Thursday, September 22, 2016

Fundamentals: The Basic Sword Swings

I looked at the basic swing for sword a couple of weeks ago, so I will skip over it here.  That basic swing is one of several basic attacks that form to core of several styles using one-handed weapons.  Single sword, sword and board, and two sword techniques all draw from these basic attacks and add a layer of their own fundamentals.  Rather than muddle up the basic swings with extra diversity here for those styles, I want to focus strictly on the motions required to do the most basic attacks so we can build on them in a later post.  Several of these are sort of tinted towards sword and shield because that is their most common usage. Note: these shots do not apply equally to lefties in terms of value, unless they are fighting other lefties, but the motions are much the same.

Below is a list of the remaining five basics shots. I have tried to focus on the motions required for the sort of "base case" of the attack, the version I would teach a new fighter. By learning these shots, one begins to be able to see how they can adjust a swing to change targets or combine motions to make a different swing. Next week In a few weeks, I could go into how to combine these motions into different shots, but I want to keep with the fundamentals.  With that in mind, look for a post on combos next week that looks at how the basic shots can work together.

The Pop Shot

This is one of the lesser used attacks out of the basics.  It doesn't hit particularly hard, and has some limits on usefulness.  The big advantage is that it is super fast at hitting an exposed shoulder. Despite being seldom used, it is perhaps one of the easiest attacks to learn and uses very simple motions.

The goal of the pop shot is to go from guard to hitting the opponent's shield side shoulder (assuming righty vs righty) as quickly as possible. Now, your arm is already slightly cocked in guard, with the elbow bent a bit.  This usually ends up with your forearm roughly pointed at the target's shoulder.  The sword tip is slightly tilted in towards you head/shield.

In order to hit the target's shoulder, you'll need your sword to both get closer and to align with the target.  Getting closer is as easy as punching forward with the arm directly towards the target, extending the wrist with a snap at the end to get the most range possible as the sword angles forward.  Aligning the sword is just a small rotation of the wrist done in conjunction with extending the arm.  Just like with our look at how to swing a sword, extra power (and range) comes from rotating the shoulders/torso towards the target, starting with your hips.

Unlike most swings, the pop shot ends up being somewhat more like "pushing" your sword into a target, rather than a typical slashing motion.  This motion makes the pop shot a building block for other "swings" that use similar motions of the wrist after moving the arm towards a target.

Recovering a pop shot that hits a target is fairly easy.  The sword will naturally bounce up from the target, so raising the hand and pulling back to guard takes a minimal amount of effort.  This does leave you forearm exposed briefly until you can fully recover.  Overswings with the pop shot, especially with a heavier sword, are much more difficult to manage.  Perhaps the easiest recovery is to carry the force down by rolling the wrist, twirling the sword to the outside and back up towards guard.

The Wrap Shot

What I might consider the opposite approach to the pop shot, the wrap is designed to go around a target's defenses and hit with the back of the blade. This means that it doesn't take the shortest or fastest route. Also unlike the pop shot, the wrap generally carries a decent amount of force into the shot and is probably the shot newer fighters struggle with learning the most.  Because of the position required to strike, a wrap shot is best used at close/point-blank range. It can be used further away occasionally to hit arms, but it is only really possible to hit a torso shot from that short range.

There are many different variations of the wrap shot, but the one we generally start out teaching newer fighters is a basic, wide wrap aimed towards the middle of the opponent's back or shield arm. This isn't the most direct or efficient wrap shot, but it allows someone to learn the motions a little easier.  The swing starts much like our basic swing with tipping the sword to the outside, rotating the torso toward the target, bringing the elbow in towards the body, and extending the arm all in one motion to propel the sword in a bit of a corkscrew.  The difference comes from carrying the corkscrew motion around by rolling the wrist over, causing the blade to turn such that the back edge is towards the target. After rotating the wrist, the elbow should naturally want to bend out as the shot hits.  At this point, starting your recovery with the torso will pull the shot towards you a bit, giving it slightly more power.

A good wrap shot will feel smooth for most of the motion.  Should you start rotating your wrist too late or too early, you'll end up fighting against the motion rather than redirecting the hit.  A good way to feel how the motion should be working is to simply swing your sword back and forth loosely by your side, rotating the wrist as it passes by your hip.  You are looking for that same smoothness when throwing a wrap shot.

