Swordsman & Geek

A Midsummer Night’s Blog

What is a Maestro?

I’m reposting something here because I think a lot of people are overreacting in graceless ways to my announcement that Ken was granted his teaching certification.

I think this reveals a profound lack of knowledge and experience about what a fencing master actually did historically or does today. There is a bit too much Hollywood baggage in this discussion for my taste because there is nothing particularly glorious or kingly about running a fencing school which is what the title really means. Masters are not little old bearded men trashing ninjas by the hundreds. In fact masters often sacrifice their own competitive edge because they spend the larger portion of their time teaching. (The really good competitive artists in my experience are the younger provosts.)

I am not this guy.

In the classical tradition a master would run the school with a few provosts and a collection of instructors to assist with the workload. It is simply how you run a school and there is nothing weird or supernatural about it. If you are running your own school, you are doing the work of a fencing master.

There will be good fencing masters and bad ones. Fencing masters can and will hiss at each other like cats across the backyard fence just like any other two people enthusiastic about a particular field. Some masters will be lifelong friends and I’ve found that extremely rewarding. Helping guide Kevin Murakoshi through the process of his multiple examinations gave me a great sense of the circular nature of life and teaching. I have ensured that my work doesn’t end with me and I’ve empowered another teacher to go out into the world and make something good.

Now what you should understand is that I know a lot of masters working in the community but I only know a few people who are certified. I think that is a damn shame. I also find the process of examination and certification extremely powerful and rewarding so I’m strongly in favor of that experience for any teacher who runs a school. With that in mind I think schools should consider certifying masters and get beyond the mumbo-jumbo of Hollywood nonsense and restore the title to the work-a-day role that it really occupies which is something akin to a head football coach at your local high-school. Different certifications will produce different levels of talent and I’m comfortable with that provided that the process is public and verifiable.


This is me getting hit with a foil.

This is me getting hit with a foil.

This is me getting hit with a rapier.

This is me getting hit with a rapier.

This is me being hit and disarmed at the same time.  (I obviously suck at my job,)

This is me being hit and disarmed at the same time. (I obviously suck at my job,)

(And, this is me being hit over and over again without ever getting a shot in.)

I earned my certification by being hit thousands upon thousands of times by students. Most fighters won’t know the difference between an in-time cue or an on-command cue.  Amongst fencing teachers we can have thirty minute discussions and arguments on how best to cue a student’s attack. Fighting put me on the path to being a teacher but it wasn’t what was required for me to certify.  Engendering success in the people around me so that they meet their goals is more important to me than my personal win-loss ratio.  Building a historical swordplay community is the real prize that I keep my eyes on.

In order for the community to provide a healthy second and third generation we need lots of schools to experiment with lots of ways of certifying the next generation. That’s dynamic. It has conflicts and feedback and tension and a drive to compete with your sister schools. That is healthy.

In short, don’t panic… “master” is just a normal teaching credential. The USFCA certification is not my thing but I think certifying programs are where the community needs to go generally as we mature. I look forward to the HEMA Alliance program, and the USFCA program (conditional on Ken’s input), and perhaps other programs as well. This gives me a great deal of comfort to know that we’re creating a self-sustaining life-cycle for the art. We need teachers and I want them all to be good. They won’t all be good but I can try to put my finger on the scales when I can to help tip the balance towards quality.


Congratulations Maestro Mondschein

It is my distinct pleasure to announce to the community that Dr. Ken Mondschein has been chosen as one of the USFCA’s first historical fencing masters. It is my opinion that Ken has worked his entire life to become the person who could fulfill this need in our community.

Maitre d'Armes Historique

Maitre d’Armes Historique

  • Maestro Mondschein holds a PhD in medieval history and is a Fulbright scholar which places him within the ranks of the scholastic elite.
  • He is a classically trained fencer with a ready knowledge of western fighting theory. In this field, he has taken multiple public examinations from an accrediting fencing body which provides him knowledge and experience necessary to examine instructors.
  • He is one of the most prolific modern authors for historical martial arts including two translations of primary sources. These works are enriched both by his academic expertise but also grounded in his classical tradition. This combination provides a modern reader with immediate access to the historical material.
  • His knowledge is broad. Maestro Mondschein is equally at home in full harness on horseback as he is on the classical strip. With academic and applied knowledge both broad and deep he embodies a Carrancine spirit of excellence within our community.

