Lightsaber Academy, Sword Lab

Of Rules and Realism

A conversation that seems to come up from time to time in martial art circles especially in weapon and fencing based arts, is the issue of realism in sport and sparring. We all want to be practicing real techniques and methods that work and will serve us in what ever goals we have in the arts. But this discussion becomes somewhat heated when speaking of rules sets intended to be used with people of different backgrounds of fighting. These rule sets will be critiqued or praised on their perceived realism or lack thereof. 

For this piece I am going to limit my discussion to rules for sport and competition. The games and rules one uses to train and in sparring can be manipulated at will so that we can work on specific skills. It is therefore much harder to criticize or even analyze such practices in a general sense. They do not give a good insight into these issues. 

Sport, on the other hand provides a very good place to talk about such things. In sport, we have well defined goals that are shared by all players/teams. Many of these goals are reflected in the rule sets that we employ in these activities. In martial arts there is often a conceit that we are trying to simulate a real fight. This is the main point. A competitive sword fight (really any weapon fight) is a simulated duel. We say “simulated” because another conceit that we are working with is that we are not actually trying to kill or maim our opponent. In fact, in sport there is the concerted effort NOT to deal out any injuries. And hence we have pads, gloves, helmets and other protective gear for not just our sport but for any contact sport known. 

But what part does realism play in sport? This is where we are going to have to accept that when we say “realism” we don’t all mean the same thing. What is realistic? What bench mark are we using for that definition? Is realism really that important in sport? And if it is, how do we best bring realism in to what we do? 

The Reality of Being Hit

What most of these discussions center around is what the potential damage done by any type of hit will do to a human. Will it kill or dismember them? Will it cause bleeding, haead trauma, or broken bones? Basically, will it stop them from completing their next move? What a particular hit does or is imagined to do is often one way rule sets determine scoring and target values. 

Again the main reason we have to ask this question is that we are taking many steps to ensure these things do not actually happen when we compete. No one attends a fencing match expecting dismemberment or even blood during normal match play. This is because we have protective equipment, rules and officiation during matches to help keep the players safe. This is not a part of “real world martial arts”. The battlefield does not have rules or referees. The darkened ally with muggers does not care about time limits, legality of technique, or fair play. Even in a bar fight, where passions are simply running high, the outcome of the match is often dictated by things in the environment like chairs, waste baskets and bystanders. You do not have an open ring with clearly defined parameters. 

The actual physical damage done by melee weapons is a topic for another article, as it is a very complicated matter. But this does bring us to our first point of contention when issues of realism and competition are concerned. 

Gear or no Gear

It is with the advance of protective equipment for training and the like, gear has become an essential part of the weapon fighter’s kit. This gear enables us to practice with full speed and actual contact with the opponent. This is the first layer of realism that gear provides. If we and our opponent are protected, we are not fearful of hurting them. We can use full speed blows and depending on the equipment used, full force strikes to most any target. The freedom in not only being able to hit our target “for real” but also knowing that our opponent can do the same thing is a huge part of sparring and keeping things “real”. 

Most fighters generally agree that the realism of being able to hit the opponent as fast as in real life is only possible with gear. However, some complain about gear or “too much” gear being used in competitive scenarios. They say that without the fear of being hit, players will do things that they would never do in a “real” encounter with sharp or deadly weapons. They say that there is a disregard for defense when too much gear is used. They also say their mobility is hampered or other comfort level criticisms. They claim that gear gives one a false sense of confidence and therefore makes things unrealistic. They cite people barreling in without any concern for getting hit, just so they can. They also say that using control and requiring that for competition is enough for safety.

Often one who doesn’t defend thinks they are doing better than they are. A novice who ignores defense can land a good deal of hits even on an expert opponent. But they cannot do it without getting hit themselves, often in much more critical areas. Since gear protects one from the actual injury of a hit, some claim that gear is the reason. So, you get matches that are plagued by our next factor…

The Double Hit and After Blow

The problem that arises often in sparring and sport these days is a “double hit , this is simply when both fighters make a hit at the same time, or an “after blow”, which is a hit from the opponent directly after the first hit. Most often, a double is due to one or both of the fighters ignoring defense in favor of attacking an opening. An after blow happens because one fighter did not defend after their attack. It tends to happen more with less experienced people, but it does happen at all levels of play. For those of us in the weapon arts for any amount of time, these double hits are the bane of one’s existence. They are frustrating and completely ruin the flow of a match for both the players and the spectators. 

In a “real life” scenario, meaning where injury and death are the goal, a double hit would incur injury to both players. At that point the relative severity the injuries would determine the winner of the encounter. This is not available to us. So, we devise rules to help us figure out what happens in the event of a double hit where we cannot rely on the effect of the hit to tell us the answer. 

In order to incorporate this part of swordplay, it is necessary to find an analog or way to account for that. In a competitive setting, this must be done without disrupting match play so that it provides a modicum of entertainment for the spectators. From this point we get our various rule sets and their solutions to these problems. 

