Sunday, 1 March 2015

Martial Truths: Getting the Full Length

Sword (and rapier) length — does it matter?

Some fencers obsess over the “correct” length of their chosen weapon. In this essay I’ll attempt to discuss relative lengths of Short Sword and Long Rapier from the Elizabethan era (and later).

The Proper Length

In the 1562 Statues of Apparel Queen Elizabeth I put a stop to excessive sword length:

her Majesty’s pleasure is that no man shall, after ten days next following this proclamation, wear any sword, rapier, or any weapon in their stead passing the length of one yard and half a quarter of blade at the uttermost, neither any dagger above the length of twelve inches in blade, neither any buckler with a sharp point or with any point above two inches in length, upon pain of forfeiting the sword or dagger passing the said length

The restriction was more likely to do with fashion than anything else — the Queen was probably fed up with her courtiers tripping each other up with trailing blades. Ruff sizes were out of control too:

ruffs shall not be worn otherwise than single, and the singleness to be used in a due and mean sort, as was orderly and comely used before the coming in of the outrageous double ruffs which now of late are crept in

(“mean” as in average or typical; q.v. Silver’s “man of mean stature”)


Anyway… a yard and half a quarter is just over 40 inches, and that’s not unusual for a period weapon, but there were longer examples, too. I don’t know how much this restriction affected rapier practice; blades seem to range between 40 and 45 inches long, and despite quite a few online sources there are few articles that actually pin down the length. This article considers 40-42 inches common for Fabris.

There’s also this 1650 example in the NY Met collection with a 45 inch blade:


That’s not quite a fair comparison, though. The Elizabethan rapier of 1562 probably overlapped a fair bit with the spada da lato and the espada ropera for civilian defence in the early part of the 1500s; quite different from the mid-17th century weapon that later morphed into the smallsword.

Long Rapiers and Short Swords

Let’s consider two contemporary sources, then. Joseph Swetnam’s Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence of 1617 recommends:

 Let thy rapier be of a reasonable length, rather too long then too short, foure foote at the least

If that’s four feet for the whole weapon it would be around 40 inches, or 1 1/8 yards. A 48 inch blade… that’s crazy, but then Swetnam’s illustrations show some very long blades indeed:


Now let’s consider what Silver has to say about “perfect lengths”. In Paradox 19 he says you should

Stand with your sword and dagger drawn as you see in this picture, keeping out straight your dagger arm, drawing back your sword as far as you conveniently can, not opening the elbow joint of your sword arm

If I do as Silver says I get a length not far from the length of my synthetic waster. That’s around 34 inches in the blade, and I’m tall (6’1”) by modern and Elizabethan standards. Alex Bourdas has a different interpretation, though, reckoning around 39 inches of blade; that’s easy to achieve if you open your elbow even slightly, which is what the illustration appears to be doing:


It doesn’t help that Silver further muddies the waters in Paradox 15:

The blade to be a yard and an inch for men of mean statures, and for men of tall statures, a yard and three or four inches, and no more.

That would be… 40 inches. Really? Really? A “long rapier” and a “short sword” are exactly the same length?

If true that means the technical objections Silver raises, and the advantages Swetnam cites in considering long rapier against short sword have nothing to do with relative length, and more to do with other technical concerns — namely the execution of Guardant Fight against Variable, etc.

And certainly those considerations of technique are far more important than mere length; but on the other hand — since we’ve taken historical examples of the rapier — there seems to be a general consensus that the blade is around 31 to 34 inches, and this is common in modern reproductions (which I assume were based on originals). Perhaps Silver meant blade to be the whole weapon — 31 inches blade + 6 for the hilt makes a yard and an inch, job done. Who knows?

Silver vs Swetnam: Technical Discussion

Reading Silver and Swetnam it’s likely that there were differences in lengths, as both men base technical arguments on relative lengths and distance. Silver notes the advantage of the shorter weapon in its ability to cross and uncross faster than the longer — here he’s referring to a two-handed sword against the like:

These weapons are to be used in fight as the short staf, yf both play upon dubble & syngle hand, at the two hand sword, the long sword hath the advantage if the weight thereof be not too heavy for his strength that has it, but if both play only upon dubble hand, then his blade which is of convenient length agreeing with his stature that hath it, which is according with the length of the measure of his single swordblade, hath the advantage of the sword that is too long for the stature of the contrary party, because he can cross & uncross, strike & thrust, close & grip in shorter time than the other can.

