One of the things I like most about sword training is the fact that despite many of the injuries I get in practicing many other facets of the martial arts, I can usually still practice with the sword.
One of the things that people ask all the time is whay a man in this modern age would even practice with such an archaic weapon. No one uses one to fight with anymore and the closest that most of us will ever see to an actual killing weapon of this type is a machete. Knives are more practical and easier to carry without invoking a reaction of suspicion and dread. Firearms, while hard to obtain, are the most practical and modern form of weapon that anyone can carry (although the same reaction to carrying a sword might apply to a civilian carrying a firearm.).
So the question remains, why train with a weapon you will never use?
This is a question that happens to arise in a lot of the martial art systems stemming from places like Okinawa, Japan, and China. The martial arts still train weapons such as the sai, kama, and flail from Okinawa, the Abrir (a halberd style weapon) from Indonesia, and the Naginata (another halberd weapon) from Japan. The student often first undertakes the instruction in such weapons as a part of the training without question. After some time when the student is more familiar with what they are doing, they could then start to see the irrelevance of this weapon to their life and surroundings. After all, the halberd is a battlefield weapon from, what is now considered, ancient times and has no relevance in today’s world. Weapons like the nunchuku (flail) can be seen as still practical and easy to carry, however, since most of us are not rice farmers, the ability to get away with carrying such a device is limited (and in most places, illegal).
One of the facets of Japanese kenjutsu (sword methods) training is that is teaches combative distancing. Distancing from an opponent is one of the four primary aspects of a correctly executed technique. By studying the sword’s application of distancing, you learn many things that come in handy when learning empty handed or even modern weapon combat. The first of these is the ability to hit your opponent while being in a relative position of safety. This applies to melee weapons in terms of body position in relation to your opponent’s weapon. If he strikes out to you and you turn or move into a position where he cannot strike you unless he turns toward you, you are now in a better position to strike him. He has to turn to strike at you with his weapon and this application of distancing gives you some time (a breath or two) in order to execute your technique. This also applies to the empty handed martial arts as well. If an opponent moves to hit you and you step away from the line of attack, he now has to turn to hit you (in a manner that would cause damage. In many cases he can still hit you but the attack will be mostly ineffective. There is no power in the attack because of the way he is positioned, unless he turns). Granted, the person in an empty handed fight is closer, but the principle remains true, he has to apply correct posture to do any damage. If you move so he has to turn his body into a correct position, this still grants you the time you need to counter-attack.
Another combat distance principle taught by the sword is the concept of ignoring the body. When one attacks another person in close range combat, something must be extended. If one’s spacing from their opponent is such that it allows for some movement, a person can zone out of the line of attack. This zone can allow the defender to attack the incoming wrist (or limb). This is often seen in kenjutsu when a person comes in with a wide sweeping cut and the defender zones away. A cut is then made to the incoming wrist before it breaks the plane of attack (the place where the wrist turns over and the blade is now in between the attacker and defender). IN iaijutsu (a method of drawing and attacking with the sword in the same motion), A similar method of attacking the limb comes into play when a person goes to draw his sword. The defender sees the man reach for his blade and steps out of the line of attack (once again maintaining good position and distance) and cuts the wrist before the attacker has a chance to draw the blade from its scabbard. This is the same for principles of combat apart from the sword. A person can throw a punch, and rather than simply blocking / parrying or moving out of the way, a person can attack the attack and strike the incoming limb. This serves to deflect and damage the limb so that one has more “bang for the buck.” Thus, sword work proves that attacking the body is not the only way to finish a situation.
One final distance principle taught by the sword is the use of deceptive distancing. This idea shows itself in many of the martial arts of Asia as well as being a staple in Western Boxing. The swordsman might lean a bit or show himself to be off balanced by having something too far forward or back. The person’s center is actually in balance and right where it should be yet he appears to be in the right place to have his attacker take advantage of him. This is seen often times where a fighter might lower his hands to show a false opening or have them in a non-threatening posture so as to make it seem like he is defenseless. This is a lure to bring an attack in by the opponent, which the defender has already planed for and intends to counter. The defender will either be in the right place to counter or will trick the attacker into striking the place where he appeared to be while he strikes from a position of “safety.” Another example of where deceptive distance comes into play is when the swordsmen are ready to engage (squared off), one common trick is to aim the tip of the blade at the other swordsman’s eyes. This takes away depth perception from the opponent’s point of view and makes it difficult to judge how far away the blade actually is. This trick, much like the first, is commonly used in hand fighting arts as well. A person will aim a strike at the opponents eyes just long enough to trick the depth perception into “loosing the distance” and when the opponent raises his defense to be sure, the exponent will alter the strike a bit to change the target into someplace unprotected.
In terms of combative distancing, the sword can teach many lessons. The sword has secured a place in modern martial tradition as a training tool for modern hand to hand combat. As long as people strike out against each other and still fight hand to hand, the sword will still be sought.