Rules that offer Solutions

The general martial arts community falls along a two major differences; one that deals with double hits and after blows with “right of way” or “Priority” rules that dictate that priority to the first attack [Edit}, as in foil fencing. The other is one with no rules of right of way but a “first come first serve” style analogous to epee fencing. Each way has it’s benefits and draw backs, but both are complimentary to each other when it comes to skill building and training value. There are of course other methods, but those are generally not as common and/or particular to the groups they are used by.


 In a nut shell, these rules limit when a fighter can attack and when they must defend. One of the main issues with double hits is that one or both of the fighters are not defending. This rule makes defending a necessary component to winning the point, therefore incentivizing defense and giving judges and refs a solid rule to apply in times of disagreement. 

Rules of priority are used in many cases and rule sets. Some are rigid, requiring one to obtain priority to score, while other are more liberal as in being applied or invoked only in cases of double hits or confused exchanges. The idea is fairly easy to apply to create a rule set for weapon work although, it is fairly difficult to use when one does not have officials like refs and judges to be observers. 

First hit 

The other end of the spectrum is the “first hit” method. This is probably the most intuitive style of sparring and thus, is often the method people choose for their competitive events as well. It is very much as it sounds, the first one to strike a target successfully, gets the point. If one hits one without being hit, this is an easy matter. But, if the hits are simultaneous or very close together, the calls become a little less sure. 

This approach is similar to epee fencing, to continue the comparison. But it is a widely held and practiced method. There is an intuitive feeling of objectivity, if I hit you before you hit me, thats a good thing. Although the method is simple to practice independently, the need for refs in a competitive setting should be emphasized. Many of the calls in this style of fencing are judgments based on the referee. In the case of epee fencing, there is the benefit of an electronic touch system that indicates who made the touch. 

Realism and Rules

So, which of these methods is more realistic? This is where the conversation will get contentious. Both approaches evolved some sort of realism in their application. But the result one gets from the two can be very different. The type of reality and the way one interprets the concept is also a large factor here. Are we looking for reality of outcome? Or reality of exchange and match play? Are the targets weighted to realistically represent wounds incurred? 

For most, the rules of priority seem artificial and intrusive. It makes critics think that they are giving up freedom of action. To an extent they are correct. But that limitation of technique is one that would be omnipresent in a real duel with weapons that can kill. One would more than likely be more concerned with defense if they had been used to the need to read the opponent at all times. This rule set uses incentives to create an analog for the fear of being hit. It uses those same incentives to encourage players to defend and respond rather than simply ignore the opponent and go for the first available opening. 

The first hit method exchanges that point of realism for freedom of action. Here, the possibility of counter-striking, directly striking for the opponents opening without worrying about parrying and riposting, is introduced into play. One does not have to think about if they have the right to attack or what type of attack can be done. On the outset, this seems like the more realistic method. It seems like what we would naturally find when people decide to fight with these things. After all there are no rules of priority in real life. 

The Reality of Sport

But, is this really an important consideration when thinking of combat sport? Is it even acceptable in sport in general? While a competitive combat sport is the representation of a duel, there are concerns and goals that are particular to sport and distinguish it from “real” combat (real meaning combat where the goal is to injure or kill your opponent). 

First off, competitive combat sports need an audience. We can go into the history of combat sports in general in another piece, but combat sports are perhaps the oldest and longest lived of all the traditional martial arts. Shuai Jiao, Chiense folk wrestling, is perhaps the oldest form of Chinese martial art still practiced today. This is true of combat sports because these sports represent something to us on a deeper level than simply the excitement and the action. They bring people together. Combat sports have long been a huge form of entertainment for people of all classes and lifestyles the world over. 

When you look at certain combat sports that are extremely traditional, like Kendo and Sumo from Japan, to ones that embrace modern invention  like Fencing, you are looking at something that is culturally significant. Kendo has a meaning and is point of pride for Japanese and therefore the “Japanese-ness” is something that is a crucial part of the activity. Sumo has the same point of deep cultural pride and is filled with religious and cultural cues that  are completely irrelevant to the practice of martial arts. Even today, sports like MMA (real) and WWE (entertainment) coexist in the public sphere. 

Audiences and Onlookers

This audience is important. It gives the sport a sense of community, the the players are part of a larger thing. If it is a national sport, that can translate into national pride and a feeling of being representative for your culture. It can allow players to feel connected to their fellow competitors and build a community within that group. But for all that, it is the gathering, the game, the competition that is the touch stone. Sporting competitions are a huge part of societies and cultures. Combat sports have extra weight given to them as they tend to be older and weapon arts older still. 

The reality of fights is less important in this arena. Whether it be a concept important to the culture like initiative, perseverance, or simplicity or if it is a game that people from all walks of life can come together and share the experience together, the sport it’s self finds ways to speak directly to those things. The sudden and blindingly fast Kendo strike is also a representation of the Samurai ethic of direct action. The bravado of an MMA fighter or Boxer represents the standing up to daily struggles with adversity. Duan Bing attempts to recreate the soldiering practice of short weapons in China. All these thing are part and parcel to the practice of combat sport. 

