There’s always a big discussion about tournament rulesets and how they best represent an engagement within Historical European Martial Arts. Each tournament systems and its merits and promotes certain types of behaviour, but with every benefit is always a detriment. A system that has right of way will always be abused by over-assertive fencers with a lack of regard for the consequences of their actions. The after blow system will always be abused by people who always strike after at a more valuable target. Continuous sparring will mean a person fencer might not have consideration for the hits they receive and just “slug it out”. That’s why it’s important to remember the following:

The intention is to create a tournament to bring a breath of fresh air to HEMA: In it’s very base premise, the purpose of the tournament is thus: not to reconstruct an accurate sword fight (as this is subject to too many variations and possibilities) but to construct a series of competitions/tests in which to optimise the individual’s skill in fencing, in conjunction with the ethos’, values, skills, perspectives on risk taking, and definitions/principles of technical fencing that are promoted by the writers/teacher/masters and authorities of treatises published in the past, with the intention to reconstruct Historical Martial Arts that no longer exist. With this being said, the competition/combat sport that lays in Historical Fencing, provides the base to enable a participant to prove themselves, in the very unlikely situation, that they find themselves in a real life swordfight. If we are to accept this base premise, with this regard the means in which the participant needs to display their competencies, requires the circumstances (determined by rule-set, cultural/social values etc) to be both numerous, varied and a test of various qualities that ultimately shows the fencer’s quality/competency/adequacy when engaging in Historical fencing, both varying opponents and situations they may find themselves in. In short, it is a test of skill mixed with circumstance.

With this in mind, the basis for one rule-set is not adequate. What is adequate is a tournament that structures itself on a series of scenarios per elimination and progression to the next stage with further scenarios. This coincides with a series of rule-sets that are both general, simply orientated, and leaves room for discretion of the judge when judging. This is assuming that the staff, judges and referees are both organised, all have a competent understanding of the rule-set provided, in their implied context, and a distance from any specific HEMA club to provide objective (as objective as possible) transparency to the situation, without the bias toward any specific HEMA organisation, individual, practice group or affiliation. The article is intended to provide a competent basis surrounding the above mentioned, in order to organise an adequate framework for hosting a tournament including rules for each bout, the conduct of staff and the mentality which must be carried within the event, while proving to be simple and enjoyable for both the staff/crew and the participants.

 The organisation/logistics needs to be carried out by those who are experienced in doing so, not those who simply participate in HEMA a large amount. The demands set by a tournament require a specific set of skills that are accustomed by a specific number of people with experience whether in their daily lives, jobs or experiences. With this in mind, the starting bases is to choose these people, hopefully enthusiastic and willing to firstly travel to this tournament, and help set it up and see it through. This is where the international community in HEMA is emphasised and, if coming from different parts of the world, these people should adequately be rewarded for their work, effort and willingness to take their time out to staff the tournament. This is where the logistics of costs come in; if there is some agreement of what exactly staff will be rewarded with, an agreement should be made to see what exactly is covered and what is considered “reasonable” from both parties e.g. food and accommodation. Some aspects, such as travel, has not only a large discrepancy in cost depending on the area of the world and point of travel for the individual, but also can be a determining factor of whether the person will attend, other aspects being time, difficulty etc. Therefore, an adequate HEMA tournament will turn out to be more expensive than usual, due to the additional cost, on top of facilities, to help the staff out. The staff are the lifeblood of the tournament and not having them receive adequate care will result in the tournament failing to articulate the purpose mentioned above. Other aspects such as accommodation should be assisted with but not mandatory for tournament participants, unless they require assistance e.g. if a staff member comes from a less wealthy background (this is an exception). Food is at the discretion of what works best for everyone and if there are events before or after the tournament, it is to the discretion to advise how this will be structured and how this will, financially, be facilitated. As well as the tournament, most people want to meet up with people who also like the same activity outside of any fencing and therefore any “leisure” should be determined as well; this, in my mind, is a necessity.