It is my opinion that through some miracle of blind luck, the USFCA chose perhaps the most qualified master to begin their program for historical instructor certification. I personally had reservations about the USFCA’s historical instructor certification program but at his core Ken is one of us and he understands what this community is about. No process for certification will be perfect but it gives me a great deal of reassurance to know that he is part of this project. When I think on my concerns, each one is addressed by, “Ken, will fix this.”

My congratulations to Maestro Mondschein for he well deserves this. Likewise my congratulations to the USFCA; I don’t think they yet fully realize the potential of the master they have chosen to start their program but I heartily approve. I don’t expect the USFCA to be the only program to certify instructors but I expect it will be a good one with Maestro Mondschein doing the work.

Master at Arms, Puck Curtis

The Last Carry

Take a moment to realize that when you were a child your parents regularly carried you in their arms.  It was a part of your life so common as to be unnoticed.

They picked you up and carried you into the house, they held you while you slept, and they laid you down in your bed.

Now realize that on one particular day, that neither you nor your parent recognized, your parent picked you up and carried you for the very last time.  You probably do not remember the day when you last leaned your head into your parent’s shoulder as they held you but thinking on it today, you might wish that you did.

If you have a child of your own remember that your last time to carry them is coming and appreciate holding your child today.

There is a last time for everything so use what little time you have.

Spanish Fencing – The Atajo

What is an Atajo? To understand the Atajo it is useful to understand the primary causes that make it work.

I’m intentionally going to present this from the perspective of a Pachequista (a follower of don Luis Pacheco).  Pacheco literally defined the fencing master’s examination in Spain so in this regard his work is “canonical”.

The Advantage of Downward Pressure

If I extend my arm out toward you with the palm up and you press down while I resist you will probably be able to lower my arm.  The Spanish call this the superior nature of the natural movement (descending) versus the violent movement (rising).  Your own body also provides an advantage when you use your shoulder and body to assist in the motion to increase the downward force.

Principle: If all other factors are equal a downward force will defeat an upwards resistance.

When two equal adversaries resist each other, gravity lends a hand.

When two equal adversaries resist each other, gravity lends a hand.


The Advantage of Degrees of Strength

I have already written an article about blade mechanics, but every swordsman worth his or her salt should already know that in contact between two weapons, the swordsman with superior degrees of strength in the engagement has an advantage of power both offensively and defensively.

Principle: When two swords oppose each other in an engagement, the weapon with greater degrees of strength is stronger and has an advantage.

Carranza labels the degrees of strength.

Carranza's degrees of strength showing higher values as stronger.

For more on strength in engagements consider this article:

Spanish Fencing Notation 5 – Strength of the Weapon

The Advantage of Time

When two adversaries act against each other the swordsman who can finish execution sooner has an advantage in time.  The Spanish use Movements as a tool for understanding time.  When the adversary’s attack requires three movements, he can be defeated by a defense or counteroffense which uses a single movement.  In addition an engagement that completely closes a line can limit the adversary’s offensive options to ensure that the time advantage is maintained.

Principle: A defensive action that requires a single movement can defeat an offensive action with more movements.

When the adversary attempts to strike with a circular reverse (3 movements) the defender answers with a thrust (1 movement).

When the adversary attempts to strike with a circular reverse (3 movements) the defender answers with a thrust (1 movement). (Ettenhard Plate 11)

Principle: An engagement which prevents the adversary from attacking in a single motion provides a defensive advantage.

By closing the line, he forces the adversary into a time disadvantage. (Ettenhard Plate XV)

By closing the line, he forces the adversary into a time disadvantage. (Ettenhard Plate 15)

For more on Spanish Movements consider this article:

Spanish Fencing Notation 1 – Vector Notation

Advantage by Domination of the Shortest Path

The Spanish fencer starts with the arm extended and the weapon pointed at the adversary along the most direct path to the target.  Knowing that it is easier to push downward then to resist upward, I can use this principle to deny my adversary the shortest path to my body by pushing his blade down.  Not only do I increase the distance he must travel to strike my body, I also ensure that my offensive path is shorter and closer to the target.