The motion itself requires rolling the hand/wrist over mid swing.  Improperly timed, that can lead to a ton of strain on the wrist and elbow.  If the swing is interrupted during the transition from front to back of the blade, it causes additional strain on the arm. For these reasons I generally recommend not overdoing it on practicing wrap shots.  Try to space out the practice and focus on the motion, before trying to deliver extra power.

The Chop 

Unlike the finesse used in a pop shot, or the technique used in a wrap, the chop shot is a shot that focuses on using the torso's power to deliver a solid blow. A very common use is to attack the "slot" between the opponent's sword and shield, particularly as they throw a wide wrap or are recovering from a swing, aiming for the inside of their forearm.  One reason this particular chop is used regularly is because the natural motion of blocking (with a shield) will cause your body to rotate into the shot.

The shot is very simple overall.  Rotate the torso towards the target.  As the torso rotates, slightly extend the arm to draw the sword down into their arm.  You'll notice here that wrist motion is minimal.  In fact, much of the shot is done with a locked wrist, specifically as the blow lands.  Other than extending, the arm doesn't move much either.  Overall, chop shots rely on the torso's rotation for a vast majority of their power.  In order to hit solid, more rotation is generally used, including as part of the follow through.

Because of the limited arm and wrist motion, the basic chop shot is also slightly shorter ranged than other swings.  Its advantages come from power and, as in the above example, efficiency of motion.  The chop to the inside of their arm is perhaps the fastest swing to use in that example because it causes the sword to take the most direct route to the target with very little wasted motion.

The Short Cross

This is a very common attack for righty vs righty because it targets the enemy's sword side.  A successful cross shot can tie up the enemy sword or put an opponent onto the defensive to avoid leaving their sword arm open.  Here I am breaking the cross shot into two types, the short cross and the high cross.  While very similar in basic execution, they differ in range, utility, and risk.

Much like the pop shot, the short cross uses a punching motion. However, the short cross adds wrist and further torso rotation towards the target's sword side.  The shot ends with a wrist extension.

That sure sounds a lot like a pop shot pointed at a different target, doesn't it?  Yes, kind of, which illustrates why learning the basic shots is important for developing further.  The difference here though, is the the short cross has far more power than if you were to execute it more like a pop shot by simply aiming your arm, then punching out.  That extra power comes from the rotation of the arm.

One important note about cross shots is that due to the rotation, they have a tendency not hit squarely on the blade, often closer to corner of the blade or even flat depending on where they meet the target.  Many vets will actually angle their sword in the hand to compensate before/as they throw a cross to ensure a cleaner hit and avoid flatting someone.  While other shots have similar rotation, they generally follow a wider, more complete arc, giving the swing more time to level out the rotation.

For lefties, the short cross can be an important tool to have as it is one of the few techniques that effectively targets a righty's shield side.  Many righties shift their shield over towards their sword side to help guard against a lefty.  This leaves their shield side somewhat vulnerable.

The High Cross

While I am including it in this fundamentals post, the shot by itself isn't ideal.  Later on, adding shield work, footwork, and combos into the mix helps make up for many of the shortcomings of the high cross. The swing itself is much like what a short cross would become with a bad overswing or over rotation.   Rather than targeting a sword, the attack targets the opponent's chest/gut/hip.  The main problem with the shot is that in order to be able to land it on a target, you have to be in a position that the opponent can hit a similar target on you with the same technique.  This is one of the largest causes of simultaneous deaths.

The way the swing is often executed, in addition to the normal motion of a short cross, the rotation is aided by raising the elbow and bending the torso with the swing.  This change in position also helps aid the sword in angling straight down, ideally somewhat parallel to their shield so it might pass behind it.  This angle is what makes it a shorter ranged attack than the short cross as your sword can't be fully extended out and also pass behind their shield.

Now, because the high cross is rotating so far, an overswing can be painful, and there isn't a great way to recover the force due to the awkward position.  Because of being so hard to recover, the overswing will leave your arm and defenses vulnerable. For these reason, it is generally safer to avoid throwing a high cross at its max range, as an opponent may well move back and cause an overswing.

