FAQs - The Society for the Study of Swordsmanship


Frequently Asked Questions

We find that certain questions come up quite frequently.

This list attempts to answer some of them ahead of time.

I want to know more or join the club…?

If you would like to join us, please email us for more information: durham@ssswordsmanship.co.uk or historicalfencing@btinternet.com

What does SSS Teach?

As our name suggests, we study and practice various forms of European swordsmanship including but not restricted to the Rapier and Sidesword, the Backsword, the Smallsword and the Military Sabre.

That means that we are interested in the practical applications of traditional swordsmanship, with a wider secondary interest in the historical periods surrounding our arts. We are fencers, not re-enactors or LARPers, though these activities are not mutually exclusive.

Who is this suitable for?

Anyone over 18 who can follow some basic safety rules. There is a significant scholastic component to what we do, and some of our members are there to learn about historical swordplay rather than to become a high-end competitor. After an introductory period we allow students to choose how they wish to proceed – there are options available for almost anyone.

How fit do I need to be?

A degree of physical fitness is helpful, of course, but a lot of our members are less than youthful, and we can accommodate almost any level of physical enablement. Swordplay is not purely physical; there are tactical and psychological considerations that permit a skilled and cool-headed fencer to defeat a purely athletic one.

Western Martial Arts (WMA), Historical Fencing, Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA)…

All of these terms can be used for what we do. Which one is used is largely a matter of personal preference. We focus on swordplay almost exclusively, so we tend to prefer ‘Historical Fencing’, but it really is not that important which term is used.

What are Western Martial Arts?

Most people are at least vaguely familiar with Oriental (or Eastern) Martial Arts, but Europe has an equally rich martial heritage. Western Martial Arts (WMA) include combat systems such as Boxe Francaise, Military Combatives, Catch Wrestling and Bartitsu as well as a great many styles of swordsmanship.

This is different to what I’ve seen on at the Olympics

There are significant differences between historical fencing and the modern Olympic sport of fencing, so we sometimes use the terms ‘sport’ and ‘historical’ to show which we are referring to. All forms of fencing are part of the same family, with many similarities and a few important differences.

By way of example, Smallsword fencing is as different from medieval longsword play as it is from Olympic style foil fencing, but both fall within the Historical remit. Since Olympic (or ‘sport’) fencing is governed by a completely different organization with its own rules and an electronic scoring method that creates a very specific style of swordsmanship, the distinction is sometimes relevant. In truth though it’s all fencing of one sort or another, just with local variations.

Are you part of a wider community?

Yes. We are part of the British Federation for Historical Swordplay (BFHS) and have good links with many other groups.

There are opportunities to visit other classes or have visiting instructors come to us, and there are events throughout the year such as Quadrohemia and Smallsword Symposium. These are typically a mix of tournaments and seminars with the top instructors in the field.

Are there competitions?

Most events include a tournament, and there are some dedicated tournament events. However, there is no requirement to compete.

Some people want to win tournament medals, others are more interested in the history of swordplay. The approach you take is your decision.

There seems to be more than one Society for the Study of Swordsmanship

Our organisation originally had multiple chapters, but some developed their own identity and changed their names.

Today, SSS (Durham) and SSS (Sheffield) are separate entities whose names reflect a common origin. We remain friendly with our former colleagues, but each group is now autonomous.

I have a sword. Can I bring it to the class?

We do not allow any sharp weapons in the training area as a safety precaution.

Many blunt weapons are also unsuitable for fencing, and of course some weapons fall outside our remit. Talk to our instructors before trying to use any weapon in the class.

I have a disability or health issue. Is that a problem?

We can accommodate almost anyone, though there are a few conditions that would require expert medical advice before we could proceed. If you have a disability that makes it physically impossible to perform some aspects of our activities, then we can adapt or work on what you can do. The only hard and fast rule is that if there are circumstances that will impose unacceptable risks then we have to err on the side of safety.

I have some kit. Can I use that?

As noted elsewhere, it is necessary to speak to our instructors before using any weapon or simulator in our classes. Similarly, protective equipment must be evaluated by our instructors before use.

Standard protective equipment as used in modern Olympic-style fencing is ideal for much of what we do – in fact they form part of our standard equipment. You will need a glove for each hand and some impact protection, but we have gloves and plastrons for club use. Motorcycle gloves are generally very suitable for the heavier weapons, whilst a softer glove may be used for the lighter weapons.


I have experience. Is that good?

Almost certainly yes. Many of our current members have experience in modern Olympic-style fencing and/or other martial arts. Not everything transfers across of course, but a grounding in one art is generally useful in learning another.

Most modern-fencing clubs teach classical foil technique first and add competition-specific skills later. The latter have no place in historical fencing, but the underlying classical technique is an excellent grounding for learning historical swordplay. Indeed, the author of the sabre system we teach advocated (in 1889) that all sabreurs should have several months of foil instruction before taking up the military sabre.

Most martial arts and of course modern fencing will provide an understanding of principles such as timing, distance, lines of attack and the importance of footwork, though there is a need for a shift in mindset when moving from one activity to another.

Are those swords sharp?

We really should not have to answer that one. But no, they are not. We do not allow sharps in the training area.

Can you accommodate under-18s?

Sadly, no. There are various reasons for this, but what they add up to is that we are an adults-only group.

Can I learn to do stuff like in Assassin’s Creed or World of Warcraft?

Probably not. We teach historically authentic swordplay that works in a real fight. Most of what you see in video games is designed to look cool but is… questionable… in terms of really working.

I want to learn stage fighting. Do you do that?

Some of what we do is applicable to stage fighting or acting, and we do get the odd seminar at events.

However, if you want to learn stage combat then you need to be taught by a specialist instructor. It’s significantly different to what we do.

What should I not do?

We’re pretty tolerant, especially when people are polite and considerate.

There are a few things that will cause friction however. Endlessly telling us that the katana is superior to our swords and that Japanese swordsmanship was far better than European systems is one. Also trying to use a pistol grip foil, arguing about the validity of hits based on sport-fencing rules, and teaching or ‘showing people stuff’ without the agreement of the instructors.

What is completely forbidden?

Live blades of any kind. Racism, sexism and similar prejudice or hate. Pushing a political or social agenda. Disregard for safety and abuse of instructors or students.

If only there was a good and well-written guide to historical swordsmanship I could buy….

By incredible coincidence, one of our instructors has published exactly that!

It’s called Cut & Thrust; European Swords and Swordsmanship by Martin J Dougherty, ISBN 978 1 4456 3966 6.

What does the class cost and what do I get for that?

The first month is free after which the chapter fee is £20 a month. We cannot accommodate paying per session as it creates an administrative nightmare.

For the fee you get your insurance and membership of the BFHS, voting rights in the club and four sessions most months (we do take a break for Christmas and New Year) plus an additional Saturday afternoon session most months where we either have a guest instructor or arrange some special event.

You also get access to the club’s stock of equipment and to the expertise of our instructors.

Join Us

Our classes are every Wednesday, from 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm. If you would like to join us, please contact us.

You can find us at the Penshaw Community Association, in Penshaw, just off the A19.