But there are a couple of caveats as always — Silver here is talking about a very specific sort of play where both parties are using a double-handed stance only; furthermore the inference is that this is some kind of close fight.

Swetnam: A Critique of the Short Sword’s Distance

Speaking of the close fight, this is Swetnam’s reasoning for preferring one weapon over the other:

my reason is the distance is so narrow that a man can hardly observe it, except thy have been both practioners a long time before hand, for if a man practice continually long sword or long Rapier, yet upon such a Challenge goeth into the field with a short sword, then the daunger is greatest of all

Swetnam seems to argue that the correct play of the backsword is so near to the opponent that it’s difficult to maintain without (in Silver’s terms) giving the opponent the place, i.e. coming so close that one can be struck in the time of the hand.

The Four Fights

I think Swetnam is characterising the whole of Silver’s play as the close fight only — at least for the Short Sword against the like. If so that’s a fairly superficial reading of Silver who is fairly explicit (if cryptic) about the four fights in his “military riddle”:

  • Gardant fight stayeth, putteth back or beateth gardant fight
  • Open fight stayeth, putteth back or beateth open fight
  • Variable fight answereth variable fight in the first distance and not otherwise, except it be with the perfect length against the imperfect
  • Close fight is beaten by gardant fight
  • Variable close and gardant fight, beateth gardant fight, open fight, close fight, and variable fight
  • Gardant fight in the imperfection of the Agent or Patient winneth the half sword, and preventeth the close, and whosoever first ventureth the close looseth it, and is in great danger of death, and not possible to escape or get out again without great hurt.

All very confusing, but Silver helps us out in Brief Instructions.

Open Fight:

Open fight is to Carry your hand & hilt aloft above your head, either with point upright, or point backwards which is best, yet use that which you shall find most apt, to strike, thrust, or ward.

i.e. stand with your sword up high and use downright blows. It’s a battlefield stance that Terry Brown contends should be used only when “fighting double” with a shield (English Martial Arts, p100).

Guardant fight:

Guardant fight in general is of 2 sorts, the first is true guardant fight, which is either perfect or Imperfect. The perfect is to carry your hand & hilt above your head with your point down towards your left knee, with your sword blade somewhat near your body…

Silver goes into detail about Perfect and Imperfect hanging guards — basically it’s perfect if you’re upright, and imperfect if you’re inclined forward (because you can’t ward a blow on the left side or thrust on the right in time), or if the point is far out or advanced (because it can be knocked aside). He also mentions “bastard gardant” where the hand is lower than the head, but that’s not for a general fighting position, just for transient motions, crossing blades and attempting grips, etc.

Close Fight:

Close fight is when you Cros at the half sword either above at forehand ward that is with point high, & hand & hilt low, or at true or bastard guardant ward with both your points down. Close is all manner of fights wherein you have made a true Crose at the half sword with your space very narrow & not Crost, is also close fight.

Basically this is fighting at a distance where the opponents’ swords cross at half their length, either up (a “forehand ward”) or down as the gardant. In the latter case this sounds like Hope’s hanging guard, and so in Silver’s own terms this is “imperfect” — but it works assuming both parties are engaging “with their space narrow”.

Variable Fight:

This is “all other manner of lying not here before spoken of, where of these 4 that follow are the chiefest of them”. Silver goes on to talk about various guards used by the rapier etc; Cyril Matthey contends that Silver has misconstrued much of the terminology used by the Italian masters, but the intent is clear: the rapier fight is “variable”.

Gardant vs Variable

Looking at Silver’s Military Riddle the fight of the Short Sword against the Long Rapier can be characterised as Gardant against Variable.

The Riddle gives a clue at to exactly how Gardant Fight answers Variable:

  1. A fight that is Gardant, Close and Variable may be used to overcome Variable fight, and
  2. Gardant will win the close in the imperfection of patient or agent, and
  3. Variable only answers variable in the first distance.

The strategy presents thus: the short sword in gardant will attempt to cross the long rapier in variable, at which point the shorter length of the short sword will be at an advantage to uncross faster within distance than the long rapier is able to be repositioned in defence; the short sword has “won the place” where it can be used to offend in the time of the hand only, whereas the rapier to defend must use a slower time involving the feet.

Swetnam is clearly aware of this strategy, and refutes it thus:

those which weare short swords, depend onely upon the taking of the enemies point, which is not to bee done if they meete with with one that is skilfull: I have heard many say in talking familiarly concerning this weapon, if I take the point of your long Rapier, then you are gone, but that is not to be done if thou meete with one that is skilfull except thou canst take thy enemies point in thy teeth, otherwise thou canst never make seasure upon his point, if hee bee skilfull as aforesaid

In other words Swetnam is saying “yes, you could do that, but if you are able to do so, you clearly haven’t met a skillful fencer”.

