Tag Archives: sabres

In the Middle…

A brief Biography of My Life as a Martial Artist, part II;

In regards to my later days at Academie Duello,  there is one more pivotal moment in my life that should be mentioned; the Duel.

Randy and I decided to stage a mock-duel at the first annual sword camp that Duello was hosting. (This has since come to be called Cascadia North, and has changed venues.) It was to be a fight to first blood with sharpened sabres – a demonstration of the ritual of the tradition and, in the case of ourselves, the psychological experience of agreeing to such a fight.

Gut-wrenching would be my choice of phrase.

A full account of the demonstration was included in one of my earliest blog posts, and can be found here; https://scienceofdefence.wordpress.com/2011/03/25/duel/

However, back in day to day life, there were a few conflicts arising in the latter days at Duello. Partially it was my own attitude, especially during the Palestra classes. I began to question some of Randy’s ideas, and as such I frustrated him as much as myself by my stubbornness. Some mild ugliness ensued.

Also, put simply, Randy was becoming increasingly interested in expanding both what he was teaching, and how he was teaching it. There were many experiments in conditioning and instructing that he was not able to do within the parameters of the regular classes at the school, and it became apparent that he would have to strike out on his own if he was going to really develop them.

Naturally I felt that I should leave with him, since I was his friend as much as I was his assistant instructor and staying behind seemed like it would be rather awkward in regards to my position at Duello. Not only that, but at the time I was receiving no real pay for my time coaching the newer students. Though I did make some money from teaching a childrens’ summer program, as well as a workshop that I ran on my own, it was not nearly enough to keep me from being very poor. Following Randy to a new project meant that, if the concept was successful, I could actually be a partner in the profits and business planning.

I believe it was late in the year 2007 that we agreed that we were both going to resign from Duello and try and start a smaller club on our own.

We were to be dubbed Nova Spada, and the locations we eventually settled on were Sapperton Pensioners’ Hall in New Westminster, and the Cloverdale rodeo Grounds in, obviously, Cloverdale.

Our focus changed drastically from what we were teaching at AD. We all but abandoned Rapier for the time being and went back to square one on trying to figure out what the best way to teach might be. Rather than focusing exclusively on swords, Randy began drafting drills for footwork, basic posture and body mechanics. In terms of swordplay, we began by working through the tenants of the i.33 manual – which is one of the first martial arts documents known to the western world. We also dabbled in Marozzo, as well as beginning to develop the style of unarmed combat that would eventually mature into a whole new style of fighting.

It was at the Cloverdale fairgrounds, in a large concrete arena, that the 5×5 system was born. Originally it was just a thought about knife fighting. “Hey, there are really only so many angles a knife attack can take, and really only so many responses a person can make in time – so why don’t we boil those down and make a free-style drill out of it?”

I think we knew right away that we had hit upon something valuable. The 5×5 knife drill became our favourite thing to work on, and it wasn’t long before we realized it wasn’t that hard to adapt it to all self-defence scenarios. Thus began what I still feel was one of our best inventions. The idea that all aggressive attacks and all ‘flinch’ responses to them can be boiled down to a simple set of principals.

I won’t go in to the exact details of how the drills work, since they are only partially mine to give out. I believe Randy is still working them at his introductory classes at http://boxwrestlefence.com/classes/ for those who are interested.

Now, I wont lie, getting out to the Cloverdale location sucked. I had to bus to the skytrain, ride the train to Surrey Central, walk up a hill to where Randy lived at the time, then the pair of us would drive out to the fairgrounds. The whole trek could take up to two and a half hours. Once there we would run classes for another couple of hours, and then I repeated the whole process to get home.

At this point I was also working forty hours and five days a week at my regular job, and spending both my days off at Nova Spada. Eventually my value and enthusiasm as both a student and an instructor began to fade. I knew nothing of nutrition in those days, and I was essentially working non-stop for seven days a week. I was exhausted. I would sometimes make the journey all the way out there only to feel strung out and half-asleep most of the time I was there. It was not good.

However, as it turned out we didn’t keep the Cloverdale practice running all that long. The expense of the two locations was not practicable considering the amount of money we were taking in, and some of the financial help we were hoping for didn’t come to be. Thus perished the Cloverdale Practice. There were a few classes we ran outside in parks and the like, but it wasn’t long before we were only running sessions at Sapperton, and only on one day a week.

