Open Wounds

Stage Combat

K is for Knuckle Bow

sc0011f494The knuckle bow is part of the sword guard that sweeps from the hilt to the pommel in a bow shape offering protection to the sword hand.

Competitive sabres have them and many rapiers did. Not only great for protecting the hand but great for in-fighting also – smashing into the face especially. The pommel is great for that also as is the cross guard. You can also (as a neat trick) reverse your sword, holding the blade with both hands, one hand on the foible and one on the forte. Then use the parts of the hilt and grip as a weapon. Nasty stuff. Not taught on the lawns of the great families but in the dark alleys where the smell of brandy and whiskey is strong. That and urine. I had to add that in. Couldn’t help myself.

The Masked Man

The Masked Man

J is for Joust

Don't Ask. Don't Ask.

Don’t Ask. Don’t Ask.

I know what you’re thinking. Jousting is not swordplay. It’s two men on horses in armor trying to knock each other off with a lance.

It is that.

But it also was so much more. Swordplay in medieval times was more brawn than finesse. Armor was heavy and so were the swords and shields. Originally a joust could be a battle on horse, a grand melee or single combat on foot. On foot is could be with pole-axe, axe, dagger, or… the sword. By The Sword by  Richard Cohen is one of my favorite books on combat with the sword and he’s got a whole chapter 0n this type of combat.

On the melee, “… these jousts were  condemned by the church for their high casualty rates.”

On single combat, “…the use of heavy armor and heavy weapons allowed only simple movements, forcing contestants to concentrate on one blow at a time, so that complicated phrases were impossible… Only when a shield was so cut up as to be useless were the swords themselves used for parrying, as edge-to-edge clashes were mutually damaging.”


I went to visit a Society for Creative Anachronism group a few times where they roleplay medieval life including fights with swords. I fought twice. They use rattan taped up with duct-tape – think getting hit with a two-by-four only it’s lighter so it moves a little faster. I wore leather armor and a full steel covers the whole head like the black knight in Monty Python and The Holy Grail, helmet, hand-made by a friend. They calibrated me for the fight (so I would know what a death-blow was vs a glancing blow or arm-cutting-off blow) by wacking me in the head with their swords three times. “This is a death blow.” Wack. “Let’s do that again.” Wack. “Once more so we know you got it.” Wack. My head was ringing. Then they put a sword in my hand and gave me a shield (heavy) and we went at it. In a matter of seconds I had been hacked in the legs and wacked in the head. Death-blow. I tried again and lasted about two minutes. It was very humbling. All my opponent did was smash into me with his shield, and wack me with sword blows to my head – very very fast, repeatedly. O as fast as he could go with all that armor on. Okay it seemed fast to me, even it wasn’t. Hell, I had no idea what I was doing.

I still had fun.

I would do it again.

Wouldn’t you?


I is for Imbroccata

It's only a flesh wound.

It’s only a flesh wound.

Imbroccata is an Italian word for a downward thrust, generally delivered from the right side with the hand pronated over one’s opponent’s sword arm. Your sword hand is higher than your shoulder and the point of your sword is angled down. – Actors On guard by Dale Anthony Girard. It looks vicious in a stage fight and in competition I find it makes my opponents hesitate (as in what the hell is he trying to do now?).

I love all the Italian words for the different fencing moves. The opposite of the imbroccata is the stoccata (attacking from the bottom up under the opponent’s sword arm). Mandritti are cuts from the right side. Botta Dritta is the straight thrust. Botta longa is the lunge. Stramazone is a slicing or cutting blow made with the point/tip of the sword. Mandritti Squalembrato is a cut from the right side oblique and downward attack. Volte is a specialized foot movement to avoid a thrust – nothing to do with a battery. And finally Botta segrete or the secret attack – is the secret attack that only a few fencing masters know of that no one can defend against.

The language of fencing whether it’s in English, Italian, or French, is a language of textures, colors, aggression, and heavy breathing. Yes it’s very much a language of sex in addition to one of violence.

The rest I’ll leave to your imagination.


H is for Hit

Hit! Touch! Choreography!

Hit! Touch! Choreography!

Colpira senza essere colpito. Hit but don’t get hit. This is from an Italian Master of fencing from the 16th century.

Good advice.

What’s the difference between competitive fencing, a duel, and staged choreography? There is a conceptual difference that is important for writer’s to understand and incorporate into their work. It all centers around what it means to be hit.