The Sweep

Attacking the opponent's legs, a sweep follows the curve of their shield down into the leg.  While I can utilize some variant of the basic swing, wrap, or even the pop to attack the leg, a sweep can be more ideally suited for the job.  As I have discussed on the range game before, leg attacks require one to be closer to the target and some extra work to help close the distance.

The motions of the arm are much the same as the basic swing, but the forearm takes a wider arc to the outside as the arm lowers a bit.  This makes the sword follow a smoother, wider circle than the basic swing. Following this arm motion, without adjusting the body, will result in either being out of range or likely hitting the bottom of the shield

In order to compensate for this problem, many newer fighters are temped to lean their torso forward. This causes one's shoulder, or even back, to be highly exposed to the opponent. Most of the range and positioning can more safely be done by bending the knees.  This brings the shoulder lower and closer to the target, which improves range.  It also keeps your body centered and guard relatively intact, especially with a shield.

One could also choose to lean slightly towards the sword side, causing a dip in that shoulder, while simultaneously shifting weight onto the the sword side leg (if it is forward).  This still keeps ones guard relatively intact, but does have a couple of problems.  For starters, this lean ends up placing your head in the path of a common counter swing used against sweeps, which will result in getting hit in the head many more times than simply bending both knees.  The other problem is that your weight ends up almost entirely on one leg, making it an easier target and reducing your ability to dodge other attacks.

Recovering from an overswung sweep, or even some hits, it is often easiest to sort of complete the circle, rather than pulling the sword back.  During the swing and the recovery, the arm is much more exposed to attack than during many other swings because the hand has to be so much lower than the normal guard.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Fundamentals: Overswinging A Sword

So, overswinging a sword isn't a fundamental, but recovering from a swing properly is. It is a problem that many newer fighters face. An overswing happens when a swing misses a target altogether. Now, the obvious problem here is that missing causes you to generally be in a bad position, either with your sword low or arm extended well past the target.  Perhaps less clear to newer fighters, is that recovering an overswing both takes longer and more effort than recovering a swing that hit a target.

Recovering from a single swing that hit the target is fairly straightforward.  Once your sword hits, it will naturally rebound back in the direction in came from.  This natural bounce helps fuel your recovery, and sort of refunds some of the effort put into the swing.  By doing the opposite motions with the muscles that got the swing there, recovery should feel smooth. For the most part you are just returning your body to its normal, rested state.  All of your recovery for most swings is going to be first in, first out.  Your swing started with your hip rotation, so will your recovery. The rest of your body follows the hip back into position. Your resting position will be back to whatever stance you started in.

So why is an overswing so bad?  Well, for starters, your opponent is no longer stopping your sword for you.  That means you now have to stop the sword, then recover to your guard.  The more force you've put into the swing, the more force you have to stop in midair.  This places immense strain on your body and drastically slows the recovery.  You end up doing twice the effort to get back to defend yourself as you would if you had hit anything.  You are also losing some of the energy from your initial swing that would have been refunded with the bounce.

Stopping a swing midair can also lead to injury or soreness.  This is especially true if it is a frequent occurrence.  Certain shots are far worse to stop, as well.  For example, the wrap shot already places a fair amount of strain on the wrist, and stopping it mid-motion isn't fun at all.

Overswings are going to happen, even to veteran fighters. The difference between a vet and new fighter here is in how they recover.  Ones natural inclination is to stop the swing, and pull it back into guard.  We've already talked about how that is going to be bad. Veteran fighters, however, have grown accustomed to following through with their swings and carrying the motion around, either into another swing or to reset to guard.  

For example, if I were to swing for your leg and miss completely, rather than stop my sword and bring it back up to guard, I would carry the motion past your leg and rotate it around.  I can carry this motion either back to guard or into another swing.  This uses my arm only to redirect the motion, not to stop it.

Obviously, hitting your leg would have been ideal, but by carrying that motion around I'm not wasting effort or time stopping a swing.  I can also carry that force onward to another swing so I end up conserving some of the energy I've put into my first swing.  It also distributes the strain of the recovery out, rather than concentrating it all into stopping the sword.

This concept of carrying motion on into another swing forms a basis for combos. When getting a bounce from hitting a target, one can use the recovery to guard to help power another swing.  This causes your sword to basically orbit your guard or sword hand in between strikes, using your arm to redirect the motion and effort into the next hit.  The same principles also make it harder to hit the same spot twice in a row with the same swing and with sufficient force, because you are fighting against your recovery force with your second swing.

