Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On the Subject of Cutting


As you can see by the subject line this blog is about cutting. It is a subject which has been debated long and hard, both in the Renaissance period and the modern period. For the purposes of this blog I will be mainly focusing on cutting from a Renaissance perspective and also specifically focusing on the use of the rapier. One of the most important things about this discussion is that it is necessary that it is done from an open-minded perspective in order to get the greatest benefit from it, as such there will be some points which will raised which may cause some arguments. Please bear in mind as you read that I am attempting to give the most event-handed discussion of the subject possible and that possibly some of the points raised should be considered as such.

Various organisations have performed test cutting experiments with regards to the use of the cut with the rapier and this will be the first subject for discussion. It is the methods of these test cuts that will be the focus of the discussion. One of the most important things that needs to be taken into account for proper test cutting is the proper method of performing the cuts. If the cuts are not performed properly the test can in no way be valid. This has to be balanced with various other factors in order that the test cutting itself is representational.

Not only does the method have to be valid but this also needs to take into account the weapon being used and the various variations on the weapon possible. In essence a sample of weapons should be taken rather than one single form being taken as representational of all of the forms of that weapon. A perfect example is the rapier in this case. The classification of the weapon is difficult as it came in many forms. Some had longer blades. Some had thicker blades. Some had edges which would be suitable for cutting and others did not. Unless this is taken into account the test cannot be truly valid for all weapons of that particular type.

Next it is important to balance this to the combat situation in which the weapon was used. In order to be valid the test must be performed in a manner which at least resembles the action and situation in which the cut would be performed. This also must take into account any preventive equipment or lack thereof, such as clothing that would have or not been worn at the time. If a cut would most likely have been aimed for example at the body then the target should be placed in a particular way that it would reflect such and placed in such a manner that it would represent a human body. This means that there needs to be some way to prevent it from moving and also allow the action to be performed against it. Without these factors being taken into account it is impossible to say that the test is representational.

The method of performing the cut does need to be taken into account in order that the test can be valid. The test will be invalidated if the cut is not performed as it would be in the situation where it would be used. This means that the correct technique needs to be used applying the correct amount of pressure against the target. If either of these is missing then the test cannot be seen to be valid. This requires research into how the cut would have been performed using a real weapon against a real human being. In this, it is here where personal bias has the most effect. If the tester does not think that a method is valid there is no way to guarantee that the cut will be performed correctly as sub-consciously if they do not think that the method is valid they will want it to fail the test. This means that the tester needs to be open-minded throughout the test in order that it can be valid through proper performance of the actions required.

There are various reasons why a particular form of cut may or may not be used by a particular group or organisation. This may be based on various different factors that need to be taken into account when examining what is being done. One factor is the weapons being used in the bouting. If the weapons are not suited to the performance of a particular cut it can be easily expected that that form of cut will not be used by that group. This can be based on the make or design of the weapon being used. Another factor that should be taken into account is the school of thought behind the organisation using the weapon. The late Italian schools of fence did not use the cut particularly much and this will influence the type of cut that is being used, how much it is practiced, and the situations in which it is or is not used. This will be different to a more German approach where the cut is more important to the style being performed and thus its use will be more prevalent. Finally there are administrative and safety issues that may be present in the organisation which prevent certain types of cut being used. These are typical to the organisation or group and will determine which cuts are considered valid and which ones are not.

With regards to cuts the most important thing of all types of cuts is the correct method for their use in order that they are effective. Without this it is impossible to be able to perform them properly or effectively and there are various factors that need to be taken into account. Technical detail needs to be considered in the performance of all kinds of cut, and these technical details are best expressed in the various factors highlighted below.

First there is the question of hacking in comparison to cutting, this relies upon the purpose and method used for the particular type of cut. Simply bashing away at the opponent with the edge of the weapon is a waste of time and thus the cut must be performed properly and with purpose, the purpose being to cut the target. This purpose must be realised and paramount for the individual even where the damage is only simulated as it will be for most modern martial practice.

The next thing that needs to be taken into account is that the method is appropriate for the weapon itself. This is important as the wrong type of cut performed with the weapon can lead to all sorts of problems not to mention potential damage to a weapon which money has been invested. This means that the method of cutting is very much dependent on the weapon being used. It is useless to attempt to perform cleaving cuts with a weapon for which it is not the purpose.

