Whip cracking

Whip cracking is not a part of the Bartitsu curriculum, but it feels as though it ought to be. Seattle is a hotbed of whip cracking activity, thanks largely to David Morgan, whose work is being carried on by his son Will. Every year during the holidays John Leonetti comes up from California and does a whip cracking seminar with Will and with local whip cracker/magician Louie Foxx. This year it happened on the day after Christmas, which meant that many would-be attendees were unable to make it because of conflicting obligations. As it turned out, this may have been a blessing in disguise, since whip cracking consumes an inordinate amount of space. Many of the beginners were starting out with smaller six- and eight-foot synthetic whips, but even these require large patches of open floor space for safe use. Louie brought an awe-inspiring fourteen-footer, shown in the middle of the table in this photograph, that required precautions normally associated with tactical nuclear weapons. Because the event was spread out over a few hours in the middle of the day, it was possible for all attendees to get personalized instruction from the expert crackers present, and Louie performed part of his magic show in which several yellow carnations and a banana came to grief.

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Weekend wrapup

Saturday, another stimulating cutlass class under the tutelage of N.B. The real meat of this style, from a martial arts perspective, lies in a sort of game that one plays with the opponent regarding level of commitment to a particular move. The attacker brings the trailing foot forward until it is abreast of the leading foot but then, rather than continuing the step, stands there stork-like, reserving the option to continue with the passing step or to reconsider and move backward into the starting position. The defender likewise executes half of a trailing step but then goes into stork mode: easier said than done since it requires good balance and steady nerves. If the defender continues with the rearward passing step and plants his foot, he has committed to a particular distance which the attacker can then exploit by shortening or lengthening his stride to land the blow. Conversely, if the attacker follows through and completes his step, the defender can lengthen or shorten his step accordingly to avoid being hit. There are many other aspects to the system, and many other drills that can be conducted, but the one described above lies at the heart of it, and is the most engaging from a sort of game theory standpoint.

Sunday, an Escrima master class with Rene Latosa, courtesy of Seattle Escrima Club. Escrima, among other fine qualities, is a useful corrective to typical sword-based martial arts. We sword geeks tend to be prissy about equipment. Swords have to be of such-and-such weight, made from such-and-such alloy, with a particular balance and geometry suited to the art in question. Our approach to learning those arts revolves around what T.W. would call system acquisition: learning by rote a repertoire of stances, steps, attacks, counterattacks, etc. All of which is well and good. Escrima, by contrast, has got to be the most pragmatic of martial arts, and the least fussy about equipment. In large part it is the art of defending oneself with found objects. As such there is no point in getting hung up in the system acquisition phase. Any overly refined system would stop being useful if you were not able to pick up the right sort of weapon at just the right moment. Accordingly, Escrima tends to revolve around development of certain principles and basic styles of movement that ought to be useful under just about any circumstances, and its weapon-based techniques tend to be extensions of fist-based ones, so that they are useful even if you find yourself fighting in an environment where there are no objects to pick up and smack the other guy with.

I may be misinterpreting the whole system, but that’s my perspective on it as a beginner viewing it from a Fiore-based standpoint.

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The legs go first

At longsword practice yesterday E.A. reported that after the Escrima practice I bailed out of, he developed a similar pattern of symptoms: his legs were a little sore the next day but cripplingly sore the day after that, and took a while to bounce back. In both cases the trigger was certain moves that involved deep lunging steps that brought the butt, and one knee, close to the ground. Seeing this as enough to confirm a pattern, I got out the Clubbells and did a modestly challenging routine involving lunging steps, then went to a convenient staircase and did an exercise that I picked up from my physical therapist a couple of years ago. This involves standing sideways at the stop of the staircase, crouching down (with straight spine and booty sticking out) and then descending the stairs slowly with a leg-crossing gait. It is pretty good at setting the gluteals on fire. This morning I have got only moderate thigh and butt soreness and am thinking that such exercises are going to have to be part of the regular routine from now on.

A recent bartitsu.org posting gives the best portrait I’ve ever read of how they did things at the Bartitsu Club. In this account it sounds like a circuit-training sort of affair in which members could make the rounds of jiujitsu, boxing, fencing, stick, etc. in the course of a single workout. This sounds like heaven to me and I am wondering how such a thing might be realized in a modern context. The problem being that it would be necessary to get all of the requisite instructors together in the same place at the same time. Barton-Wright was able to pull this off 110 years ago but it would be difficult to achieve today. I could, however, envision doing it as a one-off, which could serve to draw new members into a martial arts organization.