Principle: By starting with the arm extended along the shortest path to the adversary and then deviating the adversary’s weapon downward you ensure your own path to the target is shorter.

Note: Deviating the opposing steel laterally would be called a desvio or a deflection.

The advantage of the shorter path (Ettenhard Plate 9 - Opposition of Angles)

The advantage of the shorter path (Ettenhard Plate 9)

Atajo Defined

The Spanish Atajo unites all of these ideas into a single defensive action which can protect the swordsman while simultaneously providing opportunities and the place from which to strike with safety.  Offensively, the atajo can be used to prepare a safe attack that controls the adversary’s weapon.  (We would call this preparatory action “dispositive“ and the attack “executive“.)

Pacheco in New Science p.365 (1632)

“Atajo, according to our definition, is when one of the weapons is placed over the other (not in any of its extremes nor with any of its extremes) and with equal or some degree more of strength subjects it and makes it so that the technique that can be formed must be done with more movements and the participation of more angles than those that its simple nature requires.”

~Translated by Mary Curtis

Pacheco in New Science p.368 (1632)

“Arriving, then, to the perfect formation of the atajo, it should necessarily consist of three movements: violent, offline lateral and natural. With the first the sword that should subject is placed on a superior plane to the other, with the second it is placed transversal over it, and with the last it subjects it:”

~Translated by Mary Curtis

Ettenhard in his Compendium and Foundations… p.154-155 (1675)

“I am very safely confident that one will have recognized with enough satisfaction that the Atajo causes its effects by means of a superior graduation and of the superior power of the Natural Movement and also that one will concede to me that if it were possible to beat and destroy these two causes, we would see dispelled the end of such superior effects…”

~Translated by Mary Curtis

Eric places an Atajo over Kevins sword.

Eric places an Atajo over Kevin's sword. (Click for larger image)

The Defining Elements of Atajo

Between Pacheco and Ettenhard we find these three items essential in placing Atajo:

  • Subjection with equal or greater degrees of strength.
  • The subjection is placed from above.
  • The subjected line is closed so that an adversary cannot strike with a single movement.

When Lorenz de Rada writes later, he adapts the atajo so that you initially seek the subjection from above and if you don’t find it or feel that the adversary is weak in the engagement you immediately spiral towards the opposing steel and closing the opposite line from below.   Compare this to the classical transports of 3rd and 4th from high to low or the corresponding half-circular parries from high to low.


This information tells us that Pacheco’s Atajo should start by seeking the superior line with greater degrees of strength in the weapon.  The defensive action subjects downward to lengthen the adversary’s path to the target while ensuring your own path is shorter. It might be tempting to equate Atajo with classical engagements but this violates the primary causes of Atajo.  Likewise, by definition two swordsmen cannot both have an Atajo simultaneously.

Destreza Videos – Pacheco and the Vulgars

This is a class I taught at the Western Martial Arts Workshop in 2009 based on Pacheco’s vulgar techniques from New Science.

Part I:

The introduction includes:

  • Blade mechanics
  • Stance
  • Movements

Part II:


  • Three Universal Methods of Defense
    • Right Angle
    • Atajo
    • Conclusion
  • Footwork


Part III:

Includes material from Pacheco’s New Science

  • #17 Gaining in the Air (p. 621-624)
  • #3 Botonazo (p. 586-587)
  • The General Technique called “Estrechar” (Narrowing) (p. 450-454)

Part IV:

Includes material from Pacheco’s New Science

  • (Continued) The General Technique called “Estrechar” (Narrowing) (p. 450-454)
  • #4 The Passata Sotto (p. 587-589)
  • Line in Cross (p. 447- 450)

Part V:

Includes material from Pacheco’s New Science

  • #4 The Passata Sotto (p. 587-589)
  • Estrechar (Narrowing) (p. 450-454)

Final Notes:

There is another video available on YouTube From the SCA’s Known World Academy of the Rapier 2007 and I have a blog article for it here with comments concerning the techniques and the source texts.

You can find a series of Articles on Spanish Fencing Notation here: