties for “bad fighting” are necessary to discourage it, since the bluntness of our simulators does not, and neither does game theory in a tournament context.

          The ideal is that, with historical considerations at the fore, more historical fighting would result. In sum: more caution, priority placed on avoiding being hit, and a small number of significant, clean strikes bringing elimination.

          • Dante di Pietro

            I think at some level of granularity that you may as well just have a descriptive rubric that gives a point value’s characteristics, and then just allow the judges to arbitrarily assign points based on how closely whatever happened matches a description. “5 star fencing” looks like this, “4 star” like this, and so on.

            I do not see a way around “bad fighting that wins still wins” in any format that isn’t essentially rewarding posefighting over performance.

          • Ruairc

            I’d kinda hope that judges would know what five-star fencing looks like (even if it doesn’t match their stylistic preferences), and that this system merely gives them the power to quantify it better than the “three points for a deep target, one point for a shallow target” norm. (Indeed, I’d hope that experienced HEMA fencers could look at an exchange and rate it on a 0-10 scale, without any rubric whatsoever, and come to similar conclusions about the fencers’ prowess.)

            Bad fighting that wins consistently isn’t bad fighting, in context. We can only provide rules to encourage the kind of fighting we want to see, and discourage the kind of fighting we don’t want to see (just as MMA disallows eye gouging and similar). I’d hope to stop short of posefighting; if we have to go that far, it means that either the masters’ styles were not martially sound, that we’re all absolutely terrible at trying to recreate them, or that the gulf between a true HEMA context and a sport context simply cannot be bridged.

          • David Twynham

            You were at the coaching/judging workshop in Atlanta a few weeks ago – what did you think of most of the judging that you saw there?

          • Ruairc

            The task there was simpler – just “judge hits” rather than “judge hits and mastery”. I missed part of it, but from what I saw, people did well. Perhaps there was a higher-than-average caliber of fighter in attendance. Better fencers tend to travel more.

          • David Twynham

            We must not have been watching the same matches. Most of the judging I saw was terrible. It’s a more difficult skill than it looks and being able to reliably call a hit (and knowing when to abstain) as well as describing a sequence just occurred takes a lot of experience and practice

          • Ruairc

            I stepped out during the last part, which was also the most challenging for judges.

            Much as I prefer the SCA’s approach, it looks like judges aren’t going away any time soon. Their skill will remain an issue for competitive HEMA.

  • David Twynham

    I think part of the problem with this is that you will have a hard time achieving consensus on what is and is not fencing. You’ve even noted that some of the material from historical texts wouldn’t count as fencing, and if we can’t agree with them, then we’ll have a hard time agreeing with each other.

    I think the standard for significance is also tough to judge consistently. I think it makes plenty of sense to weight different targets differently, but anything beyond that is highly subjective, and even historically fencers did not always react predictably to wounds ( In practice, I think this would be really difficult to judge well.

    For artfulness, you’re trying to do a couple of things. You’re trying to determine who is “more at fault” in a double hit. You’re trying to penalize someone for not recovering safely and being hit on their recovery, and you’re trying to discourage grappling and corps a corps.

    For the first, here’s how the rules of priority in modern conventional weapons work whenever there is a double hit (note, the way these are interpreted in modern fencing has changed a lot over the years):

    * If, during a compound attack, the defender finds the attackers blade, and the immediate riposte lands at the same time as the attacker’s hit, the attacker is at fault (the attacker should have realized they were parried and done something else)
    * If the attacks attempts an attack on the opponent’s blade, fails to make contact and continues the attack, ignoring the counterattack, the attacker is at fault (this is an attack in prep. Say, I attempt to beat or find your weapon and I miss, I probably shouldn’t continue)
    * If a defender attempts to parry a feint, misses and riposte anyway, then the defender is at fault (don’t riposte if you didn’t parry successfully)
    * If the opponent counterattacks without closing the line and causes a double, then they are at fault (counterattacks are great, but if you don’t neutralize the attack, you screwed up)
    * If the attacks are launched simultaneously and both land, neither fencer is at fault and no score is awarded

    For the second, we’re really talking about an afterblow, which I tend to think of a distinct from a double because it is launched in the tempo after the first hit landed rather than in the same tempo. Modern fencing tends to ignore this sort of thing because there’s no way to no what an opponent would or would not have been able to do after receiving a hit. One way to handle it might be to subtract a point from the attackers score if there was an afterblow (assuming there is weighted scoring). My current problem with something like this in HEMA is that we currently have very judges who are able to correctly distinguish between a double and an afterblow, and most afterblows end up being called as doubles.

    For the third, I’d argue that those are simply techniques that are part of the art. Personally, I feel that parrying, grabbing my opponent’s weapon and disarming them while I hit them takes a lot of careful judgement of timing and distance. On the other hand, even historically it wasn’t that uncommon for certain techniques or targets to be banned in specific cases, especially when you want to bring out a specific kind of fencing. So, I don’t have a problem if they aren’t allowed, but allowing them while kinda looking down on them a the same time seems a little awkward.

