The Rules of the Fight and Effective Training

The Rules of Martial Arts
There are rules in martial arts. The rules in modern martial arts are many and varied. These arts are often oriented towards sporting applications or may be practiced for fitness or spiritual development rather than as fighting techniques with an application in the real world. Their rules are oriented towards safety and limiting liability. These are not the rules that I am writing about today. I am writing to discuss rules that are derived primarily from historic sources and involve the basic principles of fighting in earnest combat. In my experience the ‘rules’ listed below are as applicable to modern arts as they are to ancient ones. Some of these occurred to me in the course of my own study and then I found that they were well known in one form or another to the medieval and renaissance masters. Others were told to me and personal experience has shown them to be valid. In the work of recreating the techniques shown in Fiore’s texts these rules have provided a valuable yardstick to judge our interpretations and sometimes to understand what we are seeing in the text. We have generally found that keeping these rules in mind when attempting to reproduce a technique has led to more elegant and effective interpretations that we feel are likely to be accurate than some of our earlier attempts.

Effective training and ‘Martial Intent’
To practice any art as a serious set of fighting techniques it is necessary to practice as if mistakes have real consequences; as if getting hit doesn’t mean losing a point – it means being maimed or killed. These arts have to be practiced with what students of Historic European Martial Arts have come to call Martial Intent.

Some hold that this means that they should be hyper-aggressive and should apply full speed and force in executing techniques at all times – even in practice or for the purposes of demonstration. Some feel that even in practice or demonstration that if a technique isn’t working they should immediately depart from the script and do something that does work. This can result in injuries and even into a practice bout devolving into an actual fight. People exercising this philosophy can and have injured students, random volunteers from the audience and even had the tables turned on them with serious injury as a result.

In practice the goal is to learn. In practice you if a technique isn’t working you need to figure out why rather than simply changing your technique so that you can ‘win.’ Sometimes a disparity in physical size, physical limitations, weight and/or strength means that a given technique won’t work between partners. You need to find that out by reason and observation; if you simply do whatever it takes to ‘win’ you may bypass a valid technique through simple lack of understanding. In a real fight that can be like giving up a weapon that might save your life and we’re talking about the study real fighting arts. There are certain rules or principles inherent in ancient martial arts based on the fact that the results of failure are catastrophic. Learning the Rules of the Fight and applying them in your practice combined with an attitude that the results of failure are catastrophic and you be will working with appropriate Martial Intent without excessive aggression or force. This can produce a markedly lesser chance of injuring other students or forcing them to injure you and a greater chance of learning the techniques correctly.

‘Practice Slow – in the fight anger will give speed to your techniques’ – This is actually a paraphrase of a quote from Fiore. In modern terms we would substitute ‘stress’ or ‘adrenaline’ for the word ‘Anger’ but the principle remains valid. Practice slowly and strive for precision. Learning to do the technique correctly in practice is more important than doing it with speed and force. In an actual fight you will fight as you have trained so there is no point in executing a technique in practice faster that you can do it correctly. Otherwise you risk training yourself into bad habits. If you do this enough you train your muscle memory to respond automatically and do it right. When it comes down to a match (or a fight) adrenaline will speed you up naturally. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t free-spar but that is a topic for another article.

As an example when I used to shoot in combat pistol competition I never practiced a fast- draw. I always drew slowly and consistently with a focus on precision and gaining a correct sight picture each time. After thousands of repetitions of this I could aim the pistol as fast as I could draw and point it at the target. In a match I would be ‘psyched up’ and adrenalized- ‘hyper-stressed’ is the term used in studying match stress and comparing it to the actual stress of combat. Even though I never practiced a ‘quick draw’ at a Match I was usually able to draw and put the first shot on the target faster than a person pointing a gun at me would have been able to pull the trigger.