The Nova Spada group in Cloverdale

The Sapperton practice, which would endure for another three years after we abandoned Cloverdale, went through many a metamorphosis. At first we were running classes much the same; alternating sword work with knife and unarmed work. The 5×5’s finally came in to their own as a system of training. However, after a while we were at a loss to know where we should go from there.

During that time classes became very informal. There was a period where we were more of a drop in facility with no structured classes. Randy and I more or less stepped back as instructors, working on bettering ourselves while occasionally giving advice to those who asked for it. The one advantage of this un-ambitious period was that we were actually able to pocket a small percentage of our earnings as opposed to putting all the money into new equipment.

Nevertheless, neither of us were really happy with the way things were.

I was constantly trying to think of a way to get things rolling again, as I felt that we were coming up with some really great material that was begging to be taught. Eventually I hit upon the idea of taking a page from history and trying to re-vision ourselves as a guild – kind of a less biased version of the London Masters of Defence from Elizabethan England.

When I first proposed this idea to Randy I didn’t think he was that taken with it. I thought that he felt it was too big a leap from what we were doing. I was a little disappointed, but I shrugged it off and filed the concept away for future use.

However, the idea was not as rebuffed as I had initially thought. A few weeks later we began discussing it again in more detail. By this point my girlfriend, Holly Maclaren, had become a regular part of our endeavours, and we all began planning how we would re-brand the school. The four of us, Randy, Courtney, Holly and myself began meeting at least once a week to brainstorm, plan, plot and scheme. It was a fairly lengthy and often frustrating process, but in there end we disseminated what we had done with Nova Spada and created Scatha Combat guild.

The early days of SCG were spent offering a series of workshops designed to bring in some new students and spark some more interest in what we were doing. Randy and I both ran long, two hour sessions that covered our own particular skills. Randy did two part introductions to the fencing master Marozzo, as well as German longsword and other favourites of his, I did the same on the basics of Bartitsu. and Angelo’s Highland Broadswoard (or Backsword) military style. We also ran classes devoted entirely to fitness for the first time.

To a certain extent, the plan worked. We did get more interest online and a few more people started to check us out in person. After a few months of this, we were ready to start buckling down to regular classes again.

Eventually the standard night ran along these lines: work out, 2×2 drill (a simple practice of all the basics strikes against a target), the 5×5’s then some in depth work on a particular field, followed finally by free sparring.

The biggest shift over time was the work out portion.

When we first began running classes we still kept the model we had used from Palestra; run around, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, a little plyometrics. However, over time our conditioning portion of the night became a melting pot of new and old ideas. Randy was always trying to find the best ways to train people to move more naturally and more gracefully, so we we always experimenting with something new. We researched everything from Parkour to La Canne looking for new ways to condition our students for athletic movement.

What we ended up with became a mix of basic gymnastics, the essentials of Capoeira, and a smidgen of on-the-floor break dancing. It was a fascinating blend.

I was not a fan of the gymnastics at first. I liked the idea of making all our students capable of handstands and planches, but I wasn’t sure we were going about it the right way. The issue I had was that a lot of the basic exercises are a both very difficult, and not particularly rewarding for the first few months. For one, it was frustrating to feel like there was a whole aspect of strength that I completely lacked (and I did). Also, I sometimes felt that we were throwing ourselves into the more difficult positions when we hadn’t really taken the time to build up the co-ordination of the basic postures.

Eventually I came to accept that the attempts at seemingly impossible feats of gymnastics were in fact building a much better sense of movement in our students, and a balance that they had never possessed before. It took time, but the day finally came where I could hold a free-standing hand stand and I realized the progress I was making. However, I still wished we had taken a little more time to work through and coach the basics before pushing forward into the more intermediate stuff.

Meanwhile the four of us were still planning to expand our business. Our hope was to make a business plan, attain some money, and set up a small, permanent location somewhere in Vancouver. Once there we could advertise the hell out of ourselves and perhaps get on our way to actually running a successful establishment.

I still get starry eyes over the idea of having a modest club somewhere, and being able to show the world some of this amazing stuff that surfaced over the last half-decade.

Yet that was a dream that ended up staying in the realm of fantasy…



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.

Randy's arm with a few tiny pieces missing.,,

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.