Beginning Swordplay, Part 4

The final week of Warrior Fundamentals. It was all coming to an end.  While I was sad that the course was drawing to a close, we finished on a high note – first, because we had the opportunity to play with polearms, and second, because we finally had the chance to spar, an experience that confirmed all of our hard work had been worth it.

Class number 7 introduced the last weapon of the course, the poleaxe. I greatly enjoyed the poleaxe. When first picking it up, it seemed like nothing more than a large stick with a rubber hammer head on one end. This wasn't a bad thing. The poleaxe moved (in part) similarly to the longsword, with some overlap in technique. This meant I personally felt like it was a lot easier to pick up than the sidesword.

Selman warned us at the beginning of the class to take extra care as poleaxes can do a lot of damage for little action, and after holding it for a few minutes, I definitely understood what he was talking about. Neither longsword nor sidesword felt particularly destructive but when I held a poleaxe, I certainly felt like I could take a chunk out of something if I wasn't careful. Because of the rubber head on the weapon, its balance was also set forward, and it felt like it took far less effort to swing. Like I said before, the basic movements of the weapon were similar to the longsword, so there was a degree of familiarity there.

The second thing that enamoured me to poleaxe was its versatility. It was taller than me so I almost felt like I could hide behind it. The length of the weapon could guard the length of my body if used correctly. On top of that, we could use both ends of the weapon. One of the strikes we were shown with the end of the poleaxe, or the pedal, was geared towards taking out an opponent’s knees. I had never even thought about going for the knees with a longsword; it would have meant leaving the top half of my body unprotected. The poleaxe gave me a sense of reassurance, as it was a big destructive stick with which I could easily defend all of me.

Class number eight, our final session, was mainly recap with some sparring at the very end.  While going over material we had already learned might sound boring, this was in many ways the best class of all. To start, we took our time going through all three of the weapons covered in the classes one through seven of Warrior Fundamentals. Bernd and Selman also fielded any questions that we had. This involved a brief reunion with the sidesword (my nemesis in sword form), some very, very light work using a poleaxe and a partner, and the main feature of the night: actual sparring with the longsword. After the play building we had done last week, this was the next step up. We were shown the sparring speeds, which are markers of how fast or slow we could go. Speed one is moving as slow as possible, and speed five, the top speed, is ‘actual fight’ speed. While we didn't go any faster than a speed three at the most, it was still probably the most excited I had been at any point throughout the course.

During sparring, everything we had learned over the duration of the course began to come together. Selman even showed us how we could incorporate some of our grappling work into a swordfight. Suddenly, grappling was not just a way for us to practice a proper stance, but another tool we could use even when weapons were involved. Once an opponent was close enough that you could kick them, the fight wasn't necessarily a swordfight any more. He also assured me that my instinct to pommel-smash an opponent in the eye socket once they were within range was not misguided. Furthermore, I got to spar with Selman himself, which was probably one of the highlights of the course for me. He destroyed me, of course. It was massively interesting and also kind of terrifying to see everything we had been learning being used cohesively against me by someone who clearly knew what they were doing. Seeing the longsword being used so well only made me want to improve with it. I also learned that I was stupid enough to walk right onto my opponent’s sword during my sparring with Selman, something which told me that my skills still had a good way to go.

When I originally enrolled in Warrior Fundamentals, I was looking for two things: to have fun, and for a way to build fitness, in that order. On my final day, I was absolutely left wanting more. I had greatly enjoyed learning how to use a longsword, and I was eager to pick one up again. The taste of poleaxe I had was enough to convince me that I needed to get on learning that too, and it was far and away my favourite weapon of the three. The only part that I didn't take absolute pleasure in was studying the sidesword, but despite my frustration with that material, I had gained an appreciation for the weapon from seeing what other, more experienced fencers could do. I just had no urge to learn how to use it myself. As for building fitness, after eight classes I felt I could safely conclude that swordfighting is strenuous. While the swords don't seem to weigh much at first, you can really feel it after an hour of waving one around. The course hadn't been a super-heavy workout, but it was definitely a starting point. Overall, I can now see what the big deal is. The only thing that remains is to decide what I want to do next!

This is part 4 of a four-part series. You can read part one here, part two here. and part three here.

Devon Boorman is the Co-Founder and Director of Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay, which has been active in Vancouver, Canada since 2004. Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the Renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques.
Read more from Devon Boorman.