When it comes down to it you will fight as you train. If you train with bad habits in a fight or bouting you will display those bad habits. In a famous police shoot-out in the 70’s a dead police officer was found with empty shells in his pocket and is believed to have been shot as he bent over to pick up more casings that he had just ejected from his revolver when he reloaded. Why would he do such a bizarre thing in the middle of a gun-fight? Because when he was on the shooting range he always picked up the empty casings so that the shells could be reloaded later. That officer trained himself into a bad habit and when the chips were down he reverted to his training and was killed as a result. Train slowly, train correctly and train with precision and realism and your odds of winning a bout or surviving a confrontation are all the better for it.

The Rules of the Fight
In no particular order:

The best defense is not to be there when the attack arrives. Ideally I would prefer to be in a different city but of course that’s not what we are talking about here. In the fight this is accomplished by moving offline and inside or outside of the range of the attack.

Stack your defenses- don’t depend on any one thing to save your life. Don’t just change the line- move inside or outside of an attacks range and offer an active defense also. If you fail in any one aspect of a stacked defense you have two other elements working to prevent the attack from striking home. Change the Line- Change the Distance – Offer an Active Defense.

Never commit to an attack unless you control or have negated your opponent’s weapon – if you control the opponent’s weapon whether it is the hand, knee, dagger or sword the weapon can’t hurt you. Negating a weapon means that by your action you have placed your self where the weapon cannot reach you at all or have placed the weapon in a position where it cannot reach you before you establish control or retreat beyond it’s range.

Once you have established control of an opponent’s weapon never yield that control until your opponent is incapable of continuing the fight- If you have established control of a weapon you are by definition within the reach of that weapon. It’s very hard to get out of range safely – don’t try or it could cost you your life.

Yield to strength and follow after weakness – if your opponent is attacking with great energy or exerting great pressure don’t meet force with force – redirect his energy in a way that is beneficial to you. Similarly if an opponent is yielding before your strength press in to gain control or advantage- while being mindful not to allow yourself to be deflected.

Never pursue a failed technique – if what you are doing in a fight isn’t working don’t try to force it to work- move on to something else or disengage. If what you are doing in practice doesn’t work don’t try to force it. Change to a different technique; work with your partner and instructor to determine why it isn’t working.

Apply these rules to your practice and interpretations of techniques, practice as slowly as you need to in order to execute the technique properly and maintain a correct training atmosphere and your studies will benefit.

Tinker Pearce
I am a swordmaker by trade and a student of the techniques of Fiore and Saviolo. I live in Seattle, WA. USA with my wife Linda. I wrote "The Medieval Sword in the Modern World" and have a podcast called 'The Sword Geek' In addition to Swords, knives, martial arts etc. I am interested in firearms and Automobiles (Historic, classic and modern in both cases)


  1. As the author I would like to say that I would encourage comments on this article and will not be offended by them. I am well aware that our understanding of medieval fighting techniques is in it’s infancy and little is yet set in stone. Your thoughts on and discussion of this article- and any rules that I might have missed- would be wholeheartedly welcomed.

  2. Those are quite a nice set of recommendations, Tinker, and I emphatize mostly with them. I’ll try to have some of my fellows from the SCEA read it, and comment it.

  3. Great insights, Tinker… with regards to “The best defense is not to be there when the attack arrives.” I think that is a good goal but it has to be considered within the geometrical realities of long weapons. With a long weapon (sword or spear), a minute angle change by the wielder of the weapon can result in a considerable traverse of distance at the point. Therefore, the defender’s ability to “move offline” to avoid a weapon is diminished with a longer weapon.

    Interestingly, many of your rules closely correspond to wing chun maxims: when the way is free, go forward; yield to strength, and overwhelm weakness; follow the retreat; defend and attack simultaneously.

  4. Tinker, good piece.

    Picking a bit at your “rule of the fight” section, I think it might be possible to refine the dictum of stacked defense. There’s a fair variety of techniques in the treatises that are distinctly non-stacked (at least in their modern interpretations). Schietelhau, krumphau, and duplieren come to mind as techniques that do not offer redundant defense. It’s telling that treatises seem to imply that these are relatively advanced moves and that they all involve an immediately incapacitating blow. One might say that the masters deviated from a stacked defense only under ideal conditions and only where that deviation results in a quick end to the engagement.

