The Art of Surviving the Duel

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

At the Martinez Academy of Arms in New York, they teach the (rather obsolete) art of surviving the duel:

The academy is one of a few remaining places in the world where a nearly extinct tradition of European swordsmanship is studied and passed down from master to student, said its founder, Ramón Martínez, 57. Mr. Martínez — everyone calls him Maestro — holds a title esteemed among fencers: master of arms. His academy teaches styles and traditions for more than 20 weapons including the rapier, the dagger, the wooden cane and the military saber.

“We’re preserving something here that is very rare,” Mr. Martínez said. “These are techniques that have vanished from modern fencing systems, and many styles are not even practiced anymore in the countries where they originated.”

Mr. Martínez says the traditional styles he teaches are a martial art rooted in dueling tradition. Unlike modern, Olympic-style fencing, which emphasizes athleticism and dramatic lunges, his academy’s fencing focuses on an economy of movement, with a less-catlike stance, he said. Its style is more cagey and defensive, like the style one might adopt in a real duel with real swords and real lives at stake.

“We’re not teaching a game,” Mr. Martínez said. “We’re teaching them to duel as if their lives depended on it. The object is not to rack up points, but to survive the duel.”

I’m guessing that HBO’s Game of Thrones boosted enrollment.

Rory Miller (Meditations on Violence) notes that there are few things as obsolete as medieval sidearms, which might make the art of the duel seem like a pretty silly thing to study — but a blade teaches some lessons especially well:

Margin of error
Dealing with a sword, there really isn’t a margin of error. Unarmed you can afford to make far more mistakes, give yourself more time. You take a glancing blow to the head or someone tags your upper arm with a fist and it’s not a big deal. Bladed weapons force you to think in a more demanding way.

Weapons teach distancing faster and better than unarmed
You need to be able, at a glance to tell from build, grip, foot position and weapon if the threat can reach you. Exactly how his range changes with shifts of footing, grip or center of gravity. You can predict the ‘tells’ you need to watch for when and if the threat decides to develop range. It’s a critical skill with weapons and the cool thing is that it translates. After getting ranging with weapons down, unarmed range assessment is even easier.

You learn not to waste time or motion
Related to ‘no margin of error.’ A sword fight is won or lost in fractions of seconds and fractions of inches. If the person is going to miss you by the tiniest of margins, you don’t waste effort or time in motion. You never parry even an inch more than you absolutely have to. Unarmed fighting allows for a lot more slop.

It requires (and thus develops) commitment:
There’s no way you can hit someone without being close enough to be hit back. Or maybe hit first. But we’ve all been hit enough to know it really isn’t a big deal. With a blade? Any decisive action means you are close enough to be killed or maimed. Every time you engage you are betting your life on your skill, your speed and your ability to read what is truly happening.

This is specialized, maybe, but by truly limiting the weapon, strategy comes to the fore. Unarmed we can get by forever on tricks. Given just hand strikes, foot strikes, take-downs, locks, gouges, strangles, head-butts and slamming I can keep shifting between the options and force you to play catch-up, or find the one that you haven’t experienced before. Limit it to just one class of tool (hand strikes in boxing, for instance) and it forces the skill to go up another level. t changes from tricks to tactics and then, maybe even strategy. Dealing with just a point (foil or epee) and limiting offense and defense to the same tool in the same hand pushed a deeper understanding of all the elements of strategy: timing and distancing and psychology and…

All of these things, and there are more, inform and improve your unarmed skill. They change the way you see and think.

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