Silver makes mention many times of “the number of his feet being too many”, for example Of the Imperfection and Insufficiency of Rapiers in general…. The length of rapiers contributes to their inability to answer each other in anything but the first (longest?) distance — in other words, they’re fine with two fencers circling and jabbing, but once it comes to passing within distance it’s easy for both sides to fall within the length of the other’s blade — so neither weapon is able to offend or defend, and both combatants end up at grappling distance — or if they have poiniards, close enough to stab one another in the time of the hand.

I saw exactly this happening in a rapier class years ago. Two fencers went at one another and ended up at grappling distance. The instructor was pretty cross, stating that “if this happens, you have already lost”. Which is true to an extent — the rapier is wholly reliant for its play on maintaining this first distance, and becomes useless otherwise.

Observations on Small Sword against Rapier (and Epee)

At this stage the debate rapidly becomes biased in favour of one fencer’s preferences — Swetnam for longer distance, Silver for shorter. And clearly Silver acknowledges that variable fight can answer variable fight, as long as the rapier-man can keep the distance of the fight he prefers.

This raises a very important point — if the fencer with the backsword allows her opponent with the rapier to fence at the distance he prefers, she will find it difficult to gain the place.

Hope notes that there are three “measures” one may fight at. The chief problem with the third “measure” (note — Hope’s terminology is different from Silver’s) is that when the fencer is too far from their adversary they are disordered by stepping within distance.

Therefore if you fence between rapier (a 40 inch blade) and smallsword (perhaps 32 inches), the one with the rapier will naturally prefer a longer distance; and if the smallsword fencer allows the play to happen at this distance, they will forever be at a disadvantage to offend the one with the rapier.

The flip-side of this story is that when rapier meets small-sword the former will tend to make very long lunges from a longer distance, and assuming the small-sword fencer can cross these thrusts she will then be at a great advantage to uncross and answer with a riposte, or even better a command and a kick in the coddes. This is also true of fencers with a sport background who typically fight at a greater distance. This is not to say the smallsword has an inherent advantage, but more that it lends itself to the same gardant, close and variable fight that may be used to overcome the solely variable fight of the rapier.

Acknowledgements and Further Reading

I’d like to acknowledge the following sources:

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Martial Truths: Back To School (part 1)

Let’s talk about martial arts schools.

This Is Your Brain On Martial Arts

Remember this?


(from this post)

This is the modern combatives “tactical pyramid”. It shows the priority of attributes in a martial artist needed to win fights. Natural advantage aside, all of these aspects may be trained (or in the case of Kit, purchased with gold pieces).

Let’s break it down:

  • Mindset is readiness to pay the cost of winning (harming others, coming to harm, etc.)
  • Tactics are your
    • holistic view of the fight
    • ability to see changes in your opponent’s behaviour and adapt
    • ability to plan the engagement to retain advantage (proactive)
  • Techniques are
    • executing moves with maximum efficiency (speed, power, safety, etc.)
    • a component toolkit for constructing tactical moves
    • establish the autonomic behaviours of the artist when placed in a stress situation (reactive)
  • Kit
    • Weapons, armour, that kind of thing

Understand that this triangle comes from a modern combatives source, where “kit” includes concealed guns and knives. Clearly if the weapons on one side were disproportionately better — say you were openly carrying a big gun and the other side wasn’t — you’d have a kit advantage that might trump technique. You’d still need the mindset to do harm, though.

Another comment about modern combatives: the tactics for street defence involve never being in a risky situation in the first place. A lot of the focus in combatives I’ve attended is on hazard spotting or avoiding being surprised, knowing when to flee, etc.

That context aside — I really like the triangle. It’s a good illustration of the priorities the instructor should have when training students.

Over-Focus On Technique

If tactics and mindset are so important, then why are we obsessed with teaching techniques in MA classes? Here are a few reasons:

  • It’s gratifying. For the student who knows very little, being able to learn techniques piecemeal and execute them will give them positive feedback about the learning process.
  • It’s easier for the instructor. Ideas like tactics and mindset are high-level, “soft” concepts. Techniques are well defined, “hard” procedures — as in if you do X correctly, the result will be Y.
  • They are effective for base conditioning. Being able to execute basic moves shifts the student from a state of conscious to unconscious competence; in other words they have less cognitive load associated with executing moves, and so can develop higher level tactics. More about that in a minute.