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A belated, hence overloaded post covering the last week:

Did Jiujitsu/SAMBO on Wednesday evening. The curriculum was a style of double-leg takedown in which the attacker drops to one knee while keeping the other foot planted, presses the side of the head against the defender’s pelvis, and drives with the planted foot while hugging the knees together to take the defender down. Numerous repetitions of this move left me on the verge of competence. The following morning found me with a stiff neck (probably from exerting the required sideways force with the head) and sore thigh muscles. It seems that all of the hours spent on the treadmill and the elliptical trainer, while productive from a calorie burning and endurance standpoint, are completely useless in developing fast-twitch strength in the muscles of the thighs, which complain mightily when they are called upon to do something. The lesson is that I need to do more squats or else gradually fall prey to sarcopenia.

Saturday morning, attended Escrima class where we happened to be working on a move that placed heavy demands on exactly the same muscle groups. Attacker makes a simple overhand strike, defender ducks by collapsing one knee almost to the ground while making a lateral lunging step into the attack (“passing” in Escrima parlance), then straightens up and comes back at the defender from a new angle. My leg muscles, still wasted from jiujitsu, were having none of this. Moreover, I gave myself a minor hamstring pull almost immediately. I made an ignominious early retreat from the class.

In the evening, made a visit to Steamcon. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Probably a couple of dozen nerds in t-shirts and the occasional top hat or pair of goggles. Instead of which I was confronted by the spectacle of thousands of nerds, completely taking over two good-sized hotels, 99% of them dressed to the nines in costumes over which they had obviously labored quite long and hard. Our image of nerds as persons who don’t understand or care about clothes must be thrown out and replaced with a new model, according to which they can be just as thorough and detail-obsessed about clothing (especially if it is complex Victorian clothing) as they can about Python or computer-controlled machine tools.

The nominal purpose of the visit was to attend a regimental mess for N.B.’s new group, the 21st Regiment, Lighter-than-air Dragoons. Not surprisingly, there is considerable overlap between said regiment and N.B.’s cutlass class. The regiment, its uniforms, its hierarchy and etiquette are still taking shape but it is in a remarkable state of advancement when it comes to drinking songs. Not all of the participants seem to be terribly interested in the martial arts, but I’m not troubled by this since a variety of interests and skills are needed in order to maintain a group over time. Lacking a uniform, I wore the bartitsu suit that I purchased a couple of years ago from Duchess, Clothier. In most circumstances, this is considered to be a remarkable suit of clothes, but I’m afraid that, at SteamCon, it barely rated mention. I carried the terrifying steel-headed walking stick fabricated last week. This received very little attention amongst the hand-wrought air rifles, fabulous pistols, cutlasses, and other weaponry being carried up and down the corridors of the Marriott and the Hilton by SteamCon attendees.

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steel ball install

Finally received the bored-out steel ball from the machine shop. Proceeded to install this on the end of a piece of rattan. Fairly self-explanatory pictures follow.

The thing with the helical fins is a threaded insert, made for driving into soft materials such as wood, plastic, and rattan. The general idea is that after the rattan has been pilot-holed and shoved into the large bore in the steel ball, this insert is screwed into the pilot hole from the top using a large Allen wrench. As it goes in, it expands the rattan against the inner surface of the bore, creating an extremely tight fit. Finally a large flat-headed bolt is screwed into the inner thread of the insert, capping the ball and holding it in place.

Part of this went to plan and part of it didn’t.

First of all, the ball is rather large–1.875″. Originally I had supplied the machine shop with a 1.25″ ball of stainless steel, but it turned out that I had inadvertently purchased one that was made of an exceptionally hard alloy that was too difficult to cut. They sourced the larger ball, which is made of mild steel, polished to a shine that makes it look like stainless. They were unable to obtain one of smaller diameter.

The first part of the installation went well. The rattan fit snugly in the bore (I had to pound it in with a hammer) and became even more tightly wedged in place when the insert was screwed in. The only problem was that my pilot hole was slightly off center to begin with and the insert went in somewhat crooked, with the result that when I screwed in the flat-headed bolt, it did not go in straight, and ended up perched at an awkward and unsightly angle above the top of the ball.