The location of the tournament should be a convenient decision within several variables: the place with convenience (e.g. equal distance of travel) between different competitors, logistical facilities (hotels, inns, places to eat etc), convenience relative to commuting (near stations, bus routes, clear paths to airports etc). With these in mind an ethical point of view is this: recognition is not important, the state of HEMA is not important, the wider implications in the world are not important (unless a detrimental and serious event such as civil war, military conflicts, social upheaval or nuclear annihilation etc, occurs), the tournament and everything surround it is important. Recognition comes as a result and as the event may grow in the future. People who want to attend will attend and if there is an adequate number of people willing to come, the event will sustain itself as the people willing to pay entry will cover the cost (concerning if the cost is reasonable in the set of circumstances put forwards). If a country has a detrimental reputation (political intrigue, blatant corruption, certain domestic policies concerning sex or identity etc), then it’s best not to arrange tournaments in these places. Read the news, be aware of the situation in the geographical area and the socio-economic/geopolitical situation in the country or location chosen. Choosing the middle of Compton or a Favela in Rio is not a good idea, just like choosing Afghanistan as a location is not.

With the logistical side out of the way (being determined at the discretion of the organisers), it is important to emphasise that all staff, EVERYONE, needs to read to rules provided so they are competent at their jobs. Not doing so is a disservice to both the tournament, the staff and the participants who paid and traveled to attend. If any person does not bother in their free time to read the rules and understand the context of why they have been put in place, cut them loose. It doesn’t matter if they’re a fencing teacher of a well reputable group or a relative of a person bought in, if they cannot competently do their jobs, at an event that is in their free time, they need to not work at the tournament. With this in mind, it is important that the people chosen are people who can do their jobs well and therefore need to be checked and verified if they can adequately do their jobs. People with conditions that might impede their ability to do judging emotionally or cognitively such as anger management issues etc, are recommended not to judge and should help out with other tasks such as logistics or score boarding. Though this may seem harsh, past instances have shown both unethical conduct and inability to act optimally proves to be detrimental. The staff members should also be a mixture of people from different clubs who, more importantly, are experienced in hosting events and have organisational skills. Being good at HEMA does not mean competence in hosting HEMA events, in the same way being a competent frontline soldier doesn’t make you competent at logistics or strategic organisation. With these in mind, the subject can now shift to the tournament structure and rulesets.

The tournament needs to proportionally grow or decrease to accommodate the amount of participants attending. If it’s assumed an average amount of people attending is 36, who are split between 12 longsworders, 12 rapierists and 12 sword and buckler fencers, these need to be weighed in proportion with each other, and with a mixture of maths and imagination/improvisation. For example, 12 participants are doing longsword and there are 4 elimination stages (hypothetically just as a point of reference).  This could be articulated in 2 of ways:

  1. All fencers fight an average of 3 opponents before scoring adequately enough to progress to the next elimination stage.
  2. Alternatively, all fencers need to fence 3 opponents, each opponent with a different rule-set. The rule set corresponds to the number of people the participant has fought (which we’ll go into detail about this later).

Logistically, the latter version is not viable which leaves us with the former one.

This provides a basis in which to assess things adequately, and obviously this is not the norm as there will be exceptions e.g. a lot more people or odd numbers which requires changes to meet the new circumstance. In these situations, it’s advised to change the numbers based on how many people there are in proportion to how many rounds. For example this can take the shape in: less rounds vs more bouts, per round, or less bouts vs more rounds, per bout (depending on the amount of people who attend). If there are less people than expected, one can sustain more rounds; if there’s more people, more bouts can be accommodated with less rounds. This is a simple and easy way to go through how things should work in a short amount of time.  Furthermore, in the information age, more factors and variables are taken into consideration. Therefore, use a computer to help and don’t count scores manually.