Those are all positives. There is one negative, which is cool technique is what Hollywood has taught us to expect. When we visualise ourselves fighting — either as martial artists or in RPG combat — we think about looking good. A lot of MA mastery is about getting over one’s own narcissism.

Learning Curve

You’ve probably seen this diagram before, too:

4 stages linear

Learning to drive is the example often used, although I’ve also seen it in corporate seminars — usually while trying to make the audience feel good about culture change or something similarly nebulous.

But actually the curve is more like this:

4 stages curved

If someone told you you’re going to actually get worse at the activity before you get better, would you even start?

It should come as no surprise that the point at which the student becomes consciously incompetent is when they’re most likely to quit.

Let’s say the student has attended classes for a few months. They’ve won a few fights, mainly on natural talent (agression, vigor, speed) rather than finesse. This is because while they’re great at doing the techniques in a controlled environment, it all goes out the window when their blood is up.

Now say they’re a conscientious student — they want to believe in their new hobby and for them, winning doesn’t count without good form. Unfortunately putting the techniques into place is a cognitive load. While they’re thinking about doing the technique right they have less space for tactical reasoning, and… they start losing fights to less experienced students.

This is the point where they start to have doubts — doubts about their own ability, and doubts about how well they fit into the school. Obviously this is where a coach comes in, to hold a mirror up and help the student realise that they are improving.

Ultimately whether the student remains in or leaves the school will come down to the school culture, of which the Instructor is a major element.

School Culture

When a new student comes to a school, they may well think they’re getting the same experience as they would in the school down the road. And for a lot of students who only ever study at one school they’ll probably never know the difference.

However, martial arts schools don’t come from a mold — not even the ones that ascribe to an identifiable sub-form (say, Wado Ryu). The form has to be interpreted by the instructor and then passed on to her students.

This is all part of the school culture — something that will influence whether a student joins, stays with or leaves the school. I’ve considered a four-fold diagram:

School Culture

  • The History and Philosophy of the art will probably be the first thing that the student sees and what attracts her to the art. It will set an expectation in her mind for behaviours, her development, and the rules of engagement.
  • Instructor Ethos and Competence should reflect the philosophy of the art, but does it? This is all about the group leader — do they care about their students? Do they push and if so, how hard? Do they get results? How do their personal beliefs filter down to the school?
  • Rules of Engagement are all about how students behave in the competitive environment, typified by how hard students will hit one another and still consider it “part of the game”. This will be directly influenced by the Instructor’s Ethos, and obviously affects how welcoming the school is to outsiders.
  • The behaviour of Other Students will be influenced by the Rules of Engagement which will be set according to the Instructor’s Ethos. However knowing other students is sometimes a reason for a student to stay, even if she doesn’t like the rest of the school culture. Additionally the other students will be who the student is tested against — so it matters how the other students interpret the Rules of Engagement, how rough they are, and how sporting.

While the school culture may be rooted in tradition, it’s really the Instructor who personifies that tradition and is the real source of the school’s identity.

Instructors can have both a one-to-many relationship with the student body, and many one-to-one relationships with individual students. It’s the latter that the Instructor uses to coach and mentor individuals to reach their potential. At the same time the Instructor may convey expectations on the students through this relationship — including demands for loyalty.

It’s a Tribe Thing

Martial Arts schools are tribal. That’s not intended to be pejorative, just a statement of fact. The fact that schools can have their own culture is an indicator of this.

This means that when two schools come together they with interact positively or negatively based on the same cultural markers above. Furthermore the similarity of some aspects is no guarantee that the two tribes will get along, and differences don’t automatically mean disharmony either.

Disagreements and common ground can be found in both the Philosophy of the school, and the People who practice it; and they can happen at both high and low levels. Let’s consider the four markers in a slightly different way:


At the high level the master will influence the form taught, and the form will influence the master. At the low level, the character of the student body will affect their conduct toward one another, and their conduct will affect character. Influence between high and low levels will be generally one-way, however.

Now consider how another school might view this tribe. If the masters tend to agree then it may be because their views on form align. If they continue to agree with one another, they may end up influencing one another’s thoughts on form, training and technical art. On the contrary if they disagree, these are the areas where they will find fault with one another.

At the student level the interactions will be predicated on training and competing with one another. If the students like each other they may be prepared to change the Rules of Engagement, even if this isn’t what they would normally do in the gym at home. If they dislike one another then the Rules of Engagement become contentious, with potential appeals to authority to tighten or relax those rules. This escalates tension from the student body into the domain of the masters.

