Smaller Fighters

Smaller Fighters

By Duke Paul of Bellatrix

This article provides tips and guidance for smaller fighters of any gender, with the goal of making fighting easier and more enjoyable by suggesting improvements in technique and strategy.

The article does not contain complete descriptions of techniques.  It suggests changes in technique that will help the user swing harder and faster.  It will also provide useful bits of advice concerning tactics and equipment.

Stance

It is imperative that fighters, especially those smaller in stature, fight with a semi-open, medium-width stance to allow enough travel for hip rotation and the ability to move laterally.  A stance that is completely closed will allow for hip rotation, but not enough for the fighter to turn their hips fully toward their opponent.  A stance that is too wide will almost completely prohibit hip rotation.  The proper placement of the feet for this stance is shown in the illustration to the right.

In the basic stance, the hips and shoulders be rotated slightly clockwise to keep the shield in front and to bring the sword arm back into a cocked position.  This also allows for more hip movement you can use to gain power.  It also exposes the back of the shield leg during some blocks, so the armor should extend well around the hamstring.

Feet position in stance, with both feet parallel, pointed about 30 degrees to sword side, shoulder-width apart, with the toe of the front foot touching the line toward the opponent, and the heel of the back foot 2-6 inches to the sword side of the line.


  • The stance should be very upright.  Crouching or leaning in any direction will reduce your ability to rotate and thereby reduce the power available for blows.
  • It is vital for the muscle just in front of your sword shoulder to remain tight while in the starting position.  This is critical for proper connectivity with the body.  This will require your elbow to be back and preferably up to just under shoulder height.
  • The sword can point wherever you desire.  For power generation, it is most efficient if it lies across the upper back just under the neck, pointing down about 15 to 30 degrees from horizontal.
  • The sword should be held firmly but not tightly.  Do not completely relax the fingers.
  • Hold the sword mainly with the lower two or three fingers.
  • Do not use your wrist or the closing of your fingers to supply power.
  • Don’t fight sword-foot forward, unless it is part of a moving combination.  It requires a lot of  power unless performed properly.  “Properly” means that the sword hip is not committed until the swing starts.  It’s not just a reversed stance.
  • Don’t use the “iron chicken” (a sword in a static blocking position at the expense of power),  except when you need both your sword and shield to block an attack.
  • Don’t lean back or forward, especially when you swing.

Sword

  • The sword itself should be reasonably long (at least 36 inches), fairly light, and balanced as far toward the tip as possible.
  • Make the sword from smaller-diameter rattan, and balanced by adding nylon or leather edging to the striking edges of the blade, near to the tip. 
  • Don’t run edging down the entire length of the blade.  That just adds weight.  Don’t add edging that ends more than 16 inches from the tip.
  • If necessary, add extra edging toward the tip and put some on the back of the last six inches to help the balance.
  • This gives more bang for the buck by putting the weight where it will do the most good.  Longer swords require more technique; shorter swords require more strength.
  • It is more likely that a small fighter can, with practice, develop sufficient technique to use a long sword.  You have to be pretty strong to use a short, heavy sword effectively.
  • Anyway, you should concentrate on technique, not strength.
  • The reality is that you can learn to use a longer sword—it just takes practice.  Longer swords used properly will provide both the speed and power that you need.
  • Do NOT use a short sword, whether it’s light or heavy.  Smaller fighters are often given one or two conflicting pieces of advice concerning sword construction.
  • The first is to make a short sword (so it will be easier to handle) that is light so you can swing fast enough to hit someone.  People are rarely told that they won’t be able to hit hard enough with a short, light sword for anyone to take the blow.
  • The second is to make a short sword but make it heavy so opponents will take your blows.  People are rarely told that they won’t be able to move it fast enough to hit anyone.
  • If you have very small hands, you may not be able to reach as far around the grip as a larger person can.  This means you may have to mark the striking edge of the blade farther around toward your fingertips in relation to your grip.  Try this out, and see where the front edge of the sword should be.

My style of handle is an isosceles triangle, with long sides flat, and the short side and the point curved.  If you have small hands, I’d suggest you curve the long sides as well.  You might also want the lower (front) point to be more rounded.

