Summer sword training is coming up

This year I will once again be going to Michigan for summer sword training. I wrote about this back in 2008 in a series of posts beginning with “And So, It Begins…”. Should you make the opportunity for it, this is an amazing summer adventure vacation that will teach you much and probably leave you with lifelong friendships. I’m posting a heads-up because I think many of my regulars would find it interesting.

Since 2008 the school I used to train with has fissioned. There are now two schools descended from it; Sal Sanfratello runs one and his former chief instructor Heather Fish the other. Sal kept the Aegis name, Heather the training facility and most of the senior instructors. There are people who train and hang out with both groups; my wife and I are among them.

Heather’s group, Polaris Fellowship of Weapons Study, will be running their Summer Weapons Retreat June 23rd to June 27nd. Sal’s, Aegis proper, is running their Sword Camp in July; I’ve forgotten the exact date and it’s not on their Sword Camp page, but I’ll post it in an update as soon as I dig it up.

My wife Cathy and I will be at the Polaris event, as I was last year. I wanted to do Sal’s this year, but I discovered I had a schedule conflict that week when Sal first announced his date.

I’m not going to recommend one over the other, if only because I have good relations with both schools and want to keep it that way. But even if I were willing to risk alienating one of two good friends, I’d be hard put to say which is “better”. Sal and Heather are both superb instructors, they’re teaching the same basic curriculum, and the schools haven’t had time to evolve very far apart yet. (I know this because while I missed Sal’s last camp I hang out at Aegis demos – I wore the Aegis staff shirt and helped Sal run a panel on duelling at Penguicon last weekend).

The differences are at this point still largely stylistic. Sal, and his training, have a bit more of a masculine military edge, while Heather is moving her group towards being a bit more like a conventional martial-arts school attractive to health-and-wellness types (including designing a belt-rank system, though that hasn’t been fielded yet). It is unlikely that Heather’s group will teach classes on improvised munitions or advanced firearms…on the other hand, she has more depth on the instructors’ bench and kept the physical site that did a lot to make previous Sword Camps memorable.

Either way, you will train intensively for a solid week in combat skills with sword and shield. The training weapon is a boffer that simulates a cut-and-thrust transitional sword from around 1500; the base style is southern Italian. Shields are 24″-to-26″-diameter and round, with an active parrying technique. Swordplay and weapons quite like these were central to European combat for a thousand years, from the late Iron Age to the end of the Renaissance. You will have some opportunity to learn other related styles as well: notably single sword without shield and close fighting with short blades. This is a battlefield style, not a stylized dueling form; you will fight in the round, and both schools do a lot with formation tactics and fighting in groups.

I’m recommending either one. They both have slots for Basic training still open, though that may not be true for long; more than about four Basic-level students each is not really feasible with the headcount of instructors either school has available. The (overlapping) student populations are not a bad reason to show up in themselves, as they are (a) selected for intelligence, (b) serious, self-motivated martial artists, and (c) usually science-fiction fans, and/or SCA types, and/or neopagans, and/or gamer-geeks. Seldom have I known a more interesting group of folks to hang with.

As both schools are selective, you must apply and provide character references. Contact addresses are on the websites previously referenced. Previous martial-arts background is helpful but not necessary. You must be able to handle an instructional style that is both information-dense and relatively nondirective and self-paced – the physical exercises may resemble boot camp but the intellectual level is more like a college seminar.

Physically and mentally challenging? Oh yes…you’ll work hard, you’ll play hard, you’ll have a helluva good time, and you’ll leave walking just a bit taller than you came in.


  1. Sal’s group teaches greatsword. I think Heather’s plans to but doesn’t currently have any practice weapons; I could be wrong about that latter, however.

  2. “Aegis does not use steel weapons because we teach real techniques.”

    Yeah, well, SCA uses steel weapons, and teaches real techniques.

    Swords consist of a PVC pipe core, weighted inside with lead shot or BBs to balance like a real blade. The quillions or crossguards are made with flexible cabling and can be made in a variety of styles. The “edge” is padded with two to three layers of foam and then covered with strapping tape and duct tape. The “flat” or spine of the blade is taped over but unpadded, creating a weapon that is very similar in feel, weight and balance to a steel broadsword. Students make their own first blades during Basic Swordsmanship. Once the student has developed sufficient mastery and control, with the instructors’ permission they may use a harder-cored practice sword if they desire.