Remarks on MA in RPGs

One of the aims of this series is to talk about Martial Arts in a RPG (and fiction) context. How does knowledge of school cultures help us?

First, remember that a martial art isn’t just a skill, it involves practice and experience. While this is the case for all skills, practicing MA is unique in that gaining experience involves deliberate competition with others where the stakes are high: there’s the potential for injury in training, or even death.

This coupled with the tribal nature of martial schools means a great potential for forming positive and negative relationships. The fact that those martial artists fight is possibly the least interesting thing about them. If you want to simulate martial arts in a game, forget the Fu powers of Feng Shui or the charms in Exalted, what about Strings from Monsterhearts or Hx from Apocalypse World?

Now that you know that, consider the effect of emotion on the competitive arena. Judgement, Vigor and Calmness are the three pillars of Hope’s teachings, but Calmness is easily upset if there are bad feelings — I know firsthand the feeling of adrenaline that comes when facing down an opponent who you have a beef with outside the ring, and it’s not an advantage. What would happen in a fight if one combatant used a String on another?

In summary, martial arts are cool, but the coolest thing about martial arts isn’t martial arts — it’s the dynamic relationship between master and student, between student and student, and between schools.

Afterword: Living Tradition

Living tradition in martial arts has always been important, and the Western MA movement is often criticised for its lack of direct master-to-student lineage. Instead most WMA are based on masters from Eastern traditions picking up the manuals and interpreting the contents according to the ethos of their favoured school. This is why some WMA will look decidely like kenjutsu or modern sport sabre or theatrical stage fighting. But it’s not as much of a mess as it sounds; WMA is also practiced competitively and studied academically, and those conflicts will tease out inconsistencies and weak behaviours.

The WMA instructor’s biggest problem is developing her own ethos in the absence of a mentor. Beyond that they are no different from their counterparts practicing popular eastern MA — and both need enough self belief and introspection to judge when the source they have learned from is not 100% correct.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

What do we say to the God of Death?

Last weekend I went to the 9 Worlds convention. It was awesome, and I totally recommend it. The combination of many different cultural tracks and a really strong focus on being inclusive made for a great atmosphere.

This is what I saw:

  • Dr Who Fanvids
  • Archaeology of Fantasy Worlds
  • Urban Fantasy Worlds (All the Books)
  • Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth (Retro Fandom)
  • Identity and Sex Work in ASOIAF
  • Whedon vs Tropes in Cabin in the Woods
  • Fight Choreography for Writers
  • Storygasm, including River’s Absolution
  • Bechdel Film Test
  • Gin Appreciation
  • Queer Cabaret, and Steampunk Cabaret
  • “Chains of Transformation” for Fanfic Remixes
  • Assaulting the Narrative
  • Water Dancing with Syrio Forel
  • Marketing Monsterclass
  • Environmental Narratives in Video Games

Needless to say there was also a lot I didn’t go to but would have liked to, owing to clashes. Here are some of the real highlights:

Archaeology of Fantasy Worlds

This was an early start on Friday on the Academic track, and proved to be one of the best talks in the whole Con. The premise was how one would go about archaeology of Middle Earth and other worlds, and what you might find — how one might gather evidence of how dwarven and orcish societies may have interacted over centuries, for example.

Sex Work and Identity in A Song Of Ice And Fire

This one was in a small room in the post-lunch slot. Mostly it covered the dehumanising and othering of sex workers by the various characters in the series. Both panel and audience generally took GoT’s misogyny and sensationalising of the subject as a given, but what made the talk was the attention to detail (detail which I’m not really inclined to dig for myself) such as the way certain characters personify attitudes to be the hate figure when those attitudes are shared by supposedly “good” protagonists as well, or the way most sex workers have not been given real names in the text.

Gin Appreciation

This was on the Steampunk track. For a 10 quid ticket, we got to drink a lot of gin.

The talk began with a history of gin, including a dissection of Hogarth’s Gin Lane and the Gin Reform Act and its effect on bathtub gin-making. Then we went on to distillation methods, which was where I got my chemistry geek on.

The five main ones on offer were:

  • Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell (not bad for a tenner, I can see how this would make a great martini)
  • Adnam’s Copper House Gin (really fantastic herby gin with a lot of character, apparently contains hibiscus botanicals)
  • Plymouth Gin (a very well balanced gin, not as dry as a London Dry gin)
  • Hendricks (needs no introduction, it’s a firm favourite — though we did learn some cool things about its multi-stage distillation)
  • Burleigh’s Gin, a new gin from Jamie Baxter launched that very evening somewhere else in London. Possibly we got to taste it before the official launch, but we were all a bit sloshed by then and having trouble with time. Very interesting one with silver birch and iris flowers.

