Beginning Swordplay, Part Three

Week number three had me intrigued. Longsword was finally starting to make sense to me but now we were moving on to a new weapon? This could go either way. Longsword had been difficult at first, but the more time I spent on it, the more sense it made to me. Learning something new at this stage could be challenging, but also interesting. Aside from all that, I was in Academie Duello to learn swordplay, so clearly if they thought I was ready, I was just going to have to give this new sword a try. And that’s how I was introduced to the sidesword.

In the hands of our instructors, the sidesword was a graceful weapon. Selman and Bernd both had an unerring ability to seemingly make it flow. They made it look easy. For me, sidesword wasn’t an easy weapon. Unlike the longsword, it was a one handed weapon. The stances were similar, but different. I thought longsword had been physically demanding; I was misinformed. I hadn’t had a lesson in sidesword. The first guard we learned involved holding the sword directly up in the air. The motions for the sword had the potential to be fluid, but in the hands of beginners, like myself, it was less fluid. I could blame it on the sword hurting my hand and the guard being physically taxing. That would be the easy way out. The sidesword requires a lot of physical co-ordination. Co-ordination is something I’m lacking in. I hadn't yet gotten to the third and final weapon covered in the Warrior Fundamentals course, but I would later conclude that the sidesword was the most physically demanding weapon out of the three. Because of the difficulty I personally had with it, I found it to be kind of hard to learn. Fortunately, there were other elements to the weapon that would make it more attractive.

Our second class in sidesword introduced us to the buckler. The buckler is a small shield, which surprised many. It’s not used to cover the body, like many people imagine when they hear the word ‘shield’. Instead it’s used in conjunction with the sidesword, to reinforce blocks and to protect the hands when striking. Like I said before, the sidesword is a weapon that requires a lot of physical co-ordination, and when coupled with a buckler it requires even more. While our instructors made the sword and buckler move as if they were one tool that happened to be used in two hands, fluid and seamlessly, in my beginner hands it felt stilted and slow. For me, the buckler was entirely separate to the sword, probably because I hadn’t had the years of training that my instructors had. Due to this, it felt awkward. I had a constant breakdown of the movements in my head. “Bring sword forward, bring buckler up, bring sword back, bring buckler forward.” I was feeling like I had back when I first picked up a longsword. The reassuring part, however, was the other students in the class. They were equally as confused and as stiff with the weapon, and all of our co-ordination was off. Seeing the way both Selman and Bernd handled their sideswords and bucklers also assured me that, while it was a difficult weapon to learn, it was also definitely a weapon that moves absolutely beautifully in the hands of those who apply themselves to its study. It is certainly difficult to learn, but I could see it would be very rewarding to master.

The last section of class – that had up until this point been reserved for grappling -- also changed in week number three. We were now returning to the longsword. At this point, we had been shown the basics of how the weapon works, so now it was time to actually fight with one! I was very excited. I should clarify that it wasn’t so much a 'strap-on-some-protective-gear-and-go-hit-that-guy' style of fight, but something called play building. At a low speed, with an opponent, we would go through the different things we had learned to build a ‘play’. It meant that we were engaging with the material we had learned, in a proactive manner. It didn’t matter to me or my partner that we were moving incredibly slowly, because we were still putting together a swordfight. It was not only reaffirming to see that we had actually been retaining what we had learned, but also exciting to see how it worked in a new context. So exciting that both me and my training partner got a bit too enthusiastic and had to be told to slow down before we accidentally hurt someone. The sound of steel hitting steel, even at slow speeds, is very rewarding because I was actually taking part in an honest-to-goodness swordfight! After feeling a bit lost with a sidesword, it was wonderful to actually feel like I had an idea of what I was doing in play building. It was also wonderful to just feel like my longsword skills were truly improving.

Next up: the final weapon and my personal highlight of the course!

This is part 3 of a four-part series. You can read part one here and part two 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.