One note here, there might be some vets out there thinking that they can recover an overswing really easy and it doesn't put too much strain on them.  While that may be more true for your 12 oz, counter-weighted sword, it isn't really going to be the case for heavier weapons or those with a balance point further out from the handle.  Having your balance point in the handle might help reduce the amount of force required to recover an overswing, but it does that because there is less force carried in the tip of the sword to begin with.  This is more important on swings that involve wrist extension or rotation, and much less important for attacks like the chop that don't rely as much on the sword and arm for power. (more next week on that)

That being said, some swings fit into this concept of recovery better than others.  I'll talk more about the basic swings next week, and try to point out where some of those swings differ in terms of recovery.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Fundamentals: Swinging A Sword

How do you swing a sword?  A question that doesn't get asked nearly enough by new people, and isn't always taught by vets.  While we often talk about different shots and techniques, I think the basic attack of swinging a sword directly at the enemy gets overlooked.  Granted, vets don't throw a basic swing most of the time (since it will just hit an opponent's shield), but the body mechanics of it are great building blocks for other attacks.  Also, for newer fighters that are working together to fight more experienced people, landing a good, solid hit from a flank can be essential to success.  Nothing quite as discouraging as finally hitting a good fighter's back or side only to hear "light".  While it may be a very limited problem at a local practice, at events it is going to happen.

Lets set up the following scenario to look at the motion required to hit a target.  Your opponent is already fighting someone else, and hasn't noticed you approaching from their side.  Your sword side is "behind" them, like a right-handed fighter approaching an opponent from the opponent's left.  This makes your most direct attack a straight swing to their back.  You have approached swinging range while maintaining your normal stance and guard (in case they actually notice you).

Now, the typical stance starts with the sword arm's elbow bent and the wrist turned slightly so the sword angles towards the shield side. The shoulders are squared up towards the target, and one foot is forward.  Assuming the sword side foot is forward, this means your torso is slightly twisted away from where you want to swing.  If the shield foot is forward, your torso ends up twisted towards where you want to swing.

We know where you started, but how do you get the sword from this stance to end up hitting the middle of their back, blade first, and with sufficient force?  For starters, you'll have to rotate your arm/wrist so the blade is tipped outside of your swing. Rotation here is a mix of a little bit of wrist motion and moving your elbow closer to the body, which essentially uses the shoulder muscles to help.  You'll also want to extend your arm, in a motion similar to punching.  Of course, doing both motions separately is awkward and slow.  However, combining the two causes your sword tip to travel in a nice, smooth corkscrew motion.  Add a little wrist extension to the end, and you are doing a pretty decent swing.

The only missing piece now is that that combination of motions doesn't really add a lot of power to the swing.  Most of your effort so far is just re-positioning the sword, not adding power in the direction of your target.  This is where your stance and torso motion are very important.  As stated above, sword foot forward makes your torso twisted away from the target.  That also means it is coiled in a way that you can use the muscles to twist into the swing.  This can add significant impact to your swings.

You will hear vets talking about using your hips when you swing.  Really, what they are saying is to lead your shot with your hips, so that your torso is essentially coiled to add to the swing.  In our shield foot forward example, this means starting your swing by rotating your hips towards your shield side.  Now, keeping your feet planted and twisting your hips here can work, but another alternative is to simply switch stances as you swing.  By moving your sword foot forward as you swing, it forces your hips to naturally rotate.  The rest is just following that motion up with the torso and the arm motions.

To summarize:
  • Start the swing by rotating your hips in the direction you want to swing.  
  • Follow the hip motion with the rest of your torso.
  • While rotating into the shot, use your arm to position the blade to strike.
One point here I would like to highlight, a good swing like this uses the whole body, not just a single group of muscles.  Besides adding power and speed to your swings, this also distributes the work/effort required.  Ideally, that means that you shouldn't end up being sore in only one spot.  For example, many new fighters have issues with their wrists being sore.  Likely, this is caused by using the wrist to swing, rather than using the whole arm and body combination. This concept of using the whole body in swings will be a running trend throughout the fundamentals series of posts.