    On the other hand, my opinions here are probably kind of biased towards the ruleset that I’ve been working with for SERFO which are some of my attempts to answer these questions. We don’t really use priority (we did use it for saber last year though), but I’ve founded that limitations in the conventional ruleset and weighted scoring have tended to slightly favor more technical fencers, while skilled fighters who have less rapier experience tend to do better in the first blood rules. (

    • Ruairc

      Priority looks pretty good in theory. I know it leads to some artificialities in modern sport fencing and wonder if they’d translate to a slower HEMA context, or if we’d get something pretty close to what we all want.

      -1 point for receiving an afterblow seems appropriate, provided the afterblow itself still scores.

      Bad judges will always be a problem. Frankly I’ve been a little surprised by this; I’ve never found judging to be particularly difficult to do. Perhaps I underestimate my own experience, or perhaps there are additional difficulties in “real” tournament HEMA to which I’ve not been exposed.

      No rapier master that I’m aware of mentions double-leg takedowns. Fabris and Giganti both admit that their grappling stuff is “less artful” (Fabris even says he didn’t want to include it). I honestly didn’t expect this point to be contentious; simply disallowing contact outright (except, sometimes, for controlling the opponent’s hilt) is pretty standard. I had hoped, with a penalty, to allow “brawling” but encourage “fencing” (much as ahistorical attacks are allowed, but do not score well). If the distinction is really so arbitrary or thin, maybe this needs to be rethought.

  • Ruairc

    Here’s an interesting approach: a triathlon involving tournament sparring, cutting with sharps, and katas (performing plays from the source material at speed, with a cooperative partner).

  • Pim T

    Hi Ruairc,

    I’ve previously read and enjoyed your study of my Giganti book II translation, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    As one of the fencers in the Swordfish final, I’ll grant that the rapier fencing at Swordfish probably looks different to the SCA scene you’re familiar with, which afaik is often played to one touch, often excludes cuts, the afterblow, compared to the relatively long period for the afterblow at Swordfish.

    However I do take umbrage at your view that the fencing in the final was “blatantly ahistoric” (OTOH other fencers whose views I deeply respect said they liked the final so *shrug*).

    I’ve never trained strictly for tournament, (modesty aside) I probably know the early 17th century Italian rapier sources as well as anyone, and to my mind is grounded in the sources. In particular Fabris and Giganti for rapier and dagger, but informed by various other treatises, even little studies ones – for example I often fight dagger foot forward, with a lot dagger binds, which is precisely the advice given to left-handers by Terenziano Ceresa in 1641.

    I know that Kristine is a serious student of Fabris, and my assessment was that she was applying guards and concepts from his book II (passing footwork, some Fabris guards, some of his square-on stances, and a pressing game that in places segued into full on proceeding with resolution with rapier and dagger, a super-awesome example of historical technique.

    For my part, while Fabris devotes his entire book II to proceeding with resolution, the unpublished manuscript of Camillo Palladini has 2 paragraphs on proceeding – the first which described it, and how effective it is, the second that provides the counter 🙂

    Being one of the few people who have read Palladini, and facing an opponent who was basically proceeding against me, rest assured I was doing my best to apply the canonical counter to the best of my ability. I genuinely struggle to imagine how much more historical my tactical approach could have been 🙂

    I’ll grant you that there were exchanges were both of us got tagged, some of which may be down to the artificiousness of any tournament setting, but some of it down to the fact that both sides are (metaphorically) paid to win, and making sure you get your afterblow in is certainly historic – c.f. Anonimo Bolognese in c.1510, but in the rapier era also Gaiani (1619) and Maffani (1629).

    In terms of your specific suggestions about tournament fighting some of them would be great in an ideal world, but are tricky to put into practice (e.g. time limits). Others I can’t agree on.

    I really can’t agree on your point that grappling is “not fencing”.

    It’s true that Gaiani’s rules for the assalto d’onore (1619) exclude actions corps-a-corps. This is fine I guess if we specifically set up tournaments as an abstract test of certain elements of fencing (Gaiani also excludes cuts, and thrusts below the belt line).

    However it’s not the whole art. In destreza the “moment of conclusion” the apex’s of the art – and generally whenever someone pulls off a clean disarm it’s super-impressive. It seem mean to legislate against diestros in modern tournaments.

    In Italian rapier too lots of master include grapples, not just Fabris and Giganti as you mention. Docciolini (1601) likes grapples a lot, and specifically includes a standing arm-bar (or at least, an action designed to break the elbow). I for one would be super-impressed if someone pulled this off in a competition. All joking aside, I’d be inclined to give them extra points for pulling off a difficult, rarely-seen, canonical technique 🙂

    You seem to be edging towards gestalt form of scoring, a bit like boxing, which may be something that could be experimented with I guess (although look at how controversial boxing scoring is). However I’m super-leery of moving towards an escrime artistique approach. Suffice to say it risks being terribly subjective. This post is getting super long, so I’ll leave the last word on this point to the Anonimo Bolognese :D.