What is Realism in Sport?

So what is the expression of realism in sport? Which method is the most realistic? The fact of the matter, is that no sport is realistic in the strictest sense of the word. Once a combat sport moves out of the realm of scoring points and instead is focused on causing harm, it is not a sport any longer. But, many people today hold very strict views on what rule set is “good for the sport” or not. This stems directly from the idea that playing a rule set will have effects on behavior and response. To an extent. this is true. However, it is not much of an effort to change rule sets for a sufficiently experienced person.

Rule sets that allow for certain maneuvers and techniques that would not normally work in a duel (spinning around, jumping etc) are often seen as something that is bad. It is seen by some as a parody of martial arts and not a contribution to the field. Often things that are crowd pleasing are seen as merely that, and thoughts of the athleticism, timing and control it takes to accomplish those feats is completely ignored. This leads to the complaint that certain things “are bad for the sport”. Presumably because it teaches something that cannot be done outside of that sport. 

On the other hand, rule sets that are just about the first hit can be difficult to watch or get excited about. If the two players are not of particularly high level, the points can be extremely short, too fast to really see, and plagued with double hits and after blows. In rule sets that do not incentivize defense, many players will not defend at all and if the rules do not have things in place to keep the game play moving, it can easily turn into “wack-a-mole” where it becomes a series of single move encounters with many double hits slowing down the play. From the perspective of competition, this occurrence is also, “not good for the sport”. 

In the end, reality is something that can only be introduced into sport by analogy. So each method has its purpose. Sword/lightsaber enthusiasts would benefit from both methods. The priority method brings you in to the fight more and teaches you to stay there rather than in your own head. It also incentivizes defense and forces longer exchanges. The first hit method teaches countering and being able to move and attack with all the freedom your opponent affords you. It’s rhythm is much faster and the method works with almost any weapon or system. It is also much more intuitive.

For my part, I think beginners and novices would benefit more from learning a priority based rule set before trying out the first hit method. The skills you can build in the priority method will transfer nicely to the first hit method with minimal effort. Where as, those unfamiliar with weapon combat can have some difficultly in the beginning trying to find the balance between attack and defense, and then the dreaded doubling may well occur. But this is not a zero sum proposition. Under proper guidance either system will produce good competitors and martial artists.

And that is something that should never be lost. These are games that we are playing. They test our skill, give us perspective on our progress, and allow us to have fun with others of our same interest. But behind all of this is our training. Whether it be in a combat sport like fencing, kendo, or Canne Du Combat or a traditional or historical martial art like German Longsword, Kali Escrima, or Chinese Swordsmanship these skills are universal and it is through training them that we learn how to apply them. We can get good at a game by playing the game. But to be able to change games and still be a competitor, is dependent on good training, honest teaching, and focused learning. 

Patience, Practice, Perseverance.

Happy Sabering!

2 thoughts on “Of Rules and Realism”

  1. Dunno. I think obsessing about the “realism” of competitive rules is something of a red herring. You’ve correctly pointed out that the competitive setup with its symmetrical/”fair fight” trappings and the lack of environmental obstructions/distractions means that a competitive match/bout doesn’t really represent a “real fight” that accurately to begin with. I’d go even further than that — I subscribe to the school of thought within HEMA that treats free fencing (whether it’s called “fencing,” “sparring,” “free-play” or whatever) just as a training game or drill like any other. More complexity and degrees of freedom than the average drill, of course, but the difference is in degree rather than in kind, since there are still some constraints to be obeyed. And from this viewpoint it follows that bouts should not even try to simulate a “real fight” all that closely in the first place. Instead, it should pick one or several facets of skill it’d like to emphasise and build the ruleset around that. Want the participants to get good at hitting deeper targets like the head and torso? Give such targets higher scores than advanced ones like the hand. Conversely, if we want the participants to get good at attacking and defending advanced targets, give all targets the same point value or even give higher points for the hand and forearm (and maybe the front knee).

    The same thing applies to the priority question. Right-of-way tilts the field in favour of the attacker, who doesn’t have to worry about a double hit (whether genuinely simultaneous or separated only by a fraction of a second) if their initial attack had priority. Afterblow tilts it in favour of the defender, who can reduce or even nullify the attacker’s score with the retaliatory hit within the prescribed window (so many seconds or so many steps). First hit favours whoever is physically faster. So all of these obviously have weaknesses — but these weaknesses can become strengths instead if they’re specifically exploited to satisfy the desired training objective. For instance, use right-of-way to train people to see when they have the initiative and when they don’t; use afterblow to teach attackers not to assume that the defender would instantly drop and stop fighting after the initial hit; and use first hit to work on exploiting advantages based on physical attributes (or dealing with the corresponding disadvantages).


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