The Basics: Getting started in Western martial arts
If you came here after reading the headline to this article, your mind is probably filled with images of longswords. While longswords are indeed a major component of the modern trend of Western martial arts, they are by no means the only weapon utilized within the art itself. Also, longswords come from one fairly narrow era of time, mainly from the 14th through 16th centuries, and Western martial arts covers a much broader period, going back at least several thousand years. You will find the study and practice of such weapons as the rapier, the Roman gladius, the bowie knife, and many, many other weapons, many bladed but not all.
Why Western martial arts?
Okay, first off, a few definitions. The term “Western martial arts” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. For purposes of this posting, when I refer to Western martial arts, I’m generally referring to the study and practice of fighting systems from European and United States history.
Some people refer to all of this as historical European martial arts, but I do not want to forget study of the bowie knife and other melee weapons and fighting styles which historically have ties to the United States.
Also, I won’t be discussing firearms to any degree. Firearms, historic and modern, have their proponents and organizations, but so far they have had very little if any influence upon the modern study of Western martial arts. This might change in the future, but so far the emphasis has been upon melee for the most part, and archery to a lesser degree.
Those unfamiliar with Western martial arts might confuse it with other martial systems, especially martial arts that have origins in eastern Asia. Just to be clear, there are differences, though there are also some similarities. Use of the spear, for example, has been common to many cultures throughout history, and thousands of years of trial and error have lead to some similarities in how the spear is used by different fighting systems; however, each culture tends to leave its own unique mark upon any given martial system, so the way a spear is used in one martial art might appear much the same as it does in another, though there will be minor differences, sometimes so subtle only practitioners of one art or another can tell.
Enough talk – tell me how to get started!
The easiest way to take part in Western martial arts is to look for an already established group in your area, attend a meeting or training session, then join by signing up, sometimes after paying some initial fees.
Yes, it’s that easy.
Okay, but how do you find out if there’s a group in your area? Again, easy, with the power of the Internet.
Besides doing a general online search, one of the easiest tools for finding a Western martial arts group local to you is the Community Walk map sponsored by the HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) Alliance. This site is broken down into more than a half dozen maps of the world, and on each map you can find plenty of links to regional Western martial arts groups. Better yet, the map connects to other groups besides the HEMA Alliance.
What other groups are there? Well, The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA) is quite popular, but there are plenty of other organizations. Most groups focus upon German or Italian traditions, but some study Scottish, British, Greek, and other forms of Western martial arts.
If you happen to not have a martial arts group near you, you might also check with any local fencing schools or universities, as sometimes they will offer classes in Western martial arts. You might also take a look around any regional Renaissance festivals or with your local Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) groups. Just to be clear, fencing is a sport and not a martial art, and Renaissance festivals and the SCA aren’t necessarily going to take part in martial arts, but such groups and activities sometimes have ties to Western martial arts, so they can be a good way to make connections.
I’d like to add, if you do attend a training session, don’t be afraid to ask questions. You will want to make sure an instructor’s approach is right for you, so you will want to get a feel for that person and perhaps some of their students. If one is available, take a look at a syllabus to see if it holds interest for you.
But I can’t leave the house!
Okay, okay. For whatever reason, you can’t get out to attend a local workshop or training session. There is still help available.
As I mentioned in an earlier Nerdarchy article, there are always online classes for Western martial arts.
But I don’t like classes!
Geez. Some people.
All right, if for some reason you aren’t interested in online work or maybe you just don’t learn well in group situations, there are a growing number of books on this subject matter.
Modern swordsman and instructor Guy Windsor has written numerous books pertaining to the longsword, dagger, and other historical weapons. Some of his books outline physical training while others are more about the mindset behind the study of such weapons, and others look into the history aspects. Windsor’s approach comes from the Italian tradition of Fiore dei Liberi and to a much lesser extent that of Ridalfo Capoferro.
For those drawn to German martial traditions, author Christian Henry Tobler offers a number of books based upon the teachings of Johannes Liechtenauer, a 14th-Century swordsman.
It seems there are more books about Western martial arts every day, so keep looking from time to time. I’m sure you can find an author with an approach you will appreciate.
I’m a visual person!
Oh, my gosh. You can’t please some people. If you can’t attend a local group, don’t want to join an organization, can’t get into online classes, and aren’t much for reading, there is still another option, though it will take you back to the online world.
I’m talking about YouTube videos.
Is there anything you can’t find on YouTube nowadays? Maybe or maybe not, but one thing you can find are plenty of videos pertaining to martial arts of all styles.
To mention Guy Windsor again, he has a YouTube channel for where he teaches, The School of European Swordsmanship. Here you can find all kinds of interesting information as well as training tips for swords and other weapons.
Then there is Matt Easton, swordsman and teacher for Schola Gladiatoria in the UK. Matt’s channel is quite popular and has lots to say about historical weapons. Matt also has a bit of fun with his channel, sometimes reviewing sword fights in movies and television shows.
If you want to take a look at a martial arts school before actually attending one, I can suggest the channels for Blood and Iron and Sword Carolina. There are other schools out there with YouTube channels, but these are two of my personal favorites.
What now for martial arts?
If all of the above is not enough to get you on track, and/or you live so far away from a martial arts school that you cannot attend, then you might consider starting your own local group. It might seem risky, even silly, but often enough that’s how martial arts school got started in the first place. Just make sure you know something about what you’re trying to do, and surround yourself with people of similar interests. Find a location, maybe a public park or a gym, and put out the word for others to join you. Always remember to use safe equipment and to follow safe practices, especially as you might have to keep in mind liability issues. If at all possible, it will be best for you to have studied extensively under another teacher before attempting to go out on your own, but sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
Also, remember that study is as important as the actual training, especially since we are talking about historical arts here; if you’re going to use weapons from history, you want to use them the way the old masters did, right?
Well, however you swing your sword, from whatever tradition, always remember to Stay Nerdy!