    I very much like the Fiore quote. As someone who free-played early and often, I’m coming to a position of skepticism regarding its utility in developing effective technique, particularly in early training. Given the OGs (Original Gangsters) limited protective equipment, and the high human capital investment in their students it’s pretty unlikely that they went “all-out” in training on a regular basis.

    I once heard the sentiment expressed thusly: “How do you think Duke Niccolo would react if Fiore sent his son and heir back to him with a shattered knee and a gauged-out eye?”

    I’ve also noticed that new students tend to have their progress retarded if avoiding pain and defeat consumes more of their mental energy than practicing good technique.

  5. Very good read. I agree with your idea of not trying to move quicker than you can correctly execute a technique. I also believe it is essential to push yourself in this area as well. I want to be able to move quicker and I want to train against people who are quick, since this pushes me to be better.

    In your rules of fight, you lay out a good solid argument, but in my mind it is too defensive, at least in light of what Liechtenaur taught. “I say truthfully, no man can defend without danger”. I see this disconnect throughout our community. It may be a misunderstanding of the master on my part, but he repeatedly stresses making the first strike. Most of our training and drills build into us the idea of “waiting” to be attacked and then reacting. This just seems totally at odds with what is recorded by Dobringer.

  6. I agree with the majority of what the article said. Truth be told, I am actually posting out of curiosity to the statement in one of the comments, in particular Mr. Larson’s:

    “As someone who free-played early and often, I’m coming to a position of skepticism regarding its utility in developing effective technique, particularly in early training. ”

    How do you define “early training” exactly? In my opinion, that would be 2-3 months before a student starts putting freeplay in their regimen with more seasoned partners (freeplay between new students should wait a bit more).

    • To clarify my point, 2-3 months of average modern training. That would mean, for 2 times a week of 1,5 hour lessons, about 12-18 hours of practice.

      Essentially, back then in the day where they trained for 4-8 hours a day, within the first week of attendance in a fencing school.

      • My own experience hasn’t seen a lot of benefit from free play that early. I doubt that the OGs free-played so early either, but I don’t have any quotes on hand to back up that sentiment. I seem to recall later-period masters counseling very delayed ramp-up to unrestricted play. This is something I’m willing to be corrected on, however. We don’t really have enough information on what successful technique looks like, let alone what constitutes the most direct training path to attaining that technique.

        It’s worth clarifying that “free-play” can often encapsulate a wide variety of activities. I have seen huge benefit from focused sparring of the kind that is popular in boxing training. Agent attempts to strike Patient with his choice of techniques X,Y, or Z while Patient defends with his choice of techniques A,B, or C- this activity could be called “Free Play” at its higher permutations. “Free Play” with senior students can often approximate this dynamic and closely supervised play between serious-minded beginners can approach this form as well. I have also seen a lot of “bumfights with swords.”

        I’d also like to add the caveat that these assumptions are highly sensitive to the end goal you are trying to achieve. If the goal is produce fighters who can win bouts under [insert ruleset here], then early free play might be a great training approach (to paraphrase the entirety of the Bullshido Forum: “if you want to train to be a street-fighter, go pick a lot of fights in bars”). If the goal is to produce martial artists who can smoothly and precisely perform the treatise-derived techniques at speed, then free play is probably not the best use of a marginal training hour at the experience level we’re talking about. Most of us are shooting for some middle ground on that continuum, so it’s understandable if we come up with slightly different answers to this question.

        One more caveat- we’re largely arguing about the best use of a marginal hour of training. Given an infinite amount of training time, virtually any sword-related activity has some kind of potential benefit. When I say “I am skeptical of early free play,” I only mean that I can think of uses of that training time that give better results at the margin.

        Last thing: free play is fun. HEMA is recreation. A well-run class in 2012 should make more concessions to fun-but-less-useful activities than a well-run class in 1412. If I’d had stricter exercise in my early training, I might have better technique, but I’d have had less fun along the way.

