[Blackfriars' Journal]




Classifications of Combat
by J. Christoph Amberger

      Clearly, swordplay for artistic purposes and swordplay intended to dispatch an opponent as soon and swiftly as possibly not only have different objectives, but also demand a different mental approach from the fighter. In life-and-death fights, results were all that counted. This accounts for the importance of the botto secreta through all ages in which combat to the death was a more likely scenario than extended engagment in ritualized Olympic or Olympian environments.

The Origins of Rules
      Even though the roots of the Art of Fencing (and thus, those of the modern sport) are deeply entangled with the preparatory effort for antagonistic combat, substantial differences in the fighting style of competitive bouts and actual duels remain. What is permissible during the bout today may have been imprudent (not to say downright foolish) on the duelling ground.

      Modern épée fencers, for example, no longer have to worry about actual injuries, so attacks below the waist-line can be executed more freely and frequently than would have been possible or desirable in an actual duel with smallswords or épées de combat.

      Aldo Nadi commented on the alienation between real combat and the abstract art of fencing:

"True, the same weapons are used in both (sports fencing and duelling). Yet, but for the technical foundations, they constitute two different worlds hardly compatible with each other. (...) In a duel, the fencer is compelled to execute an ultra-careful form of fencing, which, indeed, is an almost unworthy expression of the science he knows. No matter how courageous and great, the all-out movements with which he nearly always scores in a bout would be unthinkable in a duel, because far too risky."
      The rules of modern fencing were derived from late forms of ritualized armed encounters that were strictly regulated by codices of honor, and enforced by seconds, umpires, and the nemesis of spectators. These dictates of prudence and caution translated into the fixed regulations and target definitions as fencing developed from a fighting art into a competitive sport. Barbasetti probably put it best in his The Art of the Foil:
"The art [became] a sport rather than a pure and direct preparation for combat. This sport has become quite complicated and it has become necessary to regulate it by rules and former conventions, to make it artistic. This explains the origins of the rules."
Apples and Oranges
      According to these considerations, I have enhanced existing classifications by adding a few new categories, first and foremost the concept of objective and subjective risk, as well as the concept of projected intent. (Projected intent is the subjective individual interpretation or assumption of what the antagonists's intentions are, which correlate closely with the perceived risk he poses.)

      The two main distinctions in combative edged-weapons systems are antagonistic and agonistic scenarios. In antagonistic scenarios, the opponent is considered hostile, posing a real or imagined threat to life, bodily integrity, or status. In agonistic scenarios, the level of hostility is low. The opponent is either a competitor (sports fencing) or even a collaborator (theatric fencing).

I. Antagonistic combat

Antagonistic scenarios can be segmented into the following sub-groups:

  • A: Combat for absolute dominion and/or survival
    "In the midst of extreme violence, there is only action. Remember, we aren't talking about a sport here, where you can have the luxury of a referee, strategy from the corner, and rules to protect you."

    Greg Jones, Predator Training

    "If your bayonet breaks, strike with the stock; if the stock gives way, hit with your fists; if your fists are hurt, bite with your teeth."

    M.I. Dragomiroff, Notes for Soldiers, c. 1890

    The fight for dominion or survival is entered either as an aggressor or defender, implying voluntary, or directly or indirectly coerced consent. Combative activity can take place between one (or several) attackers and one (or several) defenders, or among attackers and counter-attackers (melée). It can occur either spontaneously (rencontre and ambush) or with premeditation (ordeal).

    • Scenarios: Battlefield combat (melée), combat of champions', rencontre.
    • Motivation/Intent:
      • a) achieving domination by neutralizing the opponent or as many opponents as possible as fast as possible;
      • b) self-preservation by neutralizing the opponent or as many opponents as possible as fast as possible
    • Projected Intent: Opponent is perceived as lethal threat to one's own life; the assumed intent usually coincides with a full or even exaggerated personal identification with the highest possible risk level.
    • Conscious awareness of risk and level of consequence: Full or latent awareness of death or serious injury.
    • Fear Level: High
    • Stress Level: High
    • Objective risk: Death or serious injury.
    • Combative systems: Coincidental, mainly dominated by spontaneous, primary response, dictated by coincidental offensive or defensive weaponry, environment, state of mind; can be preconditioned to a degree by drill and experience.254
    • Taboos: None, encounters are uncontrolled and unsupervised, often unwitnessed; each fighter attempts to achieve any advantage over the opponent, including control of time and space (ambush), physical characteristics (size), or weapon-immanent advantages (cavalry riding down infantry.)
    • Weapons: a) & b) mismatched or coincidentially matched
    • Level of skill: coincidental, large variants
  • B: Comment combat
    Comment combat implies voluntary or indirectly coerced consent. Combative activity usually takes place between two individuals or detailed groups of individuals. It occurs with premeditation, with equality of risk and foreknowledge of the consequences.
    • Scenarios:
      • a) Legal institution: Ordeal
      • b) Social institution: Duel
      • c) Prize fight with sharp weapons
      • d) Ritualistic combat: Mensur
      Comment scenarios contain the possibility that the physical outcome of the fight could be assumed to have been achieved by the intentional absence of one of the combatants.
    • Motivation/Intent: To kill, control, or disable the opponent while adhering to a clearly defined, enforced or implied code of behavior.
    • Projected Intent: Opponent is perceived as lethal threat to one's own life or bodily integrity.
    • Conscious awareness of risk and level of consequence: Full or latent awareness of death or serious injury.
    • Fear Level: High
    • Stress Level: High
    • Objective risk: Death or injury.
    • Combative systems: Equally matched, dictated by offensive and defensive weaponry, environment, state of mind; preconditioned by drill and experience. Strong ritualistic element. Specific combative systems are specializations of practice systems.
    • Taboos: Enforced or implied notion of "fair play", i.e., adherence to set of rules; selected target areas are protected by defensive weaponry.
    • Weapons: a) & b) intentionally matched
    • Level of skill: intentionally similar
II. Agonistic combat