Stage combat is choreographed (if someone ever says to you, “Let’s just go at it and see what happens. It’ll be more spontaneous that way.” Run. Run as fast as you can.). It is like a dance made just for the characters involved, tailored to each of their personalities. A fight that could be used by any character without signature is a generic fight that doesn’t add to the story. It is a fight for a fight’s sake. Hollywood does this all the time. That’s why so many fights look the same and even though the action is kinetic it is ultimately un-engaging and leaves us feeling used – as if we weren’t considered smart enough by the director to handle the “smart fight.” Don’t get me started.

Competitive fencing with épée (the closest to a dueling weapon) allows double touches and scores a hit for one and not the other if you hit a fraction of a second before your opponent. You don’t worry about the second hit because it’s later and doesn’t count. We’re not hitting to kill or draw blood. It is a sport. Hits are called touches. The weapons are dangerous (why else wear masks and canvas to protect ourselves?) but safety is emphasized in the rules and play stops after every touch.

What about a duel? The mind-set changes. If it’s to first blood it can be blood anywhere so hits to the wrist and arm may be sufficient. But fights to the death are another story. What follows is from Aldo’s Nadi’s book On Fencing chapter in which he describes a duel he was involved in 1910. Remember, this is a man who was considered the greatest fencer of his time. No one could beat him. Then he challenges a forty-year old fencing critic who has fought 4 previous duels before while he, at 24, although he has just won the championship in three weapons has never fought in one. This chapter is worth reading. Here’s an excerpt in Nadi’s words.

“…You have heard shouts under the mask before, and you have never paid the slightest attention to them. why even without mask, this man is like any other. He is armed with a weapon quite familiar to you, and there is no reason why he should beat you–none whatever. When these few seconds of uncertainty and uncontrollable fear and doubt are over, you counterattack, and touch, precisely where you wanted to touch–at the wrist, well through the glove and white silk. but during the violent action of your adversary, his blade snaps into yours, and its point whips into your forearm. you hardly feel anything–no pain anyway; but you know that after having touched him, you have been touched too. “Halt!” shrieks the director.

Caring not for your own wound, you immediately look at your opponent’s wrist, and then up at his face. Why on earth does he look so pleased? Haven’t you touched him first? Yes, but this is no mere competition. He has indeed every reason to be satisfied for having wounded you–supposedly a champion–even if he nicked you after you touched him.

Young man, you must never be touched. Otherwise, the blood now coming out of your arm may instead be spurting from your chest…” – Aldo Nadi


F is for Fencing Measure

rec birdFencing measure is a stage combat term than means the distance you are at from your opponent that is safe to do your choreography from. You are out of distance of each other’s blades so you can’t be hit but close enough to give the illusion that you can be hit. It’s all smoke and mirrors I know but that’s film and theatre. It’s entertainment and safety is key. But we can learn from this.

You measure this distance by, from your on guard position, extending your arm fully and touching your opponents bell guard with your point. Tip to guard. Then you are just out of distance.

Distance is an interesting thing in fencing and in a fight. Depending on the person and how threatening they seem to you and whether their weapon is drawn or not, the distance at which you might be attacked or feel threatened is very different.

In stage combat class most actors get into each other’s faces for violence and forget they have a sword at their side. They’re used to fists. They were not born with a blade in their hand or in the hand of others around them. They have not been training with a sword since childhood and seen death come to their town, city, castle, family, from the razor edge or the point of steel.

So notice that distance to attack can be as close as an extended arm plus three feet of steel. It can be two to three feet longer for a lunge distance and another two to three feet for an advance and lunge, or even further if your opponent runs at you.

Look at how distance is used in the first duel in Ridley Scott’s movie The Duelists. Notice how far they are to start. Almost tip to tip. Watch how scared one combatant is to close the distance and how quickly he leaves the killing space. Notice how Harvey Keitel (with the long hair) understands the distance so well that he plays with it.

Think of this. The edge on a sword should be as sharp as a razor. The point is like a pin.

I can tell you having seen a real machete (a slightly curved weapon that has one sharp edge used for farming and self-defense) fight in a very remote community in Honduras somewhere near the Nicaraguan border that thirty feet away was not far enough. When the combatants ran at each other and their blades hit sparks flew and people dove for cover – me included. I saw the wounds of one man up close after the fight and after applying some basic first aid – pressure to stop the heavy blood flow – helped to carry him to a hospital a few hours away on foot. I got to see his wounds up close. One wound across his chest took 34 stitches and a cut that scored his forehead near his hairline left a flap of skin that fell forward across his face. These wounds were enough to give me great respect for and want to keep a great distance from – a blade.

Distance is everything. You can’t hit someone if you can’t get close enough. And if you can hit them, they most likely can also hit you.