        • Hi, re: “I doubt that the OGs free-played so early either, but I don’t have any quotes on hand to back up that sentiment”

          Meyer says: “when you can cut them [the principle cuts] correctly and well as I have said, then next learn to pull them back again skilfully in mid flight or mid course, and to make them flit, so that just as a cut is about to hit, and you can see that it will be useless in this place, you can turn it from there to another in mid flight before he actually realises it. Now when this has taken place, then you are at last trained and ready to step into the ring.”

          Which, considering how difficult that level of skill is, supports the argument for delayed freeplay.

  7. Good points Chris- Fiore is often noted as being more defensive than the German tradition though and that is my speciality as much as I have one. But I don’t believe that the rules that I have laid out mean that you cannot make the first strike- just that it should be made in such a way that you do not expose yourself recklessly.

    Kip says”Schietelhau, krumphau, and duplieren come to mind as techniques that do not offer redundant defense.” Depending on how they are applied they can indeed offer defense, even redundant defense. Naturally when striking you have to change the distance to bring yourself within reach of your opponent and changing the line can make it harder for your opponent to strike you. Striking from the correct measure and tempo with control of the Line can force your opponent’s action to a degree, making them react defensively and perhaps allowing you to gain control of their weapons. This actually constitutes an active defense on the attacker’s part because your opponent must respond to your weapon. This is why the German tradition in particular places such a high value on taking the initiative in the fight; forcing your opponent to fight responsively allows greater control of the fight and limits your opponent’s ability to attack you in turn.

    When striking or responding to a strike I also try to place myself out of reach of my opponent’s weapons- not just accounting for their sword but their legs, off-hand, head (against butting) etc. In this case out of reach means either literally where their sword cannot reach me (difficult) or my sword will be in position to intercept their attack. To protect against kicks and stomps I try to maneuver so that they will be off-balance if they try- or I simply step on their foot when moving into close play. Maintaining proper posture and position can make head-butts impractical etc. Particularly in close play or winding I will use my elbows or foreasrms to press against my opponents arms to to control them as I strike around their sword and in close play I try to make full use of all of my available weapons. In sword-play to often people get hung up on trying to do everything with the sword and forget their other natural weapons. An elbow-push, a palm-heel strike that turns their head and allows a transition to a throw… we need to remember all the tools in the tool-box! But I am sure I am digressing into ‘preaching to the choir’ here…

    The ‘Rules’ as I propose them are few and simple- but the application is complex and requires a great deal of thought and practice and a broad view of the meaning of the terms.

    • Annoyingly these principles are hugely easier to demonstrate than to discuss in writing…

  8. Thank you for the clarification! I have yet to study Fiore. I am trying to wrap my mind around the Dobringer. I completely agree that being “agressive” and seeking to win the first strike, does not mean to be reckless! Still so much to learn!

    Bro. Chris

  9. Thanks for posting this Tinker.

    I’d like you to explain how slow “slow” is to you. It means different things to different people, which is why I try to be more specific.

    The thing is that Tai Chi slow is much too slow for good training. It uses different muscles and it the muscles engaged are used differently. Moving slowly is done with slow twitch fibers and moving fast is done with fast twitch fibers. These fibers are controlled by separate nerves that are insulated from each other, so carryover from one to the other doesn’t happen much. In fact, training increases the insulation, thereby reducing carryover.

    Additionally, consider a descending cut as our example action (oberhau or fendente). If I move my sword slower than the pull of gravity then I am necessarily pulling upwards with my muscles – which is the exact opposite of my training objective. More generally, anytime I train slower than the influence of either gravity or momentum then I am training the opposite muscular action of movement done at full speed.

    These are the reasons that the term “slow” is one that I use rarely, even for when I’m training slower than full-speed. I need to specify what slow is to avoid my students moving too slowly.

    And so that’s my reason for asking you to elaborate on how you use the term slow.


  10. Steven-
    You’ve actually defined it very well for me! No, ‘Tai-chi’ slow is too slow. But if you are moving too fast to do a technique correctly all you will manage is to train to do it wrong. The balance will change with each individual, and for each individual over time.

    One thing that I have noted in training – my body has no trouble figuring out which set of nerves to send a command down. Even after slow, deliberate training when the stress of competition, a fencing bout or whatever hit I moved plenty fast.

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