This is Part I of a series on getting started in HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts)
As someone who has started multiple successful HEMA clubs, I’ve often been asked for advice on how to start a new club or how to get into HEMA when there aren’t any clubs nearby. Fortunately, it is possible today to begin to learn the Art “on your own”.
That said, if you are close enough to an established HEMA club to visit, I strongly recommend that you pay them a visit. If nothing else, they will already have made (and hopefully learned from) many mistakes that you are likely to make yourself, and they can help provide an additional perspective on the Art that can help you to improve your own study. If you are fortunate to be near a club with excellent instructors (and there are several), you will benefit from learning from them as much as you are able. On the same note, if you are able to travel to an event with many classes, you will be able to receive helpful (and potentially important) instruction, often from world-class instructors. In short: Take classes if you are able.
But you’re probably not looking for an article like this if there’s already a club close enough for you to join. So, what can you do to get started in HEMA now?
As it turns out, there are quite a few steps you can take to get started and ensure that your brand new group will be successful. Ultimately, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover, but let’s start at the beginning.
In order to start a successful club, there are four critical things (and one slightly less critical thing) you need to focus on in the very beginning. Until these things are in place, it will be very difficult to train in HEMA at all. They are:
- A pair of swords (or other weapons)
- A place to train
- A training partner
- Something to study
- Safety equipment (important, but useless without the other four)
I’m going to touch on all five of these things in this article, but expect to see much more detailed information about them in future articles.
1. A pair of swords
Note: This assumes that you are interested in the swordplay aspect of HEMA. If you are more interested in the unarmed Art, or a different kind of weapon (such as the dagger or staff), your equipment needs may differ.
So, the first thing you need to do to start a HEMA club is to purchase a pair of good training swords. Now, you might be thinking: “A pair? Why do I need a pair? I just need one for myself!” If you already have a training partner who intends to get their own sword, it may be tempting to wish to rely on them to provide half of the equipment at every practice, but there are two reasons why you might want to consider getting a pair just for yourself:
- Your partner might want a different kind of sword than the one you’ll be getting. It’s always best to pair like swords so you’ll be able to train and spar on equal terms.
- When your group grows to more than two people, you’ll want the ability to practice with two good weapons even if the other guy with a sword decides not to show up.
For someone just starting with longsword, I recommend the synthetic wasters (training swords) made by Purpleheart Armory (the Pentti+) or Blackfencer; while you will eventually want a steel sword, wasters are both safer and less expensive than steel, and as such make a good entry-level option. For someone starting with rapier, there are a number of manufacturers that make decent, relatively affordable steel rapiers (there’s no need to use a synthetic rapier). If you’re looking into another weapon, it may be a good idea to ask on the HEMA Alliance forums or Facebook page—there are many others with extensive experience who can offer sage weapon advice.
2. A place to train
Finding a training location is the next order of business. I’ll cover this in a lot more detail later, but for now know that, for a group just getting started, this can be as simple as someone’s backyard, or a grassy area at your apartment complex, or a public park. If you’re practicing on private property that you don’t own, however, make sure to contact the owner of the property to be sure they’re ok with your use of it, and if you’re practicing on public property, it’s wise to be sure that the local authorities are ok with your presence there. I’ll talk about ways to approach officials when asking for permission in another part of this series.
3. A training partner
Once you have a sword and a place to train, you can start learning forms on your own, but to truly progress in this Art, you will need to find a training partner. If you already have someone who’s interested in learning how to use a sword with you, then congratulations! The hardest part of starting a group is over! If you don’t yet have a partner, try asking friends, posting on social media, and asking around on local forums and websites. The HEMA Alliance forums can be one good place to post. I’ll be covering the issue of recruiting members in much more detail in another article, as well.
4. Something to study
Let’s say you’ve gotten yourself a sword, a place to train, and a training partner. What about stuff to study?
Fortunately, there are now loads of resources available for those wanting to get started in HEMA. These can generally be divided into two types: Original (ancient, historical) sources, and modern guides/interpretations. For an experienced practitioner of the Art like myself, the original sources are definitely the “best” study material I have available. That said, they can be very difficult to understand and interpret, and it’s easy to make mistakes when interpreting them. Those treatises were generally written for those who already had a solid grasp of wrestling and even swordplay, and are often difficult for someone new to the Art to decipher. (Think of them like your great grandmother’s recipes—“Butcher a chicken, and add it to a pot of potatoes, carrots, and onions. Season with sage, thyme, salt, and pepper, and simmer until done.” Old recipes were seriously like this.) Because of this, they’re often not the best place for someone brand new to HEMA to start learning the Art.
Modern guides and interpretations themselves come in two varieties: Published books, and online stuff. While modern guides and interpretations (both in print and online) can be helpful in interpreting the ancient sources, many of them come with their own sets of problems; in particular, interpretations available in print are often outdated or rely on a compliant opponent. For an overview of what books we recommend at the Noble Science Academy, click here.
In addition to the historical sources and modern published works, there are various online resources. Some groups, like the Phoenix Society, have placed their study guides online and these can be used by new students interested in their approach to the Art. Additionally, many groups have placed instructional videos, tutorials, or interpretations on Youtube or other video-sharing sites. These can be very useful for the new student, though, as with printed interpretations (and, indeed, much more so), these should always be taken with a grain of salt.
We are also working on our own guide at the Noble Science Academy to cover our own syncretic system of the longsword (and which will cover all of the techniques and principles presented by both Liechtenauer and Fiore in their entirety), which we intend to eventually release to the public. Unfortunately, despite already stretching to 25 pages, this comprehensive guide is only in its third chapter, which leaves a lot of work left to be done before it’s ready for everyone!
5. Other equipment
Ultimately, you’ll want more than just a pair of swords if you plan on training with any intensity at all. In particular, you’ll want at least a mask and pair of gloves for each fencer. Any modern “3-weapon” fencing mask will do, though I prefer one with a rated bib. We usually get ours from Absolute Fencing or Blue Gauntlet. For those looking for a long-term investment, Absolute Force provides a solid mask with built-in back-of-the-head protection.
Gloves depend on the weapon. For synthetic longsword, you need at least a quality pair of lacrosse gloves. Please note that, if you are fencing with intensity, lacrosse gloves may prevent 99% of injuries with synthetic weapons, but they will not prevent all injuries, and are wholly inappropriate for use with steel longsword trainers. For rapier, lighter gloves are ok (I generally fence rapier in motocross gloves), but many people prefer heavier gloves (like lacrosse gloves) even for rapier.
For men, cups are always recommended (though for most drills, they are not usually strictly necessary).
Be mindful of joints—do not strike at the elbows, knees, or wrists with any kind of force unless they also have adequate protection. I’ll be talking about equipment in much more detail in a later post!
I hope you found this helpful. Good luck getting started in HEMA, and if you have any questions, please ask!
About the author:
Michael-Forest Meservy is the lead Scholar and primary instructor of the Noble Science Academy. Michael-Forest initially began his study of the longsword in 2001 under the tutelage of Jake Norwood. Since founding the Noble Science Academy, Michael-Forest has developed an efficient curriculum containing a comprehensive system for teaching and learning the longsword and rapier based on historical principles, terminology, and techniques, and has taught at such events as IGX, Longpoint, and SoCal Swordfight. He is a certified instructor of the HEMA Alliance, and holds an MLitt in Medieval History from the University of Glasgow.