Finally comes situational importance. The cut must be appropriate to the situation in which the combatant finds themselves in. This must factor in various aspects such as distance, leverage and pressure. There are cuts which are best performed close to the opponent and there are those which are best performed further away, these aspects need to be taken into account in the consideration of which cut will be performed. If the distance is wrong or the leverage is not adequate or the pressure of the blade against the target is not correct then there is no way that the cut will be able to be performed correctly or properly in that situation. Thus situational importance is vital in the correct performance of the cut, or any attack for that matter.

The weapon has been discussed briefly, now it is important to go into more detail. There is a great impact on cutting from the design of the weapon. It must be remembered that there are many different weapons which were called rapiers, and several different forms in which they came, some of which were elucidated above. Obviously the thing that has the greatest effect is the blade design. The width is important in determining the types of cut that will be valid for it. This needs to be balanced with the edge itself, and whether it has a real one or not, whether it is sharp or would have been sharp. This also needs to be balanced with the angle of the edge to see how well it would cut using different methods. This needs to be considered along with whether the weapon is suited to the particular form of cut chosen. Some weapons will be able to perform several different types of cut well and others will be more restricted in their proper use. This may, and often does even come down to the individual weapon.

Various historical sources describe cutting in their texts and describe the manner in which the cut should be performed. It is important to examine these important documents in order to find how the cuts should be performed. Of course, the interpretation of these texts will also have a great impact on how the cuts will be performed. Some give clear examples of how the cut should be performed and others merely hint that cuts were performed but give no description at all. The important thing here is that due to the fact that cuts are mentioned in various texts with regard to the use of the rapier, Di Grassi and Saviolo being only two examples, the idea that the cut is not a valid attack or technique in the use of the rapier is ludicrous.

The most debated forms of cut for the rapier which are argued about by modern theorists and practitioners are the push cut and the draw cut. Some believe that they are a by-product of some forms of fencing performed, others believe that they are legitimate methods which have been changed in order to suit the current age. The question that would be posed is that if they are such a non-technique for the use of the rapier, why have they travelled down and been described in so many manuals? This goes back to some of what was said before.

These are slicing cuts performed with pressure against the target. The blade is not merely placed against the target and then drawn or pushed. This comes back again to the correct method for their use and also the weapon. A draw or push cut will only work particularly well with a weapon which is sharp on its edge, and sharp in the form of a razor as the cut is designed to slice.

In test cutting for this particular form of cut the target, method and weapon are important. The target would be presumed to be an individual wearing a light shirt as may be worn for a duel, thus the preventative measures are important. The position of the target is also important that it will represent such an individual standing up. The weapon needs to be sharp on the edge in order that the weapon will actually cut using this method, thus it needs to be suitable for this form of cut. Finally the cuts must be performed correctly with the correct amount of pressure and leverage against the target. Only once all of these elements are brought together will it be seen whether or not this is a valid method for cutting, and there may be some who will be surprised by the results.

There are various methods of cutting, the impact cut, tip cut, push cut and draw cut. The only way that we will ever know what is or isn't a valid method is for test cutting to be performed where discovery of new information rather than the debunking of a particular method is the aim of the experimentation being performed. The debates about various methods of cutting with various weapons will be debated in the future along with many other elements of fencing that present themselves. This is due to the many different points of view that are available in the modern world. The most important thing with regard to this is that we keep our minds open to these different points of view as they can only enrich our understanding of fencing. Debate is healthy as it allows us to examine various subjects and hopefully come up with some answers in some situations, but always with different points of view. This is healthy for all practitioners and to close our minds to these possibilities is to close our minds to a wider world of different options.



Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sword Alone Versus Everything


First let me give an apology to all of my classical and sport fencing readers as this blog will not apply to you. The following blog is about fighting against different forms. While the initial focus will be on fighting single sword against others, there will be a further discussion later on based on more general combat conditions.

The first thing that I would like to point out in this blog is that we have spent more time using a single sword, be it with a parrying gauntlet or without than any other form in rapier combat. In our training mode we start with the single sword as it teaches principles which will apply to all of the other following forms. This means that it is the form which we have had the most practice, not to mention that while our opponent may have had a great deal of practice with whatever form they are using, still also their main form for practice will also have been the single rapier. So no matter what your opponent brings out against you remember that proportionally, if not in actual fact, you have had more practice with your single than they have had with their other form.

