I recently spent a very pleasant 90 minutes or so doing free-style swordplay games with three taiji colleagues [thanks Jill, Adriaan and Daniel] and had a lot of fun, scored a few “victories”, was ‘’defeated” or fought to a tie-match many times and learned a few more valuable lessons about unstructured, though controlled, sparring with swords.
I should clarify that we were engaged in dueling with weapons of equal length and type with no or little protective gear [just forearm protectors and gauntlets]. I mention this because there is quite a difference in tactics between what we did that day and doing free-play with fuller “armor” which allows more use of close-range tactics with the free hand or even the legs. Weight and strength make a greater impact when training to fight in armor and I’m getting to be an old man so I have to keep my opponents at a distance to avoid being grappled, kicked or struck.
My taiji friends and I have been doing sparring with swords [among other types of archaic edged weaopons] for many years now. Before that I was teaching formal Chinese-style weapons training to my own taiji and bagua students when I ran a school in downtown Ottawa — but in those days we tended to focus on solo forms and structured two-person training which was valuable for everyone involved but more suitable to beginner and intermediate level participants.
Wooden swords are the traditional way to train 'safely" but the heavier wooden commercial products are often too pointy for safe usage [I cut off the tips and round them] and as they age often produce splinters that can be very unpleasant when doing sticky type training. In recent years, I learned to wrap our wooden blades with duct tape and that seemed to solve the splinter issue even though the blades won’t slide quite as realistically on each other compared to bare wood when doing the ‘sticky’ training so common in taiji circles. I've also bought the solid plastic swords [as an example Cold Steel Co. makes a variety of such] and they hold up well enough to regular usage and repeated impact from non-sticky training but the weight and the balance make them tricky to use safely unless you and your partner are both skillfull and/or both are wearing a lot of protective gear [which can be hard to find and very expensive].
We also use a variety of LARP style foam weapons which don't require the protective gear to avoid the risk of serious injury [bruises don’t count]. I've bought from a couple of American companies as well as Calimacil, a Canadian supplier. I haven't been ripped off yet by any supplier that I have dealt with though sometimes the foam tears if you train vigorously. The balance often needs modification to suit individual taste but it's easy enough to do with washers, weights and some wrapping tape for the handle.
Such weapons can also be quite pricey but the safety factor is important, especially if you want your free-style practise to have some functional aspect. You didn’t really think that you could learn semi-realistic fighting skills by moving in slow motion and always being in contact, did you?
In the end, it’s important to have fun, and to agree on a set of rules that aren’t too complicated and wear protective equipment for the more vigorous versions of free-play. Having rules always limits the “realism” of the training but there is no way to realistically pretend to slice someone else to ribbons or stab them without actually trying to do it — and that is hardly civilized, is it!
Oh, and remember that bad training or over-reliance on the limitation of rule sets may teach you habits that would get you killed in the unlikely event you are attacked by a sword-wielding madman.
Is it any consolation that an unarmed man or woman has little chance against an edged weapon in any case despite the nonsense often taught by some martial arts instructors. Still, it's better to go down fighting than to die on your knees [well, that's what the Spirits of my Western European ancestors are whispering, anyway].
P.S. Don’t forget to wear eye protection as we have had some nasty near-accidents before I started insisting participants wear them at all times when training with partners whether structured or free-play.
Copyright by Michael A. Babin ©2018
43+ Years of Experience Training in the Chinese martial arts; 33+ years experience teaching taijiquan and 24+ years experience teaching baguazhang