So far, not so bad for a first attempt. The main problem with the result is that the ball is far too heavy. I have created what amounts to a stylish sledgehammer. It feels unwieldy even in two-handed maneuvers.

Interestingly, the ball looks to be of a nice, proportionate size and feels perfect in the hand. So the experiment succeeds on an aesthetic level. If made smaller it would look odd and feel wrong. But there is no doubt that it’s too heavy, which makes me wonder how Vigny did it. I am wondering if he used a hollowed-out ball.

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log entry

Yesterday, another fine saber/cutlass class with N.B., continuing to refine basic skills covered last week. We are looking at a two-week hiatus now because of Steamcon next week followed by T’giving the week after.

Am thinking I may have to go back to the drawing board on the DAUE saber hilt because the hand guard I fabricated last week is too heavy. Metal work in the shop is temporarily stalled anyway because I need to pick up more gas cylinders and fix up the shop generally.

Machine shop should have my steel cane-head ball ready for pickup tomorrow. Now if only I can find a time to make it out there…

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DAUE Saber thrust shield

There is probably a technical sword term for this, but, having completed the thumb shield, I have been fabricating the part of the DAUE Saber hilt that is intended to protect the hand from thrusting attacks.

After coming up with a cardboard template that seemed to offer protection where I wanted it, I transferred the pattern onto perforated steel and cut it out with a hand-held jigsaw. This is pretty thick steel–I believe 12-gauge.

To protect and stiffen the ragged edge, I welded a length of 1/4″ steel rod around the perimeter, using an oxyacetylene torch to heat it up as I went and bend it to shape. The actual weld is on the other side–it is not fit to be shown in polite company, so the side shown will face outward. My welding rig is not what you would want to use for a job like this.

A few minutes’ abuse with a bossing mallet and shot bag produced a slight outward bulge, which is not really necessary but makes it look nicer. This gauge of steel is somewhat too thick to be formed effectively using such techniques, so my expectations were modest.

Some unpleasant work with jigsaw, abrasive wheel cutter, and files produced the cutout in the middle.

These images, somewhat awkward because of the anatomical constraints involved in holding an iPhone with one hand while shooting the other, show roughly how the assembly will go together. Later a rivet will be substituted for the blue ziptie.

Next: knuckle guards. Unfortunately my torch is out of gas and so this will have to wait until I can make it down to the welding place.

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Double header

Yesterday featured a rare BWAHAHA doubleheader as I attended escrima practice from 10-12 followed by the debut session of N.B.’s cutlass/saber class from 1-3.

Before departing home in the a.m. I made minor progress building the hilt of the DAUE saber. The Del Frate/Burton hilt has a somewhat complex shape that I am trying to approximate using materials and tools at hand. Once I have an ugly but functional prototype I can hand it over to some artisan who can produce a classier version.

Recent activities have been devoted to building the thumb shield, that being one of the most conspicuous improvements made by Del Frate over the stock Italian cavalry saber.

The first step was to saw off roughly half of the cruciform guard, flush with the short edge of the blade. This had to go since it prevented placing the thumb on the back of the handle.

A cracker box was cut up to produce a template which was then transferred to 16-gauge sheet steel and cut out with a hand-held jigsaw (note product placement in lower right)

The plastic handle was removed from harm’s way and the blade clamped level on a welding table. A wire-feed MIG welder was used to make the sheet metal piece one with the guard.

This was not an attractive welding job since the welder in question is made for larger and coarser work, but it sufficed for rapid prototyping work. Shown is the result after some cleanup with an angle grinder

The final step in this phase of the project was to bend the thumb shield into something like the desired shape, which was done by heating it with an oxyacetylene torch and then grabbing it with pliers and torquing it around.

Shown is the result, with small torch rig in background, almost lost admidst disgraceful clutter of the shop (I have not fully moved into the place yet). Next step is to cut and affix a larger piece that will protect the hand from thrusting attacks.

Escrima practice started with some drills that were all about redirecting knife attacks. Next was a “passing” drill where “passing” in the Escrima lexicon means a lateral movement to the outside, moving contrary to the direction of the attack; in this case the attack was a mighty swing from a four-foot-long hunk of rattan about as thick as a baseball bat. The latter drill is reminiscent of the parts of the la canne curriculum that are about defense against heavy sticks (alpenstocks).