Some of the newer fencers will be intimidated by an opponent taking an offhand device when they only have a single sword. Part of the point of this blog is to reassure these individuals that there is nothing to be truly worried about only to be aware of the other item that they have in their hand. The most important thing to remember in all situations is that in both cases there are only two hands even if their is more than one weapon/device being used. This means that when the opponent has two weapons the offhand becomes more significant, as does the use of the weapon that you have. The most important thing to look at in this situation is what are the advantages and disadvantages of the combination that the opponent has chosen.

When examining what the opponent has chosen to take it is important to take in what advantages the form has and what disadvantages the form has. For example, in a defensive combination such as sword and buckler, the buckler cannot be used to strike and therefore should have less regard paid to it. This doesn't mean that it should be ignored, just that the weapon is really the main threat in that situation. Once you have ascertained these advantages and disadvantages you should play toward the opponent's disadvantages and attempt to minimise the advantages. This particular situation is the same in all accounts with all opponents in all weapon forms. We need to maximise our own advantages while minimising those of the opponent.

In order to realise the advantages and disadvantages of each form it is important to examine them in a little detail. This is best done as a general look and then given some more detail in order to realise the specific characteristics of each one. In this way we are able to see the characteristics from both a generalised point of view and also a more specific point of view. The best way to do this really well is to have a go at the forms yourself and figure out what these characteristics are.

First we will look at defensive combinations as they are often the first that a fencer will come across. What is most significant about the defensive combinations is that there is one weapon and one defensive item being used. The most important fact here is that the defensive item is defensive, and not an immediate threat in the same way that a weapon is. So in many ways this places you on the same field as the offhand is a defensive tool in the same way that a buckler or a cane or a cloak is. So in this way aside from the extended reach, or slightly improved physical protection the defensive options against an open hand are pretty much neutral. The real threat from these combinations is when they come into contact with the weapon and are used to control it. Obviously the way to avoid this is to avoid the item being used to control your weapon. More detail will be given to these forms later on.

Offensive combinations are where people have the most problems, it is usually the thought of two weapons that is the issue, but even this can be dealt with intelligently if you know what to look for. The main thing with offensive combinations is that there is two weapons to your one. This means that there is double the amount of threat from your opponent. As has been stated you can counter one with your weapon and one with your offhand when it is required, or the other way around if you prefer. In most instances combatants will attack with one and then the other but not at the same time, this means that you actually have the time to counter both weapons with one item if you are practiced enough and quick enough. This of course comes down to your level of practice. The trick in this situation is making your defence effective and succinct in order that you are not over-extending yourself. If you move too far you will leave yourself exposed. This combined with the avoidance of control as explained under the defensive items will allow you to deal with these forms as well.

It is important to look at each form in some detail in order to understand the specific advantages of each of the forms. These will be summarised a little in order that this doesn't go on for ages. The characteristics of the weapon in the offhand itself actually gives a great deal away as to where its advantages and disadvantages lie. Cane and case of rapier are similar in that they have reach. Dagger and buckler are better at closer ranges, and cloak has the advantage of volume and a little reach. Of course, now that we can see the advantages it is easier to see the disadvantages.

Case of rapier especially, and not so much with cane have an issue with closer range due to being so long. At closer range they can tangle themselves up and this is something that can be used against the opponent. In this with case it is a matter of avoiding the double threat and forcing the opponent on to the back foot. In the case of cane it is a matter of avoiding all contact with the cane and forcing the opponent to cross over themselves in order to limit the use of the sword by the opponent. In this way with both items the solution is very similar, the main thing to be aware of in this is the threat of the two weapons in case of rapier.

The dagger can only be used as an offensive weapon at closer range than the sword, otherwise its use is limited to being used as something similar to a short cane or the buckler. In this way if you stay out of range of the dagger you will not be struck by it. In this you should move more toward the sword-side of the opponent in order to limit their use of the dagger by forcing them to cross over in order to use it. The buckler is awesome for blocking and controlling. You need to avoid these aspects of the buckler and this can be achieved in a similar manner to that applied to the previous forms, and especially the dagger by staying on the sword-side of the opponent. You can also use the buckler against the opponent by blocking his vision with it and also blocking his weapon with it.