    Shields are provided to the student and consist of a round sheet of plywood with a metal handle and leather or cloth strap. The wooden edge is covered over with a rubber bicycle tire tired in place with nylon cord. Many students choose to paint their shields.

    This sounds so much like IFGS…

    1. >Yeah, well, SCA uses steel weapons, and teaches real techniques.

      No, they don’t. At least not at the same time.

      I have fought in battleline with SCA heavy weapons and can thus speak with authority on this.

      >This sounds so much like IFGS…

      I’ve sparred with IFGS people, once at an SF con, back during the time I was a relatively new Aegis student. Now, it is possible that they were outliers, or that I was — but I barely had to exert myself against their best. Their technique was inefficient and their attacks tentative – lots of big showy moves with very little commit-to-a-kill behind them. I had my aggression set only on low-to-medium because I was playing and feeling them out; if I’d been at full combat intensity and mixing in the empty-hand moves I would have gone through that crew like a laser through candyfloss.

      Even if they’re both using boffers, there is a difference between people who train to game and people who train to fight. It’s mindset, it’s focus, it’s aggression, and it matters a lot. Frankly I think any Aegis/Polaris student past about six months in could have wiped the floor with the lot of the IFGS people I met.

      SCA is a different matter. Their best are quite good. As in “much better than me”.

  3. >> Yeah, well, SCA uses steel weapons, and teaches real techniques.
    > No, they don’t. At least not at the same time.

    No, not at the same time, but you can practice with rebated steel, which feels *completely different* than PVC pipe.

    > Their best are quite good. As in “much better than me”.

    I once watched a SCA sword master completely dominate an Army Captain who was attempting to teach his recruits with a rattan cane.


    1. >I once watched a SCA sword master completely dominate an Army Captain who was attempting to teach his recruits with a rattan cane.

      I believe it. Even I could probably pull that off, and I’m only a midlevel student at a good school. Line military don’t get enough training or practice with impact or bladed weapons to be very good with them. Speclal Forces would be a different story.

  4. Eric, many of the very good IFGS folks are retired SCA’ers. The rule set tends to encourage taking more hits, but lots of people coming in from open hand techniques have the same problem. (Indeed, this is a problem you have as a fighter….)

    Similarly, Amtgard and Dagorhir all have some skills that map to SCA-without-armor.

    ARMA is the only group I know of that routinely fights with full weight steel sword (with protective edging) and arming jacket.

    Sword groups I’ve worked with:

    Classical Fencing
    SCA rapier
    SCA light weapons
    Lion Rampant

    IFGS/Nero/Lion are all LARP first, fighting second.

    Amtgard and Dagorhir are basically ‘SCA with boffer weapons’. Both of them use thick PVC cores and multi-layer foam construction that I describe as “Swing sofa at someone from PVC sticking out of the end.” Both have odd rules (like killing shields on two hits from a red weapon sort of thing.). On the other hand, in the SCA shields last forever, so it’s a question of which odd rules you consider normative.

    SCA is rattan and armor that’s about 2/3 the weight of real steel. (It’s sad; the chainmail byrnie that SCA combat is ‘calibrated’ against is considered unsafe for use in actual SCA combat).

    SCA rapier is lighter armor and full weight dull rapiers with fowling blunts on them. Half the kingdoms in the SCA disallow it because it’s considered too risky. A 1″ fowling blunt and a 0.85″ gap in the bars on the mask is the usual justification.

    ARMA is full weight armor (or practice blunts and padded arming jackets) and dulled steel, and is VERY strongly geared towards ‘we are attempting to recreate an historically accurate martial art’.

    Think SCA rapier with stricter armor requirements, more requirements for research and documentation, and using broadsword weight weapons. I was around for the founding of ARMA with John Clements; it largely grew out of the frustration with SCA rapier and hardsuit and the lack of research on historical techniques (and the problem that SCA combat with rattan doesn’t teach edge control at all.)