Of those five, I still love the Hendricks but they were all very fine — even the cheap one from Aldi. The newcomer is apparently rare as hen’s teeth, being a small batch production. Ah, well.

We also learned about enjoying gin with water instead of tonic. I still prefer a decent tonic, but water really brings out the interesting notes in exotic gins like Gin Mare.

Other gins on offer included Hoxton’s with grapefruit and coconut (didn’t like it) and a brussel sprout gin which tasted like a watered-down absinthe.


This was the gaming track. I spent a lot of Saturday gaming, running a Beyond the Wall scenario in about 75 minutes (testament to its pick-up friendliness) and then playing River’s Absolution, a Firefly hack of Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne in the afternoon.

I’ve only played a few GMless games, but the session crystallised some thoughts on the nature of storygames and how they differ from trad RPGs. Some of the players in RA were at ease with the whole shared ownership of the story and scene; others occasionally looked to the facilitator for both descriptions of the scene, and to arbitrate over the scene’s events. Much of this comes down to leadership and decision-making norms in our hobby. Generally the GM provides the leadership when framing a scene, and leaves the decision making to the players. But in GMless games there is no real decision-making: often events are assumed to come to pass, and the game is about exploring why those decisions are made.

That’s all fine when all the players buy in, but it falls apart when you take expectations from trad gaming. In some examples I might make a suggestion that is reasonable in-character, but highly disruptive — such as declaring that I am putting the witch to the sword right now, never mind our journey. Here I’m relying on my fellow players to block me in this action, and they are relying on me to acquiesce no matter what. Such was the case when I jokingly suggested to float River out of the cargo hold and save us an inconvenient journey in the first scene.

I think it boils down to this: it’s counter-intuitive to frame a scene where there is an apparent decision to be made, and then assume that the decision has been made and instead explore only the motivations. I get the feeling that this will always be a hurdle with this type of game.

Water Dancing with Syrio Forel

Finally, I got a lesson from Syrio Forel, First Sword of Braavos! Well, technically the lesson came from Miltos Yerolemou who plays Syrio in GoT.

(No, I haven’t suddenly turned into a GoT fan. I just like sword choreography)

Serious Business
Serious Business

This was one of those things I had to attend just to say I’d done it, but it ended up being one of the best parts of the convention. The lesson was strongly tipped towards choreography as opposed to martial, but was great fun. My only regret was doing it in boots and jeans, which proved to be a bit uncomfortable to train in.

I even got a souvenir:

What do we say?
What do we say?
Not today!
Not today!

With this blade I will be inwincible.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

George Silver and English Martial Arts

This is the start of a new series of posts concerning “the truth” about sword-related (and other) Western Martial Arts. This has been prompted by two things. The first was this blog post which includes a video by Schola Gladiatora and highlights some wrong assumptions games make about fighting (I did reply but the comment seems to have been lost). This made me think of other fighting-related misconceptions, like weapon length, quarterstaves doing pitiful damage, psychology and decision making in combat. That kind of thing.

The second is that I’ve been collecting all martial-related posts into a single page and I’ve realised that while I’ve quoted George Silver (and Hope) I’ve not written a complete post about Silver. This will be the first thing I put right.

Gamers who read this may find this diversion away from “game” and towards “truth” unnecessary, and I partly agree. If you plan to play a game, what matters is consistency and the social contract to play the same way, and it doesn’t matter if you have a truthful understanding of initiative, or the quarterstaff. So, I’m not setting out to change the way people play, only to shine a light on those misconceptions and give the players an opportunity to make up their own mind.

As for any Martial Artists who read this and, perhaps, think Dungeons and Dragons is a less noble pursuit than sword practice and competition, I say this: Martial Arts is a game, too. It has rules and structures, win and lose conditions, truth and falsehood. And while we may nod to the lethal reality of fighting arts, we are no closer to that lethality in their modern practice than we are in playing a RPG (safe practices notwithstanding). Indeed, arrogance in our own abilities is the thing most likely to bring us harm in the real world.

Truth and Learning

Differences between two scholars concerning “the truth” may lead us to conclude that one or both is wrong; that understanding is forever incomplete, and therefore flawed; that no one individual can observe the whole elephant. In The Changing Face Of Truth Terry Brown writes about the differences in terminology between Silver and Godfrey. How can both be correct, both grasping the Truth of fighting, when they differ on basic concepts like Distance and Measure?