The cloak is a unique device in that it is flexible and has the greatest volume of all of the devices. It can also have the advantage of reach. The cloak can be used to entangle a weapon, cover the opponent's weapon and thus intention, can be used to weigh down a weapon, and even block the vision of its opponent. For all these advantages the cloak can be slow in motion and also difficult for the opponent to control. If you notice either of these things you have an advantage. Avoidance should also be used, keeping your weapon away from the cloak, but still being aware of where the opponent's weapon is at the same time. As with case you can convince your opponent to tangle themselves with it. In this way cloak has a great amount of advantages but also has disadvantages that can be taken advantage of.

The important thing here is that you need to realise these advantages and disadvantages be aware of them and utilise the situation to your own advantage. This is the same with all forms of fencing. In all cases you need to be aware of the situation and manipulate it to your own advantage in order to maximise your ability to succeed in the encounter. In the most simple terms the best weapon or combination is the one you can win with or the one you are most comfortable with. This is one of the true keys to success in fencing.



Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What is the role of the teacher and the student in fencing?


What will be discussed in this blog is the roles of the student and teacher and the relationship between them. It is important to realise that both of these groups of individuals have a role to play in fencing, and especially fencing training. They are actually both important to one another and it is this relationship and how sound this relationship is that will determine how effective the training is and also the ability to excel on both parts.

The first thing to realise is that both the teacher and the student have important roles to play in the training process and this cannot be ignored. In many ways the roles are two sides of the same coin. One does not happen without the other in an effective environment. A person cannot be a student without there being a teacher of some sort, and a teacher cannot be a teacher really without there being a student to teach. Now, in some instances, the student and the teacher will be the same person, but still the same applies.

One is reliant on the other. The student is reliant on the teacher in order to be taught what is required, but the teacher is also relying on the student to learn what is being taught in order that the relationship between the two is fruitful. In this it is important both fulfil the roles that they have in their best capacity in order for the best outcome for the situation and the training process. If one slacks off there is the highly likely chance that the other will slack off. This will result in a reduction in the level of learning. This is where it is best seen that they have a reciprocal relationship. If the teacher is lacking in enthusiasm for what is being taught, then the student will also slack off as they will see what is being taught as not important and also will reduce their efforts in order to learn what is being taught. If the student is lacking in enthusiasm for what is being taught, the teacher will recognise this and will not put in as much effort in the teaching process which will lead to a reduction in the learning. In this way it is important that both put in the maximum amount of effort in their roles in order to achieve the best outcome from the training situation. This also leads on to questions of what it means to be a student or teacher in fencing.

The role of the teacher is to teach. The role of the student is to learn. It is as simple as that, or is it? Does this mean that the teacher may only teach and is precluded from learning, even from the student? Does this mean that the student may only learn and is precluded from teaching? The simple answer to this is "No." This is best seen in the situation where fencing or particular parts of fencing are being learnt alone. In this situation the individual is both student and teacher rolled into one. The individual must not only teach but also learn. Where there are two, or more individuals the same applies. The teacher should also be learning, even if it is only learning how to teach better. The student must also be willing to teach, even if it is to teach the teacher a different perspective. We should all be seeking to learn at all times, and from everyone who has information to part with. The learning experience should never stop and we should never become only teachers as there is so much to learn and in order to do this you must be a student.

What has been discussed is the relationship between the student and the teacher. It is also important to examine what it means to be a student and what it means to be a teacher in fencing. This was a subject that was going to be left for another blog, but it fits too well into the current one to be left separate. This is because in order to understand the roles of these two it is important to understand what it means to be a student or teacher.

What does it mean to be a teacher in fencing? The simplest answer to this question is simply that you teach, but it must be taken further in order that the complete role is understood. It is true that the teacher's primary role is to teach, but it must not stop there. The teacher must also be able to understand. Understand where the student is coming from and understand why they may be having problems. This is another place where there is a division between the teacher and the instructor. It also means that you are willing to learn to improve your ability to teach. The learning process of the teacher is more aimed at improving what is being taught to the students, but it must not stop here. In some ways the teacher must also be able to talk with the student in order that they can understand where the student is coming from and possibly assist the student in dealing with some of the problems that they may be having. For some teachers this will be limited to how this problem is associated with their fencing, for others this is not neccessarily true. The important thing here is that the teacher must draw a line between where they are a friend of the student and where they are the teacher.