From there we moved on to various forms of sparring, using lightweight foam batons and plastic longsword wasters. In the former drill, the only legitimate target is the hands, which are protected by hockey gloves. I ended up reverting to the la canne position, holding the weapon hand up above the head, but I’m not sure if that is really in the spirit of the escrima drill.

Next up was N.B.’s first cutlass/saber class, which he managed with characteristic aplomb, professionalism, and verve. This could hardly be a better fit for the BWAHAHA/Defence against Uncivilised Enemies swordfighting curriculum and so I am going to consider that to be a Solved Problem as long as the class continues. The stated objective is to teach a 19th Century one-handed blade curriculum informed much less by classical fencing than by the work of Renaissance backsword masters, predominantly George Silver, complete with gryps and clozes. The practice weapon, until we get A.T.’s DAUE saber tuned up, will be the dusac. The first class was largely centered on footwork. The footwork is identical to that used in longsword and pugilism with the one addition that steps may be indefinitely delayed, i.e. once you have lifted a foot from the ground you need to be able to balance stork-like until such time as the opponent plants his foot.

And so to bed, since by the time I got home I was unable to manage anything more than to down a glass of wine and crawl into the sack.

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Remedial jiujitsu?

Another good SAMBO/jiujitsu session on Wednesday evening. B.U. happened to be there and so we worked on certain hip throws together. Making this stuff work is almost entirely a matter of understanding balance and leverage and we are gradually getting better at it. The next phase of the session was about learning a particular ground fighting maneuver, and after that came free play. B.U. and I are both noticing the same phenomenon, which is that, during the first part of these sessions, when we are getting didactic training in specific moves, we can get along as well as anyone else in the group, and yet when we move on to free play we are almost totally helpless against more experienced players. We are discussing the possibility of setting up our own practice sessions in which we would focus on practical skills, as a way of trying to catch up. One approach would be to work through the catalog of locks and submission holds in the Bartitsu Compendium, Volume 2. Until we are at least aware of everything in that list, it’s difficult to participate in ground fighting effectively, since we don’t even know what it is we’re trying to avoid.

Meanwhile, dinking around in the basement with the DAUE saber, trying to put together a guard that approximates that of Capt. Del Frate.

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Rapid prototyping furniture for the DAUE saber

A.T. delivered two copies of the I-beam practice saber with their tips trimmed and rounded off. Blade length is now 30.75 inches.

Balance point is rather far forward, but this is a consequence of the lack of a finished guard. I had specifically asked A.T. to supply the simplest possible furniture so that I could prototype my own. The crossguard is 1018 steel, which is a common and easy-to-weld alloy.

The general objective here is to come up with a handle along the general lines of what Richard F. Burton discusses in the appendix of his saber manual. N.B., who has had the opportunity to swing the new sabers around, agrees that the index finger wants something to latch on to–both of us instinctively hooked our index fingers over the crossguard when we tried these things out. Note that the handle shown in Fig. 3 below has purchase for the index finger as well as support for the pinky. For some reason Burton has eliminated the former detail in his version shown in Fig. 4; I’m aiming for something like 3.

My general strategy is to use Shape-Lock thermoforming plastic to make the handle and then build the steel guard parts around it. Step 1 was to disassemble it and get A.T.’s handle out of harm’s way.

I wrapped the tang in aluminum foil to prevent the plastic from sticking to it.

The Shape-Lock was heated in a microwave to 160 F, at which point it becomes transparent and takes on a silly-putty-like consistency.

I pulled off little gobs of it and wrapped it around the tang, building up the desired amount of bulk, and then transferred it from hand to hand as it cooled, partly to preserve a reasonably ambidextrous shape and partly to keep from burning my hands.

The result fits comfortably into either hand and gives both index finger purchase and pinky support.

Next step will be to think about where the thumb will go. It is obvious that the Del Frate/Burton handle is optimized for a thumb-on-the-back-of-the-handle grip. Eastern European sabers sometimes used thumb rings that would work well with the grip shown in the last photograph above, but I can’t see a way to make such a thing ambidextrous. I will probably saw off the upper half of the steel crossguard and try to mount a thumb plate on its stump, then fashion a suitable guard around that.

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