The basis of a fencer displaying their competency in historical fencing is the way in which they are assessed in different situations. With this in mind, having different rule sets per round (when a stage is finished) is useful and should be used often. The issue which comes with this is: firstly, all organisers need to be on track with what’s going on. Generally, with every round finished there should be a break to take time to organise the next elimination round, while all the organisers and judges get together to review the next rule set (which should basically be a re-cap). This keeps things consistent. Secondly, the next elimination round should start only as soon as all the previous one has stopped (with a break in between). This also keeps things consistent and enables a firm line to be drawn between elimination rounds. The rules used will, as this work has implied, vary and often try to be as different as possible from one another. Each one contributes its own value/behaviour that is promoted and therefore will only be used temporarily enough, so the participants cannot “game” the system; a good way to do this might be to pick these randomly. With this in mind, it’s important the competitors aren’t told the rules until it is absolutely necessary to tell them. Even then, it’s important to provide a short summary (apart from valuable information such as if  grappling is permitted, what causes a disqualification, strikes to the back of the head not being permitted etc, which are universal rules). This means it is fully to the discretion of the judges rather than the fencers and means the judges are always in a position to decide (though they can ask both competitors what has happened in a particular situation). From my perspective, it is always valuable that the judge has the last say; though there may be some downsides, faith needs to be put in the system which governs the tournament. Here is a list for the rulesets, use these randomly or in a specific order. I would recommend continuous sparring being first as it will create a more relaxed environment for competition.

1. Continuous sparring
– Competitors bout for two rounds, each round is one minute, with a break of 30 seconds. All moves accepted are those in the general rules.
– Rules can be accessed based on overall performance by 4 judges, which is scored out of 10, and then averaged for each fencer.
Assessed by one ref.

The role of continuous sparring serves a unique purpose. With most rulesets, there is a lot of waiting, followed by a burst of energy, a strike is given (and an afterblow, or there’s a double) and there’s a break. This creates the foundations for a double. Because the promoted frame of time are those seconds in which a strike is given, followed by a halt, the optimum space of time calculated by both fencers is within that period. The purpose of continuous sparring is to instill that when a strike is given, the bout is not over. This instils a different mentality. When transferring to weighted afterblow, this enables a more relaxed mentality and a bout with less doubles. I would suggest continuous sparring as a first stage.

2. Weighed after-blow rules
– Head = 3 points
– Chest and arms = 2 points
– Hands = 1 point
– Disarms = 2 points
– Assessed by two refs
– Doubles count as an automatic points loss of two for each fencer.
– Points are up to 10.

Variations can be given to mediate intent e.g. clear strikes/thrusts to the head implores no after blow.

3. Head Strikes Only
– Each successful strike is a point that goes up to 5
– Assessed by two refs.

4. Linear Fencing
– Both fencers can only fence linearly and only sidestep within a given distance (if so they cannot surpass their opponent to an extent). This will promote only sidestepping when it is absolutely necessary.
– Assessed by two refs

Linear fencing serves a particular purpose; to help assess the fencers perception of distance and to instill that they can only sidestep when it is absolutely necessary. Anything excessive is disregarded (this is at the discretion of the ref).

5. Sudden death
– Both fencers can only score one hit, once that hit is given the round is over. A double or afterblow counts as an automatic loss for both fencers and the round does not count.
– Assessed by two refs

6. Right of way
– First hit counts as a score of 1 points
– First to 10 points.
– Assessed by two refs.

7. The Late Medieval Ruleset
– Both opponents can only deal 4 successful strikes. If all those strikes are given, the person cannot strike any longer.
– The round ends when both competitors use up their 4 strikes.
– This is done for two rounds and is assessed by 4 judges, who give a score out of ten for each fencer, which is then averaged.
– Assessed by one ref.

8. King of the Hill (Early Modern Franco-Belgium Ruleset)
– A person is the “Monarch” while the other people in the round are “usurpers”, who are lined up. The usurper at the front of the line enters the bout.
– The Monarch has an unfair advantage. If they score a hit, the usurper is eliminated. If there is a double or after blow, the usurper is eliminated.
– If the Usurper scores as clean hit without being counter-hit, or a head strike, they become the Monarch.
– The person who stays the longest as a Monarch wins
– Assessed by two refs.

Obviously every tournament will be different and limited by logistics/ timing. Ideally, half of these could be used depending on the amount of people at the tournament. All of them should seek to be different stages that assess the skill and competency of the fencer, each one also promoting different values.

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