Agonistic scenarios comprise the following:

  • A: Competitive combat Competitive combat implies voluntary consent. Combative activity usually takes place between two individuals or detailed groups of individuals. It occurs with premeditation.
    • Scenarios:
      • a) "Olympic": sport/recreational combat: sports fencing, competitive kendo, SCA pageants & "wars". Olympic scenarios focus almost exclusively on competitive "winning" or assertion of superior skill level.
      • b) "Olympian": conditioning combat: practice for Comment, dominion, or competitive combat (kendo, "Pauken", singlestick, Medieval & Renaissance tournament). Olympian scenarios, named after the immortal denizens of snowcapped Olympus, are the sand-box games of the active fencers. They take place on a low level of competitiveness, and with near complete absence of consequence. There's usually nothing at stake, and nothing to be gained except for the individual reaffirmation of being good at something.
      • c) Playing the prize.
    • Motivation/Intent: To competitively assert superiority of skill ("winning") and achieve control by scoring a predetermined number of clearly defined objectives while adhering to a clearly defined enforced or implied code of behavior. Potential of "winning" by default
    • Projected Intent: Opponent is perceived as competitor for control. Conscious awareness of risk and level of consequence: Remote possibility of injury, complete absence of hostile intent; no disadvantageous physical consequences are tied to the termination of the encounter. (Exception: the "broken head" in public singlestick competitions or the German Fechtschulen.)
    • Fear Level: Low
    • Stress Level: Low to medium
    • Objective risk: Remote, controlled possibility of injury.
    • Combative systems: Equally matched, dictated by convention and environment (which is standardized and replicable by clearly defined spatial dimensions); preconditioned by drill and experience.
    • Taboos: Enforced notion of "fair play", i.e., adherence to set of rules; selected target areas are protected by defensive weaponry.
    • Weapons: a) and b) intentionally matched and standardized, specifically designed to eliminate risk of injury; consensual disarmament, e.g. by restriction of defensive & offensive repertoire ("covering target" in fencing).
    • Level of skill: Intentionally similar

      Fencing as a modern sport currently is the most prevalent form of edged-weapons combat. During the last century, it has shed every element of actual fight in the classical sense, since it lacks the intention to put an opponent out of combat by way of physical injury. Sports fencing is heavily imprinted by the availability of body protection that makes actions possible that no actual fighter would have dared to undertake at any point in history. Accordingly, apart from the ŽpŽe which may find practical application in the equally strictly regulated Comment environment of the 19th century duel, no modern fencing weapon is practical as a weapon for antagonistic combat scenarios.

  • B. Theatric combat

    Theatric combat implies voluntary consent. Combative activity usually takes place between two individuals or groups of individuals. It occurs with premeditation.

    • Scenarios:
      • a) stage combat (unbroken sequence)
      • b) film combat (broken sequences)
      • c) re-enactment fencing
    • Motivation/Intent: To create a premeditated, replicable, choreographed effect for the spectator.
    • Projected Intent: Opponent is perceived as non-competitive collaborator, not as opponent.
    • Conscious awareness of risk and level of consequence: Remote possibility of injury, complete absence of hostile intent; no disadvantageous physical consequences are tied to the termination of the encounter.
    • Fear Level: Zero
    • Stress Level: Low
    • Objective risk: Remote, controlled possibility of injury.
    • Combative systems: Selective elements applied in sequence or out of sequence to create a specific effect in a controlled and specifically designed environment that has been arranged and choreographed to enhance the desired effect.
    • Taboos: In absence of hostile or competitive intent, risk is minimized. Safety of the opponent is a paramount concern.
    • Weapons: Intentionally matched or mismatched, specifically designed to eliminate risk of injury while creating desired effect.
    • Level of skill: Intentionally similar. While these categories still require further expansion and fine-tuning, they already allow a much closer comparative evaluation between edged weapons combative systems. This may be less entertaining than musings about who'd come out on top in a match of Nadi vs. Musashi, or cutlass vs. foil. But I believe they provide a base for a more accurate classification and evaluation of systems.

-J. Christoph Amberger is the publisher of the quarterly "Hammerterz Forum, The International Newsletter for the Fencing Collector" and the author of "The Secret History of the Sword". He can be reached at zoergiebel@aol.com .


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