Sword Camp 2008: Skills, Day One

Saturday was designated Skills Day. The plan had been for the Basics — the beginner-level class — to be taken in hand and run through a compressed version of the first six months of training while the rest of us — Intermediate and Advanced students — got to choose from a casual smorgasbord of specials skills topics offered by the instructors.

Said plans were slightly complicated by the absence of any actual Basics. The Sword Camp Basic class had at one point had eight signups; various family crises, work demands, and a motorcycle accident reduced it to five and, eventually to one. The one, Rob Landley, was believed to be somewhere on the road towards us from the Ottawa Linux Symposium.

Half a dozen of us, including Cathy and me, started the day with Heather teaching advanced grounding. This is a set of techniques for maintaining good balance, aka “connection to ground”. They start with good stance and relaxation while stationary, then move up to good balance while running and jumping. Finally we did grounding in combat. I learned that I need to work on rotating to handle.multiple threat axes more effectively.

Towards the end of this unit, Doug the Death Turtle wandered by, heading towards the compost heaps at the back edge of the property with a snowshovel-full of dog turds generated by Sal’s Malamutes. “I think I’ve found my preferred great-weapon!” he says, grinning maniacally.

Next up, my unit on Japanese Sword for Western Swordsmen. Signed up were three of the instructors (Heather, Lynda, and Scott), advanced student Marcus, and Dan the lone Basic student. I talked about the historical context in which Japanese sword evolved, the transition from pre-Tokugawa battlefield-oriented techniques for horsemen to Tokugawa-era court styles primarily for dueling. Katanas became shorter and lighter, and the technique became more and more linear, stylized, and graceful. Technically, I covered the five basic cuts and three basic blocks, focusing on getting the whole body involved in and contributing power to each move.

The class was lots of fun to teach, because everyone in it except Dan the Basic was an advanced swordsman who could pick up and integrate the Japanese techniques about as fast as I could explain them. And Dan the Basic was keeping up; as I’d gathered before the class, he is especially fixated on the myth and legend of Japanese sword and was motivated.

After lunch, Heather taught Cathy and myself a refresher on basic Florentine. This is a two-sword technique where you keep the blades (either sword plus shortsword or two swords) in constant motion in order to interdict the opponent’s weapon. Doing it requires that you have fairly elaborate patterns of movement grooved into muscle memory so that you can do them without thinking, and vary the pattern into striking at your opponent when appropriate.

The missing Rob and Fade arrived as our Florentine class was about halfway through; time out for greetings and hugs all around. There were other distractions too; right behind us, in the knife pit, Linda was running a board-breaking class. Every once in a while I’d hear a brisk crack from behind me as a happy camper executed a successful break.

As often happens, there was one particularly resistant board that was defeating every effort to break it. Comes the end of the class period, Lynda-the-instructor is inquiring of her students if any of them wants another whack at it, and I see my chance.

“Oooh! Oooh! Can I try it?” said I. Lynda, having a pretty good idea what to expect, gestured in the direction of student Mitch, who promptly assumed the holder position. Not too many milliseconds later I shattered the recalcitrant board with a palm strike and a delighted “YAAAAAAAAA!”. Mitch the student, who had known nothing about me or what was coming at him, reports that he would have jumped a foot in shock if he’d had time.

Around 3:00PM a weapon-tossing circle developed on the Great Lawn. This is a dexterity and reaction-time exercise involving flying swords, daggers, and in this case one glaive (aka the big whacking polearm). I’m not very good at this, being a barely competent catcher. But I did manage to grab a flying glaive out of the air.

Our next actual class was “Angles and Tricks in Single-Sword”. This was all about various sneaky things you can pull by either (a) stepping suddenly off line to change your angle of strike, or (b) binding the opponent’s weapon and then executing a second-beat strike or thrust from an unexpected angle.

And then there was pudding, during the afternoon snack break. The break also featured in-depth discussion of the consequences of putting the makings for liquid-nitrogen ice cream in an industrial blender. You get a cold-gas explosion; Google for “liquid nitrogen ice-cream explosion” to find the YouTube video. This is the kind of afternoon-break conversation you get when your hovercraft is full of eels martial-arts camp is full of geeks.

After the break, Cathy took Heather’s class in basic yoga and reported it good. I passed this one up, knowing full well the consequences of my pathetic lack of anything resembling physical flexibility. My repeated epic failures to achieve posture would merely have distracted the other students.

The rest of us were short of instructors, as Doug the Death Turtle was occupied teaching the Basic class and Sal was up at the house taking a nap that he needed very seriously after two days of nonstop sword camp preparation and a turned ankle. So five of us went out on the Great Lawn and did pickup fighting in odd combinations, like two attackers against three stationary defenders and vice-versa.