    With respect.


    “It often happens that a fencer is graceful and clean with sword in hand, but is nevertheless ineffectual. Facing another who is very unaesthetic with sword in hand, as soon as they exchange blows, the unaesthetic fencer takes the upper hand.

    This occurs because the ugly fencer cares only about effectiveness. He does not care much for beauty, only utility, leaving pomposity aside. The fencer who is clean with sword in hand delights in crispness without taking care of utility.

    However when any fencer faces another, he should assess how he behaves. Whether his play is effective, or whether he is ostentatious with sword in hand, and does not attend to the utility of his play.

    You must have good judgement in this, because on infinite occasions people say of a clean and graceful fencer: “oh doesn’t he fence well”, but nevertheless his play is ineffectual. Likewise a fencer might seem very unaesthetic, so people say he does not know how to hold a sword, and his fencing is poor. But when put to the test he beats the beautiful fencer.”

    Anonimo Bolognese (c.1500).

    • Ruairc

      Hey Pim, thanks for the reply.

      Let me first clarify that I have the greatest respect for you and other researchers, and do not mean to denigrate your efforts. Indeed, however I might have come across, it is my sincere desire to help HEMA grow to better accommodate styles that are as historically sound as possible, such that those among us most dedicated to rebuilding the art, in all its nuance, will enjoy the most success competitively.

      My “blatantly ahistorical” commentary was not focused on your bout specifically, but was intended as a more general critique (modern epee was abundantly present in the saber and bronze-medal R&D fight). Let me also say that I’m well aware of the luxuries I’m afforded as an armchair commentator, and I hope that my more recent post here, wherein I present my own competitive fencing for critique, will serve to dispel any impression of braggadocio or bluster.

      I am, as you guess, unfamiliar with the master you reference, and I know your background well enough that I do not doubt you are better-read. It may be that I am speaking in ignorance and will happily retract everything I’ve said here if I am exposed to the source material and see that your interpretation is faithful. I am only a student of some five years in this art and have plenty more to learn.

      Nonetheless, from my research and practice, I find it difficult to reconcile the structure and execution displayed in the video with my understanding of Italian fencing, or – and this is perhaps the bigger contributor, knowing that other interpretations exist – general principles of martial movement. If I am unfamiliar with Palladini, I am certainly much less so with Fabris. I am more than happy to indicate the specific details in the recording that lead me to this conclusion (although I’d certainly prefer a video with timestamps, if one exists).

      As tactics are concerned, I know a very good fencer – better than me in all indications of prowess – who says he uses Fabris’ tactics in his fencing. He’s still an epee fencer in form, and so I don’t know if it can be said that he’s doing HEMA.


      I do not begrudge any fencer his afterblow, but I do wonder – if afterblows are so frequently the result, is it because both fencers are so skilled that they simply cannot attack safely without exposing themselves? Or because the fencers are not incentivized enough to prevent their opponent from having that option in the first place?

      By the very nature of having a scoring system, we are testing particular elements and de-emphasizing others, and it seems appropriate that a contest of fencing should weight control of the sword. But my hope with the somewhat more freeform nature of the scoring I posit here is that judges are free to disregard the benchmarks and “go with their gut”. I’d hope that a beautiful, clean disarm should be scored appropriately. It would certainly require skilled judges, but that’s a problem whenever judges are involved.


      As for Bolognese, certainly there are pretty fencers who are ineffective, and there are effective fencers who are ugly. I suppose it comes down to the foundational question “what are we doing here, anyway?” Perhaps I place too much emphasis on the A in HEMA, but to me, it seems that the masters were not advocating good fencing for aesthetic purposes alone – rather, that artful fencing is, or can be, a blend of the aesthetic and the practical, and that we should strive for both.

      I wouldn’t think it appropriate that a master of katas, with no knowledge of practical application, should win a tournament. But likewise, I wouldn’t think it appropriate that an Olympic-gold-medal epeeist should be held as a good example of HEMA, whatever his effectiveness on our amateur scene.

      I tell my students that it’s important to be “pretty”, but it’s also important to be effective – and that the two support one another. If our fencing, at speed, in all contexts, resembles the fencing we see in the manuals (an idealized form, no doubt!), we should know, as best as we can, that we have recreated it faithfully.

      I do appreciate your input, and hope we can continue this conversation – if not now, perhaps at some point in person.

  • Pim T

    Sorry for the numerous typos, bashed out in a rush 🙂

  • Pim T

    And sorry, it was Wistric who reviewed Giganti, didn’t realise this blog had multiple contributors 🙂

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