Terry Brown posits that Silver and Godfrey’s differing view of the fundamentals of the “True Fight” arise from mechanical differences in weapons, and the context of their use. But also True Fight is a tacit concept that both men are attempting to make explicit through a system.

In Accelerated expertise: training for high proficiency in a complex world by Hoffman et. al. the authors comment on expertise development as formation of a “rich mental map” of their intellectual domain. These mental maps are procedural as well as conceptual. Two experts in the same field will have different mental maps, and different ways they visualise the same truth. Of course where there are common points of reference in learning the maps may be more similar than different, but they are individual.

Therefore, even when two experts have the same foundations their mental maps may diverge, and therefore their means of expressing those maps. Have you ever been in “violent agreement” with another person? You’ve stated your case on a technical subject and will settle for nothing less than complete agreement from the other party — and they do agree, but they just don’t agree in a language that you like?

Naturally the way to disentangle these agreements is to listen, process and compare the truths therein, which is what Terry Brown does in his essay. It’s just not so easy when your blood is up.

It would be easy to treat the opinions of two masters at the height of their field relativistically, but this would be wrong. There is a truth of fighting, and there is a falsehood, and for as long as we can use physics as a foundation we can also call martial arts a science.

George Silver

George Silver’s Paradoxes and Bref Instructions (sic) can be found in various corners of the web, as well as discussions and analysis of the text. There’s a list of worthwhile links at the bottom of this article. While I think they’re great they are the product of martial arts scholars, and will dive into detail where most readers lack the context to understand the arguments.

My goal isn’t to re-hash a critique of Silver, but to provide an overview — and to point out why Silver is overlooked, and also why his (rather obtuse) texts are so useful, if not essential to comprehending martial arts.

Silver In Context, Ancient and Modern

George Silver’s own context when he wrote Paradoxes was an England where continental swordplay was being introduced as something fashionable and cool. Rapiers were elegant, slender weapons and rapier-men were deadly gymnastic dancers. The problem was the teachers, who took money from young scholars, taught them a few lessons and made them feel invincible with a rapier at their side; those youngsters would promptly go out, pick a fight, and die (sometimes with a double defeat where both sides would run the other through).

While Silver’s subsequent ranting and character-assassination of both continental sword and sword-master looks like English xenophobia, he does back up his arguments with science. He argues the rapier is a imperfect weapon built on incorrect principles. It’s too long. It’s no good for proper cutting. And so on. Silver’s maxim is “our ancestors were wise, yet our age accounts them foolish” meaning the new school of fence has wholly rejected methods of swordplay which have been tried and tested over centuries.

This is pretty much how Silver has positioned himself; on the cusp of the Medieval and the Renaissance, at least as far as fighting goes. And similarly many modern WMA practitioners don’t know where to place him. He’s either the last of the Medievalists, or the first of the Renaissance artists. Terry Brown’s conclusion at the end of his essay favours the former:

“some people are trying to interpret his principles and techniques in light of later methods of cut and thrust fighting. It is my contention that Silver meant no such thing and was, in the main, teaching medieval techniques which had been passed down through schools of defence which had existed in England since at least the late twelfth century”

We’d like to think there is a direct line from Silver to the our favourite later masters such as Sir William Hope; but while it’s true that Hope developed a hanging guard in his New, Short and Easy Method in 1707, his art (while wholly pragmatic) is influenced by the fencing fashion of the long 18th century where blades — court swords and spadroons — were feather-light skewers with pretty handles. Silver might say he was making the best of a bad lot.

Still, flawed or not, all of Silver’s principles as laid down in his Paradoxes and Bref Instructions are true for Hope, too. And they are true of all fighting arts; they are an acid test by which one can sort good technique from bad.

Silver’s Truths

While there are techniques in Bref Instructions, the great value of Silver is enumerating simple concepts such as True and False Times, Grounds and Governors, and Gaining the Place. More than providing martial principles and technique, Silver is offering the idea that fighting is a science and therefore repeatable results are obtainable by following simple and fundamental rules.

This is incredibly powerful. It places the tools in the hands of any scholar who wishes to scrutinise technique and tell good from bad. It does not excuse the need for training and securing expertise, of course (10,000 hours of practice!) but by providing a framework it most likely assists retention of skill (q.v. Hoffman).

These are the edited highlights. Have a read through and decide how many of these are obvious.