I am now about to articulate a position that will startle regular readers of this blog: Taking away peoples’ guns is fun.

I learned this when I took Sal’s class on Pistol Disarms just before the dinner break. Any self-defense expert will tell you “Run from a knife; charge a gun.” You can avoid being stabbed or cut by keeping out of an attacker’s reach, but you can’t outrun a bullet. So the right thing to do is close and grapple for the disarm. And close fast, before the attacker can react and shoot you.

This is easier than it sounds. At the 7 to 10-foot range of typical self-defense encounters, a trained fighter has a very good chance to close and execute before the shooter can fire. The specific disarm Sal taught involved a block and twist that winds up with the barrel pointed back at the shooter; at that point, with a bit of pressure, you can force him to shoot himself. Alternatively you can simply twist the gun out of his hands, probably breaking a finger or three of his in the process.

I love this technique. It rewards (a) aggression and strength, (b) closing up on the opponent, and (c) putting truly vicious intention on the strike and twist. All three of these are things I am good at and happy doing in combat. I picked it up very quickly.

Tacos for dinner. Beef. Hot sauces. Mmmmm.

The Saturday night tournament was a triple bear pit. The bear pit holder fights each fighter in the queue until he takes a kill strike, then he goes to the end of the queue; the tournament ends when somebody makes a threshold number of kills, in this case 7. In this variant, you pick three weapons styles and fight bear pit in each one in turn; Winner is the fighter with the highest point total.

I made a few kills, but was never really in contention. I chose sword plus shield, sword plus parrying dagger, and dagger as my styles. I learned that choosing a close-fighting weapon like a dagger in a format like this is probably a mistake; in my third round I got totally owned by fighters using Florentine two-sword and glaive.

Afterwards, there was a campfire in which we ceremonially burned the pieces of the shattered breaking boards. There were milkshakes, and fight stories, and talk of many things.

More on the morrow…

6 thoughts on “Sword Camp 2008: Skills, Day One

  1. This is all stuff I would love to learn. In college I got involved in the SCA and learned a little European long sword and two-handed sword fighting, but not much. Everyone in the club was just too weird. It was like you had to totally become one with them and if you had a social life outside of the Medievel reenactment club, they resented you for it.

    Later on I learned a little knife defense while taking Krav, but all the scenarios were very basic and in all of them, the other guy had a knife and you didn’t. It was defense, not knife-fighting and the strategy was to exit the situation, unharmed, as fast as possible.

    More recently, I just took a class from a guy who is an AMOK master. The impression I got was that it was a mixture of Krav, Ju Jitzu and Filipino knife fighting, with an emphsis on the knife fighting.

    However, the stuff you described at your camp sounds like more fun then most of what I’ve done. Too bad more people don’t get involved in stuff like that.

  2. Eric – gotten to show them any of what I demonstrated to you last October, in concealing the threat of a still blade, and the danger of point?

  3. >Eric – gotten to show them any of what I demonstrated to you last October, in concealing the threat of a still blade, and the danger of point?

    I’ll try to remember to bounce that off an instructor at some point. It’s similar to the material in the Tricks and Angles unit I described.

  4. After lunch, Heather taught Cathy and myself a refresher on basic Florentine. This is a two-sword technique where you keep the blades (either sword plus shortsword or two swords) in constant motion in order to interdict the opponent’s weapon. Doing it requires that you have fairly elaborate patterns of movement grooved into muscle memory so that you can do them without thinking, and vary the pattern into striking at your opponent when appropriate.

    That’s an actual fighting style? Cool!

    I’d be interested to know how much crossover there is with the poi/club swinging/two staff movements used by circus performers. No doubt the connections have already been explored by someone – hackers, jugglers and martial artists all seem to have a lot of overlap with each other.

  5. “Later on I learned a little knife defense while taking Krav, but all the scenarios were very basic and in all of them, the other guy had a knife and you didn’t. It was defense, not knife-fighting and the strategy was to exit the situation, unharmed, as fast as possible. ”

    That is what our basic philosophy, a fight avoided is a fight won. If you can’t avoid it, end it as fast a possible. The first part does not take much training. Run, run very fast, be tricky. The second part is what we train.

    “However, the stuff you described at your camp sounds like more fun then most of what I’ve done. Too bad more people don’t get involved in stuff like that.”

    We do this every year, too bad you don’t attend. We would love to have you and all your friends.

  6. I thought tae kwon do gives tremendous physical flexibility… it’s quite a “put your leg above your head” kind of martial art, isn’t it?

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