What does it mean to be a student in fencing? The simplest answer to this is that you learn. It is true that the primary goal of the student in fencing is to learn in order that they become better at their craft. To be a true student in fencing also means that you will go out and learn whatever you can from whomever you can in order to improve your fencing. Every piece of information is important and every piece in its own way will assist in improving the skill and understanding of fencing overall. This means that the student should also go out and seek such information that will improve their own fencing. This also means that for the true student, they will pay attention to what is being taught and approach this process with enthusiasm in order that they are able to get the maximum benefit out of the relationship with their teacher. In some ways being a student is also about being willing in some part to teach at some stage. A person learns a great deal from teaching and this process can actually solidify what the student knows as it is important that you know something before you teach it.

Once these roles are understood then the relationship between the two can be more completely understood. It is important that both the student and the teacher completely understand what their roles is and what it means for them. The relationship between the two is of great importance and the boundaries that are set between the two must be clear in order that both are able to act correctly in their roles. In order that students and teachers can perform to their maximum capacity both roles must be fulfilled and performed at their maximum capacity, once this is achieved then the maximum is able to be gained both from the relationship and from the fencing practice.



Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Fencing Practice


Practice, it is something that we all need to become better fencers and also in order to maintain the level of skill that we have attained. This blog will be addressing the idea of practice and what people do at practice in order to discuss how our attitude toward practice and what we do affects our fencing.

The first thing that we must ask is what are our practice/training sessions designed for. This is where we must start in order to see the mindset which is behind the thoughts of going to practice in the first place. If we are to truly utilise a training session properly it is important to understand that we are not merely there for honing our current skills but also learning and experimentation. These two should always be the primary achievement goals for a fencing practice.

The learning process for the true student of the blade will never stop as there is always something out there to learn. If we stop learning this will lead to stagnation in our knowledge base, and also stagnation in the process of becoming a better fencer. When a fencer starts the volume of information seems to be inexhaustible and seems like that the fencer knows nothing and there is a great deal to learn. As the fencer progresses this volume of information seems to shrink gradually until it seems like there is less and less to learn, but is this really true? While at this stage the essential skills have been learnt and a collection of advanced techniques have also been learnt, where does the fencer go from here? The answer to this is experimentation, the other part of practice.

While it is vital that we hone the skills that we already possess in order that we can become technically proficient in them and are able to call upon them, the process of learning does not stop here. It is at this point in time that we need to go out and seek new skills to learn in order to enhance our repertoire. Of course once these new skills have been learnt, we need a time in order to see how they work, the perfect time for this is at practice. Experimentation is the key to expanding your knowledge and repertoire. It is important that we are willing to experiment with new skills in order to progress in the learning process. The best place for this, of course, is at practice. Where a new skill is put up against an opponent and works, something is learnt, that the skill was performed correctly and effectively in that situation against that opponent. Where the attempt fails something is also learnt, that maybe it was not the correct time, or distance, or the opponent had a counter for it. In both cases something is learnt. The only way this sort of information is gained is if the fencer is willing to experiment with the new skills, without this experimentation, the fencer will stagnate, so we must experiment and be willing to fail in the experiment.

Next it is important to examine the question of how we learn fencing. In essence there are two paths that a person may take in order to learn more fencing once the basics have been learnt. The first is through experimentation through bouting, and the second is through learning a set of skills one after the other. The first one has the great appeal of being out on the field with an opponent having a great time matching skills against them. The second does not have this as it involves a level of instruction, drills and set pieces that must be followed, which seems to be substantially less satisfying, especially to the newer fencer. The question here is which one really has the advantage in the long run.