True and False Times
From Paradoxes, this is a hierarchy of “times” indicating the relative speed of actions. The fastest False Time will not be faster than the slowest True Time.

True Times

Time of the Hand
Time of the Hand and Body
Time of the Hand/Body/Foot
Time of the Hand/Body/Feet

False Times

Time of the Foot
Time of the Foot and Body
Time of the Foot/Body/Hand
Time of the Feet/Body/Hand

You can test why the time of the Hand is quicker by standing within arm’s reach of someone, and then trying to step back while they slap you in the face (not too hard…).

This all seems a bit abstract, but it has implications for all manner of swordplay, and shows why the Distance is key — chiefly that if you stand within a distance where the opponent can cut you by moving their hand alone, you’re unlikely to be able to step away in time.

The Grounds
These are Judgement, Distance, Time and Place, and they follow a hierarchy. Using good Judgement you keep your Distance, and therefore “take your Tyme… and gayne the Place of your adversarie” (Bref Instructions, Cap.I.). What this means is by maintaining the right distance you always have time to act appropriately in attack or defence (and indeed, your opponent does not).

The Governors
These are Judgement, Measure, and the twofold mind to both press in and fly out as the situation demands it — in other words, being reactive to both opportunities and to dangers. Judgement is “to know when your adversarie can reach you, & when not, & when you can do the lyke to him”. Measure here is the least obvious but really it’s just about “making your space true”, that is to carry your weapon in a way that you can both ward an attack and launch your own in the most efficient way.

The Four Actions
These are positions of readiness of a weapon: bent, spent, lying spent and drawing back, in that sequence. Understanding that when your opponent has attacked you they will be, briefly, lying spent; this is an advantage you can seize. Likewise when they are bent (i.e. ready to strike) you must be wary of walking into distance and giving them “the place”.

The above are almost everything you need to design viable techniques. If you only use True Times, if you exercise good Judgement to keep both Distance and Measure, if you exploit advantages as you see them whilst keeping yourself safe — you will be victorious, and your victory will be repeatable.

I told you it would be obvious. So, what’s the catch?


Silver is nothing if not pragmatic, and while he is an exponent of English over continental swords he deals in advantages, not absolute certainties. His contempt for the rapier places it beneath the sword, and thus the latter has the advantage over the former (and sword and dagger has advantage over rapier and poinard), but the sword is disadvantaged against staves (Silver states that a short staff may address two swords and retain advantage).

There are perfect and imperfect weapons (the rapier’s capacity to only thrust makes it imperfect) and moreover there are perfect lengths of weapons that are optimised for the height of the wielder. All of this perfection and advantage comes from being able to operate at a distance where you may offend your opponent with minimal risk; and the problem sword-fighters have against staff-fighters is that the latter has such an advantage of distance that the swordsman must take a step where the staff holder is not obliged to, and thus the one with a sword is using a slower True Time than the one with the staff.

(Yes, we like to think that the swordsman might step within the reach of the staff and grip it or put it aside, but the staff bearer can reposition their weapon using only a time of their hand and body. The advantage is preserved.)

The other truth, perhaps the one we are in denial about the most, is the advantage of stature. There’s an imagined discussion beginning on page 45 of Paradoxes between a master and scholar; and the scholar repeatedly asks what advantage he, a man of “mean stature” might have against a tall man. The answer is, none — because it’s no harder for the Tall man to obey the principles of the True Fight than it is for the shorter man, while retaining the advantage of a longer pace and reach. The best the smaller man can do is to take advantage of his ability to slip away faster than his pursuer can offend him, and otherwise do his best to keep his fight true — for “if he should fail in the least iota of his Art, he should be in great danger of death or hurt”. Silver is not the only master to tackle the question of natural advantage, although other masters phrase it as the dichotomy of Art (i.e. skill) against Strength, which is not quite the same thing.

(This is a popular subject in early 19c boxing manuals, e.g. Fewtrell)

We like to romantically think that the weak can be trained out of weakness, and to some extent this is true — but nevertheless, someone bigger and stronger will always have an advantage.

Further Reading

This is the end of my essay, for now. I haven’t touched on either the Wards of Open, Closed, Guardant and Variable Fight, nor the techniques — but these are best illustrated through an instructor. Furthermore they get into the territory of every other martial manual, which is to be focused on technique. Techniques are important as a learning aid, but Silver’s axioms are unique.

Wikipedia Page
Jonathan Miller’s modern transcription of the Brief Instructions


George Silver making sure he’s getting the full length.