My next post will look at over swinging and recovering from a swing.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Fundamentals Intro

Someone pointed out that this blog was dead, it isn't quite.  Posts will be super sporadic thanks to a fairly busy work schedule.  I will try to do better at rolling out more posts much more often. This particular post has a good chance of being a bit of a rant, but it seems like it might be a good place to start for future posts.

With "new guy season" well underway, I've been thinking a lot about the fundamentals of different equipment and what to focus on when teaching newer fighters.  I started out thinking about how I fight with glaive, and realized that almost all of my style just boils down to the few fundamentals executed efficiently.  As we think about weapons that are safer and lighter, we start to see more divergence from fundamentals into odds and ends of "advanced" or "situational" techniques. (quotes here because some of those "advanced" techniques are things vets can get away with, despite being bad form)

This all came to an interesting conclusion: our more dangerous, harder to use equipment is easier to build fundamentals with because the variance in technique is much lower than things like sword and board.  For example, glaive can be broke down into three two-handed swings, a one-handed swing, and stabbing.  While it make take some time to practice and perfect those techniques to refine placement, combos, and energy efficiency, it is easy to focus on these core techniques.  If we look at sword and board, our introductory weapons set, there are at least 6 basic types of swings to learn, plus a few stabs, and a lots of shieldwork.  While that isn't a huge amount to learn, it all gets muddled with a much larger variety of possible attacks and combinations with shieldwork and swings.

Designing a class or one-on-one instruction around the fundamentals of sword and board seems fairly straightforward, but the most common interaction between vet and new fighter comes on the field at practice.  Many times, the "wow, what did you just do to kill me?" response from a new fighter draws the vet to explain an advanced technique or unique combo.  I wonder how this impacts a newer fighter's development of the fundamentals.  Are we distracting them from the core techniques, or giving them an incentive to build them?

With all that in mind, I think the next few blog posts will be geared towards the fundamentals.  While I am temped to start with the overall fundamentals of swordfighting like footwork, stance, and situational awareness, I think it may be more beneficial to focus on the building blocks of how to swing a sword.

Now, of course, others have already ventured down this territory.  The Amyr, for example, teach a class at about every Midwestern event about the basic shots.  This is good instruction to learn what types of shots are possible, but I would rather look at the various motions that combine together to make those shots happen.  After all, if we want to work on the fundamentals, mastering the basic motions of a shot allows one to adapt a shot to hit where they might need to.

The next post, then, will start with the super basic "how to swing a sword".  As always, questions, comments, and suggestions are always welcome.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Local Units

Squire Takus talked today about units, specifically his unit (Wolves of the North).  I got to talking to a few people and realized that we don't have a great resource to identify units, their members, and what they do on and off the field.

So what is a unit?  For the most part, a unit is a group of fighters that fight together, train together, and try to coordinate their fighting on the field to a much higher degree than a loose collection of people would.  They usually include some sort of rank/command structure and a general style of fighting as a group.  At most events, we also do 'unit battles' where each unit fights on their own team. Outside of fighting, units are often friends that hang out and have fun off the field.  You will also find that most units choose to camp together at larger events.  Along with that, units are generally set up to help their newer members gear up and often coordinate to help each other work on fighting related projects like garb, armor, and weapons.

Each unit also has its own method of accepting new members, usually into some sort of grace period known as petitioning or pledging.  This is a chance for the unit and potential recruit to figure out if they are a good fit for each other. Different units also have a variety of trials, either for membership or to advance ranks within the group.  Sometimes, you'll hear someone refer to a "barrel", this is a specific type of trial involving fighting a long series of fights.

There are many more units out there than I will talk about today, since I'm only going to be looking at units with members that fight in Numenor (at UIUC).  Several of the units represented locally are also national units, with members spread all across the country that get together to fight at events.

Wolves of the North:

Squire Takus recently founded the Wolves with the intent of making a unit that was accessible to newer fighters.  The end goal is to get a combined arms group using a mix of flanking, an armored front line, and support weapons like spears, glaives, and bows all working together. This is a great unit to look at if you are wanting to try out the unit experience and see what it is all about.

As a newer unit, I don't know their process of inducting new members, so feel free to ask Takus about it.

Local members include: Squire Takus (leader/founder), Sir Gradamere, Macintosh, and Finrod (among others).