Learning through bouting with different opponent has the advantage of putting the skills in the situation where they will end up in the long run anyway. This tends to mean that the skills will be in a situation of working to solve a particular problem. This method allows for a great deal of experimentation as long as the fencer can keep to the goal of experimentation and learning. Sadly, in most situations this is not the case and the result of the bout actually becomes more important than the learning process. It also means that the skills that are learnt in this sort of environment are not based on principles but on what worked at the time, this can lead to sloppy technique, and often does. Learning through bouting is actually a slower and harder process while it seems faster as the body has to learn things on the fly. This is because the skill is learnt at speed where the fencer really does not know exactly why they have done what they have done, and in a lot of instances does not know exactly what they have done. This leaves out avenues for discovering why the technique actually worked and how it worked against the opponent. This coupled with the fact that the only reason that it worked may have been due to the sloppy technique of the opponent, does not lead to a solid base for learning.

Learning through learning a specific technique can seem tedious and boring to some as it seems that there is no practical application immediately to the skill being learnt. The skill is discussed, described and then demonstrated. Only then are the students involved at which point in time they have to follow the instruction and perform the action slowly at first and then speed up to do it properly, all the time being corrected by the instructor. This process sounds slow and painful, but in actual fact the student will actually learn faster due to the amount of detail presented. The reasons why the skill works will be explained along with how to use it properly and when it should be used. All this information will be present before the student even takes the field. This learning process allows for refinement of the technique based on the information given. This method followed by practicing and experimentation based on the technique is a more effective learning process as all the knowledge is present before the action is performed at speed. Learning set skills and then bouting focusing on those skills is more likely to lead to experimentation as the focus is on the skills rather than the result of the bout.

Bouting. Bouting is fast, bouting is fun, bouting allows us to match our skills against an opponent, but there is a great deal of difference between the types of bout. There is a great deal of difference between bouting at training and bouting in in competition due to the difference on the focus of the bouting. While bouting in training is focused on the learning process competitive bouting is more focused on the result rather than how the fencer gets to that result. This is an important difference and both fencers must decide what the focus of the bout is before they start. If one is there for the win and the other wants to practice a particular technique this can lead to problems, as the opponent may not present opportunities where the particular technique can be used. It is important where bouting is done for practice purposes that the focus of both combatants is upon the skills being learnt and how the fencer gets to the end result. Bouting with a new skill should always come after a period of drilling that skill.

Drills are important in the learning process as they focus on a particular skill which is being learnt. The focus of the drill must be on the skill being drilled rather than the result. This will focus the participants on the skill rather than the result of the drill. It is important that both participants in all drills understand what their part in the drill is and do not exceed this part so that both may learn. If one of the participants does not allow the skill to be performed how it is supposed to neither of the participants will learn what is supposed to be being learnt. Even where the result is one being struck things can be learnt, such as possible ways to defeat it even if they are not used in the drill. Both participants need to be aware of what is being learnt in the skill and keep their minds open to what further things can be learnt from what is being taught. This can only be achieved where both participants in the drills participate to 100% of their ability following the requirements of the drill in order that it is done properly and the correct responses are elicited. The attacks in drills must be credible along with the defence against them, if the defence fails then the attack should succeed, this is a part of the learning process. If the attack is not credible then the person who is defending will not learn the correct response to the attack. As such an attack must be delivered to a relevant target and at the correct distance in order that the defender must defend in order to defeat the attack. A failure to defend actually enhances the learning experience as the defender learns what they did wrong in defence. Drills are about repetition, but it is important that the repetition is done properly for the skills to be learnt properly.

Specific skill sets need to be learnt and then drilled in order that they are repeated so that the fencer is able to call upon that skill when it is needed. It is important that the correct response is elicited for each attack or defence that it is used in order that the skill is learnt properly. Repetition on it is own is useless, it is important that the repetition is the repetition of the correct action on the part of both participants in a partner drill, or the action of a single participant in a solo drill, in order to correctly develop the correct muscle memory for that particular skill, and it is important that it is done right the first time and every time. It takes something like 500 repetitions in order to place something in muscle memory, and takes about 100 times that in order to remove something or replace it. In other words it is better that a person does the correct action properly the first time and every time after that in order not to have to go back and take more time to remove a bad habit.

As fencers we need to focus on the reason for going to practice, and also the reason for practice itself. It is important that the correct focus is made with regard to practice in order that we are able to gain the maximum benefit from the practice we do engage in. While learning through bouting is a fun way to do things, learning through specific skill sets and lessons is actually a better way to learn. Remember the reason why you are doing drills and ensure that you are participating to 100% of your capacity in the drill in order that both participants are able to learn the correct thing. Remember practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.



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