There is a strange phenomenon in HEMA – one of the weapon combinations that brings out the most fascination is largely ignored in practice by the majority of serious practitioners.
Anytime someone presents HEMA, you will hear about the oldest fencing treatise and the weapon combination it presents.
If you look for professionally shot videos and explanations by experts, those that cover that combination, and more often than not that treatise, are the ones that pop up just as readily as the enormously more popular longsword.
I am talking about the sword and buckler – the smart and interesting kid that everyone gives as an example, but almost nobody talks to.
That might seem like a strange metaphor, and there are flaws in it. However, I often like to think that training with a historical weapon first starts as a conversation with the weapon itself.
You connect with it, you hold it, you move it, and a colloquy is suddenly underway.
You spend hours upon hours conversing, trying to understand each other, and at some point, trying to communicate with other people having the same discourse with their sword and their buckler.
I have had such talks with the sword and buckler for about a decade now. And while I don’t have a favourite weapon to fight with – I would use any one-handed or two-handed weapon that cuts and thrusts without feeling limited – the conversation I enjoy most is with the sword and buckler.
Maybe it is because I like to talk a lot, and having two partners in a discussion is always more lively. Maybe it is a deep-rooted need to balance me, practically and symbolically.
Maybe it was the symbolism of the Greek hero Perseus defeating the Gorgon with a mirror shield by making her look at herself that pulls me in. And after that cuts her head off and starts using it… as a buckler.
But there is also the practical. Our school has three main weapon disciplines. To outsiders, we tell them simply – it’s the sword alone, the sword and buckler, and the longsword. To people who might understand we explain that they are actually the weapon in one hand, the two weapons and the weapon in two hands. The concrete types are illustrative. Fencing with an arming sword, side sword, messer, dussack, etc is one part of the puzzle. Adding a second weapon – shield, buckler, dagger, even another sword – is the second part. Making the weapon bigger and putting all you have behind it with both your arms is the last piece.
This, together with our unarmed curriculum, completes our practice. It is not limiting, it is liberating. It opens up the potential, it does not narrow it.
Sword and buckler held a strange place in historical fighting. It was rarely a combination for the battlefield – although various shields were. It was perhaps carried for self-defense in some regions of the Old Continent, in some periods. It did not have a special place in fencing schools. Yet the amount of surviving works on the topic tell us it was very valued.
The inherent balance of these two weapons is key here. Everyone carried a sword – or a one-handed weapon of some sort. In later periods it was a part of the dress, no less than a hat, a tie or a pair of shoes. In early periods everyone carried a shield on the battlefield – it was the weapon that had the highest role in your survival there. Yet carrying the two together in an everyday context seems like overkill, like lugging around a .45 ACP gun for self-defense. But at the same time, there was practicality to it – with a sword and buckler you are ready for anything. Yes, it is not the best choice against this or that weapon, but it is the best choice for when you do not know what you will be facing.
Aside from all that, there is the pure brain pleasure when I fence with a sword and a buckler. It is a combination that engages all of my mind in ways that other weapons simply do not. The amounts of possibilities, the rhythm of the two weapons in use, the explosion of patterns and colour all force my mind into a state that is closest to what some might call moving meditation.
If using one weapon is like dancing with a partner, fencing with the sword and buckler is like letting go of yourself and allowing the couple to dance around you. It is a detachment from self that gives me a better sense of self than any mirror does.
It is not about who is the most powerful, who is the best, who is the most beautiful, but rather, who brings more out of you.