The Amyr:

The Amyr is a unit with a strong focus on training themselves and teaching others.  While fairly small in number nationally, their average skill and fitness is generally higher than most units. A majority (I think?) of the unit is currently local to Numenor.  The typical gear you will find them with is either sword and shield or two swords. Almost all of them have fancy garb with the lotus symbol on it.

I don't know too much about their rank structure, but there are plenty of people to talk to if you are interested.

Local members include: Sir Cyric, Sir Hurin, Dame Volpin, Sir Himmel, Horus, and Arc (and many more).


Another unit inspired by Lord of the Rings, the Urak-Hai are designed to be a hard hitting, heavily armored unit.  Founded by Sir Vhil (a local knight that is a rare sight), many of the unit's inner workings are designed to inspire the members to conform to the hard hitting group they are named after.  In order to achieve the rank of Ravager, for example, a member has to achieve so many points in various challenges of strength.  They also have a minigame called "Ork Bowling" where various members compete to knock down the most people (from standing) in a given day.

While once very large locally, many of their members have moved, and are now spread out nationally.  At larger events, you will see a large group of fully armored up orks charging into the enemy line, not simply to kill them, but to bash their way through.

Local members include: Feral (local leader), Sir Orso, Rainbow Shark, and Shadrac.

Dark Guard:

Dark Guard was founded locally by the now retired Sir Klaws from former members of the Urak-Hai, and still has a majority of its active members in town.  Their primary focus is flanking and exploiting the weaknesses in the enemy line. They work very well in pairs and small groups.

The unit's "theme" is based on Mordor, from Lord of the Rings.  For example, the Nine Nazgul are the veterans and leadership of the unit, a rank that was achieved by completing a series of trials to put their skills to the test.

Local members include: Sir Sarif (leader), Nikita(leader), Kabibbles(leader), Squire Larkin, and Squire Kyle.

Black Company:

The Black Company draws its name and mercenary theme from the book series of the same name.  As a true group of mercenaries, during unit and realm battles, they are often contracted out to different groups--accepting a variety of forms of payment, like beer.

For a long time, the entire unit would carry javelins, along with their usual gear.  The group itself is well known for the trials they place their petitioners (those wishing to join the unit) through, including a number of pushups with each headshot or death.

Draggeron is the only full member locally (I think?), but petitioners Lynard, Simba and Bean fight locally as well.

The Triad:

The Triad is actually three different units, that all come from the same origin many years ago and sometimes group up at events.  The three all started as Brotherhood of the Falcon, then split into three groups: Brotherhood of the Falcon, Elite Blood Falcons, and Dark Angels.

The three units are fairly close nit, often referring members of the other two as "cousin", a reference to the Brotherhood origins.

Brotherhood of the Falcon:

Often shortened to BOF, Brotherhood of the Falcon centered around teamwork and family.  Full members refer to each other as "Brother", both as a rank, and a sign of being part of a family.  On the field, they used a combined arms approach with a heavy front line of large shields and armor supported by a few support weapons and a strong group of flankers.  They spend some time drilling and practicing working in pairs.

Joining the unit requires a full member to sponsor you as a pledge.  During time as a pledge, it is a chance for you and the unit to decide if you are a good fit for each other.

Much of the rank structure and iconography used by the unit is drawn from Warhammer/Warhammer 40k, which a number of members play.  Spotting their members is usually easy, they all wear a belt sash with the Falcon on it. Local membership is limited, but nationally the unit is quite large.

Local members include: Sir Piper (national leader), Sir Torry, Sir Rukus, Zuloo, and Bronek.

Elite Blood Falcons:

Elite Blood Falcons, EBF for short, is similar to BOF in their family approach to their members.  The most common equipment used by several of its members is flail and shield.  Those wishing to join the EBF are known as "Almost Blood Falcons", ABF, which function similarly to petitioners/pledges to other units.

In order to ascend from ABF to EBF, they must complete a trial where they must protect an unarmed (and pierced in both limbs) person from a few waves of attackers.  This barrier to full membership helps keep the unit's overall skill on the field high.

Some of the EBF's trials are named after those of the Clans from Battletech/Mechwarrior, though similarities are limited. While small locallly, the unit has a fair number of members nationally.

Local member is Sir Galin.