    Aegis and Polaris strike me as being more systematic than Amtgard/Dagorhir, but are on the same general tier. They’re fun, they’re a great way to work out, they’re a great way to learn a martial art…but they don’t require the investment into getting *good* that SCA hardsuit does.

    SCA hardsuit pales compared to ARMA.

    1. >Aegis and Polaris strike me as being more systematic than Amtgard/Dagorhir, but are on the same general tier. They’re fun, they’re a great way to work out, they’re a great way to learn a martial art…but they don’t require the investment into getting *good* that SCA hardsuit does.

      A very plausible set of assessments, on the face of it…and I had a feeling none of the IFGS guys I was facing were their A-list. However, I wonder if you’re not overrating SCA hardsuit somewhat. I’ve done that, and didn’t suck at it — three kills in my first melee at Pennsic. Either I was an exceptional student (which is possible; I was seven years into TKD at the time) or SCA hardsuit simply is not very demanding, other than purely physically. In retrospect, it seems crude and power-intensive compared to Aegis/Polaris. As you note, no edge control; that bothered me even at the time.

      I’d love to do ARMA. Haven’t had a good option yet.

  5. Eric, there’s also the matter of WHEN we both did SCA hardsuit, and where.

    When I was doing it in Phoenix, and Flagstaff, it was also the place where people who were ‘on the bubble’ for the college football teams came and worked out twice a week to keep in shape during the summer. These guys were athletes roughly comparable to NFL backups. I had more training, and knew what I was doing – but, really, there comes a point where being more skilled doesn’t *matter* when you’re facing a guy who’s 6″ taller, and 125 lbs heavier, My armor notably slowed me down; for them, it only showed up in a fatigue bill after the sparring match.

    In the SCA, as in Aegis, melee fighting and ‘one on one’ fighting in the circle are different skill sets. Most SCA fighters learn the latter, not the former.

    Remember also, you are freakishly strong. SCA hardsuit plays nicely to your strengths.

    Aegis/Polaris (and SCA fencing) play nicely to many of mine.

    1. >My armor notably slowed me down; for them, it only showed up in a fatigue bill after the sparring match.

      Admittedly, I do resemble them more than you in that way. Hardsuit diminished my already limited mobility, but you’re right; I could do full-speed strikes all through a melee and only feel it afterwards. It never actually occurred to me that armor ought to slow down my striking arm until you pointed it out.

      Still….comparing what I’ve had to learn in both styles, there’s a difference orthogonal to that. Aegis/Polaris technique is trickier, more complex, uses more deception and indirection.

  6. Is there any tuition on codpiece wrestling?

    ESR says: Er…no

    Shame. Sometimes, all that stands between a man and certain death is a stout codpiece. Ahhhh…the good ol’ days….

  7. Aegis Basic and Intermediate Level Swordsmanship Instructor here.

    We’ve had people got through our (six month) Basic class and then “audition” at SCA. They were told that it looked like they had five years of SCA..

    info on SwordCamp:
    Sword Camp will be held on Saturday July 24th through Friday July 30th.

    The Schedule for the week is as follows:
    Saturday: Violence day and Rope day
    Sunday: Firearms
    Monday: VIP long distance transport and Offensive driving
    Tuesday: Beach day and Kit day
    Wednesday: Ranged weapons and Bare handed day
    Thursday: Fortifications and Survivability
    Friday: Open Training and Advanced Fighters Colloquium

    More Details for each day will be announced as soon as we can. Payment for sword camp is $120 per day or $700 for the whole week. A 10% discount will be given if payment is received before June 24th.

  8. This is my summer vacation:

    I got nothing against sword fighting, ‘cept I’m coming from an Japanese tradition on that (Shields? WTF are Shields? Grab that pigsticker with BOTH HAND boy), but happiness is recoil and a big-ole-pile of smokin brass.

    My wife is doing a beginning class for ladies as well.

  9. >>>Is there any tuition on codpiece wrestling?
    >>ESR says: Er…no

    codpieces are an endangered species now, due to egregious over-wrestling.

  10. I’ve recently come across this article about an industrial design student who has designed a steel european late middle-ages two-handed sparring sword to be both as safe and as realistic as he could make it.

    Unfortunately, the article is in dutch and no english sources exist at this time. The google translation isn’t pretty, but it gets most of the meaning across.

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