Armed Combat – Learning Through Play

While Larping (Live Action Role Play) often takes a lot of criticism for its exaggerated moves, ‘patty cake’ style of back and forth and anachronistic theme, it can be a great learning tool in a safe environment while also being a lot of fun. With its origins dating back to the 1970s, Larping has taken on many forms as it has grown in popularity and evolved throughout the years, ranging from small events to large festivals with hundreds or even thousands of participants. While much of the culture and activity around the event is not related to martial arts, there is certainly a component of Larping which has real value and can be leveraged to help teach core martial arts principles: single combat. The weapons and costumes of certain players are generally based on the medieval or renaissance period, though the weapons are foam or padded and the armor is a replica and much lighter. This certainly brings a different dynamic to how the combat is conducted, but many of the principles still apply and can be practiced without fear of damaging your partner. 

Avi, in his recent travels to Israel, trained a group of Larpers who were looking to improve their skills in single combat and group teamwork on the battlefield. With a 6thdegree black belt in Kendo, Avi knows quite a bit about combat with swords. The training began with a quick introduction to some of the weapons and the philosophy behind them. While a shield is seen as primarily a defensive tool, it can also be used as an offensive weapon or be used to disarm your opponent. While a second sword or even a knife in the offhand may appear to be an offensive weapon, this can be used as a defensive tool, intercepting or trapping an incoming attack to open the line of attack for the primary weapon. He also provided guidance on holding a shield in different ways to ensure that an attack doesn’t collapse or pivot the shield and leave the defender vulnerable. After describing some of the philosophy of swordsmanship, he allowed the group to practice, giving them tips and guidance along the way. Then he began instructing them on strategies for fighting two-on-two and how misdirection and relative position can serve to confuse the opponents and open new lines of attack. In the end, he was able to add some concepts and techniques to their abilities and give them a unique advantage in single or team combat in the future. 

One of the drawbacks of using foam weapons is the difficulty in building momentum and inertia while executing a movement, slowing attacks, and making them seem ineffective. Naturally, to compensate for this, practitioners will over exaggerate movements, which can start to build bad habits if the idea was to transfer this to real weapons in the future. Some of this can be helped by just padding weapons to maintain some of the weight, but of course, this can be difficult for larger weapons such as axes and large swords. Another drawback is the inability to execute precise movements, such as penetrating strikes and stabbing movements. Most foam weapons rely on large slashing movements so as not to damage the tips of padded or foam weapons. While through practice and using higher quality, higher weight equipment can help in some ways, these habits can be worked out to some degree, there is another solution: Use more realistic weapons that aren’t sharpened, but increase the amount of protective gear. 

From January to September 2010, Christian Eckert led the Gladiator Project, taking students from Regensburg University in Germany to a real historical ‘Scoula’ to train as the gladiators would have, paying close attention to every detail of the diet, lifestyle and arrangements that a real prospective gladiator would have gone through. By giving the students weapons and armor that would have been very similar to the actual gladiators, he found that the students, through play and his guidance, were able to reconstruct much of the combat that would likely have been seen back in that day. Interestingly, he discovered that despite popular belief that these were bloody matches to the death, most of the gladiators that were paired together were specifically designed to not be able to easily strike a lethal blow, but rather a wounding blow that would end the match. Gladiators were expensive to train and maintain, the initial training lasting a whole two years. If they were simply to be led to a slaughter, it wouldn’t be a lucrative business for those who bought and trained these warriors. One of the keys to replicating the training was using realistically weighted weapons while also having a great deal of protective equipment to prevent injuries. 

While realistic training isn’t for everyone, training with foam weapons has the advantage of being safe and fun for kids as well. This is useful to help teach children some of the basics in martial arts concepts and principles, which can also be used to supplement existing children’s martial arts programs. However, in order to gain real proficiency, it will be necessary to introduce more realistic conditions, which isn’t appropriate for children. A revival in recent years of Medieval and Western armored combat has led to the creation of a number of groups, federations and competitions that are based largely in realistic style combat, often requiring the use of costly, authentic armor, true to the time period. The M-1 Medieval fighting tournament, Western Martial Arts Workshop, Historical European Martial Arts and International Medieval Combat Federation are just a few of these organizations that have grown in popularity and have attracted a number of martial artists and individuals drawn to the historical aspects and unique allure of the culture surrounding this. 

Whether training with foam weapons or more realistically, the openness and freedom of play allows practitioners to hone their abilities and discover what attacks are effective and which ones open them up to attacks. This paired with guidance to provide insights into the principles of combat and even by the study of historical documents from the period itself can help elucidate the techniques that are most effective against an enemy combatant. Avi is working to put together more material for individuals training and fighting in edged combat, providing a more enriching experience for those who enjoy the free play of one-on-one fighting. As more details emerge and other groups are trained, updates will be forthcoming.