Posted with permission:
Broadswords and Buffaloes
A short essay regarding levels of intensity in League bouts
-Christopher Scott Thompson
Elsewhere I have written about the value of fencing with a high degree of intensity, even beyond that with which one feels completely comfortable. In terms of your ability to master the stress of a violent encounter, intense training is essential. Now I'm going to take a different point of view, and discuss the problems with trying to fence that way in a competitive venue such as the Broadsword League.
It is possible to be a formidable competitor without being a particularly good swordsman. This seems counterintuitive, but it is true. Let's say the highest level of intensity that can be fenced with complete safety for both parties is rated as 6 out of 10. 10 would be the level where you are actually trying to do real harm to your opponent, in other words a real fight and not a bout. Most bouts are fought somewhere between 4 and 5, with 6 being the level at which the action starts to get sharp and even a little bit scary but is still controlled.
With a lot of protective gear or with inherently harmless weapons such as toy foam swords, you could safely go as high as 8 or 9, but that would be unrealistic due to the illusion of safety. In other words, both fencers would be far more aggressive than they would ever dare to be in a real fight, because they know they can't be hurt. With the typical gear used in competitive broadsword fencing, however, 6 is about as high as you should go with anyone with the possible exception of a rare and deliberate training experience with a trusted partner.
Broadsword fencing in the era of sharp weapons was exactly the same. You can easily kill a man with a single blow of the broadsword, and battlefield descriptions of the aftermath of a Highland broadsword charge describe severed limbs and broken weapons on all sides. This sort of combat is not what competitive broadsword fencing represents, because it cannot possibly be. Nothing is like the battlefield except the battlefield.
Stage gladiators and other broadsword duelists rarely killed each other. Most single combats with the broadsword were resolved by a bleeding cut to the arm, leg or sometimes the head, with fatalities resulting only unintentionally or when one fencer was unreasonably stubborn or bloodthirsty. They were fencing each other with sharp weapons but with such self-control that they inflicted only the minimum level of injury needed to demonstrate superior skill. My guess is that the typical duel or prizefight with sharp broadswords, just like the typical Broadsword League bout, was fought at about level 4 or 5, or else people would have been killed on a regular basis by the sharp weapons they were using. This is the type of combat represented by the Broadsword League.
Nobody fights in the League at level 9 or 10, because that is the mentality of the battlefield and serious injuries would be the inevitable result. The worst injury we've seen so far is a broken finger, and that was the result of a fencer going to level 7 or 8. He injured his opponent- and lost the bout anyway.
This brings me to my point. I can fight at any level I need to, all the way up to 10, and so can many other serious broadsword fencers. Some broadsword fencers are not yet at the stage in their training where they are capable of that; 5 or 6 is the highest level they can handle while 7 or 8 would totally overwhelm them. However, 6 is the highest that I or just about anyone else can fence at with relative safety for both fencers, so anything beyond 6 is starting to leave the realm of a fencing bout and enter the realm of an actual fight.
What this means is that if I face an opponent who goes to level 7 or 8, I am forced into the position of being responsible for both of us, since he is not really being responsible for either of us. This puts me at an inherent disadvantage throughout the fight, because he can concentrate primarily on winning while I am forced to concentrate on making sure no one gets hurt, and then trying to win with that additional handicap. Obviously he could go to the same level in a real fight and I would lose if I couldn't handle it, but in a real fight I wouldn't have to be responsible for his safety at the same time. You can't replicate the mentality of a life or death fight in a competitive arena, because "I want to win" is a totally different mindset from "I want to stay alive" or "I want to kill this man."
For this reason, fencing at level 7 or 8 is not really realistic even if it seems like it ought to be more realistic. If both fencers go all out, one or both will be badly hurt. If not, then one of them is making sure it doesn't happen, at the expense of his own ability to fight and win. The "buffalo" (as rough fencers are called) might think he is showing appropriate control because he isn't fencing at level 9 or 10, but he is simply wrong. What he is actually doing is counting on his opponent's sense of responsibility to give him an unfair advantage.
Excessive intensity allows the buffalo to paper over his own lack of skill at the art itself. All he needs is fast reactions, a watchful eye, and the willingness to hit very hard. If his opponent does not or cannot take the fight to the same level of intensity, he will often win, even if his fencing ability as such is sub-par.
I have known competitors who did nothing except stand on guard and hit as hard and as fast as possible the moment the opponent came within distance. I have known a competitor whose only tactic was to charge forward with the exact same barrage of strikes every time he fought, without the slightest concern for his own defense. Cutting 1,2,3,4 and 7 as hard and as fast as he could get away with was the one solution to every tactical question in this fencer's mind.
Against an opponent who cannot handle the intensity, these approaches will work, even though they are not examples of skillful swordsmanship. They work for psychological reasons that exist only in the context of the bout and not in real combat, because the opponent has no reason to want to get injured over a friendly fencing match and will therefore respond differently than he otherwise would. He would quite possibly be overwhelmed in the exact same way in a real duel, but the result might be different than the buffalo had anticipated. In one famous real-life incident, the charging buffalo opened his mouth in a terrifying scream as he attacked- only to swallow a few feet of his opponent's blade as the man simply extended his arm in a blind panic, killing the bully on the spot.
Against an opponent who can handle the intensity, the buffalo will usually lose, although he will lose by a much narrower margin than he really ought to because his opponent will be actively protecting him from the consequences of his own recklessness whether he realizes it or not.
If you would lose at level 4 or 5, you have no business winning simply because you decide to fight at level 7 or 8. Skillful swordsmanship works under all conditions; it does not depend on intimidation or on the opponent's sense of responsibility.
All broadsword fencers should spend substantial training time working at level 2 or 3- what we describe in my school as "slow play." Slow play cannot be won by speed or athleticism, because none is used; it can only be won by intelligent use of real fencing technique. All broadsword fencers should also spend a lot of time fencing at level 4 or 5, and a certain amount of time at level 6. Level 7 should be used only by advanced fencers as an occasional training experiment with a trusted partner. The purpose of this is to build the fencer's ability to handle psychochemical stress reactions that occur in actual combat. These reactions can sometimes occur spontaneously even in a friendly bout, as in one case where I experienced tunnel vision and loss of fine motor control in an ordinary bout against a new opponent. For this reason, even if you don't believe in "training for the duel," it's still a useful skill to be able to fence effectively under those conditions.
Anything above level 7 is a real fight and not training, and should therefore never be done in training because it can't be. (The Dog Brothers is one group that actually trains a few times a year at what I would call level 8 or 9. This works only as stickfighting and not as swordsmanship, because the Dog Brothers are willing to absorb stick strikes that would be either lethal or crippling with a sharp sword.)
Anything above level 6 ("sharp and even a little bit scary but still controlled") has no place in League competition, and even level 6 should be entered into only if both fencers are up to it. It should not be imposed by one fencer on another fencer in order to overwhelm him.
The seconds should always stop the bout if these conditions are not met or understood by both fencers. If you're fencing without seconds, it's up to you to do the same. If your opponent is trying to win through raw violence alone, you should simply refuse to continue the fight. Report the incident to the League, and the fight will be voided.
Broadsword League bouts represent a controlled and intelligent test of fencing skill between two respectful opponents. They cannot and do not represent a free-for-all, "kill or be killed" battlefield situation. The type of broadsword fencing we want to represent is that which would work consistently under all conditions, and not only against opponents we can personally intimidate.
Peace favor your sword,