So here in Glasgow we have been busy preparing for HEMAC Glasgow this weekend and so I have spent much of my day today building a cutting stand in preparation for the cutting class being ran on Sunday. This has made me consider further the role of cutting as a training exercise and I wished to share my thoughts on the subject and my reasoning for it being an exercise practised in the AHA.
Test cutting is quite simply the act of striking a disposable target with a live (ie. sharp) bladed weapon. I believe that it is positive part of a healthy sword training regime. Now before I go too much further I should give some of my background as it may have an impact on my views. I have been into weaponry my whole life and started cutting with swords as part of my Eastern Martial Art training, using the “mythical” katana. Through this experience I became very fond of cutting practise and ported it over to my Western Martial Art training and have been smiting milk bottles and tatame mats ever since. I have also been trained with a wide variety of firearms and I view test cutting much the same as target practise, no amount of going through the motions makes up for actually testing your skill with a live weapon. In my experience the live weapon just feels different, whether that is my SA80 or my Albion Count, it feels and reacts differently when there are live as opposed to blank rounds in the magazine or in the case of the Count it feels much different to handle compared to any blunt steel trainer. Now I will explain what I feel are the reasons why one should undertake test cutting.
Reason 1 – EDGE ALIGNMENT!!!
As many readers may have realised I am a regular senior referee at AHA tournaments, and in this role I was overseeing a broadsword tournament two weeks ago. During the tournament I discounted more hits for faulty edge-alignment than for anything else. This I believe is one of the biggest benefits of regular test cutting. If your edge-alignment is off, even slightly, the target, be it a milk bottle or tatame, will simply not be cut. You will most likely send the target flying off the stand and into the neighbours garden. Test cutting is the most sure way to check for good edge-alignment as even a trained coach and referee simply is not always able to identify faulty edge-alignment. The other benefit of testing edge-alignment on a target is that the target can show if your edge-alignment is changing mid cut, which as well as being interesting can help to identify problems in wrist position that can then be corrected before they cause a later injury to yourself due to you hitting a solid target (such as a sparring partner) with the wrist in a bad position.
Reason 2 – Techniques can be completed.
In today’s world hopefully no one will have any need to use their sword against another person. This is very different from the world being discussed in the manuscripts and herein is a problem for many of the techniques discussed are not designed to hit a sparring partner and stop, they are designed to hit an opponent and continue through them. If you never test cut then you will never feel what it is like for your sword to move through a target…is this the end of the world, no, but if you are practising this hobby as a way to get a closer understanding of the past then I would say that you are missing a trick by ignoring this simple practise.
Reason 3 – Techniques can be validated.
This is one that Keith often likes to point out, by test cutting successfully we validate our technique. If a cutting technique cannot cut then it is highly likely that you are performing it wrong. It would be absurd to think that the sword masters of the past would train people in techniques to cut an opponent that don’t actually manage to cut an opponent. So if we accept that the technique must be correct, but we can’t make it work, then we have to consider our interpretation again. This is why the AHA is preparing to trial an additional element to tournament finals whereby before a point is granted the person who landed the point must successfully perform a test cut.
Reason 4 – Psychology
Over the years I have walked many students through their first cut, in fact this is one of those things I enjoy most about my job. The thing with that first cut is the individual is often quite filled with doubt, and not just doubt that the sword will actually cut the target. Many students have told me before they cut that “they” can’t and in all my years of teaching this activity I can genuinely say that no student has ever failed to cut the target. For most this gives a huge boost to their self esteem and they get an amazing adrenaline rush when they realise that they have been successful. I can cut a target with a blunt sword, it is all about the psychology and the belief in myself that I can (along with a host of physics laws to help me out). The point I am trying to make is that most of the failed first cuts I have seen have had nothing to do with the sword and everything to do with a student’s own lack of belief in themselves.
Reason 5 – Reminder you are training with a weapon.
Finally one of the main reasons I like making my students test cut is that it is a very visual reminder of what they are doing. In a world full of nylon or blunt steel training weapons it is quite easy to forget that the techniques being taught and being applied in sparring were designed with one purpose, to kill or otherwise injure an opponent who hopes to do the same to you. I will often remind students after an afternoon of cutting to think over their cuts and consider just how easy it was for the very real weapon to do incredible damage. In a well done cut I barely feel the target as my blade passes through it and this has always helped build a healthy respect in me for what I am training. I have also used test cutting as a way to remind people that behind every cut is a person wielding the sword.
To conclude, I believe test cutting has many advantages when undertaken as part of a well rounded training regime. If you have the opportunity to add test cutting to your training then I strongly advise you do, likewise if you don’t have the regular opportunity to undertake test cutting may I suggest you try it whenever you are at an event that offers it. Of course if you feel like joining us in Scotland or meeting up with me in Florida, during the months I am there, I am more than happy to run some test cutting for you to give you the opportunity for that experience.
If anyone has arguments against test cutting I would be interested to hear them, please comment below although excuse me if I don’t respond quickly as I am a bit swamped preparing for HEMAC Glasgow and then Camp Loch Lomond.