Once upon a time, also known as three years ago, I did an interesting cultural experiment with my fellow instructor, Randy Packer. We were both at Academie Duello at the time; He was one of the founding instructors and I was his assistant teacher. Although I had been working with other weapons for some time, it was at this period that I started to get very interested in late-period sabre fencing. Randy and I often spent the slow hours of the afternoon in the empty hall at Duello playing with a pair of nineteenth century duelling sabres.
I love rapier combat for its deceptive grace and tactical thinking, but I love sabres for their amazing speed and tempo.
That summer brought the approach of AD’s first ‘Sword Camp’ at Garibaldi Peak, and the two of us thought it would be a good demonstration of our commitment to fencing if we fought a demonstration match under the rules of a formal duel. This was not a mere presentation, we intended to resign ourself to the full preparation and fear that a real duel would have brought. We sharpened the blades of the sabres we had been practising with as best we could, confirming that a hard cut would be capable of splitting skin. We also agreed that we would fight without masks and wearing no body protection apart from a thin, sleeveless shirt.
We also worked hard to learn as much as we could about this style of fencing before the date arrived, and an interesting thing happened while we were doing so; I started to feel very, very anxious. At first, I had felt so cool and bad-ass for agreeing to go through with the fight, but as the day grew closer I started to toy with the idea of backing out. I hinted as much to Randy and, as it turned out, he had been feeling the same thing. However, both of us decided that it was our duty to follow through with our convictions.
I then did my best to put the event out of my mind until the day it arrived. All of us who were attending the weekend getaway for historical fencing enthusiasts were gathered for the workshops that were being held that day. It was shortly after breakfast, and Randy and I were taking lessons from sword master F. Braun McAsh on the techniques of German sabre duelling. As we concluded the short workshop, the knot started to form in my stomach. It grew worse and Randy and I agreed it was time for us to prepare for the ‘duel.’
Do you know that feeling you get when you are a young child and the roller coaster starts climbing that first big hill before the huge drop? That was how I felt as I went and fetched the sharpened blade I was to be using to defend myself. I fitted the live blade into my guard and tightened it into place. Meanwhile, all the other attendees had gathered to watch, though I’m not sure how many of them realized just how dangerous the situation could become for the two of us. A ring was erected with flags, though I cannot recall who set it up. In fact, I was aware of next to nothing from the moment I held the sharp weapon in my hand.
Every instinct in my body told me to run away, to hide in the forest that surrounded the isolated camp, and wait for everyone to forget about me. I’m not sure I have ever been more afraid during my adult life as I was at that moment. A final nod from Randy confirmed that we were about to start, and there was no way to back out. Both of us tried to remain jovial and light-hearted, even though I’m sure neither of us felt anything of the sort.
Randy explained again exactly what we were doing – We were fighting to first blood with sharp sabres. The weapons were not razor sharp and the tips had been rounded slightly, but they were still capable of doing quite a bit of damage. First blood in this case meant that the blood was either flowing freely or dripping to the ground; scratched didn’t count. The only protection we had were the ordinary sunglasses I was wearing and Randy’s own spectacles.
And so, nervous as hell, we saluted each other.
The first few exchanges were tentative and cautious, and my form was certainly far from its best. We attacked and defended quickly, but all the while being cautious not to leave any openings. Fear makes for interesting instincts in such a situation, very different from matches in the school. We both caught some touches; him on his wrist and I on my arm. They were only grazes, however, and we did not pause. Then, after thirty seconds, Randy cut the glasses right off of my face without touching my skin.
We paused, grateful for the distraction, while I retrieved my glasses and replaced them on my face. Then we began again. Randy’s blade came close, but ended up only striking the cuff of my glove. Then a few incidental, but very painful, slaps and cuts were bestowed upon me. Finally, as a counter attack, I struck his upper arm hard enough to make him wince. We re-engaged, growing more aggressive. I countered another cut and returned a blow to Randy’s shoulder. Sadly, neither his would nor mine were deep enough to warrant an end to the fight. We realized that the sabres should actually have been sharper, and the only way to end it was to hit each other twice as hard.
Another bout terminated with a long cut across Randy’s belly of which I do feel fairly proud. I had been hoping for a dramatic shirt-cutting moment, but it was not to be. Instead, the two of us resumed our fighting, both feeling the accumulation of our multiple lacerations. After a few more clashes of steel we simultaneously cut each other’s arms and backed off, cringing. At this point the cut on my elbow was beginning to bleed, and we both grew hopeful that it would be enough to allow us to make an honourable exit from the arena.
It was decided that neither of our welts or scrapes qualified as a fight-ending injury, so on we went. The fear was gone, replaced by pain and adrenaline. It is an interesting experience to fight a friend of yours in such a way. Despite your affinity for each other, you unconsciously accept that the only way to protect yourself is to hurt them first, so that’s what you do. It’s nothing personal, just necessity.
I landed another blow to Randy’s lower shoulder, one which made a satisfying swick of impact. Yet his toughed skin refused to split, and no blood came of it. Clack, clack, SWUMP! His sabre fell from his grip as I struck his wrist. It seemed I was paying him back for all the damage he had done to me in the earlier minutes of the fight. Randy hissed from the sudden impact, but flexed his fingers and picked up his weapon without hesitation.
We then decided that neither the sabres nor ourselves could withstand much more abuse, and that that at the next contact we would yield. After a few seconds of desperate fighting I managed to scrape his arm one final time, and we came together to shake hands, relieved the bout was finally over. Afterward, we both slunk off the field, more than aware of all the cuts, welts, bruises and lacerations that adorned out arms and body.
We made our way up the hill to tend to the sting of our wounds. While it turned out that the sabres were not quite sharp enough to cut through skin, we had not become aware of that fact until about halfway through our match. As far as we knew, there was a palpable danger of arterial cuts. Even as it was, we were at risk of damaging our eyes. There have been a few people who made light of the event, saying we weren’t in that much danger. All I have to say to that is; Just try it. Then tell me how you feel.
And my word it was a beautiful day!
Everything around me seemed twice as shining and bright after going through the fight. I didn’t back down, I didn’t let my fear get the better of me, I stuck to my convictions… It felt amazing. I was grinning like an idiot for the rest of the day, and after that morning I felt like something had changed inside my head. Since that moment no human being has ever frightened me. I felt completely aware of my own mortality, and totally comfortable with it. I tested myself, and I proved that I could stand and fight if I needed to.
In the past three years the followed this experience I have never found anything that compares to those seven minutes I had to protect myself with a sword.