Sword handle shaps for large and small hands


The Snap

When throwing a Snap, keep these things in mind:

  • When you swing, your elbow should swing around as far out from your body as possible, while your hand should stay on a direct line toward the target.  Keeping the elbow out adds to the sword’s kinetic energy when it finally moves forward.  Keeping your hand close in keeps the balance of the sword closer to center, making it easier to move.
  • Ensure that your stomach is tight as you drive forward and around with the hips.  Your stomach should connect the upper and lower body at the start of the blow.  Your hips shouldn’t move around as quickly as in a karate blow; they should move so that they lead the body, but just barely.  Essentially, the whole body turns at the same time.
  • Let your weight move down through your hips toward your shield knee, while using your core muscles to move your whole torso in that direction.  The drop and weight movement will help to accelerate the sword.
  • Watch how soon in the blow the sword hand turns palm up.  The sooner in the blow, the better, but it should happen before the sword leaves your shoulder.  The later the turn, the more strength is required to provide the torque, and the more damage can be incurred by the wrist, elbow, and shoulder.
  • Don’t use snap-wraps where you turn your hand over to hit with the back edge on a straight shot.  It costs you 30% of your power (if you’re lucky).  In the situation where you would use one, blows that hit with the front edge are more powerful.

Returns

When retrieving the sword after a blow:

  • Keep your elbow in and the sword hand out.  Try to return the sword well out to your sword side, preferably to the direction defined by extending the line through the front of your feet (if you’re in the proper stance).  This will be to a point about 30 degrees on your sword side from straight back.  Don’t pull it toward your body.
  • Be sure to pull the sword back far enough to accumulate energy.  It is not useful to get your sword quickly to the next target if you have applied no power to it.  Try to continue into the next blow instead of returning to a starting position.
  • For blows thrown after the first blow of a combination, most of the power should be generated during the backswing, then carried into the forward swing by using good technique to keep the sword on a curved path.
  • DON’T stop your sword in a cocked position between swings.  Instead, continue into your next blow.

Shield

  • Don’t use an overly large shield.  If it’s too heavy, you won’t be able to use it effectively.  If it’s too big to easily move or swing around, you won’t derive much benefit from its size.
  • I would suggest using a medium-sized heater, or a round if you prefer.  Be sure that it’s light enough to use and small enough to swing around and see over.
  • A center-grip round can provide more static protection than a strapped shield, but it requires more strength to use effectively.  It is also more difficult to use offensively.
  • Strap the shield so your elbow is close to the back edge, leaving some room in front of your hand on the leading edge.  This effectively enlarges the range and blocking size of the shield while maintaining visibility.
  • Use an active punch-blocking style.  This allows you to tie your shield movement into your perception of the flow of the fight.  A static defense relies more on reaction speed.
  • I believe that training with a smaller shield will eventually make you a more accomplished fighter.  That being said, once your skill is at a reasonable level, a larger shield is usually more effective.

Mobility & Tactics

  • Try to be mobile.  It helps to move mainly on the balls of your feet.
  • Never enter range unless you are swinging.  Use a Slide Step. 
  • This is a technique that allows you to close range by sliding your shield foot forward during the swing, but after the power has been generated.
  • It is important to remember that, when using a Slide Step, the sword must move first.  If anything else moves first, it’s a Tell.
  • If your opponent has a longer range, it is unlikely that you will be able to kill them on the first swing, and you enter.  You can however, use the Slide Step to move close enough to hit their shield.  This will cause a reaction, and give you a head-start moving into your next blow.
  • Don’t stay in range unless you’re swinging.  Stopping in range means you are now engaged in a game of “who’s fastest” with your opponent.  This is not a high-percentage game.
  • Find the distance at which your techniques work best, and maintain it when you are swinging.  If you are told to be more aggressive, don’t take that to mean you have to get very close to your opponent.  Instead, be aggressive in getting to, and staying in, your most effective range and attack positions.
  • Good attacking points are from the front corners of your opponent.  Try not to stay exactly in front of them, as that is their strongest focal point.

Distance

  • Don’t get in too close, especially to large, powerful opponents.  In this situation, you are playing into the strength of powerful opponents, and you reduce your effectiveness by moving inside your optimum swing distance.
  • The right distance to move into when you are attacking is about four to six inches out from where you need to stand to hit your opponent. 
  • From there, you can easily move into killing range as you swing, and move back again quickly.
  • It also keeps you out of the optimum Wrap range of your opponent.
  • You may be given the advice to “get in close, and use their shield against them”.  This does not take into account the use of Wraps, especially by a taller opponent.
  • Don’t stay too far away, especially when fighting opponents who are faster on their feet than you.
  • Don’t creep around just outside of range trying to find an opening against a better opponent.  A good offense is the best defense.  Use yours.

General

  • Don’t wear armor that is too heavy for you.  Find strong, lighter replacements for steel whenever possible.  There are a lot of ways to make modern materials look good.
  • Don’t rely on strength and speed.  Good techniques and tactics will make you better regardless of whether you have speed and strength.

Detail of the techniques and tactics can be found in my book:

“The Bellatrix System – Techniques and Tactics for SCA Armored Combat”.  (theBellatrixBook.com)